Toward a deeper practice of human-centered design in the workplace

The Design Justice Network recently published their final principles of design justice, and they are pretty great — if you haven’t seen them yet, go read them! Design Justice is a movement to “rethinks design processes, centers people who are normally marginalized by design, and uses collaborative, creative practices to address the deepest challenges our communities face.” (They are also part of the inspiration for The Zebra Movement’s key questions for ethical companies, also a must read.)

My own educational and work background is partly in Participatory Learning and Action — a field of practice using participatory processes to center community stakeholders in the implementation of international development projects — which has a similar set of principles. So it’s exciting to see this kind of work being done in the field of design. I hope as design-thinking and human-centered design practices become more prevalent in the area of employee experience and social change that these principles also become more widely understood and applied.

To that end, here are a few ideas related to the design justice principles that people leaders might find useful to move towards a deeper practice of human-centered design in the workplace:

1. It’s About Building Partnerships (and Ownership)

The most basic principle here is that people have the right participate in the decisions and systems that shape their lives. Moreover, everyone is an expert on their own experiences and are capable of participating and deciding. Centering stakeholders who are most affected by a decision or system requires building a partnership where they have equal ownership in the process and the outcome, to “create with, not for”. This might seem obvious on some level, but most of our workplace structures (and social, political, etc.) are designed to privilege those higher up the ladder with more decision-making freedom, and more decision-making authority over others. And sometimes the things we think are “participatory”, like focus groups or feedback surveys, are at best just consultative, and at worst, extractive and exploitative. Human-centered practices should be about working to shift these structures of dominance to build partnerships in decision-making. That means more facilitating, listening, and creating space, and less data gathering, teaching and telling.

2. Power is fundamental, you need to understand it

Power is fundamental to how our societies and workplaces are organized and how decisions are made in the workplace. It’s also central to who’s voices and opinions are valued and heard most.Creating spaces where power is shifted can result in amazing learning and creativity, but is also necessary if you really want to include everyone. But understanding the landscape of power you are working with is the first step. Reflecting on (and even mapping out) the power structures in your workplace can help in clarifying your goals and potential barriers you might face. Are you seeking to engage people of different power levels in the same process, and how might that affect participation? Do you have a power relationship to participants? Power is a giant boulder in the middle of your stream. There are a lot of ways you might steer around it, shift it, or whittle away at it, but if you don’t know it’s there and aren’t looking for it you will crash into it.

3. Commit to Equity

Shifting power and building partnerships absolutely requires a commitment to and practice of equity. This is important both in your big-picture goals and in the details of your methods. Traditional research (and design and decision-making) methods tend to exclude or obscure outliers and focus on trends. But in a human-centered process, those outliers might represent key insights or marginalized experiences that deserve space to be heard.

This also means making sure your actual methods are accessible. If you host a design session, is the space physically accessible? Is the timing excluding anyone? It’s common to do a lot of session work on a whiteboard, but this has two drawbacks — it may be hard for some people to physically participate, and people who typically dominate in meetings will also tend to dominate work at the whiteboard. Using multiple modes of interaction, both within a session and in the project will help ensure everyone has a comfortable way of contributing. Be creative in doing things differently — switch up seating arrangements, use table-tops and floors instead of whiteboards, move things around the room, use visual tools and objects instead of writing. Do your participants have different cultural traditions to consider or ways of collaborating they can share? There are a lot of big and small ways equity might influence your work, and you have to keep your eyes open to it.

4. The Process is the Outcome

“We view change as emergent from an accountable, accessible, and collaborative process, rather than as a point at the end of the process”. -Design Justice Network Principle #4

For me there are two ways to see this — one is that the process (to design a product, process, or experience) is not just a means to an end, but also an end in itself. It creates a space where people can engage and create in new ways. Much like learning a new language creates new neural pathways in our brain that help us literally think differently, a good participatory process is creating new pathways for people to connect and act as a group.

The other way to think about it is, the process itself should embody the goals you want to achieve. A human-centered practice should be about empowerment and autonomy — are you using it to design an employee rating system that will be used to compare and rank employees? In that case, the outcome is antithetical to the principles of the process. (Please don’t do that.) Zappos is a good example for this — a couple years ago Holacracy was implemented there, after the CEO decided it would. It came with a set of rules and structure that people could join in on or leave the company. The irony here, is that self-management was imposed by a top-down process, the opposite of “self-management”. A process that matched the outcome would have been to engage everyone in learning about management structures, and ultimately letting employees choose and/or design a system in some way. The process of deciding in itself would have been a practice of self-management. When considering a human-centered initiative for the workplace, then, it’s also important to think about why you want to and what you want or expect to get out of it. How can the process add value for participants apart from whatever the goal is for the end product? How can the process mirror and reinforce your shared goals? It also means being able to give space and flexibility for the final outcome to not be what you imagined it “should” be.

5. Principles Over Methods

If done well, a participatory process shifts dominant power structures and builds a collaborative partnership in problem solving. Done poorly, it results in tokenism and placation that not only preserves power structures but may actively reinforce them, leaving participants perhaps worse off than they were before. But the tools themselves are to a degree agnostic in this process, so it’s important to know your own guiding purpose and principles, and to remember that principles are more important than the methods.


What do you think of the Design Justice Networks principles? Do you have other principles or values that drive your human-centered workplace practices?