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How human-centered design can transform digital product development

Diana Rhoten smiles as she looks up at the ceiling of her New York home office. She’s paused in mid thought as she recalls the details of a massively successful project her team worked on. But it didn’t start out that way.

Her client came to her and knew exactly what they wanted to design and implement, and they wanted to move on it — yesterday. 

As a design and innovation strategist who specializes in human-centered design, Rhoten knew the planning and strategy process was critical. So she told her client it was important to take the time to understand every detail of the people they were designing for, and become immersed in their lives to truly discern their needs.

“There was a lot of resistance to our process,” Rhoten recalls, as she rhymes out a list of concerns from her client: “This will be a waste of time. We already know what we want. Why are we spending time and resources on this exercise if we know what we want?”

But the client stuck it out, and Rhoten’s team observed and documented every action.

“We gained an understanding of how their employees truly worked, and their behaviours,” she says, “We showed how their behaviours could change if we changed different elements of their environment to get the outcomes they wanted. It was extraordinary how much value they ultimately found in the process and it transformed what the end solution was.”

Rhoten says her client ultimately hit its goals and accomplished the shifts in employee behaviour, but it was different than the client had imagined. Without the human-centric process, neither the type of intervention nor the level of impact would have likely happened.

How digital product development can benefit from a human-centered design approach

Human-centered design is a methodology that draws on insights from the users about a product, service, or space — while still keeping business implications and technological limitations in mind — to creatively address an organization’s challenges and opportunities. 

It’s different from a more traditional engineering-centric approach, which initially focuses on technological capabilities, or what can be built, before considering the user. 

Human-centered design (often associated with Design Thinking), on the other hand, is all about starting with the users.

It fundamentally starts with the people for whom you’re designing and ends with a solution that is grounded in their needs, wants, hopes and aspirations,” Rhoten says. “It all starts with asking: What do the users need, and then, how do we design it for them, based on the technical tools that we have and the financial business needs we have?” says Rhoten.

[Related reading; 4 questions to ask a development firm to see if they’re right for you]

In the end, solutions can radically shift the way an organization functions, allowing structure to be realigned based on a deep understanding of the people the organization needs to engage. 

Rhoten identifies three key phases in a human-centered design process, which can then be invaluable when applied to “moments of inflection” that range from transition within a business unit to a whole-scale operational transformation.

  1. The inspiration phase

The first phase is critical. During the initial research process, user input is not just gathered, but pre-existing assumptions must be challenged and broken in order to unpack the values, beliefs, and habits that will impact the use or effectiveness of what is being designed. 

“You’re really trying to learn directly from the people for whom you are designing,” Rhoten says, “immersing yourself in their lives and having the deepest possible empathy and understanding for the situation in which your users live, work, and operate.” 

  1. The ideation phase

During the ideation phase, the organization takes user feedback and identifies opportunities that can be implemented. 

  1. The implementation phase

Finally, in the implementation phase, the solution is applied within the organization or brought to market, with user insight incorporated throughout the entire process. 

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Key considerations of a human-centered design approach

“You can run into problems where you have a great idea that responds to a set of human needs and interests, but isn’t implementable or scalable by the client or by the organization — whether it’s a for-profit or not-for-profit,” cautions Rhoten.

And on the people front, when designing a product or solution for a specific group of users, it’s important to be aware of how your perspective and experience may differ from the people you are designing for.

“To be a successful human centered designer, you really need to have a level of self awareness about your own conscious and unconscious bias and what you put into a conversation and to an observation,” Rhoten says. 

The consequence of not doing so is that you will see what you want to see, or hear what you want to hear versus what’s actually being communicated.

In a world that is still experiencing shifts from uncertainty caused by the pandemic, Rhoten believes human-centered design is the most straightforward path to success.

Staying anchored in what your users need — be they customers or employees — is key, she says, because that is “more constant and more consistent than all of the patterns of shift around us.” 

“Start from the people you employ and serve in the market, and try to build towards their needs,” Rhoten concludes.

To learn more about Diana Rhoten’s work, visit her website. For more insight on digital product development, dive into Vog App Developers’ content series.

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