Human Centered Design

What is Human Centered Design?

Human-centered design (HCD) is an approach to problem solving and innovation that develops solutions by paying close attention to the human perspective at every step in the design process. The intention is to produce innovations that are tailor-made to the user and their environment and that they will embrace willingly.

Human-centered design succeeds because of its focus on the needs, contexts, behaviors, and emotions of the people that the solution/ innovation will serve.

​Human-centered design is an approach to interactive systems development that aims to make systems usable and useful by focusing on the users, their needs and requirements, and by applying human factors/ergonomics, usability knowledge, and techniques. This approach enhances effectiveness and efficiency, improves human well-being, user satisfaction, accessibility and sustainability; and counteracts possible adverse effects of use on human health, safety and performance.

Why adopt human-centered design?

Using a human-centered approach to design and development has substantial economic and social benefits for users, employers and suppliers.  Highly usable systems and products tend to be more successful both technically and commercially. In some areas, such as consumer products, purchasers will pay a premium for well-designed products and systems.  Support and help-desk costs are reduced when users can understand and use products without additional assistance.  In most countries, employers and suppliers have legal obligations to protect users from risks to their health, and safety and human-centered methods can reduce these risks (e.g. musculoskeletal risks). Systems designed using human-centered methods improve quality, for example, by:

  • increasing the productivity of users and the operational efficiency of organizations;
  • being easier to understand and use, thus reducing training and support costs;
  • increasing usability for people with a wider range of capabilities and thus increasing accessibility;
  • improving    user    experience;   
  • reducing discomfort and stress;
  • providing a competitive advantage, for example by improving brand image;
  • contributing towards sustainability objectives;
  • reduced risk of the product failing to meet stakeholder requirements or being rejected by its users.

The full benefits of HCD must take into account the total life cycle costs of the solution / innovation including design, implementation, support, use, maintenance and disposal. 1

Genchi Genbutsu - A Japanese term meaning something like “getting your hands dirty” ​as a way to identify or solve immediate problems​. ​Genchi Genbutsu is ​ a key approach in problem solving. If the problem exists on the shop floor, then it needs to be understood and solved at the shop floor. It is sometimes referred to as a “Genba Attitude.” Genba means the real place where work is done.

How is it Done?

For practitioners of HCD, empathy for the end-user of their products is an obsession. The secret to figuring out what humans really want lies in doing two things:

  • Observe user behavior: Try to understand people by observing them. For example, if you’re designing a toothbrush, watch people brushing their teeth.
  • Put yourself in the real situation of the end-user: Understand what the user experience is really like; feel what the users feel – frustrations and all.

This focus on direct observation and first-hand experience extends throughout the life of the design process. Take for example the popular Design Thinking process with its five phases: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test.

We can apply HCD to this design process by ensuring that every step along the way we involve real human beings with the inputs and outputs of each step – to inform every decision we make.

​​We often talk about the iterative or non-linear nature of the design thinking process. What we mean by this is that each step along the way, reality may teach us unexpected lessons. These lessons (AKA fast failures) may send us back to an earlier step to regroup and re-plan.

​When taking an HCD approach to design, "reality" includes the humans we are designing for: their intentions and emotions, their environment and its constraints and the other people they work with and serve.

It is this reality that will often show us we have made an incorrect design assumption and that it needs to be adjusted. 

But HCD practitioners are not troubled by having their assumptions proven false. They ​understand that this is part of the process. Design assumptions are treated as mini experiments, supported by rapid prototyping and frequent testing - leading to learning. "Test often and test early" is one of the mantras of HCD practitioners.

In fact, learning from observation and experimentation is ​a more reliable method of learning about needs than just asking users to tell you what they need. Users often forget all of the complex factors that influence how they do things, especially after they have developed competence and can perform more or less unconsciously.


It is this somewhat unpredictable and non-linear approach that ​sets the first pre-requisite for human centered design – Optimism. 

We need to be confident that a solution is discoverable, that the solution lies in the population we are trying to serve, and that by following the process, we will eventually find it. And we need to believe in ourselves and in the process - design is not just for "artistic types" - anyone can apply the process, ​ use the tools and get results, as long as they don't give up too soon.

Step 1 - Empathize

Design Thinking begins with understanding the user and trying to focus on a definable problem that this group of people has. We should not rush to get to execution and delivery, but rather spend time inhabiting the environment of the user. This enables us to more fully first understand the people we are trying to serve. So, HCD design teams will immerse themselves in the situations in which their creations will be utilized and observe the thoughts, actions, and experiences of people within them. This builds empathy for the user – a deep understanding of how and why people behave as they do.

Step 2 - Define

From all of this research, design teams can understand the scope and dimensions of the problem they are trying to solve - one problem that they can meaningfully design towards. This problem must be confirmed with the users to ensure we are solving the right problem and at the right level.

Step 3 - Ideate

Once we have a defined (and agreed) the problem, the design team can begin to generate potential solutions and select those that have the most value and best-fit people’s actual lives. Design Thinking guides us to come up with as many ideas as possible — not just “right” ideas. The Human-Centered aspect of this means that the best ​way to generate ideas is in partnership with those we are serving.

Step 4 - Prototype

Then through rapid prototyping, testing, evaluation, and iteration, the solutions are refined until the user is fully satisfied. Again, the ideal case is prototypes should be built in partnership with key stakeholders and end-users in order to get their feedback and suggestions early and often.

Step 5 - Test

In the final phase we test the prototypes in order to first identify if they will be adopted, and also as a way to learn more about the end-user and how they may use the solution. ​HCD practitioners check to make sure that not only will the population adopt the solution, but that it actually makes things better. Once the solution is implemented and integrated into an operational environment, human-centered design usually employs system usability metrics and user community feedback in order to determine the ultimate success of the solution and make further refinements.

Case Study

The design company IDEO was asked by a medical device manufacturer to design a device for nurses to do data entry during operations.

The client’s vision was of something similar to an iPad.

Source - Paul Bennett (Ideo)

​But when the design team observed the operation in reality, they noticed something that would make a two-handed device impossible. Most patients are nervous and fearful prior to ​an operation. So most nurses hold the patient’s hand to comfort them.

The design team brainstormed potential solutions based on this new information, and they came up with a design with a thumb scroll so nurses could do everything with one hand. That way they could input data while holding the patient’s hand.

The final product wasn’t what the client had initially imagined, but it was much more human and practical.

Instead of approaching the project with preconceived notions of what the solution needed to be, the team put themselves into the reality of the end-user and created a better product.

Source - Paul Bennett (Ideo)

Principles of Human Centered Design

Five basic principles form the foundation for human-centered design:

  1. Great design is based on observed, human needs. In other words, we have to see and understand the challenges and opportunities that real people encounter in their lives.
  2. Great design comes from understanding people’s behaviors, thoughts and emotions (empathy). In order to create solutions that fit into people’s lives we need to know what they think and feel about the systems and products they use.
  3. To make good design decisions, we must first create possibilities to choose from. The first idea you come up with is rarely the best. To find fit for use, innovative solutions we need to create a large pool of possible solutions that we can then examine and select from.
  4. Great design comes from a desire to produce real outcomes in the real world. It is not enough to just create something new and exciting or great looking. Design is about achieving real objectives. If solutions don’t achieve what they’re intended to then they have not been well-designed.  So we need to consider how we will measure and monitor success.
  5. Great design is an iterative effort. Great design comes from continuous learning and refinement. A solution, in any form, presents an opportunity to learn more about those who use it, their experiences, and the challenges and opportunities it addresses. These learnings should then be used to further refine and evolve the solution.

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1: Human Centered Design for Interactive Systems; Reference number ISO 9241-210:2010(E)© ISO 2010