An Introduction to Human-Centered Design

Alexandra

Program manager at MovingWorlds.org

Anyone can be a designer of products and services that make the world better. This is the belief of IDEO.org and the foundation of its popular “human-centered design” process.

Time and time again, human centered design (HCD) has shown that by moving through three phases – Inspiration, Ideation, and Implementation – any individual or team can design a solution that will meet the needs of the end-user facing those challenges.

In this detailed overview of the human-centered design process, we’ll share more about HCD, how it’s different from design thinking, real-world case studies, and some inspiring videos.

“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

What is Human Centered Design?

In the MovingWorlds Institute, we define human-centered design as:

  • A process that ensures that the products, services, and/or system changes being developed will actually make life better for those whom the solution is being designed for
  • A mindset that starts with the belief that the solution(s) exist with the people experiencing the issue
  • A framework that provides clarity on how individuals and organizations can collaborate to find solutions, even when no obvious path exists

IDEO.org states that HCD “is a process that starts with the people you’re designing for and ends with new solutions that are tailor made to suit their needs. Human-centered design consists of three phases. In the Inspiration Phase you’ll learn directly from the people you’re designing for as you immerse yourself in their lives and come to deeply understand their needs. In the Ideation Phase you’ll make sense of what you learned, identify opportunities for design, and prototype possible solutions. And in the Implementation Phase you’ll bring your solution to life, and eventually, to market. And you’ll know that your solution will be a success because you’ve kept the very people you’re looking to serve at the heart of the process.”

Design Thinking Or Human Centered Design

“The main tenet of design thinking is empathy for the people you’re trying to design for. Leadership is exactly the same thing – building empathy for the people that you’re entrusted to help.

-David Kelley, Founder of IDEO

A quick note about terminology. Many people will use the terms “design thinking”, “user-centered design”, and “human-centered design” interchangeably. In most cases, this is OK, however there are some notable differences which we explain in more detail in this article: Human-Centered Design vs. Design-Thinking: How They’re Different and How to Use Them Together to Create Lasting Change.

Design Thinking represents a 5-step process to develop a solution. User-centered design layers on the principle that users should be involved in all steps of this process. Human-centered design (HCD) is used to emphasize that the solution being developed is for the benefit of the people being design for (not for the profit of the designer).

To make this more clear, any business can use Design Thinking to build a solution that is capable of making money. For example, a company may use Design Thinking to create a video game or TV show for kids. Applying Human-Centered Design on top of this will ensure that the show actually serves the needs of the people watching it (for example meeting the learning objectives of the children watching the show or playing the game).

Why Use Human-Centered Design for Social Impact

“It is about them and for them. The closer the end-users’ needs are analyzed and answered, the more successful the adoption or purchase of a solution. You iterate until you get it right from a customer perspective. This the power of HCD.”

-Olivier Delarue, UNHCR

Companies, governments, and nonprofits have no shortage of product, policy, and program failures. In fact, scathing books like Dead Aid have been published to show all the different ways that outsiders have tried to help, only to create more damage.

Why is failure so common? Because people trust their instincts rather than facts and they develop something the market doesn’t need. This is illustrated by Ernesto Sirolli in the TedTalk below:

One research report showed the 42% of failures are attributed to the fact that the solution was never needed in the first place. More research shows that as much as people aspire to be “Visionary leaders”, there is no such thing as a visionary leader. Human-centered design has had rapid uptake within the global development space because if takes the ego, attitude, and seniority of people out of the equation, and instead creates a simple process that embraces learning and impact.

You might like:  Human Centered Design Resources and Methods To Help You Master HCD

History of Human Centered Design

“We spend a lot of time designing the bridge, but not enough time thinking about the people who are crossing it.”

-Dr. Prabhjot Singh, Director of Systems Design at the Earth Institute

Human-centered design has roots that go back hundreds of years and build on concepts of ethnography, sociology, and cognitive psychology. However, as a cohesive process, the idea can be traced back to the 1950’s thanks to Buckminster Fuller, who described human-centered design engineering as “…the effective application of the principles of science to the conscious design of our total environment in order to help make the Earth’s finite resources meet the needs of all humanity without disrupting the ecological processes of the planet”. Jo Szczepanska builds a compelling case that the Scandinavia Cooperative Design approach from the 1960’s, later coming to the USA as “participatory design”, also set a foundation for human-centered design methods.

As for the terminology, In 1989, Mike Cooley coined the term “Human-Centered Technology” in his book Human-Centered Systems. Shortly thereafter, Stanford Professor David Kelly joined Mike Nuttall and Bill Moggridge to found IDEO, which popularized this process so much so that ABC’s Nightline featured IDEO and its approach to innovation in 1999. In 2002, David Kelley spoke at a TED Conference on human-centered design, officially bringing this concept into the mainstream.

In 2009, IDEO created a free “Design Kit” which it made available to nonprofits to help teach others how to leverage the concept of HCD. In 2011, 20 years after being founded, IDEO open-sourced the framework for design in IDEO.ORG, a US-Based 501(c)3.

In 2014, Luma Institute, a global educator on design thinking, also stepped in to help popularize human-centered design with its popular Harvard Business Review article, A Taxonomy on Innovation. In 2015, IDEO.org released The Field Guide to Human Centered Design – a must-have book for any social impact practitioner.

IDEO.ORG has partnered with organizations around the world to improve the lives of people in poor and vulnerable communities through design. In addition, it has partnered with groups like +Acumen to educate others on its framework. Many other universities have also adopted human-centered design and teach it in engineering, design and even business courses.

Human Centered Design Case Studies

“It’s not ‘us versus them’ or even ‘us on behalf of them.’ For a design thinker it has to be ‘us with them.’”

-Tim Brown, CEO and President of IDEO

Finding case studies on human-centered design is not always easy, as the documentation needed to follow the full HCD process is incredibly intensive. And, when done right, HCD is often full of loops, experiments, and a vast variety of people, making published case studies rare.

That said, here are a few write-ups that we really like:

Learning More About Human-Centered Design

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

-Albert Einstein, Theoretical Physicist and Former Refugee


The best way to learn more about human-centered design is to start doing human centered design. Use the IDEO Design Kit Methods available for free on its website, buy the Luma Institute’s Planning Cards, or simply start using the 3-step process the next time you set out to solve a problem.

To join a cohort of professionals developing their skills in HCD and putting them into practice to address social impact problems today, apply to join the MovingWorlds Institute.

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