All engineering is done for some human purpose, even when it does not focus on the people who will eventually use it. Every engineering problem is defined with an eventual use in mind. An engineer develops a system that solves the defined problem.
Once the engineered thing is used by someone, however this can be viewed as a larger system — a hybrid system composed of interacting human and non-human components. It is now a design.
It is the job of the designer to develop hybrid systems of interacting human and non-human elements.
Let’s shift how we look at design, and view it in a cool, objective, impersonal and engineerish light. Imagine a person, who we’ll name “User”, interacting with an engineered artifact which we will call “widget”.
If User understands the widget and uses it to do something useful in a desirable way, User is likely to choose to stay engaged. The human and non-human components stay connected together, interacting systematically, and functioning together as intended. But if User finds the widget confusing, difficult, useless or unpleasant and chooses not to stay engaged, the hybrid system loses its human component, and falls apart as a design, even if that isolated widget functioned exactly as it was engineered to.
Designers talk a lot about experiences. Good experiences are ones that keep people engaged as participants in a hybrid system completed by their use. Bad experiences cause design system to lose their human parts and to break into unused engineered components.
For this reason, many designers say that their ultimate output is experiences. I would argue that these good experiences are the best means to another end: to keep the human part of hybrid systems engaged in willing participation in hybrid systems. (* See note below if you want some political provocation.)
I came up with this way of seeing design and engineering when I was trying to explain to my engineer father why design research is so important. He was a ceramic engineering professor and taught classes on material science. He’d teach engineering students how various kinds of glass or other ceramics performed under different conditions so they would behave as expected when used in components of engineered systems.
I told my dad that design researchers were like material scientists for the human components of design systems, but much of what we needed to understand what was happening subjectively with them, as well as physically.
To repeat: every engineered component is implicitly part of a larger design system.
This can be carried forward one more step:
Every design used by some individual person can be seen as a node in a larger polycentric design system — which happens, not in individual experience, but as a social system, among interacting persons, each having an experience of the interaction, each choosing to engage with or disengage from the system.
A monocentric design (focused on a single person) becomes part of a polycentric design system when it shapes and colors how multiple persons interact with one another within a social system.
People sometimes ask how user experience (UX), customer experience (CX) or employee experience design relates to service design.
UX, CX and other Xs are monocentric design disciplines.
Service design is a polycentric design discipline.
Note: For political reasons, it has been unwise to express what designers do in this way, because it implies changes in method, organizational design and, possibly, reporting structure. Someday perhaps we’ll heed these implications. Engineering efforts should be informed, defined and directed by designers. But the industrial revolution is still not finished winding down, and we still live in an engineering age. Engineers and other STEM disciplines are thought to hold the answers to life’s problems. This exaltation of STEM is actually creating most of these problems, not solving them. And the identities of STEM practitioners has zero to do with it, either — the disciplines themselves methodologically exclude precisely the considerations that most need to be included and considered in resolving societal problems. If you are trying to solve the wrong problems, or if the problem is misframed, no amount of technical ingenuity will help. But this is a whole other diatribe.
Philosophy is a polycentric design discipline.