Are design patterns human enough? - hero image

Are design patterns human enough?

The concept of “patterns” is a familiar one to designers; they are descriptions of repeatable forms that a given technology can take. Most design patterns describe a way a person interacts with a technology. For example, the act of finding books (and everything else) is now largely dominated by Amazon. The Amazon app leverages countless technology patterns—from patterns dealing with information such as a “menu” and “search,” to those dealing with interactions such as a haptic buzz that confirms I’ve put something in my “cart.” The Amazon app orchestrates these technology patterns in a way that makes it nearly frictionless to shop, and the even larger technology pattern of almost “instant delivery” commanded from the app is becoming entrenched.

However, as tech moves away from screens and becomes increasingly invisible and ubiquitous in our lives, designers will need to rely less on patterns based on how humans interact with technology and do more to observe and leverage human-to-human interaction patterns, or interpersonal behavioral patterns.

One sign of this move from Amazon is the enormous investment in Alexa, a technology aspiring to increasingly human-to-human-like interactions. And after having been a huge factor in the decline of independent bookstores, Amazon now has actual physical bookstores, where customers mingle together and with front-line staff. Is this a sign that companies like Amazon understand that crafting solutions based on interpersonal behavioral patterns is increasingly necessary?

Capturing interpersonal behavioral patterns

When I moved to Austin in 2012, I noticed a behavior around public parking. Many of our parking meters take a credit card and spit out a sticker for drivers to place inside their windshield. Parking enforcement can easily see information on the sticker, including the time that the parking expires. However, when a driver initially buys a parking pass, it’s hard to accurately predict how long they might be parked. Lunch might run longer than expected, a colleague could ask them to come help with something at work—any number of variables can make an estimate wrong. Additionally, not every parking spot in the city uses these types of tickets (some meters have a more traditional on-meter display), and some spots don’t require payment at all—so even if a driver moves to a different location, there is no guarantee they can use their paid-for time. Many of us “round up” – to make sure we have enough time, we over-estimate.

A parking meter
A parking meter in Austin, Texas

Austin residents’ reaction to this meter system showed a glimpse of a collaborative behavior. If a driver had a sticker with valid time still on it, they simply stuck the ticket anywhere on the meter machine and let the next anonymous person who drove up claim the remainder of the time. It was charming, practical, and contributed to the feeling of a friendly Texan city.

Small, design-like acts spontaneously carried out are what Jane Fulton-Suri of IDEO popularized as “thoughtless acts.” Her book on the subject explains that we “interact automatically with the objects and spaces we encounter,” such as when we might drape a jacket over a chair in a busy café to “claim” it. The parking meter-related behavior of leaving behind unused resources for the next person is a similar design-like act, though it is not just an interaction with objects and spaces, but also with other people. Rather than “thoughtless,” it’s quite a thoughtful act. This behavior can be described and codified into an interpersonal behavioral pattern. Like technology patterns, it is describable and repeatable. But unlike technology patterns, this is about human-to-human interactions. It is not about the many technology patterns involved in using the machine—those patterns would include behaviors like inserting a credit card or using a sticker. What is captured in the interpersonal behavioral pattern is how people look out for anonymous others, people like themselves who will park and need to pay for it. This pattern is substantial in that it resonates with other, similar manifestations, such as the “leave a penny, take a penny” dish at a local diner or “suspended coffee” throughout the world. The pattern is commonly described the phrase, “pay it forward.” The pattern is durable: it’s a pattern people will recognize and respond to long after we don’t have credit cards, stickers, or parking meters anymore.

The interpersonal behavioral pattern is not just interesting – it’s also useful.

If the city hired a design firm to redesign the parking system, there are endless ways that this interpersonal behavioral pattern might be baked into the redesign to help humanize the system. The following concepts demonstrate what that might look like at a high level.

Parking Meter Concept
“Pay it forward” pattern: an Austin parking meter donation concept
Parking Meter Concept
“Pay it forward” pattern: an Austin parking meter sticker concept

In my working experience at various companies, I’ve noticed that technology-led design patterns are frequently used and acknowledged, but interpersonal behavioral design patterns are mentioned in one-off conversations, if at all. It is more common to hear discussions of constructing a “feed” or “menu” or “gallery” than to hear discussions of how humans interact with one another and how that might influence a product or service design. As technology becomes more and more invisible, and accomplishing tasks becomes table-stakes, people will place increasing demands that products and services are not just “intuitive” but that they are also “human.” And for technology to be human, we need to devote intentional time and resources to finding, circulating, and applying interpersonal behavioral patterns.

Interpersonal behavioral patterns hiding in plain sight

Interpersonal behavioral patterns are not new, but they haven’t been explored or aggregated as widely in design as technology patterns have. In different forms however, they are found in fields as diverse as psychology and literature. Interpersonal patterns can be found and extracted from all sorts of places—history books, etiquette books, guidebooks, maps, policies, laws and more. For example, Sweden has the concept of “fika,” a break in the day to drink coffee and have a sweet pastry in the company of family, friends, or colleagues. While many countries have a culture around coffee, fika is about slowing down and connecting with others. It is not something to rush. We might call this the look up from work pattern. Interestingly, it is important enough as a tradition (and successful enough as a pattern) to people in Sweden that it is even written into employee contracts! If we accept look up from work as an interpersonal behavioral pattern, what ideas could it provoke about our workplace cultures here in the U.S.?

Look up from work Concept
“Look up from work pattern:” a concept to bring together remote teams
Look up from work Concept
“Look up from work pattern:” A team-bonding alternative to happy hour

We can find another example in maps. The Blanton Museum of Art recently exhibited Medieval Monsters: Aliens, Terrors, and Wonders, organized by the Morgan Library in New York City. One map of the world and its oceans is illustrated with fantastical deep-sea monsters. Rather than striving for an accurate depiction of sea life, the mapmakers used monstrous depictions to keep competing merchants from infiltrating lucrative sea routes. This interpersonal behavioral pattern is one of making up terrors to keep out people who should stay away—competitors or otherwise. We could call it a scarecrow pattern. While the map itself is a technology pattern, setting up barriers based on fear is an interpersonal behavioral pattern. A set of concepts created in 1992 by Sandia National Laboratories for the US Department of Energy for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) leverages the scarecrow pattern as a speculative approach to keep future humans out of nuclear waste sites.

Isn’t this just design research?

This is part of design research, but it isn’t well-formalized or collected. Close, in-context observation of people is an established hallmark of design. Any designer who saw the meter behavior I saw in the course of an assignment or program would likely note what I noted. However, as Austin grows into a booming metropolis, that behavior is getting lost. It could be that people feel less connected to each other, less liable for each other’s’ wellbeing. Maybe so many transplants from other towns and cities have come in that they didn’t know about the unspoken pattern and it has since been diluted out of practice. It is scarce to the point of no longer being available for ethnographers to notice. And that is where recording these behaviors, crystalizing them into patterns, and connecting them to similar patterns would contribute to the field of design and the work designers do every day to humanize technology.

Observing and aggregating interpersonal behavioral patterns is not within the typical scope of a “design research program”—but it could be. What if it went above interviews and contextual inquiries and focused on larger interpersonal behavioral patterns? We should expand our understanding of human-to-human interactions by going to rich existing sources—by regularly travelling, reading history, and visiting museums, and building on these activities as a recognized part of our work. Thinking more broadly, how might we share these patterns in a similar way to how technology patterns have been shared, used, and reused? Exploring these areas and questions would help us envision and create a world in which technologies are patterned on the interactions that make us the most human—those with each other.

Laura Galos

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