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November 27, 2023

Human-Centered Design: The What, Why, and How

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Have you ever been on a website and felt that it was made for you? All the things you were looking for were so easy to find and access. Conversely, have you ever visited a site that frustrated you immediately? The design felt clunky, you couldn’t find what you needed, and it didn’t feel worth your time.

Don’t worry, you’re not alone. We’ve all had experiences with products, websites, and technology that was exactly what we needed in that moment. And we’ve also had experiences that were the exact opposite. The difference between these two polarizing experiences is whether or not the product was made with Human-Centered Design (HCD) principles in mind.

In this article, you’ll learn about HCD, what it is, why it’s important, and its practical application.


What is Human-Centered Design?

Human-Centered Design is defined as solving the right problem for real people using a set of guiding principles.

Common Misconceptions of Human-Centered Design

There are two main misconceptions of what Human-Centered Design is.

Misconception #1: Human-Centered Design means asking people what they want

People often assume practicing HCD is giving people exactly what they want. However, we learn quickly people don’t always know what they want until they hear what they don’t want. Let us share a common example.

Think about a time you asked someone where they wanted to eat. And they weren’t sure but said “anywhere is fine”. So, you start listing options: sushi, pizza, tacos, burgers – the list can go on and on. Pretty soon you realize time has flown by as each suggestion gets shot down. In this case, “anywhere” doesn’t mean anywhere. They just didn’t know what they want until they heard what they didn’t want.

Misconception #2: Human-Centered Design is the same as User Experience, User Interface, Human Computer Interaction, or Customer Experience

HCD is often used interchangeably with User Experience (UX), User Interface (UI), Human Computer Interaction (HCI), or Customer Experience (CX). This is a common misconception as HCD practices are not confined to strictly designer roles. Many disciplines, including the ones listed above have root in—or are driven by—principles of HCD. Anything you use in your daily life that felt just right incorporates elements of HCD.

The 4 Key Principles of Human-Centered Design

The 4 principles of Human-Centered Design can be applied across a broad range of disciplines. Any discipline where the output is something that interacts with other people, whether as a product or service, can apply HCD principles.

Principle #1: Focus on the People

Principle #2: Find the Right Problem

Principle #3: Everything as a System

Principle #4: Continually Validate and Iterate

Thelma Van, UX/UI Xpert at Excella expands upon the 4 principles in this video:


Why is Human-Centered Design Important?

Designing with a human-centered approach is a process full of movement and meaningful action. It means you are willing to evolve with the needs of the people you’re designing for, and you are flexible enough to make changes throughout the development process. At its core, HCD requires you to understand your customer or audience to create solutions from their perspective. When it comes down to it, a human-centered approach is key to either gaining competitive advantage or losing your edge. Here’s how:

Drive Customer Loyalty and Increase Satisfaction

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel” – Maya Angelou.

How someone makes you feel is often what sets the tone for your relationship. There’s nothing quite like meeting someone who just “gets” you – how a product or service makes you feel is not that different. To cultivate customer loyalty, it is crucial to focus on the real humans who will be engaging with your product or service and build something that makes them feel that it was made for them. In fact, findings from Forrester Research suggest that a well-conceived, frictionless user experience could potentially raise customer conversion rates up to 400%, thereby increasing satisfaction and your customer base.

Learn how you can make 3 Little Changes That Will Make Your Customers Fall in Love With Your Digital Experience.

Avoid Losing Customers Through Poor Design

When customers can’t quickly or easily find what they need from your product or service, they will turn their backs and seek out alternatives. According to Forbes, 88% of online customers are less likely to return to a site after a bad experience and 61% will leave and go to a different site if they can’t complete their task quickly. Bottom line: from public facing websites to internal systems, if your audience isn’t in love with what you’ve built, they aren’t going to want to use it – leaving you with a lost opportunity and a poor impression of your brand.

Learn how you can avoid these 5 common pitfalls and start designing with the human in mind.

Human Focused Solutions That Keep People Coming Back

Customers who love and are delighted by their experiences are highly likely to remain loyal and continue using and reusing your products or services. They feel that your product or service provides them what they need – and quickly. In essence, your product or service gets your audience what they need effectively and efficiently. Here are 6 ways to help your customers achieve their goals.

  1. Establish Credibility and Likeability
  2. Facilitate Success
  3. Use the Spectrum of Engagement Methods
  4. Ask for Feedback and Listen
  5. Assess the Customer’s Behaviors
  6. Adapt to Feedback

Learn more about these 6 ways to help your customers in our 2-part blog and start understanding your customer’s “Why” and how to achieve return on investment (ROI).


How to Adopt a Human-Centered Design Approach

Meeting your customer’s expectations and helping them achieve their goals does not have to be that hard. In fact, it can be quite simple when you adopt a Human-Centered Design approach to building your product or service. Remembering that the most critical part of a HCD approach is understanding the people for whom you’re designing solutions. Focus on the real humans who will be engaging with your product or service and follow these 5 steps.

  1. Emphasize
  2. Define
  3. Ideate
  4. Prototype
  5. Test

Learn more about each phase of a Human-Centered Design approach and start winning over your customers.

See how each phase of an HCD approach works to help a federal client solve real problems for real citizens in this video.


Human-Centered Design Tools to Help You Get Started

There are many tools available to help you start implementing the phases of a Human-Centered Design approach.

Understanding the People and the Problem

Here are some research tools to help you understand the people and the problem, in other words – to empathize with real users and clearly define the challenges in phases 1 and 2.

Understanding the System

Here are some ways to help you understand the entire system to ideate and generated a multitude of possible solutions – phase 3 of an HCD approach:

  • Gather multiple perspectives from as many parts of the business as possible
  • Set human-centered goals
  • Map out Customer Journey

Validating and Iterating

And finally, here are some suggestions to help you validate your ideas and iterate your design as part of phases 4 and 5 of designing with HCD in mind.


Human-Centered Design at a Large Federal Agency

Check out how a HCD approach helped pioneer the future of government services by streamlining access to the American dream for millions of people.

Case Study: myUSCIS Pioneering the Future of Government Services

Learn more about Excella’s Approach to HCD!

View Approach

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