Is user-centered design unsustainable?

In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Roberto Verganti argues that user-centered design is not sustainable because sustainability is not embedded in our existing culture. A deep understanding of current needs would likely reveal concerns over budgets, health, safety, well-being, and emotional fulfillment instead of the more amorphous desire for a cleaner environment.

Take the well-known example of the Toyota Prius. This hybrid car was not the result of user-centered innovation. Toyota started to design the Prius in 1994, when user-centered analysis and market data were pulling auto manufacturers in a different direction: toward heavy, gas-guzzling SUVs. The Prius was a proposal — a vision that came from a better understanding of the future evolution of the socio-cultural and economic scenario. Now, more than a decade after it was first launched, people like it, even if they did not ask for it when it was conceived. And thanks to its early start, Toyota is well ahead of its competitors.

Verganti proposes that we use vision-centered design to introduce sustainability into the economic picture. By envisioning future scenarios, rather than relying on current user needs, companies can stay ahead of the development curve. For example, Ezio Manzini searches for local fringe communities that have already found sustainable solutions for everyday living. He then engineers these solutions and proposes them at a larger scale.

In order to be profitable, Verganti’s vision relies on the assumption that companies can predict when resource prices will be driven up by the market forces of supply and demand, prompting the search for lower-cost alternatives. How long will companies need to incubate energy efficient technologies before they become cost-effective? In the case of the Prius, it was about a decade. What about companies that invested in the early days of solar research? When will they see a positive return on investment?

While Verganti’s goals are admirable, they are not always practical. User-centered design can be sustainable. Well-designed products often last longer because users want to keep them around. The choice of materials, manufacturing processes and life-cycle planning all play a role in the sustainability of a product. Business models that consider recycling as part of component sourcing improve profit margins without significantly changing consumer behavior.

Companies should consider future scenarios but cannot ignore how user needs will evolve in those future scenarios. In the case of the Prius, Toyota had to believe that there was a point at which gas prices would rise sufficiently to make its technology relevant. So too must other sustainability initiatives be rooted in economics and prevailing consumer behavior to succeed. It is one thing to have a vision of sustainable consumption and quite another to make the vision itself sustainable.

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