From human centred design to human centred marketing:

Why is human centred design
and marketing a match made
in heaven?

A timeline of human centred design & design thinking

Looking at the development timeline of human centred design and design thinking, I cannot but ask myself this: How are they really applicable in the world that I’m familiar with and are they being embraced by business professionals? With the evolution of human centred design and the creation of sub-specialisations within it, how does it permeate through to a sector like marketing? Does human centred design represent a new way of life for business?

My background is in graphic design and marketing. For most of my career, I’ve worked around marketing teams to drive business outcomes. Along the way, I’ve seen some great and not so great results. Marketing, defined by Dr. Kotler is “the science and art of exploring, creating, and delivering value to satisfy the needs of a target market at a profit. It identifies unfulfilled needs and desires. It defines, measures and quantifies the size of the identified market and the profit potential”. Modern day marketing on the other hand, is a domain gushing with data and tests aimed at casting light on your customers true desires.

This is making the job of marketers more challenging and complex but can also be more rewarding and effective if the right tools and methods are used. So what steps have marketers been taking to keep up with the fast changing worlds of business and technology?


A Human-Centred Approach to the current marketing landscape

The digital age is affecting human behaviour on many levels — one of which is how individuals make purchasing decisions. We are living in a world where everyone is fighting to get our attention by different means of communication and messages. Nowadays, people require more in exchange for their loyalty to any given brand, let alone giving away 30 seconds of their precious attention to watch a video commercial or read an ad.

As efforts are made to comprehend the new modern buyer, an important aspect is the understanding of new behaviours inspired by the dynamics of the digital economy.

Understanding the interaction of people and businesses in the context of marketing is needed today more than ever. And — this is specifically where a human-centred approach to modern marketing can have a deep effect.
As the name suggests, the main component of a human-centred approach is placing the people (customers) at the centre of marketing. It involves integrating the understanding of human needs, ambitions, interests, behaviours, and personality towards delivering solutions, which help people to achieve their needs and goals.


Where do marketing, human centred design and design thinking meet?

Perhaps the question should be, where don’t they meet? Looking back at the trajectory and timeline that gave rise to human centred design and design thinking, we can quickly notice a strong resemblance in the approach and mindset between marketing, human centred design and design thinking.

Whilst marketing isn’t directly related to how design is from an artistic/functional standpoint, but with design thinking as a human centred enriched problem solving mindset, the story is different. They both overlap and intersect in putting human desires, interests, needs and behaviour at the centre of their conversations. The focus on empathy and customer-centricity in design thinking strongly echoes with marketing researches. In addition to that, they both favour researching, ideation, problem solving and testing (digital revolution enabled marketing to test like never before). Is this a recipe for a great friendship? Think again, they are a match made in heaven.

Investigating the exact history of interaction between these two disciplines is no easy one, although traces of marketing thinking can be sensed in design thinking and human centred design. One of the first evidences that could be found while researching about how and when the knowledge of Marketing 
(among other disciplines) have been called on to be incorporated in Design thinking, was stated in an article by Bruce Archer titled, Systematic Method for Designers, located in Developments in Design Methodology that was first published in 1965 and he said: “Ways had to be found to incorporate the knowledge of ergonomics, cybernetics, marketing and management science into design thinking”. While this short sentence doesn’t tell us what exactly were the elements or pieces of knowledge that were taken from marketing in this process, it is safe to assume that marketing has been a main element considered in the development of Design thinking at least since early 1960’s.

So now that we’ve established there exists some sort of close relationship and common language between marketing and design thinking, this brings us to the next question:


Why should marketers care more about design thinking & human centred design?

Marketing at its core is less about money and more about connecting to people on the receiving end. Successful marketing campaigns create a good emotional connection with the target audience. Design thinking on the other hand is a nonlinear process that is best described as a human centred mindset. It is purposefully iterative and aims to quickly create and test numerous possible solutions to reach an ideal one. It is comprised of 5 phases. (1) Empathise, (2) Define, (3) Ideate, (4) Prototype and (5) Test . These five phases don’t have to follow a specific order and they can occur in parallel as seen in Fig. 1.

Fig. 1. Design Thinking Model. Adapted from Hasso Plattner Institue of Design at Stanford model

This process allows marketers to empathise on a deeper level with potential customers and even co-create with them. It gives insights not only how much customers would pay for something, but why they purchase it. In addition to that, design thinking process enables marketers to test better, early and in a more refined inclusive manner. I say this because the journey towards perfection is a marketer’s greatest enemy. In a traditional marketing approach, designs and materials usually need to be finalised and approved before they are shown to their respective target audience. So re-structuring the marketing process and making it more human centred by adopting design thinking can help immensely in reaching better outcomes.

Another big component of design thinking is storytelling, which is a also a key component in marketing campaigns. It is an important human activity for sharing experiences, explaining values, and deciding on solutions through rich verbal and visual interpretations. To be able to craft marketing messages around human needs on top of product features allows marketers to connect to their target audiences at a deeper and more personal level.

Any other benefits?

Why of course! HCD and Design thinking enable the marketing department to build a better and smarter team that are more suitable to tackle complex problems created by the modern world. By constructing a team with various experiences and a mix of perspectives, expertise and approaches, this guarantees the production of best results. Design thinking also allows the marketing team and other departments at an organization to collaborate under one system and efficiently achieve common goals. Depending on the problem being faced, marketers can start looking for solutions to problems, whilst working with unconventional set of people pulled from different disciplines.


Is Marketing related to any other human centred design field?

The other human centred discipline that I could find directly related to marketing is Service Design. Techniques used in this field today have been derived and customised from anthropology and marketing. In this day and age, brands are now finding themselves confronted with the challenge of having to deliver additional value through compelling customer experiences. This is where service design comes as a transformative process, which helps brands shift from being just products to becoming genuine partners that support consumers in living an easier and better quality life.

It is the holistic aspect of service design that differentiates service design from all other human and semi human centred design practises. Service designers look at the entire business ecosystem to understand the customer life-cycle, customer journeys and every brand touch point including the five Ps of marketing which are: Product, Price, Place, Promotion, People.

This was a but a glimpse on how service design functions. In a nutshell, It is marketing + anthropology + human centred design amalgamated together and put into action, ensuring customers are central to these processes and , concentrating on how people interact with brands in order to craft a pleasant and personalised service.


Any examples where Human centred design was used in marketing?

Below are a couple of successful cases in marketing out of many out there, where customer centric marketing, human centred design and design thinking principles were employed.

Case 1.
Whirlpool improves student attendance
 This is a Cannes Lion award winning marketing campaign as it has driven change due to the way it was implemented. The main thing about it was keeping humans in the centre and caring about simple human truths. The insight was that truancy can be traced to a lack of clean clothes, according to research by Whirlpool. In order to help disadvantaged kids from skipping class, washing machines and dryers were provided to two school districts, as well as cleaning detergents and fabric sheets. Although these schools could provide better nutrition and social services, they did not have anything to tackle the issue of dirty clothes. With proper observation of the situation and deep empathy for the targeted individuals (kids), the resulted idea was very potent and effective. And the most important thing is that, students attendance in those schools remained consistently high .

Case 2.
VW Fun Theory

Another noteworthy campaign that feels very human and honest is Volkswagen’s Fun Theory, created by DDB ad agency. The Piano Stairs version of it is my favourite and very much on point. In the case study, we see the target that they’ve set by asking this question: “Can we get more people to choose the stairs by making it fun to do?” The piano staircase is a cool functional prototype. We see in the video that it is enticing enough for the commuters to prefer it over the escalator. This campaign doesn’t show the VW car in this ambient marketing campaign, but gives the brand a touch of human centredness and understanding of what motivates people, doing good and having fun.


Final thoughts

In this time of rapid change, it only makes sense for marketers to embrace a human centred approach for innovation to help retain competitiveness in business. There’s little doubt that marketing overlaps with human centred design and will continue to flourish and intersect in the near future. The marketers who adopt a human centred approach are already on the right track to recognising and nurturing personalised relationships with customers and delivering value that exceeds expectations. By remodeling enterprises around the customer or user experience, human centred marketing combined with data and analytics can help organisations deliver on their goals.

Finally, as much as we are advancing in technology and artificial intelligence there is no doubt that the future is still HUMAN. The more we understand ourselves, the more we are capable of catering to our needs. Human centred design and every other human centred approach are but a reminder that at some point we could have lost focus on what matters most, us, so they are here just in time to correct the trajectory of how services, business and what not, should be thought of and tackled.

It is time for marketers to re-imagine the future of their products. It is time for Human centred marketing to be embedded in business, vision and strategy of organisations.

To humans and beyond.


This article is part of my Future Design Contexts research at RMIT University, Masters of Design Futures program.


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