From Theory to Practice: Applying Human-Centered Design to Your Everyday Work
Human-Centered Design (HCD) is a robust and multifaceted discipline, which can make applying it in your everyday work a daunting challenge. And, while this is certainly true, there are core dimensions of HCD that can be used as a starting point on the journey toward application.
Because understanding the theory of HCD is quite different from putting it into practice on a day-by-day basis, we have outlined three hallmark qualities that will make applying your HCD strategies far more approachable:
Lead teams to align on the right problem
When innovation frameworks are applied to it, Human-Centered Design provides a groundbreaking way of defining and ensuring teams are focused on the right problem.
In a world where business challenges are increasingly complex, applying the principles of getting the problem framed correctly is a way to demonstrate leadership and ensure the team doesn’t inadvertently shoot itself in the foot by launching headlong into solving the wrong problem.
Often, internal teams will have differing—and siloed—viewpoints on a specific business problem. And, while this makes alignment more challenging, it also creates an opportunity to break down those siloes by getting everyone focused around the consumer and their needs rather than internal agendas.
Building cross-functional bridges doesn’t have to be difficult. Often starting ideation sessions with a fun ice-breaker exercise will begin to break down barriers and foster connections. It’s also useful to find novel ways of bringing your consumers to life as human beings. Short video clips of consumer interviews can often be incredibly powerful in bringing them to life for internal team.
Once team building is out of the way, here are ways to go about ensuring you pinpoint the real issue at hand:
- Focus on understanding the underlying consumer need, both through conversation and observation. Here’s a great example of this from Evan Fried at Michigan State University.
- Ask “why is that important?” multiple times to help the team dig below the surface of the problem.
- Play the role of devil’s advocate on the team to steer away from the pitfalls of groupthink.
Make empathy a daily habit
When it comes to empathy-building, often the first thing that comes to mind is the traditional consumer research initiative. And, while this event-driven mindset is very much the norm, empathy in an HCD context is much more than that: empathy needs to permeate every aspect of it.
Here are some thought starters:
- Find ways of socializing existing consumer wisdom within an HCD team on a weekly basis, such as an email containing an important consumer insight.
- Get into the habit of advocating for the consumer’s voice in team meetings. Ask questions like, “how would our consumers feel about this?”
- Identify new ways of getting real-time feedback in between major research events. This can include things such as:
- Consumers on-demand
- A consumer community of any size provides a way to engage in real-time conversation with consumers. It creates ways to explore fuzzy front-end ideas, rapidly iterate on new product concepts or gather deep insights into how consumers use a product post launch. Not only will this approach create an ongoing stream of consumer insights, but it can also engage consumers and make them feel that they have a meaningful stake in the future success of a Human-Centered Design initiative.
- Consumers on-demand
- Fly-on-the-wall ethnography
- Whether asynchronously uploaded by a subject or synchronously guided by a moderator, virtual and in-person ethnography are currently very much in vogue. And for good reason: it allows teams to see consumer behavior and understand the why behind it. In particular, mobile ethnography is a highly cost-effective way of seeing the world through consumers’ eyes.
- Fly-on-the-wall ethnography
Apply an agile mindset to your daily work
One of the hallmarks of HCD is agility. But being agile isn’t just about being “fast”: it’s about finding ways of delivering value as efficiently as possible. In practice, an agile mindset means thinking differently about how your work gets done and the ways in which a team can break through functional silos.
Not sure where to begin? Here are some ideas:
- Break the work of the team into two-week sprints. Define what can be done in those two weeks and create measurable goals to work toward them (even if those outcomes are only intermediate steps toward a bigger goal).
- Commit to short and frequent stand-ups with your team to share commitments and highlight possible hurdles to accomplishing the goals of the current sprint.
- Rather than focusing on your next big presentation as your deliverable, think about how you can break your work down and deliver portions of that content to your stakeholders sooner in a more informal way.
While the above suggestions are purely jumping-off points, they serve as solid examples of practical ways you can begin to transition from understanding HCD as a concept to it becoming an enabler of rethinking both your own work, as well as becoming a catalyst to higher-performing teams.
At the end of the day, embracing the principles of Human-Centered Design is a long-term journey. These tried and proven steps should inspire you to begin developing new habits that quickly demonstrate the strong potential HCD has in creating a new way to see innovation through the eyes of your consumers.