What Is Human-Centered Design? A Beginner's Guide

Raven L. Veal, PhD

Business models across industries are experiencing a drastic transformation due to novel advancements in technology as well as human service needs. As a result, there is a great need to place the user at the center of innovation, developing products and services aligned with human-centered design principles. Human-centered design (HCD) is a design and management framework that develops solutions to problems by involving the human perspective in all steps of problem-solving. In contrast, user-centered design focuses more on the production of interactive technology designed around the user’s physical attributes rather than social problem solving.

This article will walk you through the three overlapping phases of the human-centered design process (inspiration, ideation, and implementation), and introduce you to key practices, such as inclusive design and equity-centered design. Let’s get started!

  1. The history of human-centered design
  2. The human-centered design process
  3. Human-centered design principles and practices
  4. Summary and key takeaways

1. The History of Human-Centered Design

Homelessness. Climate change. Social injustice.

These are classic examples of wicked problems.

Coined by Horst Rittel, a design theorist, wicked problems are multidimensional and difficult to solve because they often consist of incomplete, contradictory, or changing requirements. These problems also tend to be interdisciplinary in that solving one can reveal—or even create another. For this reason, wicked problems require a problem-solving method that is collaborative, adaptable, and centered on the complexities of human behavior.

Hence, the birth of human-centered design (HCD). So what is human-centered design? Championed by Nobel Prize laureate Herbert Simon, developed and taught by the Stanford University Design School, and leveraged by design firm IDEO, human-centered design is a creative problem-solving process that begins with understanding human needs and ends with innovative solutions to address those needs.

2. The Human-Centered Design Process: An Overview

The human-centered design process consists of three overlapping phases: inspiration, ideation, and implementation. During the inspiration phase, you will immerse yourself in the lives of the people you are designing for in order to understand their needs. During the ideation phase, you will reflect on what you learned, then generate, prototype, and test possible solutions. The final implementation phase is the path that leads to change. It is during this phase that you will bring your solution to life, knowing that the very people who experienced the problem were a constant part of the design process and even part of the design team itself.

Phase 1: Inspiration

Understand and Observe

Human-centered design starts with empathy, an important part of developing understanding. Empathy, or the ability to share the feelings of those who experience the problem, is important because it facilitates insight into how you can generate solutions through what you design and create. The process of empathy and understanding can be facilitated through generative research methods, such as interviews, immersion, or guided tours.

Point of View
After developing an understanding of human needs, the next step is to synthesize insights and define a point of view. Synthesis is the process of understanding how the insight gained through research translates into the features of a product or service. This process will allow you to move from data to information (what can or can’t the research tell us?), information to knowledge (the application of information to questions of “how” something could be done), and knowledge to wisdom (knowing what to do and why to do it). See synthesis methods.

Phase 2: Ideation


Ideation occurs after insights are synthesized into actionable needs and recommendations. The goal of ideation is to generate as many divergent ideas as possible. The psychological benefit of generating ideas, even if they are unfeasible, is the process of overcoming your inner critic, which often keeps you from uncovering disruptive or paradigm-shifting solutions. Research shows that the best ideas come from having a greater amount and diversity of ideas. See ideation methods.

Prototypes allow you to test a design in the context of real use (or as close to it as possible). This provides more detailed contextual information needed to refine a solution. Prototyping is the best way to get a holistic understanding of someone’s experience in the context of use and is performed to answer key questions about business and product assumptions. 

Testing involves validating important assumptions about a product design, service design, or business model. It also provides a way to explore strategic opportunities for greater value creation and revenue growth. In order to do this, designers create quantitative and qualitative usability metrics to understand what is working and not working. In human-centered design, the process of testing and iteration allows you to progressively improve a design to deeply align with the behaviors, goals, and needs of the user. See usability metrics.

Phase 3: Implementation

Lastly, implementation is about delivering a refined version of a design into the world. It includes telling the story of your design through marketing or storytelling, launching a pilot, and implementing a business model to sustain what you have made. Continuous measurement during this phase allows organizations to evaluate, modify, or expand product features in order to create more value. Overall, implementation should lead to continuous adaptation and growth of a solution in response to needs, market trends, and user behaviors.

3. Key Human-Centered Design Principles and Practices

Inclusive Design

Emerging trends in human-centered design are transforming how designers engage in solving problems for an increasingly diverse population. Every design decision has the potential to include or exclude customers. Inclusive design emphasizes including as many people as possible. Inclusivity involves making a product or service accessible to populations who are physically or mentally impaired. And while accessibility is a core objective, inclusion is much more than that, helping a diverse group of people use a product effectively in many different environments. In essence, good design makes life better for everyone.

Equity-Centered Design

In addition to inclusive design, there is an emerging recognition that many systemic inequities have been introduced into our various healthcare, criminal justice, and education systems. Equity-centered design (ECD) is, therefore, an acknowledgement that systems promoting inequity were designed without understanding, acknowledgement, or concern for the people that may be oppressed because of it. For example, public schools are often funded through the tax base of the neighborhoods in which they exist, leading to poor neighborhoods with low-income schools that have less-than-stellar educational outcomes. The structural power imbalance introduced by this system often perpetuates cycles of poverty and lack of access to opportunity.

As with inclusive design, ECD aims to include diverse groups in the process, understanding historical patterns of inequity and introducing methods of uncovering bias. ECD also aims to reduce the power gap between groups by redefining who the “designer” is and who has the power to influence the outcomes of a creative process.

Most recently, equity-centered community design was developed to place greater emphasis on including traditionally underserved groups in the design process. Historically, minority communities have been marginalized through biased and systemically racist community and city policies. Seeking to reverse this trend, the Creative Reaction Lab (CRXLAB) developed a 10-week apprenticeship program in which Black and Latinx college and university students, known as Community Design Apprentices, explore design issues that are critical to racial equity. The Creative Lab is a pioneer in this approach and was recently awarded as a 2018 World Changing Ideas Finalist by Fast Company.

4. Human-Centered Design: A Summary

Overall, human-centered design (HCD) has become the central process through which designers create and innovate. HCD allows anyone to participate in the design process and overall creation of a product or service. Participatory design is one of the most powerful aspects of HCD. Design itself is too important and critical to only be leveraged by the “professionals” and without the incorporation of the people a solution is intended to reach. Indeed, the more our society becomes design-literate, the more efficiently we can respond to and solve the various complex issues we face today.

Ultimately, the human-centered design process is for anyone who wants to create, lead, or generate solutions. HCD is for anyone who can identify wicked problems, empathize with the pains and needs people experience, and imagine something that does not yet exist, accelerating collaboratively from idea to execution.

Further Reading

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