Sunday, June 29, 2014

Thoughts on Human-Centric Design Thinking

What would you say if I tell you that you can build a lo-fi prototype of an app/experience/solution that your user actually wants and likes, with emphasis on the latter, in an hour?

Most might say, as I thought initially… One hour you say? NO WAY! But, I came back inspired after an hour long exercise/workshop in human-centric design thinking that this can actually happen!! Hope you read on, get inspired and use this process to your advantage.

This post has a brief overview of human-centric design thinking; an account of a human-centric design thinking workshop that I attended recently where the attendees came from all walks of life, departments and backgrounds… Marketing, finance, training, design, development; employees, interns, administrators to name a few.

The outcome was: Learning about whole set of needs, wants or challenges that folks face every day or an ideal experience they crave (albeit typically of the mobile-centric, privileged world) and a bunch of creative ways of solving them, with a prototype that each set of two folks came up with at the end of the workshop and shared.

A brief overview of human-centric design thinking

“Design Thinking” which might be more aptly called solution-based thinking or “design-doing”, evangelized by Stanford “d.School”, IDEO and many others is, in my understanding: A method of creating solutions to what users want, in an agile, iterative process that focuses on user feedback at every step to refine and improve the solution.

Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, puts it this way:

“Opposing ideas and constraints to create new solutions. Balancing desirability, with technical viability and economic feasibility"


None really, even if you are skeptical about this process/exercise, chances are you will come out with a different opinion at the end.

Who should attend?

Pretty much anyone, not just a designer or a developer or a UX analyst.

What would help?

  • Willingness to ask, listen, observe and engage.
  • "Show, don’t tell"; and Do! Yes, Do with a capital D!
  • Be agile and iterative rather than refining all at once. I felt that doing the latter is what seems to get us stuck.

Here’s a brief overview of the process. I do have more detailed references at the end.


Many a times we might start with a product that we think the users want, go ahead and create a solution/prototype that we think that addresses the solution and THEN go to the users to present the solutions that we came up with, but the key to this process is to START with the users to see what they want and regularly iterate and refine the solution based on user feedback.


Pair up with a partner to find a challenge/“problem”: Design something that your partner (the user) wants. It could be a certain experience, mobile or otherwise, a certain app or a feature. Keep it focused.

The same challenge applies to your partner to repeat this with you for a solution/experience that YOU want, so each step described below is repeated twice.

At the end of the session you will have a solution or a prototype of what your partner wants and what you want from your partner. You will have some note taking materials, prototyping/sketching or craft supplies provided in the workshop to move ahead with each step.

The Process


  1. Interview the user on the solution needed. 2X 4 min (8 min)
  2. Dig Deeper 2X 4 min (8 min)

Graphics Courtesy: Stanford

Ask questions on why this solution is needed, how it helps the user and what helps. Listen and keep asking. The key is to not put-forth a solution at this stage or not have a bias on what would help or what YOU think the user needs and that helps drive the solution and the features.

I was surprised how much of our pre-conceived ideas might be proved wrong in this process of listening to the user’s needs. More often what the user needs is simple and less rather than complicated and more.


  1. Capture findings from the user (3 min)
  2. Define problem statement (3 min)


1. Sketch 3-5 radically different ways to meet your user’s needs (5 min)

Favor quantity over quality or feasibility or judging of ideas at this stage. The key now is to generate as many ideas as possible to present to the user and get feedback and open up a dialog.

Just start sketching and doing if you feel being blocked. Things will flow. Stick figures or blobs should work just fine.

Think low-tech and lo-fi. You don’t got all day! Make something that your partner can interact with. It could be sketches/“screens” that you can swap out based on interaction/input/“touch” or something you can craft quickly with a few simple materials to demonstrate, with some simple supplies provided.

2. Share your solutions and capture feedback

I feel this is the most important driving force of this exercise. Ask, and I repeat ask… why, how, what? Every time the user/your partner says he/she likes or dislikes something with the solution, ask them why on each and that’s what helps in improving your next iteration and a path for more solid and sound solution/product.

3. Iterate: Based on Feedback. (3 min)


Build or sketch your solution and get feedback. (6min).


Share and get feedback.

Note how many times the word feedback comes up here; the basis of human-centric design.

What makes this work?

  1. Defining the problem based on users need and input.
  2. Agile, iterative process.
  3. The time-constraint. It seemed somewhat counter-intuitive but the limited time-frame in each step which many attendees thought of as a constraint, helps in moving this process along quickly without time for over-thinking at initial stages; keeping the solution focused entirely on user-feedback.

What will I get out of this?

  • Learning the importance of asking questions, getting and taking user feedback.
  • Quick, creative thinking that you can use to solve problems at your work whether it is design, development, accounting or marketing or any other field.
  • Group Collaboration. Learning from others.
  • Learning to create a quick prototype of any solution. 

I was amazed to learn how simple were some of the common challenges that users faced; some interesting “needs” and the simple solutions they seek. Here’s just a sample of some of the “problems” that were addressed in the workshop.

  • A simple solution for someone to be able to learn, interact and work with the various exercise equipments and monitor their progress in the gym without the need of a personal-trainer every time.
  • Keep the cell-phone charged when not being able to be plugged-in all the time (solar, mechanical or other ways of charging)
  • Be able to talk to loved ones easily without having dropped calls all the time.
  • Not bother having to enter passcode to log into phone/mobile-device all the time. Being able to use finger-print or other scanning methods with fall-backs.
  • Being able to use a 3-D chat with family! which I thought was quite unusual and interesting!

Many more of what seemed to be a gold-mine of ideas for start-ups, entrepreneurs or corporations to improve upon their products or to introduce new products.

Some applications

  • As an exercise at schools to cultivate human-centric design thinking
  • Workshop for employees to promote design-thinking at institutions and corporations
  • Workshops at conferences
  • Team building exercise
  • Repository of ideas for start-ups entrepreneurs and hackathons.
  • Resource for anyone wanting to improve their creative process or human-centric design thinking
  • An experience that is fun and productive.

If you can do this in an hour, imagine what you can accomplish in a day or an entire week! Here's a video to illustrate just that: How Nordstrom Innovation Lab came up with an iPad app in a week to make the process of sunglass selection just a little bit easier (Oh the profound problems of our modern capitalistic world!)

Prototypes speed up the world! 
- Tim Brown, CEO of @IDEO

Intrigued? Want to learn more?

Here are some resources to read and watch.

An overview and history of design thinking (wikipedia) TED talk by Tim Brown.

If you think you can’t do this or won’t work for you or if you aren’t creative enough, here is a TED talk by David Kelly, Founder of IDEO, for your inspiration.

Talk less and do more by Tim Brown (or should I say “Less meetings, more doing” ;)).

Materials for further reading from Stanford and IDEO

The Virtual Crash Course Playbook by Stanford.

Stanford Bootcamp Bootleg.

Virtual Crash-course on design thinking by Stanford.

Toolkit from IDEO

Design thinking at Citrix: Igniting creativity to transform corporate culture: Catherine Courage at TEDxKyoto 2012

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