Human-centered design

Human-centered design

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Human-centered design (HCD) is a creative problem solving technique that puts the human into the center of all activities.


International standards

The dictionary defines “human-centered” as marked by humanistic values and devotion to human welfare. The word “design” has several meanings ranging from the abstract conception of something to the actual plans and processes required to achieve it. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) describes human-centered design in its ISO 9241-210 norm as the following:

Human-centered design is an approach to interactive systems development that aims to make systems usable and useful by focusing on the users, their needs and requirements, and by applying human factors/ergonomics, and usability knowledge and techniques. This approach enhances effectiveness and efficiency, improves human well-being, user satisfaction, accessibility and sustainability; and counteracts possible adverse effects of use on human health, safety and performance.


Why a human-centered approach?

In comparison to other major design paradigms like technology driven design, which is based in technical novelty, or environmentally sustainable design, which focuses on the planetary impact, human-centered design is focusing on the needs of the people involved. It starts with the core belief that ideas will evolve into right solutions as long as staying grounded in desires of the community engaged with. In this way, the developed solution is providing value. Therefore, HCD requires understanding people in their environment to facilitate interaction and learning. This stimulates our human needs for socialization and personal growth. Studying the beliefs of the individual naturally leads to identifying opportunities for improvement, thus incremental innovation. Increased learning provides the basis for disruptive innovations as well. Practiced in its most basic form, human-centered design leads to products, systems and services which are physically, perceptually, cognitively and emotionally intuitive.


What means a product to me?

There are examples of beautifully designed products, which solve real problems, but just not ours. Then there are simple products which are practical and help us to reach our needs. The point is that we do not respond to the physical qualities of things, but to what they mean to us. Klaus Krippendorff underlines this view that at the heart of any design activity should be the identification of the meaning which the product, system or service could offer to people. (In the video linked to he talks about meaning from minute 25)

In recent years a shift could be observed away from physical considerations towards metaphysical ones. In other words, the meaning is found in the brand and not in the product itself anymore. A relationship between the brand and the people is created in which meaning is found for the individual. This highlights the importance to communicate a clear purpose, a reason for why the company exists.


The human-centered design pyramid

At the bottom of the human-centered design pyramid are the scientific facts about human physical, perceptual, cognitive and emotional characteristics. Towards the top the layers are progressively increasing in complexity. Interactive and sociological considerations are placed at the upper part of the pyramid. At the top the model contains the metaphysical meaning which individuals form based on contact with the design.

Human-centered design pyramid

Human-centered design pyramid

The human-centered design pyramid highlights that the metaphysical meaning, whether with the brand or a tangible product, is essential for creating valuable designs. It is considered to be the key to social acceptance, commercial success, brand identity and business strategy. If the answers can be given to questions higher up the pyramid, the more meaning people can derive from a product, the higher are the chances for commercial success, because the design is deeper embed in people’s minds and everyday lives.


How does a human-centered design approach look like?

There are slightly different approaches to human-centered designs from design thinking organizations like IDEO, Design for America, Frog Design, Luma or the ISO norm. However, the core approach always focuses on three main aspects: Understanding the human, generating ideas and developing solutions.

1. Understanding the human

It starts by putting on the shoes of the potential consumers, obtaining an understanding of their needs, desires and experiences. Talking to them or observing their lives creates learning about the challenge directly from the people involved. Realizing all the opportunities opens up the mind to creative possibilities.

2. Generating ideas

The second step is making sense of what has been observed or heard. This generates tons of ideas and identifies opportunities for design. It is a process of diverge and converge. Imagining potential creative solutions and coming to realization what could actually work. Direct prototyping and testing delivers instant feedback from the people designing for. This creates successful and sustainable solutions which are desirable for the humans involved, technological feasible and financially viable from a business perspective. This step is an iterative process that comes closer to a market-ready solution with every repetition.

3. Developing solutions

The last step is implementing the feedback to come to a satisfying solution and bring it to the market. The impact of the solution is maximized by marketing it and making it available to as many people as possible.


What is needed for a human-centered design approach?


Seeing the human

The core belief of HCD is that the people who are facing the problem every day are the ones who hold the key to finding a solution to it. Therefore, a human-centered approach facilitates engagement with the individuals a solution is designed for through communication and developing deep empathy. Through interacting with individuals learning is unavoidable, which leads to an adaption of multidisciplinary skills and perspectives.


Trusting the process

In order to apply a human-centered approach it requires a fundamental positive outlook that all problems can be solved. A HCD approach embraces ambiguity. That means starting without having a fixed solution in mind and being open to the process as well as the result. Therefore, HCD requires openness of mind to follow intuitions by pursuing solutions that have not been totally figured out yet. A human-centric design accepts that not all solutions will work, but that the most can be learned from failure. Solving huge problems require setbacks, but that is the price for taking risks. Considering the whole user experience and seeing the big picture by focusing on what is desirable, feasible and viable, the best and most sustainable long-term solution can be developed.


Daring to co-create change

A human-centered approach focuses on involving the end-user throughout the design and development process. Through co-creation an idea turns into a tangible solution. This creates the possibility for sharing it early and receiving feedback. Thus HCD creates a foundation to make change happen faster and develop a solution that is providing value for the people it is designed for.

Are you using a human-centered design approach?


Further information and tools for a human-centered design can be found at the following sources:

  • The Design kit from IDEO contains 57 design methods to understand the people a solution is designed for, to have more effective brainstorming sessions, to prototype ideas, and to ultimately arrive at more creative solutions.
  • The Collective Action Toolkit from Frog Design is a set of activities and methods that enables groups of people to organize, collaborate, and create solutions for problems affecting their community.
  • A comprehensive blueprint from Design for America (DFA) is available to understand and apply the skills and values of human-centered design to address social challenges.

This blog post was inspired by Joseph Giacomin’s paper ‘What is Human Centred Design?’ for the 10th Conference on Design Research and Development in 2012. The article was assessed from the Human Centred Design Institute of the Brunel University in London.


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About Businesshumanizer

My name is Jens and I write about organizational evolution to inspire a way of organizing work that is human-centric. Find me at

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