Human Centered Design: Basics, Tactics, Advantages

Of the many terminologies, we have now to describe various disciplines of design (product design, communication design, visual design, UX design, et. al) human-centered design is the one that resonates with me personally the most. Because in my opinion, it holds the truest form of product development in mind. Though, it is one of the harder to describe disciplines.

For business leaders who may be reading this article, it's important to recognize that embracing human-centered design can truly only be done from an executive level. And then it has to find its way to your design department, then your product and marketing departments. This is unfortunately not an ethos or discipline that will be easy to deploy.

Let's start with what human-centered design is. The human-centered design definition is as follows:

Human-centered design builds upon participatory action research by moving beyond participant’s involvement and producing solutions to problems rather than solely documenting them. Initial stages usually revolve around immersion, observing, and contextual framing in which innovators immerse themselves with the problem and community. Consequent stages may then focus on community brainstorming, modeling and prototyping, and implementation in community spaces. Further, the human-centered design typically focuses on integrating technology or other useful tools in order to alleviate problems, especially around issues of health. Once the solution is integrated, the human-centered design usually employs system usability scales and community feedback in order to determine the success of the solution.

As you can see this discipline has a social awareness to it. Almost an activist awareness to it. But why do I love it so much for digital design as well? Because of the scenarios of the people behind the machines. This discipline really embodies the thought process behind calculating the position of the end user beyond calling them a ‘user’.

The term human-centered design has really been embodied at IDEO, one of the worlds best design agencies. They’ve been very proactive in their philanthropic efforts to include this discipline as part of their core statement.

Those are some of the basics behind human-centered design. Which should give you a foundation for the following parts of this article. If you’d like to understand the history behind the human-centered design practice, there are some wonderful human-centered design books made by IDEO, which can be found here.

Advantages to this discipline

From a leadership perspective, making this type of discipline part of your core mission has a few advantages. Firstly, if done correctly, it encourages research in the intangible natures that can provide an edge. Currently, your product and engineering teams may do some type of research before they proceed forward. But its often in the settings of, what problems do our customers have and how can we address those. While that’s wonderful and absolutely correct, it doesn’t go into the persona levels of understanding when relating to the customer. For instance, what geographic environments are they in? What social pressures do they have? Are they attempting to resolve a dispute that they are having? What are the triggers that go above and beyond an interface level piece of friction?

These questions can give you a huge advantage. Ultimately because they will be very difficult to answer and most likely will lead the teams into studies and research papers that are related to the category of business they’re in but also go beyond their everyday scope of discussion. To me, that’s a powerful tool. A market understanding deeper than the competitors so that work can be benchmarked against that.

Your efforts to make this part of an inclusive effort shows that the additional time spent on deeper research is okay and encouraged. Thus, why it has to be started from an executive level and not from an individual contributor level.

The other advantages that this discipline holds is the ability to market those empathetic endeavors. This should be part of the core marketing messaging then. The absolute understanding of not just the core customer, but the scenario and emotional presence of that customer. What pressures they’re under, for example. This should help provide a great springboard for competitive marketing communication that your competitors may not be doing. The ability to relate on a much deeper level.

Of course, all of these efforts endure larger costs. Time, especially with larger teams, is the commodity you want to control. And you have to be sure you are in the position to be placing this investment of time.

The difference of the discipline

When comparing the disciplines in design, I think the reason I more closely related to this discipline is that it holds problem-solving as part of its core. When we discuss visual design, it becomes more difficult to say this is about problem-solving and others may interpret it more closely to a branding mechanism.

Let’s look at the two descriptions of human-centered design and UX design right next to each other:

Human-centered design (HCD) is a design and management framework that develops solutions to problems by involving the human perspective in all steps of the problem-solving process. Human involvement typically takes place in observing the problem within context, brainstorming, conceptualizing, developing, and implementing the solution.

User experience design (UX design) is the process of enhancing user satisfaction with a product by improving the usability, accessibility, and pleasure provided in the interaction with the product. User experience design encompasses traditional human–computer interaction (HCI) design, and extends it by addressing all aspects of a product or service as perceived by users.

Tactics to embrace

Embracing human-centered design can be simple. You don’t have to dramatically alter your organizational structure or company ethos in order to embrace it. Here are some really simple tactics for getting it started.

Start with personas. Ask each one of your product teams to define the customer, from a meaningful level. Try to avoid the simple answers, like where they work and what they do. Ask the questions of, what car do they drive? What’s their 5-year plan? What social pressures do they experience at work?

Consider the philanthropic components. If you are in the space where there is the social or humanitarian impact on your product or design work, consider the effects of that. Ask for plans both positive and negative with regard to the potential effects of a product release, when substantial enough. This is particularly important for those in physical goods companies, who may be creating real-world long-term waste that has a geopolitical impact.

Consider emotional responses. Define the emotional component you are answering in your product and marketing matrix. Ask for plans on which emotional trigger we are speaking to, how we are doing it and what the potential effects of it may be. This is much easier for those who are solving housing problems or something along those lines. But I’d argue that anything we produce, should have a potential emotional trigger we’re either responding to or acknowledging.


As we started with this article, you can see how this goes above and beyond a designer individual contributions. This cannot be a process which we ask our contributors to do. We must enable this process from a leadership level, provide the flexibility to ask questions which will take time to draw conclusions from and utilize the conclusions that the organization spent time in gathering. I’d like to think that the best form of design always come from a leadership level. In particular, the success I’ve seen is when it does. When that freedom to truly connect with each customer is enabled.

author: patrick algrim
About the author

Patrick Algrim is an experienced executive who has spent a number of years in Silicon Valley hiring and coaching some of the world’s most valuable technology teams. Patrick has been a source for Human Resources and career related insights for Forbes, Glassdoor, Entrepreneur,, SparkHire, and many more.


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