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Seven tenets of human-centred design

"All design should be human centred, it’s as simple as that. And I mean human-centred, not ‘user-centred’ or ‘user-friendly’"

Design consultant David Townson (quoted above) has spent his entire career developing products and services to make them work for people. Here he discusses the seven principles of human-centred design and how to make sure your idea meets the mark.

He says, "Users are human beings after all. But, more importantly, because being human-centred is not just about your user. Human-centred design takes into account every single human being that your design decisions impact on.

This is a point often missed by new designers, who focus too hard on one defined primary user. There are many other people that will interact with your product – the factory-workers that make it, the courier that delivers it, the technician who installs it, the mechanic who fixes it, even the person who disposes it at the end of its life. All of them might also be your primary user, but many won’t be.

You need to be open to the fact that there might be many other potential users out there that you aren’t aware of yet. Below are the seven principles of human-centred design."

1. Get past your own great idea

You need to go out into the real world of use. Observe the environment in which you are designing, watch people in that environment, talk to people in that domain. That might mean standing around in a store and watching how people shop for similar products. It might mean talking to staff in that shop.

It definitely means understanding the competition. A lot of people applying for Spark make the mistake of thinking that there are no competitors for their idea. That is almost always untrue. You need to research, and if you really can’t find any, remember that at the very least you are competing for people’s time and attention.

2. Don't be restricted by your own knowledge

This is especially important if you have a deep expertise in a particular aspect of the domain you are designing for. Your knowledge is only useful if you are mindful that there is always something you don’t know, or there is an observation that you haven’t yet made.

During your research process you will need to be asking smart, naive questions. You will need to eliminate all your assumptions and turn them into validated knowledge. Being convinced you know everything isn’t conducive to that outcome.

A good example is Dr Wendy Minks who became a Spark finalist in 2016 with Rhinamite, her device to help people treat nosebleeds that would otherwise require medical attention. While her design stemmed from her experience as a doctor treating nosebleeds in the A&E, the target audience grew to include those who play contact sports. So it was imperative that the sporting arena was one in which Dr Minks explored and thoroughly familiarised herself. She had to understand the context of her product; how people feel wearing it, how much time they had to attach it, how practical and desired it was. None of that was obvious beforehand despite her medical expertise.

3. Spend time with real people in real environments

Observation of people is crucial. You cannot design well without doing it, and often it is this keen and open-minded observation that triggers off a great idea in the first place.

The story of the late Sam Farber and the founding of OXO is a great example of this. Sam was watching his wife peel potatoes when he had his light-bulb moment. He noticed that she had wound several elastic bands around the handle of the peeler. When he enquired why, she replied that it was to make the peeler easier to use because she had Arthritis. She customised it to compensate for the uncomfortable design.

Sam made an observation and then dug deeper to discover an insight that had much broader application – the design of ergonomic and easy-to-use kitchen utensils.

4. Identify other users

After making this observation of his wife Sam worked with an industrial design agency on his idea. One of the first things they did was identify other users. It was a pretty simple question really, “Who else uses potato peelers?”

One of the things they were able to do by asking this question was identify an expert or extreme user of the product – in this case, chefs. By talking to people who were using potato peelers all day they were able to identify many more aspects of the design that were important. They started out thinking that it was all about the handle, but they discovered that the blade was really important. The sharpness obviously, but also the dimensions and details like the size of the hole that the peel goes through. All this information informed their design decisions.

5. Follow your users lead and needs

Observing the people who will use your product gives you leads – follow them. In the case of OXO they discovered that their expert users, the chefs, preferred potato peelers with blades that were made with steel. This led them as far afield as Japan where they found a business famous for making samurai swords to make their blades.

Gathering different user perspectives will feed into how you make your product and what materials you choose.

6. Think about the whole journey of the product

A few years ago I worked on the design of a rubbish bin for the collection of dog waste. As well as thinking about the primary user, who would use the bin to dispose of dog waste, I also had to consider that this bin would contain a noxious material. So of course it would have an impact on the passer-byer. How could it then be designed so that waste was contained and didn’t smell? The people who collected the waste were important secondary users. How could the design make their job as easy and safe as possible?

So as a designer you cannot just stop at your primary user as the product has a life before and after that and impacts on people beyond them.

7. Prototype and test your idea

Prototyping is one of the most important parts of creating a human-centred product because it allows you to test your design on actual human beings.

It doesn’t need to involve complex prototypes. Ask yourself, “What is the simplest thing I can do to test my thinking?” This might just be a sketch, design drawing or paper prototype. You might need to go further and create a mock-up of some kind. There are many resources out there, so you should be able to find something to suit your needs depending on what you want to learn.

Prototyping forces you to share your ideas rather than developing them in a vacuum. Seek out people who may have a different take on things allowing you to validate your idea and gain constructive feedback from potential users – beyond the easy feedback given from family and friends.