What is Human-Centered Design Thinking?

What is Human-Centered Design Thinking?

The development team of a new application thought it was really great, but the sales recorded did not live up to expectations. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case.

Many companies have to realize, after a long and costly development process, that they have been mistaken about the needs and expectations of the users targeted by their products. Either these products have solved a problem that the user does not see as such, or their implementation shows serious shortcomings.

Human-centered design (HCD) reduces the number of open questions during the development process by involving users from the start in the design phase of a new product or a second generation of products.

Human-centered design

“Human-centered design” was born out of the desire to improve the product development process and avoid any misdirection of the latter. The term is defined in ISO 9241-210:2019.

Human-centered design is an interactive systems development approach aimed at designing useful and easy-to-use systems. For this, it places the user, his needs, and his expectations at the heart of the process and takes into account the human factor, as well as the knowledge and methods supporting the usability of an application.

The origins of the term “human-centered design” are not very clear.

If the idea of ​​placing users at the center of the product development process appeared in the 1990s in the digital universe, it is in the face of the highly competitive and budgetary pressure that “human-centered design” has gained ground in recent years.

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Companies can no longer afford to invest for months in redesigning their site when its launch does not bring significantly high conversions, nor can’t market a product that would end up among the unsold digital products because it turns out to be too complex for its users.

Similar concepts and terms

In the world of web design and development, the term “user-centered design” is often used. It is a synonym for “human-centered design”.

A more detailed observation, however, reveals slight differences between these two concepts: while “user-centered design” takes into account target users in a very concrete way, “human-centered design” opens up to other stakeholders, who are also likely to interact with the application or the product.

In the case of a parcel delivery application, for example, the deliverers are not the only people surveyed: the recipients of the parcels, as well as the employees responsible for processing and evaluating the application’s data within the transport company, are also questioned. Also, in the case of a children’s game application, parents and legal guardians are also taken advantage of, etc.

User experience design is another term with similar connotations. Here again, the aim is to improve the user experience by making the product more pleasant and the application more intuitive. However, measures are only implemented once the main characteristics of the product have been defined by the project team. Unlike “human-centered design”, in which the user is integrated from the start of the product development process.

A concept also close to “human-centered design” is “ human-centered design thinking ”. In both cases, users are placed at the heart of the process. In either case, potential users are interviewed early on and prototypes are iteratively improved. However, while “human-centered design” focuses on usability and user experience, “design thinking” applies more to the development of innovative creative products. To do this, the method aims to question existing solutions and develop innovations.

Principles of «human-centered design »

The ISO list of principles defining “human-centered design” include:

  1. Design is based on an explicit understanding of the users, the application, and the environment: developers must not only understand the users, but also why and how they will want to use the product, and in which environment.
  2. Users are integrated into the entire design and development process: Potential users are integrated into the entire product development process. Rather than having them evaluate an idea and a prototype, their needs are studied and directly integrated into the design of the product. Field studies (observations) can thus be carried out at the beginning of the project, followed by user tests at the end of the publication of the first version of the product.
  3. Design progresses and refines through user-centered evaluation: this principle emphasizes the importance of user testing, not just at the end of the development process, but as an integral component of product development. From the first ideas thrown on paper or the availability of basic prototypes, the opinion of the users must be taken into consideration.

The process is iterative: in many cases, users cannot formulate their needs unequivocally or evoke the image of a product corresponding to their expectations. The ideal solution must therefore be crystallized through numerous surveys and dialogues. To stay true to this principle, agile methods are best suited.

  1. The design takes into account the user experience as a whole: in the past, the user experience was very often associated with intuitive ergonomics. However, a quality experience is made up of many other elements. The aim should be to achieve a design that is as simple and pleasant as possible, able to evoke positive emotions and make the user want to use the product repeatedly.
  2. The design team incorporates multidisciplinary skills and perspectives: product development teams should be made up of experts from a variety of disciplines. It’s only when designers, copywriters, programmers, and usability experts bring their different perspectives together that they can spot the “blind spots” in their designs and make human-centered design a success.

The four phases of the “human-centered design” process

Human-centered design is divided into four activities or phases structuring the development process :

  1. Understand and describe the context of the use
  2. Define usage requirements
  3. Conceive design solutions
  4. Test and evaluate solutions

From a practical point of view, the easiest way to explain them is to illustrate them with an example.

Practical example: human-centered design and application development

Company ABC wants to develop a mobile application to replace the current clocking system of a large multinational. Currently, there is no mobile solution.

  1. Understand and describe the context of use: before the project team gets down to developing the application, they talk about it to its future users (the employees). How is working time clocking currently done? What are the problems being faced? What are you looking for in a mobile app? It happened that the web interface has been used for mobile clocking so far, smartphone navigation is difficult, and errors occur frequently. Many employees have indicated that they are not very tech-savvy and will love that you make ease of use a priority.
  2. Define usage requirements: In addition to the concrete wishes and needs of the employees, budgetary guidelines, deadlines and requirements of the company management had to be taken into account. It was therefore decided to keep the current scoring system by adding a mobile component.
  3. Design of solutions: it was only from there that a prototype could finally be designed. The application interface depends on the role of the employee. Clocking can be executed quickly, with just three clicks. The functionality of the application has been limited to the essentials, to ensure that employees who are less technologically versed can also find their way around.
  4. Test and evaluate the solutions: the first prototypes were presented to a group of employees. Their opinion was collected and incorporated into the adjustments made to the application. At each major development stage, new opinions were requested, until the final version of the application was obtained.

Iterations can also occur at each development phase. The methods applied to the “human-centered design” process are not predefined. Businesses can leverage proven methods for field research, idea development, and product testing.

Why it pays to put people at the heart of this process

Human-centered design thinking offers many advantages – for companies as well as for users. It can be used for physical or digital product development. The latter particularly benefit from this approach, as their success depends on the interaction with users.

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  • Improved productivity: Developers can use their resources in a targeted manner thanks to rapid user feedback.
  • Low training costs: Applications born out of a user-centric process are intended to be intuitive, so post-release support and training costs are minimized.
  • Competitive advantage: Thanks to this approach and compared to their competitors who focus on testing and improving finished products, companies can more accurately meet the real needs of their users, as well as provide better solutions to problems affecting their applications.
  • High customer satisfaction: This process guarantees a very good customer experience and a level of quality that is difficult to achieve using other methods.
  • Reduced stress: Regular feedback from users reduces economic risk, which creates a more relaxed working atmosphere and positively influences the creativity of the project team. Users also enjoy a stress-free experience, as they receive a product that is dedicated to solving certain problems and is easy to use.

Criticisms of “human-centered design”

Some critics lament that the radical focus on user needs limits developers’ prospects and prevents any real technological innovation.

Similarly, some people argue that everyday reality, and with it the challenges facing users, is changing extremely rapidly. In this sense, observation and survey efforts come to nothing if product development is not completed quickly. This is because companies run the risk that the problems the product aims to solve have already changed when it is released.

Another criticism relates to the global perspective of this approach. This is so context and stakeholder aware that it is not suitable for developing specific solutions for a specific target group.

Relevance and future prospects

The terms user experience and usability are ubiquitous in the world of web design and development. Human-centered design, therefore, integrates user orientation into all phases of product development.

Many companies applying agile methods already follow the “human-centered design” approach, even when it is not explicitly named as such. In the future, the question will no longer be whether user-centered design has a place in the design and development process, but how to effectively put the concepts of “human-centered design” into practice.

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