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why human centered design matters

Ryan Eagan

I was 34, in college and working two jobs when I first truly understood the value of human-centered design. My mother had passed after a short battle with cancer and now I found myself facing the daunting list of managing her affairs. I’m not a lawyer or an accountant and I’ve never dealt with something like this before; I was on my own.

I had emailed one of my mother’s life insurance companies, asking how to start the process of filing a claim since I couldn’t call them during normal business hours. Their website only had sales and marketing information on it, nothing about policy management or administration. I emailed the generic email on their site, as it was after their office hours. Two days later, I received an email telling me if I couldn’t call during business hours, I could log into my mother’s account and upload a death certificate to initiate the process. It was an employer-provided policy that used my mother’s work email account, which made any chance of retrieving her username and password pretty much hopeless. When I replied via email to explain the situation in more detail, another two days elapsed before I received a response iterating these are my only two options. At this point, my frustrations grew into anger and despair. I was coping with the emotions of grief, the stress of school, and work, and now I felt as if this company didn’t care about me or my late mother. I couldn’t understand why they would make this process so hard and full of barriers for someone when it’s one of the most sensitive experiences a person will go through in life.

Today, I look back and understand that those companies had designed the experiences of filing claims and managing related affairs around their schedules and business processes, not around what human experiences are. Those experiences are well entrenched in my memory and they have been useful, albeit painful, reinforcers of the value of exclusivity and poor design.

What is HCD?

“Human-centered design is a philosophy, not a precise set of methods, but one that assumes that innovation should start by getting close to users and observing their activities.” – Donald A. Norman, Co-founder of Nielsen Norman Group

Many of us have grown up learning The Golden Rule, “To treat others as you would like to be treated.” A phrase meant for us to remember to care for others. This phrase, however, doesn't have the best experience in mind for the other individual. The problem is, I don’t know what you might want. All I can safely know is that if I make an assumption and pretend to know what’s best for you based on what I want, I’m going to be wrong more than I’m going to be right. In Dave Kerpen’s book, The Art of People, he introduces the Platinum Rule: “Do unto others as they would want done to them.” The Platinum Rule reminds us to use a different lens, one that is rooted in empathy. It compels us to look beyond our individual experiences by engaging with others, listening and learning to gain a deep understanding of their experiences.

In practicing human-centered design, we look to understand the diversity in experience interactions. Everyone experiences the same thing differently. You and I can go to the same website, have the same goal to accomplish, but how we achieve that goal will be different and our experience will be unique to us. You might have a very positive experience and achieve the goal easily, leaving you feeling accomplished and happy. This could be a result of your prior knowledge or ability. I might struggle to achieve that same goal, lacking the same knowledge or ability you have, giving me an experience that leaves me feeling defeated and inadequate. Since I only know my experience, if I use that as my sole basis in solving a problem, I have very little chance I’m going to get the right solution that will ensure everyone is successful in having a positive experience.

Human-centered design is a philosophy that works to break us from the natural biases and assumptions we rely on every day. It is the idea that designing and building experiences WITH the people directly impacted instead of designing and building FOR them results in the best experience for everyone.

This probably all sounds like common sense, it’s definitely not rocket science, but the reality is that too many experiences out there are designed poorly. Whether a product, in-person, or digital experience, I’m sure you can recall at least a half dozen times you’ve been frustrated. In human-centered design, we look to learn first-hand why that experience was poor and learn how to make it better for you.

The importance of HCD

“We must design for the way people behave, not for how we would wish them to behave.” - Donald A. Norman, Living with Complexity

One of the first things we have to consider and understand is what we know about ourselves. We have to first look at our own biases. To truly open ourselves to the possibilities of what others are experiencing, we have to first know what ideas we are unknowingly, subconsciously believing. For example, in the availability heuristic (Tversky and Kahneman, 1973) we learn that as humans, we often make judgments based on our own experiences if we can call one to mind. That is to say, if we cannot think of an example of an experience, then we may discount that experience as not a frequent occurrence. This then causes us to ignore a potentially significant part of an audience, and miss out on functionality, language, or design treatments that would directly improve their experience. Today, most experiences are designed in this kind of bubble, where teams of experts rely on their own personal experiences to inform their design. They abstract and generalize from their experience, which generally results in a design that is exclusive to only a small group. Thankfully, human-centered design helps us build empathy, and in building empathy, we can remove many of those availability heuristics and achieve a much more inclusive outcome.

Countless variables impact how one person’s experience differs from another’s. There are over 30 perspectives that our HCD research team keeps in mind as we engage with our work and here is just a sample from that list:

  • Race and ethnicity
  • Gender identity and sexual orientation
  • Cultural background and beliefs
  • Geographical location
  • Cognitive disabilities, mental health, and neurodiversity
  • Physical abilities and disabilities
  • Behavior and ethodiversity
  • Personality, upbringing, ideologies, and morals
  • Language, linguistics, accents
  • Age
  • Socioeconomic status
  • Life and work experiences, and skills

With this vast (and incomplete) list you can see how crazy complex humans are, and how easy it would be to forget all of the nuances that exist between us. Think about how all of these factors disappear when we abstract them away and generalize an experience from one perspective. We lose the very diversity that makes each of us who we are as individuals.

HCD at andculture

“If we are to achieve a richer culture, rich in contrasting values, we must recognize the whole gamut of human potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse human gift will find a fitting place.” - Margaret Mead

At andculture, we are Human-Centered, To 👏 The 👏 Core 👏. Our raison d`être is solving broken realities one experience at a time. Experiences are a very human thing; an event or occurrence that leaves an impression on someone. We know the only way that we can design and build the best and most inclusive experience is by directly engaging with people. Because it’s so important to learn deeply about humans, their backgrounds, and their current experiences, we do deep and dispersed research.

We don’t just do secondary (desk) research. We are not surface level, we are not shallow in how we learn about our fellow complex humans. So we don’t research as such. We start with ethnographic studies that are observational, engaging, and provide us with direct experiences. This primary form of research is where we gain the most value. We go deep in our discovery at the onset of projects to REALLY, TRULY understand the humans who will engage with your brand, your product, and ultimately your experience.

We’re aware that we don’t know what we don’t know, and that’s key in truly beginning to understand others. We consider these possibilities and hold each other accountable in thinking of the humans at the heart of the idea. It starts with our team of Human-Centered Design researchers and facilitators. They keep us all on point, guiding us through projects as the proxy for the humans. This team pushes us all to think of humans through every step of the process. We don’t just stop research after the research phase. We continue to talk to the humans who will engage with that digital experience, that brand, that live event, and so on. And so for this team, this act of proxy has become second nature. They react by asking the questions the humans would ask, and also follow up with them. Who would we be to say we’re human-centered if we didn’t continue to talk to humans throughout a project? This is why we’re checking in with them regularly to make sure our progress is still on point, and they’re cared for throughout the work that we’re doing.

The work that we do is something that we care deeply about. At andculture, we genuinely want to learn about the end-users, the humans involved in the project. Solving problems with innovations that are specific to the issues that are unique to them. In the end, we strive to make every experience one that is memorable for the right reasons, not ones like the personal experience I shared.