From user-centricity to life-centricity

Our industry is on the move from user-centricity and consumer-centricity to life-centricity. But what does it mean?

In the beginning was user-centricity, and user-centricity was with Don Norman’s 1986 book User Centered System Design: New Perspectives on Human-computer Interaction. All things user-centric can be traced back to this book. And as we now move from user-centricity to life-centricity, we still see Don’s light shining in the darkness.

Over the decades, our vocabulary has evolved from user-centric to customer-centric or consumer-centric – and sometimes even human-centric. But the basic insight remains: it’s the user (customer, consumer, human being) who determines the success or failure of your product. Thus, product design should start with the users, with their perspective and their needs, desires, or purposes.

Let’s note that, in the eighties, Don Norman was already writing about system design. He was well aware that the products he was talking about are indeed systems, and that we need to design them as such. Systems thinking is a departure from a linear mindset. It employs a much more holistic approach, and this has been the trajectory that Don set in motion: toward a holistic understanding of the issue.

What’s life?

From this perspective, life-centricity is another step in the same direction. Now, the crucial question becomes what do we define as life. Is it the customer’s life or all life on earth? Since marketing is concerned with the customer (and the purpose of business is to create a customer, if we follow Peter Drucker’s maxim), the customer’s life seems to be the next logical step in this journey.

In a recent research report, our mothership Accenture Song puts it this way:

Businesses once looked to a product centric approach focused on performance. Then they shifted to a customer-centric strategy, meant to prioritize experience. But now, the dynamics are more complicated. Until companies stop over-simplifying their customers and start accepting that they are ever-changing, multi-dimensional people deeply impacted by unpredictable external forces, they’ll find themselves stuck.
They need to become life-centric.

An interesting observation the authors make is that today’s customers show incoherent and self-contradicting behaviour. If that’s the case, customer-centricity finds itself in trouble as an approach. Imagine your boss behaving in an incoherent and contradictory way. What do you do? When your decision-maker fails, you basically have to decide for yourself. What makes sense, and what doesn’t?

Can you see the underlying issues at stake and solve them, reduce complexity and simplify things? That’s what good employees would do, instead of complaining about the shortcomings of their management. And that’s what companies need to do if they want to serve their customers best. They need to understand the different forces shaping customers’ lives. And they need to find solutions customers find relevant.

Life-centricity as a design principle

The step that follows is what designers called life-centred design over the course of the past few years:

Life-centred design is an emerging design approach that expands human-centred design to also include consideration of sustainable, environmental, and social implications. It connects micro-level design (UX, product engineering, etc.) to global goals by increasing the stakeholders from just ‘user and business’ to ‘user, non-user, local and global communities, ecosystems, and planetary boundaries’.

Now, this is probably the most holistic design approach that’s conceivable. It addresses all the possible shortcomings of narrower approaches that only focus on the product, or on the user/consumer. Those may add other implications, like corporate social responsibility, sustainability, diversity and inclusion, on a one-by-one basis. In contrast, life-centred design is a systemic approach, and thus requires systems thinking.

Lena Jüngst, a co-founder of air up, is using life-centred design as a guiding principle. A product designer by education, she knows that the most significant leverage is at the origin of the product, in theory at least. In practice, product designers often don’t have the decision-making power to pull the levers. (We interviewed Lena, among many other marketeers, for our upcoming book Next Level CMO.)

Putting life-centred design principles into product design practice is highly complex. Every design process must start with hypotheses. A complete life cycle assessment becomes only viable after the supply chain, the logistics, the materials and so forth are already in place. A holistic design approach needs to take all this into account.

Purpose, sustainability, humanity

Which brings me back to Don Norman. He has a new book scheduled for 2023, titled Design for a Better World: Meaningful, Sustainable, Humanity Centered. The book’s blurb spells this out as follows:

The key to change, says Don Norman, is human behavior, covered in the book’s three major themes: meaning, sustainability, and humanity-centeredness. Emphasize quality of life, not monetary rewards; restructure how we live to better protect the environment; and focus on all of humanity. […] Norman proposes a new way of thinking, one that recognizes our place in a complex global system where even simple behaviors affect the entire world.

Here, we have life-centred design and life-centricity in a nutshell. Meaning is closely related, or possibly another word for, purpose – which has kept marketeers busy for years now. Sustainability needs almost no explanation – it’s why life-centricity eventually will encompass all life on earth. And humanity-centeredness should be the ultimate goal of the strive for diversity and inclusion – leaving no one behind.

Two other points in mind here: First, human behaviour is still key. We’ve talked a lot about how the customer experience changes behaviour patterns. Besides this, we also need to take psychological and sociological dimensions into account. Second, life-centricity is about systems, not least ecosystems we need to design.

User-centricity, if thought through systemically, finally leads to considering questions of meaning and purpose, a long-term sustainable perspective, including all life on earth, and all of humanity, with all their diversity.