What does it take to humanize today's digital technology — and why does it matter?

Technology has always existed to extend human capability. With technology, we can enhance our natural endowments. Language is a technology; with it, we turn our capacity for making vocal sounds into communication. In some cases, technology even allows us to accomplish that which is otherwise impossible, such as traveling across the solar system (even if only by proxy).

Technology’s primary function, then, is to serve humanity — in theory, at least. In practice, however, technology increasingly seems on the verge of going haywire, exercising a will of its own, and harming its creators. As Edward Tenner observes in his classic study Why Things Bite Back, all technological innovation produces unintended consequences. Anyone who has felt the need to “detox” from digital products that were designed for their benefit has had firsthand experience with this phenomenon.

Digital technology may be transforming virtually every aspect of our lives, from how we address our most basic needs (food, shelter, personal health, etc.) to how we distinguish fact from fiction. But technological achievement can no longer be measured by the power of its engineering. Technology must be assessed according to its purposefulness.

Humanized Technology is Experiential Technology

Mainstream digital technology design is often at odds with the ways humans naturally experience the world. Designing and building for humans requires, first of all, an understanding of human engagement and thought. Instead of working against human instincts, technology should supplement them. Consider, for example, how technology can appeal to the five senses — using biometric readers or voice recognition, for example — and can be simplified so as not to overwhelm the limited human capacity for focused attention.

Human-centered design also requires innovation, beginning with human needs rather than with received wisdom or market research. Why should the default UI be a backlit screen, which is taxing on human eyes? Why should technology fragment the human experience into an unnatural “online” and “offline” dichotomy? Designers can also take inspiration from disciplines that are not traditionally viewed as technological but are nevertheless essential to the human experience, such as social justice and liberal arts.

Such cross-pollination often yields elegant and enduring results, with Apple’s iconic products, both hardware and software, being prime examples. According to Steve Jobs, “It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.”

Humanized Technology is Minimalistic

Making technology more intuitive to the human experience naturally makes it easier to use. That technology exists to make people’s lives easier should be self-evident. But the reality is that digital innovations such as the smartphone and social media have created additional sources of stress and (some would argue) unnecessary or even false complexity.

Any attempt to humanize technology should therefore incorporate design principles such as convenience, clarity, efficiency, and ease of use. Additionally, how technology responds to its users — via text, images, interactive multimedia, even haptic feedback — should be meaningful, or animated by a “why.” Modeling these responses on the ways in which humans naturally relate to each other is a good start. One example would be a website that delivers valuable information via storytelling, a uniquely human method of communication.

Humanized Technology is Inclusive and Anticipatory

Likewise, people should not have to change their behaviors or lifestyles to accommodate new technology, and it should not take extensive training or specialized expertise to benefit from technology. Humanized technology is also inclusive of the entire human experience, not just that of the privileged, able-bodied, or tech-savvy few.

Humanizing technology also means building for the future. Humans are constantly evolving, growing, and learning. They cannot be adequately served by static, unchanging designs. Technology must learn from its users and adjust accordingly, using the data and feedback it gathers to render its assistance more personalized and relevant.

However, in an era defined by ever-intensifying privacy concerns, companies must be more transparent about the data they gather and about how they plan to use it. They also need to take more active measures to protect that data from breaches or unauthorized use. Especially on the web, data collection policies should ultimately be driven by respect for human uniqueness and a desire to refine UI/UX based on individuals’ real-time needs.

Prioritizing human benefit is at the heart of many existing best practices in web design, but most companies would do well to pursue this goal with greater intentionality. By designing products that solve problems in ways that make sense for humans, companies do more than demonstrate high ethical and professional standards. They also encourage increased user engagement and the kind of progress that could have a lasting positive impact on our world.

Here at Insite, we’ve been at the leading edge of design thinking for digital platforms since 1998. You can learn more about our commitment to humanizing technology on our “Services” page.