Kinder Product Design & UX

Have we lost something essential in our desire to build new, innovative, profitable, desirable products?

A bit of graffiti saying: Kindness is a Superpower.
Kindness is a superpower. Photo by Andrew Thornebrooke on Unsplash

Have we lost something essential in our desire to build new, innovative, profitable, desirable products? Have we forgotten to be kind? I’d like to explore how we might bring kindness back into our work as Product Designers in the next series of posts.

A few days ago, I had a provocative conversation with a friend and colleague. He is an energetic optimist and founder of a number of ventures, and a qualified neurologist and statistician to boot. We were talking about designing for behavior change and how it’s probably one of the most interesting challenges in Product Design (thinking about it, designing for behavior change is Product Design). He jumped in with a bold statement: “Actually, it’s all very simple. There are only two things that determine people’s behavior: the fear of death, and insightful learnings.”

To which I replied, perhaps a bit too quickly: “With all due love & respect: you don’t know what you’re talking about!”

And then the conversation exploded into a rather technical lecture about the structures of the brain and how, from an evolutionary perspective, our base instinct as a species is to survive and procreate and how we become more successful in this as we grow our knowledge and skills. Of course, as always, he was right. If we really look at the very root driver of human behavior, it’s possible to trace all of it back to a very basic desire to survive.

The thing is — this isn’t a very useful behavioral model if one is trying to make decisions regarding the design of an app, for instance. How the flow of a digital experience should go, which features to build, how to prompt actions (“You’re about to die. Do something!”), and how such an experience might encourage people to establish better and healthier habits.

It got me thinking about the different design frameworks and models I have come across and applied to all sorts of designs over the last 15 years or so. All Product design is designing for behavior change to a greater or lesser extent, and so — all of these frameworks and models describe, in some way, how humans behave in one moment and how they might behave given a newly designed solution. If we are not designing for behavior change, we’re not designing at all, are we? We’re moving bits and pieces around for the sake of the appearance of productivity.

And so, I thought of these frameworks and models:

Disclaimer: This is simply a list of models/frameworks that have made some impact on me and that I’ve tried out, in practice.


Human-Centred Design (HCD) tells us to begin with empathy, focus on a well-defined problem, ideate, experiment, and learn. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to turn my back on this process. It’s experimental and it says you need to get your stuff in front of real human beings before you jump in and build things. I am yet to come across a method that beats it at cutting BS out of the process.

A picture of the stages of Human-Centred Design, starting with Empathise, then Define, then Ideate and finally: Build.
The phases of Human-Centred Design

Jobs To Be Done

Jobs To Be Done (JTBD) tells us that people hire our products to do jobs and that we need to identify what the job is and how other products may already be doing the job well enough. If our product doesn’t do the job well enough, it will be fired.

Alan Klement, author of “When Coffee and Kale Compete” gives JTBD another spin:

“Customers struggle when they try to make their life better but don’t know how. We call this struggle a Job to be Done.”

Push and pull factors in Jobs To Be Done (from: http://www.whencoffeeandkalecompete.com/)

UX Honeycomb

Peter Morville’s value model says that Products are valuable to people if they are findable, desirable, useful, usable, accessible, and credible.

Peter Morville’s UX Honeycomb (thanks & credit to Semantic Studios for this pic)

Usability Heuristics

Don Norman and the clever people at the Nielsen Norman Group also follow an experimental approach, adhering to the stages of the HCD methodology, but with a strong focus on usability. They have 10 beautiful usability Heuristics we can use as a measure of our designs — visibility of system status, match between the system and the real world, user control and freedom, consistency and standards, error prevention and helping people with recovery, recognition over recall, minimal (visual) design, and solidly documented help when needed. I’m a big Don Norman fan and, like most UX Designers, I think The Design of Everyday Things and Emotional Design changed my life.

Then there has been the inevitable rise of the Behavioralists. They have certainly changed the landscape of Product Design.

System 1 and System 2

If we want to design and build products that shape people’s behavior, we must learn to understand the fascinating strangeness of how people behave by default and how they are biased subconsciously by their environment and subtle suggestions. Daniel Kahneman says it so well:

Our thoughts and our behavior are influenced, much more than we know or want, by the environment of the moment.

Thinking of the people we design for as beings with an intuitive, emotional System 1 that they rely on most of the time, and a deliberative, calculating System 2 that they access when needed, and that is easily exhausted, has been tremendously helpful to me over the years. If we’re designing for people in mentally draining or highly stimulating environments, it’s often best to design for unthinking actions, presenting as few choices as possible and pre-selecting smart defaults. If, on the other hand, our users are likely to be using our designs in quiet, focus-friendly environments, doing tasks that need careful thought and subtle analysis, the approach changes.


Another behavioralist that springs to mind is the loveable BJ Fogg with his perfect set of white teeth and his B=MAP model. In his own words:

Behavior (B) happens when Motivation (M), Ability (A), and a Prompt (P) come together at the same moment.

The Fogg Behaviour Model (from https://behaviormodel.org/)

This is a powerful picture to sketch and keep on the war room whiteboard. Stakeholders tend to overestimate user motivation and capability (and those stakeholders include the designers on the team!). They also tend to underestimate the impact of small usability issues on people’s ability to move to action.

The Hook Model 😬

Then there’s Nir Eyal and the Hook.

A picture of Nir Eyal’s Hook Model: Trigger, Action, Variable reward, Investment
The Hook Model (Thank you, https://www.productplan.com/glossary/hook-model/).

I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the Hook Model. It’s obviously massively successful and powerful but it seems to exploit human frailty. It’s just too close to a flow chart of the typical rodent’s behavior in a Skinner Box, and feels like the thing Mark Hurst wrote about — UX becoming an acronym for User Exploitation rather than User Experience. It seemingly aims to get us addicted to products (both “good” and “bad”) rather than encouraging us to be thoughtful about our electronic servants and how they can (and should!) remain exactly that — servants of humans. Having said that, the Hook Model has been valuable to me over the years by reminding me to consider:

(1) variable explicit rewards, and

(2) anticipation as a motivator.

The Elephant and the Rider

Another model I love is the Heath Brothers’ model as described in Switch, with the elephant, rider, and path. They’ve kinda taken Daniel Kahneman’s model and created a bit of a Segway for it, where the elephant is your System 1, the rider is System 2 and the path is your environment.

A picture of a man on an elephant, following a path. Text: direct the rider, motivate the elephant, and shape the path
The elephant, rider and path. (From Switch: How to change things when change is hard).

Switch says: take a careful look at the problem you’re solving. Is it a problem of motivation? Is it a process problem? Or is it perhaps an environmental problem?

Predictable Irrationality

Dan Ariely has to be mentioned, with his wildly popular and simplified explanations of how we might make use of predictable human irrationalities (really, biases) to steer behavior. His stories of real behavioral experiments are powerful and memorable.

There are countless others. I just described the ones I’ve had the opportunity to apply in practice or that I like for some quirky reason.

Movement towards Ethical and Humane Design

More recently, of course, there has been a tremendous move towards humane tech and ethical design. I feel incredibly lucky to have had a rather intense conversation with Cennyd Bowles, author of Future Ethics. He convinced me that user-centered design isn’t only not good enough anymore — it’s short-sighted and because of that short-sightedness, it is a risky approach. We need to think of the possible future consequences of the products we are designing now. We need to think about what our products can enable in a future world if they land in the hands of evil people. More importantly, we need to think of what a wildly successful product’s unintended effects might be on its ecosystem.

There is so much we have to consider as Product Designers. Ethics, future ethics, mental health, accessibility, inclusivity, usability, usefulness, forgiveness, profitability, feasibility, desirability, sustainability, credibility, heuristics, readability, value, privacy, transparency, community, economics, analytics, consistency…the list goes on.

And we have all these models and frameworks to help us design Products with these things in mind.

What about Kindness?

But I find myself wondering: whatever happened to Kindness? Is there a framework or a sounding board or evaluation technique that can help us judge whether our designs are in fact Kind?

I started looking for research into digital product design and kindness, and came across the work of Dr. James Doty. He founded CCARE — the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. This is a group at Stanford University that does rigorous research into the effects of compassion and altruistic behaviour, amongst other things. I somehow managed to convince Dr. Doty to have a short conversation with me: he certainly believes that tech has a significant role to play in the space of compassion, which he defines as empathy plus a desire to help in some way.

I have to admit, my internal definition of empathy in the context of Human-Centred Design has always included the need to help people. I empathise with my users in order to design products that serve them better and remove pain. So perhaps Design Thinking has always been an intrinsically compassionate process? (I know of many people who wouldn’t agree.)

Jon Yablonski, the author of The Laws of UX, has made great inroads into what I believe is kind design. He puts down 7 principles describing humane design. He says: humane design is empowering, finite, inclusive, resilient, respectful, thoughtful, and transparent. I adore his work and am yet to figure out a way of applying it to my designs in a systematic way.

But I feel like being humane isn’t quite what I’m gunning for. And designing digital products and services that are somehow loving is on the crazy side-love does not concern itself with profitability. But perhaps somewhere between those two — being humane and being loving — is a measure of kindness. It’s about designing products that care about people and the world. Products that have good intentions from the beginning. It’s about products that say “please” and “thank you” and try to use the simplest language possible so that no one feels spoken down to or mystified. It’s about providing options. It’s also about being honest without being brutal, and about seeing all the imperfections that make us human, and dealing with them, well, kindly. It’s about making the machines do the hard & repetitive work, so people don’t have to. It’s about making people feel just a little bit better.

This is how my journey into Kinder Design begins. Perhaps somebody has already figured it out, but I’d like to explore some more.

And who knows? Maybe kindness is evolutionary. Maybe it is simply another way for people to avoid death and learn more quickly.



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