Human-centered Design is about looking at people’s real problems and creating solutions that meet their needs. In this episode, learn the definition and basic steps of human-centered design and how it can help you solve problems more creatively.

What You’ll Learn

  • The definition of human-centered design
  • Why human-centered design matters and how you can use it in your work/life
  • The six-step human-centered design process


Weekly Challenge

Think about a problem you are trying to solve. Who are the stakeholders involved? Who do you need to talk with to gain a deeper understanding of the actual problem.


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Transcript for Episode #098: The Power of Human-centered Design

Amy Climer: Welcome to The Deliberate Creative podcast Episode 98. Today’s episode is about the power of human-centered design. I am going to explain what human-centered design is and talk a little bit about how you might be able to use it in your work.

First, I want to share with you a new review that came in on iTunes. This is from Dean Marky Mark in the US and it is titled “Terrifically Useful and Inspiring” five stars. The review says:

“Holistic, actionable and entertaining.”

Short and sweet. Thank you very much, Dean Marky Mark. I appreciate the review. Thank you so much for taking the time. If you have not left a review on iTunes yet, please go over there and do that. You can do it right from your phone if you are listening on your phone or on your computer, but I would love to get your review. It really means a lot to me and I might just read it on the air. Thank you so much for everyone who has left a review. There are dozens of reviews up there and it is just awesome.

Today, I want to talk about human-centered design and what it is, why it matters. I recently, a couple of weeks ago, taught a three-day course on human-centered design at the Creative Problem Solving Institute in Buffalo, New York. It is an annual conference that is all about creativity. A big part of the conference is about Creative Problem Solving, which I have talked many, many times on this podcast about Creative Problem Solving. If you are not familiar with that, listen to episodes 03 through 08 and you will get a nice in-depth understanding of Creative Problem Solving.

This year, I was invited to teach human-centered design with two colleagues of mine who work with the Lab that is part of the office of Personnel Management with the US Federal government. I work there as well, in fact, I am teaching a course later this month in July with them, The Foundations of Human-centered Design, so if you are interested, it is open to the public. It actually happens every month in Washington, D.C.

After teaching this course with them, I thought this would be a great podcast episode. In Episode 73 I talked a little bit about the difference between Creative Problem Solving, design thinking and human-centered design. But I did not really talk a whole lot about human-centered design and so I am going to go more in-depth on that. If the work you do involves working with people and you are interested in being more creative and innovative, then this is relevant to you. Even if you work with animals, let’s say you are a zoo keeper or a veterinarian, probably elements of this will matter because so much of that work is also about people. Here we go.

The Definition of Human-centered Design [03:21]

The first thing I want to explain is what do I mean by the word design. If you are not a designer or an artist, that might not be a very familiar term to you. Maybe in a sense of the verb like hey, I am designing something, I am redesigning the website, I am designing a new layout for my living room, but in this case, we are actually talking about a field of study. This definition I am going to share is from Herbert Simon. He is an economist, a psychologist and a design theorist. He says, “Everyone designs who devises causes of actions aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.” Really, if you are doing any kind of change management, if you are trying to make any positive changes, you are doing design. If you are changing existing situations into preferred ones that is what design is. I feel like it is sort of a fancy word for just hey, we are making improvements, we are making changes.

But then when we add this human-centered element to it, this is where you are adding the human piece, the people piece, really the humanity piece to design. Which you think would be inherent, but obviously, it has not always been, which is why there is more of an emphasis on this human-centered piece. Here is a definition of human-centered design; the discipline of navigating complex problems and creatively designing effective solutions to meet people’s real needs. I think the key point there is people’s real needs.

Often, what happens is when a group of people or individuals trying to implement change within an organization, what they usually do is they put together a small team of people who get together and try to figure out here is the problem, we are trying to fix this problem, what are the ways we going to do that? They come up with all sorts of ideas, they implement the ideas and then they roll them out to the masses within the organizations, “Hey, we solved this problem and here is a new way we are going to do this.” And they expect that the organization is going to be like, “Yeah, that’s awesome, we’re in, that’s great,” but actually that is rarely the case and usually, there is a lot of pushback. And then we say, “Oh, people are resistant to change.” Not exactly. I think they are resistant to change that is being shoved down their throats that does not actually solve their real needs. When you take the time to design the solution based on the real needs of people, there is not resistance. In fact, there is excitement and you are welcomed with open arms like, “Oh my gosh, thank you for solving this problem. No one has done this before.” That is what you want.

Human-centered design is a process and I will walk through that in a moment, but it is also a mindset, it is a way of working, it is just – for some of you, you may already be doing this, but maybe not as intentionally as you could be or maybe you do not have the language with which to talk with your colleagues about it. I am going to walk through the process of human-centered, which I think will help you understand how it can be a way of thinking and a way of working.

Steps of the Human-centered Design Process [06:43]

The process that I am using does come from the Lab at the Office of Personnel Management. When I say it comes from them, what I mean is the specific steps in this process. There are many different organizations, many different entities that have designed the specific steps and the reality is they are all the same. They are all very similar. They have maybe different words in there, they have called the steps different, maybe, instead of four steps there are five, or instead of six there are seven, but the general gist is the same. In fact, if you know Creative Problem Solving, you will find that there is incredible overlap between the human-centered design process and Creative Problem Solving.

First, let me share with you; IDEO they have described what they think of as the three main phases of human-centered design, which are simply; inspiration, ideation and implementation. If you are not familiar with IDEO, they are an amazing design company that has done everything from product design to things that solve social problems. and are both their websites, with slightly different purposes. Check them out if you are not familiar with them. They also have a ton of resources on their sites about human-centered design.

The Lab has created, kind of within that framework, their own process that really specifically fits well with government. But I think it works really with any organization. Here are the steps.

Step 1:

The first step is Frame; really framing what the problem is, how might you initially define it. You can use that phrase how might we…blah, blah, blah. So framing the problem.

Step 2:

And then you really want to dig in and explore what has been done before, what is the context, what is going on. Exploring is phase two.

Step 3:

The third stage is understanding. This is really where you start getting into the human-centered piece. As you are asking the people about the problem that you are trying to solve. You are asking the stakeholders who are involved, you are asking them, “What is going on? Tell me a little bit about this. Show me your process.” You might observe them, you might do some interviews like ethnographic interviews, which I am actually going to talk about that in the next episode, Episode 99.

The frame, explore, understand, those three stages are, I would say, a part of the inspiration stage and also if you are familiar with Creative Problem Solving, that would be similar to the Clarify stage. It is really that, like I said, the difference is in that understand stage. You are not making assumptions about what people need, and instead, you are approaching them and actually talking with them and observing them.

I recently was listening to another episode on a different podcast where the guy was talking about human-centered design. Unfortunately, I cannot remember his name. I will put a link to it in the shownotes. I will find it for you. But he referred to human-centered design as anti-arrogant. And I love that because we make so many assumptions about what people need and we do not really know. We think we know, but we do not really know. And so this is like the anti-arrogant way of saying, “Hey, I’m going to let this go and I’m going to see what I don’t know.” That is the understand stage.

Step 4:

The fourth stage is envision, and this is where you are ideating, you are developing many ideas, hopefully, a lot of ideas. You are going to then take the best ideas and prototype them. This could be as simple as like let’s create a cardboard mockup and see how this would work or let’s just create a really simplified version and share it with a few people. You are using that prototype process as a tool to learn about what is feasible and what is possible.

Steps 5 & 6:

Then you are going to test that. The prototyping and testing kind of go hand-in-hand, where you are asking people to engage in your prototype and you are really watching them, asking them questions. Again, it is more of that understanding, but you are further along in the process. You prototype and then you test.

Step 7:

The seventh stage is reframe, where you arrive at a new understanding of the problem that will allow you to iterate another design cycle and arrive at even better solutions. That is the cyclical piece.

Let me walk through the steps again. The first one is frame, then explore, understand, envision, prototype, test and then reframe. Sometimes what will happen is when you do the testing phase, you find out this works just as is, we do not need to do any more reframing. Most likely, that is not on the first iteration, but at some point you will, of course, stop and then at the testing phase, that is when you rule everything out and the implementation comes into play.

That is an overview of human-centered design. I would say one of the big differences between human-centered design and the classic Creative Problem Solving is that you are talking to people, you are coming from this place of empathy like hey, let me see what these people who are involved in this, the stakeholders, what do they actually think.

Let’s say you work for a school and you are trying to implement some big changes within the school. The stakeholders in that case would be the students, parents, community members, teachers, all the staff, including the staff that interacts with students, but also maybe there are some staff that do not interact a whole lot with students like maintenance staff. All of those people are your stakeholders. I think one of the biggest mistakes people make when they are trying to implement change and improve on something is they do not talk to the stakeholders and they do not bring them in. I am not necessarily talking about like we are going to bring in one person from maintenance just to say that we have talked to maintenance and we have got them involved. You have to come at it from a place of sincerity and really a place from empathy.

That is a little bit of an overview of human-centered design. Next episode, I am going to talk in more depth about one of the elements that is specifically in the understand stage which is the ethnographic interviews. I think that is one of the tools that may be one of the biggest differences between Creative Problem Solving and human-centered design. Although, then we are sort of getting into semantics a little bit because, certainly, people who are using Creative Problem Solving use ethnographic interviews, but maybe it was not part of the original process. The point is it is this tool to help you talk with your stakeholder. We will talk more about that next week.

Weekly Challenge [13:53]

Here is your challenge for this week; it is to think about any problem that you have that you are trying to solve and think about who do you need to talk to to really get a better understanding of it. Who are the stakeholders involved? If you have the time to actually have those conversations with them before our next episode, that is awesome. I think that will help you go into the next episode with even more understanding or more experience around ethnographic interviews. Honestly, ethnographic interview is a fancy name for talking to people. Really, it is about listening to people, asking questions and listening. If you have a chance to do that before then, that is awesome, but your weekly challenge is to think about who those stakeholders are that you would want to talk to to get a deeper understanding of the actual problem.

I hope this helps you get a better understanding of human-centered design. I will put some resources in the shownotes for you to learn more about that. I will put in there IDEO’s website, as well as, the Lab’s website. They have resources on their site as well and they offer some excellent classes to help you dig deeper into human-centered design.

Have a wonderful week and I will talk to you next time. Bye.

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