Human Centered Design: David Kelley and the IDEO Way

Last Updated:Tuesday, July 4, 2023

What came first, the product or the public?

Spoiler alert: the public. Things exist for people to use, a simple principle that is often lost. And that’s precisely where human-centered design takes its cue.

IDEO and the roots of human-centered design

David Kelley founded global design and innovation agency IDEO in 1991 in Palo Alto. Since then, the wildly successful firm has always been steered heavily by David and his fellow mustachioed brother, Tom. Over the years, the Kelley brothers’ company has done a lot to show the business world how to benefit from human-centered design methodologies, and how company cultures impact innovation.

What is human-centered design? Simply put, it is a design process where you put user needs first, before technology or anything else. The human factor informs every aspect of design from concept to realization.

IDEO has used human-centered design principles to develop universe-altering products like the world’s first laptop computer (the GriD), as well as complex systemic design improvements for the healthcare, government, and education sectors.

They’ve done much of this incredible work by “designing behaviors and personalities into products.” Rather than setting out to design a product on its own accord, IDEO first asks three big questions:

+ What do people want?

+ What is feasible from a technical standpoint?

+ What is feasible from a financial standpoint?

Take, for example, the story of the first Apple Mouse.

In 1980, IDEO’s forerunner company (at the time called Hovey-Kelley Designs) was commissioned to design a mouse for Apple’s marketing-altering Lisa computer. Back then, Xerox had mice that retailed for an eye-watering $400 due to their fussy manufacturing process.

Pre-Apple mice used a complex series of mechanical switches to track the movement of the ball, generating points of failure and creating friction. They also got dirty and jammed up with gunk quickly, and due to their labyrinthine inner workings, cleaning them was not simple.

The task given to IDEO was thus to improve the design and cut the retail price of the device down by 90%.

Back then, product development involved a lot of pencils, paper, and somewhat janky prototypes. Case in point, one of the first prototypes of the new mouse was built out of a deodorant roller and a butter dish.

The engineer assigned to the case was Jim Yurchenco, who took the idea for a free-floating ball mechanism from an Atari arcade machine. The rubber-coated steel ball could be popped out, de-gunked and popped back in. The two and three button configurations on previous mice were simplified down to a single one, which was then engineered to generate a satisfying, audible click with good tactile response.

The case of the Apple Mouse ticks all the boxes for IDEO’s enduring philosophy of human-centered design. David and co. took a product that already existed and deconstructed it to find out what was good and bad. Then they built something simpler, cheaper, and better in every way that humans would actually want to use.

In contemporary times, IDEO’s song has remained the same, but technical achievement has been supplanted by user experience.

Case in point, the Prada Epicenter New York retail and cultural space, designed by acclaimed architect Rem Koolhaas and his firm OMA with help from IDEO. The store, which opened in 2001, features interactive technology designed to seamlessly improve the experience of sizing up and trying on fancy clothes.

David Kelley helped supply some truly innovative ideas for the store, like three-second delayed plasma screens that allow you to check out your outfit from all angles, eliminating the need for extra mirrors, creative iPhone camerawork, or a friend or spouse’s second opinion (unless still desired). 

Apart from being “doers”, IDEO’s chief creative voices have also been adept chroniclers of their ideas and the methodology that produced them.

Tom Kelley wrote about IDEO’s unique culture of collaboration in The Art of Innovation in 2001, and the character archetypes behind innovation in his 2005 book Ten Faces of Innovation.

Most recently, in 2013, the brothers teamed up to author the New York Times-bestseller Creative Confidence, a book that proposes to show us how to open up creative confidence in the regular day-to-day.

Developing creative confidence for routine innovation

David Kelley is a big advocate of self-actualization through unlocking one’s creative potential. He believes when someone becomes comfortable with creativity—and gets to participate in a mutually-reinforcing culture of innovation—making new stuff becomes routine.

In Creative Confidence, David and his brother note how most people have socialized themselves out of natural creative inclinations by adulthood.

A lot of us can look back on our lives, and remember a moment, somewhere along the way, when a teacher, a friend, a family member, or someone else dumped on us for doing something impractical, pie-in-the-sky, or ‘weird’ and told us to get with the program. Social rejection is a powerful force, and society is built to pressure us into “coloring inside the lines” and being rational about life expectations.

As a fully grown human sitting in a boardroom meeting, this socialization might translate into not speaking up when you have a ‘strange’ idea you think might help. Our natural instinct is often to keep quiet because there is a threat of being viewed as an oddball in an otherwise conformity-laden environment.

In Kelley's TED talk on the subject, and many other talks besides, he suggests that despite any damage done, all of us are still creative at heart, and can be coaxed back to thinking outside the box. Through iterative baby-steps, we can get into a growth mindset that allows us to have big ideas and act on them.

Creative confidence is a key ingredient for human-centered design because it gets you out of the ivory tower. You position yourself as a creator on a more primordial level. When you accept failure and see it as part of a broader process, you become invested in the lifelong project of being creative and developing ideas without filters.

Being part of a team makes things even more powerful. People inspire one another and reciprocate ideas, exponentially increasing the number of creative thoughts in circulation.

If we feel we know what we have to do, we should act on it, rather than staying in existential limbo. For example, the Kelleys note how the imaging giant Kodak was aware of the threat of digital technology in the 90s but failed to address it properly.  

Underpinning the viability of all these creative ideas, however, is attention to the user’s wants and needs.

Tim Brown’s three I’s for human-centered design

Tim Brown is the current CEO of IDEO and was an employee way back when the agency was founded. His approach to human-centric design thinking hinges on a heady brew of empathy, integrative thinking, optimism, and experimentation.

In Brown’s opinion, designers need a thorough understanding of the people they’re developing for before testing anything.

Not to be outdone by the Kelley brothers, Brown wrote a book too—it’s called Change By Design (first published in 2009). The book deals with turning customer need into demand, matching technically viable and financially sensible ideas with market realities. It also explores the concept of ‘latent needs.’ Latent needs, as described by Brown, are things a customer might be unconscious that they need (or want), but that may be drawn out through empathetic insights.   

It’s all about community solutions that meet individual needs—finding unexpected answers and opportunities. You reach out to the people you’re going to design for, then develop solutions for them.

The human-centered method is separated into three phases: inspiration, ideation, and implementation.

Inspiration is when you meet the people and stay grounded in their lives for a sizeable chunk of time.

Ideation is when you process what you’ve learned to develop design concepts and prototypes, ideally with an eye towards testing ideas across a spectrum from outlandish to obvious.

Implementation is when you figure out your business model, develop partnerships, and deliver on your ideas with a working design.

The three I’s of human-centered design are a way of turning hunches about human behavior into solid first-hand customer insights. It’s also a way of quickly diagnosing issues as they present themselves.

Human-centered design beyond for-profit design

IDEO has moved its human mission into non-profit space with The offshoot organization is aimed at alleviating global poverty and empowering communities, with people at the center of the process.

They’ve developed a free, social-sector targeted design kit for brainstorming and developing a prototype to effect real change in the world. The kit works from the pretext that humanity’s problems—like poverty, gender inequality, and the like—are not intractable as some cynics would have it, but rather solvable with design-orientated, creative solutions.

The Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP) is using IDEO’s methodology for a project on improving global financial inclusion through human-centered design. The project specifically seeks to address the limited and unsatisfactory financial products available to impoverished people living in developing nations.

IDEO investigated mobile money, digital financial services, distrust of banks, and barriers to long-term saving. 175 financial product concepts, as well as 30 prototypes, came out of project research, which mostly comprised “in-depth interactions with a small number of customers” rather than casting the net widely and relying on quantitative data.

By having intense, sustained interactions with the people they wanted to help, the design firm broke through the dichotomy of research and subject in a very unique way.

One example is Save4School, an automated payment system that seeks to remedy underfunding in Zimbabwean schools and improve student attendance by synchronizing farmers’ paydays with school payment schedules.

Meanwhile, in Ghana—inspired by the success of Safaricom’s M-Pesa mobile payment technology in Kenya— helped implement reliable mobile cash transfer payments with Susu Wallet, which takes informal local saving practices people already use and implements them in a streamlined app.

Getting down and deep with humans

So IDEO has a few not-so-trade-secret-anymore techniques. What’s a good starting point for generating creative ideas on a human level?

Tom Kelly, for one, thinks it’s good to explore ideas with a ‘reverse mentor,’ someone who you’re used to speaking to on unequal terms. For example, by talking to a 10-year-old and letting them speak their mind without condescension, you might find out some pretty profound things about how the next generation views technology. You’ll also probably find out a lot about Fortnite.

However, the point is you’ll get a crucial perspective on how to design for ‘the people,’ on an elemental level. In philosophical terms, it’s all about that thing called ‘epistemology’—how we know what we know, and why we think we know what we know.

We all have our own system of constructing knowledge, built up since we were young, which, most of the time, we don’t deviate from willingly. The trick is getting outside this comfortable knowledge base in a more profound way in order to build for others.

Kelley also promotes expanding upon the ideas of others. There’s no shame in taking inspiration if you have a new angle to work. New skin for the old ceremony is still new skin, after all.

One example — in the late 1970s managers from Japan’s Seiyu Department Store went to the USA and got excited by no name brands. Back in Japan, they launched “Mujirushi Ryohin” (no brand quality products), aka MUJI, based on the same principles of brand-free value, but with an injection of minimalist, sleek design language translated across the company’s clothing, housewares, and food products. MUJI now has 600+ stores worldwide and does particularly brisk business in the States in Japanophile-concentrate cities like New York, San Francisco, and Portland.

Human-centered design for a human-centered era

While the human-centered principles of IDEO and the Kelley brothers were totally breakthrough in the 1980s, they continue to become more and more mainstream today.

For example, David Kelley now oversees the highly selective, highly acclaimed at Stanford University, which is designed to mold students into creatively confident designers.  

Meanwhile, IDEO has branch offices across the world, from Chicago, New York, Palo Alto, San Francisco, and Cambridge, Massachusetts to London, Munich, Shanghai, and Tokyo. They’ve also acquired data science company Datascope in a bid to bring machine-learning in harmony with human-centered design.

The IDEO philosophy of human-centered design harmonizes with the shape of the times, where iterative design to solve specific issues and unlock specific markets is the name of the game. For those of us working on apps, building a startup, or designing anything really, there’s definitely a lot of golden inspiration in the IDEO vaults.