When designing a digital product, prioritize people as well as functionality; human-centered design (HCD) is a problem-solving approach that takes into account the human experience at every stage. But building from that alone is challenging if you don't have concrete steps in place.

One technique a designer can pull from their human-centered toolkit is a dilemma-driven or dilemma-based design. Dilemma-based design inspires new ways to solve common problems to improve the user experience of a product.

Human-centered design has the potential to accommodate users, increase revenue, and decrease costs associated with poor user experiences.

I’ve come across different meanings of the term, which may speak to the novelty of it. An emphasized definition is the inclusion of everyone in the design process, not just the user. Another meaning humanizes users by considering their motivations and emotions rather than seeing them solely as customers.

I quite enjoy the latter, perhaps because it was the first definition I learned. Either way, the meanings don't contradict each other.

The dilemma-driven design method

One way to make your design more focused on people is by using dilemma-based design, which means finding a dilemma that users face and then a solution. A dilemma in this context refers to two conflicting paths a person could take, which are seemingly mutually exclusive. Resolving this dilemma leads to rich and human-centric experiences and can even help you solve problems before they arise.

To uncover dilemmas, we need evaluative user research. One way to go about this is a "think-aloud interview." This is where you take a similar or relevant application and ask users to say out loud their thoughts throughout the experience. During the research, it's important to pay particular attention to any emotions users display or articulate. This will be the basis from which we will uncover the dilemma.

During and after the user research session, we will analyze the causes behind reactions. What we’re looking for is overlapping emotions across participants to form conclusions. For example, if several users feel the same way at a particular stage, we can draw a conclusion from it.

User experience research in action

I created a social meeting app called Blossom with a team from the University of Twente. The idea for Blossom was to provide expats with a way of making authentic connections with locals and other expats.

What we discovered in our user research was that in dating apps, not forming connections with others was a common frustration. However, there was a contradiction in that these same users were simultaneously unwilling to share information about themselves. It’s not that they didn’t want to, they just cared about protecting their personal information.

In a situation like this, as a designer, you can choose how to resolve this conflict and consequently improve the user experience, or not.

Problem-solving in products and services

You can resolve dilemmas in several ways. Using the example above, as a designer, you could force a choice; if the user wants it both ways, you could only allow one.

Another option would be to tap into the need for privacy and not require the user to input any information about themselves. Or you could go in the opposite direction and demand users fill out a profile to use the app at all. Forcing a choice, as you can imagine, comes with its own problems.

Another way to resolve the dilemma is through combining and integrating the opposing choices, which is what we opted for with Blossom.

Combining the two can lead to more satisfying outcomes, with internal dilemmas taken into account. Following our example of the dilemma between privacy and openness, one way to combine these is by giving choices with separate outcomes.

Empowering users through design

In Blossom, the key mechanic was that your relationship with people was represented by a seed that would gradually grow into a tree through interactions and proximity. We landed on the idea of a seed to represent the growth of a relationship since the internal dilemmas we had discovered focused on people struggling to create authentic relationships.

The user could choose which relationships to develop and decide who they wanted to share information with while maintaining their privacy. The seed and its growing stages encouraged authenticity, giving users control over how much they shared.

Resolving this dilemma not only enriched the product but empowered the user. Instead of having to submit to one pre-formatted choice decided by the whims of a designer, the user was given control over what they shared with others.

While it can be argued that there's a preference towards authenticity and interacting with others, the user by no means was forced to share anything nor nurture relationships they’d rather not in this example.

Creating a human-centered future

Dilemma-based design isn't just a design approach but a philosophy that emphasizes the importance of human consideration in the process. By addressing user research challenges, we can make more authentic, enjoyable, and user-friendly products and systems.

This approach makes designers think carefully about the impact of their work on people, the environment, and society. By embracing dilemma-based design, we can create a more human-centered future in a digital age.

To understand more about the motivation behind why people buy products, check out our blog post.

Published: Oct 5, 2023

AccessibilityDesign and UX