It’s all about the humans.

How do we create tools that work for all types of human beings, in all locations, with all advantages and disadvantages?

Imagine a treadmill in front of you, leading to complete and utter mediocrity. What would it take for you to get on that treadmill? Some might need the promise of money, others an iron-clad contract, some might be pressured by their friends or family. Human beings are complex creatures with many factors that determine their behavior and how they engage with technology and tools.

Now, let’s imagine all the technology that we use on a daily basis to do our jobs, run our companies, and educate ourselves and our children. At what point should our technology become more human, and when should it be replaced? Humanizing technology will almost always yield positive results. This is the basis of socio-technical systems theory (STS). It recognizes and sees the holistic interaction and contribution that exists between humans, their systems, and technology. Much like the treadmill illustration above, how the human engages with the treadmill and for what purposes are essential in how the treadmill is designed, functions, and is used.

Two primary factors that drive an STS theory toward a humane design are empathy and sociological factors and understandings.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It’s more than just sympathizing with others. Empathy is an essential part of any human-centered activity, from designing software to running corporations. It is at the root of humanizing technology. The ability to see the world through another’s eyes is vital for creating designs that work for everyone, not just a few. How an introvert may see helpful functionality and productivity, may be very different than how an extrovert sees it. How individualistic-minded cultures view their digital engagement time could vary from a more communal-minded culture. Empathy does not stop at mere utilitarian functions of technology. It should also include the psychological and physiological effects of using technology. Prioritizing empathy allows developers and designers to take these things into account.

Sociological factors and understandings are equally important in bringing about humane design. Humanizing technology requires understanding the social, cultural, economic, and political implications of creating products that work for everyone. Societies and work environments consist of many divisions based on demographics like age, race, class, and gender. Human-centered technology requires an understanding of these divisions and how they affect how people interact. It’s also about breaking down barriers between groups in society who otherwise would not necessarily interact. STS theory requires us to ask questions about how different groups of people use the same product or interface, why they interact with it in certain ways, and to correct these issues when necessary.

In summary, socio-technical systems theory is not just about creating products that are more accommodating for disabled or segregated groups in society. Humanizing technology requires us to recognize the complex web of factors that influence people, their devices, and how they interface with each other. It is an ongoing process that never truly ends- just as humans grow, change, and evolve, so should our technology and engagement with it.