How to Create Human-Centered Technology Products

What is the key to success for any initiative in your company?

Your business might come up with a lot of answers to this question–the right project leader, the right executive support, the right budget, the right strategy, or something else along those lines.

But perhaps the biggest key to success is whether the product or service you create actually works for people. In other words, it has to be human-centered to be effective.

Human-centered design (HCD) is an emerging buzzword in business these days. It may sound cutting-edge, but it boils down to the basic idea that any innovation needs to work for people if it is to catch on and create value for your business.

This sounds simple, but the truth is that many business leaders forget to connect their strategies or goals to the actual people they are meant to serve. They are so focused on working in their business that they lose perspective on how the products and services actually impact customers, or even how their initiatives affect employees.

When this happens, a company ends up with an unsuccessful initiative on its hands, or it has to spend considerable time and money updating and upgrading the initial version so that it actually elicits the intended response from the people it was meant to serve.

Businesses who have been burned by failed product offerings or employee rejection of new tools have embraced human-centered design for technology, software, digital products, and more.

Sometimes this approach is called user-centered, but human-centered is a better term because it serves as a reminder that there is an actual person–a human–who will use the software solution or digital product. The language makes you picture a person instead of a user type (such as a customer channel or employee role).

And failing to take this mindset can cost your business significantly. Consider this example from Netflix, which has been one of the most successful digital technology innovators since its inception 20 years ago. In 2011, Netflix came to the conclusion that streaming would be the future, and that it needed to split its DVD-by-mail service into a separate service called Qwikster.

The idea was right–streaming was the future–but the rollout was wrong, sending Netflix stock downward and forcing a mea culpa and about face within the month. Netflix didn’t fully understand how real people would respond, and the result was embarrassing and costly.

Chances are, your business has a Qwikster in its history too. It may not be as big, and it could even be an internal initiative that never touched a customer. But any business that loses connection with real people will eventually have this kind of problem.

And that begs a question–how do you stay connected with real people?

The key to human-centered digital design is having a mindset that focuses on the end users of software or technology. And the set of tools that help to foster this mindset, and mine its value, is called Design Thinking. In this post, we’ll discuss this approach in terms of developing digital tools and services, but it can be used just about any initiative an organization wants to create.

Here are three big ways that a Design Thinking mindset will ensure that your business ends up with software solutions that meet the needs of real people inside and outside the organization.

1. Design Thinking Ensures You Are Driven by Empathy

The Design Thinking mindset places utmost importance on having empathy with the people who will use the digital solution you build. The designers within the business focus on understanding and relating to the end users so that they can serve and even delight them with a product, service, or technology.

By using tools like interviews, contextual inquiries, empathy maps, and point of view statements, business stakeholders develop empathy for users and then cling to that empathy throughout the development process.

This is important because human-centered software design necessitates solving real challenges for real people. Whether the challenges are being able to do something new, being able to do something faster, preventing mistakes, or something else, the goal should always be to make a real person’s life better. Empathy focuses on what that “better’ is for a particular person or group of people, and fuels the design team as it tries to develop something that makes “better” a reality.

One caveat here: Just because someone wants to do something doesn’t mean that they should be able to do it. The obvious examples of this come on social media, where bad actors do everything from bullying to bigotry to propaganda. This doesn’t just happen on the large political scale–it happens in everyday situations too.

One humorous instance of this is on the social media site Nextdoor. This neighborhood-based social media app is built on the premise that “when neighbors connect, good things happen.” And that certainly happens in many situations. But this network also amplifies conflicts between neighbors and the crankiness that neighbors often display in everyday life. This happens to such a degree that a Twitter account called @bestofnextdoor has hundreds of thousands of followers–more than the actual Nextdoor account does.

Empathy is important–but it must be empathy for all users, not just one type of person. Think of your customers, and for the people whom they encounter. Think of your business leaders, and also the employees who report to them. Practice empathy across the board, and you will find that it fuels innovative design.

2. Design Thinking Ensures You Are Engaged with Real People

While the focus on empathy is a distinctive of Design Thinking, the idea of starting a project by understanding users isn’t new. But a Design Thinking mindset takes this to the next level by involving users throughout the process. Some call the people that play this role sponsor users, a term that simply means people who represent the kinds of people a technology is trying to serve throughout the process.

Sponsor users don’t just participate in research activities like interviews or shadowing at the beginning of a project. They participate throughout–including the generation of new ideas, the prioritization of product features, and the testing of prototypes. In many cases, they are just as involved in the design process as business stakeholders are.

Involving sponsor users helps to keep business stakeholders honest through this process. Often, stakeholders will try to push a software solution to meet a corporate strategic objective, or even to force people to interact with a business in a certain way. Allowing this kind of influence leads to solutions that have to be reworked after launch because people reject it.

In other words, this is how Qwikster happens.

This begs the question of who the sponsor users should be. The answer is counterintuitive–you may want to consider extreme users.

So if you’re looking to upgrade your company’s internal software, for example, don’t just look for a veteran employee as a sponsor user. Invite extreme users into the process:
    •    Your most technically proficient person
    •    Your most technically inept person
    •    Your newest hire
    •    Your biggest complainer
    •    And so on

Listening to the extremes will actually make it easier for you to empathize with needs, because they will be clearer and/or more strongly expressed. And the theory is that an extreme user will have the same needs as many other people, and so the solution for that user will serve many others.

You can’t involve only extreme users in the process, but inviting them to be sponsor users can supercharge your human-centered software solution.

3. Design Thinking Ensures That You Reinvent Relentlessly

Designing human-centered digital products isn’t easy, even when the design team is fueled by empathy and engaged with real people. There is a lot of trial and error in the process. Sometimes a design team doesn’t understand what a person means, and so a software solution doesn’t actually accomplish what the user wanted or needed. Sometimes, what a sponsor user said he or she wanted isn’t actually accurate, and the design team needs to get beyond the words to the real desire underneath.

Because this trial and error is an unavoidable reality, the Design Thinking mindset leans into uncertainty. The design team develops lots of low-fidelity prototypes and lets people interact with them. By watching these interactions in an empathy-driven way, the designers iterate on the solutions and make them better little by little.

This approach limits the risk of uncertainty by taking small steps quickly, using them to gain new empathic insights, and then reinventing the solution relentlessly. As certainty increases, the polish of the solution increases, and before long the business has a tested, human-centered digital software solution that can make an impact in the market. Then, that solutions is tested in real-world situations, and more improvements can be identified and added.

This kind of continuous innovation approach isn’t driven by agile software development principles, although it certainly uses them. The foundational reason to practice relentless reinvention is to more effectively serve the real people your software solution or digital technology intends to serve.


Design Thinking isn’t a silver bullet to solve all your business’s problems. But it is an intentional mindset and toolset that keeps you in contact with the real people you hope will use and buy your technology, product, or service.

So if you want your business to profit by serving real people–and of course you do–then embrace the benefits of Design Thinking for software.

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