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Adding a sustainability lens to design thinking

Via Jeremy Keith, Future-First Design Thinking:

Incorporating non-human personas into the design thinking process would allow us to embody the essential elements that constitute our environment, such as air, trees, water, and land. These personas can serve as tangible reminders of the interconnectedness between our design decisions and the health of our environment, a living entity that deserves our protection and consideration.

I’m sorry to say that I don’t trust it.

My bias: personas are harmful. A persona is an amalgam — a fictional person, really — that is supposed to be drawn from extensive user research. The problem is, the process of drawing up a persona always requires a degree of subjective invention, regardless of the amount of research that went into it. It is always a reflection of the biases on the team.

In contrast, POV statements that describe a single person who has been interviewed, in combination with direct transcripts and photographs, allow you to use a non-invented example to build your product — and, at least theoretically, go back and use that person as your referee for product decisions as you continue to build. While condensing a person’s interviews into a POV does require some invention, it isn’t a statistical exercise. You can always go back and ask.

It’s very difficult to do this with a tree. By its nature, then, all you can do is invent — and potentially excuse all kinds of activity because your fictional tree persona approves (or, more likely, has blind spots).

All of this said, I do think it’s vital to include future-facing sustainability in design thinking frameworks. (Design thinking is prone to colonial thinking, so considering distributed equity is vital too.) My proposal was to add sustainability to the desirability, viability, feasibility lenses; it’s not necessarily right, but it’s something to consider.

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