Human-centered design represents a major mindset shift that promises to pay dividends for customers, employees, and entire organizations. Its central goal? To build greater empathy for the people who will ultimately benefit from proposed designs. This philosophy involves a blend of behavioral science research and design thinking to produce a uniquely innovative and empathetic approach.

While elements of human-centered design (HCD) are part of human nature, it is only in the past few years that this practice has taken a true leap forward. These days, leaders recognize that successful HCD processes can play into everything from product design to marketing and even organizational change management. Here’s why HCD is so compelling and what it will take for modern HCD initiatives to succeed. 

The Shift From Product-Centric to User-Centric Approaches

In recent years, design has undergone a significant shift: Although product-centric strategies once dominated, user-centric solutions are far more prominent nowadays. The former emphasized the straightforward creation of products or services that would primarily meet organizational needs, rather than catering to the customer. With a user-centric approach, however, customers form the basis of every major initiative. New products or services are only valued if they can meet the unique needs of target consumers. 

Key Principles of Human-Centered Design

Human-centered design goes beyond thinking of people as customers to recognizing and respecting them as nuanced and capable individuals. This shift may seem subtle, but it makes consumers feel more empowered and, ultimately, more engaged. Many HCD philosophies overlap with similar interaction design principles (IxD), though the latter emphasizes how users communicate with or navigate various offerings. HCD essentials include: 


Like many of today's most effective design-thinking methodologies, HCD aims to close the empathy gap, in which leaders fail to relate to the individuals who are expected to use products or services. HCD overcomes this through the power of direct collaboration, where leaders co-create with the people they aim to serve. Empathy should always be at the center; the moment it is neglected, the initiative ceases to be truly human-centered. 

Focus on the Right People

Empathy is crucial, yet it alone will not produce desired results unless the right people are understood and served. Identifying this target audience or user base is critical. This means researching the end users' demographics to reveal their defining factors while also getting a basic idea of their preferences and pain points. The goal is not to assume you know everything about this audience but to reveal basic qualities these people hold in common and identify opportunities that can positively influence users’ experiences. 

Understand and Define the Problem

Through careful collaboration, HCD initiatives can reveal what precisely stands in the way of achieving desired results. Without HCD, this can be difficult for leaders to discern, even when they rely on data-driven insights. However, collaborative efforts have a way of swiftly bringing core concerns to the forefront so they can be understood and addressed.

Once you achieve a thorough understanding of the problem, it's time to develop a concise, action-oriented definition. This should touch on the “why” that the HCD efforts aim to address. As experts from DC Design explain, the ideal definition would be "phrased in a way that allows for creativity in how [the problem] could be addressed." A strong definition can act as a blueprint for the remainder of the HCD process, with designers checking against this statement to ensure their solutions are closely tied to the actual scope of the problem. 

Develop and Stick with a System

HCD is a system-based philosophy, requiring a methodical and structured approach to achieve the best results. Although HCD can generate a variety of unexpected ideas, this process must remain orderly to ensure critical information is properly conveyed and analyzed.

Increasingly, HCD relies on an iterative design process dominated by a continuous approach to design. This differs considerably from traditional frameworks, in which changes took on a more linear trajectory. That being said, HCD's iterative design process tends to encompass a few basic phases:

  • Inspiration – As discussed, empathizing with end users is essential. This empathy is formed during the inspiration phase when secondary research takes center stage. From there, initial interviews can be completed to determine who might make an ideal candidate for the later stages of the HCD process.
  • Ideation – The bulk of the HCD system involves the ideation phase, exploring previously outlined concepts in further detail. This means generating ideas that may address problems uncovered during the inspiration phase. These ideas could form the basis for product concepts or other fully fledged solutions, which can then be collaboratively analyzed alongside previously identified contributors.
  • Implementation – As concepts from the inspiration and ideation phases begin taking shape, it will eventually be necessary to put them to the test. This takes place during the implementation stage, which, for many organizations, involves prototyping. User journey mapping may also be helpful, as this reveals key customer touchpoints. 

Keep It Simple

HCD aims to improve usability, but this is not possible if the proposed solution is more complicated than the problem itself. Instead, designers seek simplicity during every phase of the process. In ideation, this means determining the crux of the problem and the general qualities of the people best suited to provide feedback on identified pain points. With implementation, it's necessary to sort through a complex array of ideas to arrive at the most straightforward and impactful. 

Benefits of Implementing HCD

Done right, HCD can be truly transformative. Advocates at UNICEF explain that this approach "emphasizes both the perspective and participation of the people we are trying to serve at every step, resulting in more inclusive, tailored, and empowering solutions."

Because these solutions are carefully developed with the needs and preferences of actual people in mind, they are more likely to deliver positive outcomes. Advantages of implementing HCD best practices include:

  • Enhanced product usability – HCD initiatives strive to address consumer concerns by boosting product usability and eliminating defects that make interaction with products or services less engaging or downright frustrating. The divide between leaders and end users can make it difficult to discern usability weak points, but these are quickly revealed and resolved when working closely with core consumers.
  • Increased innovation – HCD draws on ideas proposed by numerous stakeholders—including, most importantly, the people who actually stand to benefit from improved designs. This range of perspectives provides a distinct competitive advantage: the potential for impressive innovations that would not be possible if they relied on limited opinions. These innovations feel more meaningful, as designers recognize that changes have a discernible influence on the consumers they serve.
  • Improved customer satisfaction – By enhancing both innovation and usability, HCD solutions deliver huge improvements in customer satisfaction. Simply put, customers are more likely to appreciate products or services explicitly designed with their needs in mind.
  • Improved employee satisfaction – In addition to serving the unique needs of customers, HCD has the power to boost employee satisfaction. Team members also have a greater say in the process, yet they enjoy interacting with customers and knowing their efforts make a difference as well. 

Tools and Strategies for Integrating HCD

Though the advantages of HCD are well understood, it can be a challenge to overcome previously entrenched mindsets and implement solutions that actually qualify as human-centered. Thankfully, a range of tools and technologies promise to elevate this process while still keeping actual people at the center.

Agile practices are increasingly a part of the discussion, with scaled agile frameworks (SAF), in particular, providing faster implementation through efficient workflows that emphasize interactive processes and continuous evaluation. Meanwhile, product usage analysis can reveal where friction is most likely to occur, with HCD systems then deployed to overcome those areas. 

Challenges and Considerations in Adopting HCD

While HCD presents a number of opportunities to boost innovation and customer satisfaction, a few challenges are worth taking into account. If understood and planned for, they can also be overcome.

  • Diversity and inclusion – Although HCD's ideation phase typically revolves around demographic details, this should not come at the cost of diversity. After all, if only a few opinions are sought, valuable ideas may be missed. It is possible to build diversity and inclusion into HCD initiatives, but it takes extra awareness and effort. Additionally, accessibility in design is a must, so there should be a greater emphasis on products and services that can be used by people with physical or cognitive challenges.
  • Resistance to change – One of the most basic roadblocks to HCD is also the most complex: the desire to stick with the status quo, even when it is clearly less effective. Some employees simply prefer the familiarity and comfort of previously dominant product-centric models. Convincing them to adopt HCD practices means pushing for a complete shift in the cultural mindset.
  • Keeping the process efficient – Because HCD calls for extensive insights from actual consumers, it can be easy for initiatives to get bogged down in the idea-sourcing process, hence the need for a systematic (or better yet, agile) approach, as discussed earlier. Otherwise, you might circle endlessly around current concerns rather than making discernible progress toward selecting and implementing a human-centric solution. This can be further complicated by evolving consumer demands. Therein lies the value of business model innovation, where simultaneous changes can be made to value propositions and underlying operating models. 

The Future of Human-Centered Design

We have entered a customer-centric age, in which organizations make every effort to understand the needs and desires of consumers so they can better appeal to their target markets. This perspective naturally lends itself to adopting HCD strategies, but it can be challenging to keep the “human” in human-centered design when technological solutions are relied on so heavily.

Moving forward, cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence will have a greater role to play in HCD's iterative process. Advanced usability testing tools, for example, can help reveal weak points without sacrificing human input. Augmented reality (AR) provides especially exciting opportunities for obtaining and leveraging more in-depth insights into what end users really think.

In addition to strategically building technology into human-centered initiatives, the HCD landscape of tomorrow will involve a subtle shift toward societal concerns. Though the end user needs will remain paramount, these will be considered in the context of large-scale issues, such as the aforementioned diversity and inclusion, not to mention sustainability and equity. 

How to Get Started With HCD in Your Organization or Community 

There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach to HCD; every initiative must be carefully developed with the specific organization’s unique needs and overarching goals at the forefront. With that said, organizational change frameworks can be helpful when taking difficult but important first steps toward a human-centric mindset.

Strategies such as the ADKAR Model can help facilitate these organizational changes. Strong communication is key every step of the way. Stakeholders need to understand why HCD is preferable to product-centric models and what exactly the shift toward HCD best practices will involve. Incorporating effective communication into Human-Centered Design (HCD) is vital. This involves understanding the needs of your audience, raising awareness from the onset, addressing concerns, providing comprehensive training, and inviting constant feedback. Consistency in messaging, celebrating milestones, and adapting the communication plan based on ongoing evaluation are also key. These strategies, while rooted in change management, are crucial in HCD for engaging stakeholders and ensuring an iterative, responsive design process.

Learn More, Today

If you find the above concepts compelling, get ready to make your mark. This begins with seeking a human-centered design course, which could equip you with a unique blend of technical and leadership skills, plus the ability to frame design challenges and generate innovative ideas. The U of M's College of Continuing and Professional Studies (CCAPS) offers a solid start with the online Human-Centered Design Foundations course. Reach out today to learn more about this exciting opportunity.