An MIT Alumni Association Publication

How to Treat Clients as Humans, Not ‘Users’

  • Meredith Somers
  • MIT Sloan Ideas Made to Matter

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Managing your mental and physical health doesn’t make you just a patient. Buying something online doesn’t make you only a customer, and transferring money between your checking and savings doesn’t make you just a bank account holder.

These everyday actions are part of being human, yet people can feel as though they are no more than “users” to the companies they do business with. MIT startup Human Element wants to change that. The company has developed a periodic table of 18 human wants and needs, and using an approach called “whole human design,” it’s helping companies drill down on what really drives their customers.

“Whole human design … is really a framework for understanding the human experience that lives below user experiences,” said Sal Amarasinghe, SM ’19, the hardware lead at Human Element. “How do we design for the human element?”

The company started in early 2018 as a consulting startup and includes Prateek Kukreja, SM ’19, and Alex Klein, SM ’18. Kukreja handles software, while Klein is a co-founder and design lead. Klein — who comes from a branding, design, and user insights background — had been working on the concept for his thesis and looking for co-founders to develop a business around this design process. The three clicked while working in various labs and hackathons together.

To help its clients develop not just products, but services and experiences that better met their customers’ needs, the team developed a trademarked Periodic Table of Human Elements. Based on a two-year study the team conducted at MIT, the periodic table is intended to serve as a framework for analyzing human experience.

Components include:  

  • Ownership of organism
  • Feeling known
  • Self-design
  • Financial freedom
  • Nature
  • Love

The products Amarasinghe and his team build range in style — sometimes it’s an app, other times it’s hardware. For example, the Human Element team built an app and related hardware for a client that monitors mental health by measuring a person’s heart rate.

“The hardware was re-purposing a novel new sensor used in self-driving cars to measure heart rate of multiple individuals non-invasively,” Amarasinghe said. “The solution could inform health care practitioners on a patient's mental health status or provide patients a tool to empower their mental health journey.” 

The specific periodic element that was used to design this solution was “Relationship with self.”

This story originally appeared on the MIT Sloan Ideas Made to Matter blog.

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