Is Human-centred design (HCD) worth all the hype?


Is Human-centred design (HCD) worth all the hype?



Human-centred design (HCD) is a popular approach to innovation and problem solving which seeks to develop solutions by focusing on the human perspective throughout each step in the process. With competition increasing in virtually every industry and marketplace, organisations increasingly see putting customers at the centre of everything they do as an important piece of the competitive advantage puzzle. HCD is seen by some as a methodology which can deliver on this through improving organisational processes and shifting the mindsets of employees.

Taking a customer-centric approach is arguably not just important; failing to do so will likely be fatal for organisations whose competitors consistently improve their propositions on dimensions which matter to customers. But is HCD the answer?

Are there shortcomings to applying a HCD only approach?

At a high level, the notion of involving the ‘human aspect’ in problem-solving, customer experience, and product/service/proposition design is sound. However, shortcomings in HCD can often emerge as organisations adopt the methodology. Importantly, the shortcomings are typically simply underpinned by organisations expecting HCD to be more than it is. When it comes to your household bills, for example, setting up a well-organised structure for dealing with them is a sound approach, but it’s not a miracle ‘drug’ for your entire financial wellbeing.

Many organisations embark on their HCD journeys by adopting a selection of the abundant HCD frameworks and processes which have been developed, and which specialist HCD consultants typically embed into organisations, expecting that HCD will solve all of their innovation and customer-centricity problems and aspirations. And this often leads to disappointment when it becomes apparent that adopting one single innovation-related methodology doesn’t turn the organisation into a highly innovative one or change the mindsets of all the employees!

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Any Problems with HCD?

So, the notion of human-centred design itself isn’t necessarily a problem. The problem tends to be that people adopt HCD and assume that it’s the ‘silver bullet’ for their customer-centricity or innovation aspirations. It’s not! And here are some of the key things to look out for:

  1. Most HCD application methods begin with observing customers in context. This is a good idea and should form part of your customer research. However, observation alone can be fraught with danger. All too often, we have seen people observe customer behaviour and make a whole list of assumptions as to why they are behaving the way they are. Observing people will tell you what is going on (to some degree), but your cognitive biases are likely to lead you to making a bunch of assumptions about why they are doing what they are doing. Also, simply following observations up with customer interviews which seek to validate assumptions are usually leading. Deep exploratory research should sit at the core of customer research and to do this really well, methods beyond HCD need to be adopted.
  2. Further to point #1, focusing on innovating around challenges which relate to the environments in which people operate today is limiting – the focus is often too myopic. When conducting exploratory research, the focus should be on deeper needs (such as those described in Christensen’s jobs methodology) so that solutions are not constrained by insights tied to today’s environment. HCD tends to yield incremental innovations which are great for objectives like improving customer experience, however, if genuinely innovative solutions are sought, HCD will take you part of the way there, but other methodologies will need to be adopted if more breakthrough or radical innovations are sought.
  3. When it comes to prototyping, HCD tends to adopt a simplistic approach, focusing on developing scrappy versions of the final solution, and testing its desirability and efficacy with customers. Again, this is a great start but more sophisticated applications of testing value hypotheses, such as those at the core of lean start-up methodology yield more reliable results in the complex world of multi-faceted, holistic solutions.


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IS HCD right for your organisation?

If you are reading this, you are probably exploring whether or not HCD is the right innovation and customer-centricity methodology for your organisation. Our experience is that it certainly can be a useful methodology to adopt, particularly for organisations beginning their innovation journeys, however, it should form part of a holistic approach. Moreover, if your aspirations are for the types of innovation which will genuinely deliver sustainable competitive advantage through differentiation, it will definitely need to be augmented with some more sophisticated methodologies.

You are likely to come across people suggesting that Design Thinking is ‘the best method’; others will say the same about HCD; there will be some who will swear that lean start-up is the method you should adopt; and others still who will tell you all your problems will be solved with Agile.

Of course, the reality is that there is no one single method which is the be-all and end-all. This is why, as strategy and innovation consultants, we have never ‘tied’ ourselves to a single method. So, is HCD worth all the hype? We’d say that it plays an important role in what should always be a holistic approach to innovation, customer centricity, and developing organisational strategic advantage.

We certainly incorporate elements of the HCD methodology (and elements of all the other methodologies mentioned above, among others) into our holistic approach, however, HCD is a part of the (rather than the whole) solution. If you would like to see how HCD could fit into a best-practice, holistic approach for your organisation, please reach out to us and we’ll be happy to show you how robust, holistic customer-centric methods and processes can become a core part of your organisation (and deliver differentiated competitive advantages).

Orange Squid is a strategy and innovation consultancy which operates at the intersection of best-practice strategy, innovation and organisational psychology.

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