What is Human-Centered Design?

Human-centered design (HCD) is a philosophy for problem-solving that encourages organizations to focus on the people they are creating for. Understanding the human need behind the business need enables organizations to create human-centered products, services, and internal processes.

When organizations try to solve problems, they must understand that every business need involves humans – whether they are stakeholders, internal employees, or customers. Rather than start with a product or idea, start by understanding the humans involved in the business need. What are their pain points? How are they affected by the current process? What do they need to be more successful? Solving problems from the human’s perspective enables us to create better solutions for our business needs.

Human-centered design is a new way to look at problems and ask questions differently. It’s an iterative process that helps organizations experiment with new ideas. Product validation is built into the process and leads to practical, lasting solutions. Organizations that understand the human perspective can solve challenges in new and innovative ways.

Benefits of Human-Centered Design

Utilizing HCD, companies can problem solve quickly and more effectively. By focusing on humans, organizations can have a substantial impact and reduce the costs entailed in poor solutions and decision-making. The following is an overview of the benefits of implementing HCD in your organization.

Reduce the risk associated with launching new ideas

There is a lot of risks involved with launching new product ideas. Will this work? How much will it cost? Is this the right solution? Products typically fail when they don’t satisfy the needs of the users they were designed to help. By focusing on the human, we can build a solution that satisfies their needs and, in turn, satisfies the business needs.

Produces better products and services

Many projects start off well but then go to hell when the scope bloats, stakeholders decide to change things last minute, and lots of assumptions are made. Through its user-centric approach, HCD enables organizations to validate assumptions, manage the scope, and focus on solving the problems that provide the most value to individuals and the organization.

Organizations can learn faster

Since HCD fosters an iterative process, organizations are constantly learning and adapting to feedback. The high level of engagement with users enables a tighter feedback loop and response time. Organizations can experiment with new ideas and quickly validate them to shape an idea.

Increases the productivity of the users

By focusing on the human needs, we are creating solutions designed to eliminate pain points and improve productivity. Usability testing and user experience are inherent to this process and build a better relationship with users. When users can work smarter and more productive, both the users and the organization succeed.

Maximized ROI

Building the wrong product can be costly. Some companies pour millions of dollars into products that fail as soon as they go live. Through HCD, organizations can avoid building the wrong products and solving the wrong needs. Less time is wasted getting feedback, onboarding users, and fixing the incorrect assumptions made during planning. Focusing on the people will maximize the return on your investment.

Main Concepts of Human-Centered Design

Human-centered design can be implemented in various ways. It’s a philosophy, not a rigid process to be followed. The three core aspects of HCD are Empathy, Ideation, and Experimentation. To utilize human-centered design, organizations need to weave these concepts into their processes and shift their mindset to incorporate this philosophy.


If you want to build products and services for humans, it’s critical to understand them as individuals. Who are the users we’re designing for? What are their pain points? What are their motivations? What do they need to succeed? How do they currently solve these things? Bringing these users into the process makes it human-centered and enables an organization to deliver meaningful products.


Many organizations identify a problem and then task somebody with solving it. With HCD, you work as a team to generate as many ideas as you can. Everybody is a designer, and everybody on the team should participate in this process. Through a set of workshops and brainstorming sessions, teams should be able to come up with a lot of ideas and then narrow in on the most promising.


Through experimentation, teams can test their ideas through a usable prototype. Usability testing and user interviews help validate assumptions and answer critical questions. Does our solution work? Does it address pain points? What did we miss and how can we improve. These are many of the questions that we can answer through experimentation.

Pivot or Persevere

Nobody’s perfect and neither will your solution. If the solution is a dud, then ditch it and move to the next idea. If the solution is moving in the right direction, then use the feedback to improve. Teams can go through multiple prototypes before landing on the best possible solution. Remember, it’s much cheaper and easier to create and dispose of prototypes then it is to build a full-featured product that doesn’t solve a problem.

How to implement Human-Centered Design

If you’re sold on HCD and its benefits, it’s time to discuss implementation. Every organization is different, and every design firm will probably have their own implementation. And that’s perfectly fine. It’s not about a rigid process. It’s about a mindset shift where an organization puts humans at the center of their problem-solving process. Here is an overview of how we implement HCD.

Problem Discovery Workshop

Every problem-solving process must start with a problem. Sometimes the problem is evident, and this step isn’t necessary. But for some organizations, there are numerous problems, and we must identify the most critical to start. Many companies do this on their own and then engage a company like Kohactive, but others sometimes need help with this process.

Each company problem is presented to the team in a way that clearly outlines the issue, what it affects, and some idea of a potential solution. After all the problems have been presented, the team will discuss them for a while, and then conclude with a vote. Problems should be weighed based on criteria like potential risk, costs, ROI, severity, and who it affects.

Product Design Workshop

Once the problem has been identified, it’s time to start the discovery process. The product design workshop is the first step in defining and illustrating the problem and potential solutions. Note that it’s critical to have actual end-users involved in this workshop and discovery process.

Here is an overview of our workshop

Project Charter
The project charter is an overview of the project and a master document of what we’re trying to achieve. It includes:

  • Problem statement
  • Project timeline
  • Key players (stakeholders, experts, builders, and end-users)
  • Goals & success metrics

Once we’ve identified the problem and created our charter, then we’re ready to start solving it.

User Personas
The project charter defines the business problem that we are solving and identifies the humans that we’re solving for. While the end-users will be part of our process, it’s essential to define who they are as an archetype. User personas let us identify their background, technical skills, needs, and motivations.

User Journey Mapping
User journey mapping is one of the most critical components of problem-solving for people. Through this mapping exercise, we create a diagram that illustrates the steps required for a user to complete a task, which gives us insight into the process, their motivations, and opportunities for improvement.

User journey mapping should take quite a bit of time. It’s a critical step in the ideation process. This is an opportunity to discuss ideas and possible solutions.

Our workshop typically takes about two or three half-days. You can learn more about our product design workshop in our playbook.


Once we’ve completed our workshop, then we have enough information to begin our first round of prototyping. Prototypes should be disposable. They are made quickly to serve as a visual guide to understanding the problem and shaping our solution.

We’ll create a simple clickable prototype to show some users and get feedback. If the product we’re building is substantial, then we can focus the prototype on a subsect of the feature that is the most challenging. Our goal is to validate the assumptions we made about our solution.

User Interviews

Once we have our first prototype, it’s time to interview users and get real feedback. We typically recommend about five users to interview. If you have multiple user types, then you’ll want to interview 3-5 of each type.

User interviews with a prototype are a way to validate our ideas and make course corrections quickly. We’re not perfect, and we shouldn’t assume there won’t be any changes. Also, it’s essential to distinguish feature requests from real feedback. It’s inevitable that a user will request a feature that’s probably not worth the investment as it only affects them and not the general user.


User interviews will shed light on the decisions and assumptions we made during our discovery process. Now it’s time to iterate on those ideas.

If our assumptions were way off, it’s time to go back to the drawing board and start over. This should never be the case. If you’ve done research and discovery, then you won’t end up in this situation. If you are, though, you should think about the users that you brought into this process, perhaps they’re not the best subjects. Also, look into how the research was initially conducted, did we do something wrong?

If you’re 100% spot on, then you’re in great shape and should move on to the production phase, but this is rarely the case. There are always some improvements to be made.

At this point, you should have great feedback from the interview process. The team should meet to discuss and prioritize the feedback. If you need to update the user journeys or project plan, then that should be completed immediately. The next step is to update the prototype and re-engage users for another interview. This time, the interviews will be much quicker as they understand the product and process a bit better.

You could iterate as many times as necessary. It’s not uncommon to make 3-5 rounds of updates before feeling confident that we have prototyped the best solution. Prototypes are cheap and disposable, so the risk at this point is much lower. You will certainly pay much more down the road if you start working on invalid assumptions.


Once the discovery process is completed, and our solution has been validated, it’s time to start production. I’m not going to get into too much detail, but here is an overview of how we maintain a human-centered approach during production.

High Fidelity Prototype
Our team works to create a full-featured, high-fidelity prototype. What does that mean? It means we build a clickable prototype of the designs with all steps, screens, and states involved.

We work from the low-fidelity wireframe into a high-fidelity wireframe. This process usually takes a couple of weeks. Wireframing allows us to identify all of the screens, the flows, and the interactions. In many cases, we will re-engage our users and present the wireframes to collect feedback and ensure we’re still on the right path. As the prototype fidelity increases, the end users are able to visualize the experience better and provide even more feedback.

With the wireframes completed, we move into a high-fidelity visual design. Visual design includes all of the branding, design elements, and graphics that will be present in the final product. This deliverable is another opportunity to re-engage users to get feedback and further improve. Usually, at this point it’s small, nitpicky feedback – some of which is essential, others can be ignored.

Agile Development
Once development starts, agile methodologies can help facilitate the human-centered approach. After certain milestones, it can be useful to bring in users to test out the functionality and give feedback. Don’t want months before bringing in users; it’s important to engage them regularly. They don’t need to be part of scrum, but you should plan on at least touching base with them once a month.


Human-centered design can help organizations innovate faster. There’s a reason that top companies like Apple, Capital One, and BCBS are using it. Remember, HCD isn’t a rigid process, it’s a philosophy that organizations adopt to improve the way they create new products and services. You don’t need to get company-wide adoption, start with a single team and product and grow from there.

Not sure where to start? It’s simple—start by talking to the humans behind your business needs. Find out who they are, what they do, and how to build products that make them more successful.

If you want to learn more about how human-centered design can help your organization then reach out.

John Koht

Client Principal

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