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Helping those who can’t help themselves

Last month I was at MIT for the Campus Preview Weekend for next year’s freshmen. It was a fun weekend packed with seminars, tours, classes, presentations and parties. Of course the focus was on my daughter, not me. But, there still were plenty of things for the parents to do. At a reception for the parents Phillip Clay, the chancellor of MIT, spoke of the many projects undertaken by MIT and MIT students that are making a difference for the poor and less fortunate around the world. It was an interesting, and impressive, presentation. Truly the skills, talents, and intellect of these exceptional people is making a difference.

At another presentation, Susan Hockfield, the president of MIT, also spoke of MIT initiatives that are targeted at helping in third-world countries. She described these efforts as “helping those who can’t help themselves.” I was both encouraged and frightened by her comments. I was encouraged for the obvious reasons — that those who have been given much would go out of their way to help those less fortunate. I was frightened because of the potential dangers of “helping” too much. Not social engineering, exactly, but assuming we know what is best for others when we see only our perspective, and don’t understand theirs.

What does this have to do with design? All too often we rush in to design and/or build some great new thing that the users will love. After all, we have skills and talents, and we can help them. Except, skill, talent, and desire to help aren’t enough if we don’t really understand what the real users want or need.

Before you “rush in” on your next design or project stop and consider — honestly — who your audience really is. What drives them? What are their goals and objectives? What are their fears and frustrations? Now, design to satisfy their needs, goals and desires, not just what you assume would work for them. The best way to help is to first truly understand the need, and design to that need, and not just impose our ideas on others. As Uncle Ben said to Peter Parker, “with great power comes great responsibility.” [More to come on this subject.]

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