HCD must do better


I had a call last night with the organiser of an event I’ll soon be speaking at. To cut a long story short, we focused our discussion on the problematic nature of most Human Centred Design (HCD) practices.

I’m writing this short article to share some perspective on these issues. This content is for the ‘designers’ fed up with HCD approaches that are overwhelmingly business centric.

HCD is all about business

A lot of people will argue this point. That’s awesome. Please challenge what I’m saying. Better yet, evidence the perspective you’re sharing. Just understand that I am not here to point fingers. I’m here to make progress.

In fact, I actually think there are plenty of good counter arguments to be made, particularly if you’re working in social services or some other ‘vertical’ that more explicitly puts people first. 

Back to it.

An overwhelming majority of HCD practice occurs within commercial organisations. Much of this practice is constrained and actually ‘driven’ by business focused metrics.

Let’s use the sign up component of an end to end customer journey as an example to illustrate this point.

Ask yourself:

  1. What metrics are influencing your design?
  2. Are any of these metrics actually from the human’s point of view?
  3. Do you do a good job of explicitly designing for the metrics that matter to the human beings you’re designing for?
  4. Are you making explicit or implicit tradeoffs that might negatively impact the humans you’re designing for (as a direct result of the metrics you are forced to optimise for)?

In most cases, when I ask questions like this, I get answers along the lines of:

  1. “In the context of sign up, we’re mostly optimising for quantitative/behavioural metrics like the number of steps to sign up, the actual time it takes from start to finish, the percentage of people who complete the process relative to the total number that start it…”
  2. “Not really. What do you mean by this?”
  3.  Probably not. For the most part, we typically work with the metrics we’re asked to optimise for.”
  4. “Definitely. But these aren’t documented or well understood outside of our team. We don’t measure the impact these tradeoffs have either…”

If you’re open to sharing, copy the 4 questions above, paste them into a comment and add your own answers. I’d love to hear from you.

What does this mean?

That Human Centred Design is:

  1. Not living up to its name, or
  2. Should be called something different (if it doesn’t evolve)

It’s likely I’m being a bit reductionist here. The process of designing products and services is complex and nuanced. There are many inputs and throuputs that directly effect the outputs.

I’m keeping this simple to highlight the point that Human Centred Design – for the most part (especially in commercial organisations) – is actually Business Centred Design.

Let's design better, together

I’ve quite literally never interacted with a HCD practitioner or leader that wants to disadvantage the people they are designing for. HCD (IMHO) tends to attract people who really care about other people. It attracts people who want to use their work as a force for good.

So, I’m suggesting we do just that. Let’s work together to bring new, truly human or humanity centric metrics into the HCD process. Let’s advocate these approaches to the organisations we work with. Let’s conduct small experiments to demonstrate that, when we actually design for humans first, we can achieve great outcomes for them, whilst also enabling business value in the form of trustworthiness that leads to growth and competitive advantage.

If you wanna dive deeper into this, join the beta. Or, particularly if you’re based in Europe or North America, join the event I’ll be speaking at on this very topic.