How To Incorporate Human-Centered Design into Your Organization

You may have heard of the phrase “human-centered design,” an idea swarming Silicon Valley, and often the origin of some of our favorite tech and social products. But what is it, exactly, and what does it mean to the success of your nonprofit? Simply put, human-centered design is an approach to problem solving that starts with the people you’re designing for, and ends with new solutions that are tailored to suit their needs. Seems simple enough, right?

While conducting research for Social Startup Success, I saw a consistent theme in my interviews with breakthrough social entrepreneurs: many had used this innovation practice to develop their models for products or services, and put them to the test before going out to raise capital and seek press coverage. With testing underway, the social startups were able to develop more effective programs and products, and, at the same time, craft a persuasive story about how they had arrived at these models.

If you’re thinking about incorporating human-centered design into your testing process, you might give these methods a try.

Get out from behind your desk.

To stay innovative, it’s essential to stay inspired. Get out and build strong connections with the end-users in order to build a better understanding of their needs. Host focus groups or surveys, ask the right questions (how can you help your beneficiaries, not how they can help you), and observe the nature of life by conducting in-person interviews to understand the problems they face.

Think of design as a team sport.

Once you’ve conducted interviews, discuss key findings with your team, and perhaps with a range of stakeholders and outside advisors. Hold a session where you invite others to discuss the problem. All ideas are welcomed and encouraged, and none should be shot down during the brainstorming session. Take a note from Silicon Valley and consider scribbling thoughts on brightly colored post-it notes, then sticking them on a whiteboard, poster, or wall.

Create a rough prototype.

You’ve researched, brainstormed, now it’s time to put your ideas to the test. This step should be a very simple and inexpensive representation of the product, or how the service will work, such as a sketch describing a product, or a storyboard showing how a service would operate. Gain valuable feedback, refine, and get ready to launch a pilot program to really test results.

Guest Written By:

Kathleen Kelly Janus

Kathleen Kelly Janus is a social entrepreneur, author and lecturer at the Stanford Program on Social Entrepreneurship. Her new book, Social Startup Success: How the Best Nonprofits Launch, Scale Up and Make a Difference, is an essential playbook for how to make a difference.



The world’s school for social change. We help change-makers like you become more active and effective at creating positive social change.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store


We’re the world’s school for social change. We help change-makers like you become more active and effective at creating positive social change.