A dispatch from human-centered design

After years of working for consultancies, enterprises, and universities, I hear one refrain over and over again: “We want to be human-centered.” All of this interest sounds like a progressive movement – but why?

We live in a world of choice. The ability to make and break relationships is so easy with little to no switching costs. Companies are creating products and services that are very similar. What is the differentiator? Human-centered design is viewed as a way to keep people loyal by providing an experience that is relevant, personalized, and easy to consume, which in turn provides more value than what people put into it.

However, once you get past the bumper-sticker refrain, how does an organization practice being human-centered? Is being human-centered the same thing as human-centered design? How do you know it is working?


What does it mean to be “human-centered”?

Being human-centered focuses on understanding the lives of users by building empathy for others based on humanistic values by understanding the intrinsic motivations of others, or what drives an individual to think, feel and do things for greater individual dignity. Empathy is a desire to want to help others, but many times it is more about the person helping than the person being helped. Compassion is a deeper level of commitment where you put the needs of others before your own needs. The goal is deep understanding and to connect issues together in new ways framed as insights. Insights drive rationales to change the status-quo and shift the value in favor of users.

To be human-centered recognizes that humans are emotionally driven rather than purely rational decision makers in regards to their needs, interests, and abilities. An analogy would be comparing behavioral economics, which asserts that social factors drive economic decisions, to classical economics, which states that all humans are rational when it comes to economic decisions.


What is the difference between being human-centered and using Human-centered design?

While being human-centered is a mindset, using human-centered design is a framework for informed action. Human-centered design balances what users think they want with what they need within the organization’s greater needs. This balance can be translated into insights that reframe a range of opportunities to define what is possible for greater value. Design thinking activates this exploration by exploring key questions through specific co-creation methods that align an organization on a reframed problem for informed action.

Human-centered design attributes:

  • Learns directly from people’s current internal motivations in relation to tasks and environments to identify unmet needs
  • Considers the whole experience and facilitates breakthrough solutions to meet these unmet needs
  • Collaborates with impacted stakeholders to ideate purpose, meaning and relationships, which links past experience with future expectations and scenarios
  • Incorporates multidisciplinary skills and perspectives
  • Iterates to learn through deployment, measurement, and course-correction over time

This type of design continually maps how stakeholders think, feel, actions and interactions between people, objects, environments, messages and systems. This activity defines and delivers experiences that help people meet their goals. Human-centered design challenges deeply held convictions and endeavors to get to what is both observed and what motivates people to do what they do.


How do you know human-centered design is working?

Human-centered design, when practiced well, can provide specific benefits:

  • It provides a safe space for all stakeholders to bring their biases and issues to the table about a shared problem and to discuss them with others. This should increase an individual’s ability to listen to other points of view that may not be connected to their experience.
  • It allows all stakeholders to thoughtfully challenge these issues by uncovering what others really feel and think in the context of current actions.
  • It allows the group to explore a reframed problem, define future scenarios and prioritize them in a way to start to own the changes and to feel motivated to let go of the current status-quo for something better – but untested
  • Human-centered design has to be measured by actual benefits

All of these points take sustained discussions and facilitation, which is why most Human-centered design is not successful. If an organization does not have the time, and the consultancy does a subpar job in prioritizing the issues to keep progress moving, then human-centered design will easily fall apart.

Many organizations ask about specific metrics to show a return on investment. Human-centered design can be measured in terms of level of commitment and engagement of users to specific solutions. If a product/service is created, they can be instrumented on specific tasks that were informed by Human-centered design recommendations to show increased commitment and completion.


Why implementing human-centered design is challenging

Human-centered design attributes are a tall order to put into practice. It channels an organization’s desire to deliver an idealized outcome with what is possible, or how it envisions a future that is plausible. Curiosity, research, exploration and trial-and-error are used to socialize concepts to stakeholders. A concept is then released for viability, measured accordingly, and subsequently course-corrected.

While organizations say they want to be human-centered, many do not realize the commitment of time and resources required to explore and implement human-centered design. The challenge is balancing the externalized needs of social groups who benefit from individual motivations, that can maximize overall human potential. Therefore, human-centered design and the needs of an organization can clash. For example the type and rate of change being proposed in a reframed problem can conflict with the goals of an organization. McKinsey’s time horizons for growth of opportunity and investment can help map a reframed problem, but it cannot solve the chasm between doing what is right for users, vs. what is profitable for an organization. 

Many organizations are also afraid of collaborating with employees and customers because they are still top-down and command-controlled. Human-centered design is associated with workshops and workshop culture which brings diverse stakeholders together. While it is important to get everyone together to generate, discuss and deliberate, it is not the only venue for Human-centered design. There are hundreds of methods that help teams socialize and align during the discover, define, develop and deliver phases that are not workshop driven.

When organizations realize what it takes to be human-centered, they balk at having to invest time in understanding, mapping and allowing users to reality-test the organization’s assumptions. Many organizations find it easier to go through the motions of developing a vision, a series of language attributes, controlling key messages and hope that desired behaviors follow. Unfortunately, behaviors remain the same since words have many meanings and are just regurgitations of past words.

A good example of this is Gallup’s Q12 process, which measures employee engagement. Even decades after the introduction of this process, the sobering reality is the metrics have not moved, no matter what organizations have done to improve engagement. Any new future is viewed as just another way to keep the status-quo. About 30% of employees have strong internal motivations and want to do a good job, no matter how dysfunctional an organization is. About 16% of employees are actively disengaged. 54% are neither engaged or disengaged and are essentially sleep walking through their jobs. The disconnect gets worse: 45% of executives are engaged versus just 29% of managers. The reason why executives are engaged is that they do not directly feel the effects of their vision, but managers bear the brunt of the disconnects between executives and employees. The future conjured by the new vision statement is viewed as just another way to keep the status-quo.

The challenge to human-centered design is creating authentic experiences for users which challenges the status-quo. Such experiences address anticipation, interactions and transactions that shape wants, needs, desires and outcomes that provide consistent differentiable value in reaching a goal. Unfortunately, experiences have both group and individual dimensions, which is why they are both idiosyncratic and difficult to consistently deliver.

When exploring a problem, a major challenge is understanding its context:

  • Core issues are directly related to the situation that should be addressed
  • Adjacent issues are social, political and economic factors that influence the core issues
  • Externalities are social, political and economic factors that are not viewed as part of the core issues

As a group explores a problem using Human-centered design methods, original assumptions and issues that created the problem statement may shift. This is because formerly adjacent or external issues press against the core issues causing the factors to change, which can reframe a problem to something different. Many organizations resist this and consider problem reframing both growing the problem and threatening the original assumptions and benefits.

  • Human-centered design is hard to put into practice due to the the very things that make us human:
  • Humans are the only species that link the past as discrete events, connect those events with present conditions, and then project them onto possible futures
  • Humans are dependent on group cooperation to enhance chances of survival under ever-changing environmental circumstances
  • Humans share emotions, behaviors and define values, which create culture and social adaptability
  • Humans can participate in multiple social groups
  • Tribal psychology creates distinct prejudices toward different groups of people triggered by fear, threats and self-protective actions Source : Psychology Today & Science Daily

Humans are creatures of habit and are very inconsistent in how they think and behave. Part of the reason is that we are emotionally driven, which can often override our rationality. Most people exhibit moral relativism when it comes to situations. When the same issue arises in different situations, prioritizing self-interest over group benefit will override any level of consistent behavior.

It’s difficult to change the mindsets and behaviors of people who are conservative about change. Many people would rather stay with the status quo than adapt to an uncertain future. Understanding their current challenges and then offering viable solutions can increase their willingness to change the status quo.

The overall result : how to strengthen an individual’s sense of agency while simultaneously ensuring that his or her agency aligns with the needs of the social group. This issue sets up unintentional conflicts where organizations may expect individuals to modify their sense of agency for the good of the group. Sometimes, individuals reluctant to set aside their independence may find ways to subvert the social group to protect their interests. These conflicts lead to anxiety, stress, and worry, which in turn lead to a lack of engagement. This is what organizations have tried to address, but not very successfully.


Why implementing human-centered design is important

Using human-centered design’s double-diamond framework of discover, define, develop and deliver to reframe an initial problem statement into an informed one is not a linear process. The initial core issues are stress-tested. Adjacencies that become core issues lead to additional adjacencies. This can change the context of understanding and even the problem itself, making it difficult to draw the line between an adjacency and an externality. Though organizations often demand clarity and certainty, human-centered design is in many cases  not clear cut because humans and the situations they find themselves in are not. 

Human-centered design is an active process that requires direct interactions between stakeholders that are being affected by any proposed change. This requires them to explore issues, challenge individual mindsets that have inherent biases and socialize concepts for the group to stress test and get aligned on what binds them together in a mutually beneficial way.


Considering the challenges, is using human-centered design worth it?

The short answer is yes. It is far more satisfying to actively engage people in the conversation about creating a better future than to just give them what they think they want. The real challenge is that we tend to overestimate the short-term impact of our efforts and underestimate the long-term effects of new problems to address. We also tend to boil the ocean into a big-hairy audacious goal (BHAG) and want to implement everything at the same time, which causes too much stress, strain and resistance. It is better to start small with proof-of-concepts to test reframed goals and assumptions and course-correct over time.

Using human-centered design can help us provide more relevant outcomes, but we should not think that all of our proposals and benefits will actually happen. The status-quo is a powerful influence. Most people prefer staying within the certainty of suffering rather than risking everything for uncertain success. It should be noted that the bar to do Human-centered design is high and is continually lowered due to the needs and conveniences of both organizations and the people that will benefit from Human-centered design. Though lowered, it can help shift the understanding and value to help people gain a greater sense of agency. If stakeholders feel a greater sense of ownership, than the goals of human-centered design has a better chance of being achieved.

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4 thoughts on “A dispatch from human-centered design

  1. Adam, as always, I admire your deep insights combined with wide capacity for compassion. Masterful!

    You have differentiated the mindset of human centered from human centered design as a framework elegantly.

    My only observation in addition would be that, put pessimistically, human centered is the core cause of a lot of problems in this world too if you consider consumption, garbage, and even ‘over-convenience’ – perhaps all urban phenomena.

    Would you say a conscious effort to combine systems thinking approach combined with human centered design would help tease out a sustainable future?

    1. Hello! Thanks for the comment. Remember human-centered design is a reflection of the people’s experiences that participate so it is used in all sorts of situations. Design supports and expansionist model of consumption so yes, HCD does further increase the consumption of everything by making it more convenient to do so. Sustainability is still subjective, but there are concrete definitions and specifications of what goes into sustainability. HCD can most definitely be used in this regard as long as it is part of the criteria of exploration.

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