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Information architectureRobert SlagterUser experience design

Respect the human dimension in digital space

Digital space has traditionally been created based on technical capabilities, exploiting the seemingly ever-increasing technical options. However, if we want digital space to be truly useful to human beings, we should respect the human dimension: digital space must be crafted to provide effective, efficient and pleasurable support matching the way people prefer to work. This blog makes a statement about the need to respect the human dimension in digital space, and 3 practical steps to do so.

The importance of the human dimension in digital space

When talking about digital space, it is important to realize there are 4 different types of digital spaces:


  1. public spaces (such as online fora, websites in general),
  2. social spaces (such as Facebook or Twitter),
  3. professional spaces (such as the company Intranet or a business collaboration tool), and
  4. personal spaces (such as your personal OneNote or Dropbox space)


Especially for professional spaces, I observe that the tradition of designing based on technical capabilities is still not behind us. Therefore, my focus in this article is on these professional spaces, although the learnings can (and should!) be applied to the other types of digital spaces as well.

From my experience as a consultant I have come to see the following as the 3 key reasons why it is important to respect the human dimension when designing professional spaces:

  • Increased effectiveness: a well-designed space helps professionals focus on the right activities: activities that really add value, such as supporting customers, creative work, leading a team. Typical examples to do so are wizards, checklists and suggestions based on previous actions.
  • Increased efficiency: a well-designed space helps professionals do their activities right. It does so by offering the right information at the right moment in the right form. Moreover, it does not force unneeded steps and helps to perform the activities in the right order.
  • Improved user adoption: a well-designed space encourages user adoption, as the environment matches the way professionals would like to work. Some organizations seem to think user adoption is done by providing users a training after the product has been launched. In my opinion, user adoption is much subtler: it starts during the design phase with a thorough understanding of the work practices, tailoring the digital environment to the users’ needs, understanding how early adopters can be triggered and how the late majority in an organization can be convinced to use the environment as well.

There are plenty of examples in business environments where software vendors seem to get away with products that violate the 3 points above. We all know digital environments that have illogical interfaces, providing way too many features, focusing on the wrong ones and forcing us to waste time on entering data multiple times. And still somehow these applications are being purchased and rolled-out in organizations.

The true cost in these cases lies in the lost productivity, and in failed implementations. In a recent survey by Forrester 38% of the respondents indicated people issues, such as slow user adoption, as the critical reason why their CRM project failed (Kate Leggett, 2016). Therefore, respecting the human dimension in digital environments is key, especially for environments that depend on a critical mass of users, such as CRM systems, shared knowledge systems or Intranets.

3 practical steps to design digital space for people

The following three practical steps help you to design digital space for people:

  1. Understand the personal journey
Customer Activity Cycle

Customer Activity Cycle

When designing a digital space it is first and foremost important to understand the target audience involved. You need to understand their goals, their way of working (“journey”) and how your digital environment adds value for them. And be aware: a work process typically does not start with somebody coming to your digital environment: a whole series of steps and decisions have preceded, while other steps will follow after the person has left your environment. Understanding the overall journey will help you to properly serve your target audience. Assessing the assumptions you have about the personal journey of your target audience is therefore one of the highest priorities at the early stages of development.

  1. Apply structure and terminology matching your target audience

When presenting information, structure the information based on the process and information needs of your target audience. Do not fall into the trap of blindly reusing the structure of your own organization, your internal processes or even worse, into the internal structure of the digital environment. This probably sounds like a no-brainer, but just think of the many business environments with landing pages that offer links to “modules”, or where you have to select a department first. The same holds for terminology, especially in error messages. Use messages that are meaningful for your target audience and that explain how what needs to be done.

  1. Reduce clutter

Cut the crap! Based on your understanding of the customer journey, you should also determine what the customer does not need. Use this information to reduce clutter in the digital space: leave out features that distract the customer from the task she is trying to accomplish. Just because something can be done technically, does not mean you should present it to the user. In general, people can handle 7 (plus or minus 2) information chunks at the same (Miller, 1956). If you present users with more options to choose from, the time needed to choose will increase significantly, which reduces efficiency.

Design for Person to Person

Applying the human dimension in professional digital spaces all boils down to one thing: understanding the people involved. Instead of thinking in terms of Business to Consumer (B2C) or Business to Business (B2B) one should realize it is all about person-to-person. Persons decide to buy your service or product, persons use the digital space you design, and persons may choose not to. Hence we should design for the persons involved.

Person-to-person thinking acknowledges the need to respect the human dimension in digital space. This includes recognizing the limitations humans have, for instance when processing information. Consequently, person-to-person thinking amplifies the need for proper information design, aiming to increase the effectiveness, efficiency and ease of user adoption. The result is a professional digital space that helps people focus on those activities that only a human can do and that really add business value.

Interested to know more about the human dimension in digital space?

Are you triggered by this post and would you like to share ideas? Or would you like to learn how your next digital project can better serve the various people involved? Please don’t hesitate to contact me.

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