When you’re innovating, you either need to have a great idea for a product that everyone will want, which we might call the ‘iPod approach’, or you need to identify a need that nobody is addressing. The iPod approach requires you to have a visionary idea, and persuade others that they need that product. It isn’t always successful – remember the Sinclair C5? – but when it is, the rewards can be handsome. A less hit-and-miss approach is to identify a gap in the market, and then create a product to address that need. That is where human-centred design can really help.

Involving customers in product development

The principle behind human-centred design is that you involve your potential customers in developing the product. Their insights into the problems they would like it to solve help you to fine-tune the design. It’s a practical approach, and has been used for many years by multinationals to develop ideas such as the HeartStart defibrillator. However, a new toolkit has been published to support HCD, developed by a partnership brought together by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, including the design consultancy IDEO. The toolkit is aimed at organisations working with people living on less than $2 per day, with the idea that involving those who need the solutions makes them much more workable. However, the principles behind it are applicable far more widely to organisations wanting to get closer to their customers’ needs and wants.

The process uses three lenses. The first, and by far the most important, is the Desirability lens. This examines what people want and value. Once the range of Desirable solutions has been identified, two other lenses can be applied: Feasibility, or what is possible technically and organisationally, and Viability, or what is possible financially. Solutions need to be Desirable, Feasible and Viable to work.

A three-stage process

There are three main stages to any human-centred design process, helpfully having the same initials as the overall process: Hear, Create, and Deliver.

In the first phase, Hear, you need to listen to people and hear what they want and need: their dreams and aspirations. Your designers should be heavily involved in this stage, to hear what people want at first hand. This can be quite a wide-ranging process, and will include collecting stories and inspiration.

In the second phase, Create, your thinking will become more abstract, as you bring together themes and ideas. This phase often involves workshops and discussions, to place ideas and stories into some kind of ordered framework of concepts. This framework is then used to move the situation back to a more concrete position, in which the concepts are used to create solutions, including prototypes.

The final phase, Deliver, is once again a fully concrete phase, focused on delivering the solutions that have been developed. It may involve further prototyping, revenue and cost modelling, capability assessment and implementation planning, before launching your new products into the world.

The team behind the toolkit also offer some ideas to support innovation. From experience, they suggest that any design and innovation process is likely to be improved by:

  • Putting together multi-disciplinary teams. Not only do you have expertise in different areas to address different aspects of the problem, but people trained in different ways tend to think differently. This can often lead to creative tension, and much more innovative results.
  • Having dedicated project spaces, where the team can surround themselves with the imagery and ideas from the project. This tends to allow them to focus better.
  • Having finite timeframes. This can help to focus attention on the importance of the project, just as deadlines can often have that effect in other environments. Ways to do this include doing a week-long Deep Dive into the problem, or even a more in-depth Deep Dive of several months’ duration.

A simple idea, now simpler to apply

Involving your customers, finding out what they want and need, and then developing a solution that will solve their problems, is not rocket science. But this toolkit makes the whole process of human-centred design significantly easier. Whether you’re a voluntary organisation working with people living on less than $2 per day, or a company keen to deliver products that its customers will want to buy, human-centred design, with its Hear, Create, Deliver philosophy, provides an easy way to reduce the distance between your design team and your customers.



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