Human-Centered Design.

Let’s dive right in.

Human-Centered Design (HCD) is a framework for designing and building products that puts the needs, priorities, and convenience of the user first. 

HCD was made popular by global design firm IDEO, one of the earliest companies to define its approach as “human-centered.” Although IDEO launched its official HCD Toolkit only in 2009, it has been designing human-centered products since the late seventies. 

This model also guides the way we think and work at Mäd – we pride ourselves on being a Human-Centered Design Consultancy. We design and build products and services for businesses while looking beyond design to the technology, people, and processes that companies need to succeed.

When we share our ideology with new or potential clients, they might question why they should approach their projects with the user first instead of putting the priorities of their firm first. 

But like great customer service, great design is one of the primary factors determining whether you’re capable of building a loyal customer base and retaining clients. This is achieved through cultivating deep empathy for the people you’re designing for and maintaining this culture throughout the entire product development process – aka, human-centered design.

By Humans, for Humans.

Adopting an HCD mindset starts with people. That is, identifying an underserved user need and crafting an impactful value proposition about how and why your approach and your product will serve this need. 

Finally – and most importantly – it ends with delivering that solution, tailor-made to fulfill user needs. 

However, it’s crucial to truly understand the problem from a human perspective before even attempting to solve it. This is why HCD requires the product team to conduct stakeholder and user interviews as part of the product-building process. Unless you get feedback from actual humans, you won’t really know if your product is useful AND usable. 

HCD is about creating inclusive products that resonate with people: solutions by humans, for humans.

Design Thinking.

Human-centered design is powered by Design Thinking. At its core, design thinking is all about people. This means consistently refining the practice of creating products, services, and processes that best serve the people that they are built for. It is an iterative process of problem-solving: repeatedly reviewing, testing, and improving the product before shipping the final version to users. 

Design thinking is fundamental to (and, according to some, even synonymous with) HCD. It helps product teams make the right decisions by pinpointing unmet user needs and finding out how to fulfill them via the most efficient and impactful solutions. 

This approach asks the right questions of the right people to ensure you are creating something that truly addresses a real human need – what’s the key problem you’re solving, and why is it important?

Design thinking also enables you to build a solution that’s aligned with practical factors like technological feasibility and financial viability. In other words, can you design and build this product with currently available tools, and does your business and/or clients have the budget for it? 

Design thinking consists of five stages: 

  1. Empathize. Start by asking what the problem or the need is and understanding any challenges the user may face.
  2. Define. Then, determine the pain points and outline any other insights from these early findings. 
  3. Ideate. At this stage, start brainstorming ideas for potentially innovative products while considering the solutions that already exist – and challenging them. 
  4. Prototype. With some new ideas laid out, you can start creating a rough draft or a simple prototype of the product that can be used for initial testing. We also call this a minimum viable product (MVP).
  5. Test. Finally, bring this early version of the product and test it with the people who will eventually use the fully-completed solution. See if users can accomplish their goals and whether these goals follow the product’s objectives. (In an iterative design process, this stage may need to be repeated a few times, as you will probably have to improve and refine the product based on initial feedback and any unexpected challenges.) 

Although we like to follow this general blueprint, the design thinking process doesn’t have to be rigid and precisely in order. It’s more like a holistic framework where each stage produces insights and tips to improve the project overall. 

The Process.

We’ve outlined the general steps of design thinking, and it is also very closely embodied by the phased approach of human-centered design. 

HCD can be broken down into three main phases that we’ll explore in depth below.

1. Inspiration.

This first phase is about getting inspired through learning about your customers and their needs. Instead of assuming what your client base wants, try asking them so you can hear it firsthand. 

This stage is aligned with the empathizing and defining steps of the design thinking process, and the important thing here is to be capable of understanding the user perspective: their experiences, wants, and challenges. 

Consider customer needs (what goal do they need to achieve?) rather than attributes or qualities (what is their age, gender, income, etc.?). Here, you start to define the product and its job. This can be done first by observing how people use an existing solution and finding the challenges, options, and distinguishing features. 

Get enough feedback to identify patterns, behaviors, and pain points. This will help generate new ideas for your innovative solution. 

2. Ideation.

When you begin planning the product, brainstorm as many ideas as possible, and remember – there are no “bad” ideas. Anything goes, as long as it keeps humans at the center of the development process. In design thinking, these are the ideation and prototyping steps. 

As you go further into this phase, start to narrow down your ideas to what’s most likely to be realistic and feasible. Then, you can craft a prototype (or MVP), which can be as simple or complex as needed for user testing. The purpose of this is to try out your ideas in practice and gather feedback. Review, revise, and repeat. 

3. Implementation. 

Finally, this stage is about delivering that ideal solution to the market and your customers. As you roll out your product or service, continue to collect feedback and make any necessary changes. 

But the iterative process doesn't end here. It should be continuous because your customers’ wants and needs will constantly evolve – and so should your product. 

Human-Centered Design in Practice.

There are many excellent examples of HCD in all sorts of physical and digital products and services created by companies that cultivate a user-first culture. 

As a pioneer of HCD, IDEO brought many outstanding products to the market. One of the better-known cases took place in the nineties when they famously designed a children’s toothbrush for Oral-B. The IDEO team took the time to observe real kids brush their teeth, noticing how they held and used their toothbrushes differently from adults. Because kids have weaker motor skills, they’d just grab the toothbrush in their fists – and this was uncomfortable because the toothbrushes were thin, with slippery handles, modeled for adults. 

These observations turned out to be very helpful, leading IDEO to develop a new type of toothbrush specifically for kids – the ‘squish gripper’. Today, all kids’ toothbrushes have chunky, squishy handles precisely modeled for their smaller hands and grips. This is the result of observing user behavior and putting it center stage in the design process. 

Sketches of the Oral-B kids' toothbrush by Thomas Overthun, IDEO's associate partner and Executive Design Director. (Source)

As for digital products, an app or website that implements HCD is characterized not just by an intuitive UI and user-friendly UX, but also by integrating features that users might appreciate or require. 

Spotify is a great example of user-focused design and development. Offering an equally optimized mobile and desktop experience, the platform has changed the way people discover and consume music. 

Spotify succeeded primarily by empathizing with users’ struggle to collect (and pay for!) music from different sources, creating an all-inclusive solution for an audience with varying tastes and preferences. Stacked up against the dozens of other streaming services, Spotify boasts one of the largest music collections and is easy and intuitive to use. It is often ranked the best for recommended and personalized playlists, podcast collections, and more. With an option to use the free Spotify membership (with ads) or pay an affordable subscription fee, its 433 million users benefit from a customized service that is tailored to each of their needs.  

Final Thoughts.

Human-centered design is a helpful approach to building meaningful and inclusive solutions that are meant to be used by humans. 

It calls for a user-centric framework combined with an iterative process for the entire product experience. The stages of design and development in HCD start with empathizing with future product users and getting inspired by them. This allows the product team to brainstorm ideas and test prototypes with actual users. And although a product may be ready for launching and implementation, the process is never truly finished – there are always ways to improve to meet changing needs. 

Design thinking and human-centered design complement each other. Both approaches are inspired by real people and advocate a holistic approach via creative problem-solving and innovation. HCD applies design thinking with the aim to delight users and deliver benefits while working within market and technological constraints.

So, human-centered design not only encourages the creation of products that resonate deeply with the customer base and solve specific problems, but it is also about being able to work with a limited budget (and, often, restricted time) and making the most of it without compromising the quality. 

And remember: design thinking is not only for designers and HCD agencies. Anyone can (and should) use it – all the stakeholders involved in product building would benefit from this simple change in mindset and learning to tackle problems from a new perspective.

Firms that adopt HCD as part of their overall strategy should be expected to always obsessively focus on serving the needs of their customers. Ultimately, this type of thinking profits the company, too, by driving engagement and growth.

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