What is human-centered design? A product framework that embraces empathy

HCD is a design framework centered around end-user desires and needs. Implementing it can help your company design and deliver high-quality products and customer experiences.

What is human-centered design? A product framework that embraces empathy
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Human-centered design definition

Human-centered design (HCD) is a design framework for creating products, services, hardware and software that are built to meet the specific needs of clients, users or customers. HCD is typically used in technology when developing products or services that are intended to alleviate problems or issues, especially when those problems are health-related.

Whether it’s creating apps that are as user-friendly as possible — so that people will actually use them — or designing accessibility products to address a specific disability or health need, human-centered design focuses on the human first. Instead of attempting to design products or services with profits, savings or aesthetics in mind, the goal is to create hardware, software, products and services that take the human end-user into deep consideration. If your ultimate goal is to create a product that people will want to use, then it will be important to embrace HCD from the start of the development process.

Human-centered design process

As a design framework, HCD requires empathy and a lot of reflection throughout the design process. It’s not a framework that takes you cleanly from A to Z, with specific steps to follow. If you want to develop the best products possible with the HCD framework, you’ll have to jump around between phases and regularly go back to the drawing board. Human-centered design is more about getting into the head space of the intended audience in order to develop solutions that will help users be more productive, efficient or comfortable.

Human-centered design principles

The main objective of HCD is to create products that people want to use because, ultimately, the more usable the end-product, the more likely that you’ll have customers willing to pay for it. HCD can improve your products, but it can also improve your profits, as people are typically willing to pay more for well-designed products, services, hardware and software that are easy to use and intuitively designed. While there are no hard-and-fast rules for following the HDC framework, there are some general principles that you will want to follow when embracing this framework.

The core design principles of human-centered design include:

  • A dedication to improving the user experience, reducing stress and avoiding discomfort for end-users. This includes increasing accessibility and thinking outside just the average user when deciding on features and design elements.
  • Improve productivity of your users by creating products and services that are designed to be intuitive, natural and easy to use, which can also help reduce costs associated with training and support.
  • Create a competitive advantage for your company or brand by establishing yourself as a leader in human-centered design and showing you have a dedication to considering the customer when developing products and services.
  • Maintain a focus on sustainability in your product development — both by creating products that have lower environmental impacts and by creating products that will keep customers happy over the long-term and that can grow and change with the industry and technology.

Human-centered design vs. design thinking

Human-centered design shares a lot of similarities with the design thinking methodology, but there are specific differences that set the two apart. Human-centered design and design thinking both have a strong emphasis on empathy, as they both are about figuring out what the user or client needs or wants and then making that a main focus of the development process. But the main difference between the two is that HCD functions as a framework and design thinking is one approach to that framework.

Design thinking is about discovering new avenues to create or design prototypes to repeatedly test and refine products. It’s more focused on the user, customer or client — and while it has a focus on empathy, it’s not specifically focused on humans. For instance, with design thinking, if you’re creating a process or service to help improve AI or a technology service, you might need to get inside the “head” of the AI or evaluate processes rather than spend time considering a human end-user. Human-centered design, on the other hand, specifically focuses on humans and empathizing with what humans need and want out of products, services, hardware and software.

Human-centered design jobs

While you’ll find that plenty of design jobs, especially in technology, will require knowledge of human-centered design, there are some jobs where it will be the primary focus of your career. 

Jobs that require human-centered design skills include:

  • UX researchers
  • UX architects
  • UX designers
  • Interaction designer
  • User centered designer
  • Design and project coordinators
  • Organizational change management consultant
  • Design or creative director

Human-centered design courses

Human-centered design is an important skill in technology, especially if you work in any type of development or creative roles. And, while you can’t get a degree specifically in human-centered design, you can boost your skills and earn clout for your resume through a number of training courses and workshops designed to teach you the fundamentals of HCD.

If you’re interested in taking a course in human-centered design, here are some popular options currently available:

  • MIT offers a two-day Leadership by Design course
  • Plus Acumen offers a free online course in the human-centered design process
  • John Hopkins University offers an executive certificate in innovation and human-centered design.
  • IDEO offers its Insights for Innovation course for human-centered design
  • Luma Institute offers human-centered design training
  • Coursera’s Human-Centered Design: An Introduction is offered through UC San Diego

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