Human-centered prototyping starts with respect for human capacities

three part process diagram of research capacities, consider capabilities and build prototypes

When working on accessible design projects, people often centre their discussions on defining impairments and how to use technologies and services to bridge the gap between such impaired capacities and “normal” capacities. This is a deficit model of design. Design fixing human failings.

What this model fails to notice is that the gap is not between impairment and normal. It’s in understanding the networks of many different arrangements of capacities. People’s autonomy is in their capacities not in their impairments.

The ideas I’m talking about in this short post are about human-centred prototype design and how it must seek to understand how capacities, capabilities and autonomy interact.

Research Capacities

I have an inclusive design book that is filled with research into the statistical distribution of many forms of physical and cognitive impairment. It lists off a vast number of forms of disability and the probability of people having them in different populations.

It’s helpful for thinking about the general environment of human-centred design but not actually helpful in doing it. That’s because humans are generally using their capacities, not their impairments, to do the things they want to do.

Researching capacities is important because you need to learn how differing levels of impairment lead to so many ways of achieving successful outcomes. Recognising the diversity of solutions that come from personal divergence. You cannot design solutions without aligning them with the way people live their lives.

In doing this it is also important to remember that some physical and cognitive impairments are not viewed as deficits but as part of what makes the person themself. It is easy for the medical diagnostic model of disability (with all its language and statistics) to obcsure both the social model and identification models of disability (with their sense of community and culture). There are lots of models of disability described here.

Listening to disabled people and hearing their lived experiences is crucial to understand capacities and the meaning of impairments.

Consider Capabilities

Centred on human capacities, the next layer to think about is capabilities. These are ways in which we enhance people in the achievement of their desired outcomes.

Capabilities can include:

  • Tools
  • Services
  • Communities
  • Assets

These are things added to a person. Personal capacities enhanced with capabilities.

Reviewing capabilities means looking at what tools/services/communities/assets are working successfully and considering whether innovations are appropriate.

Sometimes people do not need more technological capabilities. They may need more community and social connections to achieve their goal (look at the ABCD movement). Sometimes people do not need a new service, they just need an asset like money.

Build prototypes

The final part of this process is building prototypes. Yet their purpose is not simply about usability and agency.

Checking that the service or product you are designing is usable (people can perceive it and use it) and enables agency (doing the thing that meets user need) is important but it’s not enough.

How personal capacities and provided capabilities interact is complicated. How they affect a person’s sense of worth matters. This is the autonomy question.

People getting to do the thing they need is basic agency. Whether they feel any sense of control in that achievement is about autonomy. For me, this is described simply as follows:

  • Doing a thing the way you want is agency.
  • Doing a thing the way you want with the amount of support that you choose is autonomy.

Prototypes can test more than agency and accessibility. They can check that the technologies and services we provide to enhance their capacties using capabilities that do not strip away the sense of independence and individuality from users.

Human-centred prototypes help ensure that we recognise the humanity of users. We can use technologies appropriately to help people do what they need in ways aligned with their capacities and respecting their independence.

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