Designing for humans

I’ve just finished a course in human centred design which was really interesting. If you’ve never heard of this before, it involves designing solutions to problems in an entirely new way, or at least that’s how it’s promoted. Even if it’s not a new idea, it’s a very different approach to the one we normally use in most organisations. The course was designed by IDEO who are a global design company with a strong interest in creating social change through design.

The normal process

What we usually do is identify a problem that we think needs fixing and then go about fixing it in the best way we know how. We rarely think about whether the solution meets the needs of the target group or the end user. Our solutions seem to be more about meeting our organisational needs, rather than meeting the needs of customers. We often design quite complex and expensive solutions that may or may not work for a variety of reasons. Sometimes we develop solutions that are so expensive that even when it becomes apparent that they don’t work very well, we have to keep on rolling out the program because it cost a lot of money to put it into action and as a result, it’s virtually unstoppable. We may make minor adjustments along the way, but we tend to work on the principle of “you’ve made your bed now lie in it”. We have to see it through to the bitter end even if it’s clearly not working.

The new approach – develop empathy

Human centred design is different because the needs of the people impacted by the problem are considered at every step of the design process. This means walking in the shoes of other people and finding out what the real problem is. This might involve watching people go about their daily lives and noting what they do, or talking to people about their lives, or standing in the queue or waiting on the telephone speak to a real person. It’s about gaining a very real appreciation of what it’s really like to be in the shoes of a customer or a client. Human centred design considers what people experience as well as how they experience it.

Define the problem

Once you’ve spent time really considering the problem from the point of view of the people experiencing the problem, then its time to define the real issue so that you can come up with an innovative solution. This may not sound like a particularly new approach, but in my experience we do jump to solutions rather quickly.


The next step in the process involves having millions of ideas. Well maybe not millions, but lots of ideas without worrying too much about whether they are good ideas, or if they are feasible or too expensive. People often don’t voice their ideas because they make judgements about whether they are sensible or realistic before they even leave their mouths. Many good ideas are lost this way.


My favourite stage was developing cheap and cheerful prototypes of solutions. A prototype is nothing more than a mock-up of your solution. You can make a prototype with cardboard and test it to see if the idea will work, and best of all, it’s super cheap. We had an idea about developing an app to help people communicate more effectively with customers who don’t speak or understand English very well and when we tested our prototype with potential users, it was fine to just use a simple drawing of what we had in mind.


When we tested the idea we found that it was full of holes and needed a lot of refinement, but gosh it was cheap! It was just drawn on butchers paper so it was really easy to make a new version and test that with a different group of users. So much better than rolling out a whole program that didn’t quite work. The mantra of human centred design is to fail as early as possible. Failure is excellent because it helps you to improve quickly. The more you test and refine your ideas, the better. It’s so much better than refining your ideas almost to the point of perfection before you test it. You really can’t tell if something is going to work until you test it. You need to adopt an attitude that embraces failure. There’s a famous quote from Edison who said “I haven’t failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”.


Although we didn’t intend to take our idea to market, the implementation phase of the course involved developing a “pitch” for our idea. This was extraordinarily difficult as it meant getting down to the nitty gritty of what the real problem was and how we thought that our solution would solve the problem. Writing a pitch for any idea that you have is a really worthwhile activity. I recommend it. It can really help you clarify what the main issues are.

And finally…

I did this course with three of my workmates and working collaboratively with them was awesome. We were all different and able to bring together a range of ideas and viewpoints. If you are going to embark on a human centred design project or you are interested in doing the course (which is free) I highly recommend getting together with a diverse group of people. It really works much better when you don’t all think the same way.

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