Human-centered Design Panel
7 min read

How to Get Started With Human-centered Product Design

To stand out from competitors, create a seamless user experience, and solve for customer pain points, businesses have appropriately been placing a notable focus on human-centered design more than ever before. To understand how companies are successfully incorporating human-stories into their organization and offerings, we spoke to four Boston product leaders who are looking at the end-user first in their projects. 

What is human-centered design?

For those unfamiliar with the concept, the human-centered design process, in essence, is all about empowering “an individual or team to design products, services, systems, and experiences that address the core needs and human story of those who experience a problem.” At the root of the definition of human-centered design are two key words: human story.

Human-centered design in the business setting encourages engineers, product developers, and content creators to look past what they want to think will work and focus on what does work best for their end-users.

What are the best practices for incorporating human-centered design into your product? 

Like you, we wanted to understand how companies are successfully incorporating a human-centered approach into their organization and offerings. At Underscore’s Core Summit, an annual event for Boston’s top founders and tech leaders, we asked Human-Centered Design Expert Meena Kothandaraman to moderate a panel and discussion with three Boston product leaders who are looking at the end-user first in their projects.

Read on for the essential takeaways on human-centered design best practices from these four product trailblazers:

Human-Centered Design Speakers

Human-centered Design Product Panel

1. Human-centered research is irreplaceable

The panelists agreed that the insights gained from objective research are imperative for effective human-based design.

“You need to have an outside point of view,” explained Susan Rice, Head of Product Research and Design at Toast.

Not only did Susan emphasize the importance of research, but she explained how to conduct it in a way that most benefits the end user – primarily by going in without assumptions.

“You want to have some perspective on what you want to learn, and you might have a hypothesis,” said Susan.

“But you can go into that hypothesis and say, ‘Oh, you know what, I’m going to prove that hypothesis right,’ or you can go into that and say, ‘You know what? Actually, it’s my job to prove it wrong,’” she explained.

“It’s really our job to figure out what are all the things that we need to understand, and how can we actually increase our confidence that we’re moving in the right direction.”

“Good design research is multimodal,” said Bill Hartman, Partner at Essential Design. “You look for new questions and potential answers or solutions through a variety of sources…and you will begin to develop patterns and themes that are really going to inform the development of your product or service along the way.”

Meena agreed, concluding that “research – and doing it early and iteratively – reduces a lot of the burden that we place on designers to come up with magic.”

UX Consultant Chris Hass believes a “human-centered design approach is going to help you build that evidence-based foundation for making decisions,” and laid out a suggested set of questions for teams to ask themselves before building anything.

  1. Who are we doing this for?
  2. What are we trying to do? And why?
  3. What will success look like?

Once you answer those questions, Chris noted it will be easier to find your target audiences, follow them around with your cognitive walkthroughs, do benchmark usability testing, and finally vet your team’s ideas with the end-user.

“That’s going to help build a very, very solid foundation for apolitical decision making,” he said. “It’s not just, ‘Here’s what I feel really passionate about,’ [or] ‘Here’s what we think will sell,’ but something on the table that’s needed.” As a result, companies can move forward with confidence in their conclusions, rather than conclusions based on potential assumption or bias.

2. Hear from the people in the middle

UX Consultant Chris Hass believes companies should make a point to hear from all their users – not just the loudest ones.

“The feedback you get is generally from people who are very happy or very unhappy, but the folks in the middle – or the folks who gave up on [your product] – are not necessarily the folks who are going to call you and tell you that,” Chris explained.

“So, how do you put yourself in harm’s way of finding out what those folks needed, what they were thinking, and why they gave up on you?” he asked. “Those are equally important.”

Chris recommends auditing your feedback collection process by asking three questions:

  1. What types of feedback are we getting?
  2. How representative do we think it is?
  3. What can we do to try and figure out how representative it is?

From here, designers and managers should be able to determine a path for collecting more accurate and representative feedback.

Human-centered Design Tips

3. Go find the story

The panel was on the same page around the idea that human-centered design and product development are reliant on storytelling.

“Product managers and user experience professionals are storytellers,” said Susan,” with Chris reinforcing the idea, saying “there’s nothing like the power of a story.”

Panelists expressed their belief that in order to tell the product story, employees need to speak with and observe the end-user, which provides the qualitative and experiential insight that surveys may not be able to.

“Perhaps we’ve done a great job of gathering functional needs, but not emotional needs,” said Bill. “Our marketing strategy can be a lot more compelling if it’s rooted in understanding our intended audience on a human basis.”

“At the end of the day, you need to get out there into the field. You need to understand customers, users – whoever it is that you’re targeting,” said Susan. “If you are able to see that firsthand – not something that they’re just telling you is the pain point – then you might be able to identify the biggest opportunities that they can’t even actually articulate themselves, because they don’t even realize that that’s happening.”

Seeking the story should not just be practiced by the designers, but by company’s leaders. “I’ve heard stories about dragging CTOs out into the fields so that they can develop radical empathy for the end-users,” recalled Bill.

''As a consultant, I actually have $1 for the companies that have said to me, 'This product is actually for doctors,' and you get in there, and it turns out nurses are actually using this...context can be so helpful.'' - Chris Hass Click To Tweet

“As a consultant, I actually have $1 for all the companies that have said to me, ‘This product is actually for doctors,’ and you get in there, and it turns out nurses are actually using this,” said Chris. “Figuring out who you’re working for [and] figuring out the context can be so helpful.”

4. Institutionalize and democratize empathy and innovation

It’s one thing to say your company is human-centered, but members of the panel encouraged entrepreneurs to practice what they preach.

“Great human-centered design products or services need to extend to the design of the organizations,” said Bill. “The most innovative companies have cultures that are well aligned in their innovation strategy, and innovation strategies that are well aligned to their business strategy.”

In a nutshell, Bill suggests that “institutionalizing empathy is a biggie” in businesses – particularly in the early stages of the company.

“As any good manager knows – they don’t have to have all the great ideas,” he said. “I think this is particularly relevant to startup companies – that anybody can have a great idea. And you need to create an organizational landscape that enables that to become possible.”

Susan connected this idea to the fearlessness companies should possess in their early days when it comes to finding the most helpful solution to the end-user.

“A learning organization [is] an organization that’s okay with testing, and learning, and failing, and testing, and trying again, and then being able to figure out actually what is going to stick – but based on customer insights,” she said, tying the discussion back to the points of adhering to the data and understanding customer stories.

Human-centered Design Roundtable Discussions

5. Don’t wait to get started with human-centered design

Building on the last point, the panel concluded that companies that prioritize human-centered design sooner would start reaping the benefits more immediately. While this shift can be risky in some organizations, these experts believe it’s well worth the effort. But the team also agreed that it is not something that can be executed haphazardly; it must be conducted with rigor and process, to bolster confidence in the outputs.

“One thing I love that all three of you touched on [in the panel] is confidence in taking risk, which I think is huge,” said Meena. “It’s something that you’d want to consider really getting in on as early on as you possibly can, because a lot of times it is important to try and avoid that guesswork.” Guessing leads to more bias, more assumption – and we have already learned that is not advisable.

While incorporating human-centered design may seem like a massive procedural overhaul, it’s something that can be started immediately but factored in overtime, according to Chris.

“Human-centered design is very seductive, because there’s often a low barrier to entry,” he said. “There are courses you can take, there are degrees you can get, but there’s a lot you can do on your own on a Saturday doing some good reading and trying a technique.”

Another thanks to Meena Kothandaraman for moderating and to Bill Hartman, Chris Hass, and Susan Rice for speaking on our panel. You can learn more about this year’s Core Summit for founders, CEOs, and tech execs building iconic companies here.


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