What Is Human-Centered Design?

A handy introduction to HCD principles

This guide to Human-Centered Design was created by TWG, a Toronto-based digital product studio that creates custom software for today’s digital economy. Find out why we’re the company you keep.


In 1957, Ford Motors launched a brand new vehicle. The Ford Edsel, named after Henry Ford’s son, was confidently proclaimed to be the new must-have car for middle class Americans. A futuristic, gas-guzzling behemoth packed with innovative features, it was available in four different models so that it could satisfy the needs of every consumer.

Except, consumers hated it. Nobody bought an Edsel, and the car was off the market just three years later. Today, the Edsel flop is considered a classic case study in product failure.

The 1958 Edsel Pacer 2-Door hardtop: A beautiful, spectacular product failure (Source: Wikipedia)

The reasons why the Edsel failed have been widely discussed and debated, but a failure to include consumers in the product design process certainly played a major role. Potential buyers were widely polled during the planning phase of the project — but these insights were largely ignored in favour of what Ford’s executives assumed would be successful.

“The design… was arrived at without even a pretence of consulting the polls, and by the method that has been standard for years in the designing of automobiles — that of simply pooling the hunches of sundry company committees.”
— John Brooks, Business Adventures: 12 Classic Tales From The World of Wall Street

Human-Centered Design could have helped save the Edsel from certain doom. By focussing on building genuine empathy for, and understanding of, the people that will be using a product before it gets built, HCD is an approach that helps make sure new products are tailor-made to meet people’s needs and wants. It is achieved when the following pillars of the methodology intersect:

Desireability: What do people desire?

Feasibility: What is technically and organizationally feasible?

Viability: What can be financially viable?

HCD creates validated solutions that are desirable, feasible and viable. Source: IDEO Human-Centered Design Toolkit
“The solutions that emerge at the end of the Human-Centered Design process should hit the overlap of these three lenses; they need to be desireable, feasible and viable.”
IDEO’s Human-Centered Design Toolkit

Q: What is Human-Centered Design?

Human-Centered Design is a powerful approach to building new products. It aligns what your users and your team members want, with what is technically feasible and financially viable. It can be applied to both physical products, like cars, and digital solutions, like web and mobile applications.

Human-Centered Design is one of the best pathways to creating web and mobile apps that are championed by users whilst also meeting an organization’s business goals. It’s all about putting human beings at the heart of the product design process.

HCD generates insights about your current or target users, and your internal stakeholders, by drawing from a deep toolkit that includes:

  • User testing and interviews
  • Focus groups
  • Behaviour analysis
  • Digital analytics

It’s all about building empathy for every person involved in the product design process so that the final product is tailored to meet their needs.


Q: What are some Human-Centered Design tools I can use?

  • IDEO’s Field Guide To Human-Centered Design is a great in-depth resources for anyone looking to learn more about Human Centered Design.
  • The Design Sprint by Google Ventures is a battle-tested five-day process for answering critical business questions through design, prototyping, and testing ideas with customers.
  • Design to Align is a fast, simple group drawing exercise we use at TWG that turns ideation meetings into productive workshops

Q: Is there a difference between Human-Centered Design and User-Centered Design?

Yes. Just as digital product design is more than “pixel-perfect mockups and Dribbble-friendly UI elements” (Thomsen, 2013) humans are much more than simply a collection of eye or finger movements.

There are lots of similarities between HCD and UCD. Both emphasize the importance of designing products around actual wants, needs and desires rather than forcing people to change their behaviour to accommodate the product.

The difference is that Human-Centered Design recognizes the importance of behavioural, emotional and environmental contexts. It encourages designers to see product users as real human beings with real, complex lives, instead of just as numbers on a screen.

Another key difference is that whilst both approaches put user testing at the heart of the design process, HCD also includes the humans in your business. Team members, stakeholders and decision makers all have an opportunity to get involved, so that product decisions can accurately reflect the realities of your organization.

There’s no substitute for getting your product in the hands of the people who will use it.

Q: What is the business case for using Human-Centered Design to create digital products?

As with all thing, HCD isn’t without its limitations. Don Norman, author of Designing For People, explains:

The individual is a moving target. Design for the individual of today, and the design will be wrong tomorrow. Indeed, the more successful the product, the more that it will no longer be appropriate. This is because as individuals gain proficiency in usage, they need different interfaces than were required when they were beginners. In addition, the successful product often leads to unanticipated new uses which are very apt not to be well supported by the original design.

However, companies of all sizes are now recognizing that by taking a human-centric approach to product design and development, they can create successful web and mobile applications that people love to use.

  • Design-centric companies tracked over 10 years performed 228% better than companies without a design mentality (Source)
  • 73% of companies who aren’t currently conducting user testing plan to begin doing so in the next 12 months (Source)
  • Netflix has grown from 10+ million members in 2010 to 80+ million today by making user testing a priority. They test absolutely everything, including the images associated with their titles (Source)

Humans Over Users

Too often, software is designed without truly thinking about the people who will use it, and the real-life business constraints of turning a new product idea into a reality. Human-Centered Design is a powerful approach for creating software by putting human beings first, creating empathy for everyone involved, and making the most of the resources you have available to you.

Further Reading

TWG builds great software for startups and enterprises. If you need a tech team you can trust for your next project, let’s talk.