One of the advantages of working for a human-centred design firm is the sheer breadth of projects which we are privileged to work on. While we regularly apply a human-centred design (HCD) process to add value to digital products and services, projects pop up that are outside the digital realm. One example is our client, cohealth, who asked us to use a HCD process to inform the wayfinding and signage as part of their building renovation project. Applying our design process to a physical project reminded us of the remarkable flexibility and usefulness of human-centred design. There is a full case study about the wayfinding project, but in this post, we want to bring attention to some of the fundamental things that resonated with us during the project. They are 3 things which we think make HCD so beneficial and useful for any kind of project. This post covers 3 benefits of human-centred design (HCD).
The discovery phase of human-centred design is all about looking at things with fresh eyes. When people work on a regular basis with a situation, process, system or product, they naturally become familiar with it. This familiarity can be a good thing; it can lead to efficiency and competence. Conversely, it can lead to accepting the status quo and a reduced sensitivity to any associated short comings and issues. By stepping away from a problem and viewing it with fresh eyes, we are able to question assumptions and observe without judgement both the good and the bad. This can lead to a better understanding of why something (an organisation, a service, a process) exists in its current state. The discovery phase of the HCD process typically involves speaking with lots of different people to understand and absorb their experience and knowledge of a situation; people who at times have different perspectives. Often, people anecdotally have a very strong understanding of what’s working and what’s not, through their lived experience. The HCD process ensures this kind of invaluable input is included by capturing and communicating it in a formal and structured manner.
HCD practitioners don’t come up with miracles, we just observe things.
Discovering the invisible
Through observation and questioning assumptions, the HCD process moves beyond just understanding the symptoms; it also reveals the underlying causes. HCD practitioners bring a useful ability to identify the invisible. At times, small but crucial elements within an organisation may go unnoticed. Much like how air-conditioning is fairly invisible when it’s working, but plays a huge role in the comfort of an office. Often, the invisible aspects within an organisation, a process or a service can play a large role in determining the outcome or trajectory. In many ways, researchers in the discovery phase of the HCD process are like detectives, looking for clues, no matter how small, that can inform a detailed picture of the subject matter. A human-centred design practitioner wields their curiosity alongside their humility to uncover the invisible and overlooked details that, when pieced together as a whole, provide an invaluable picture of how something works, or why something is happening. Human-centred designers don’t come up with miracles, we just observe things. It is these myriad of observations which ultimately help to set the stage for ideas and solutions.
A key part of understanding a problem is to pull the whole picture together. This involves considering a problem from a variety of perspectives and then bringing them together. Common perspectives include people, processes and props. But to understand the inter-connected nature of an organisation, a holistic view is often necessary to explore cause and effect relationships. This typically occurs within the define phase of a HCD process. For example, in our wayfinding project, we were required to understand the use of the physical space in a building. To do this effectively we needed to consider the location of the building relative to major roads, parking, and public transport. We also needed to think about the audiences using the building, people of different ages and backgrounds, those who speak different languages, people who were visiting and people who worked there. Crucially, we also needed to consider the varying needs of different audiences, and how this impacted their use of the physical space. HCD practitioners use holistic thinking to draw together all the separate layers and disparate elements and capture them into one inter-connected view. Thinking holistically is one of the fundamental benefits of human-centred design.
Our recent wayfinding project highlighted the benefits of human-centred design which are invaluable to non-digital projects. It reminded us of how flexible and useful the process is. It also demonstrated to us how organisations are increasingly using HCD to improve their services beyond the digital domain. Ultimately it reinforced our belief that human-centred design is extremely useful and can add value to projects of all kinds.