An Introduction to Human Centered Design

On a Monday morning, you walk into work. Your boss spontaneously greets you, walks you into the conference room and says: “This week, you will redesign the space.”

“But, I work in marketing, shouldn’t….”

“No buts. Your project partners will be the Director of Human Resources, a Computer Engineer, and an Interior Designer. You have 2 weeks.”

How are you feeling? Excited? Intimidated? Unprepared?

Take a deep breath and whatever goals you think you have, let them go. You have only 2 tasks:

  1. Identify the problem
  2. Develop a solution that addresses the problem

In 2004, business consultants Hasso Plattner and Tom Kelley developed a model that would change the way engineers and designers, and eventually educators, business executives, and social entrepreneurs around the country solved problems — specifically human problems.

The Human Centered Design Process- the method to resist methods, as I like to think of it- encourages people to identify and solve problems by doing 3 unintuitive, even counter-cultural, tasks:

  1. Empathize
  2. Work Together, and
  3. Fail Effectively.

Human Centered Design is not about simply adapting methodologies but developing a mindset in which empathy becomes intuitive over assumption, inviting multiple stakeholders into the decision making process becomes intuitive over clinging to control, and seeking feedback becomes intuitive over self protecting.

You can see formal illustrations of these methods here. This is an experiential walk through of applying the mindsets of Human Centered Design to day to day problem solving. Let’s go back to the conference room…

How will you and your team identify the current problems in the space?

Perhaps you’re tempted to look at your team members and assign this task to the most qualified person for the job- the interior designer is familiar with evaluating space after all, and the computer engineer has the strongest organizational skills.

What if, however, you looked to someone else entirely to give you insight on the problem? What if you started not with the most qualified analyst, but the most qualified experiencer of the problem?

You could choose to observe the problem from the eyes of different users of the space: leaders or speakers, attendees, janitors…. You could make observations from the lens of what people are thinking, doing, saying, hearing, and feeling in the space. You could attend meetings in the conference room, and observe people’s interactions and experiences. You could send out surveys to the employees. You could interview people directly. You could explore the available resources in the space, the level of comfortability, the technical capability, and the list goes on… There are multiple methods to beginning to empathize with users. The key point is to begin to view and explore the problem from the eyes of the person directly affected by the problem, not strictly from your own personal assumption. While background knowledge matters (the Director of Human Resources may have a familiarity of the needs and habits of the employees who use the space, your role in marketing may call attention to company values, the interior designers may offer best practices, and so on…) Human Centered Design recognizes each human as unique, and thus each human-problem as unique.

Once having gathered key insights, how will you define the key problem area?

You could sit and talk with your team. So long as two of you agree, there will be a majority vote in moving forward…

What would it look like, however, to truly collaborate during the decision making process?

Collaboration takes intention. While it may seem like an unnatural way to have a conversation, Post Its are the proponent of collaborative conversation during the design process. Why? Post Its allow everyone’s voices to be equally represented. Post Its make abstract or hidden thoughts tangible, putting them literally at the center of the table for people to build upon. Post Its disconnect ideas from the person they belong to- creating a safe environment for critical analysis.

So how does a team effectively use Post Its?

  1. Allow 2–5 minutes of personal synthesis. This provides time for an individual to clarify their own takeaways and insights. One insight per Post It.
  2. Allow each person to share out their insights to the group, placing their ideas into the center of the table or on a whiteboard or wall if the activity is done standing. This ensures that everyone’s voice gets heard.
  3. As a team, group and label the Post Its that are most similar. This provides a visual way to connect insights.
  4. As a team, decide on the top problem area to move forward with. (ex. We have 15 Post It’s about broken technology, and only 3 Post Its about furniture discomfort.)

Having identified the core problem, how will your team go about developing a solution?

The intuitive approach may be to sit and talk about the first ideas that come into mind. This approach however, does little to identify or question the natural constraints that often limit our thinking to ordinary and pre-conceived ideas.

What would it take to remove mental constraints and generate the craziest ideas that came to our head? And is there a benefit to that?

Put a different way perhaps: what are the consequences of an environment where ideas are generated around constraints?

The group dynamic often becomes driven by the word “but….” In an intentional and collaborative environment, however, the dynamic is driven by the words “yes and….”

“Yes and,” encourages participants to indulge in a quantity-over-quality exploration of wild ideas, followed by collaboratively working to refine the quality of the ideas — both techniques steering away from the common habit of rejecting ideas.

Ex. Person A: “What if we completely removed the table and had an entirely open space?” Person B: “That’s ridiculous, we need the table so we’re able to write.”

With the constant shutting down of ideas, a group risks losing participation and allowing dominant voices to take charge. Instead, person B might respond, “Yes, and what if we provided an alternative means of support in the room so people still had a place to write?” This response both encourages A to further contribute while identifying a new need, ultimately encouraging the collective exploration of unforeseen options.

Finally, how will your team execute their solution?

Often times, someone’s personal attachment to a process and product can result in losing sight of the original problem and user needs.

What would it look like to revisit the user throughout the development of the solution to continuously gain insights?

Design Thinking encourages cycles of iteration or editing by breaking up an idea into small, testable parts to generate feedback.

Perhaps before ordering resources to implement your new design, your team shows their sketches and ideas to different people in the office to gather insight. Maybe you simulate a conference experience in a different room that is set up to resemble the new design and observe how the participants use the space. Maybe you integrate the new technology you’d like to implement into an alternate workflow and interview users on their experience with it.

With a willingness to test, comes a willingness to acknowledge where you went wrong. Design thinking encourages and reinforces personal failure during the process stages, rather than product failure during the final implementation phase.

Upon conducting user feedback, refining your prototype, and implementing a final solution — you have solved your first problem using insights of Human-Centered Design.


Plattner and Kelley popularized the HCD method of problem solving through the development of IDEO, an international product design firm, and the Stanford Design School. Today companies and organizations have adapted it across America. While the defining words and number of stages of the process change across fields and organizations, the consistent values of empathy, collaboration, and iteration remain the same.


But why…?

This seems like a lot of time and effort. Is this really worth it?

People choose to ignore human insight, information, and needs every day when solving human-centered problems. The question is: What are the consequences of ignoring the people we are designing for?

While it may be easy to classify “user insight” as an “extra” or “add-on” to a major project, it is not as easy to justify “ignoring the person your design was for in your process of developing it.”

Ignoring our users doesn’t just “take away” from the glamour of our products, it can actually put our product in danger of doing the exact opposite of what we intended it to— increasing confusion, frustration, wasted time, or personal agency, in an effort to create products that make our users conscious, happier, time-efficient, and personally capable.