Human-centered design is a problem-solving approach that is used in the design of processes, products, services, and systems that puts the needs of the consumer first.

To use human-centered design in the creative process, the first requirement is to develop a deep understanding of the user we intend to address. It’s only by knowing and, even better, “sensing,” the needs of the consumer—and by directly experiencing the community to which the product is directed—can we design solutions that the consumer would use. Practicing a human-centered design approach means creating products to solve people’s problems in an effort to help them live better in the world of today and all of its complexities.

Human-centered design is based on knowledge that can be derived solely from a feeling of empathy. It is expressed through creativity, that is, the ability to find “lateral” ways to solve problems, and has the goal of making the product a commercial success (if we apply human-centered design to the business world, business needs are always one of the main drivers).


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What is human-centered design? 

Human-centered design integrates the human perspective into all steps of the problem-solving process: from observing the problem within a specific context, to brainstorming, and from conceptualizing possible solutions to the implementation phase.

Human-centered design employs ergonomic skills and usability techniques to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of products and services, with the ultimate goal of creating well-being and increasing user satisfaction in terms of accessibility and sustainability. Human-centered design also counteracts the possible negative effects of the use of a product on consumer health and safety.


Human-centered design and design thinking: similarities and differences 

While human centered design and design thinking place a strong emphasis on empathy (both are based on an understanding of what the user needs), the two concepts share some principles but do not coincide.

Design thinking determines the direction that the workflow should follow to make a new design, i.e., it is used to discover new ways to design, test, and refine prototypes, while human-centered design, after the product is already in use, fine-tunes the design details through iteration. The focus of design thinking is on unmet needs: although it stems from an attempt to feel empathy, it is not specifically designed on the person. Instead, human-centered design focuses on the human experience, which is always enhanced in products and services, in hardware as well as software.


The stages of human-centered design 

The research of human-centered design is marked by participatory actions: designers do not simply document problems but produce concrete and timely solutions that directly involve their intended audience. The creation of a human-centered design begins by identifying an unmet need, validates the idea, and results in the creation of a value proposition. Harvard Business School Dean Srikant Datar articulated the process of human-centered design in four steps:

  • Clarify
  • Ideate 
  • Develop
  • Implement


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1. Clarify 

This first phase is devoted to data collection and customer observation and is used to outline the problem and formulate an initial idea of how to solve it. Rather than developing products based on rigid and exclusive assumptions, human-centered design focuses on the exercise of empathy, which is essential to determine the critical issues in the customer’s use of a product.

According to Srikant Datar, transformative innovation comes from identifying latent pain points rather than explicit ones (that users can describe and are aware of), that is, from highlighting those pain points that are not immediately apparent but emerge only after much observation and listening, after digging into users’ experience and having that firsthand experience.

2. Ideate 

The inspiration of the first phase leads to the second phase: ideating. The goal here is to overcome a fixed cognitive mindset, whereby we tend to assume, consciously or unconsciously, that there is only one way to interpret or deal with a situation. We can break recurring and limiting patterns of thinking by applying various methodologies—such as Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT) or brainstorming—that prevent us from getting stuck on a solution before it is tested, allow us to amplify creativity, and come up with innovative ideas that are ready to be translated into action.

3. Develop 

In the development phase, previously developed concepts and ideas are used to create a series of prototypes. Intense prototyping activity testifies to an operating model that is devoted to experimentation: developing, testing, and preparing solutions that will be implemented within a continuous cycle makes it possible to better meet user needs, reduce costs, save time, and increase the quality of the final product.

At this stage, human-centered design has three traits common with design thinking: desirability, practicability (or sustainability), and feasibility. These three traits must find a place within the same strategy; they must be balanced to achieve an equilibrium between what is desirable from a human perspective, what is technologically feasible, and what is economically feasible.

4. Implement  

A human-centered design process ends—but only temporarily—with implementation. During this phase a company must be able to convincingly communicate the value of its innovation to internal and external stakeholders, including employees and consumers. It is here that the decisive step successfully brings the product to market, encourages its adoption, and fuels growth.

However, the project is not finished: customers’ wants and needs will continue to evolve, and companies will need to adapt to meet them. Keeping humans at the center of the development process will ensure continuous innovation and progressive adaptation of the product to the market.


How can human-centered design support customer experience?  

In 1980, Apple asked IDEO to develop a mouse for their new computer, Lisa. Previous design attempts by Douglas Englebart and Xerox PARC had produced results that were too expensive and difficult to industrialize. The Apple mouse had to be more reliable and cost less than previous versions (at least -10%). The IDEO team created an extremely effective and significantly cheaper mechanism to operate the device, produced a sort of plastic “rib cage” to hold all the components together, tested and perfected the other elements, from the audible and tactile click of the button to the rubberized coating of the ball. The design of the basic mechanism that resulted has remained virtually the same since then and is used in all forms of the mouse that have been produced to date. IDEO, the company that created Apple’s mouse 40 years ago, was probably the first design and consulting firm to put the concept of human-centered design into practice, combining it with the methodologies that are inherent in design thinking.

Duolingo is the language learning app that everyone uses at least once in their lives. With more than 120 million users worldwide and covering 19 languages, Duolingo has turned an expensive process into an accessible experience for millions of people (many of whom would not have been able to afford courses that were certainly more comprehensive but too expensive). Duolingo’s design is human-centered: the app follows playful logic to attract and maintain user engagement, the interface is easy to use, and a system of rewards and reminders (via email or text notifications) motivates users to participate.

When it appeared, Spotify showed how the ways of buying and consuming music that had been used up to that point were totally inadequate, and revealed the existence of a problem even before users recognized it as such. Having access to a virtually endless amount of  music that is collected and organized in one place, for a monthly fee, was the tailor-made, useful, personalized service that consumers were willing to pay for (and pay even higher fees in the case of premium programs).

These three examples demonstrate how humanizing the customer experience is a trend that brands cannot help but follow. A study by TELUS International shows that nearly 60% of consumers would rather be stuck in traffic than in the midst of an unsatisfactory customer experience.

Today, a customer experience must be designed based on customers’ needs and crafted to deliver what they need in the most personal way possible. But to bring a human touch to the customer’s journey, companies must prioritize human-centered design. Only then will they be able to improve engagement, create frictionless experiences and better manage communication processes.


Improving engagement: human-centered design supports new forms of interaction

With the rise of artificial intelligence and the ability of companies to collect more and more consumer data, it is important to maintain a human-centric approach to capture their attention and improve engagement.

A company that adopts this philosophy designs with the end user, not just for the end user. This means that it promotes and supports the deployment of new ways of engagement and supports all those digital interactions that increase the direct engagement of people using the product or service. The goal is to be able to move beyond simple customer research and instead design tailored experiences: fluid, engaging, personalized.

But how? For example, by rethinking how data is structured and by reconsidering analytics capabilities. By applying a human-centered approach, data could be used within machine learning initiatives to more accurately predict consumer behavior and to invest in those interactions (or features) that are perceived to be most meaningful.


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Creating a frictionless experience: qualitative information to optimize channels 

To create frictionless experiences, we must embrace the perspective of the people for whom we are creating these experiences. We have said it many times: human-centered design provides the tools to create empathy, to help understand user behaviors with respect to different products and solutions.

While quantitative data provides us with factual information (how, when, and where interactions occur, peaks in activity, and consumption habits) it does not tell us why those interactions occur in a particular form, nor insights into context or sentiment. That’s why using people-centered design tools can help us open the right conversations and interpret qualitative data correctly, directing the insights gained on optimization activities for different channels.

The results of research and analysis from a human-centered design approach support the creation of products and services that better match real customer needs. Integrating customer feedback into the design process serves companies to target products and services that customers really want. To make the users’ voices resonate, it is essential to facilitate communication with the target audience: to acquire accurate knowledge of customers (existing and potential), so as to modulate timely messages and offer consistent and relevant content that reflects the brand’s value system and manages to tune in to the recipients by conveying useful and meaningful information for each of them, in a fully omnichannel perspective.  


Communication process management: creating messages to answer real questions  

Timely and consistent brand-user communication is an essential part of a human-centered design methodology.

A human-centered approach involves customers in designing a communications program that makes each person feel as if the company is talking directly and only to them. If this approach is not implemented at a structural level, it risks fragmenting the corporate messaging system.

The key quality of human-centered design is to make the voice of the customer resonate loud and clear within the design process. Asking customers directly what content they want to receive, when and how, is invaluable: the audience is in an ideal position to make a contribution that is, quite literally, decisive. This concept of co-creation (of the company with customers), which among other things is widely used to communicate with younger generations, results in qualitative information becoming an important input (along with communication preferences and engagement data) that can be used to help marketers create messages that answer real questions. Having qualitative information and being able to combine it with quantitative data enables the next step: using this information to create customized content of different types and lengths, such as short form and snackable content that can be sent through the customer’s preferred channel.


Integrating human-centered design into innovation strategy for a hybrid future 

By incorporating the principles of human-centered design, companies learn to give due consideration to the unique needs of their target audiences. Through the collection of quantitative and qualitative data, they enhance up-to-date and relevant feedback and input and improve communication processes. In this sense, they focus first on the human element and then on the technological element, resulting in extraordinarily powerful hybrid experiences. To harness the potential of the human-centered approach, all that remains is to incorporate it within the innovation strategy; only then can its transformative power permeate the entire corporate culture.