7 Signs of Genuine Human-Centered Design Thinking

By: Ryan Spanswick



Not all companies who claim to practice design thinking and uphold human-centered design standards actually follow through with doing so. Examine your processes, checking for these seven signs of a genuine human-centered design approach:


1. Real People for User Personas & Testing

Defining the “what” and “why” of a product starts with understanding the people who will use it. This is vital to human-centered design.


When creating new products, start by connecting with real people who represent target users. Don’t rely on hypothetical profiles or statistical data about purchases and demographics. While both of these can provide helpful insight along the user research journey, they are not the foundation of a truly human-centered product design.


Assumptions are misleading. You must connect with real people.


  1. Use proto-personas (hypothetical buyer profiles) to start the process of finding out who will use your product.
  2. Conduct on-site interviews, contextual inquiries and user surveys once you find people who resemble target users.
  3. Synthesize your research findings, transforming proto-personas into user personas based on real people. Expect user personas to evolve as research and testing continues.
  4. Supplement your product strategy with market-wide research about demographics and buying habits.
  5. Conduct usability tests with at least five real people.


>> Download our free templates for creating accurate and compelling user personas in Sketch or Keynote. (Includes a step-by-step guide to early user research.)


2. Leadership Buy-In & Design Thinking Culture

The value of human-centered design activities such as user research -- while paramount to any successful product development project -- is not always understood by company leadership and other stakeholders.


Human-centered design thinking is a discipline that can be taught and cultivated. It starts with raising awareness and support among leaders and key stakeholders.


Through patient communication and educational tools, help others see that you can’t create products centered solely around business goals and expect them to flourish. Get internal support. Then show teams how to step outside their goals, plans and worldview to discover what truly drives consumers.


3. Empathy

Paul Strike, head of design at Prudential and one of this year’s Design Thinking presenters, explains the role of empathy in design thinking cultures:


“Empathy is key to creating a rich and rewarding experience that will actually engage customers and drive product and service participation. It’s a form of detailed understanding, insight and awareness that comes from intimately knowing people.” (From “Understanding the Key Ingredient to Design Thinking - Empathy,” by Paul Strike)


Learn to ask the right questions. Develop empathy by getting to know people through standard design thinking procedures like contextual inquiries (on-site user research) and moderated usability studies.


4. Not a Formula

Design thinking novices try to follow a formula. Ironically, the more formulaic the process, the less human-centered it becomes.


Think of human-centered design as a framework or philosophy rather than a formula.


This is important because every new project comes with a different set of dynamics and constraints. Not all projects require the same research tools. Sometimes, you’ll have to work harder at bringing stakeholders up to speed on user-centric design decisions, employing a whole arsenal of communication tools to correct their assumptions about users.


5. Fail Forward with the Iterative Process

Genuine human-centered design is iterative by nature. Empathise. Define. Ideate. Prototype. Test. Repeat.


Embrace the journey of human-centered design with these tips for failing forward:


  • Hold to plans loosely, allowing user research findings and test results to determine next steps.
  • Remember that feedback, not perfection, is the goal of a mockup.
  • Avoid failing “out of bounds” rather than failing forward by sticking to the design thinking framework.


6. Cross-Disciplinary Collaboration

Work to align the three pillars of product development -- design, engineering and business -- around a user-centric product strategy.


  • Ask engineers to weigh in on technical constraints for the design.
  • Find the sweet spot where business goals and user needs align.
  • Commit to meeting budgetary and timeline requirements.
  • Create a culture of education, cooperation and transparency.
  • Continue to advocate for user goals in the roadmapping and engineering phases of the project.


7. Sticky Notes

Design thinking is nothing fancy. It’s a raw, organic process built on common sense and sticky notes.


Don’t shy away from the nitty gritty work of problem solving. Pay your dues in the trenches of research, diagrams and stick-figure sketches. Those are the battle scars of genuine designers.