The cost of design
The metrics for accurately and effectively evaluating design are primarily categorized in two camps, the quantifiable and the qualifiable.
Quantitative metrics describe objective, tangible, and measurable things such as numbers. They help rationalize in absolute terms:
- Reduction of cost, time, and resources
- Efficiency of processes
- Number of new customers, visits, or registrations
- Community interaction in social media
Quantitative metrics are primary ways to describe the value of design to businesses. However, accruing insight with quantitative approaches often are at the cost of individuality, as human behavior is abstracted and generalized into spreadsheets.
Instead of business-centric models, perhaps we should prefer more user-centric models to judge user-centric design. Qualitative metrics describe subjective, intangible, and immeasurable things such as how people sense, understand, and respond to the world. They help us perceive:
- User satisfaction
- Brand reputation
Quantifiable and qualifiable measures paint more holistic pictures detailing the practical benefits of design. But these all seem to dodge more fundamental truths. They are tailored for the times, culture, politics, affiliations, economics, social and environmental conditions, circumstance, opinion, preference, and emotion. Perhaps a human metric could be used that transcends all of these.
Humanity partakes in the embodied existence known as life, and it is affirmed in heartbeats, starting at its first and ceasing at its last. Heartbeats are the rhythmic purr of a mortal engine, powering a body meant for action and activity. They quicken with excitement and exertion. They quiet with rest and peace. They remind us we are alive, that we have more to give and to gain. They seem infinite and cheap until health is threatened. They are precious, yet taken for granted. They are limited, yet the volume is unknowable. They are betrayed by the demands of the world, but they are best sacrificed in service to the world. They are stolen by relentless cruelty, but they are best gifted in unconditional love. They are wasted in apathy, but they are best purposed in caring.
Design is for people, benefiting and shaping their interactions within the world. When a person engages with a design, they perform a transaction, trading heartbeats and moments of their life for what the design offers. Designers are responsible for balancing that transaction, to make it fair and worthwhile. Design, if approached honestly and ethically, must demand of itself noble and inconceivable feats. It must answer difficult questions about itself, such as:
- Does it bring what is needed when it is needed?
- Does it keep people engaged and delighted, even when the actions are tedious or mundane?
- Does it build accomplishment instead of frustration?
- Does it give voice to the voiceless?
- Does it encourage love, for oneself, others, and the world?
- Does it promote physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, economic, professional, social, or environmental health?
- Does it rejuvenate life or stifle life?
Measuring design against the cost of heartbeats may not be practical, but in so many ways, it is the most important measure. Decisions about a design can be balanced on a new human-centric scale. A design is worthwhile if it cost the development team 100,000 heartbeats (roughly one person week), yet it saves at least that number of user heartbeats over the lifetime of the design. A design is worthwhile if it empowers users to spend their heartbeats more confidently, effectively, proficiently, and wisely. A design is worthwhile if it strengthens the weak, restores the disenfranchised, and elates the brokenhearted.
The rhythm of our heartbeat keeps us grounded in dignifying life, instead of lost in the rhythm of a world inclined to discard life if left to its own proclivities. Introduce designs into the world that value heartbeats above all else, that help people to better value their lives and the lives of others, that help people live better and richer lives.
Is what is brought into the world worth the heartbeats it demands?