We built our careers on Human-Centered Design, and it’s imperfect. And we are building upon it anyway. Here’s why (and how).

Team Development
November 2021

“Human-centered design is all about building a deep empathy with the people you’re designing for; generating tons of ideas; building a bunch of prototypes; sharing what you’ve made with the people you’re designing for, and eventually putting your innovative new solution out in the world.”

This is IDEO’s definition of human-centered design (HCD for short), “an approach to problem solving” that the firm is known for. The approach itself has been implemented by private and public organizations globally to design products and services that address users’ needs, from explicit needs to ones that users may not even identify as a need.

While Hermes (my business partner and the other Co-Founder and Managing Partner of InsightPact) and I began our relationship with HCD separately, we both were taught how to apply the methodology in the context of community development. When building things that truly serve people’s needs and that also generates social value, we learned that it is important that the design process is participatory and iterative so that affordable solutions can be tested and improved upon as many times as possible. In fact, we became business partners because we worked together on a project that applied HCD to the community development context and still, to this day, believe deeply in what the methodology has to offer.

Our confidence in HCD is, however, paired with some level of caution. As with most stories that glorify the solution, the rise of HCD’s popularity spawned a generation of parachute-in and fly-out applications of the methodology, which not only created sub-par solutions, but also further marginalized stakeholder voices and encouraged hero narratives. The cult of HCD believes, deeply, that the methodology is the answer to all ails within the universe: “use this” they would scream, “and all the problems you’ve ever had, with everything ever, will melt away.”

What human-centered design is missing

HCD alone 一 unsituated, apolitical, and separate from any historical context 一 is insufficient at best, and harmful at worst.

Like most things worth engaging with, HCD means different things to different people. Its methodological complexity is part of its power, and also its downfall. We’ve come to understand that the best applications of HCD depend on the implementing team’s interpretation of IDEO’s definition above. In other words:

  • How does your team define and apply “deep empathy”?
  • How does your team engage the power dynamics between the designers and the people they are designing for, or with?
  • What resources are available一or not一for prototyping?
  • and What resources are available一or not一for distributing the solution out into the world with the appropriate care and thoroughness that is needed to see the solution through?

What does human-centered design look like when it’s unsituated, apolitical, and separate from context?

Let me walk you through an example: You and your team have been hired by an intergovernmental organization (IGO) to use the HCD process to design a public awareness campaign that will lower the rates of sexually-transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancies in a community where most individuals, for religious reasons, do not believe in premarital sex.

With the help of an interpreter, your team talks to members of the community and asks questions about their health education growing up, as well as their religious beliefs. You gather lots of data and come up with many ideas, which you workshop through with the community in one of the rooms of the hotel you’re staying at.

Through this process, you neglected to approach the community leader and invite them to tea, an oversight that leads some community members who have the leader’s ear to discourage their family members from engaging with you.

You were also unaware of the fact that, before your team, consultants from other IGOs have already spent time in the community asking questions about very similar topics. This repetitiveness leads some community members to distrust you, as they are unsure what your relationship is with the other individuals who had been there before.

In skipping over these crucial details for the specific context in this community, the campaign you develop一while satisfactory for the organization that hired you一is not legitimate in the eyes of its target audience. You receive glowing reviews from your employer, but the community’s STI and unplanned pregnancy rates remain unchanged, and the community leader has issued a community-wide restriction against working with ‘foreign consultants’ in the future.

This is what HCD can look like without context. And it is not pretty.

How InsightPact leverages the best of what human-centered design has to offer

Thankfully the way out of the HCD ‘simplified worldview’ trap is rather straightforward, and it is a consideration that is relevant to essentially every other area of our lives and our work: we need to know the context. We must ask thoughtful questions about power, history, and unwritten rules, and work together with those who understand the context, even if it means taking extra time and resources to onboard and upskill new members of the team in the design methodology. We are responsible for understanding how we are positioned in the landscape of complex dynamics between diverse actors, and for adjusting our behavior accordingly so that every stakeholder we touch benefits from the process.

Even with the risks and complexity of co-creative engagements in the implementation of HCD, we still feel a strong resonance with HCD as a methodology, and continue to integrate it, and learn from, the way we build InsightPact and how we work with clients.

What resonates with us is its co-creative spirit; the HCD approach pushes us to always have a bias towards including as many relevant stakeholders as possible in a process, even if it means slowing down or incurring more costs to ensure that everyone moves forward together.

The HCD approach also invites us to prioritize working through many rough drafts over creating perfect deliverables. It reminds us that building anything beautiful is never linear, and the more iterations we go through in the journey of sharing value with the world, the more the thing that we are building can contribute to said world.

These universally sound principles have guided us in our journey of growing InsightPact from a team of 3 to 13 in 1.5 years, thriving and expanding despite the COVID-19 pandemic, all while working in a 100% distributed manner. They are the principles upon which many of the trainings we design and facilitate for our clients sit, and we still stand by them with steadfast confidence.

Saying ‘Yes, and” to human-centered design

In essence, we’ve said “yes...and” to HCD, forming our own interpretation of what the approach has to offer, combining its strengths with other considerations and ways of working that we also find valuable while putting one priority at the front and center: to generate holistic value and do no harm.

What does human-centered design look like to you in practice? What doubts do you have about the approach, and how have you navigated them? Let's have a conversation.