Human-Centered Design (HCD)

Your constantly-updated definition of Human-Centered Design (HCD) and collection of videos and articles

What is Human-Centered Design (HCD)?

Human-centered design is a practice where designers focus on four key aspects. They focus on people and their context. They seek to understand and solve the right problems, the root problems. They understand that everything is a complex system with interconnected parts. Finally, they do small interventions. They continually prototype, test and refine their products and services to ensure that their solutions truly meet the needs of the people they focus on.

Cognitive science and user experience expert Don Norman sees it as a step above user-centered design.

“The challenge is to use the principles of human-centered design to produce positive results, products that enhance lives and add to our pleasure and enjoyment. The goal is to produce a great product, one that is successful, and that customers love. It can be done.”
— Don Norman, “Grand Old Man of User Experience”

See why human-centered design is a vital approach for accommodating real users—real people.

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Airplane Cockpit by Riik@mctr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Cognitive Science building at UC San Diego. by AndyrooP (CC-BY-SA-4.0)

Pseudo-commands to illustrate how line-by-line text editing works. by Charlie42 (CC BY-SA 3.0)
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The Trouble with “Users” is They’re Only Human

At many points in technological history, Don Norman helped designers understand their responsibility to the people who use the things they design. Great advances were made in electronics and computing throughout the second half of the 20th century. The problem was, the designers of many systems often overlooked the human limitations of the people who had to interact with them.

Early computers were extremely hard to understand. The first ones — created in the 1940s — required specialists to operate them in closed environments. By the 1980s, things had changed; A large portion of smaller computers were being used by people without specialist knowledge. Problems were bound to arise, and did. The early Unix system Ed (for “Editor”), for example, did not prompt users to save their changes, causing many users to erase their work when turning off their computers. Highly visible prompts to save our work were yet to come.    

MS Word's prompt asking the user,

The status bar at the top of Google Docs indicates whether a document is saving, and when the last edits were made.

From no save prompts, to the “Do you want to save changes” dialog box, to auto-save: The save functionality in documents has been iterated over the years to improve the experience for the people working with these tools.

Don Norman also studied the control rooms of potentially hazardous industrial centers and aviation safety. Following the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979, he was involved in analyzing the causes and potential solutions. A partial meltdown of a power-station reactor had released dangerous radioactive material into the environment. The problem centered around, not the highly competent staff members, but the design of the control room itself.

From design mistakes such as this, we learned crucial lessons. It was clear that designers had to accommodate the human needs of their systems’ usership. There could be no room for ambiguity or misleading controls, for instance. Designers would instead have to anticipate human users extensively through how each system looked, worked and responded to them. So, rather than focus on the aesthetics of the interface and the design itself, designers needed to understand and tailor experiences for the people at the controls, accounting for their various states of mind while interacting with and reacting to changes in the system. To avoid disasters, the dehumanizing idea of “users” had to vanish so designers could put people first in design. It was time for human- or, better still, people-centered design.

The cockpit of an aircraft, with hundreds of switches, dials and buttons.

Follow the Clear Path to Human-Centered Design

In 1986, Norman and co-author Stephen Draper’s User Centered System Design: New Perspectives on Human-Computer Interaction was published. The result of extensive collaboration between researchers across the U.S., Europe and Japan, this comprehensive volume represented a shift in human-computer interaction. However, the authors realized they didn’t like the term “users”; the emphasis demanded a more “human” entity in control. Their timing was superb. Not only had the home-computing market exploded, but strides in technology would soon usher in the Internet age, greater connectivity and more complexity in the systems that people of all types would use.

Norman coined the term “user experience” shortly afterwards. This signaled a focus on the needs of the people who used products throughout their experiences. Norman explained the reason for the evolution away from “user” was to help designers humanize the people whose needs they designed for. Human-centered design has four principles:

  1. People-centered: Focus on people and their context in order to create things that are appropriate for them.

  2. Understand and solve the right problems, the root problems: Understand and solve the right problem, the root causes, the underlying fundamental issues. Otherwise, the symptoms will just keep returning.

  3. Everything is a system: Think of everything as a system of interconnected parts.

  4. Small and simple interventions: Do iterative work and don't rush to a solution. Try small, simple interventions and learn from them one by one, and slowly your results will get bigger and better. Continually prototype, test and refine your proposals to make sure that your small solutions truly meet the needs of the people you focus on.

It's important to remember, as we focus on the human aspect, we expand our scope to societies and, ultimately, humanity-centered design. And as our world becomes more intricately involved with complex socio-technical systems and wicked problems to address, the insights we leverage from human-centered design will continue to prove essential.

The four principles of Human-Centered Design: People-Centered Design, Solve the Right Problem, Everything is a System, and Small & Simple Interventions.

Interaction Design Foundation, CC-BY-SA 4.0

Learn More about Human-Centered Design

To learn more on human-centered design, take our courses:

Norman, Donald A. Design for a Better World: Meaningful, Sustainable, Humanity Centered. Cambridge, MA, MA: The MIT Press, 2023.

Read this JND article for additional insights about the human-centered design principles.

This thought-provoking MovingWorlds post explores human-centered design extensively.

Questions related to Human-Centered Design

Why is human-centered design important?

Human-centered design is vital because it ensures that we create solutions tailored to human needs, cultures, and societies. It is a discipline that emphasizes a people-centric approach, solving the right problems, recognizing the interconnectedness of everything, and not rushing to solutions. It involves working with multidisciplinary teams and experts, and most importantly, it has to come from the people, embracing a community-driven design approach. This approach is a subset of humanity-driven design, which aims to address the major challenges humanity faces and, ultimately, save the planet.

What is the difference between agile and human-centered design?

Human-centered design (HCD) is a methodology that places the user at the heart of the design process. It seeks to deeply understand users' needs, behaviors and experiences to create effective solutions catering to their unique challenges and desires. HCD emphasizes empathy, extensive user research, and iterative testing to ensure that the final product or solution genuinely benefits its end-users and addresses broader societal issues.

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Agile is primarily a project management and product development approach that values delivering workable solutions and iterating based on customer feedback. Agile teams break projects into small, manageable chunks and work in short bursts, called  "sprints," which allows for frequent reassessment and course corrections.

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While there's some overlap in their collaborative and iterative natures, the core difference lies in their objectives: HCD is about understanding and solving for the human experience, while agile is about efficiently managing and adapting work processes to changing requirements. 

What is the difference between design thinking and human-centered design?

Design thinking is a broader concept that includes human-centered design to solve major problems on a global and local scale. Human Centered Design is narrower in scope and aims to make interactive systems usable and useful.

For a more thorough understanding of these design approaches, please watch this informative video.

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Why is it called human-centered design?

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IBM 701 by Dan (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Dual Colors by Marcin Wichary (CC BY 2.0)

USAF/IBM SAGE by Joi Ito (CC BY 2.0)
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Human-centered design, as explained by Don Norman in the video above, focuses on people and their needs, even when addressing broad societal issues. It emphasizes creating solutions that cater to individuals, communities, and larger groups. Although it tackles significant challenges, its essence remains rooted in understanding and designing for humanity.

Where is human-centered design used?

Human-centered design is used to design efficient and usable products. However, Don Norman encourages designers to apply the principles of human-centered design to address large societal problems to ensure solutions meet the needs and experiences of people.

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As highlighted in the video above, human-centered designers collaborate with professionals from other fields like engineering, computer science, and public health. HCD’s uniqueness lies in emphasizing design by the people and for the people.

Is human-centered design the same as UX?

While both prioritize the user, human-centered design is broader than UX design. UX often focuses on websites and digital interfaces, as mentioned in this video.

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In contrast, human-centered design encompasses all types of products and indeed even larger societal challenges to ensure solutions cater to people's needs and experiences.

How is human-centered design different from other types of design?

Human-centered design prioritizes understanding and addressing the needs of people. Unlike designs that emphasize aesthetics over usability, human-centered design values function and user well-being, as highlighted in this video.

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It considers the broader socio-technical system, ensuring sustainable and user-centric solutions.

Where to learn human-centered design?

Discover the principles of human-centered design through Interaction Design Foundation's in-depth courses: Design for the 21st Century with Don Norman offers a contemporary perspective on design thinking, while Design for a Better World with Don Norman emphasizes designing for positive global impact. To deepen your understanding, Don Norman's seminal book, "Design for a Better World: Meaningful, Sustainable, Humanity Centered," from MIT Press, is an invaluable resource.

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Literature on Human-Centered Design (HCD)

Here’s the entire UX literature on Human-Centered Design (HCD) by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Human-Centered Design (HCD)

Take a deep dive into Human-Centered Design (HCD) with our course Design for the 21st Century with Don Norman .

In this course, taught by your instructor, Don Norman, you’ll learn how designers can improve the world, how you can apply human-centered design to solve complex global challenges, and what 21st century skills you’ll need to make a difference in the world. Each lesson will build upon another to expand your knowledge of human-centered design and provide you with practical skills to make a difference in the world.

“The challenge is to use the principles of human-centered design to produce positive results, products that enhance lives and add to our pleasure and enjoyment. The goal is to produce a great product, one that is successful, and that customers love. It can be done.”

— Don Norman

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