How can Human-Centered Design be Useful?

Illustration by Shannon Levin. Learn more about our illustrators.

How can Human-Centered Design be Useful?

If you’ve gotten this far in our website or newsletter, you’ve heard at least a bit about human-centered design as a creative process for addressing challenges. But how can it actually be helpful for you, in your situation? Here are three common situations our clients approach us with, and how we use our process-based approach to help:

You want to make your program, product, or experience work for the people it’s for.

In this situation, you want to improve something that exists or make something completely new. You could be thinking about a product (like an app), a service (like coaching), an experience (like education), or a combination. You might be designing for existing clients, staff, or partners, or for a totally new type of person or circumstance. 

We address these opportunities by learning from the people most impacted by the situation at hand. For us, learning from people means using qualitative research methods like interviews, observations, and immersions. We design each method based on what we want to learn about and the motivations and contexts of the people we will be learning from. This process emphasizes storytelling – both in hearing from people directly impacted and in sharing those insights back to your team. Using an approach sometimes called co-design or participatory design, we structure ways for people with lived experience to engage throughout the project: sharing ideas, offering feedback, and shaping decision making. We leave you with a robust understanding of the people you’re seeking to serve and actionable ideas to improve or create  programs, products, services, and experiences tailored specifically to them. 

You know what challenge you want to address but aren’t sure how.

Whether it’s a complex issue that you’ve been working on for years, or a new one that’s just cropped up, sometimes defining the problem is the easy part. How do you decide how to respond to a challenge in a way that both ensures positive impact and fits within the realities of time, resources and capacity? 

In this situation, we again start with learning from people, expanding our view to include people throughout the ecosystem, including those most impacted by the challenge, those trying to make change, and those in positions of influence or power related to the challenge. We sort through all that learning to recommend a focused set of opportunities and directions that could impact the challenge. We host brainstorming and idea-testing sessions with stakeholders of all sorts, identifying existing ideas, best practices, and brand new ideas, and narrow to those ideas with the most potential for impact and implementation. We leave you with a clear set of actionable ideas and deepened relationships with the diverse network of people who participated in the process. 

You have an excited group and want to move from discussion to shared action.

Maybe you’re part of a coalition, non-profit board, collective action group, or convening organization. You and your collaborators have knowledge, expertise, and commitment, but you’re not yet sure where or how to focus your energies. 

In this situation, we again start with learning from people — both internally with your group and externally with the people directly impacted by your work. This allows us to identify important nuances about challenges, assets, motivations, and expectations of the stakeholders involved. Then, we design and host interactive sessions (in person or virtually) for group alignment with your team. In these sessions, your team can reflect together on the research and align on a clear strategy for taking action. We leave you equipped with an Action Plan document and the group momentum needed to see it through. 

Do any of those situations sound familiar to you and your organization? Curious to hear more about how a human-centered design approach might help? Take a look at our case studies, reach out at or leave us a note below.

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