Human Centered Design (HCD) Is Innovation's New Secret Weapon

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by: Idris Mootee

While every organization talks about how they use new
tools to uncover new innovation opportunities, there’s simply not
enough practice of HCD in companies’ planning process. User data is no
doubt an important source of new product ideas (of what should be
designed), which has the potential to redirect a company’s effort
towards a new direction (particularly in fast moving consumer
electronic and personal communication industries). Having recognized
the importance of understanding how people interact with design, many
research methods are actually borrowed from the social sciences both to
1) understand, and credibly explain and predict human behavior in the
pre-design process and 2) to measure how people perceive, understand,
remember, and learn in the design evaluation process.

While understanding human behaviors is a goal of social
science research, design requires the application of such
understanding, turning it into innovation. Thus, designers 80% of the
time struggle with the methodological implications of conducting user
research to support design. Business strategists question the rigor of
those methodologies. The strategic output should support the following
decisions: minor redesign, complete redesign (but based on the same
user paradigm), radical redefinition of basic concepts, and fundamental
innovation that ignores all past assumptions.

Design projects usually begin with business objectives
which fall into one of the four innovative strategies, and based on
market situation, a company’s willingness to spend and capability to
innovate. Recently, advanced
thinkers are combining design thinking and business thinking and
exploring deriving their innovation opportunities from human-centered
user research, which helps uncover unarticulated or emerging user
Below is a summary from a recent talk at the User Experince Week by Jan Chipchase who is a principal researcher at Nokia Design and is very well respected in the HCD circles.

Jan’s job is to conduct exploratory human behavioral
field research at Nokia Research Center while splitting his time
between running user studies and developing new applications, services
and products. His responsibilities include taking teams of
concept/industrial designers, psychologists, usability experts,
sociologists, and ethnographers into the field and to get usable data
to inform, inspire product design and development. I envy what he does
for a living. He is based in the land of sushi and electronics–Tokyo.

That as human centered design practitioners we talk about,
well, putting humans at the center of the design process. Which is all
fine and dandy except that in the context of designing our
ubiquitiously connected and oh-so-smart future this roughly equates to understanding the sum of all human experiences, which is clearly impossible. The joy of aiming high and failing. Or not?

That the path to a good project can start with the simplest of questions. Who are you? How can you prove it? What do you carry? Why did you do that thing you did?

That the deep pockets of a corporate research lab/design
studio and buy-in from upper management make for a well resourced
project, but that ultimately all it takes to get started is an inquisitive mind and a bit of positive attitude.
Point in case? – the years of illiteracy research which I’ve written
previously and which is ongoing in lab started out as a three week
scoping project with no travel budget, relied on the voluntary
assistance of a friendly India based subcontractor who gave up her
weekend to collect data on our behalf. The resulting report showed
sufficient promise to warrant further (better resourced) investigation.
And the subcontractor? Ah, she earned her place on the team in studies
from Cairo to Tehran, most recently in Dharavi, Mumbai. Looking for
experience? Willing to work for peanuts? Of course you are.

And that you’d be surprised at the internal credibility
that comes from external reporting of the design research. By this I
don’t mean peer reviewed navel gazing or at the other extreme, lite
fluff pieces. But simply that when your research is what they see when they open their favourite press, in their mind’s eye you’ve arrived. For now at least a virtuous circle.”

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