Human-centered design employs the idea that all product development begins with considering how a diverse audience of users will experience the product. By beginning a development cycle with the user(s) in mind, the solution will evolve to reflect the wants, needs, and preferences of the most important stakeholders—the users themselves.
After all, developing a product or service occupies the space between the person using it and the need being filled for that user.
What is Human-Centered Design?
The simplest way to define human-centered design is an evolution of perspective in the field, which shifts focus from the product to the experience. While it’s practical to consider product design in terms of cost, ease of development, and other manufacturing metrics of efficiency, these concerns are secondary to whether or not a person enjoys interfacing with the product.
Human centeredness asserts firstly, that we must always put people before machines, however complex or elegant that machine might be, and, secondly, it marvels and delights at the ability and ingenuity of human beings.”— Mike Cooley, On Human-Machine Symbiosis
Design thinking traces back to Professor John E. Arnold’s design program at Stanford University, launched in 1958, which emerged as a collision between technology, psychology, and the creative arts. As any good engineer will tell you, inventing cool gadgets and new technologies typically starts with prototypes too complex or unintuitive to succeed with the average consumer. Bringing in the psychological perspective and professionals who know how the human habituates with new tools can transform technological innovation into culture.
The field evolved in parallel with the ever-increasing touchpoints between company and consumer throughout the following decades, although generally informally or in specific cases that relied heavily on the user experience (Disneyworld, for example). The natural emergence of the human aspect of any design process typically falls comfortably within the four categories outlined below. To keep things simple, let’s consider the classic case of the smartphone within the context of each touchpoint:
- Interface: A smartphone is a physical device with a few buttons, a headphone jack, extra memory slots, and a USB for charging and data transfer. An interface question may be where the buttons are placed and how big they are, compared to the average hand size of a target population.
- Activity: Smartphones are all about connecting people. The activity could be a phone call, an internet search, or an app download. These activities can produce positive or negative feelings, depending on how easy they are to accomplish or the quality of the service delivered.
- Environment: In telecommunications, companies and consumers alike are tasked with complying with governmental policies (the FCC in the U.S., for example). Another example of environmental concern for cell phones is service delivery maps and identifying if a product can be used productively in all the consumers’ locations.
- Culture: Last but not least, highly successful innovations like smartphones often encounter significant cultural factors that can impact an individual consumer’s emotional state. The simplest example is the wide variety of languages any smartphone manufacturer will need to integrate within their devices.
The next step is to translate these key factors and interdisciplinary influences into the product development cycle.
The best place to start in human design thinking is with a traditional product development cycle perspective. Both approaches include phases of planning, ideation, prototyping, and testing, with one significant distinction. In human-centered design, the entire cycle begins and ends with careful consideration of who the typical audience of engagement is and what feelings and experiences are produced by their interaction with each prototype.
As opposed to asking ‘what does this product do?’, the modern design thinker will begin the process by asking ‘how does the experience feel?’. This shifts the ideation phase from a utilitarian angle to a compassionate one, where creative thinking is dedicated primarily to how consumers’ real-life habits and behaviors will impact the level of engagement and adoption within the target market(s).
The prototyping stage picks up a few new processes in human-centric design, where user testing and feedback rounds are regularly interspersed with evolutions of each version throughout the development process. This augments the ingenuity of the tech leads with the consumer insights and frustrations recorded by the human experience designers, improving user fit alongside the traditional enhancements in technical efficiency.
The final note on how this process works focuses on incremental innovations through repetitions of the design cycle. A key element of all product development cycles is the potential for constant improvements through redesign. From a human-centered design point of view, this means accounting for behavioral and preferential changes within the target audience out in the real world. People change, cultures emerge, and technology evolves, each of which can seriously impact the user experience of a product over time.
This cyclical evolution of the human experience, and the design thinker’s prerogative to keep pace, is reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s classic quote from Through the Looking Glass:
‘Well, in our country,’ said Alice, still panting a little, ‘you’d generally get to somewhere else–if you ran very fast for a long time as we’ve been doing.’
‘A slow sort of country!’ said the Queen. ‘Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place.'”
21st Century Experiential Design
This shift of focus is particularly relevant in the 21st century, where most product interactions are digital experiences. When one can simply click the back button on their browser and immediately rotate through countless competitors who are always digitally next door, crafting a positive user experience is of extremely high strategic value.
The problem with an incredibly useful device, such as a computer or smartphone, is that engagement levels necessarily increase to potential conflict with the consumer. Feeling dependent on a product with a poor user experience generates annoyance at best and resentment at worst in many users. On the other hand, designing a frictionless environment demonstrably correlates with positive sentiment in consumer experiences.
Consider the classic case of Netflix revolutionizing media consumption habits at the level of the customer’s relationship with the service being provided. While a pleasant and atmospheric experience of walking through shelves upon shelves of classic movies (for any still old enough to recall), ultimately had a service that included too many friction points to compete with Netflix. Rental periods, late fees, scratched DVDs, a physical location, and the decision paralysis of such a massive amount of options all contributed potential negative consumer emotions to an experience that’s supposed to be a pursuit of relaxing entertainment.
Netflix required the technological innovations of high-speed internet, the construction of a media delivery platform, and the legal evolution of digital rights management to protect their IP. These externalities played a significant role in Netflix’s timely success and are all perfectly functional concerns. However, the key to competitive victory amongst players like Blockbuster lies in the simple recognition that a positive user experience was the centerpiece of the industry transformation. Whether it was luck, strategic brilliance, or a combination of the two – Netflix’s annual revenue growth has increased by ten times over the past ten years. A strong argument could be made that this is predominantly a success in human design thinking through the execution of a nearly frictionless user experience compared to all competition.
Applying these concepts more generally, the capacity to eliminate any points of emotional friction between product and user remains a key attribute of successful product launches. Social media platforms and massive marketplaces like Amazon regularly elevate the importance of social proofing in the consumer decision-making process. The transference of emotion through narrative from one consumer to another is hard to measure yet absolutely central to modern success in such a massive and global marketplace. This leads us to the key questions that could transform a product development strategy from product-focused to user-focused.
Implementing a Human-Centric Design
Every product competes on the metric of positive or negative user experience. Suppose an organization is developing a brand new product. In that case, there is plenty of room for integrating the emotional and behavioral aspects of human touchpoints in the process by beginning with an empathetic framing and incorporating as much target customer feedback as possible.
For designers looking to iterate and evolve their existing product lines, maybe shift your frame of reference from function to friction. Where in using a product does a customer feel frustrated or annoyed? What barriers emerged in the design process out of necessity but could now be removed through innovative design thinking? What context is your product or service used in, and how can creative solutions integrate better within that environment?