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What is Human-Centered Design Thinking?

Updated: May 23, 2019

Human-Centered Design Thinking delivers creative solutions to complex business problems by empathizing with needs and motivations of key users.

What is Human-Centered Design Thinking?

To most of us, the answer seems like common sense. Human-Centered Design Thinking delivers creative solutions to complex business problems by empathizing with needs and motivations of key users. “Isn’t that what we do; understand our customers before we develop new products or services? As intuitive as it may seem, more often than not, surprisingly the answer is “No.” Though “Voice of Customer" and other quantitative data analytics may provide some insights as to “what” consumers want, fewer organizations are as fluent is understanding an equally critical factor, which is “why” their customers want what they do.

Even companies born with a mission to serve people first can easily drift away from a user-first mentality over time and rely to heavily on quantitative consumer analytics or financial data points. Competitive pressures or short-term priorities scare businesses to speed up development phases and get to market quickly. Rushing a new product or service to market, like rushing into anything, has its risks. The feedback loop necessary to improve user adoption or user reactions can come too late, and re-engineering down the line exponentially increases costs for an organization.

With a broader understanding of the users’ “why” during the product or experience design process, the risk of missing the mark and wasting time and resources on a product is reduced exponentially. HCD’s user-focus shields companies from over assuming about what the user wants or needs or unintentionally solving the wrong user problem. “Going slow to go fast” as Human-Centered Designers say, referring to the deep preemptive qualitative and quantitative research done during the design process, is what makes the biggest difference in mitigating risk and predicting ROI.

Human-Centered Design is an innovation methodology that tracks the user’s positives and pain points during their emotional journey as key indicators of perceived value. With this awareness HCD focuses on heightening the emotional experience to ultimately, create a deeper emotional connection with the user. As stated in a Harvard Business Review article titled, An Emotional Connection Matters More than Customer Satisfaction, "…Customer satisfaction is often already high, and seldom a competitive differentiator. Our research across hundreds of brands in dozens of categories shows that the most effective way to maximize customer value is to move beyond mere customer satisfaction and connect with customers at an emotional level,” which translates into long-term customer loyalty and personal brand identity (Leemon, D. and Zorfas, A. (2016). Iconic companies like Apple, Starbucks and Nike are examples of design-driven organizations who have successfully branded their products and services, and defined their emotional value proposition.

Employing Human-Centered Design starts with embracing a mindset of empathy. The methodology centers around understanding the behaviors, motivations and unique perspective of the user. The Design Academy’s HCD process can be interpreted as Discover, Connect, Conceive, and Deliver. While a process framework is helpful to non and new designers, the beauty of the approach is its nonlinearity and adaptability to other innovation or development approaches, such as stage gate, agile and lean, or integration into any creative or innovation process.

  • The DISCOVER phase is heavy with preliminary research; research in various forms takes place throughout the entire project continuum by way of concept prototyping and user-testing to gather user feedback as often and as early as possible.

  • The CONNECT activities synthesize various research outcomes to enable the identification of user-patterns and define unique user personas. Unlike market segmentation profiles based on demographics and attitudes describing which users prefer “what”, HCD develops personas around key motivators and interactions that hold insights as to “why” users prefer what they do. Because HCD is an intrinsically collaborative approach to complex problem solving, the CONNECT phase allows for team alignment around key opportunities and target user types that provide a foundation for ideation.

  • In the CONCEIVE phase, designers create and test multiple low-fidelity, inexpensive prototypes, further aligning teams on the details of a concept. Iterative prototype feedback guides the concept toward its most valuable version (before it goes to market). Strategically communicating the final concept, its benefits and features takes place in the DELIVER phase with the use of storytelling, images, emotional messaging and defining the business case.

HCD engenders a collaborative culture in an organization through its application tools. The tangible tools applied in HCD are catalysts for inclusive thinking, creative activities and a learn by doing mentality.

If your organization is ready to explore HCD, call or email us for our free 2-hour in-person demonstration. Contact us to learn more!


Leemon, D. and Zorfas, A. (2016, August). An Emotional Connection Matters More than Customer Satisfaction. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from


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