Mental Models for Human Experience
Understanding Human Values, Perceptions, and Behaviours
In User Experience (UX) design, a common approach to empathy research involves the persona as a design artefact to define the archetype for the end user of a product design. The problem with this form of generalization is that such stereotypes and abstractions distance designers from reality, perpetuating the problem at the core of the design industry. The categorization of people is based on statistical averages derived from a reductionist approach to understanding human behaviour. The media environment is a social construction that has been manufactured by a dominant elite to form relationships between corporations, governments, and other social institutions with large populations of citizens, markets, consumers, and users. Categories are founded upon racist, patriarchal, and hierarchical conceptions of human civilization that places each individual on a scale of value, based on race, gender, creed, class, status, and power. Ultimately, personas reinforce a colonial, capitalist perspective that dehumanizes people as little more than users of products for corporate profit.
How, then, can we begin to map the human experience? How we can design mental habits, social systems, and physical environments for resilience and symbiosis with the living processes and ecology that are the foundation of our biological support systems?
To better understand our materials as experience designers, we need more holistic mental models of the human experience, as a way to understand what we are designing for.
The design profession is currently facing a reckoning, similar to the revolutions in our understanding of class, race, gender, and religion. The 1700-year-old project of cultural imperialism that originated with the Roman Emperor Constantine and the integration of church and state finds its realization in the social, political, and economic institutions that have created monolithic monopolies of global power.
The unintended consequences of the tools that we have designed to shape our environment are the weaponizing of those tools as the means for controlling and manipulating populations, protecting access to scarce resources, and eliminating threats to religious, national, and corporate prosperity and security.
Story 1: Collaboration
What we have learned from microbiological evolution, from scientists such as Lynn Margulis, and from the practices of Indigenous peoples, is that collaboration and cooperation are foundational to the successful adaptation and survival of networks of complex and diverse forms of life.
Story 2: Competition
The primitive limbic systems in our brains are designed to trigger the fight or flight response as a matter of survival in a world of physical threats. Senses are attuned to dangers in the environment and events perceived as threats will automatically trigger a physical and biological response of increased heart rate, a release of adrenalin, and a heightened state of awareness, along with emotions of anxiety, fear, and panic.
When this intellectual, emotional, and physical state of anxiety is prolonged, we call this stress. People who live in this constant state of fear and scarcity will tend to engage in behaviours that are focused on survival and self-preservation. This interpretation of constant threat leads to isolation and aggression, as members of a group engage in a competition for scarce resources and demonstrations of strength and dominance to control the group, protect resources, and destroy enemies. However, such isolation and aggression has a tendency to undermine the survival of the group.