Essays & Articles



Don Norman and Eli Spencer

Thoughts based upon a talk at the 2019 World Government Summit, Feb. 10-12, 2019. Dubai, UAE.

We propose a radical change in design from experts designing for people to people designing for themselves. In the traditional approach, experts study, design, and implement solutions for the people of the world. Instead, we propose that we leverage the creativity within the communities of the world to solve their own problems: This is community-driven design, taking full advantage of the fact that it is the people in communities who best understand their problems and the impediments and affordances that impede and support change. Experts become facilitators, by mentoring and providing tools, toolkits, workshops, and support.

The principles of human-centered design have proven to be effective and productive. However, its approach is generally used in situations where professionals determine the needs of the target populations and then develop products and procedures to address the needs. This is Top-Down design: starting with higher-level conceptualizations and then refining the ideas and concepts to specific instances of products or services.  This works well for mass produced items which only allows limited  specialization for individual needs and requirements.

Although traditional methods are effective for traditional mass-produced items, they are unable to take account of the local needs, cultures, and history of individual people and communities. The literature on the world-wide aid community is filled with examples of well-intentioned “solutions” failing to work when introduced into developing nations (see (Easterly, 2013; Ramalingam, 2013). And if they do work at first, they are often so difficult to maintain and service, that they soon fall into disuse. Finally, in some cases the unintended negative consequences outweigh any good that has resulted. We believe that the people best equipped to address these issues are the people who live there: This article shows one approach.

In this brief note, we quickly review the four principles of human-centered design, the difficulties faced by the traditional top-down approach, and the proposed bottom-up, community-based approach. There are already multiple examples of the power of bottom up design. We build on this work, especially on the proposal by Jeffrey Myerson that he calls “Scaling Down.” The fact that there are many instances of community-driven, down-scaled approaches validates these ideas. Among other activities, it would be valuable to bring together the many different approaches and communities so they can all share and learn from one another, yielding a powerful set of tools that can be freely adopted and used by people around the world.

The Four Principles of Human-Centered Design

  1. Understand and Address the Core Problems. Solve the fundamental, underlying issues, not the symptoms.
  2. Be People-Centered. People-centered as opposed to technology-centered, ensuring that the outcome is appropriate for the history, culture, and environment.
  3. Use an Activity-Centered Systems Approach. Design must focus upon the entire activity under consideration, not just isolated components. Moreover, activities do not exist in isolation: They are components of complex sociotechnical systems.
  4. Rapid Iterations of Prototyping and Testing. Start with simple prototypes, perhaps simply drawings illustrating the idea, and then after testing, refine and enhance the capabilities through successive iterations.

Myerson’s “Scaling Down” approach

Jeremy Meyerson, from London’s Royal College of Art has proposed a closely related approach (Myerson, 2016): “Scaling Down.” Here is his description:

The growth model of the 20th century required that designers and companies achieve economies of scale. Scaling up involved abstraction to make large-scale production possible for the global industrial economy. In the 21st century, social challenges are increasingly disrupting world markets. This changes the focus of the design process. Designers once needed to learn just a little about large groups of people to serve mass markets. Today, they must learn a great deal about relatively small numbers of people. They must shift from concentrating on what makes groups of people similar to what makes them different.

Myerson proposed five principles of scaling down. They complement the approach in this paper by being very similar in spirt, but from a slightly different perspective, introducing slightly different concepts. Here are his principles (the titles are direct quotes: the text describing each principle is an edited, brief compilation of his longer, more full description).

  • Cultivate a Participatory Mindset—Not an Expert One

Creating with people rather than for them using collaborative methods responding to real needs identified through an interactive, democratic process, and make certain design methods obsolete.

  • Make the Process Design-Infused—Not Design-Led

Infusing multi-disciplinary processes with valuable design skills such as facilitation, visualization, and modeling offers a richer, deeper, and more democratic alternatives to standard, designer-led approaches.

  • Design for People—Not Personas

Imaginary amalgams of user traits may be useful and convenient design tools in some industries—but they can be dangerous in others because they are based on unreal assumptions or idealized stereotypes.

  • Aim for Engagement—Not Abstraction

When designers adopt broad, simple, generic ideas about people, they leave no space for the type of contradiction, complexity, or iteration that real life demands. When designers opt for direct engagement with groups and individuals during workshops, consultations, or co-creation activities, they are able to resist abstraction because they are dealing with specifics, real opinions, and lived experiences.

  • Build on Assets—Don’t Just Minimize Deficits

Scaling down means looking through a positive lens, trying to enhance people’s physical and psychological assets, and building on what individual people and communities have to offer.

The Limitations of Community-Based Design

Community-based design has several major weaknesses: local knowledge about a complex topic can be incomplete or even erroneous. Moreover, even if an excellent solution to the local problem, the solutions tend to be for the symptoms, not the underlying causes and are, moreover, local, and therefore only one small part of what is invariably a larger, much more complex system. This results in two difficulties. First, solving the symptoms does not get at the underlying causes, so problems will continue to arise. Second, even if the local issues are completely solved, local optimization does not always lead to global optimization. Here is where expert advice, mentoring, and facilitation is needed. The community-based design should still be the driving force, but informed and aided by a deeper understanding of the overall system.

Combining Expert Knowledge with Local, Community-Driven Design

Designs must confront several major complexities when applied to the large, complex, needs of the world. These complexities are of special importance to the application of Human-Centered Design. Three areas are of special note:

  1. Large complex, sociotechnical systems. When major political, economic, social and cultural variables interact, it is best to proceed slowly, with incremental, opportunistic steps (See Norman & Stappers, 2016).
  2. The need for understanding. Modern automated technology can provide powerful answers, but its operations is often impenetrable (opaque) to both experts and affected citizens. This reduces faith and trust in the results. We need systems that provide understandable explanations.
  3. Cultural sensitivity. The results must be sensitive to history, culture, and belief structures. This means that technologists and domain specialists are not enough: the local communities have to be involved in determining the outcomes.

Myerson discusses another way expert knowledge can be used to enhance the ideas derived from community-based approaches:

“for many design projects—mass-market healthcare innovations or software introductions, for example—scaling up is a perfectly desirable course of action. On the other hand, some community-focused projects merit a reversal of tradition. They have a complexity that defies standard, off-the-shelf solutions. And once designers scale these kinds of projects down to create and test a specific proposal, they can then see what works and explore ways to take the key ingredients and “scale back up” to help other communities and individuals.”

The drive toward community-based design methods does not imply that experts are not needed. Rather, it points out the need to change the way that designing for the major social, economic, and educational, and health needs of the world’s population is carried out. These are all difficult issues which require the combination of approaches to solve. Experts provide the tools for analysis and for understanding. It will be experts that modify the opaque automation to make it a better fit to human understanding. These are top-down, conceptually-driven approaches. But then, it will be individual people and communities who understand their own cultures and environments who can best apply the knowledge of experts. This is a bottom-up, data-driven component. Both are needed. Each supplements and complements the other.

At the University of California, San Diego’s Design Lab we are working to build upon the creativity and abilities of the people themselves. In fact, most of the principles of Human-Centered Design are practices by those who do things for themselves. They understand their needs – the do not need experts to come in and tell them. They are solving the problems that they themselves face, as well as that of their families, relatives, neighbors and communities: they are obviously people-centered, for they are aimed at the needs and capabilities of themselves and their community. They understand the interactions of each thing they do with the local community and services: they are system based. And finally, they tinker, trying this approach and that, until they get something that works: rapid prototyping and iteration.

We wish to help create a world-wide community, sharing procedures and results through powerful communication and learning tools, using whatever media are appropriate. This is the power of the mixed approach, building upon proven techniques in both the top-down and the bottom-up approaches. Experts provide the building materials, and build the communication structures. Local communities build upon these resources. A powerful combination.


Don Norman is the Director of the Design lab at UC San Diego and the author of the Design of Everyday Things, amongst many other books. Eli Spencer is a professor of medicine, builds things for global health, and directs the Center for Health at the Design Lab. Both like pizza and are worried about the state of the planet.

Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution, Non-Commercial 4.0 International License.


We have been influenced by the works of many colleagues. This work was informed by and with Eric von Hippel of MIT, including his month-long visit to the UC San Diego Design lab. We also owe much to continual discussions with Design Lab members Steven Dow and Eric Hekler. And then through the writings of Ezio Manzini, Jeremy Myerson and, although we never met him, Victor Papanek (Manzini, 2015; Myerson, 2016; Papanek, 1971, 1984; von Hippel, 2005, 2017).


Easterly, W. (2013). The tyranny of experts : economists, dictators, and the forgotten rights of the poor. New York: Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Book Group.

Manzini, E. (2015). Design, when everybody designs: an introduction to design for social innovation. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Myerson, J. (2016). Scaling Down: Why Designers Need to Reverse Their Thinking. She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation, 2(4), 288-299. doi:10.1016/j.sheji.2017.06.001

Norman, D., & Stappers, P. J. (2016). DesignX: Complex Sociotechnical Systems. She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation, 1, 83-106.

Papanek, V. J. (1971, 1984). Design for the real world: human ecology and social change (First edition, 1971: This is the 2nd, completely rev. ed.). New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Co.

Ramalingam, B. (2013). Aid on the edge of chaos: rethinking international cooperation in a complex world. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

von Hippel, E. (2005). Democratizing innovation. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

von Hippel, E. (2017). Free innovation. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.