8 Non-Negotiable Human-Centered Design Principles for New Product Development
This article explores the characteristics of a truly human-centered design approach to new product development, offering tools for creating empathetic products that are focused on the people who will use them.
Article includes free e-book and template downloads for teams to take practical steps toward applying human-centered design thinking on their next project:
- Free template for creating user personas in Sketch or Keynote
- How to Create User Personas for Digital Products whitepaper
What Is Human-Centered Design?
Human-centered design, sometimes referred to as user-centered design, is a product design philosophy that seeks to focus the entire design and development process around the people who will buy or use the end product.
Human-centered design is carefully objective, assumption-free, and informed by testing and analysis of real situations and experiences.
The term “human-centered” is used to evoke a feeling of closeness and empathy, and to reinforce the emotional and psychological connection to end users. This connection encourages exceptional design work that resonates with the actual humans who will be using a product.
Human-Centered Design vs. UX Design
Human-centered design is a central tenant to user experience (UX) design. You wouldn’t do one without the other. While not synonymous with each other, you can’t have good UX without human-centered design, and human-centered design can’t exist outside of UX.
>> Learn more about the ROI of putting people first: 5 Ways User-Centered Design Benefits the Bottom Line.
8 Signs of a Genuine Human-Centered Design Approach
Not all who claim to practice human-centered design actually succeed at doing so. Here are the eight components that all successful human-centered design processes will include.
1. User Personas Based on Real People
Understanding people, not just data, is a vital component of human-centered design.
For new product development, this starts with finding real people who resemble target users. Hypothetical “users” won’t cut it, and statistical data about demographics and purchases — while helpful in understanding the market at large — is simply too vague.
Assumptions will mislead you. You must talk with real people.
Search the market for people using related products or doing the work your product is intended to serve. Always be sure to look outside your organization, since it can be easy to confuse your own business goals with those of your ideal customer.
Once you find real people who represent the group your product is intended for, it’s essential you work to understand them. Do this through:
- On-site interviews
- Contextual inquiries
Synthesize your findings to develop user personas — profiles of the typical people who would use your product. Allow these personas to evolve as your understanding deepens.
How to Create User Personas for Digital Products
Create clear and compelling user personas in Sketch or Keynote using our free templates.
Download includes a guide to understanding user personas and six questions to ask during early user research.
2. Real People For User Testing
It’s critical that real people test your product, as real people will be the ones using it!
Keep the following questions in mind throughout the user testing stage:
- What is the journey like for a person using this product? How and why did they arrive at using the product?
- Have we built and designed the product in a way that it is reasonably easy for someone to learn how to use it?
- Does the product effectively and efficiently help users accomplish the tasks for which they are using it?
3. Internal Support for Human-Centered Design Approach
Educational communication with stakeholders across your business is critical, as user research is often erroneously seen as “optional” to product design.
For human-centered design to be effective, the entire team must be onboard with doing user research the right way, understanding the people for whom they’re building and designing experiences that respond to their findings.
That being said, it’s not enough to simply be on board. Human-centered design thinking is a mental skill that must be learned and cultivated.
You’ll need support from leadership to teach and encourage designers and developers to apply human-centered design principles throughout the design and development process.
Humans are empathetic by nature, but in the business world this empathy can sometimes be lost. In human-centered design, empathy puts developers and designers into the shoes of the end-user and one another, allowing them to examine things from various perspectives.
If you focus only on your point of view, you will likely miss the mark, failing to address the key needs and wants people have in using your product.
2019 Design Thinking conference presenter and head of design at Prudential, Paul Strike clearly explains the role of empathy in human-centered design:
“Empathy is key to creating a rich and rewarding experience that will actually engage customers and drive product and service participation. It’s a form of detailed understanding, insight and awareness that comes from intimately knowing people.” (From Understanding the Key Ingredient to Design Thinking – Empathy by Paul Strike)
5. Experience, Not Formulas
Every project comes with different business constraints, market scenarios and team dynamics. While novices in human-centered design might try to follow a formula, the irony is that the more focus that’s placed on a formula the less human-centered the project becomes.
Experienced designers know when and how to leverage the right tools throughout the human-centered design process based on actual needs.
You may not need to always develop empathy maps, mental model diagrams AND user journey maps for every project. Some tools are only necessary in unique situations.
Example Scenario of Human-Centered Design Thinking: Creating Alignment through Visual Communication Tools
Some projects require designers to work harder at aligning business advocates and other stakeholders with human-centered design decisions.
This commonly happens when, through their research, designers make discoveries that challenge preconceived ideas about what the product would do and who it would serve.
In these situations, an experienced human-centered designer won’t plough ahead with a formulaic process, ignoring the confusion on the other end of the line. They’ll reach into their toolbelt for visual communication aids to help educate stakeholders on the facts unearthed during user research and testing.
6. Embrace the Iterative Process
True human-centered design is innately iterative. Human-centered design teams continually pivot and refine their plans throughout research, design and development, based upon testing and feedback.
For those practicing genuine human-centered design, this process is so ingrained, it’s like breathing. They hold to plans loosely, letting new discoveries about the people and situations for which a product is intended guide design and development decisions.
Remember that feedback is more important than an ideal mock-up. Let go of the need to reach perfection right away and learn to fail forward in a controlled and measured manner through the iterative process.
Counter-intuitively, human-centered design and the iterative process actually save time and money in the long run, allowing teams to:
- Maintain “lean design” procedures: avoid over-designing, investing only in necessary design activities that align with research and established goals
- Release a product that’s pre-equipped to address user needs (rather than losing customers to find out what needs changing)
- Avoid making costly changes post-development
7. Cooperation among Design, Development and Business Advocates
For truly human-centered products, the iterative process occurs across teams, aligning development and business advocates around user goals.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when striving for cross-disciplinary cooperation:
- Allow technical experts from the development side to inform design, early on.
- Listen to business constraints. Design around the sweet spot where user and business goals align.
- Cultivate a culture of transparency and collaboration.
- Find ways to bring the human-centered design conversation into standard engineering procedures like SCRUM and Agile.For example, allow designers to speak into product roadmapping activities. They have unique insight into user priorities and can weigh in on which features should be built first.
8. Sticky Notes
Human-centered design is an organic, raw process. The early stages of making discoveries, collecting data and organizing ideas is nothing fancy. It’s just a team of designers getting to know people and using common sense to create a product plan.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a genuine human-centered design team that doesn’t run on sticky notes.