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Demystifying human-centric design

Mayank Mishra, Head of Strategy, DY Works writes about the principles of human-centric design, how should one go about putting it into practice

Mayank Mishra

Human beings are great at solving problems. Our early ancestors identified problems in their immediate environments and proceeded to solve them by fashioning simple tools. This behaviour is not unique to humans or primates. Animals like Dolphins, Octopi, Crows, all have been known to use tools to solve problems.

What does set us apart is the experience of empathy, the idea of putting ourselves in someone else's shoes. Not only can look at other human beings and understand what problems they might be facing, we feel rewarded when we solve them.

These hardwired impulses for problem-solving and empathy form the basis for Human Centric Design.

Human Centric Design is a problem-solving approach which starts with the needs of the human in question and the problems they are facing and then proceeds to solve the problem.

As the problems we solve become more complex, there is a need for a structure or a framework to solve them. This codification of a refined problem-solving approach is what we know today as the practice of Human Centric Design. As with any robust practice, it is founded on a set of principles.

Principles of human-centric design

People centricity: When solving a problem, it is important to think about who we are solving the problem for. To take an example, elderly people who suffer from Alzheimer's struggle to hold a spoon in their hands. Vive solved this problem by designing adaptive utensils that compensated for tremors, returning to them their sense of independence.

Solving the right problem: Sometimes people are clumsy, they trip over their laptop wires. There are two ways to try and define the problem. One is to say that the problem is to make humans less clumsy. The other is to say that the problem is that we need to make laptop wires less ‘trippable’. Apple understood this and designed the Magsafe charger, which detaches safely if someone happens to walk through the cable.

Everything can be seen as a system: A system is a set of components that interact with each other on the basis of certain rules to achieve a larger objective. A piston is a part of the larger system of an engine, which serves the objective of transportation. Almost anything can be broken down into a system. The language learning app Duolingo has turned the process of language acquisition into a system, codified its rules, and solved the problem of learning language being difficult.

Small and simple interventions: Solutions that come from Human Centric Design don't have to be engineering innovations that only large companies can pull off. Sometimes the best solutions come from common sense. A Korean food company wanted to solve the problem of wastage in banana consumption. Their solution involved a simple packaging intervention with seven compartments, each compartment representing one day of the week. The ripest banana was placed in the compartment that said Monday, while the rawest banana was placed in the compartment that said Sunday.

Putting human-centric design into practice

Putting Human Centric Design Thinking into practice is an iterative process. While it can take many forms, it usually follows a path which begins with empathy. One observes and understands until the nature of the problem at hand becomes clear. Once the problem is clear, ideation and inspiration take over, leading to the broad outline of a solution. Turning this outline into a prototype that can be tested takes a bit of doing, but once user feedback is taken into account, the prototype can be iterated until it crystallizes into a workable solution.

Human-centric design vs design thinking

As one explores the idea of Human Centric Design, a related term called Design Thinking often comes up. So, what is the difference between the two? There can be many complicated answers to this question. One simple answer, however, is that Human Centric Design is a mindset, whereas Design Thinking is a more specific process. Having said that, the two are related and in practice would be likely to work in conjunction to solve a problem.

Designing human-centric brands

Since Human Centric Design is a mindset, it can be applied to almost any context. The act of creating and nurturing a brand offers several opportunities for applying a Human Centric Design mindset. Brands are made for people, and their value proposition must solve a problem as it connects with a latent need or desire. The problems faced by a brand are not often clearly understood, and their solutions are not readily apparent. Brands are complex systems with many moving parts, and the task of a brand custodian is to ensure that the machinery of a brand is well-oiled and in tune with the philosophy of the brand. And finally, when building a brand, the devil is often in the details. Small interventions can help make or break a brand.

Brands grow disruptively when they identify the right problem, deeply understand the people who are impacted by the problem, and build value propositions that solve the problem while remaining viable from a business standpoint. Seen in such a way, Brand Strategy becomes a discipline that is fundamentally a Human Centric Design problem, one that is always deeply interesting and rewarding to solve.

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