User-Centered Design, Human-Centered Design: What Way's Right for Startups?

Friday, November 16, 2018
Christopher Sirk
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Users of the world unite! I mean, humans. Er, well, both.

User-centered design and human-centered design are durable concepts, and may or may not be the same thing. Both proceed from participatory action research. For lean startups looking to build the right product from the start, they’re indispensable to know about.

So what’s the skinny on user-centered and human-centered design? Where do the concepts come from and what exactly can we do with them?

Origins of User-Centered Design: The Tale of Stormin’ Don Norman

Don Norman is a cognitive scientist and usability engineer. Most of his work is based on advocacy for user-centered design.

He started his career as an unassuming academic, an associate professor at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) where he founded the Institute for Cognitive Science. Then in 1981, he generated a big buzz writing about how Unix had a terrible user interface in the highly reputable computer-nerd magazine Datamation. That launched his long stint as a public figure fighting for the end-user.

Take, for example, Norman’s book The Design of Everyday Things, published in 1988. It presents case studies of everyday objects, from door handles to computers and phones. We are invited to think about all the little things we take for granted, and why it is some things satisfy us and others make us want to smash them.  

Norman shows what good and bad design look like across the spectrum of objects, and why. Spoiler alert: bad design is related to lack of user-centered design!

In particular, the book explores the tactile and cognitive interaction between object and user, and how communication between the two can be combined to enhance the experience of using the object.

This approach to design neatly sets aside the issue of visual appeal, irritating haughty aesthetes everywhere. For Norman, the most important thing about an everyday thing is how well it serves the user, not its ornamental value (i.e. form follows function).

The Design of Everyday Things also unleashed the concept of ‘Seven Stages of Action’ onto the usability scene.

With seven stages from start to finish, four constitute execution and three constitute action: forming the goal-> forming the intention-> specifying an action-> executing the action-> perceiving the state of the world-> interpreting the state of the world-> evaluating the outcome.

In case you zoned out going through that flow, the gist of the Seven Stages is troubleshooting so a product works intuitively, and gives results that are clear to the user. It’s a basic checklist for designers to make sure they don’t have too big a gulf of execution, in which case the user has to think too much and is diverted from the intended task, or too big a gulf of evaluation, in which case the result generated by an object/system/user interface/etc. is not clear, or does not line up with user expectation.

Fun fact: Norman was the first person to hold a position that had “User Experience” in the title when he worked for Apple in the mid-90s.

IDEO and human-centered design, which may or may not be different

Despite all his wisdom, Norman does not have a monopoly on the user experience concept. Some other very smart people were barking up the same tree, around the same time.

Meet the folks behind IDEO.


Image Credit: Creative Confidence

Founded in 1991, the wildly successful design and innovation consulting firm has always been steered heavily by the minds of mustachioed brothers, Tom Kelley and Dave Kelley.

The Kelley brothers have done a lot to show how the business world can benefit from user-centered design methodologies and how company cultures impact innovation.

The Kelley brothers have also been adept chroniclers of the ideas that come into the world and the methods 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 Creative Confidence, which proposes to show us how to open up creative confidence in the regular day-to-day.

In Creative Confidence, the Kelleys note that most people have socialized themselves out of natural creative inclinations by adulthood. In a boardroom meeting, this might translate to not speaking up when you have an idea you think might help. Our natural instinct is to keep quiet because there is a threat of being viewed as an oddball in an otherwise conformity-laden environment.

IDEO CEO-kinda thinking 

Tim Brown, the CEO of IDEO, and an employee way back when it was founded has an approach to human-centric design thinking that hinges on empathy, integrative thinking, optimism, and experimentation.

In Brown’s view, you really need a thorough understanding of the people you’re developing for before you try 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’ are those needs a customer may be unconscious that they even have, which can be drawn out through empathetic insights.   

It’s all about community solutions that meet individual needs, about getting 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 the spectrum from outlandish and obvious.

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

It’s 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.

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

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 poor people living in developing nations. They 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 their 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 really intense, sustained interactions with the people they wanted to help, they broke through the dichotomy of research and subject in a very interesting way.

But how do you really get deep with people?

IDEO has a few trade-secret techniques.

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 alot about Fortnite.

However, the point is you’ll get a crucial perspective on how to design for the people. In philosophy 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 (as those of you with stubborn spouses are well aware).

The trick is getting outside this comfortable knowledge base in a more profound way in order to build for others. In that pursuit, just talking is cheap, and worth a try.

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.

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

Human-centric, user-centric: a case of po-tay-toe po-tah-toe?

So we have user-centric design and human-centric design from two opposing camps. What’s the difference, really?

Well, they are informed by the same animating, overarching principle, that much is certain.

Both concepts place the people that you’re designing for in the middle of the constellation of ideas, with everything proceeding from human observation.

One potential difference is in application, as is apparent through IDEO.org.

Human-centric design proceeds from a more ‘humanistic’ view of design, with non-commercial applications both touted and explored. User-centric design tends to stick with pragmatic market need, solving problems in ways that are profitable for businesses.

They both face some of the same criticisms, which is their putative short-sightedness. Insofar as they work from in-depth, present-day research of a ready-made public and their existent routines and desires, they don’t engage future possibilities in any starry eyed way.

While this is definitely a legitimate criticism, for startups this baby-step, iterative methodology is just what the doctor ordered in terms of creating an effective, usable product fast.

Why should user-centered design matter to startups?

During a 90s product presentation, Steve Jobs nailed the point of user-centered design while replying to an infamous heckle attack. After some intense water bottle clenching and reflectively staring down at his custom-patched Levi’s 501s, he says:

“You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work back toward the technology - not the other way around.”

The idea that marketing leaders should, “sit down with the engineers and figure out what awesome technology we have and how we are going to market that,” makes no sense to him.

Witness also this flaming hot exchange between Apple co-founder programmer/engineer Steve Wozniak and Jobs in Fassbinder’s Steve Jobs. It’s fictional but does illustrate Jobs’ IRL philosophy pretty well. Jobs may have been a ruthless captain of industry (especially in this movie), but he knew he had to steer the good ship Apple towards humanity, and that meant getting down and designing for people on their level.

Wozniak had the brains, Jobs had the brawn; they made lots of money.

It’s true that Steve Jobs and co. were very, very talented, but they were also lucky, coming up during the 80’s and 90’s during the computing boom when opportunities for massive growth were plentiful. These days the competition chasing consumer money, particularly online, is exponentially fiercer.

What that means for start-ups is that it’s more important than ever to know who you’re building for. User-centric design is crucial because you probably don’t have zillions of dollars in venture capital behind you. It’s way more efficient to test the waters and build according to feedback and perceived opportunity.

We’ve gone from an era of building stuff up and unleashing it on the world to one in which iteration reigns supreme.

It’s better to have it out in the world than to have it perfect.

With lean user experience design, you want to make sure you’re making the right thing. You measure, validate, and get the product fit going.

It’s a bit like the workflow in the artist’s atelier, where a piece is painted over and over until it’s just right. Except instead of the drafts and finished product coming out of the artist’s ego (and their influences, both explicit and hidden), the work begins and ends with ideas from the public.

So will your design methodology be human-centric or user-centric? The choice is yours.

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