May 25, 2022

What is human-centered design?

What is human-centered design?

What is human-centered design?

Human-centered design is a design structure that centralizes human needs, behaviors, wants, contexts, and analyzes the potential issues that users might encounter when using a particular product or service. Basically, designing a product or service that prioritizes a user-friendly experience from the start till the end. The more human-centric the design is, the more seamless the customer journey experience is.

In this blog, our mentors Gavin Mandrelle, the Service designer at RMIT University in Australia, and Priscila Luna, the Service Design Specialist & UX at The Ksquare Group in Mexico will explain more in-depth on this topic.

“No matter how you spell it, how you call it, human-centered design, as the name suggests, is humans at the center of design. Humans at the heart of the problem and the solution.” - Gavin.

Priscila defines human-centered design as:

“A framework that focuses on design decisions should be based on the needs and desires of users, these decisions are the result of a process of empathy, you must understand activities, the environment, expectations and needs of users who will use the product or service so that their input are the basis and what guides throughout the creative process. I see it as the thought of designing with empathy, with purpose, and openness and delivering value.”

According to IDEO (a global design company), human-centered design is “A creative way to problem-solving – one that starts with people, and ends with innovative solutions tailored to meet their needs.

The key points to call out in the above statement are:

  • Problem
  • People
  • Needs
  • Innovative solutions
  • Solving, and 
  • Creative way

  1. Problem ( also called challenge)
    Human-centered design aims to explore big, complex, ‘wicked’ problems impacting people and communities.
  2. People
    The human-centered design puts these impacted people at the heart of the design process.
  3. Needs
    The human-centered design process helps with identifying the underlying needs of the people who have been impacted by these problems.
  4. Innovative solutions
    The human-centered design process creates innovative solutions to address the needs of the people impacted by the problems.
  5. Solving
    The human-centered design involves a methodical process to solve these big problems impacting people.
  6. Creative way
    The human-centered design process is like a ‘map’ - a guide - to solve large problems.

What is the human-centered design process or map?

The HCD process developed by IDEO looks like the above image. It looks a bit like a roller coaster. It has three phases:

  1. Begins with inspiration
  2. Moves on to ideation
  3. And flows into implementation.

Note: it doesn’t ‘end’ in implementation because design doesn't (and shouldn’t) end. It’s a continuous process when it is out in the world.

Do you recall the key points I (Gavin) called out earlier? How do they plot along the HCD process?

In the ‘Inspiration' phase, the problem is identified, framed, and explored. The people impacted by the problem are identified, spoken with and their needs understood. These should organically lead you towards the ideation stage. 

In the ideation stage, you will go through a process of generating lots of ideas with the identified people, and also test them to learn what the sentiment is around the ideas. Some of these ideas might be really far fetched, however, it is highly encouraged to generate as many ideas as possible in this stage.

Some questions to test around the ideas are:

  • What do people think of the idea? 
  • What do they understand?
    You will test and learn about your ideas before you can scale it. 
  • Which of your ideas or ideas do you then take into implementation at scale?
    You may use a prioritization framework or a design thinking framework using three lenses - desirability, viability and feasibility.

Once you’ve decided which idea to implement, and put the idea into the world for your users to use, you should again go through a continuous process of ‘measure and learn’ to see what is working with users, what isn’t, and what improvements can be done to the solution over time.

Double-diamond design process

The Design Council UK’s design process might look different from IDEO’s process at a glance. As the name suggests, the design process is visualized as two diamonds.

The first diamond is the ‘discovery’ and ‘define’ phase. The second diamond is the ‘develop’ and ‘deliver’.

Here’s how the key points plot along this map. It’s exactly the same as the previous one. 

As mentioned earlier, Human-centered design is a process, a map, to solve big complex problems. It is also a collection of mindsets. IDEO’s 7 HCD mindsets are:

  1. Learn from failure
    Also known as experimentation.

  2. Make things
    Making things such as prototypes helps reduce risk.

  3. Creative confidence thinking
    You have big ideas and act on making them real.

  4. Empathy
    Empathy is looking at the problem and the solution through the user’s lens. As human-centered designers, we don’t design for ourselves, we design for others and with others.

  5. Embrace ambiguity
    Designing new things is an unknown process. You don’t know where it might lead to. Be explorative in the process and be comfortable in the discomfort of  ambiguity.

  6. Optimism
    Embrace the possibility of what might be, the possibility of the impossible, the possibility of new and innovative ideas.

  7. Iterate
    Design is a continuous process. Iterate on designs and make continuous improvements with users at the center of design.

What is design thinking?

IDEO calls design thinking “A human-centered approach to innovation, that is anchored in understanding customer’s needs, rapid prototyping, and generating creative ideas, that will transform the way you develop products, services, processes, and organizations. Successful innovations rely on some element of human-centered design. Design thinking helps achieve that balance by finding the interconnection of feasibility, viability, and desirability while considering the real needs and desires of people.”

In this explanation, feasibility is looking at the technological capabilities or constraints currently available within the organization that might enable you to implement the solution. Viability is looking at the business and financial capabilities or constraints currently available within the organization to enable you to implement the solution.

The design thinking process has been visualized here by IDEO.

Human-centered design methods

HCD methods are the vehicles that will allow us to travel the course of the map by uncovering the complex problems, speaking to people (aka interviews, user testing), immersive sessions of shadowing and observing users in their environment, card sorting, etc. There are plenty of methods to choose from, and you might not use every method for every project. Use the method or methods that best meet the outcome of your project, or what it is you are trying to solve.

Who can practice human-centered design?

The good news is, anyone can. You would need a few key ingredients to practice human-centered design:

  • Use a HCD process or map to guide you in your problem solving

  • Design methods will help you in your process and the method you choose will depend on the outcome you are trying to achieve.

  • Develop HCD mindset/s

  • Learn HCD by doing - learning from an experienced HCD designer or practitioner, or doing a course or training would be something I’d encourage. If you don’t have access to any of these, that’s ok, refer to the resources below and create your own adventure.

  • Remember that human-centered design, as the name suggests, puts people at the heart of design.

  • Begin anywhere - you don’t have to start a business or venture to practice HCD. You may have 2 or 22 services or products in your business. You don’t need to start with all of them. Starting with one is a great start.

  • It’s ok to not be perfect - it’s ok to make mistakes and fall along the way. Humans first learn to crawl, before they can walk, before they can run. Learn to crawl before you can walk or run. Enjoy the falls and learn from them.

  • HCD is a journey - not a final destination. Learn to trust in the journey no matter how much of a rollercoaster it might feel like. Enjoy the highs and the lows. Enjoy the journey. 

There are the skills (other than technical knowledge) required as a Human-centered Designer according to Priscila:

  • Ability to question things
  • An inquiring profile
  • Creative
  • Organized and good team player. It is important to have the proactivity and ability to facilitate co-creation sessions with everyone involved.
“Design thinking is a very important catalyst to bring all people together; it is a tool that allows us all to listen to each other in an orderly manner. The professional titles of the profile today may vary, but the constant is that they are people who are problem solvers, good at detecting insights and areas of opportunity.”- Priscila.

The importance of human-centered design:

  1. Get to know your target user, your consumer, or your market.
  2. Identify real needs and opportunities.
  3. Open the door to generate new ideas to meet user satisfaction.
  4. Shape products with increasingly higher quality
  5. Ability to meet expectations, generating loyalty.
  6. Identify challenges in advance and avoid costly large-scale modifications.

“Design is not only about aesthetics and visuals. It's part of our responsibility as designers to show that it is more about delivering value.”- Priscila.
“There are plenty of products, services, and businesses out there that are not being used because they have been created without people in mind. Human-centered design is designing with people, and designing for purpose, for the planet, and people.”- Gavin.

You could also read about Service Design by Gavin on What is Service Design here.


Gavin Mandrelle
(ADPList Mentor)
Service designer at RMIT University
ADPList Profile:

Priscila Luna(ADPList Mentor)
Service Design Specialist & UX at The Ksquare Group
ADPList Profile:

Editor and Writer:
Farah Radzi
Content Marketer and Writer at ADPList