Applying Human-Centered Design Methods to Your Process

What is human-centered design?

Human-centered design is a way of approaching your design practice that specifically addresses the needs of your user base. It’s possible to design something beautiful and that works really well—in theory—when only you and your team test it, but could be missing the main needs of your users once it gets to them.

The term “human-centered design” was originally coined by IDEO, a design organization that makes community-oriented projects to combat poverty and create a more sustainable world. It seeks to educate designers around the world about human-centered design in order to help those designers improve their communities. IDEO does this through online courses, in-person workshops, and a website called DesignKit, where it documents its process. For an overview, watch this informational video below.


The idea: by starting with an open line of communication with your users, you’ll better understand their needs and therefore produce a more innovative solution to the problem at hand. By involving the users in the process of creating something for them, they are more likely to embrace your solution. This approach helps the people using your product to feel like it’s theirs as much as it is yours.

Human-centered design is best done in a team environment. The process includes three main phases: inspiration, ideation, and implementation. (Chances are you’re probably already using some of these methods in your process!) These three phases include various exercises based on the project and the goals of your team.



An example of “Personas” which are fictional people that you imagine based off the information you gain from your interviews and secondary research. These people are taken from the early stages of a project I worked on called Mobility Map. They are made up based on my learnings from a series of interviews with stakeholders.

The inspiration phase is all about dropping any preconceived notions you might have about your users and, instead, learning their needs and challenges from them through conversation and observation. At this stage in the process, it’s very important not to have a specific outcome in mind and instead, keep your mind open to a wide variety of possible solutions. Paying attention to the needs of your users will bring you to the best possible solution.

Some common methods implemented in this phase are conducting interviews, performing secondary research, and planning the steps and milestones for your work. Before pen gets put to paper, take some time to talk to your client and understand their lifestyle, business, and philosophy, and how that informs the way they want to interact with what you make. In the context of custom software for clients, the product should align with the way the client conducts business—not make the client change their practices to meet the constraints you have placed within the software. Taking this time to listen and read up on subject matter is one of the best ways to understand your project and produce an informed solution.



Storyboard made by my team when I was taking the IDEO course (see Resources section). A storyboard is an exercise when you walk through the main events of someone using your product to determine the structure of it.

This is when you start actually making things—this phase is about visualizing, brainstorming, and discussing all the potential solutions. It doesn’t matter if they’re flawed or impractical; you want to document all your ideas because there is always a reason you thought of them. There might be aspects of one idea that are silly, but there may be aspects that you can apply to another idea where they make more sense. Seeing all of your ideas in front of you will help you and your end-user hone in on what’s going to work and what’s not. This is not the time to get going with high-fidelity prototypes—basic sketches, lists, or small-scale models are what you’ll need to tap into your creativity without the pressure to produce a polished final product.

A really important part of the ideation phase is to collect your users’ reactions to your concepts. It could turn out that what seemed like the best idea to you doesn’t feel quite right to your users—and it’s much better to find that out before you spend a lot of time making a beautiful interactive prototype or start coding. If you consider that feedback early, you can iterate on your best ideas until you’ve made your way to a well-developed concept that works for everyone.



The final stage of our project when I took the IDEO course was rapidly prototyping our project and getting people to test out our solution. In this photo, we are simultaneously working on a whiteboard, getting a screen structure we like, and replicating it in Sketch for our wireframes.

Once you and your user find a concept that feels right, you can move on to implementation. This contains the tail end of the pre-production phase, where a high-fidelity prototype is put together for your users to try out, as well as the actual production of the object (or coding, for web and app-based projects). This might also be a good time to create a business model around the concept (if there was not one already), make necessary partnerships, and prepare your product for real-world use.

Because you involved the user along the way and gave them some ownership over the outcome, you can feel confident during the implementation phase that the solution will be used and appreciated by its user base—and that you’re offering an improvement on their current practices. By letting go of your perspective and instead taking on the perspective of the user, the result is something that is personalized to the needs of your customer.


  • The Approach to Human-Centered Design
    An index of all of the free courses, materials, and publications IDEO has produced to spread the ideology of human-centered design. I highly recommend the 7-week “Intro to Human-Centered Design” course they offer (warning: it’s an online course, but you need at least one partner, preferably with IRL meetings). I learned most of what I know on the topic from that course. The photos you see throughout this article are primarily from my team while I was taking the class. The work shown is a collaboration between myself, Melanie Axelrod, Brandon Walsh, and Chris Silverman.
  • Stanford’s’s Virtual Crash Course in Design Thinking
    This is a fun exercise that allows you to access the type of thinking that you might use in a human-centered design process. You’ll need a partner with this one too; also, it’s best not to do this somewhere that you are expected to be quiet. (In college, my Design Research professor did this with our class and we had a lot of fun with it—but there was a certain level of chaos involved.)
  • IBM Design Thinking
    This is IBM’s take on human-centered design, applied to their large-scale clients and corporate environment. It’s nice to see another perspective on the same ideology.

(Header image by Melanie Axelrod)