It takes a village to do human-centred design

Laptop, sticky notes, and sketches on a desk, with three people gesturing
Photo by UX Indonesia on Unsplash

Human-Centred Design is not a solo mission. It never was and never will be. It is a collective effort. HCD is an inclusive and co-creative process that relies on the combination of many kinds of expertise. It was made to solve wicked problems and fully embraces the Dusty Baker quote:

“Everybody knows something, and nobody knows everything.”

HCD requires a culture of openness, rigorous experimentation, and empathy, and a team of people working collaboratively towards a clear goal or set of goals that are prioritized in a human-centred way.

If you are a User Experience designer or Product designer working alone, receiving briefs and producing deliverables (whether these are wireframes, designs, product specifications, usability testing debriefs, synthesized insights from user research in reports, analytics, designs, or prototypes), but your team and organization aren’t involved in your research and problem-solving process, your efforts to build a human-centred product are likely to be ineffective. For human-centred design to do its magic and result in products/services that solve real human problems in a way that is engaging and kind, you need a team of people who understand and embrace a few principles:

  • Ideas are fallible. And even great ideas can fail because of poor execution. Rigorous experimentation is how you prevent this from happening.
  • People often don’t behave in the way that we imagine they will.
  • Ideas need to be tested with target users to see how they respond to them (quantitatively) and why they respond in the ways that they do (qualitatively).
  • Findings from responses must be central in determining whatever is designed or built next. (This is why it’s called human-centred design).
  • The faster & cheaper the team can learn from experiments, the better for the business (read Eric Ries’s legendary book for a very powerful illumination of this).
  • Empathy means spending time with your users, in order to feel and think what they are feeling and thinking. It needs to be evenly distributed amongst your team members, and not be the domain of a single team member or function.

Experimentation means that you need to plan and facilitate experiments, regularly. It means that you need to recruit groups of target users and run unbiased interviews or usability tests with them. Or you need to create cohorts of users and keep a close watch on specific analytics in specific versions of your product. Both of these kinds of experiments require planning and collaborative execution to deliver value. The learnings from the experiments (or research activities) must be shared and taken to heart by those responsible for the design and development of the next round of experiments.

If your organization is not ready and able to experiment, or for whatever reason, is not ready or in a position to take user feedback to heart and respond by solving the problems discovered, your human-centred design efforts will fail. The business needs the capacity and willingness to respond to users’ issues.

Consider whether both of these — the capacity to respond and willingness — are there. Are you in a position to influence either of these, if they are not there? Can you influence the way that your teams are structured, the kinds of roles and skills people are employed for, the way that processes are managed, and how work is prioritized? Is there an opportunity for you to change the way that people in your business think about their users? Do you have allies who will support you if you try to introduce a more human-centred way of working? Do people in your company care about their users’ well-being at all, (or is there an almost overwhelming focus on user engagement purely for the sake of profitability?) Has your team or organization already given HCD a go in some way or form, or are you the trailblazer? Are you a natural trailblazer?

If your answer is mostly “no”, and you are the UX Designer in an organization that doesn’t want to listen to its users or to the synthesized findings of user research, and/or doesn’t have the capacity to respond to those findings, you need to reconsider your position and your role.

The success or the failure of the products you are working on depends on how rigorous and efficient your team’s experiments are, and how regularly you make improvements based on each experiment you run. It requires a team effort and intense collaboration.

The success or failure of your products does not depend on your capability as a designer to produce deliverables on time. It’s a fine skill set to have, but you need an empathetic team working together to ensure product success over time.

There are successful products and services that have been designed and built without any formal user experience discovery phase preceding the first Sprint. This is sometimes cited as a reason to abandon qualitative user research altogether. In my experience, a product discovery phase that is well-planned and executed in as Lean a way as possible, always adds value. But it can be replaced with a different kind of discovery phase, where the first real version of the product or a functional prototype “is” the experiment. Entrepreneurs, who are often more optimistic and less risk-averse than most people, will often prefer to go this route. But once that first version of the product is launched, you will be faced with a multitude of improvements to make and requested features. Your backlog will need to be prioritized in some way, and this is where HCD is a business’s friend, *if* it is part of the team’s way of working and of thinking about the product being built. If the findings from regular, well-executed, qualitative user feedback are not taken into consideration, then the role of the UX Designer is diminished, and might be better described as a UI Design and/or Wireframing role — also a demanding and specialized position, but certainly not one that can be held responsible for the success of the product.

I have often seen talented UX Designers in this position, some becoming extremely frustrated and disillusioned. I have been there, and it’s a tough place to be, especially if you don’t consider all the external factors playing a role in the success or failure of your work. If this is you, pause. Consider your role and your organization’s culture, mindset, and resources.

Do what you do to the best of your abilities and have a kinder view of where your responsibilities end, or are allowed to end. Reach out to people in your team, be brave, and include them in your early design process as much as possible. Or find a different way of working that complements your organization’s capacity and culture. If you do, share it with the rest of us.

It takes a village to do human-centred design was originally published in UX Collective on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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