Used for countless purposes spanning product development, UX design, process design, and system creation, human-centered design is a creative approach to problem-solving.
As the name suggests, the defining characteristic of human-centered design is designing solutions that help people at the center of the problem.
When teams don’t involve the people experiencing the issue, you risk creating the wrong solutions, causing product-market fit issues, and opening up a disconnect between what your clients need and the solution you deliver.
However, there’s an easy solution. Bringing the right stakeholders in during the early stages of the solution development process can lead to better solutions and bring empathy, better collaboration, and improved innovation to your problem-solving.
What is human-centered design?
Human-centered design is a framework for creative problem-solving that focuses on understanding the needs, wants, and limitations of the people who will most directly benefit from the solution. Often applied to designing products, services, or systems, human-centered design involves gathering feedback from individuals experiencing the problem throughout the design process, creating prototypes, and testing them to ensure they are intuitive and easy to use.
At its core, human-centered design is the discipline of developing solutions for people.
The goal of HCD is to create solutions that are not only functional, but also enjoyable for individuals. By focusing on people’s needs, lived experience, and behaviors, HCD helps to create products that are intuitive, efficient, and easy to use.
The guiding principles of human-centered design
- Empathy: Understanding the user is at the core of human-centered design. Empathy involves putting yourself in the user's shoes and understanding their perspective.
- Iteration: Human-centered design is an iterative process that involves gathering feedback and iterating on designs until they meet the user's needs.
- Collaboration: Human-centered design involves collaboration between designers, stakeholders, and users to create products and solutions.
- User involvement: Users are involved throughout the design process, from initial research to final testing and feedback.
- Creativity: Human-centered design encourages creativity and innovation by challenging designers to think outside the box and create solutions in new and innovative ways.
Benefits of the human-centered design approach
Improved user satisfaction
By focusing on the user's needs and behaviors, the human-centered design methodology encourages creating products that are more intuitive and enjoyable to use, leading to higher levels of user satisfaction.
Increased adoption rates
Solutions that are designed with the user in mind are more likely to be adopted and used, leading to higher adoption rates and revenue.
Reduced development costs
By gathering feedback and iterating on designs throughout the design process, human-centered design can help to reduce development costs by catching problems early in the design process.
Human-centered design encourages creativity and innovation by adopting a creative approach for meeting the user's needs in new and innovative ways.
Stages of human-centered design
Human-centered design is a fluid, non-linear process, but typically follows a similar format. Not every user-centered design iteration will follow these stages — teams will often find themselves jumping around in the process.
The first, and arguably the most important, stage of the human-centered design process is to observe. This can involve techniques like user research, observation, and interviews.
The goal of the first step is to uncover insights that will inform the design process and begin to identify, understand, and empathize with the problem the user is facing.
Based on the insights gathered and empathy gained in the observing stage, the next step is to define the problem or opportunity. This involves identifying the user’s needs and the goals that the solution should address.
In this stage, designers may create user personas, user journey maps, empathy maps, or other tools and frameworks to help them identify and define the problem.
As teams come to understand the problem effectively, they should start generating ideas for solutions to the problem or opportunity identified in the define stage. This can involve techniques such as holding brainstorming sessions and sketching.
The goal is to generate a wide range of ideas, without evaluating them at this stage.
After thoroughly understanding the problem, a design team will move on to build prototypes or mock-ups of proposed solutions. This can involve creating either low-fidelity or high-fidelity prototypes, depending on the complexity of the solution.
Here, the goal is to create a low-cost representation of the solution where its feasibility can be tested with users, and gather insights that will inform further iterations of the design process. Be sure to test the prototypes with users to gather feedback and identify areas for improvement. This can involve usability testing, A/B testing, and other techniques to assess the effectiveness and efficiency of the potential solutions. Because the human-centered design process is non-linear, this often isn’t the final step. Based on user feedback, designers may go back all the way to the understanding stage if needed.
Skipping around the steps of the HCD process is common, but one method to reduce this back-and-forth trap and speed up decision-making is to leverage co-design, a process where end-users are included as key stakeholders throughout the whole design process.
Examples of human-centered design
Leveraging human-centered design with visual collaboration at Emerson
Creative collaboration is built into the culture at Emerson, a multinational Fortune 500 company with $18.4 billion in annual sales that helps manufacturers automate and optimize production processes.
Using the LUMA System™ of Innovation, teams at Emerson practice human-centered design to solve problems. They’re supported by Emerson's Human Centered Design Institute, a team who works across business units to empower others within Emerson to adopt the framework. They function much like internal consultants, facilitating workshops and training sessions to help teams at Emerson design solutions that put people first. And ultimately, they empower and train these teams to adopt human-centered design and improve productivity and collaboration in their day-to-day work.
Learn how Emerson scaled visual collaboration
More like this: 4 examples of human-centered design to inspire your team
There is no ‘human-centered design’ without empathy
At its core, human-centered design looks at the way people engage and interact with the world to design effective solutions. Without that context, you risk misalignment, poor solutions, and rising costs as the design process continues to spiral. By leveraging this design and problem-solving approach, you can reach better outcomes and improve collaboration.
Human-centered design frequently asked questions
Human-centered design vs design thinking: what’s the difference?
Design thinking and human-centered design are often used interchangeably as problem-solving processes, but they are not the same thing. While both concepts share similarities, they have different focuses and applications.
- Human-centered design is a problem-solving approach that focuses on the needs and behaviors of the user. The goal is to create products that solve the user’s problems and provide a better user experience overall.
- Design thinking is a problem-solving approach that focuses on understanding and redefining complex problems to find a solution. The design thinking approach not only seeks to understand the user's needs and behaviors, but also considers the larger context in which the problem exists. Design thinking involves empathizing with the user, defining the problem, ideating solutions, prototyping, and testing.
While design thinking can be human-centered and even co-exist with human-centered design, these are different concepts.
What is the goal of human-centered design?
The goal of human-centered design is to create solutions, often in the form of products and services, that are tailored to the people who will use them, ultimately leading to better solutions and outcomes for individuals.
What is co-design?
Co-design is the process of involving multiple stakeholders in the design of solutions (often when developing products, services, or systems) with the goal of creating solutions that are more relevant, effective, and satisfying to the people who will use them.
Now that you understand human-centered design, put it into practice with Mural and the LUMA System™. With this combination of a powerful collaboration space and guided methods, your teams will be equipped to tackle complex challenges, imagine new possibilities, and keep people at the center of their design processes.