Our life is not human-centered

“Reaching for the fruit of fulfillment”

As a student studying Human-Computer Interaction and immersed in the UX world, I spend my time advocating for humans when thinking about designing for technology. As design thinking has taken over my life, I began wondering— has the system we built for the world also put humans first? The more I thought about it, the more I started realizing that this system could also use some iteration.

Note: This article follows a case study structure in analyzing what we want as humans, and how society and the world we live in fulfills our needs.

Background

Born as homo sapiens, our biological goal in life is reproducing to continue the circle of life. This is not unique to us, and remains the same for all life on the planet.

Reproduction comes under the physiological needs on the base of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Our psychological goals are a bit different. For the sake of this article, I will simplify it to the following:

  • 🌱 Passing on our wisdom to the younger generation. Giving them the opportunity to learn something that we learned during our time.
  • ✨ Inventing something new to help a problem in the world. i.e. the invention of the knife to be able to more easily slay other animals and cut fruit.
  • 😄 Fulfillment and happiness. Maximizing these feelings through what we do and through staying close to loved ones around us.

It is important to note that these biological and psychological needs often get blurred by short-term tasks we feel are necessary, like pushing ourselves to get in a top-10 school, continually striving for a higher-paying job, or getting a certain number of likes/followers on social media.

The Problem

The problem stems from the existing system not fulfilling our goals as humans. I began thinking about the problem in a series of questions and answers.

Do we have a choice in going through the education system? Not much, the education system has remained the same since the 17th century.

Does our system foster feelings of fulfillment or happiness in people that satisfies psychological needs? Sort of, depending on what you view as validating, but validation ≠ happiness.

Is it hard to take time off school/work to spend with loved ones when they are getting married, at a funeral, or having kids? Yes, it generally gets harder as you get older and “busier” with un-biological needs.

This leads me to my problem statement (a question that defines the problem):

How might we create a system that allows for humans to maximize their biological and psychological needs during their time on Earth?

User Journey

I will be following a user journey of an individual born in the U.S.

In the U.S. here is how the typical life of an individual:

  • 0 years old: You are born into the world in a hospital. 🏥
  • 6 years old: You start to attend school. 🏫
  • 18 years old: You are considered an adult with 12 years of education. 👩‍🎓
  • 20-22 years old: You graduate from college. 🎓
  • 22–30 years old: You graduate again (and again) or start working. 👩‍💻
  • 30–60 years old: Working. 💼
  • ~60+ years old: Retire. 🚢

Pain Points

After analyzing the user journey, I identified the following pain points:

  • Happiness and fulfillment are not considered in steps of the journey. Validation is intertwined with the labels of having a diploma and job title, but happiness is not explicitly a consideration in the system.
  • The system presents itself as a fixed norm that has changed little with time. It is has been accepted by the society for us to go through the same one-size-fits-all approach of going through the education system since the 17th century. If we wanted to create a system for humans by humans, we have to start thinking more about what is best for each of us. Heck, just look how much the Facebook page has changed just from 2005 to 2021. If Facebook can change, then we can too.
  • Each step along the way does not necessarily prepare for the next. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need a formal high school education to get a college education, and you don’t need a college education to get a job. If these milestones are not a requirement, why are we not thinking about alternatives and iterations that could help improve the system for students?

Interviews

Here’s some questions I would hypothetically ask interviewees to dig deeper and think about the why in what they’re doing:

  1. What would you be doing (besides traveling or buying all you want) if you didn’t have to worry about your finances?
  2. Explain how you define validation versus fulfillment.
  3. Have you ever entered a state of flow in what you do? Explain how it felt.
  4. One day all your social media and online presence was wiped out. How do you feel? Do you still feel connected to your friends?
  5. If there is one thing you want people to remember you for after your death, what would it be?

The Solution(s)?

I don’t have one solution to the problem. I’m a firm believer that it will take a collective movement to come up with an all-encompassing intricate plan, and that it’s up to us together think about ways on iterate on our existing system.

In lieu of a solution, here are a helpful pointers of different considerations to keep in mind from proposals of my favorite authors and speakers:

  • Wendy Liu (author of Abolish Silicon Valley): Create a system for the good of people rather than for the interest of corporations (i.e. education for the sake of learning and not for feeding into open job roles).
  • Ted Kaczynski (known as the Unabomber): Return to wild nature, tech and our system has become too ubiquitous to live without, so need to radically go back to the primitive times.
  • Mike Moneiro (author of Ruined by Design): If we designed the systems a certain way, we are able to un-design and fix the problems that we created. We hold a responsibility in what we put into the world.
  • Grace Llewellyn (author of The Teenage Liberation Handbook): If getting what we want in life is a metaphor to picking a fruit from a tree, the education system trains us to reach for the fruit and learn about the fruit but in never in actually picking it. She talks extensively in her handbook on methods to “unschool” and learn without the traditional constraints of school.
  • Aaron Swartz (co-founder of Reddit, also creator of early prototype of Wikipedia): Provide free access to education, education should be created by us and be available for all of us indiscriminately.
  • Luis von Ahn (founder of Duolingo, former professor of CMU): Education should be fun and accessible to all regardless of socio-economic background.

Other Thoughts

In Ted Kaczynski’s manifesto, he famously coins a term “surrogate tasks,” which refers to the tasks we chase for validation on a day-to-day basis that don’t actually bring us closer to fulfilling our biological needs as a species — good grades, material goods, a promotion, a diploma, etc.

I hear the term “surrogate tasks” when my friends and classmates around me tell me their goal is to work for a big company for the pleasure of the big name, or for those who get an additional degree just because they’re unsure what else to do, or those who start a start-up not for solving a problem but for the sake of doing something new.

Though I’m not certain what the future holds, I hope to continually maintain a critical eye on the world I live in. I hope that human ideals will be increasingly brought back in the loop as we move together in making the world as user-friendly as possible.

Acknowledgements

I’ve read over 20+ on similar topics just in the last few months (check out my reading list here), a special thanks to all these amazing authors for having inspired this piece and in feeding my curiosity in the way we live today. A special thank you to the following books that have really sparked me to re-think what it means to live in the system we created for ourselves.

And thank you for reading! Don’t hesitate to reach out, I’m always super happy to hear thoughts!☺️

Unlisted

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Nancy Zuo

Nancy Zuo

Hello 👋, I’m Nancy! Currently an Instructional Design Intern @ State Farm, Content @ Design Buddies, HCI @ CMU.