Human-Centered Design: Core Principals for Research


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Human-Centered Design (HCD) continues to create interest and intrigue among professionals from researchers to innovation specialists. And with good reason: it offers powerful new ways of understanding human behaviors, preferences, and challenges from a uniquely customer-centric perspective.

However, there is also a fair amount of confusion about what Human-Centered Design is—and how to best employ it. That is, to inspire and empower innovation. If you’ve had questions about the basics of Human-Centered Design, this blog will inform and inspire you about this burgeoning discipline.

What is Human-Centered Design?

At its core, Human-Centered Design is a mindset anchored in creating deep understanding and empathy for customers as the unifying force—from concept to completion. Rather than simply gathering the customer’s voice as an initial input for the traditional product development process, HCD places human beings as the North Star throughout all phases of design and innovation initiatives.

While this may seem like a matter of semantics, this empathy-oriented mindset is, in practice, a radically different way of ensuring that a product or experience is carefully crafted with the end customer in mind. It creates an antidote for the insular and internally-focused groupthink that can often steer, and even derail, innovation efforts. But more than that, HCD ultimately seeks to create new kinds of value in customers’ lives.

When is it best to apply Human-Centered Design?

While powerful in the right situations, Human-Centered Design isn’t a silver bullet to be used indiscriminately. Therefore, finding the right challenges to employ HCD is critical to maximizing its effectiveness. Fortunately, however, the kinds of problems that Human-Centered Design shines a light on are increasingly common.

Human-centered design is best suited when:

  1. The problem requires deep understanding of subjective human experiences of customers or users.
  2. The true nature of the problem is difficult to pin down and requires lots of discussion to create alignment.
  3. There are a lot of unknowns at play and analyzing past data—if it exists—is unlikely to shed insight into the solution.

As an example, finding ways to better serve elderly Danish citizens who receive in-home meals is a challenge perfectly suited for Human-Centered Design since it meets all the criteria cited above. The classic case study of The Good Kitchen is a great way to see how this is the kind of challenge that thrives with the lens of HCD applied to it.

Human-Centered Design principals

While Human-Centered Design isn’t a process—and certainly isn’t linear—it does have several distinct lenses you can use to apply the overall HCD mindset:

1. Empathy: Building empathy with the people who are the ultimate audience end-user is the focal point of HCD. Whether this takes the form of ethnographies, immersing in relevant consumer trends or bringing customers in for “speed dating” sessions with small groups of colleagues, the outcome at this stage is clear: to develop a deep, human understanding of your customers’ experiences, wishes, and pain points.

2. Scope: Creating a clear definition of the problem to be solved and the guardrails of what is “fair game” and/or “out of bounds” is critical to the Human-Centered Design mindset. It’s critical to take time to align stakeholders and ensure you are trying to solve the right challenge, and avoid the temptation to begin hypothesizing possible solutions.

3. Define Opportunities: This lens should apply empathy insights and continue to respect the scope guardrails. As the team applies a framework that will systematically identify white space opportunities and innovation territories.

4. Ideation: Generating a lot of ideas, assessing and prioritizing them in light of competitors, internal strategic priorities, and their potential to truly “wow” customers. The key here is to ensure the creative energies of your team are anchored in human-centered empathy and avoiding the landmine of allowing groupthink to dull a laser focus on the end customer. Each idea should carefully document the insights that inspired it, ensuring the customer’s voice isn’t lost in the creative energy of brainstorming.

5. Prototype: As prototypes are created, highly agile ways of getting rapid feedback from the audience are needed. The key here is to base feedback on how well a prototype addresses the underlying customer insight that shaped it. This ensures prototypes are delivering on a core human-centered need rather than simply being a novel idea.

Moving forward with Human-Centered Design

“Modern problems require modern solutions,” or so says a popular internet saying. But it’s more than a meme: it’s a great way of thinking about why Human-Centered Design is so powerful—and so popular. As our world and the lives of customers grow increasingly complex, new ways of meeting these challenges are needed. Hopefully this brief overview of Human-Centered Design inspires you to explore the possibilities it offers to drive new kinds of innovation for your organization.

Patricia Salamone
A career strategist having worked across the financial services, CPG, media and telecom sectors, Patricia seeks resonance with every problem she is hired to solve. She sees innovation through the lens of human need, framing what is to be solved not through the problem at hand, but rather the mystery to be unraveled. Innovation work, she believes, does not simply exist across a spectrum of incremental to disruptive, rather it occurs in the form of equity to be stretched, product lines to be extended, and positioning strategies to be reimagined.


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