Human-Centered Design (HCD)

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Human-centered design is a creative approach to problem solving. It’s a process that starts with the people you’re designing for and ends with new solutions that are tailor made to suit their needs. Human-centered design is all about building a deep empathy with the people you’re designing for; generating tons of ideas; building a bunch of prototypes; sharing what you’ve made with the people you’re designing for; and eventually putting your innovative new solution out in the world.[1]

Human Centered Design
source: Dalberg

Origin of Human-Centered Design[2]
Human-centered design has its origins at the intersection of numerous fields including engineering, psychology, anthropology and the arts. As an approach to creative problem-solving in technical and business fields its origins are often traced to the founding of the Stanford University design program in 1958 by Professor John E. Arnold who first proposed the idea that engineering design should be human-centered. This work coincided with the rise of creativity techniques and the subsequent design methods movement in the 1960s. Since then, as creative design processes and methods have been increasingly popularized for business purposes, human-centered design is increasingly referred to simply as "design thinking".

In Architect or Bee?, Mike Cooley coined the term "human-centered systems" in the context of the transition in his profession from traditional drafting at a drawing board to computer-aided design. Human-centered systems,[4] as used in economics, computing and design, aim to preserve or enhance human skills, in both manual and office work, in environments in which technology tends to undermine the skills that people use in their work.

In the 2008 paper "On Human-Machine Symbiosis" Cooley asserts "Human centeredness asserts firstly, that we must always put people before machines, however complex or elegant that machine might be, and, secondly, it marvels and delights at the ability and ingenuity of human beings. The Human Centered Systems movement looks sensitively at these forms of science and technology which meet our cultural, historical and societal requirements, and seeks to develop more appropriate forms of technology to meet our long-term aspirations. In the Human Centered System, there exists a symbiotic relation between the human and the machine, in which the human being would handle the qualitative subjective judgements and the machine the quantitative elements. It involves a radical redesign of the interface technologies and at a philosophical level, the objective is to provide tools (in the Heidegger sense) which would support human skill and ingenuity rather than machines which would objectivize that knowledge".

Principles of Human Centered Design[3]
Human-centered design has four principles:

  • People-centered: Focus on people and their context in order to create things that are appropriate for them.
  • Understand and solve the right problems, the root problems: Understand and solve the right problem, the root causes, the underlying fundamental issues. Otherwise, the symptoms will just keep returning.
  • Everything is a system: Think of everything as a system of interconnected parts.
  • Small and simple interventions: Do iterative work and don't rush to a solution. Try small, simple interventions and learn from them one by one, and slowly your results will get bigger and better. Continually prototype, test and refine your proposals to make sure that your small solutions truly meet the needs of the people you focus on.

It's important to remember, as we focus on the human aspect, we expand our scope to societies and, ultimately, humanity-centered design. And as our world becomes more intricately involved with complex socio-technical systems and wicked problems to address, the insights we leverage from human-centered design will continue to prove essential.

Phases of Human Centered Design[4]

  • Define: This is the phase in which you immerse yourself in your users’ lives to gain a better understanding of who they are. Observe and ask questions to see things from their point of view. Identify your biases and assumptions so you can deviate from them if they don’t align with your users’ reality. Think of this as foundational research. First, you have to identify the right people. Consider various factors including age, ethnicity, technological expertise, and so on. Ensure that your sample is inclusive. Research in this stage could include interviews or focus groups with users, and, when necessary, field experts. You can also conduct contextual inquiries and ethnographic research, diary studies, and photo journals, and use methods like the 5 whys to dig deeper. All of this helps you develop empathy for your users. When you get into their minds, walk in their shoes, and understand their lives, you open yourself up to more creative possibilities.
  • Ideate: Now that you’ve identified your users and conducted your research, the next step is to synthesize the data and make sense of what you’ve learned in the Define phase. One of the most popular methods for synthesizing findings is affinity mapping. Everybody writes their findings on individual sticky notes and then you group similar notes together to identify themes. Following synthesis, you take your themes and insights and transform them into opportunities for design, brainstorming as many ideas as possible. There’s no judgment during brainstorming. You can, and should, generate as many ideas as you can, and they can be wild and crazy.
  • Prototype and test: After brainstorming, you’ll choose the best ideas and create prototypes. Prototypes are low-cost estimations of what your solution will look like, and they can be anything: paper sketches, role playing, physical objects, or digital prototypes. . It’s best to experiment with multiple prototypes—and share them with your target audience—to gain feedback and determine the best path forward. Once you implement the feedback and iterate on your prototype, you repeat the process until you have a product that you’re ready to move forward with.
  • Implement: This is when you take your product to market and refine your business model. It’s important to note that your product is never really finished. You should consistently be improving, testing, and gathering feedback from users so that you know your product is meeting their evolving needs. Track your pre-defined success metrics to understand if your product is meeting expectations. HCD is not only applicable to the product itself, but how you market and communicate it. This is where your Define research comes in handy: You already know your users’ needs and expectations in their own words.

See Also

Artificial General Intelligence (AGI)
Artificial Neural Network (ANN)
Human Computer Interaction (HCI)
Artificial Intelligence (AI)
Machine-to-Machine (M2M)
Machine Learning
Predictive Analytics
Data Analytics
Data Analysis
Big Data
Cognitive Computing


  1. Definition - What Does Human Centered Design Mean? Ideo
  2. Origin of Human-Centered Design Wikipedia
  3. Principles of Human Centered Design Interaction-Design Org
  4. Phases of Human Centered Design Invison