The Power of Human-Centred Design


Apple – a new kind of computer

When Steve Jobs briefed Jony Ive to design Apple’s first iMac, he wanted him to design a computer that would overcome the fear barrier between man and machine. The big, beige boxes of the world intimidated many people. Apple wanted a new kind of computer. A machine that would invite users to play with it.

So Jony thought of his grandmother. He asked himself what he could do to the machine’s design that would get even his grandmother to take command of it.

So he set out to design a big handle on its back. Because, he figured, if his grandmother felt at any moment she could lift it up and place it wherever she wanted, that she would be in charge of it. And not the other way round.

This is an example of a human-centred approach to product design. And it is entirely based on empathy. The ability of one human, in this case, the designer, to put themselves in the shoes of another (the end-user).

 Today, this approach to design is also used in designing the next generation of digital applications, websites and other interfaces. More and more, companies who make the things we use every day, virtual and real, are placing more emphasis on empathy.

The impact of design on our daily lives

The upside is obvious. When we think like the user, we are asking ourselves important questions and therefore avoiding pitfalls. This approach helps us to make products more meaningful and useful. When we feel like the user, like in the case of Jony Ive, who imagined the fear his grandmother had of computers, we can make iconic products.

Obvious does not mean easy

To follow the human-centred approach seems so obvious, yet every day we deal with countless products that are confusing, useless or downright impossible to use. Anyone who’s ever tried to connect a new printer, or figure out video-conferencing software can attest to this.

This is because empathy requires effort. It is far easier for us to see life from our point-of-view. And even more so for large organisations, that by their collective nature can get very entangled in their own perspective.

A human-centred approach can also make communication sharper, more engaging and more meaningful.

How to start to design

When creating any messaging, whether it is advertising, PR, a user-manual, micro-copy on an interface, putting yourself in the shoes of the user is essential. Great questions to ask include:

  • Where would I be when I get this message?
  • What else could be distracting me when I’m trying to interpret this user manual?
  • What kind of language would I like to read this product copy in?
  • How big is the screen on which I am getting this message?
  • In what state of mind am I during this user journey?

Another great example

One great example of a human-centred approach to communication can be found in the “get well” cards of Emily McDowell. She created a range of cards that are designed to convey a sense of understanding to someone who is even terminally ill. Consider some of the messaging she has used, compared to the normal cheesy copy one would normally find on a get well card:

  • Laughter is the best medicine. Until they find an actual cure for whatever you have.
  • If this is God’s plan, God’s a terrible planner.
  • Together we can find a cure for the phrase ‘whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’

This type of communication creates a meaningful connection with the receiver. It conveys a strong sense of recognition from one person to another – a feeling of I see you.

Applying human-centered design

As in product design companies, the same challenge in knowledge-based teams is to remain empathetic towards the end receiver, and not to revert to the perspective of the organisation – the sender.

This is only possible with a sustained conscious effort that is supported from across various verticals in an organisation – especially from management. Because being human-centred often required organisations to flex and bend their internal processes and paradigms.

Think of banks, for example, who present user’s money into buckets called ‘accounts’, because that is what makes sense to the bank’s process and mainframe computers.

But, what if a bank could put itself in a user’s shoes and imagine that people like to budget into more flexible wallets and containers that can be created and deleted on the fly – without paperwork. By building this kind of metaphorical layer on top of its existing framework requires extra effort and investment, but makes it easier for users to visualise and use their money.

Human-centered design is the way of the future

The potential of a human-centred approach to communication is limitless.

 Just ask the world’s first trillion dollar company.


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