Go Humans!


Recently, while riding the bus to campus, I was reminded of the value that UX designers can add to an interaction by purposely including a human element, or human judgment. I’m not a real extrovert when it comes to riding public transportation, but like anyone who frequents the same route each day, I’ve come to expect certain people boarding at specific stops, having a conceptual understanding and familiarity of my route and bus drivers. One of the riders that I’ve become familiar with on my bus route is a young student, often accompanied by his mom, who gets on at a specific stop about halfway through my bus ride.

On this particular morning, our bus stopped to pick up this young student. The student boarded the bus, paid his fare, and began walking down the isle to take his seat, when the bus driver stopped him and told him that if he was planning on going to school, he need not take a seat because school had been canceled. The bus driver then told him that he would drive down the street to the student’s house where he would wait while the student confirmed with his mom as to whether or not school was really canceled. Additionally, because the student had already paid his bus fare while boarding, the driver told him he would let him on the bus for free the next time he rode it to school.

The student was a little taken back, as were most of the passengers. He stepped to the side of the isle while the other passengers boarded, then walked to the front of the bus – standing by the driver until the bus stopped in front of his house. The bus driver opened the bus door, and the student ran up to his house to meet his mom – who by then had noticed the bus her child had just boarded was now stopped in front of her house. The bus driver yelled out the open door to the student’s mom, explaining that there was no schools that day. Recognizing her folly, the student’s mother waved thanks and her son ran back into their house with a smile on his face.

I sat there thinking how as designers, we easily design systems that conclude with a large portion of procedures being automatized and computer-based. Undoubtedly, computerized systems have the inherent potential of being more efficient and faster in quantifying discreet information; but designers that capitalize on automaticity can easily neglect the value of endowing systems with meaningful human elements, especially those portions of the system that may provide benefits from leveraging human judgment.

My local public transportation system could have easily used a fare system that included a bus card with an embed computer chip, showing fare balance and expiration – but they didn’t (probably because they couldn’t afford it). Likewise, a system capable of recognizing when school was canceled, informing any passengers of closure, assessing age, probability of boarding for reasons other than attending school, or issuing a credit/refund for unintended paid fare, can easily become infinitely complex.

Contextualizing human judgment with automaticity can be challenging. Additionally, designing systems for judicial procedures, either human or computer-based, comes with certain risks which should be thoroughly assessed. I believe that one of the natural side effects of incorporating human judgment into system procedures, is that people find their jobs more challenging and fulfilling. Ask the bus driver, student, or student’s mom if there was any value in having an element of human judgment in the transportation system that day.

This idea of computers helping us – not controlling us – is a powerful one. This bus riding incident reminded me of another time in our world’s history when we leveraged computers to help us – and not control us. I’m a big fan of “space” and the lunar landing that happened over 40 year ago. It was a time when lots of sharp pencils and a little computing power took man to the celestial body closest to our planet. It proves that we can accomplish great things when systems are endowed with our own judgment. Go humans!

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  • Matt, I just wanted to say I really enjoyed your post, and I completely agree that allowing for and even encouraging human judgment is essential for interaction designers.

    Great post!