Keeping the Human in Human-Centered Design

Written by Nevin DeCroo on January 24, 2023

There’s a reason that design thinking also goes by the name human-centered design. It’s all about the humans involved! While this process can certainly bring about creative thinking and innovative ideas, the best results align the desires of your clients or users.

The first part of the design thinking process is the discovery phase. It’s all about gathering insights from people who are either in the target market or closely involved in other key ways. These insights determine the trajectory of the rest of the process and ultimately where your creative efforts will take you.

Why Start with User Research?

Doing user research might not be the glamorous reflection of what you imagine design thinking to be. It’s not the part where wild and fun ideas are flowing. It’s not the part where you’re involved in a high-energy sprint to build a new product. But it is the part that enables you to connect with others in a way that fuels the innovative spirit that’s to come.

Let me paint a picture to illustrate the value of discovery work. You’re an entrepreneurial dreamer. One day, as you’re making your morning coffee, your half-awake brain churns up this brilliant idea for a new app. You think about it for the rest of the day, and contact some friends who can help you build it. A couple months of hard work (and lots of product development dollars) later, you and your team launch it. You’re so excited and proud of the work you’ve done.

But nobody downloads the app. Reluctantly, you change the price from $1.99 to free and pray that the in-app purchases will be your saving grace. You spread the word on your social media platforms, and a few friends and distantly related family members download. Eight weeks later, it’s been seven and a half weeks since anyone has joined.

You realize that you never stopped to think if anyone was actually in the market for an app like this. The idea was cool, but had no footing and no market. You throw in the towel. You’re crushed and disappointed.

Dramatic? Yes. Worth mentioning? Also, yes. If you neglect doing your homework, you’re going to find it tough to succeed. Spending some time learning about your users and your market allows for uniquely human insights that are sure to pay dividends!

So what steps can you take to avoid the previously mentioned situation? Great question. I’m glad you asked.

Hit the Target

User research starts with knowing your target market. These are the stakeholders in your design thinking efforts. Think about those who will be affected by your innovation efforts and whose interests you want to look out for. This may not always involve a customer or someone who is going to buy your product. It could simply be people at your company or even your friends that will be impacted by a process change.

Keep in mind that you also may be in your target market. In this case, put on the hat of a user rather than an innovator and gather some insights from yourself and your own experiences.

Seek out these people in your target market, and spend some time talking to them and gathering information that you can act on.

Start with a Problem, Not a Solution

User research, in the beginning, is about having a problem in mind that you want to solve or optimize. From there, you can go out and talk to people about their problems, needs, thoughts, and insights as it relates to this issue. You will get their honest opinions as well as a glimpse into what they would like to be better.

This directly counters the approach of having a solution already in mind and then asking them if they think it’s a good idea. If you do that, the only information you’re going to get is related to your idea rather than what they feel like could actually help them. They may be biased into telling you that they like your idea even if they truly do not.

Fall in love with a problem, not a solution. Make it your aim to effectively solve the problem and advance your mission generally rather than doing it in the specific ways you have in mind prior to talking to others.

Using Empathy in Design Thinking

Seeking to understand others and their needs to best serve them is a key part of life as a whole, but also a key part of design thinking. Empathy pays off.

To put it to work, ask questions to understand rather than to guide the conversation. Instead of asking questions around ideas that you already have, ask open-ended questions that allow users to share what they value in an unimpeded way.

Put your own interests aside while doing user research, framing your questions to get to the core of the problem you are trying to solve.

Next Steps after User Research

Once you have talked to a lot of people, you will begin to see themes and patterns within their answers. Use these key areas to start your brainstorming and guide the rest of the design thinking process. Going after the cluster of similar responses, with the intent to solve most of the problems, will surface clarity and speed (as opposed to the complexity and stagnation of trying to solve them all).

Remember to never stray too far from your users. Keep them involved in the rest of the process by incorporating their feedback. They will guide you toward innovation if you let them.

If you figure out what people’s real problems, wants, and needs are, you don’t have to rely on your guesses and assumptions. Establishing this initial trajectory will set you on a collision course with impactful innovation.