The art and science of Human-Centered Design

We are now living in turbulent times. In this field, new terms like “Responsive Web Design,” “Design Thinking,” and “Service Design” are popping up one after another, as if trying to confuse us. And I am already confused.

You know, as Ash Maurya say,

“Life’s too short to build something nobody wants.”

But if one can understand the essence of creating things, without being tossed around by the times and technology, I think one can demonstrate one’s value as a designer.

What is that essence?

Have you ever heard of the term “Human-Centered Design”? I will explain in detail later, but at the very least, what I want to convey is this:

Let’s try to build the right ‘it’, rather than building ‘it’ right.

What is important is not focusing on the “how” and blindly working according to the manual, but thinking about the end user’s happiness and creating the right ‘thing’ as a human being. Well, if there are any non-humans, they probably don’t have to read this.

The Human-Centered Design approach that I will discuss here is merely a means, not the ultimate goal.

By understanding the philosophy and objectives underlying Human-Centered Design, it becomes easier to focus on building the right ‘it’, rather than building ‘it’ right.

Therefore, Human-Centered Design is a measure for making the right ‘it’.

“In order to create a Human-Centric Service, it is first necessary to recognize that these people are people with their own lives and tastes.”—Designing the Organization from Service Design Perspective

A Thought Circuit of Human-Centered Design

I began working as a visual designer apprentice for an Internet Software Company. I was in charge of designing and coding banners for particular products shown on websites and the landing pages they led to—this may be unique to Japan, but if there are any readers out there who had the same experience, I am sure that we could be great friends!

At the time, I felt joy in using specialized software, such as Photoshop and Illustrator, to work within limited space (size, frame, etc.), but little by little I began to focus on content and functional design, including designs to lead to landing pages and the designs of the landing pages themselves, ultimately moving to a Creative Director position. When I was a Creative Director, I was in charge of managing production of a website and very simple Information Architecture, but I wanted to fundamentally improve the Service itself. I stopped asking, “How should this be built?” and started asking, “What should be build” and “Why do we need to build it?” This led me to change my position from the Service Design area to a focus on creation.

In order to make the right thing, something the user needs, we first need to clarify whom we are making it for, and why. I think it is exactly because as designers we are responsible for contact with the customers that we are able to be aware of this problem.

I started thinking about this when I encountered the concept of “User Centered Design” in the book “The Design of Everyday Things” by Donald Norman, an advocate of Universal Design, a concept that I majored during university.

Since “The Design of Everyday Things” was published in 1980s, there has been a greater focus on making things Human Centered in the field of engineering as well, and in 1999, the ISO enacted “Human-Centered Design” as an international standard.

The idea of being user-friendly to all people is irrational.

If you try to make a product or service that is user-friendly to everyone, you will make something that is user-friendly to no one. If you do not understand who your product or service is for from the user’s standpoint, there is a risk that you will end up making it for yourself. That is why Human-Centered Design matters.

Flowers, Design, and the Delivery Architecture

“Design is like giving a bouquet to someone.” — Motoo Nakanishi (PAOS Group Representative)

These are the words of a teacher to whom I owed a lot as a student. Human-Centered Design is how this bouquet is presented. In other words, it is the actions and process of considering the “Delivery Architecture”.

Thinking about the “Delivery Architecture” is something that everyone does unconsciously on a daily basis. For example, try to imagine giving a present to a friend or important person.

  1. First, you should have some feeling that you want to convey to the other person. For example, “Thank you”, “I’m sorry”, “Please go out with me”, etc.
  2. You prepare a present or an item to express the feeling from step 1. Here, I think you choose a present that will convey your feeling to the other person, taking into consideration that person’s personality and characteristics.
  3. Once you have the present, you think of how to convey the feeling. You think of when, where and how to give the present in order to convey the feeling — the Delivery Architecture.
  4. The other person deciphers your feelings from the present (which plays the role of symbolically representing your feeling) that they receive and respond in some way, whatever the result.
  5. You wait for their reaction, see if the present you prepared and your delivery method were correct, analyze whether it was conveyed, and take this result into account for the next time.

This is EXACTLY a Human-Centered Design.

Thinking about the “Delivery Architecture” is something that everyone does unconsciously on a daily basis.

There are two important points when thinking about a Delivery Architecture.

The thing you convey and the thing that is conveyed are two separate things.

What you convey is your method, but in order to see whether that was actually conveyed or not, you need to analyze. If you are just satisfied that you conveyed something, you have not successfully communicated. What is most important is what was conveyed. Don’t you want your idea to be conveyed to the other person —your user?

Who must do what, when, where, and how, so that it is conveyed? Why does this need to be conveyed in the first place?

Some of you may have already noticed this, but when thinking about the Delivery Architecture, we use the same model of thinking as is used in problem discovery and problem solving, called “5W1H” (short for “Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How).

Asking WHY is not enough.

Ultimately, we can say that the essence of Human-Centered Design is the same as that of problem discovery and problem solving.

Human-Centered Design does not only look for solutions to problems; it is the actions and process of finding ‘right’ problems to solve it ‘right’ in the first place.

Here, I will explain by following each steps.

Human-Centered Design is infinite. All Rights Reserved.

Problem discovery:

  1. Analysis: Analysis has three purposes. Searching for patterns from the past, knowing the present, and predicting the future.
  2. Learn: Extract information to learn about the user. If there is not enough, supplement it with qualitative surveys.
  3. Identify: Visualize the non-verbal information as if the user exists and strengthen the image of their surroundings.
  4. Storify: Understand the user’s life on the axis of time. Solving the areas where a lot of problems are located is not necessarily the essence of problem discovery and problem solving.

Problem solving:

  1. Ideate: After identifying the problem and its source, search for a solution that can be conveyed to the user, following 5W1H.
  2. Structure: Think about how the data, device, or website should be constructed and go together overall.
  3. Build: Think of the methods for conveying the feeling, centered on the solution methods.
  4. Evaluate: Check whether this was correctly conveyed to the user, and whether this led to a solution to the problem.

The Measure for Happiness

It goes without saying that a measure is a tool for measuring length.

Why do people use it anyway?

It is obvious, but if you try to judge the length of something without a measure, there will be distortion and variation, which risks causing problems.

The same can be said about design.

If you do not use the same measure to take measurements within your team, there will be variations, and you will not be able to judge with certainty. So Human-Centered Design functions as a team-wide measure.

As I described above, by discovering who will use the product or service when, where, how, and why, and identifying the problems, we have a common scale for determining who, when, where, what, how, and why we will convey (or ship) our solution.

I explained that Human-Centered Design is a process, but the starting point is not necessarily the same in all cases. In some cases, you may start with analysis, and in other cases, particularly new cases where there is no data, you may begin by defining hypothetical users.

Starting point in Human-Centered Design is not necessarily the same in all cases. (c) All Rights Reserved.

The point is that by clearly distinguishing the purpose of the problem discovery and problem solving, you can look at it from the perspective of finding methods that work well with Human-Centered Design. By considering Human-Centered Design, you will enjoy both qualitative and quantitative benefits.

I cannot guarantee the same level of numerical results which I've experienced, but what I can say is that you will not fail.

If you are able to share a measure within your team, you will be able to measure “correctness”, which will lead to success in your team and organization.

A service that I was once in charge of saw an improvement in conversions of 54.2% improvement in 3 months through a website overhaul, contributing significantly to business. But what made me the happiest was that the stakeholders involved in the overhaul continued to check whether the users and stories that they had defined during the overhaul were correct.

The value of Human-Centered Design is that the effect from qualitative aspects is large, and similar effects can be seen on the target business.

  • All stakeholders could be proactively involved it the creative process.
  • The target user is defined in a common language.
  • It functions as a measure, clarifying the priorities for feature development.
  • It can encourage continuous improvement after shipping the product.
  • Overall schedule and costs can be reduced by between 20% and 25%.

As shown in the diagram above, Human-Centered Design is infinite, and it needs to continue to operate in an organization by clarifying the roles of the front and rear wheels like in an automobile engine

“To think about human-centeredness, I always think about human happiness.”— Hiroshi Nakano (Tokyo Environmental Architecture Center Representative)

Products and services are nothing more than a means for users to achieve their purposes and goals.

That is why it is necessary to set our sights on the end user or humans and understand whether our company’s products and services play the role of moving that person towards happiness.

Thinking about Human-Centered Design and the Delivery Architecture is thinking about the happiness of the person to whom you are conveying your idea. Why not create a measure for that purpose?


The name “Human-Centered Design” gives a specialist-sounding impression, but as I previously mentioned, if you replace it with “Delivery Architecture” as if you are giving a gift to a person, you can start putting it into practice tomorrow.

For example, if you encounter an opportunity for daily communication with someone such as preparing food for someone, writing an e-mail, or giving a presentation at work, try to convey your idea to the other person thinking about the Delivery Architecture, and be aware of creating the architecture and the idea to be conveyed.

If you are aware of these surroundings every day and use them creatively, you can regain the creativity that everyone has, not just designers, cultivate it, and put it into practice.

“Think of today as a prototype. What would you change?”—Tim Brown (IDEO)

This article originally appeared in my personal blogpost — written in Japanese, a script from an online course I spoke at schoo. You can locate my slides here as well.

Any comments or feedback?
Drop me a line on twitter @mariosakata

Thank you so much for your patience in reading this to the end,
Mario Kazumichi SAKATA

Mario Kazumichi Sakata

Written by

Product Manager at @PivotalLabs Tokyo

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