ClearPoint GM - Design, Dan Cornwall explains the principles of Human-Centred Design and how to implement it in your business to be successful.
Human-Centred Design (HCD) is the McDonald’s secret sauce of the product development world. When we’re designing solutions to make people’s lives better, it’s only natural that we involve them in the design process. Steve Jobs said it best, “The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”
But like many great ideas, HCD sometimes runs into a few road bumps in practice. We’re going to examine some of the challenges businesses face when adopting HCD solutions and how best to get around them.
What is Human-Centred Design?
First, let’s look at what HCD is. Historically, designers made informed guesses about features and made changes based on feedback from a committee of internal (often technically focused) stakeholders. The trouble is that mindset often leads to creating things that don’t really work for the people who end up using them. After all, behind every bad design is a room full of people who all thought they thought knew what was right.
HCD, at its core, is a design process that starts with people. It’s based on the notion that to truly create anything with purpose you have to design with feedback from actual users to find out what works and what doesn’t. It’s a methodology that unites the needs of people with the possibilities of technology by co-creating solutions with the people who need them the most.
Usually, we only start to see the telltale signs of bad design when people start using a product. A badly designed product typically feels awkward and hard to use, whereas a good one has a natural ease to it. That’s where HCD really shows its magic. It uses a process that focuses on prototyping ideas and testing them with real users as quickly as possible. Product creators search for solutions to problems by involving the human perspective in all steps of the problem-solving process.
Getting leadership buy-in
HCD is a process of constant iteration. While on a surface level, some business leaders are on board with the concept, they can later struggle when it comes to actually embedding HCD in their organisations. It requires a commitment of time and effort to engage with users. But it is an extra step in ‘getting things done’, and when the cost of business pressures emerge, the process gets cut.
What leaders don’t often realise is that enduring the “extra steps” of HCD is worth it, because it creates new possibilities for the change, improvement and innovation that moves an organisation forward.
With that in mind, it becomes abundantly clear that to do HCD well, you need to have leadership buy-in. It’s important to champion HCD from the top-down as a strategic opportunity for success, with the processes and mechanisms to support it within the business. Now, this isn’t the easiest task because it requires business leaders to fundamentally adopt HCD principles into their way of thinking.
How do you do that? You bring them along for the ride. This means inviting business leaders to participate in the process so they can see the business value for themselves. They can see both the value in direct customer interaction, as well as the risk of delivering products and experiences based on internal bias and assumptions. This turns sceptics into advocates and means HCD gets the strategic support it needs to drive more effective outcomes.
Engaging with customers in a meaningful way
Many businesses claim to be customer centred without having a clear understanding of their customer’s needs or validating ideas and features with customers before building them.
The outputs of such businesses can become “Human Scented” rather than “Human-Centred”. There are assumptions of customers’ needs, but little effort or investment is made to actually engage with customers.
A key fix for this is to build it in from the start. Halfway through a project is too late to start angling to talk to users and usually shows that there wasn’t value seen in the process in the first place. Typically timelines and promises have already been made. Instead, it needs to be a decision built into timing and costs from the beginning.
Lack of ways to share user insights
One of the most powerful aspects of HCD is its ability to help us learn about our users’ lives, needs, and expectations which can provide valuable insights for decision making across the organisation. Unfortunately, it’s easy for valuable customer insights to become siloed within business teams, or lost in larger project-specific documentation.
How do you get around this? By sharing results with the wider business. That means making any research easy to understand and digest for people not so entrenched in the day to day of the project.
Within the scope of the work, allow time for summarising key insights from HCD activities into a report or presentation that can be presented back to the wider business. Take it on the road: storytelling is key to sharing a new perspective on how customers or users think about products and services. It’s also useful to leverage existing comms such as internal newsletters to draw attention to these new insights and build empathy with real users.
Giving HCD room to make an impact
When a company is still on the journey toward implementing HCD, it’s common to run into roadblocks. While it’s strategically easy for businesses to commit to hiring CX and UX headcount, It’s harder to build in time and budget for new HCD activities in projects and initiatives.
This can be frustrating for Designers who need the space, time and resources to design, prototype, and test ideas before having certainty if a design will perform as expected. It’s a tough balancing act that requires buy-in to new activities and a new way of working.
To succeed at HCD, teams need to explicitly include new steps in their workflow, where engaging with users provides a vital quality check that removes the risk of building features with poor outcomes (e.g. lowers conversion or reduces customer satisfaction).
Gathering research but not using it
Unfortunately, not everything that is learned in the HCD process makes it into the final product. Once HCD has been adopted as a way of working, the next challenge tends to be actually following the insights gathered so they can be useful to the business.
A lot of the time businesses neglect to use customer insights not because the data isn’t useful, but rather that it’s not convenient. There are always compromises needed for business processes or technical expediency but It’s important that findings aren’t discarded simply for being controversial. We would all rather an idea be challenged than invest in a feature that’s likely to fail.
To solve this, it’s important to ensure that design testing isn’t positioned as just a ‘design activity’ but a valuable opportunity for the project team to gather valuable data for future decision making on features and priorities.
It’s also important that key decision-makers are included in the observation and note-taking of design testing. Seeing actual customers is often the strongest catalyst for creating new HCD champions. It empowers stakeholders with hands-on insights into what their customers want and boosts their ability to make informed decisions.
Keeping the knowledge alive
For organisations that have successfully embraced HCD as a way of working, the last obstacle tends to be keeping that knowledge alive once you’ve obtained it. It gets forgotten, stuck in someone’s bottom drawer, or it leaves with the staff that uncovered it and the cycle starts all over again.
That means organisations constantly research the same things without moving the dial or leveraging what has already been discovered.
Luckily, shared repositories of knowledge, ways of working, and documentation on business processes is not a new problem for most businesses. What’s new is integrating outputs from digital and design research as part of this structure of knowledge sharing.
There are probably parts of your business that already maintain consistent knowledge and awareness across hundreds of people, such as HR or Contact Centres. These are great people to call on to help define a way to gather and maintain customer insights for the entire business to benefit from.
HCD can transform businesses. Not only is it a better way to work, but it also creates better business outcomes. But while a lot of businesses understand this, what they don’t consider is that HCD isn’t just about designing great solutions, but also designing the conditions that allow great solutions to happen. Building the system around HCD can be just as difficult as using it to create great products. That’s why feasibility and implementation must be considered from the beginning to make sure that it is executed in a way that allows its full benefits to be felt and sustained.