Cynically, the usual context of “HCD”

Understanding of “HCD”

Attention to the world, reflection and making, open to being changed by the process

Dear Marc,

I understand the core concept of HCD as:
1. Finding problems from the user’s standpoint,
2. Realizing solutions to those problems,
3. Constantly moving back and forth between 1 and 2.

I also believe these are common to various fields — UX, Design Thinking, and Service Design and so on. Josh Seiden and Jeff Gothelf describe this central idea as Sense and Respond, and here in Japan we call it Catch and Try.

Is this similar to how you understand HCD?

Hello Shino,

I see through my window that December has brought its friends to our town. Winter, Wind, and Gray are all hovering outside, asking me to come outside and play. For now I am grateful to be here in a warm seat writing to you.

Thank you for this question. It’s good to compare our understanding of basic terms before discussing the details.

You ask whether we see “HCD” the same way. I apologize that I cannot give a simple answer. I feel the eyes of your corporate audience on our conversation. It’s important to dig under the surface of your list.

HCD or Human-Centered Design?

That term “HCD” is makes me itch. I know it is common in corporate culture to turn concepts into acronyms. But it helps to say the words. “HCD” is too easy to say and hear without awareness of its meanings. Human. Centered. Design. When we make something a TLA[1] we risk losing the heart of its meaning.

Think of the times we live in. It feels so important for leaders to value humans. To notice and question the center of their work. To embrace uncertainty. Those three letters, “HCD,” have none of those reminders.

This is why I write it out, and say it out: human-centered design. I see it as a tiny act of leadership. It names the conversation I long to have with leaders. Let’s talk about creative exploration that holds people at its center of attention!

[1] Three-Letter Acronym

Okay. Back to your question.

I agree that the essence of design is to iterate between sense and respond, catch and try, see and make. But that process is not guaranteed to yield profound lasting results. Too often, very often, it yields shallow or even harmful results. “Sense and respond” may be the essence of the process, but it is not the essence of good design.

I’d like to suggest some things that, in my experience, make all the difference in results. The brief version is this:

Shallow intention and shallow attention yield shallow results.
Deep intention and deep attention yield deep results.

The problem with problems

Your summary refers to finding and solving problems. It is common to describe design as a problem-solving process. This is true! The design process is potent for solving problems. But for your book about managing design, the problem-solving perspective is too small. Most of life’s challenges and opportunities are too complex to describe as problems. They are too complex to be “solved” with products and services.

When we believe we are in the business of problem-solving, we limit our sight and we limit our work. When we look for problems, problems are all we find. When we only seek to solve problems, we often miss the larger possibility.

What story of design is larger than problem-solving? Consider “activating possibilities.”

When we look for the possibilities in a situation, we broaden our attention. We may find ways to feed those possibilities — to give them what they need to grow. This is much different than “fixing problems,” and is well within the powers of design.

In my experience the work of “problem-finding” tends to over-simplify reality. Under-trained in the basics of human behavior, teams make shallow assumptions about people. Under-trained in the basics of social relationships, teams accept shallow explanations. (“Haru is a bad child” vs. “This family system has unhealthy dynamics.” Or, “there is a negative pattern among children Haru’s age in this community.”)

An example

There is a community of practice called “Designing Out Crime,” which works in cities. Crime is usually seen as a problem to which the solution is increased policing. The Designing Out Crime movement reframes crime as a symptom of poorly-functioning environments.

In Sydney, Australia there is a district called Kings Cross. There are many bars and music clubs in a small area, and crime had become a serious problem in the district. The city and the bars responded by increasing security and police, which did not reduce crime. A Designing Out Crime team reframed the situation. They said, “This is not a situation of many businesses having a crime problem. The district as a whole is a poorly-designed entertainment venue.”

They saw that people have nothing to do unless they are in a bar or club. Drinking and partying are the only choices. There was little public transportation, so it is difficult to leave the area if you are too drunk to drive.

With this insight, they were able to recommend a few simple changes. The city increased nonalcoholic entertainment and public transportation options. They hired guides to direct people to those new options. They made attractive places to gather outside the bars. And crime was profoundly reduced.

A problem-solution process is based on a mechanistic view. It sees life as an assembly of parts, which we can diagnose examination and repair. Analysis and direct intervention are the only tools we need. “If there is crime, then deal with the criminals.”

This is plainly not true. Life is complex. Most of what’s going on is emergent. Most of the things we call “needs or “problems” are patterns. Social patterns need a much different approach than direct problem-solving. A “solution” like more police is often absorbed into the pattern without much real effect. Sometimes “solutions” cause harm, and often there are surprising side-effects. The solution becomes the new problem.

So I don’t believe it is helpful to summarize design’s first step as “finding problems.” I prefer something like “pay full attention.” Choose some aspect of life, let go of our assumptions, then listen and observe. Don’t blind yourself to pattern and possibility by focusing only on what’s wrong. Try to notice what’s really going on.

Sense and respond, catch and try

Here is a diagram of the fundamental design process you offered in your question. I’ve used this for decades this as my most-simple process diagram, sometimes putting different words in the circles.

We could say that this is also the most-simple picture of the landscape of design management. If we say we are “managing design,” we can use this picture as a map of some fundamental concerns.

How do we pay attention?
Quality of result reflects quality of attention.

We often reduce the “sense” circle to short-term research. We send “researchers” out to spend a few days extracting insights from “customers.” I know that many companies have moved beyond this stereotype. But many, so many, have not.

How can we be in conversation with a part of the world? What are our tools for observing and listening to the world and making sense of what we see and hear? How do we cultivate a culture of courageous openness, of willingness to be changed by what we see and hear? Who does the work of seeing and listening? A few specialists? Everyone? Something between those extremes?

The arrow between “Sense” and “Respond”
The activities in the “Sense” circle put us in a certain state of mind. We suspend our judgment. We experience the wonder of other people’s lives, places, and stories. We develop a real relationship with them. For me personally it’s a little like falling in love.

The move represented by the arrow between “Sense” and “Respond” is a change in state of mind. We return to our analytical mind. We come back to the pressures of performing well, being smart, delivering results. If we’re not thoughtful about this move we can lose the magic we found as we make the return trip to our usual work place.

What roles, artifacts, or rituals can help us preserve the connection between the possibility we felt through our sensing and the concrete demands of finding and realizing concepts? How do we embody our learning so it is truly an input to our imagination?

How do we try?
The result reflects the inner state of the creator.

When we are having ideas, generating concepts, what is the source of our creativity? Are we relying on our intelligence and expertise alone? Do we make time for play and intuitive exploration? Are we trying to please one another, to gain the boss’s approval? Or are we tapping into our heartfelt imaginations for a world improved by what we’ve made?

How does our organization do experiments, and how do we learn from them? How much evidence do we need to justify investment in an experiment? How do we expose our experiments to the world outside our organization? How do we cultivate a culture of learning, play, openness, and courage in uncertainty?

Who does the work of conceiving and making? A few specialists? Everyone? Something between those extremes?

The arrow between “Respond” and “Sense”
When we expose an experiment to the world, how do we learn? How do we embody the results so they are a profound input to our further attempts to listen, observe, and make sense?

The work of making puts us in the conversation between possibility and materials. It sparks a sense of possibility and a feeling for the details. As we explore by making, we develop a nuanced sense of the questions that matter. How do we keep those questions alive in the way we return our attention to the world? This is a big challenge when the people who “respond” are different than the people who “sense.”

The whole picture
How do we choose the questions and challenges to which we apply this process? Who makes that choice? Who gives input? How do we plan and manage iteration — the turns around this cycle? How do we decide when something is ready to ship? How do we create a culture that celebrates the process, including its difficulties? That doesn’t demand market success from every cycle? That embraces the journey of discovery? That sees “sense and respond” as a key to the adaptive life of our organization?

The third fundamental

These questions challenge our assumptions about ourselves and our organization. And that is the third essential movement hidden in the two bubbles. As we sense and respond, we must reflect on our relationship with the life we affect.

This is how I now draw the fundamental design process.

The idea of reflection is fading in businesses and institutions. It is rare here in the United States. I understand it is still an important idea in Japan, with the concept of Hansei in its business culture.

But I do not mean the kind of reflection people do when they wish to improve their performance. I mean what Hugh Dubberly expresses well in his Model of the Creative Process. He says, “Reflect through conversation with experience and values.” I love this idea. Hold a conversation between your values and what you saw and heard when you paid attention to the world.

Dubberly goes on: “Reflect to understand what people want and how culture is evolving. Reflect to integrate by seeing patterns and by building consensus. Reflection begins as a conversation with oneself. It considers experience and values. And it frames the situation — or selects a metaphor to explain it — which must then be shared with other people.”

Sometimes we are ready to provide exactly what is needed, and can use simple iteration. We look at a situation in life, categorize that situation as something we are capable of serving, and we know what to do. We open our recipe book, choose and follow the right one, and deliver an effective product or service.

In those rare situations when Who We Are and What We Make is exactly right for what’s happening, we can apply the design process without much reflection. Analysis and expertise are enough.

Iterating a “shallow” understand-and-try process does not change the organization

But in most sectors and industries, such situations are rare. More often the complexity of the situation asks us to change. We must learn something new, change our process, develop new relationships. We must question our assumptions and our place in the larger ecosystem.

We need a fundamental design process that makes this learning explicit. We need to incorporate reflection into our creative process.

Strategy in complexity invites depth of reflection and openness to be changed by questions

With reflection woven into the process, we have a greater possibility of profound results.

This doesn’t have to take a lot of time, and it doesn’t require special training. It mostly involves slowing down a little at key points in the rhythm of our processes, our weeks, our days. Slow down so we can go deeper.

Here are some ways I have seen teams incorporate reflection into their process.

Capture assumptions and learnings at key points in the work
For example, before listening to customer stories, take twenty minutes to write assumptions on sticky notes. Maybe use a version of Dave Gray’s “empathy map” as a guide. “What do you believe customers hear, see, say, feel? What is painful for them? What would be a positive gain?”

Then spend time listening — there are many ways to do that, of course. After listening and before beginning analysis, return to those sticky notes. Ask, “What assumptions were wrong? What did we hear that we didn’t expect? What assumptions were confirmed?”

The important result is not the resulting document — the big paper covered with sticky notes. The important result is the conversation that would not have otherwise happened. The learning conversation among the team and inside each team member’s thoughts.

Or simply take a walk
My colleague and I once ran a workshop in which we were teaching a team to listen well. They captured their assumptions, then spent two hours listening to customer stories. Then we asked them to take a 30-minute walk by themselves. Leave the office, leave your phone, go alone. Walk and think. Doodle a picture in a notebook. Anything to give the quiet voice of reflection an opportunity to make itself heard.

In our experience this often leads to an important moment for the team. Especially in strategic projects. And more so if done repeatedly as a kind of habit. There is a point when the room gets quiet, and someone says something courageous. Such moments from our work include a quality manager saying, “I don’t feel trusted.” A futures team for a car company saying, “A car is the wrong thing to make for these customers.” A strategic leader in an infrastructure firm saying, “I realize that our work disrupts community. How can we work differently?” And an advertising executive team admitting, “We have been sending the wrong message.”

Reflection deepens the work. It connects the work to its larger purpose. It invites the team to bring their full humanity to the act of creation. It is fundamental to good design. Without it, our work is shallow — too often simply reproducing the past.

Banner image: Marc Rettig in conversation with

This is part of a collection called Hello Shino: Short essays on design management. You can learn more about the author, Marc Rettig, from his personal web site and his place of work: Fit Associates.



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Marc Rettig

Marc Rettig


Fit Associates, SVA Design for Social Innovation, Carnegie Mellon School of Design