June 26, 2019

HCD Series: Human-Centered Design Explained


In our new two-part Human-Centered Design Blog Series, we’ll be covering the following topics:

Human-centered design (HCD) places “humans”––the people who use a product or service, or who take part in the experience being designed––at the centre of all activities. It is the process of uncovering user needs within a system in order to design better user experiences. These experiences can be a service––like the experience of going to a bank and investing your money; a product––like a physical car or a vacuum cleaner, or a digital product like a mobile or web application; or a business system––like the employee experience at an organization. Whatever it is you are designing, or whatever the experience you are hoping to improve, the process of human-centered design remains the same.

In this blog post, we’ll answer the following three big questions:

  • What is human-centered design, and how do you talk about it?

  • What is the human-centered design process?

  • How can you apply human-centered design in your organization?

What is Human-Centered Design?

Human-centered design (HCD) is the process of re-imagining a product or service by bringing the needs of the people who use that product or service to the forefront. It is a design philosophy, whereby uncovering the user’s needs, behaviours, characteristics, pain points, and motivations through ethnographic research leads to the design of better user experiences.

At its core, HCD is:

  • A design philosophy for creating products, services, and experiences

  • Focused on the needs, behaviours, and challenges of users

  • Collaborative

  • Creative

  • Multi-disciplinary: involving people with different perspectives, expertise, and backgrounds

  • Inherently messy, due to the nature of highly collaborative and complex projects

What is the HCD process?

The HCD process can be broken down into five key steps. These are the steps we follow at Outwitly.

  1. Discover

  2. Define

  3. Design

  4. Prototype & Test

  5. Plan & Implement

Human centered design double diamond process

The process is not necessarily linear. As you move from one phase to the next, you may learn or uncover more that will cause you to move back a stage. Yet, with every move, you are getting closer to the user’s desired experience.

The HCD process is about “diverging” to uncover information and generate ideas, while “converging” to make sense of data and final design decisions. A great way to understand this process of opening and closing is to study the UK Council’s Double Diamond (below). We’ll reference this diagram more as we explain each step of the process in more detail.

UK Design Council’s Double Diamond diagram for design

The process is not necessarily linear. As you move from one phase to the next, you may learn or uncover more that will cause you to move back a stage. Yet, with every move, you are getting closer to the user’s desired experience.

The HCD process is about “diverging” to uncover information and generate ideas, while “converging” to make sense of data and final design decisions. A great way to understand this process of opening and closing is to study the UK Council’s Double Diamond (below). We’ll reference this diagram more as we explain each step of the process in more detail.

Fuzzy front-end of design diagram


The purpose of the Discover phase is two-fold: 1) To build empathy among team members and stakeholders in relation to the users and customers, and what they need; and 2) To uncover insights that will help you and your team to design and improve the product or service experience, and uncover insights that can lead directly to innovative opportunities, features, and/or product improvements.

To break down the Discover phase further:

  • Understand what the project, business, and research goals are (this is sometimes accomplished through kick-off meetings);

  • Ramp up! If you are a consultant, you’ll need to learn about the subject matter, read previously conducted research, and familiarize yourself with the nature of the product or service;

  • Create a research plan, including what type of research you’ll conduct, the timing, and the logistics — get your FREE Plan A Stellar User Interview Workbook to help plan all of these logistics!

  • Identify who you will research (segmenting target user groups, recruiting, scheduling, and so on);

  • Prepare to conduct research (create interview protocols and observation guides, and gather research materials);

  • Conduct research (in-depth interviews, observations, diary studies, surveys, and so on).

The Discover phase can take as little as a week or several months to complete depending on the size and budget of the project. This phase sometimes gets swept under the rug, and can be difficult to communicate the value of to project teams, who may feel they are already sufficiently familiar with their users or customers. However, when the research is done upfront, there is a much bigger return on investment. In the second part of this blog series, we’ll dive into the value of HCD.

Once you have gathered all of the data from the research, you need to make sense of the transcripts, photos, videos, etc. This is captured in the second step: Define.

User Interview Workbook - This image directs you to Outwitly's free workbook that prepares and teaches UX designers how to conduct interviews like a pro.


In the Define phase, you are making sense of the research (converging) by analyzing and synthesizing the gathered data. This is the phase in which you will uncover insights and opportunities for design. In this phase you are also bringing your findings back to the users who participated in the research, and validating what you heard … to make sure you got it right. You are also communicating your findings and insights to the project stakeholders for their feedback, and to utilize their expertise to tease out more design opportunities. Additionally, you are defining the problem or design challenge further, scoping design activities, and aligning the team––you may even create a project roadmap for operationalizing some of the opportunities you uncovered. (See “Converging” in the UK Design Council Double Diamond diagram).

To Define, you will:

  • Analyze the research––by finding patterns and themes, using data triangulation (see illustration below);

  • Synthesize the research––using design tools to turn research findings into insights that will inform the product or service design;

  • Validate findings––through workshops with users and stakeholders to make sure that what you originally heard makes sense;

  • Report and design artifacts–including actionable recommendations, opportunities, personas, customer journey maps, service blueprints, etc.;

  • Communicate findings.


Click through to learn more about data triangulation…



During the Design (or Ideate) phase, we are diverging (opening our minds) to collect as many ideas as possible. At this point, we know what we are designing and why we are designing it. We have many ideas and insights that will inform our designs from the research. This is also the phase that will differ the most depending on the type of product, service, or experience you are designing. In the case of UX design, you would be moving into rough wireframe sketches or balsamiq. If you are designing a physical product, as in industrial design, you would be sketching ideas. In service design, you could be hosting a workshop to co-create a solution for the service.

In all cases, you are moving from rough ideas towards more detailed designs. You are opening up to find as many ideas as possible, and create multiple different concepts using your imagination and creativity. At this stage, you are looking for quantity over quality in your ideas. As you move further down the design cycle, you will refine your concepts until you eventually land upon your final design. The Design phase often runs in parallel with the Prototype & Testing phase. Ideally, you would be prototyping your ideas with users as you move from rough to higher fidelity concepts. This helps you validate the concepts and ensure you are solving the users’ needs, and it can give you an idea of what to improve. After each testing session or rapid prototyping workshop, for example, you should have more clarity on the direction of your design.


In this phase, you are creating low-fidelity to high-fidelity prototypes of your designs for testing. You conduct tests with end-users/humans in the system to get their feedback. The Design and Testing phases work together in a loop: as you conduct user testing or pilot a service, you get feedback and go back to the design phase to make changes, then test again.

Methods for the Prototype & Test phase include:

  • Piloting

  • Usability Testing

  • Concept Walkthrough

  • Rapid Prototyping

  • Service Staging

  • Experience Prototyping

You are closing the loop each time you get closer to a final design, and therefore converging and making decisions for what the final product or service will be.


The final step in the human-centered design process is creating a plan for the implementation of the final design. This may involve creating a project roadmap, or it may involve moving onto software development in the case of UX design.

Important Note: All collaborators involved in the Plan & Implement step should be involved throughout the entire process, beginning in the Discover phase, so that they understand who you are researching and why you are conducting the research, so they become familiar with the research insights, and so they have the chance to ask questions and offer input that may impact implementation. By feeling included throughout the entire project, this also allows the collaborators to become champions of the human-centered design process.

What types of projects can benefit from HCD?

As we discussed earlier, human-centered design is a philosophy than can be applied to many different types of design, including:

  • Service Design

  • UX Design

  • Business Design – employee experience, process inefficiencies, etc.

  • Product Design

  • Experience Design

In the case of Service Design, we are referring to any type of service offered to customers or clients––this could be a banking service, a phone/internet service, a government service (like getting your driver’s license), and so on. In most cases, service design involves multiple touchpoints, such as a website, an in-store experience, a customer support line, etc. For example, Outwitly recently undertook a human-centered design project to reimagine Adult Education and the educational programs offered by a provincial government.

In the case of UX design, if you have a software product like a mobile or web application, you can use HCD to uncover user needs, as well as the components that should actually be involved in the application, and what features might be needed.

Business Design might look at employee experiences and company culture, or it might investigate siloed, inefficient processes that touch many different departments.

How can you use HCD in your organization?

If you are in a B2B or B2C product or service-based organization, chances are you can use human-centered design to improve your customer experience. Similarly, if you are in an organization that is in desperate need of a culture overhaul–wanting to improve the employee experience from the moment they onboard–then human-centered design methodologies could also be useful. If you work in the health or public sector, you are most certainly in the business of helping the public. For example, consider the hospital emergency room experience as a service, and consider what could be improved. Many HCD projects have been conducted in the health care sector. Likewise, if you are offering a government service–like renewing a driver’s license, offering hydroelectricity services, immigration services, and so on–HCD principles could be applied. The possibilities are endless.

What you can start doing today?

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