Burkhard Müller, CDO MUTABOR
Maximilian Friedrichs, Senior Strategist MUTABOR


In the long term, obsessively optimizing for the needs of individual users will come at the expense of society. Sooner or later, society and new laws will force companies to change their thinking. It is not idealism to take society’s needs into account, but rather a future competitive advantage.

User Centered Design vs. Society Centered Design

User Centered Design enables companies to place people and their needs at the center of all decisions. The calculation is simple: in a market with many equivalent products and services at comparable prices, the ones that stand out will be those that optimally satisfy human needs and offer the best user experience. This can take on different forms depending on the product or service (as simple as possible, as fast as possible, as personal as possible…), and is essentially very true. However, this way of thinking might not always prove as beneficial to us in the future as it appears.

After all, what benefits individuals is not necessarily similarly good for society. Design aimed at individuals that is created for greater efficiency, profit, productivity or turnover speed can at the same time produce negative effects. These include inequality, careless or superficial consumption and negative climate outcomes. User Centered Design therefore reaches its natural limits if it negatively impacts the general public.

In contrast, “Society Centered Design” means a design that also takes into consideration the broad context of the people it influences and shapes. In this way, it always strives for a positive value for society and the world it is part of. True to the motto: A product that creates a positive impact on society has a competitive advantage in the long term and will succeed in the market.

What does that mean?

We are currently facing several existential crises: In the long term, the main crisis relates to the environment, as well as future laws and regulations to protect it and move society forward. In the short to medium term, Covid-19 influences our life and thus also our economy. Companies have these crises on their agenda and try to counteract them with CSR measures or develop purpose and mission statements to provide sustainable solutions. At the same time, they try to create the best products for customers with User Centered Design. Here however, sustainability and society are not discussed in detail as often as they should be. This could be due to a lack of design principles that incorporate these topics directly into the discussion during product and service development, or due to a lack of comprehensive anchoring of the CSR approach throughout the organization.

Let’s take Amazon as an example: Same Day Delivery is a boon to all convenience-oriented users, and it emerged and thrived from this very idea. However, this offer is an absolute failure from the perspective of traffic congestion, packaging waste from individual shipments and the environmental damage resulting from it. It targets a group with a specific need, meets this and disregards the context.

Once we factor in the megatrend toward a new public consciousness of sustainability, this offer no longer seems as progressive as it did at first sight. Surveys show that almost every second end user would accept longer delivery times if they knew that this would help the environment. So surely true progress must also include the need to contribute to our society? Of course Amazon would not be Amazon if this idea had not already been raised in the past. This is why it already offers “no-rush shipping” in some countries, which is linked to the needs of other users by giving out rewards such as discounts.

There are many other examples: Airbnb promises an authentic experience of foreign cities, but makes individual cities unaffordable for residents. Lieferando makes it possible to discover new restaurants in the area, but at the same time creates a marketplace for “dark kitchens.”

Google offers a positive example with its Maps service: in future, Google Maps will select the route with the lowest CO2 footprint if the arrival time is about the same as the fastest route. This will involve optimizing fuel consumption by considering factors such as road gradient and traffic levels. In cases where this route would significantly delay the arrival time, users can compare the CO2 emissions of the faster alternative and decide for themselves. To choose the fastest route every time without considering CO2, users must change this option in the settings. This function is part of a commitment to help a billion Google users to reduce their ecological footprint.

Design will be a key factor in the successful transition to a commercially sustainable economy that benefits society. In future, products will have to balance their value to the company with the value to users and society. The aim from the start is to develop products, services and systems that are competitive precisely because they make life easier for users and make a positive contribution to environmental protection and the advancement of society.

To achieve this, CSR must be fundamentally viewed, approached and anchored within the organization as part of the company’s own identity. The development of (digital) products and services must be based on principles that incorporate CSR issues at the core.

In future, people should no longer be considered one-dimensionally as nothing more than their personal needs — society and its needs must be given equal consideration in product strategy and design. The result will be fewer measures with a green sheen, but rather holistically designed concepts that have a positive influence on society and nature.

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