A Human Touch: What Is Human Centred Design?

Craig Greenup 28/08/23, 08:00

A Human Touch: What Is Human-centred Design?

Even if you’ve never heard the phrase human-centred design, there’s every chance you’re familiar with its principles. That’s because human-centred design is, well…human. As we’re about to see, it’s a way of solving problems that feels very logical.

Here we look at why you might use human-centred design as a tool within your business and what defines this particular approach. But let’s start with a simple definition: what is human-centred design?

What is human-centred design?

Human-centred design is a problem-solving process. It refers to the design of products, services, systems and experiences with, rather than just for, an end user.

As such, it’s an empathetic style of design. Designers have to put themselves firmly in the shoes of consumers to gain a deep understanding of their problems and needs. By spending time with people and communities – understanding them and the realities of their daily lives – teams gain data-driven insight that informs the solution they create.

The human-centred design process also involves prototyping, where solutions are introduced to users before they’re properly launched. This gives designers the feedback they need to finesse their product even further.

Here at Radical, we use human-centred design principles as part of the web design process. But this ethos can be applied to all sorts of industries and business activities.

You’ll find brands adopting a human-centred approach to everything from marketing to product design to customer service. And organisations as varied as Colgate, IBM and Save the Children have used human-centred design to make their products and services more effective.

Human-centred design vs user experience design (UX)

Anyone with a design or development background has heard of user experience design (UX). So how does this concept compare to human-centred design? Are the two terms interchangeable? Not quite.

While both design approaches try to create meaningful solutions for everyday human problems, there are a couple of key differences between them.

UX most often occurs at the interface between humans and technology. It refers to the quality of a specific feature or function – and how well it addresses consumer pain points.

We tend to talk about UX in terms of digital products, like apps. But UX also applies to the non-digital world. It can be something as simple as the way a switch on a radio is designed and positioned.

Human-centred design is a broader principle. It’s a design framework or management system which puts people first. Humans sit at the core of the entire process, not just the interface or experience.

So, while you may use UX to improve and refine an app, human-centred design is the process that would lead to the decision to make the app in the first place.

In a nutshell, when it comes to human-centred design vs UX, UX is just one principle under the umbrella of human-centred design.

Why use human-centred design for your business?

You don’t need a complete company overhaul to adopt a human-centred approach to design. Human-centred principles can be incorporated into your everyday operations as you see fit. But why would you choose to make the change?

It helps you ask the right questions and avoid assumptions

A business-centred company is likely to ask business-centred questions. For example:

How can we increase average order value by 20%?

They might then make a bunch of assumptions about what is currently getting in the way of greater customer spend.

A company that follows a human-centred design process looks at things differently. They try to reach the same outcome (in this case increased order value) by taking a more human perspective. They might ask the following question:

How do customers prefer to interact with our brand?

By observing and talking to real-life customers, a company discovers data-driven insight into customer preferences. They can then use this knowledge to improve the customer experience and the value of conversions.

It’s all about asking questions and questioning assumptions so you can devise more effective solutions.

It cuts waste

Human-centred design cuts waste in the long run. The research stage of the design process takes time. But money and resources are saved because businesses only run with ideas that consumers actually want and need.

There’s no risk that a company spends a year developing an app, only to find that sign-ups are way lower than expected. Human-centred design helps you get to know your customers, their needs and wants better than ever before, which means better and more successful products.

It helps you meet customer expectations

Consumers are a pretty demanding bunch. In fact, one in three will walk away from a brand after just one bad experience. Consumers increasingly expect convenient experiences that go above and beyond the norm.

The human-centred design process helps you find the changes and solutions that really make a difference to customer satisfaction.

In terms of digital design, you don’t have to wonder whether streamlining the customer journey, improving your interface or personalising marketing materials will yield the best results, because you get to know exactly what your customers want – and can direct resources accordingly.

The human-centred design process

So now we know how human-centred design stands to benefit your business, how do you actually go about it? Here are the five stages of any human-centred design process, which can be applied to any type of problem-solving task.

1. Get to know your people

Getting to know your target demographic inside out helps you to foster a human-centred approach. Don’t think of them as users in vague terms. Instead, consider them as real human people who are using your product to reach a personal goal.

Spend time with them and listen to what they have to say. Watch them using existing products to locate areas of friction. Consider the customer journey from start to finish, thinking about when, where and how people choose to use your product.

2. Assess the problem

Addressing the most noticeable problems doesn’t necessarily lead to a better customer experience. There’s little point investing all your resources into a mobile app, for example, if your customers prefer to interact with your brand through social media sites.

So avoid assumptions by looking for root problems, rather than just addressing symptoms. When you discover customer problems, sort them into fundamental and symptomatic categories. Symptomatic problems are usually solved when you deal with fundamental problems. So make fundamental problems your priority.

3. Ideation

Here’s where you devise a product or service that solves a fundamental problem for your target audience. Using your human-centred research, brainstorm solutions, narrow them down and then create your prototype.

4. Test your ideas

Global brands like Facebook and McDonald’s always test changes rigorously before implementing them on a wider basis.

Social media sites subtly change the colour or form of the ‘like’ button to discover which one their users are more likely to interact with. Restaurant chains play around with the shape and colour of packaging to see which is most appealing to consumers. Or they might try a limited edition sandwich on a relatively small demographic to see how it fares.

Thorough testing is vital before you implement changes more widely. Of course, you don’t need to set aside the same amount of time and money as these huge international brands. Instead, start small and scale your research as and when you can.

5. Learn from user feedback

Before you launch a product or service, you have to act upon the feedback you get from real-life users. Social media polls, customer satisfaction surveys and email feedback requests are all great ways to gather user opinion.

Both qualitative and quantitative, negative and positive feedback is valuable. So take it all on board and make final changes before you release your product or service more widely.

Also, consider the human-centred approach an ongoing process. Continually seek feedback from your customers to discover whether your products or services continue to solve their problems – or whether human-centred changes are required.

Want to put people at the centre of your next web design? Then get in touch with the Radical team to share your requirements and hear our ideas.