How Human-Centered Design Creates Better Products

December 20, 2017

Learn about the value of human-centered design, an approach that puts people first.

At its heart, good product design aims to create products that will be successful in the market and ultimately drive engagement and growth for the companies that create them. In order to do that, most products aim to solve a problem or improve some aspect of a user’s life. 

In the past, a common approach to designing these products was to come up with an idea, build it, and hope people will buy and use it. This approach often falls short when the resulting product doesn’t solve a problem people actually have or wastes time and resources on features people don’t actually need. 

To avoid this outcome, designers and companies are increasingly adopting a different approach, known as human-centered design. The focus of human-centered design is not the problem itself; it’s the people who have that problem and often, the underlying causes of it. 

When done well, this human-centered approach can not only improve the success of products but ultimately, people’s lives. We sat down with Deanna Dial, director of product strategy and design at software design company Praxent, to learn how innovative organizations are finding product success by rethinking traditional product development principles and adopting a human-centered approach.

What Is the Human-Centered Approach?

With a traditional engineering approach, the focus is on the end product. Designers are brought in at the later stages, after the problem and solution are already defined. In this scenario, the designer is given little to no room to explore the problem. They are brought on to build a product with very specific technical requirements. Businesses who take this path think that staying within their pre-conceived framework will produce the intended results, but more often than not, it’s unproductive.

Says Dial, “By taking a human-centered design approach to building a digital solution, you can uncover a lot of potential friction, develop a deeper understanding of the pain points, and basically improve the product-market fit before you start coding. Then you build something small, test, and iterate. This makes development more efficient and far less costly in the long-run.” The end product is something that is predictable and replicable in the marketplace.

In a marketplace overwhelmed by the rapid pace of technological advancement and fickle consumer expectations, every industry faces increased competition. Businesses need new approaches to innovation if they want to stand out and succeed in the long-term.

Human-centered design diverges from an engineering-centric approach because it doesn’t start with guessing at a problem. It starts with empathy, intuition, and observation, says Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO (one of the leading voices in the human-centered movement) in his book "Change by Design." Designers observe and put themselves in the users' shoes to understand a problem. They leave themselves open to new possibilities, and it’s through the actual process that both problem and solution are discovered.

Getting Client Buy-In

Applying human-centered design to business innovation requires a balance between what would be best for the users and what is technologically feasible and strategically viable. This balance is commonly known as design thinking. To be effective, design thinking needs to be practiced by both the designer and client. However, clients often enter a collaboration with their own preconceptions. For those who favor methodical thinking, they might see a human-centered approach as a risk and need to be convinced that time and money are being well-spent.

As Dial explains, one tactic is to think from a user’s perspective and ask questions that challenge clients' understanding of their idea. “When you get to a place where they say, 'I hadn’t really thought about that,' that’s a great point to respond, 'You know who is thinking about that is your users.'"

Though cost is often an objection, the traditional approach of waiting until a product is nearly ready for market to involve the target user can result in costly design changes down the line. Validating the direction with users early on can help prevent this.

The Human-Centered Process

Even after clients agree to a human-centered approach, they may have doubts about the value and efficacy of this approach. Putting a human-centered spin on traditional tactics like competitive analysis and market validation can help to convince clients of the value.

As Dave Thomsen wrote in Wired, “For example, when working at IDEO on a project to design a low-cost video camera, our team had participants place a half dozen different existing cameras along various spectrums — most to least fun, most to least useful, most to least expensive. As they went through the exercise, we had them articulate their rationale, providing actionable insights into how we could prioritize features and functionality.”

Dial says convincing clients of what is most important is key to developing an MVP, or minimum viable product. “If your product is going to do 10 things, what is the user going to do most often? That’s an easy way to prioritize and help clients realize that some of the must-have features are not a core function and those can be delayed to a later version.”

Many clients enter the design process with a lot of ideas, some more feasible than others. Narrowing in on the features that are critical to the value proposition, as Dave Aycan explains, is essential for differentiating a product from the competition and making it “truly viable.”

Challenges of a Human-Centered Approach

Though overcoming objections and the client’s own assumptions is perhaps the biggest challenge designers face, there are other internal and external challenges with this approach to product development.

Internally, Dial says Praxent's biggest challenge is time. Scheduling and conducting interviews and more importantly, “synthesizing what you learn and generating meaningful insights” are time-consuming. “The challenge for us is allocating enough time to do adequate research and a proper synthesis of the different inputs before we jump into ideating solutions.”

Externally, finding the right people to talk to, and finding enough of them, can be a huge challenge. Tactics such as mapping audience research can help ensure you have a broad sample, but often, filling in the gaps can be difficult and resource-intensive.

Learning from Failure

Failure is a part of design, and as Dial points out, it’s “why you can’t always define how many iterations will be necessary. You come up with something and you test it with the market. You might hear, ‘Oh, that’s awesome. Just make these couple of tweaks.’ You make the tweaks, then the next few tests might reveal an even better solution.”

The difference with human-centered design is that because failure happens earlier on in the design process (potentially over and over again), it’s easier to adapt and learn from it without wasting resources later in the process.

As IDEO explains in its guide to getting started with human-centered thinking, getting it right on the first try rarely happens. “The point is to put something out into the world and then use it to keep learning, keep asking, and keep testing. When human-centered designers get it right, it’s because they got it wrong first.”

"When human-centered designers get it right, it's because they got it wrong first." - IDEO

It's expected for human-centered designers to keep trying until they succeed.

The Future of Human-Centered Design

While there are plenty of impressive case studies demonstrating how organizations and companies are innovating — and succeeding in the market — thanks to a human-centered approach, there is still a ways to go in changing how businesses develop products and how we train future designers.

As John Cary writes, the traditional approach to design education is centered around conceptual projects and competitions, “but these overlook the experiences and crucial insights of users themselves—and the incredible learning they provide.”

While we are seeing some educational institutions rethink their approach, even adding new human-centered design disciplines, widespread adoption will require a fundamental shift in thinking. As Tim Brown says in Change by Design, “design thinking is neither art nor science nor religion. It is the capacity, ultimately, for integrative thinking … Integrative thinkers know how to widen the scope of issues salient to the problem.”

HCD and Emerging Technology

Looking to the future, there’s enormous potential in emerging technologies such as augmented reality, virtual reality, digital assistants, and the Internet of Things (IoT). But even bigger questions loom about how these will impact our lives.

According to Dial, design thinking can help clarify how tech such as IoT should work. It’s difficult for users to imagine how future technologies might impact them, which is why clarifying the value proposition will be critical.

“Henry Ford said, ‘If you ask somebody what they need, they’re going to say, "I need a faster horse."' No one is thinking about a car because it doesn’t exist yet. The same concept applies now. A lot of the things we create did not exist and sometimes no one would admit that there is a problem. In that case, you have to deeply understand the problem and sell the value proposition.”

Working with IDEO, companies like Google are doing just that to determine what aspects of these new technologies are truly useful and how people might integrate them into their lives.

Says IDEO, “The promise of new technology has always been to expand our abilities as humans — enabling us to do things we weren’t able to do before. It’s about looking beyond what the technology itself can do, toward what it enables us to do.”

Interested in learning more about the human-centered design process? Read the full interview with Deanna Dial here