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GuidesUser experience (UX)A guide to human-centered design

A guide to human-centered design

Last updated

20 March 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Jean Kaluza

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Sometimes, businesses create products that are a hit with consumers with relatively little effort. In other cases, despite a great deal of time and effort, their latest offering is a dud. Not every product is going to be a commercial success. But because of the resources involved, business leaders are constantly looking for ways to maximize the likelihood that each new product they introduce is one that consumers love – and buy.

One popular approach is known as human-centered design (HCD). HCD incorporates customer perspectives into the design process from start to finish. By centering the design process on people, businesses have a better chance of crafting products that will resonate with users and customers.

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What is human-centered design?

Human-centered design integrates a user's wants, needs, and pain points in every part of the process. When you approach product development with the user perspective first and foremost in design considerations, you can align your products closely to your target markets. And by closely tailoring every element of your product to what your customers want, you maximize your chances that it will be well-received.

How is human-centered design different from traditional design thinking?

Human-centered design keeps the user’s needs front and center during the entire product life cycle, whereas design thinking balances the user’s needs with the feasibility of the team that can build the solution and the solution’s viability within the competitive marketplace.

The phases of human-centered design

To understand the difference between traditional design thinking and HCD, it's helpful to know the three phases of HCD: clarification, ideation, and implementation. Each phase is grounded in the perspective of prospective users, which is gathered in the first phase.


Unlike traditional design approaches, where product designers and engineers develop a product idea or are given a directive from management to develop a specific product, in HCD, products are driven by customer perspectives. This first phase involves substantial market research into your customer's wants and needs. 

You'll want to understand what problems they're looking to solve, how they approach them, and what challenges they face while doing so. You're not only looking to understand what customers may be looking for in a specific product or service, but also every single aspect of what you'll offer, including its features, appearance, packaging, pricing, and distribution.


Ideation leverages the insights you've gained during the clarification phase to begin to generate solutions. Design teams draft possible solutions that encompass the broadest set of consumer problems and pain points possible, utilizing case studies, prototyping, and other common tools to craft and refine products. During this process, it’s important to gather feedback on potential solutions, so user testing is essential. 

Systematic inventive thinking (SIT) or brainstorming can be used to overcome cognitive fixedness—a mindset in which you consciously or unconsciously assume there’s only one way to interpret or approach a situation. Feedback from existing and prospective customers can help ensure your product gets at the heart of their wants and needs.


The final stage - implementation - involves the launch of your new product to the market. In the clarification phase, you've likely gathered insights that concern your product and other aspects of it as well. 

For example, your customers may have noted difficulties finding your product. You'll want to incorporate this and similar insights about your product's placement, packaging, and pricing into your launch. By grounding your product's design and launch in terms of user needs and pain points, you maximize the chances it will be well-received.

Why is human-centered design important?

The HCD approach grounds design in the user's experience in a manner that traditional design doesn't. This grounding helps businesses build the solutions their customers desire and mitigates the risk of costly design missteps. HCD can also help you fix products that have already gone to market but are not resonating with consumers. 

Further, HCD is ideal for products that are refreshed or redesigned regularly, such as gaming and computer consoles and vehicles. By drawing on the experiences of existing customers, you can be sure that next year's Tesla or AR gaming console will be a hit with consumers and critics alike.   

Examples of human-centered design

Several well-known companies have used HCD to develop tremendously successful products. For example, Spotify, which has touted this approach, has developed one of the most popular streaming services in the world. When Spotify launched, it distinguished itself with an extremely simple user interface, minimal advertising interruption, easy playlist development, and sharing features. 

These features appealed to streaming service users, who found Spotify's rivals and precursors lacking in these areas. Designing its streaming service according to listener wants and needs has helped the company become the largest streaming platform in the world by subscribers.

Another well-known company that has used HCD to great effect is Fitbit. As the leading fitness tracker, Fitbit's success is largely due to how easily it can be integrated into a person's lifestyle. That attribute was not a byproduct of luck. Fitbit has spent considerable time and resources making sure that its core user issue of fitness tracking is addressed and that every aspect of the device itself, from comfort to interface complexity, is tailored to its customer's needs and pain points.

Difficulties of human-centered design

HCD can help develop popular products, but it can be difficult for businesses to implement this process. Proper HCD takes time and resources. But design teams face time constraints and limited resources that may require them to take shortcuts.

For example, a team may face a deadline to develop a prototype, yet they may not be able to draw practical conclusions from their research by that deadline. This may not account for real business objectives or resource limitations.

Some companies, especially those in the software industry, leverage an HCD approach by first developing a very basic prototype, releasing it to a limited audience, and then leveraging qualitative research methods to uncover user wants, needs, and pain points relative to the prototype. The design team then works to change features, improve problems, and refine the product until it is aligned with the testing audience.


What is an example of human-centered design?

Many companies have used HCD to develop products or improve UX design. A good example of the latter is the children's toothbrush developed by the design firm IDEO for Oral-B in the mid-nineties. IDEO's team spent time observing and studying children to create a children's toothbrush that was ideal for their use.

From their research, IDEO developed a toothbrush with a thick, pliable handle to help children with varying motor skills brush their teeth easily. Nearly all of Oral-B's competitors have replicated this design as it meets its user's needs and challenges well.

What are human-centered design techniques?

Many qualitative research techniques are used heavily by HCD design teams. Those most commonly used include:

  • affinity mapping

  • card sorting

  • contextual inquiry

  • co-design

  • design sprint

  • desktop research

  • diary studies

What is the clarification phase of human-centered design?

The clarification phase involves immersion in the lives of the users you're designing products for. In this phase, you observe them in action and catalog their wants, needs, and pain points to help drive your work to find solutions in the subsequent phase: ideation.

What are the challenges of human-centered design?

Human-centered design has many benefits from a product and systems development perspective. However, it can be difficult for design teams working on tight schedules and with limited resources to execute all three phases completely and thoroughly within a fast-paced business environment. 

For example, design teams might find the research phase is taking more time to finish than they have. Or they may find their progress interrupted by a sudden directive to develop a prototype by senior managers.

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