An introduction to human-centred design

Paul Blake

15 May 2016

I delight in telling young designers that when I left school the quaintly titled ‘world wide web’ didn’t exist.

So as a designer who has spent the last 20 plus years learning as I go I should know how difficult it is to penetrate jargon and get an understanding of a constantly evolving industry.

However, as we’ll discuss shortly, the more you learn about a subject the less you remember about the times when you didn’t know a thing.

I do however remember when, as a young designer with a basic understanding of human-centred design, I stood before an old-school and pretty abrasive executive and put forward my case for a research budget.

Let’s just say I got there in the end but we had what newspapers euphemistically call ‘a frank exchange of views’. I wish I had been better prepared.

So reflecting on all of this I thought it might be useful to zoom out and talk about:

  • what human-centred design is,
  • what benefits it can bring to your business, and,
  • how we use a human-centred toolkit here at Conduct.
ConductHQ Fitzroy

What is human-centred design?

To paraphrase an old UXPA definition, human-centred design puts a focus on customers through the planning, design and development of a product. In doing so it orientates the design around the people who will ultimately use that product.

The process is not about giving customers what they say they want. There is a huge difference between asking users what they want and understanding what they do.

Human-centred design activities therefore seek to understand customer behaviour and use this insight to drive ideation, continuous improvement and product design and development.

You are not the user

The mantra of human-centred design is: ‘you are not the user’.

For those of you in internal teams – be they start ups or long established organisations – the blunt fact is that you are not best placed to have an ‘outside in’ view of your products and services.

You don’t experience your product offerings in the way someone without exposure to them would. You can’t ‘unlearn’ in order to be a first-time customer and your inside knowledge of your business, its process and terminology can skew your objectivity around design decisions.

Those of us in agency land are not immune either. Without understanding the real needs of real customers we will design for ourselves. The key problem here is that as skilled designers and developers our frame of reference is far different to the audience we are delivering to.

I recall working on a project in around 2008 which leveraged Google Maps. When we tested an early prototype we discovered that around half of the users weren’t familiar with the zoom control.

As a design team we had got carried away with what was then a relatively new piece of technology and had set far too high a barrier to use. Our only defence was that we’d had the sense to test early, thereby averting a design disaster!

Applying human-centred design

During the discovery phase of a project, our goal is to establish:

  • Who is using the system, service or tool,
  • What tasks they are trying to complete, and,
  • The contexts and environments in which they are trying to operate.

Where applicable it’s important to loop in any activities by staff and internal teams in addition to end customers.

Key tools at this stage are user observation and contextual enquiry (a.k.a. field study or cultural probe).

As the name implies the former involves observing customers in order to understand current pain points – who struggles and why – plus tools, workarounds and distractions.

Contextual enquiry is an extension of user observation and involves shadowing and interviewing customers undertaking their everyday tasks in their normal environment (or, at a minimum, getting them to focus on recounting tasks they have done recently).

Conversation during contextual enquiry is lightly scripted, with key discussion themes mapped out, but the framework is loose enough to explore whatever comes up.

Discovery activities give a project the ultimate reality check in that they uncover how the business and customers actually behave rather than having stakeholders and the project team operate on assumptions.

Findings can be articulated in a number of ways depending of the needs of the project.

At Conduct we love staying lean by articulating findings on a design wall – essentially a low-fidelity collection of sticky notes, sketches and storyboards which grow over the project lifecycle.

Other options include user mental models, personas, customer journey maps or service design blueprints all of which we will review in more detail in a forthcoming journal post.

The purpose of discovery is to inform ideation, feature prioritisation and product roadmap, however moving into design and development is by no means the end of user engagement.


As projects progress we choose from a number of participatory design activities to keep us aligned with user and business need. These are creative activities undertaken with consumers of the product – internal staff as well as customers – where designers facilitate or ‘translate’ for people who aren’t confident in idea expression.

Our start point is the sketches which come out of ideation. These prompt a conversation which, as the solution becomes clearer, will naturally morph into iterative testing of a prototype.

For interface-related engagements prototyping centres on a clickable/tappable version of the proposed solution. Service design projects rely more on storyboards as a prompt to walk key staff and customers through re-imagined service interactions but can go as far as prototyping physical artefacts.

We also evangelise a ‘test and learn’ mentality. As fans of a lean UX approach we encourage clients to get a core product to market and use ongoing customer analysis to clarify the product roadmap and guide continuous improvement.

If this introduction has whetted your appetite for more, here’s a suggested reading list. We’d love to hear how you progress.

Happy reading!

next up Designing immersive user experiences for children

Simon Krambousanos