At its core, human-centered design is a process to follow to gather good information to make informed decisions  – a powerful approach to solving complex problems. It is as useful for interfaces and systems as it is for consumer products, service design and the complexity that we see everyday.

These are inspiring descriptions, but what does it actually involve? What does it look like? How can human-centered design be practiced?

The most practical way to understand human-centered design is through four key elements:

  1. Human-Centered
  2. Iterative & Incremental
  3. Collaborative
  4. Evidence-Based

These elements embody the core principles of human-centered design and describe why it is such a powerful approach. Read on to explore each of these elements, and see them applied in our work.


How Can Design Be Human-Centred?

Each complex problem you face will have an impact on different groups of people. It’s called human-centered design because it starts with just that, by consulting with the people at the centre of the problem – the people who are most affected. At Overlap, we believe that the power to co-create better solutions starts with those people. When we explore solutions through a human-centred lens, we use three areas to assess potential success: desirability, feasibility and viability.

  1. Desirable: What is desirable from the perspective of the person actually accessing this product or service? What do they want to see?
  2. Feasible: Talk to the staff that are delivering the product or service. They know what’s happening because they work in it everyday and share great perspectives of what is working and—just as importantly— what isn’t working.
  3. Viable: What is financially viable or sustainable from the organizational viewpoint? What perspective do the leaders have or those who have a broader picture even if they aren’t in it day to day.

Project Example: Human-Centred Design in Practice
We embarked on an engagement project with an organization supporting children with intellectual disabilities. Their team of support staff had concerns during the pandemic that there wasn’t enough budget for their hours, resulting in the team voluntarily cutting back. The organization in fact did have a budget, and need, for the team of support staff, and it became clear that there were issues around communication within the organization. We used this as an opportunity to engage with the organization’s leadership team, their support staff, and the families supported by the organization about their experiences. and work with the organization to increase transparency around finances and, in particular, the value of the service that support people play.

The Result
This led to a clearer understanding of personal and organizational value, and ultimately an increase in appropriate fees collected – with an understanding that fees collected should never impact a family’s ability to use their budget elsewhere if they have plans to spend the entire amount provided by the province.

How Can Design Be Iterative & Incremental?

The Design Cycle is made up of five stages: Define, Research, Ideate, Prototype, and Test. We don’t move through these phases in order, but rather move between them as new solutions and insights emerge throughout the process. It’s an iterative cycle in nature; generate an idea, talk to 5 people, make some changes, iterate, talk to another set of 5 people, and repeat as necessary.  Even last-minute feedback is helpful because it can allow for course correction, and can challenge the way that we are thinking and the solution that comes out.

We work in systems that already exist, so we can only make small changes at a time. That said, over time, the smaller changes add up. We don’t have to wait until the larger system changes to make some of these smaller level improvements. We can ask ourselves: What can we do right here, now today? What is a small win we can deliver while we work towards the bigger issues?

Project Example: Incremental Iteration in Practice
We worked with an organization in children’s mental health on an audit of their operations and assess how their team were using their time. To start, we asked everyone to closely track their time for two weeks. In reviewing the time sheets, we found multiple occasions where team members were being pulled into situations and activities that used more time than was anticipated or planned for, resulting in a backlog of work and a feeling of overwhelm for the organization’s staff. We looked at the instances where people were being pulled, and identified several key themes to develop policies and procedures around that would support staff in defending their time and autonomy when asked to support additional tasks to their existing workload.

To ensure we had buy-in for this process, we communicated that this was in no way a judgment of them, just the system, and if spare time was found that didn’t mean anyone was being let go.

The Result
By focusing the outcome on an improved staff experience, we were able to build trust and generate buy-in, communicating that this time tracking was in no way a judgment on the team or the ways that they complete their work, but rather an opportunity to improve the system itself. While the results yielded an imbalance – occasional underutilized time and chronic team burnout, it didn’t mean that anyone was being let go. In fact, the organization was not only able to develop policies around time management, but by identifying and centralizing administrative tasks, they were able to fill a position internally that had sat vacant for years.

How Can Design Be Collaborative?

Design has not always been a collaborative practice. An architect in the 60’s would tell you what they wanted in a building – often without doing a lot of research, or talking to the humans in the community about what might be desirable.Today, designers have operationalized collaboration: how to work well with others, particularly those across business units, organizations, silos, and areas of practice – how to structure decision making and understand where to go next.

Project Example: Collaboration in Practice
Like all projects at Overlap, we approach strategic planning collaboratively. When we embarked on a strategic planning process with a local library, we quickly found many of the internal relationships and team dynamics were frayed. Using Human-Centred Design enabled us to bring the team together as equal collaborators, facilitating connection between and co-designing solutions for the problems they surfaced.

The Result
Moving through the Design Cycle allowed the team to contribute equally on a level playing field. This generated buy-in, and enabled the co-creation of a consensus-based strategic plan with a focus on improving relationships and connections across the organization.

How Can Design Be Evidence-Based?

Every decision we make in Human-Centred Design is based on real people’s perspectives. We are constantly seeking feedback. We ask: Is this right? Is this a problem for you in the same way that I understand this problem? What do you think about the solution? What about the solution would solve the problem and where is it missing the mark? Each time we ask for feedback, it is further evidence for our process.

Project Example: Evidence-Based Design 
Our local school board was looking to redesign their end of year event. Change can be difficult, especially when it involves children. The change in event experience initially upset the school community, but was rooted in the opinions of the board’s most important stakeholders: their students.

The Result
Through leveraging the evidence-based nature of Human-Centred Design, the school board was able to effectively communicate the feedback from their students which led to the redesign of the event in the first place. Hearing from the students themselves helped to gain back the trust and support of their parent community.

How Can I Practice Design?

Human-centred design is not an exclusive skill, natural ability, fine art, or rocket science—it’s accessible to everyone and tremendously useful for any industry or discipline.

While it’s true that when we say the words “design thinking”, we are most often talking about a methodology, when Overlap says design thinking, we’re often talking about a philosophy. It is a fundamentally different way of interacting with the world around us. There are any number of tools or processes that can be labelled as design thinking (have you heard of Empathy Maps?). That’s because they’re grounded in the themes or behaviours that make up design thinking.

You can use human-centred design to improve your personal life, your business practices, and the world around you!

😎 Adding human-centred design to your day-to-day life can increase your creativity, productivity, and problem-solving abilities. Ex. You could use human-centred design to create visual to-do’s that manage work more effectively.

🏬 Adopting human-centred design as a business can help your organization face complex challenges and overcome difficulties you’ve wrestled with time and time again. Ex. You could use human-centred design to improve your office design.

🌎 Applying human-centred design to real-world problems can spark global change where it’s needed most. Ex. You could use human-centred design to tackle poverty.

The most important thing to remember when you’re practicing design:

“There are fewer rules than you think.”
 – Linda Carson