Four Ideas for Better Human Systems

Joe Edelman
4 min readSep 13, 2016

Those who design our human systems (who design our businesses, our social networks, our cities, our economies) are limited by their worldviews. In particular, they are limited by their ideas of human nature: what they think people are capable of, and what they think people need to live well.

Here are four ideas that combine new technical solutions with new answers to this question of what humans need: Networks of Support, Respectful Metrics, Soft Automation, and Meaning-Making Menus.

Idea #1: Networks of Support

See How to Design Social Systems Without Causing Depression and War.

One function of our social relations is to give us space to be ourselves, or to grow into who we want to be. To protect us. To give us refuge while we explore something of value. We could be exploring a kind of creativity, a kind of vulnerability, a sensory awareness, or a field of interest, etc.

Our social platforms and social media systems aren’t designed with this in mind. They often leave us unsupported, occupied with busywork, sensorily isolated, and socially exposed. Newsfeeds and comment threads have nothing like eye contact — they don’t let us address one another as people, and they create spaces for discussion but not for exploring together. We need to reinvent social networking with an emphasis on spaces, durations, and the varieties of support.

Designers need to remember that our drive to socialize comes from deeper reasons and values. We socialize because of all the ways we help one another grow and explore and everything that we build together. Unless our tools reflect a deep understanding of these processes, they’ll trick us into social activity which doesn’t meet our needs.

Idea #2: Respectful Metrics

See “Is Anything Worth Maximizing?

Quantitative metrics determine much of our lives — what’s successful in business, what’s successful in media, and what we’re shown by algorithms as we navigate through our days.

But currently those metrics are about our engagement — about the business/app/video’s ability to manipulate us and keep us watching or downloading. When the success or appropriateness of a business or video is judged this way, it means people are being viewed as objects to affect the behavior of, rather than as agents with their own values, goals, and reasons.

Instead, apps can be scored by how well they support the daily expression of our values. This can move us away from an exploitative attention economy and towards an economy which helps us to live the lives we want.

Designers need to remember that people come to apps/videos/etc for deep personal reasons, and that it is in addressing those reasons that a thing succeeds, not just by getting users, clicks, purchases, or views.

Idea #3: Soft Automation

Our social and work lives are ever-more mediated by software, and this creates problems: Software’s expectations for how we should interact are overly rigid, overly mediated, and difficult to modify. Automation also takes away our authority over our own lives. When automation happens via messaging and notifications, yet more problems emerge: we struggle to get an overview of what is happening, we’re forced to check our devices constantly to advance even small projects, and covert power dynamics form between mediated people.

These problems stem from an approach to automation — and to software more generally — that puts process above people. Soft automation redefines software in terms of editable social scripts which make only soft suggestions. The software is never in charge. The user is always free to submit some other data, to send it to some other person, or to rewrite the script and change roles and rules completely.

Designers need to remember that process is a tool for people, and that it’s an injustice when people become tools for processes.

Idea #4: Meaning-Making Menus

We make choices throughout our daily lives. Whether we are deciding which email to respond to, what to order at a restaurant, which stores to visit on a street or in a mall, what job listings to investigate — we navigate our lives by scanning lists of options.

We can ask, then, what kinds of menus work best for us? The upshot: menus that remind us why we came, and that organize information by what’s important to us—these encourage us to make thoughtful and decisive choices. Menus that ignore what’s important to us leave us scrolling along thoughtlessly, towards views/purchases/clicks we later regret.

Designers need to remember that society only functions when people have the space and information to make choices that express their values and pursue their true desires.

Going further

I hope these ideas, and others like them, will become part of the common wisdom for designing human systems. Before that can happen, designers need to learn a vision of society, and of individuals, where these ideas make sense. Designers need to think differently about people, if they are to design a better world.

To make this happen, we need to grow designers’ sense of what it is to be human, and build a vision of livable human systems: a vision not just about what we should build, but about who we are, what we need, and what we can be.



Joe Edelman

Building economies of meaning, and leading the School for Social Design