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This MIT startup wants companies to treat their clients as humans, not ‘users’

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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.

There are 18 components in Human Element’s periodic table of human wants and needs.

“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.”

 

In another case, the Human Element team built multiple “internet of things” devices and an app to help remind patients to take their prescription for treating symptoms of cystic fibrosis.

“Nobody likes being sick, people hate that, so how do we make sure that they don’t feel like they’re sick anymore,” Amarasinghe said. “We built a solution that’s giving them back ownership of their bodies.”That periodic element? Ownership of organism. 

Credit: Human Element

Amarasinghe said the whole human approach can work for any industry, not just health care. Human Element’s customer base is targeted to those “large organizations” that are big and have a lot of money, but need help making a leap in innovation.

“We're trying to coin a viral term called 'Users Don't Exist,'" Amarasinghe said. “We're not users, we're humans.

”Human Element hit $1 million in revenue this year through its consulting services and has expanded that knowledge into workshops. This September the startup plans on offering online self-taught courses that help companies with the human-design half of innovation before they contact Human Element for a prototyped solution.

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