What is Human-Centered Design?

October 10, 2018
Tyler Hagler

Human-centered design is a creative problem solving methodology.

It starts with the client experiencing a problem and ends with innovations tailor-made to suit their needs. This methodology is centered on having a deep empathy for the client and the challenges they face.

At Trig, human-centered design is a philosophy put into daily practice. We approach each new product design challenge with the mindset of a student, listening and watching carefully to understand the customer needs and experiences throughout the process. We wonder: How can we make the product or service not only functional and solve an existing problem, but also a joyful experience?

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So What Exactly is ‘Human-Centered Design’?

The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design defines it as, “When you understand the people you’re trying to reach—and then design from their perspective—not only will you arrive at unexpected answers, but you’ll come up with ideas that they’ll embrace.” This is essentially the core philosophy for human-centered design. However, no matter the client, problem, or if you’re working on physical or digital solutions, the actual process is always the same and consists of six phases:

Phase 1: Observation

The initial phase is to understand the client and the problem. You must concentrate on observing and learning about the ideal customer or target audience while being open to a multitude of creative possibilities.

Identify behavioral patterns, areas of organizational pain, and places of difficulty for customers, as all of these spaces are ripe for innovation. It is important to place yourself in these situations as often as possible to truly see what they see and feel what they feel.

Phase 2: Ideation

Based on what you learned in Phase 1 you will start brainstorming ideas with your team. The goal for ideation sessions is to generate as many concepts as possible. Think of quantity as being better than quality in Phase 2.

It is important to keep the client’s needs and desires at the forefront of everyone’s minds during the idea generation process. If you do this, your group’s ideas will eventually grow into great solutions.

Phase 3: Rapid Experience Prototyping

Now you’re going to pick your best 2-4 ideas and build simple prototypes of them in order to give you something to test with the customer. The best prototypes are not the most expensive, but those that communicate the idea to the customer in a way that invites both constructive critique and imagination for the possibilities.

Often, an expensive market-ready prototype will only invite critique and fail to communicate possible directions that a finished product could go. Make certain the level of prototype detail matches your confidence in the market-fit of the solution.

Think about the minimum amount of time you can take to build something that will allow you to gathering quality feedback. You aren’t creating the perfect solution, but affording yourself the opportunity to understand whether you’re working in the right direction.

Phase 4: User Feedback

You need to get your simple prototype into the hands of your client and this is one of the most critical phases of human-centered design.

If you don’t let the client gather opinions from the target audience you won’t understand if your ideas are on target. Lacking this information can make it exponentially more difficult for future iterations of your work to meet the client’s needs.

Take a moment to imagine: You’re doing a project at work and never ask your boss if your work is what she had in mind. This likely hasn’t turned out too well for many people.

Phase 5: Iteration

Once you get this feedback, you can use this information to improve your offering.

Continue to test and incorporate the information that you gathered until you are satisfied with the result. This may not be a straight forward process, but don’t get disheartened as it will take you to the right place.

Once the product has reached a point where you believe that it’s ready to be sold, you are ready to transition to the final phase.

Phase 6: Implementation

A significant population of customers have now expressed purchase intent for the product or service and you love the design that has been created. That means it is the right time to bring your idea to the marketplace. Human-Centered Design has less to say at this point on the operational details of growing sales and production of a specific product or service. Successful hand-off of a novel program requires good documentation and integration of the operations team into the HCD process so that the organization can harvest the fruits of HCD and allow the HCD team to move on to the next innovation opportunity.

Human-centered design is an effective problem solving technique that can be utilized to solve business needs where ambiguity is high and humans get a vote in the outcome. Conversely, it is far too easy to stay inside your own walls and adopt a company-centered or even competitor-centered outlook.  While these are important factors to consider, the primacy of focus should be on meeting the needs of the humans that your brand has the privilege of serving.

Putting Empathy to Work

The benefits of human-centered design extend far beyond any one client or project. Every time we, as designers, extend ourselves by learning new perspectives, new ways of seeing the world, we add to our vast collection of tools geared towards understanding the needs of others. If we can understand others who may face life’s challenges in different ways, we become more readily able to provide more innovative solutions to our clients both now and in the future. Human-centered design hands us the building blocks for professional growth. We can make the world a better place by creating better things for the humans within it.

Tyler Hagler

As a career industrial designer and innovation practitioner, Ty Hagler has managed hundreds of new product development programs through the process of opportunity identification guided to commercialization.


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