CommonLounge Archive

What is Human-Centered Design?

November 06, 2017

Human-centered design, or user-centered design is a creative approach to problem-solving. The core tenet of the process is derived from the ideology of design thinking — if one understands the people one is trying to reach and then proceeds to design from their perspective, the solutions arrived at are not only unexpected, but also embraced by their end-users. The process starts with people and ends with solutions that are tailored to meet their needs.

In this tutorial we will walk you through the three phases of the human-centered design process — inspiration, ideation, and implementation. It is important to note that these phases are not sequential, but rather integral modules that work together to drive a creative process.


Since the process is centered around our end-users, it follows that our primary source of inspiration ought to be the end-users themselves. In order to understand the end-users and their needs, we need to identify:

  1. patterns of behaviour,
  2. pain points,
  3. the situations in which users have a difficult time achieving their desired outcomes.

Understanding any one of these presents a tremendous opportunity to figure out what isn’t working for the end-users and consequently how one may improve upon the incumbent experience. Each of these opportunities can serve as inspirations for the next phase — ideation.


Once you have your inspiration(s), you should get your team together to brainstorm ideas that build-off of these observations. The goal during this session should be to maximise the number of ideas your team can collaboratively generate over the duration of the meeting. Some may be too crazy to work and some may be too crazy to not try, but that doesn’t matter. The goal here is to maximise the quantity, not quality, of ideas.

Once we are done generating this avalanche of ideas, we can dig through them, discarding the bad ones, and refining the good ones over subsequent iterations.


The implementation phase is the one during which we take all the wonderful and refined ideas developed during the ideation phase and turn them into something tangible.

To start making our abstract ideas tangible, we should develop a simple prototype. Remember, since the goal of the process is to work with our end-users to develop products that they embrace, we need to figure out what is working for them. It follows that we ought to not sweat the craftsmanship details at this phase because this prototype will merely be the first of many; IDEO — the legendary design agency — is notorious for employing cardboard prototypes at this stage of the process. The goal here is to keep our prototype as simple as possible, so as to minimise the time spent prototyping, while attempting to maximise the feedback we can get from the individuals testing it.

After handing out our prototypes to our customers, we must go back to utilising the techniques adopted during the inspiration-seeking phase — identifying patterns of behaviour, pain points, and scenarios in which end-users appear to be lost — to understand the aspects of the prototype that are working. These observations will tell us if our proposed solution is on track and will give us valuable insight into the direction to take in subsequent iterations.

From here on, we go back to the techniques adopted during the ideation phase to discuss our observations. It is essential that we keep the process of evolving, iterating, testing, and incorporating feedback into our subsequent prototypes until everything seems just right. Each cycle will get us closer and closer to the holy grail — solutions embraced by our end-users.

Dealing with ambiguity

While the process may be wholly ambiguous and therefore frustrating at times, it is important to embrace this ambiguity. The best practitioners of this process get through these difficult phases by noting that if their ideas remain grounded in the desires of the people they are trying to reach and serve, they will arrive at a solution that makes the user-experience effortless. We strongly urge you to hold the same belief as and when you start to feel lost during this design process.


The human-centered design process is one that is wholly dependent on developing a deep understanding of our end-users. We start by observing them, using those observations to brainstorm ideas with the entire team, and then developing prototypes that imbibe the brainstormed ideas. These prototypes are put in the hands of the end-users to test and garner feedback, which in turn is incorporated into subsequent prototypes. This cycle continues until the solution proposed converges to one that is embraced by the end-users who are testing the solution.

This was a brief overview of the human-centered design process. To take a deeper-dive into the methods that can be used at each of the steps of the process — inspiration, ideation, and implementation — we suggest you reference the Methods section of the Design Kit developed by IDEO.

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