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A guide to human-centered design

Human-centered design (HCD) is core to our work at Think Company. This approach puts users and their needs at the center of our design practice and helps us create tools and applications as functional and necessary as they are beautiful.

Implementing a human-centered design approach is within reach of any organization. Whatever your industry and whatever you’re designing, you can benefit from putting the users’ needs at the center of the design process.

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What is human-centered design?

Human-centered design is an approach that focuses entirely on the user and their feedback. This iterative process is collaborative—both internally and externally. It’s department-neutral and centers users and the tasks they’re trying to accomplish. 


The importance of human-centered design

Developing empathy for your user creates space for real solutions to their problems. This process also naturally identifies opportunities to add diversity, both within existing products and by identifying gaps in the market. Being connected to your users and their needs means that your products become flexible and responsive and adapt as the market changes.

The human-centered design process

When applying a human-centered design approach, people can start to feel like the product is as much theirs as it is yours. To get to this point, you need a solid process for your team to go through. The human-centered design process is made up of four primary phases: Inspiration, Ideation, Prototyping, and Implementation.

Inspiration, observation, and research

The first stage of the human-centered design process is about understanding your users’ needs and problems without any preconceived solutions or goals. 

First and foremost, you want to start thinking of your users as real people. They’re not an idea, they’re individuals who have needs and worries and wants, and use your product to accomplish something. Getting to know your users as real people and identifying what they want to achieve with your product is the first step in making something valuable and dynamic. 


Once you’ve gotten more of a sense of who your users are and what they want to do, you move to thinking about how to help them get what they need via your product. During this stage, it’s vital to utilize a team that’s more than just designers—try to have a cross-functional team to help you expand your reach. 

It’s also essential to keep your mind open and consider all possible ideas. Start broad, with the biggest ideas you can manage, and narrow your focus as you go. Affinity mapping workshops, brainstorming, and journey maps can help identify pain points and point your team toward solutions.

Research, prototyping, and testing

After ideating, your team will take a few ideas and mock-up prototypes. This doesn’t have to be polished—and really shouldn’t be. You want to get a mock-up together to test your ideas and drive further iteration. 

Testing with real people is vital to gain feedback and insights before final implementation. But before you start bringing in other team members, stakeholders, or showing your prototype to family, ask yourself if these people are part of your user group. 

Many teams make the mistake of thinking showing the product to someone in the vicinity counts as user research. In fact, this often produces a false-consensus effect, where many people assume others share their opinions and will behave similarly in a given context. Studying your real target users is the only way to get the information you need.

As you show people your prototypes and gather feedback, you can repeat this process, narrowing the number of prototypes until you have a successful, high-fidelity version you’re happy with.


Once you’ve gotten feedback from real users and adapted your product accordingly, it’s time to implement. Congratulations! You’re done and never have to think about your product again.

Just kidding. You’d be amazed at how many teams breathe a sigh of relief once a product goes live and assume they won’t have to do very much to maintain it! But great products that users love are never “done.” 

Research should always be an ongoing process, and your product should be held accountable to new research and findings as they surface. By committing to continuing research and iteration in partnership with your users, you’re committing to creating and evolving a product that users will love and rely on for years to come.

Interconnected: Human-centered design and design thinking

You may be familiar with the tenets of design thinking and wondering how that fits into human-centered design. In general, design thinking is a more focused version of human-centered design. Design thinking is practical, collaborative, multidisciplinary, and focused on solving on-the-ground problems. Both design thinking and human-centered design focus on the user and their needs. Both are iterative processes built on reviewing and improving processes based on new information about users’ needs and wants.

These approaches complement each other, but generally, human-centered design is the overarching school of thought that design thinking fits into.

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Human-centered design is a user-first approach

Human-centered design, like other design processes, is iterative and the testing and research around users’ specific use cases should always be considered and reconsidered. This approach is core to our work at Think Company, and helps us create beautiful, valuable products that generate sustainable growth. You can improve your product by putting the user at the center of your design process, no matter what industry you’re in.

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