Hippo: The Human Focused Digital Book. Non-Fiction. Social Psychology/Technology

A sample from ‘Hippo: The Human Focused Digital Book’.

Chapter 5. The Fundamental Questions

‘When I was young, I had to learn the fundamentals of basketball. You can have all the physical ability in the world, but you still have to know the fundamentals.’ Michael Jordan

What makes us people? What makes us human? Anthropologists, psychologists and philosophers have been involved very infrequently in design – an industry that builds bridges between people and outcomes. If one of the things that makes us human is to seek answers – to build knowledge – why not explore these fields? The use of psychology in design is not a novel concept. In reality we’re applying psychology every day, since usability is in fact psychology. The study of the human mind and the reasons why we do what we do is why psychology has underpinned advertising since the dawn of its rising.

By understanding human psychology, both as individuals and in social groups, by focusing on the ways that human beings adopt and organise their lives around computational technologies, maybe we can start to think of better ways to engage with them. In a world where technology completely surrounds us, we need a better understanding of how technology can be designed to fill the cracks in our world, rather than create walls. Problem solving needs to be created across distributed environments, ranging across Internet-based information systems, sensor-based information networks, and mobile and wearable information tools. That’s a lot of interactions. The screens we’ve designed for are no longer fit for purpose in this world and multi-modal interfaces in which combinations of speech, text, graphics, gesture, movement, touch and sound are used by people and machines to communicate with one another as a social norm needs to be re-organised.

What does it mean to be human in today’s world? By answering this, I hope new approaches to design emerge. The language of design could change and if we acknowledge what makes us human, we might begin to lift our eyes up from our screens and out toward the horizons. As shapers of the future, it is our responsibility to make sure that fundamental human needs are not falling victim to the short-lived fashions of our time.

There are quite a few human languages – Latin and Irish among them – that don’t have words for “yes” or “no” – but every language on earth has a word for “why”… Where do ideas come from? What is consciousness? Where is last Thursday? Do they artificially sweeten the delicious glue on the back of envelopes? Once you start asking questions, you become like a five-year-old child. You can’t stop… And you become very annoying… What do you believe in? What questions really matter? I think there are only two: “Why are we here?” and “What should we do about it while we are?” John Lloyd

If we were to move from the questions of why and the ‘what we are’ subjects and into the issue of ‘which of our characteristics give humanity its unique importance and significance?’ we may be able to advance, because this question is not empirical. We’ve always designed system and digital ‘stuff’ from empirical perspectives and thus: user has screen; user browses using mouse; user clicks on button, etc. It’s a very prosaic way of looking at design. It’s very inhuman by the nature of being so empirical. What if instead, we were to focus more on our ‘pro-sociality’ traits?

There are certain characteristics that define what makes us human and these seem to differentiate us from our closest primate relatives. Psychologists have identified these characteristics, which are observed among our species, and key among them is the tendency to imitate the things we see and hear. This is evidenced in human socialisation and expressed in the art forms. Language is the basis of our learning, beginning with pre-verbal sounds learned as babies and imitated from those who nurture us. Further evidence for human pro-sociality can be seen in the way we react to others around us, by interpreting feelings and emotions and then empathising or even exploiting these insights to our advantage – benefiting from individuals that we encounter by offering help and showing compassion or by defending against perceived and potentially real threats. These positives are balanced by negative consequences of the power to intuit feelings but not all our actions are governed by pro-social learning and intuition.

Mood and emotions play a demonstrable role in determining our behaviours. A sunny day can lighten the mood until we see good in people – instead of conjuring bad through our paranoias and superstitions. Indeed studies have noted that a positive correlation can be seen between being in a good mood and the likelihood that you’ll help out a colleagues or neighbour: the ‘feel good–do good’ phenomenon is as a consequence, something that can be designed in and catered for. Even feelings of guilt often lead to pro-social activity. In a virtuous circle, these pro-social behaviours have a beneficial effect on self-esteem or the way we feel about the situation we’re in at the time and they generally improve mental health – the intrinsic reward of pro-social behaviours making them more likely to occur in the future. Conversely, a correlation can be made with negative feelings such as fear and the absence of pro-social outcomes. Other unique behaviours that are ours and ours alone might give us the clues to designing things in a more human way. Did you know for example, that there are three human behavioural traits not found in any other species? Symbolic behaviour, language, and culture are unique and exemplify what it means to be human.

The importance of symbols in the design world is apparent but it is important at this stage to understand why we use symbols and their role in the way that humans attempt to understand the world. Symbolic behaviour enables us to recall events from the past and contextualise them in the light of what we now know. Further, we can extrapolate known situations to create a vision of what the future might be or to imagine alternative outcomes to any given situation. This behaviour that is uniquely human relies on shared symbolic messages, which allows individuals to combat the uncertainty of novel situations.

A social act involves a three-part relationship: an initial gesture from one person, a response to that gesture by another, and a result. The result is what the act means for the communicator.

In the study, Applied Organizational Communication by Harris and Nelson, seven propositions are defined, which, if they are indeed part of what makes us human, start to give people who are designing solutions a more human focused ground to stand on.

  1. Complexity creates a reliance on symbolic messages.
  2. Uncertainty promotes a continual process of organising.
  3. Symbolic behaviour creates and maintains organisational cultures.
  4. Symbols constitute the basis for interpersonal reality.
  5. Groups reaffirm the importance of symbolic behaviour.
  6. Leadership requires effective symbolic behaviour.
  7. Incongruences and paradoxes are managed through acculturation.

Both humans and non-human species communicate the symbolic behaviours outlined, but the defining human characteristic is in the ability to contemplate a range of possible outcomes and plan for each with alternative strategies. This ‘theory of mind’ is absent in other species, as is the associated behaviour of sharing and communicating such thoughts with others. The ability to share symbols and language about the past, present and future distinguishes humans from other nonhuman primates and the shared use of symbols leads to us identifying with those who share our values and needs and this leads to a sense of the individual belonging to a particular group or culture. In a world where global communication is the norm, we now define ourselves as part of a species, as well as the narrower part: that of a tribe or race.

Language can be used to persuade and guise. In the world of advertising, the theory that ‘content is king’ has rapidly evolved into the need to engage an audience through that most human of activities – storytelling. Through this medium, humans employ a language of familiar patterns and common meanings, which is widely understood – and so therefore, often requires little explanation. In The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, we understand the fairy tale as a story, for psychologist Bruno Bettelheim actually exists in that Jungian collective unconscious. Simply placing children in front of fairy tales without trying to explain who is who and what is happening is all we seem to need do, while allowing the story to unfold and for their consciousness to digest. Acting as a form of acupuncture for the unconscious, fairy tale, literature and so on thus require little explanation or interpretation and instead combine an experience that mixes theory of mind and this shared language body we all are somehow able to reach into and access, as if connected to through an invisible wire (a super-computer that we cannot see – the collective unconscious). We really do share a unique form of communication. Understanding language and especially propaganda and the way it can be used to lure and move us in ideology and desire, can be an incredibly powerful position to embrace. As we become less the victim of mixed messages and more grounded in discernment, the less we will play into unethical communication and the more authentic and moral our use of language in conversation and design will then be.

‘Who am I?’, ‘Why am I here?’, ‘Why do I exist?’ These questions have driven us to think, speak… and be. They have formed philosophy as a study, and our cultures. ‘Is there a God?’, ‘What is really real?’ and ‘What is good or bad?’ We are communicating with each other while trying to find answers to these things. Some people claim to know the answers, and we believe them… or at least we want to. We pay corporations a lot of money for answers to these things, to the—secrets. The study of the human mind and the reasons why we do what we do is why psychology has indeed underpinned advertising, but don’t blame advertising, religions that coerce and the charlatan for selling you the product or the ideology. That would be to pass blame. Don’t blame the self either, instead – study the design of language and all will be revealed.

Human beings are not like the other animals. We are able to attempt answering the fundamental Who am I’s. This helps us lift existential anxieties by talking, painting, writing, singing, taking photographs or making film and as we strive to answer the questions – we communicate with other life forms. Communication is then the lifeblood of our human experience. For Stephen Fry and many others, language holds a much greater and more important totality than just a piece of communication apparatus criticus, it actually has the ability to evolve us as a species. Not that we may have realised, as it comes so naturally to us but this ‘extraordinarily sophisticated system of communication… uses more brain processing than any single other thing we do, whether it’s music or art or chess or mathematics or any other high functioning, high cognitive operation, language is the thing that uses most.’


Humans acquire expertise in using our bodies through physical practice (experiential cognition) and we develop mental models of any situation we encounter through our thought processes (reflective cognition). Both are the result of experiences, testing and repetition, selecting behaviours to achieve the desired outcomes. The experiential tends to assume a greater importance for designers in our approach to building interfaces because the changes are observable and their effects are easier to measure.

Revolution is an overused word but we have witnessed a genuine revolution in tech in the last two decades, since I went from scanning in photos of engine parts to creating Artificial Intelligent systems designed to teach people more about themselves than they’ve ever known. The last twenty years has eclipsed anything since the world became industrialised. Ubiquitous global connectivity changed the information construct, experiences went urban and apps and services proliferated in ways nobody expected. In this new space emerged human behaviours that even scientists could not predict, and are still trying to understand.

I’ve always approached design by answering an incremental set of questions regarding the relationships that are established between the design artefact and the people. It also taps into the thing that makes us human in this ever-increasing digital world. By designing systems that help us to empathise with a given situation or reflect upon our own role in solving problems, it is then instantly more desirable to people than one that spoon-feeds us the results.

As we build further and connect deeper into the World Wide Web, one observation we can make regarding new behaviours is this: new behaviours are not the property of any one unit of the eco-system, but a feature of the system that seeds the network; one that creates its bio-diverse appearance; one that is needed for it to organise itself as such. It’s as if the relationship people are having with the web is in fact creating it as much as it is creating behaviours. In the same way a spider does not exist without its web creation, it’s the same. It has been – for us – a dance we’ve all been participating in, and like any relationship, both sides seem to—adjust, only to then flourish a construct that eventually emerges and uniforms itself into a shape that we recognise, such as – the Internet. This ‘emergence’ could perhaps be that Categorial Novum (new category), as Nicolai Hartmann, one of the first modern philosophers termed it, or a process where larger shapes have arisen due to interactions among micro entities.

As with other organic things, digital collectivises into a self-organising arrangement. Some have seen it—many can now feel it. It’s quickly becoming then, the modern day manifestation of that East Asian belief known as the Red String of Fate. According to this myth, the gods tie an invisible red cord around the ankles of those that are destined to meet one another in a certain situation or help each other in a certain way. Might we have fooled ourselves into believing that we’re in control of what we’ve been doing—when in reality, we’ve created something that is in nature—chaotic? Designing for that chaos, therefore, is almost impossible and so all of the adjustment work and massaging of digital will in fact never be able to truly change people.

Nothing endures but change. There is nothing permanent except change. All is flux, nothing stays still. Heraclitus

The modern Internet was built on the principle that we took those paper things called brochures and chopped them up, pulled out the words and re-uploaded them as pages that could be accessed on machines. We added buttons to those pages so people could buy some of the things they were seeing. Though, if that is the case, the modern Internet is then founded on a slightly flawed principle. We took a behaviour and digitised it, then another and another and another but we’re not digitising behaviour… we’re behaving in a digital world. Here’s a crazy thought, perhaps it is time to put some healthy friction back into experiences. For example: how might we design a music streaming experience geared toward our unique ability to appreciate art?

Distractibility, illogical behaviour, and other concurrent characterisations are responses to the rigidity of the way in which computers operate. Those characterisations are related to the way in which technology can impose on people a certain type of behavioural and mental effort (i.e., to pay attention, to speak grammatically, etc.). In addition, the information overload we created produced a feeling of inadequacy in society that became aware of its own intrinsic limitations; such as, the inadequacy of the mind to memorise more than a certain amount of information, like passwords and usernames and the incapacity of some generations and demographics to cope with innovation.

We now have the ability to create really intelligent interfaces and behavioural modelling, information visualisation, and adapt content to accommodate different display capabilities, modalities, bandwidth and latency in a way that we never had before. For the first time in history we have technology available to create homogenous platforms that can tailor specific solutions to address the special needs of particular communities, demographics and abilities – an incredible achievement and one that needs to be designed for carefully. When we approach design using more disparate experts from fields such as Ai, game design, and app development, then toss in a human challenge related to a human condition, the output will be so uniquely different that what emerges should be nothing short of—brilliant. It’s an uncomfortable way of working, but not because it’s wrong, but because it’s not what we’re used to. Products should morph and evolve and become interconnected over time. Lest we forget – as da Vinci taught, all things are interconnected. Realising this is the great work for us and in embracing this, things will simply ‘line-up’ and the interconnectedness will be something we are in sync with, and not hiding from. Don’t solve problems, but design ideas that trigger the solution to unfold. It’s noteworthy that this idea that going deeper to get better results is giving way to the idea that the way to get the most interesting results is to be able to go a bit diagonal.

Throughout our discussion, we have returned to the fundamental questions and observed that since the dawn of humanity, people have asked these questions about themselves: ‘What is the meaning of my life?’ and ‘How do I cope with my mortality?’ Greek philosophers as well as leaders of religions have proposed answers to these complex questions. In the 21st century, technology seems to have, at least partially replaced the role of the philosophers and the clergy in supporting individuals in their existential search process. This does not need to mean that literature, the study of the epic poems, the creation of fine art works and symphonies needs to dissolve away as tools to access the higher realms of knowledge, but should continue with conviction and commitment. Technology should simply do the same. Put simply, it can effectively support individuals in searching for answers to the fundamental questions. In bridging the gap between it doing this and where we are at now, we first need to develop the schematic and then build into our designs more human support features. To bridge the gap, we need to be thinking more human.