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Why Human Centered Design Matters

It’s probably the most important design mantra—and the one that is unfortunately often ignored.  In the flurry of venture capital and words like ‘innovative’ and ‘disruption’, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that products are only successful if people can use them.  That means both that users can figure out how to use them and that the products serve an actual need. Design should be human-centered, not product-centered, first.  A few famous product flops across time have lost sight of just this message because the developers gotten too obsessed with how cool or interesting they are.  On the other hand, many of the world’s most successful products are pretty simple.

the basic ux design process
‍The design process puts users’ needs first.

Fundamentally, human-centered design requires listening to your actual users, not some ideal users that you would like to design for.  Unlike fashion designers who claim that they are building outfits for ‘women who go to art gallery openings’.  There just aren’t enough women who go to art gallery openings for that to make sense.  The smart route would be to ask women what kind of spaces they need special clothes for, or build collections that perhaps inspire clients to go to art gallery openings or take some other exciting action.

The Segway—that scooter-like machine that lets you ride and steer with just your own body weight—is one of the most infamous product fails of the last century.  While you might see a few companies or the odd security officer using one, they aren’t nearly as ubiquitous as the product hype would have had you believe. 

 Segway’s developers spent about $100 million on development, and only sold 30,000 units within the first seven years of release.  To date, the company is still not profitable.  

There are a few reasons for Segway’s epic and expensive failure—all reasons we can learn from.  The bottom line is that the product’s vision and development was not human-centered.

4 people riding segways in a park
‍There was no clear user, or customer for the product

 The product was too expensive for a lot of people, not fast enough for others, and too quirky to use in many transportation contexts.  It also didn’t serve a completely clear need, beyond being a cool toy for someone to play with.  Roles for different types of non-car vehicles have already been largely established by the market.  The Segway also has a complicated legal bind—it’s regulated as a vehicle in some places, and not at all regulated in others.  The product developers didn’t anticipate, in other words, the real world experiences of their users.  Human-centered design means creating products that match the actual use case, or even have one.

In contrast, a really great example of human-centered design applied to UX is Slack, a project/team collaboration tool.  

Slack managed to bring a fun look and ease-of-use to a market dominated by grey, clunky tools.  It also looks, feels, and sounds different from other collaboration software—almost like a combination of social media and a chat-room, all with a colorful aesthetic.  

This is largely because Slack understood something fundamental about the user: they did not need another reason to feel burdened or depressed by work.  Slack managed to make an enterprise software for ‘work’ that seems kind of ‘fun’.  It’s a nice example of responding to a market’s needs with solid, good work that just allows users to get on with their days.

The Slack interface is fun and easy to use.

Human centered design in a UX context means that the user’s ability to understand, click through, and use a product is valued over even the original product vision.  It means that you need an intensive understanding of who your users are and what they will appreciate.  

This doesn’t need to be daunting for product teams that are small or don’t have dedicated  design staff.  As we’ll cover in future posts, User Experience Optimization (UXO) can speed up the human-centered design process without compromising user experience or needs.  

It also makes it possible to build a product with a much lower threshold of user research and interviews.  The experts who understand UX and UXO can largely take care of that for you—but we’ll cover that much more in the next post.

About the author:

Janani B.

Janani has a Master's in Design Thinking and writes frequently about UX, design, psychology, and other topics.