To Kill User Centered Design Thinking ; A murder plot guided by Talcott Parson

‘Design thinking’ driven ‘user-centered design’ — once a hero — has now lived long enough to see itself become a villain of the (design) world. Design Thinking found its current definition and identity in the early 2000’s though the term was in academia since the early 60’s. It gained its hype with the help of IDEO and Stanford D.School. Later with the launch of an online course by IDEO in 2015 it further penetrated into non design fields. This article attempts to see the potential of finding an alternative solution for the emerging villain without losing its early heroic qualities.

Google Books Ngram result for the word ‘Design Thinking’

In memory of Heroic actions

Before criticising or plotting for an assassination, the heroic actions of the design thinking should be appreciated. In my opinion the most important thing we should appreciate is its contribution to demystifying design and reducing the egoistic role of designers in the designing process. I commonly use the below comedy sketch of Alternatino (a parody for Abstract documentary) to explain these two factors to my students (ironic magical moments of an idea and the egoistic attitude of designers towards users and the world) when I discuss the history of the design process.

Irony of Egoistic design concepts and the magical process

The Design Thinking process exposed possible and practical steps you can follow to design, and the addition of empathy as the first step ( or one of five if you consider it as a non-linear process) totally changed the dynamic and brought the user to the center of the story. So in another way, thanks to design thinking, sudden designing with the dustbin or world’s first basement above the ground (As mentioned in the above video) is not encouraged (though still we continue to see these kinds of background stories in designs). Not to forget, thanks to design thinking the question of ‘What is your concept for this design?’ Is now hardly echoing at viva voce of student design projects. In addition to that, this demystification and dumb downing of the concept made the design learning process easier to digest. My life as a student would have been much easier if IDEO launched this course 5 years earlier. But on the other hand it paved a way to another set of new problems.

Rise of the villain

One of the fundamental problems related to design thinking is and by putting individual users at the center of the process, it just reinforces the consumer oriented capitalistic value system (apology about the cliche). It does not encourage us to think about the complexity of global wicked problems and it lacks the ability to see or respond to future challenges. Pro-user-centred designers may counter this by telling that in the design thinking process it has the capacity/frame to address these challenges. Yes , maybe , but my argument is as far as you do not take out those words and give them a proper value, people will have a hard time incorporating these things into their practices.

the moment you add the word ‘Empathy’, it is a game changer and now you are semantically guided to analyse not everything but a very specific person — the user.

Let’s compare it to the old analysis- synthesis design process model which is used as a common structure in understanding design. One can argue that under the step of ‘analysis’ you must empathise your users. But when the word empathy is missing, semantically you are not guided to prioritise users, instead you are requested to generally analyse the context. But the moment you add the word ‘Empathy’, it is a game changer and now you are semantically guided to analyse not everything but a very specific person — the user. In another way the word Empathy has both ‘analysis’ and ‘user’ within it .

Similarly the current design thinking process is limiting our design capacities and scope. These arguments are not new and they have been floating in design discussion since a few years ago, therefore a lot of counter proposals have emerged too.

Going beyond user centered design and design thinking

I recently read this article written by i, which comprehensively summarises all the major counter proposals or alternative approaches in design. The author categorises all the design approaches into three groups, based on their ability to deal with future challenges. In addition to that, on a different axis he discusses the capacity of each and every design approach when it comes to solving problems and dealing with the future.

From the article of Masaki Iwabuchi

These are actually goal oriented approaches compared to process oriented where you give higher priority to your goal (future in this case) than the process.

Needless to say, both the process and the goal are equally valuable in the current global situation when it comes to design. Especially if we assume that we need to swift current human practices and habits into a new value system, it will not be an easy task. Because current designs which are designed under design thinking values such as empathy and have proved to be user friendly are harder to give away (addictive, if i use the correct term). So whatever the counter proposal, it should address both of these needs.

However, most of these alternative approaches have a common drawback. The moment you try to address some missing aspects of existing practices, there is a tendency to lose the strengths of current practices. There is a sinhala idiom for this — you have to choose between beard or the soup/starch, you can’t have one without sacrificing the other. Referring to these design models lead me to raise the question — can’t we have a better approach than this? Can we taste the soup without spoiling the beard?

This is my attempt to answer this important question with the help of a coincidental knowledge I came across recently related to social science.

A whisper from Talcott Parson for an alternative approach.

is an American Sociologist, who actually shaped American academia in the post WWII situation. His motivation and political background behind the theoretical development is quite interesting. WWII ended by creating two polarised world powers in the world, where Soviet Union formed their identity around the idea of communism/socialism and the USA was presented with the challenge of countering it. This global political background alone with his personal bias towards anti-marxist approaches inspired him to propose his social system theory. A theory which is in contrast to marxist theories from all aspects and has the capacity to protect the USA from potential socialist threats and ensure its social survival.

Talcott Parsons attempted to develop a general analytic model suitable for analyzing all types of collectivities. Unlike the Marxists, who focused on the occurrence of radical change, Parsons explored why societies are stable and functioning. His model AGIL is an extension of this theory, which represents the four basic functions that all social systems must perform if they are to persist. It was one of the first open systems theories of organizations.

These four functions aim to be intuitive. For example, a tribal system of hunter-gatherers needs to gather food from the external world by hunting animals and gathering other goods and therefore continuous adaptation to these factors is demanded (Adaptation). They need to have a set of goals and a system to make decisions about such things as when to migrate to better hunting grounds (Goal Attainment). The tribe also needs to have a common belief system that enforces actions and decisions as the community sees fit (Integration). Finally, there needs to be some kind of educational system to pass on hunting and gathering skills and the common belief system (Latency). If these prerequisites are met, the tribe can sustain its existence. So AGIL can be identified as systematic necessities of a society.

So how Talcott Parson can help designers?

Forget the notion of design as an object, but think of design as a collection of things. Think of a design as a society, where the object, user, its material, its production and all the other relevant things have to live in solidarity like a functioning society. Now let’s look back at AGIL.

A. Adaptation- a system must adapt to its environment

A design must adapt to its bigger environmental resource limitations. This can be identified as ecological requirements or macro sociological requirements or any other limitation. Talcott Parson explains this stage/action as a smooth turn in a road to avoid a barrier ahead in the road. It is not a sudden applied break. So constantly a designer should look for external challenges ahead in the road.

So If you are briefed to design a chair, you are not going to start by empathising with the user or its needs, rather your first step is mapping all the future challenges and barriers which can affect the existence of the society in future. After that, the backcasting should take place, where you try to design alternative futures to avoid these limitations. In this way you may think of material scarcity at the very first stage rather than the user needs.

G. Goal attainment — a system must define and achieve its primary goals

A design must define and achieve its primary goals. In our example, it is not just ‘sitting’ but rather a bigger goal. For example, achieving sustainability.

I. Integration — a system must maintain a relationship with its other parts

A design must maintain a relationship with its other parts and it should be well integrated into its macro system.

Let me explain this with traditional Sri Lankan Padura Aaana — a matt holder designed with an old matt. Usually a traditional Sri Lankan household has many matts since it’s common to use them instead of a bed. So if we take a longitudinal journey of a matt, it starts from a tree and decays to nature at the end of the use. Also in daily usage it can be used as a matt holder at the same time.

You can see a Paduru Aana in top left corner ( In Udugaldebokka Village)

So in this way, in every aspect padura is integrated into its bigger system and other sub parts of its mechanism.

If we go back to our chair example, in this stage we must consider how we can seamlessly integrate our design — the society that consists of the object, user, material and manufacturing etc — into its micro and macro elements of the environment. For example, the need to buy a separate cleaning liquid means your design of a chair is not integrated into the whole system.

Imagine the change that would result in our designs if we think of this integration part as a compulsory requirement prior to user needs?

L. Latency — a system must maintain and renew both the motivation of individual and cultural patterns that create and sustain that motivation

Entire design thinking can be compressed into this stage. This is where the user finds reasons to stick to your design and this is where the values are reflected. This is where micro level interaction is taking place. This is where the values are transferring. In our example with a chair, at this stage you should consider how the user is going to interact with the chair. Why should she be attached to this chair? (Simply what we do now as designers)

user’s values will not determine the design or its goal but rather it would only ‘define’ the behaviour of the system-the design. The designer must first set rules and logic of the design.

Now let’s talk more about the role of designers and users in AGIL. Suppose we have a computer game program. The program sets the rules of the play, or, using Talcott Parsons term, we can say it “determines” the rules, while the actual outcome of the game depends on the player, in other words, the player “defines” the game. Similarly in this way user’s values will not determine the design or its goal but rather it would only ‘define’ the behaviour of the system-the design. The designer must first set rules and logic of the design. But currently with the design thinking process this happens the other way around where we start everything with latencies and let these latencies decide our systematic adaptations and goals. We let our user desires/values decide how the designs should be integrated and then the design decides the goals of the entire system. To put it another way under this new scheme, a designer should first think of A-G-I-L in this particular order and the user will experience the design in the order of L-I-G-A. In this way the designer responds to the bigger challenges first and designs a voluntaristic space for users to indulge.

If you have read until this stage, chances are high that you already see some sort of a potential in this proposal, so it is my duty to explain what are drawbacks or potential limitations of this short and oversimplified proposal.


First, we cannot look into this proposal as either a goal oriented approach or a process oriented approach for designing; this is a scheme or a list of systematic necessities of a good design. Therefore we cannot abandon all the approaches currently in use — both goals and process oriented approaches may need to adapt in order to execute actions at different stages of AGIL.

Secondly, in Social Science Talcott Parson has been criticized for the heavily abstract nature of this model and its inability to explain radical internal changes. But he managed to survive his authority from the 1940’s to late 1960’s with his approach and therefore I think in order to overcome current problems we can borrow many plus points into design discipline from this scheme .

Thirdly, I just scratched the surface of Talcott Parsons theory to fulfill my designer dilemmas, therefore a deeper understanding of his theories is compulsory to make this proposal foolproof.

To sum up, I believe that the scheme which focuses on adaptation and backcasting, the scheme which focuses on goals, the scheme which influences you to think integratively and the scheme which identifies the power of latencies can make a major difference in the way we perceive designing.

Design enthusiast / design researcher