Designing For Humans: An Introduction to Human-Centered Design

An Interview with James Williams, UX Strategist @ Message Agency

Hello everyone, welcome to another episode of DataWithBill Live presented by Humanlytics. Today we have with us James Williams, a UX Strategist at Message Agency, a company that designs websites for impact driven organizations.

As the business environment becomes more and more competitive in this modern age, it has become increasingly crucial to design products and services that are both valuable and lovable. Human-centered design can help you do just that.

In this episode, James will not only cover the basic workflows and principles of human-centered design, he will also offer a few tips and recommendations about how to implement them at your organization. Enjoy!


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Can you tell us how you got into design, and what motivates you as a designer?

James: My entrance to design, like a lot of other designers, was pretty non-traditional. My childhood dream was to be a doctor.

Then I went to Brown University and studied a lot of physical and social sciences and began to understand that a lot of health outcomes are determined by social factors. I also realized that a lot of these factors weren’t necessarily in the purview of the medical system in the US.

I ended up taking a deeper dive into those problems that were outside of the medical system. My junior year, I took a class on design thinking and research focused on understanding human needs and translating those insights to innovative solutions.

As a result of that class, I was able to qualify for a fellowship in Cape Town centered on design research for health innovation and place-based entrepreneurship..

That experience encouraged me to pursue design more seriously so that I could understand how to better create solutions and use entrepreneurship to scale those solutions and really have an impact.

Bill: That’s a really good story. I think you’re right that a lot of successful organizations today like Airbnb and Apple succeed and excel because they have great design and are able to impact people’s lives because of the ease of use that design allows.

Let’s get into human-centered design. Why don’t you start by talking a little about what human centered design is in the first place?

James: At its core, it’s a framework for understanding, defining, and addressing problems. It’s agnostic in the type of problem it can solve.

The core is about understanding what the problem is. In a lot of different frameworks this is called the “empathize” phase. That’s where you’re doing a lot of the heavy generative research.

This phase is mostly behavioural in nature which means that it borrows from the social sciences such as ethnography and psychology, focusing on observing how people use things and interact with a problem space.

Once you have an understanding of what the human behaviour is then you’d go into the next phase generally called “Define”.

You might have come into the project with assumptions about what the problem is, but here you take the info you gathered from research and really start to say “oh so this is the actual human need, these are the problems, this is the context” and you come up with a few problem statements that allow you to say “ this is the real problem I’m addressing based off of research, and not just my assumptions.”

Once you have a central problem statement you move into the “ideate” phase where you start to think more creatively about the different ways you can address the problem.

One thing that’s really important is to be problem rather than solution focused. A lot of times when people are designing a product or when they see an area of opportunity they’ll immediately jump to a solution. It’s better to suspend solution thinking and just say “what’s the problem I’m addressing, how do users behave, what are the attitudes, motivations, beliefs, etc.” Ideate is the first phase where you start to say “this is what’s going on, now I want to think about possible ways to address it.”

The key here is to visualize your ideas and think about things in a way that can be communicated easily and put into a tangible format. This sets you up well for the prototype phase during which you’re actually testing your ideas with your team or users.

After you have some feedback and refine your prototype you move into a more high fidelity prototype and test that before you ship. It’s important to point out here that I presented this process in a linear fashion, but it’s very nonlinear and iterative in nature.

When you move from the “ideate” phase to prototype you might get some feedback that pushes you all the way back to the “empathize” phase. You might have to say “this is an area that didn’t come up during the first phase of discovery” and you might have to go back and explore at a more granular level. And you might be doing different parts of these phases at different times of the project. So you move back and forth across that continuum that I described.

Bill: That makes sense, so empathize, define, ideate, and prototype. Got it.

Can you go into the “research” and “define” processes and talk about what you should do in terms of engaging with users in those two processes?

James: There are two different aspects. The first is about understanding what is happening. For this you would use different research techniques such as focus groups, interviews, and participatory design workshops.

A participatory design workshop would be an instance in which you wouldn’t just talk to users, rather you would focus on understanding how they behave with relation to different concepts or products. This is because of something commonly coined the “see–do divide.”

When you talk to people they’ll say one thing, but when you observe their behavior you’ll notice some inconsistencies. You really want to design for behavior because that’s how your design is going to be addressed and used in the real world.

One of the classic things I hear from people is that “users don’t really know what they want” What’s your opinion on that statement?

James: That comes back to the “say–do divide”. If you ask a user “what do you need” it’s going to be difficult for them to answer that.

A large part of this is because they’re not aware of the inconsistencies between what they say and what their actual behaviour might imply.

It’s the role of the designer is to collect those insights and really move from their behavior to an actual solution.

Let’s talk about the user research process. Can you give us a little bit of an idea of what to avoid and what to pay attention to when conducting a specific user interview?

James: One problem that people have is being overly broad and generic in an interview. A good way to avoid that is to have a few key points in mind that you want to hit.

Keep in mind that it’s unlikely that you will stick to that script, in fact you shouldn’t. It’s purpose is to keep the interview going if you hit a snag.

You want to ask open ended questions, and when you’re evaluating their answer think about their tone and facial expressions. An interview gives you the opportunity to gather a lot of rich data.

Its also good practice to have two people interviewing, so one person can moderate and the second person can observe and take notes.

You should also break the ice a little bit by introducing the purpose of whatever project you’re working on and why it’s relevant to them.

You want this to be as conversational and organic as possible. And then after the interview you want to have a little debrief as well.=

Can you give us some tips on how to effectively manage the iterative nature of the human centered design process?

James: One really good method that I’ve found is to use sticky notes to represent the different things you’re doing in each phase. This allows you to present your problems visually and will help you see gaps in your process.

Bill: Just to throw it out there, project management tools like Trello can help your entire team collaborate because it allows you to drag your tasks across different stages.

James: Another good tip is to create two boards on tools like trello: a project board and a product board. These two boards can help you keep track of the progress you’ve made on specific features and the progress you’ve made in general.

What kind of data do you collect during the process and how do you analyze that data to make sure the decisions that you make are scientifically sound?

James: The data that you’re gathering during most of this process is qualitative in nature. The con here is that you’re not going to be getting information that is considered statistically significant but the pro is that you’re getting a lot of very rich generative data.

A good place to start is IDEO, they have a lot of open source resources and a toolkit that helps you understand the aspects of the design thinking process.

In terms of quickly building a human-centered design capacity within your agency I would say the key is to start small. Some easy ways to start are to interview people that you’re designing for, to build a focus group, or to create a survey.

Bill: I do want to point out that, after you make design decisions, you can use techniques such as A/B testing to validate the effectiveness of your changes quantitatively.

James: Yeah, I’m glad you made that point. There are other tools you can use as well like HotJar and CrazyEgg if it’s a web based product that will gather data about your product.

This is where you would want to have a minimum viable product so that you can place it live in beta and then gather more data through that venue.

How do I get started and learn more about human-centered design?

James: There are a lot of resources out there on UX and human-centered design.

A good place to start is IDEO, they have a lot of open source resources and a toolkit that helps you understand the aspects of the design thinking process.

In terms of quickly building a human-centered design capacity within your agency I would say the key is to start small. Some easy ways to start are to interview people that you’re designing for, to build a focus group, or to create a survey.

Bill: I think one thing worth adding is that human-centered design is not as scary as it sounds. It’s just an approach to problem solving that keeps user’s needs and desires in mind.

For example, if you’re a SMB just talk to your users. Empathize with them to see what you can do to satisfy their needs and make a better product for them. This will help you become more human centric in your approach to your business.

James: Exactly, yeah. Also, if you’re sort of daunted by interviewing you can always grab an interview guide that will have a few “best practices”.

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