What does “human-centered” mean?

What would human-centered design really look like? Is that what we really need?

Hello Marc,
I have heard you say that you don’t think you have ever seen real human-centered design. Is that true? What do you mean when you say that?

Hello Shino,
Yes I think sometimes I say that when I am feeling grumpy about the typical (in my experience) corporate practice of design.

We’ve just talked about simple diagrams of the fundamental design process (see Understanding of HCD in this series). That process is not human-centered by definition. In professional design, someone makes a choice about who that word “human” includes, and who it does not include.

Commercial design tends to take an individualistic view of people. “Customers.” “Buyers.” “End-users.” Sometimes it’s more specific. “Middle managers in manufacturing,” “technical sales people,” “car owners,” and so on. Commercial design sees people through the lens of the business. And businesses tend to reduce people to a series of transactions.

What does it mean to “center” something?

It is not difficult to notice what is at the center of an organization’s culture. Listen to the conversations at lunch. Look at what people share over email. Ask to see an employee review form. Look at the size of different teams. What is everyone talking about? What priorities are explicit in decisions and investments? What are the names of the documents that come out of the their innovation and design processes?

In my forty years of work among design, development and innovation teams in many sectors, I have seen two patterns. I’ve worked with cultures where all the buzz and banter is about bits. And I’ve worked with cultures where all the banter and buzz is about money.

“We love technology and its possibilities. We talk about it all the time! We create business models that help us make money and more technology.”

“We work for the growth of our business. We talk about it all the time! We create technologies that help us make money and more business.”

“We work for humanity’s thriving life. We talk about it all the time! We do [this stuff we’re good at] for more thriving life for the people and contexts we’ve chosen to serve, and for ourselves.”

If I imagine what I’d see if we charted the focus and priorities of these patterns, they might look like this.

These are stereotypes, I know. Of course all the talk wasn’t about money or technology. Until you started asking “Why?” “Why does it matter that we invest in more research?” “Why does is it important to respond to the competition?”

Asking “Why” helps reveal what the culture focuses on. What it centers.

Around 2009 I began to work outside the world of products and services. Before those “mission-driven organizations,” I had never experienced that third culture. The conversations, drivers of development, and incentives focus on the people and places they affect.

Too often the question, “What is at the center of our efforts?” is unasked and unanswered, even in design teams. The groups who practice so-called “human-centered design” are part of the larger culture. Those graphs of focus and priorities often look the same inside the design group as outside. Are they practicing human-centered design, or is it business-centered design with a little time spent talking to customers?

It’s complex, I know. A company’s long history as a technology or marketing firm makes it resistant to such a deep change. We all have an inner defense department tasked with keeping us comfortable in our old ways. And so do organizations. I don’t mean to blame anyone or any institution.

But saying it doesn’t make it so. Saying you do “human-centered design” doesn’t mean your priorities aren’t elsewhere.

What might it be like to put people at the center of our processes?

We know from tens of thousands of examples what it looks like to have business or technology as the center of our process. What would it be like if we truly had human-centered design and management? It might be helpful to imagine that. I imagine it would transform the whole landscape of business, economics, education, and policy. It would transform industrial culture.

But that is too big to imagine. Instead, what if we have the same kinds of companies we have now, but they put people at the center of their design and management?.

What might we see in the culture?

  • People of all ages in the building
  • Mandatory training in fundamentals of human identity, development, thriving and change
  • “Time spent listening to people unlike yourself” as a metric of staff and culture assessment
  • First year curriculum for new employees: communication and relationship skilling, cross-cultural immersions, learning journeys, hosting and facilitation training,…
  • Walking down the hall, it’s hard to tell who’s an employee and who’s from the community
  • Policy: never create something for people without first exploring how to help them become able to do it for themselves
  • Policy: never create something for people without including them in the full process
  • A community-benefit toll gate in the innovation process. The people affected have a voice in whether something ships to market
  • Teams mix members from the company and the community, including policy-makers, young and old, a gender mix, a racial mix, etc.
  • Innovation processes happen mostly outside the company, staffed and managed by community leaders

What are some of the departments and job titles we might see in such a company?

  • Chief social psychologist
  • Community co-design coordinator
  • Chief facilitation officer
  • Human development fellow
  • Family and childhood fellow
  • Ecosystem officer
  • Office of equity (filled by a representative of people historically omitted or disadvantaged by the company’s policies)
  • Office of collective thriving (all species)
  • Office of accountability to historically oppressed peoples

What kinds of labs and clinics might we see?

  • Resilient communities lab — Portfolio central: experiments, prototypes, and complexity strategies
  • Family and community lab
  • Thriving children lab
  • Relational repair clinic
  • Lifelong play lab
  • Belonging lab
  • Good Places lab
  • Personal confidence and creativity clinic
  • Center for reduction of intergenerational trauma
  • Center for lovingkindness (this is a real organization in my town of Pittsburgh!)
  • Office of collective sensing and sensemaking
  • Intergenerational reconnection clinic
  • Land reconnection clinic
  • Soil and water restoration lab

I write these lists as a work of fantasy. These are not recommendations, though I think some of them might be valuable on their own. The point is this:

If we truly adopted “human-centered” as a core value, something would emerge that is very different than our current cultures, processes, and organizations.

Summary: let’s hear “human-centered” as an invitation

For me, human-centered design is an invitation to use the power of iterative creative exploration together as a way to increase quality of life for all people and all species. And to do this while maintaining or increasing the capacity for anyone to do the same.

As a footnote, I should say that I don’t believe “human-centered” is sufficient for our times. Our society has caused great harm by prioritizing the benefit of a few people at the expense many others. I feel better about the trend toward “life-centered design,” and will say more about that in answering one of your other questions.

Banner image: Marc Rettig in conversation with MidJourney.com.

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