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Designer’s guide to humans and technology – part 3

Designer’s guide to humans and technology – part 3

In part 1 of our series ‘Designer’s guide to humans and technology’, we considered the fourth industrial revolution and how we design for that ‘a–ha’ moment.

In part 2, we looked at how to design to reduce cognitive load and how users’ mental models affect our designs.

Part 3 will now consider when we should be conservative or innovative in our approach to design.

Conservative versus innovative design

Humans subconsciously (and often consciously…) dislike change and resent a challenge to their formulated mental models. People stick with what they know, even if it’s not entirely correct. Sometimes it’s good to be conservative when designing digital interfaces, rather than coming up with new interaction styles just because they match a new trend.

However, innovation is invaluable when a new approach can vastly improve an old design. There are plenty of examples of this.

Of course, Netflix and Uber are both successful companies who have famously excelled in challenging norms in their industries. But innovation is everywhere. When the Fathom team is travelling on the Enterprise from Belfast to Dublin, mytaxi lets us order our taxi from the comfort of the train as it arrives at

Connolly train station. As we walk out the main hallway, we can watch its progress on our app as it makes its way to the parking bays.

mytaxi app

Mytaxi (image owner). Mytaxi app interface [digital image]. Retrieved from the mytaxi website.

My daughter frequently asks me for some spare change en route to school for a “must–have” brownie, even though her lunch box is packed with everything she needs. I rarely have cash in my pocket, so I log in to the Parent Pay app that my daughter’s school has implemented. This responsive mobile web app enables me to easily add money to my daughter’s account in seconds when I am on my way to work. Her account is updated in real time, and all she needs to do to pay is scan her fingerprint using their biometric system. How amazing is that? The only thing smoother than that transaction is her ability to use the money I’ve sent.

Designs that change long–held mental models can cause confusion for users – more worryingly, this can sometimes be dangerous. For instance, car makers learned years ago that standardising the way things work in a car keeps drivers safe. In the sixties, Chrysler experimented with the pattern of their push–button automatic transmissions (swapping the positions of ‘Reverse’ and ‘Drive’). Not long after launch, there were reports of new owners driving into car park walls as the subtle change did not fit with their learned behaviour.

Chrysler push button transmission (image owner). Chrysler 300G push–button transmission [digital image]. Retrieved from

Designing for humans is complex, but if you commit to understanding your users’ mental models, you will know when to design conservatively and when to innovate.

Designing at Fathom

Our team is obsessive about solving the right problem for our clients. We can only do this through research, collaboration and by fully defining the problem before starting to ‘design’ anything. Even then, we recognise that our ideas are based on a hypothesis that we then take to another stage of testing for further validation in order to refine the solution – designing for humans is not straightforward but we love the challenge!

Fathom ux design

Fathom (image owner). Collaborative UX research [digital image]. Property of Fathom. 

Creating outstanding product and service experiences requires a deep understanding of what makes humans tick. Why do we act the way we do? Why do we hold the beliefs we are passionate about? What engages us? To excel in a design team that builds complex solutions for humans, designers must have a desire to put themselves in the shoes of the user and have an abundance of natural curiosity. Great communication skills and critical thinking are needed to thrive in group collaboration, while we work out the patterns in front of us.

In the end, every designer is creating something for a human. You can be a better designer by understanding user goals through research, and you can apply your understanding of design principles, human cognition and psychology to make your product or service experience outstanding. 

By MT McCann

Marie–Therese was UX Designer, Senior UX Designer and UX Lead at Fathom from May 2015 to August 2020, when she left to take up a UX Lead role at Eso.

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