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Design Beyond the User

Learning Objectives

After completing this unit, you’ll be able to:

  • Define social context.
  • Define social dynamics.
  • Describe why it’s important to design beyond the user.

Think Beyond a Human-Centered Approach

Today, many of the products and services we use—from apps that instantly track health metrics to simple yet sleek user interfaces (UI) that offer a more intuitive experience—are designed using a human-centered design (HCD) process. HCD is a creative approach to solving people’s problems that identifies their needs and creates solutions—products, experiences, and services—that meet those needs.


To learn more about human-centered design (HCD) and relationship design, check out the Relationship Design module on Trailhead.

While the HCD approach helps companies solve user pain points and create more effective and innovative products and services, it stops short of an important truth: Users are rarely alone in their experience. Instead, we can think of users as protagonists—principal characters within larger networks like organizations, communities, and families. 

This means design choices intended to enhance the protagonist’s experience ripple into these respective social contexts and related social dynamics. 

A person receiving a notification on their phone in the social context of a library, disturbing others and disrupting social dynamics

When we say social contexts, we mean the structures people exist within—everything from shared public spaces, like libraries and public transportation, to the workplace. Social dynamics are the relationships between people, including how they interact and relate to one another to achieve goals. To understand the relationship between social context and social dynamics, we can think of how a notification on a person’s phone in the social context of a public setting, like a library, disturbs others, disrupting the respective social dynamics. 

The next phase of design evolution—relationship design—asks us to design beyond an individual’s single experience and account for both aspects—social context and social dynamics. Relationship design is the practice of creating experiences that foster ongoing engagement and strengthen connections between people, companies, and communities over time. When organizations consider both the social contexts and dynamics they're designing for, they bring more intention to their design and build process and create more inclusive and effective products and services. 

To understand more about why designing for social contexts and dynamics is important, let’s see how Bloomington Caregivers accomplishes this when designing and building a new app.

A More Comprehensive Product for All

In the Values-Driven Design module, we learned how Bloomington Caregivers used a values-driven design approach to design a new mobile app that enhanced outpatient care and after-care services. Through the practice of values-driven design, organizations center their design process on their core values to ensure they actively express these values in their products and services. Bloomington Caregivers worked with a diverse advisory council to honor its value of inclusivity. Bloomington Caregivers also set up kiosks in hospitals and clinics to enhance customer success—another core value—and ensure all community members could access it.


To learn more about the values-driven design approach, check out the Values-Driven Design module on Trailhead.

Through this process, Bloomington Caregivers worked collaboratively, developing the app using the diverse perspectives from its internal team and the council to understand the needs and problems of consumers and their respective network. By drawing on the lived experiences of council members, Bloomington Caregivers realized it was important to invest in making educational content available within the app for individuals and their loved ones. Council members from healthcare and patient advocacy backgrounds shared that patients who felt empowered to communicate about and advocate for their care were more likely to have better health outcomes.

By considering the diverse viewpoints, experiences, and needs of all groups affected by the product, internally and externally, Bloomington Caregivers created a better product for everyone involved. 

What’s at Risk

When we don’t consider the social contexts and dynamics that consumers exist within, we risk creating ineffective products and services that fall short of consumer expectations and, even worse, can do serious harm to communities. 

Watch the video below from Shahrzad Samadzadeh, Vice President of User Interface/User Experience at Salesforce, to understand more about what can happen when organizations don’t consider social contexts and dynamics beyond the protagonist during their design process.

When organizations think beyond the protagonist, they avoid creating painful externalities. Externalities refer to the people, organizations, communities, or even countries that never asked to be involved in the creation of a service or product in the first place. Through the neglect in considering the impact on these groups, consequences arise. For example, sourcing raw materials to assemble a product, and fulfill its intended design features, might affect the health and safety of the surrounding community if manufacturing operations pollute the environment. To do better, we have to think beyond the protagonist and balance the needs of all who may be affected. 

Now that you know more about why designing for social context and dynamics is important, let's learn about another important best practice that helps organizations enhance their design process: ecosystem mapping.


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