Bryan Taylor

The Farce that is Human-Centered Design (HCD)

All design is human-centered design — or at least all good design is human-centered. The marketing world is abuzz about "human-centered design," which is essentially just the promotion of an empathetic methodology to better understanding the people who will be using whatever is being designed; understanding how they will be using it, and then going through an iterative process to create a tailored solution to their specific needs. And I would argue that if you haven't been approaching design in this way already, you're not a good designer.

Fine artists have the freedom to paint, compose, and sculpt whatever they wish to contribute to the cultural conversation. They have disciplines to master and a historical context to keep in mind, but whatever they wish to create is free to stand for and communicate whatever they wish. Not so for the  designer.

Being mindful of both form and function is perhaps the best-known principle of good design. I could create something beautiful, but in order for it to be successful, it also has to accomplish what it is intended to accomplish. For instance, I can design the most beautiful chair in the world, and yet, if it is not comfortable, then it is not very useful. The only way that I can know whether a chair is comfortable is to sit in it. Sit in it for a long period of time, sit in it in the morning and again in the evening, invite others to sit in it — others who are taller and shorter than myself, who have good posture and bad, and whose objectives in sitting vary from relaxing to reading, to carrying out a lengthy conversation with another seated acquaintance.

"I would argue that if you haven't been approaching design in this way already, you're not a good designer."

In order for the chair to be deemed a good design, it must be experienced as good in all of these different occurrences — at least if it is intended to be sold to a wider audience. I can make a chair for myself that only I think is beautiful and comfortable, and that would be perfectly satisfying, but then I am a chair artist, not a problem-solving designer. 

Everything that we design must begin with empathy for every end user in order to know whether they will find it beautiful and comfortable, as well. We have to understand their situations, their circumstances, and their hopes for this new chair. These are the "problems" we are solving, the context with which we must have an intimate understanding before we can even begin to design something that can be successful.

And yet that is only half of the equation.

As important as it is to understand how people will see and use this chair that I design, I also must understand how that chair is to be made. Every designed good or service has a cost, and that cost is fundamental to an empathetic, human-centered design process. If my beautiful chair has to be made from driftwood, I am going to have a supply chain issue; if built with clay, I am going to have quality-control concerns; if it must be pre-assembled, I am going to have shipping ramifications.

Human-centered design requires a keen understanding of a design's entire ecosystem — from supply chain to business implications to cultural trends to user needs. I must be aware of how it is to be made, how it is to make business sense, how it solves a problem, how it will be purchased, received, and consumed, and how it will be thought of and shared with others.

While some of us get to sit around and design new chairs (in which to keep sitting), others are busy designing all kinds of solutions to problems, because at the heart of every problem is a creative solution to be found — and the same human-centered approach applies to each and every one of these successful design solutions.


ColdFire Brewing's bar from concept (above) to completion. Photos: Trask Bedortha/Drawn

One year ago, I was sitting in a contractor's office with plans that I had drawn for an office remodel. They had prepared an estimate for what it was going to cost to complete the vision, and that estimate was twice what we were comfortable investing. I spent several quiet minutes reviewing their itemized estimate and they finally asked for some kind of response, to which I finally said, "Well, we've now got a creative problem to solve." And we did, because we took a human-centered approach to understand the financial constraints, the building's context, the needs of the finished space, and which “necessities” were really luxuries that we could tackle in the future. We orchestrated a creative solution to a problem, which was really just like any problem out there to be solved.

Every good design provides win-win-win solutions to a creative problem. It is a win for the business engine behind the design. It is a win for the designer who contributes something beautiful and delightful that didn't previously exist. And, most importantly, it is a win for the end user who receives a good or service that meets a need like nothing else available. And the winning continues when that whole experience is so gratifying that these experiences are then shared and endorsed to encourage others to enjoy them as well. 

This is the goal of approaching problems with human-centered design thinking, which is really what all good design has always sought to accomplish.