Human-centred design, when you boil it down to its most simple version or the most simple definition is just the concept of leading with the user, and the user can be a customer, the user can be an employee. It can be anyone that is touching or interacting with the product, a service, a physical space, or even a face-to-face interaction.
In the more complicated or robust version of a definition for human-centred design, you first start with anthropology, which is the study of people, and behaviours, and the way that they interact in society, and then take anthropology and marry it with design, which is the art of planning and creation, and then as well as engineering and business modelling. And what you get is this perfect storm of cross-disciplinary people working together in order to make things better for people.
How does UX fit with human centred design (HCD)?
User experience designers are very similar to human-centred designers in that they’re really heavy on eliciting user feedback. That’s where the real marriage between user experience and human-centred design comes from. When a UX person builds a website, they then test it with users, right? And what they’re doing is they’re eliciting all sorts of feedback to then improve the product and make it better for that person, much like a human-centred designer would. But a human-centred designer wouldn’t just do it for a digital product. They would also do that for physical space tests and for human/non-human interaction tests.
Ergonomics is really where user experience came from. So user experience in the analogue world looked a lot different than what user experience looks like in the digital world. In ergonomics, you think of things like the chair I’m sitting on, or the most basic objects that you take for granted, like wheels, walls, doors. All of those pieces of the world that we’ve created for ourselves have an aspect of being tested on people over time in order to perfect the materials, the proportions, the mechanics of the way that they move.
So ergonomics is really where it started. In a lot of ways that anthropology is where human-centred design started. We’ve just advanced and changed so much as a society that the disciplines have changed with the world that we live in.
What is the basic framework of HCD?
The framework is this (it’s the same across all the books). Start with discovery, discovery meaning “ask a question.” Ask a question and sometimes don’t ask a question that’s very targeted, find the person you want to build something for, and spend a day with them. Talk to them about their needs, their problems, what frustrates them about their daily life, what makes them super-happy.
You can also follow them in their day, right? If you want to build, say, a new insurance product or something like that, take that user and watch them as they go through a process associated with insurance, right? So just start by discovering, get outside. Yes, read the books, yes, read the literature. Get as smart as you can, but if you want to do human-centred design, just go find people and talk to them.
The more you spend time observing rather than asking directed questions, you’re going to uncover what’s called a latent need, and latent needs are things that we don’t really know are there, aren’t very well documented, but are affecting people’s experiences.
Step two is to analyze. Some people call this ideation, some people call this brainstorming. Some people break it up into two separate categories where you brainstorm first and then you ideate, but the whole idea is you take all of the information you discovered and you brainstorm how they connect, what trends do you see, what did everyone say, what did nobody say. What did very disabled or very extreme users say that the users in the margins didn’t? What you can do is by doing that, you create a universe of concepts or a series of opportunity areas that are like top priority things that could potentially solve a problem for the user.
And then what you do is you create. So you prototype. Go into experimentation, build something, take it back out to people, test it with people. So “create” is phase three. In stage four, which is the testing stage, human-centred design can come into play in a lot of different ways. The way you want to think about with a human-centred design testing phase is teasing out, again, the latent needs and the gaps between what people say and how they actually feel.
So if I in traditional testing, I get in a room with you and I put a product in front of you and I ask you questions as you go, and I’m observing you, right? So I’m asking you how did that work on a scale of one to 10, how usable was that on a scale of one to 10? How enjoyable was that? So I’m collecting all sorts of information and asking you to talk me through the experience.
Oftentimes we’ll ask users to narrate their whole experience out loud. All of that involves self-reporting. Self-reporting means what I can tell you about how I’m feeling. So right now, I could tell you I’m on camera, I’m hot, I’m nervous, something like that. But in latent-needs observation and testing, what you’re going to do is you’re going to do in-the wild-tests, which means giving someone a product and to whatever extent you can, making them feel as though they’re not being watched—not really giving them any instructions, but just watching them interact with the product or a service as they naturally would.
A human-centred design researcher would observe people in a natural habitat going through experiences, and observing where there is what we call moments of friction, which means either barriers or challenges that the person’s overcoming that’s preventing them from having a really positive experience. And by recording those things as well as the, like, very delightful moments, you can go back to the drawing table and rework the products that you emphasize the moments of delight, and either build new components or remove components that are creating challenges or barriers for people.
What is the tension between beauty and function?
In design, there’s always a difference between beautiful and functional. As a designer, it drives me crazy when I interact with new products coming into the market that have clearly been made for beauty, clearly been made because they feel good, you want to click more, but it doesn’t really solve any functional problem.
For me as a designer, I find beauty in an elegant solution. Of course, if it’s the colours that I like, if it has a bunch of nice white space that makes me happy, but the beauty is in the fact that someone came up with an elegant solution to a problem that I hadn’t thought of before. That for me is beauty.