Human Centered Design! | MIT Center for Civic Media

As part of the Co-Design Toolkit project, I'll be posting weekly entries about the different design methodologies that together make up the Co-Design space. This week's episode: Human Centered Design! I'll be examining IDEO's popular Human Centered Design Toolkit, some use case studies, and criticism of the methodology.

IDEO's Human Centered Design Toolkit is divided into three major design processes: Hear, Create, and Deliver. During the Hear stage, the designers "collect stories and inspiration" from target communities using tools and strategies like individual or group interviews, context immersion, overnight homestays, self-documentation, and expert interviews. These methods are posited with the mindset that "[i]n most cases, the real experts…are the people in the community or end customers," and with an understanding that sometimes it is difficult to establish a useful level of trust and communication between researchers/designers and community members. The recruiting of community members who can act as intermediaries or as part of the design team itself is mentioned. Approaches such as Beginner's Mind and Sacrificial Concepts are valued and the difference between observation and interpretation is stressed. The Facilitator Notes stress multiple times the value of calling out designers' assumptions and challenging them. The Hear stage is the stage that most heavily involves community member participation.

The Create stage is where designers "translate" the stories provided by the community into "frameworks, opportunities, solutions and prototypes." There is an emphasis on moving from the "concrete" details and scenarios uncovered in the Hear stage to a more abstract insights. Two methods are offered by the Toolkit: Participatory Co-Design and Empathic Design. Participatory Co-Design involves bringing community members into the design process through the use of workshops. However, the Toolkit is a bit muddled on the efficacy of this method, as the case study they present, Covada, describes designers getting the idea for a logo from a community brainstorming session, but going on to design the logo themselves. Empathic Design does not explicitly involve community members in the design process at all, and instead relies on designers to build off of the experience and knowledge gathered in the Hear stage, as well as relevant personal experiences. Rapid, low cost prototyping and community feedback are important step in the Create stage. The Toolkit emphasizes both the need to keep the cost and time spent on prototyping low, and the need to view community feedback as a repeated conversation within the iterative design process.

The Deliver stage involves repeated prototyping, mini-pilots and pilot projects with the goal of delivering a sustainable product. The stage specifically calls out on-going learning, iteration, measurement and evaluation as necessary steps to creating a lasting, sustainable and useful product.

There were two main critical arguments I discovered often arrayed against Human Centered Design. The first is that because of its strong emphasis on interacting with specific communities, the products developed would be poorly equipped to serve large customer populations. The second is that Human Centered Design relies too much on the input and criticism of customers who "don't understand what they want."

The toolkit I examined (HCD Toolkit, 2nd Edition) was created specifically with NGOs and humanitarian need organizations in mind, particularly those that serve communities that live on less that $2 a day. The designers who might use Human Centered Design are probably targeting communities that are quite specific, localized and small. Thus it seems like the first argument, that Human Centered Designed products do not "scale," is sort of missing the point. In the vast majority of effective use cases, there is no intention for the product to scale. Instead the purpose is to serve a certain need of a certain community and serve it well.

The second common argument is that Human Centered Design puts too much credence in the opinions of community members. Here I would argue that Human Centered Design could actually assign more importance to the thoughts and opinions of community members. For example, the inclusion of community members as members of the design team could be recommended in stronger terms that "Try it!". Also, case studies like Covada do not appear to push for a Participatory Co-Design methodology strongly enough within the Human Centered Design framework.

Though I've only looked at IDEO's toolkit in this blog entry, the field of Human Centered Design extends beyond it. I've included below a bibliography of articles and case studies that relate to Human Centered Design, and that I'm including in the larger literature review. If you have additional examples or thoughts on the topic, I hope you'll chime in in the comments! We'd love your input on this project.

Norman, Donald A. "Human Centered Design Considered Harmful," Interactions. © CACM, 2005, accessible at

Brown, Tim. "Design Thinking," Harvard Business Review, June 2008, accessible at

Rouse, William B. "Human Centered Design," Wiley Encyclopedia of Electrical and Electronics Engineering, 27 December 1999, accessible at

Hooey, B.L. et al. "Integration of Cockpit Displays for Surface Operations: The Final Stage of a Human-Centered Design Approach," SAE Transactions: Journal of Aerospace, 109 1053-1065, 2000

Liem, Andre and Elizabeth Sanders. "The Impact of Human-Centered Design Workshops in Strategic Design Projects," Human Centered Design, HCII 2011, LNCS 6776, pp110-119, 2011

Kolko, Beth et al. "Reflections on research methodologies for ubicomp in developing contexts," Pers Ubiquit Comput, 15:575-583 (2011)

Laubi, Thomas, et al. "Human-Centered Design in the Care of Immobile Patients," Human Centered Design, HCII 2011, LNCS 6776, pp321-326, 2001

Kondo, Akira and Naoko Kondo. "Consideration of HCD Methods for Service Innovation Design," Human Centered Design, HCII 2011, LNCS 6776, pp74-80 (2011)

Lin, Mike C. et al. "Service Design and Change of Systems: Human Centered Approaches to Implementing and Spreading Service Design," International Journal of Design, vol. 5 no. 2 2011

Gasson, S. "Human-Centered vs. User-Centered Approaches to Information System Design," The Journal of Information Technology Theory and Application, 5:2, 29-46, 2003