Characteristics of Human-Centered Design

Design is s complex process that is implemented in different disciplines with many factors in mind; one of these factors is the target of the design process. Generally, there are three design process paradigms based on this target; technology-driven design, human-centered design and environmentally sustainable design.

These three paradigms are used to define the design of a product or service. Based on this categorization, human centered design can be defined as the process that places the human needs and limitations in a higher priority compared with other targets during the design thinking and production differential stages. During this process, the designer is required not only to analyze and come up with solution for existing problems, but test and validate the designed products or service to achieve planned targets in the real world. This process leads to build what is known as the empathic design.

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Another definition for the human centered design process presented by the ISO 9241-210 – Ergonomics of Human Centered System Interaction:

“An approach to systems design and development that aims to make interactive systems more usable by focusing on the use of the system and applying human factors/ergonomics and usability knowledge and techniques.”

The term human-centered design is based on the term “user-centered design” which is originated in Donald Norman’s research laboratory at the University of California San Diego  in the 1980s. And it was introduced in his co-athored book, User-Centered System Design: New Perspectives on Human-Computer Interaction.

In a research paper presented by Joseph Giacomin, Human Centered Design Institute, Brunel University, the ISO 9241-210 defined six characteristics of the human center design process:

  • Adopting multidisciplinary skills and perspectives
  • Clear understanding to the users, tasks and environments
  • User-centered evaluation driven design
  • Considering the overall consumer experience
  • Involving the consumer in the design and production process
  • Iterative design process

Along with the emerging awareness of human centered design, the paradigm extends its function to cover a wide range of design disciplines such as interactive design, user experience, usability and empathic design…etc.

Characteristics of Human Centered Design

During the last years, many examples provided proof of success by utilizing human centered design as a part of the organization strategy. Companies such as IKEA, Lego, Google, Facebook and Apple shifted their direction to focus on the emotional relation between its products and the consumer instead of focusing on the technology. Companies such as Apple use the human centered design characteristics to examine the products and if they are expected to meet with consumer needs and achieve market success.

human centered design pyramid
Fig. 1 The human centered design pyramid (source: Giacomin, 2014)

Human centered design builds a sustainable relation between the product and consumer or user. Achieving this goal requires the design to achieve number of answers for questions related to consumer needs. If these questions’ answers are located in the heart of the design, the product would have a high potential to achieve a human centered design approach. These questions includes the following:

  • Who is the consumer? Does the design reflect the user characteristics?
  • What are the consumer’s goals of using the product?
  • What is the consumer experience about the product?
  • What are the goals of using this specific product or service?
  • When and how does the consumer interact with the product design?
  • How do the consumers think about the product or the design?
  • Why does the consumer use this product or design?

In addition to the above questions, human centered design is based on the rhetorical situations; audience, purpose and context. These situations form the product or service design. The audience refers o the consumer or the user who is going to use the product or the service, the purpose refers to the consumer’s target of using the product and the context refers to the other extrinsic factors that may affect user interaction with the product.

The Human Centered Design Process

While the human factor is the focus on human centered design, the process should ensure considering the human activity during the process. All the human factors, social factors and technology factors interact together under the human activity umbrella. While there are many theories that describe the design process stages, the human centered design process should include the following four main stages:

  • Who does what kind of job? This is the first stage where the designers understand and specify the context of using the product or the service from the consumer point of view.
  • What should be done, and how? This stage specifies the consumer requirements and needs from the product or service.
  • How should they be achieved? The product design solutions that will be implemented in the product development process.
  • Have they been solved? Here is the evaluation for the design and comparing it with the initial requirements.
human centered design approach
Fig. 2 The human centered design approach (source: Winograd & Woods, 1997)

The above steps repeat on a circular basis until the goals are met. Considering the above steps in the context of the design process can help achieving the goals of imlementing a human centered design approach.

According to the above, the human centered design process flow between three main phases; research, prototype, and implement. In the research phase, the team tends to learn about about the problem in hand and the users in order to build a clearer knowledge about the problem. Once the problem is clearly defined and the information is analyzed, the team can move to turn the suggested solutions into prototypes that can be tested and iterated. After testing and improving the prototype, the team can then implement the solution through an action plan that the team can follow during the product development process.

Human Centered Design Tools

In order to build a human centered design approach, a number of tools and methods are used before and during the research phase. These tools are crucial to build a clear understanding to the user behavior, which can be used to suggested solutions for the problem in hand. These tools include but not limited to persona, scenario, use cases, and consumer journey mapping.


The persona refers to creating fictional character that has all the characteristics of the consumer or the user. These characteristics include the demographic information and other information required to design the product or service.

The persona is determined based on number of research tools such as field research, user groups, questionnaires and interviews. Once the persona is defined, it is used to guide the production process. The persona is one of the commonly used tools in the marketing research and it is usually defined during the research and planning stage.

An example of persona is creating a character, such as “Mike” who has the same demographic information such as the age, location and education of the target consumer. Then, the design is built based on this imaginary character.

Customer persona
The persona for the customer journey map created using UXPressia


Unlike the persona, the scenario aims to build a fictional story or scenario about the usage of the product or service based on specific event. The persona can be considered the character of this scenario. So the persona acts out a specific scenario related to the product. This fictional scenario helps the stakeholders to understand the different usage scenarios and determine the “best-case scenario” and “worst-case scenario”. This information is used during product development. Learn more about scenarios in my article; Step-by-Step Guide to UX Research Scenarios

ux research
Example for a scenario of one goal.


Use Cases

Unlike the scenario, use cases are actually events in real world that the user or the consumer interacts with the world with. These use cases are simple actions in a short period of time to analyze how the user will interact with the world around.

The use cases are presented in the form of a table with two columns, the first one is the actor, which represents the consumer, and the second one is the world. The first column includes the consumer actions in the form of steps. The second column includes the outer reaction to the actor behavior. For example, the actor can prepare specific documents and the world reacts by providing these documents.

human centered use case
Fig. 3 Example for use case method (source: Wikipedia)

All the three tools work altogether to gather a better understanding for the consumer and the product and can solve the consumer existing problems. These tools ensure the human centered design approach is achieved during the follower production stage.

Consumer Journey Maps

The customer journey maps are a visual diagram that tells the story of your customers’ experience when using a product, service or visits a retail store. it helps us to identify the consumers’ goals, the steps they made to access the service, the touch point with the service, and their emotional experience at each stage of their journey. You can use our Visual Guide to the Customer Journey Mapping to find a step-by-step guide to apply the consumer journey maps.

customer journey map example
Example of the customer journey map. (Click the image to enlarge)

Design is defined in the production process based on these paradigms; technology-driven design, human centered design and environmentally sustainable design. Each of these paradigms focus on specific factors during the design process. The human centered design paradigm places the consumer in the highest priority compared with the other factors that affect the product development process.

Human centered design approaches have a number of characteristics that can be achieved by having a deeper understanding of the consumer and how the product is used to solve existing or future problems. A number of questions should be asked in order to identify if the design meets with the human centered design discipline.

While there are many models for the design process, specific stages should be considered during the human centered design development process. These stages are based on the knowledge acquired during the research and planning stage. During this stage, a number of tools can be used to analyze the consumer behavior and evaluate the design process such as the persona, scenario and use cases.

The human centered design process requires intensive research and understanding to the consumer behavior. However, the results are rewarding and achieve product success in the market.


Winograd, T. & Woods, D. (1997) The Challenge of Human-Centered Design. [Online] Available from:  link [Accessed: February 2015]

Boy, G. A Human-Centered Design Approach. [Online] Available from:  link [Accessed: February 2015]

Giacomin, J. (2014) What Is Human Centred Design?. The Design Journal17.4 (2014): 606-623.

Takeshi, H. & Fukuzumi, S. (2008) Applying human-centered design process to SystemDirector Enterprise development methodology. NEC Technical Journal 3.2 (2008): 12-16.

Human-Centered Design Toolkit – A free innovation guide for social enterprises and NGOs worldwide

Design Kit by IDEO – more than 50 design methods, videos and full case studies.

Dr Rafiq Elmansy

I'm an academic, author and design thinker, currently teaching design at the University of Leeds with a research focus on design thinking, design for health, interaction design and design for behaviour change. I developed and taught design programmes at Wrexham Glyndwr University, Northumbria University and The American University in Cairo. Additionally, I'm a published book author and founder of I am a fellow for the Higher Education Academy (HEA), the Royal Society of Arts (FRSA), and an Adobe Education Leader. I write Adobe certification exams with Pearson Certiport. My design experience involves 20 years working with clients such as the UN, World Bank, Adobe, and Schneider. I worked with the Adobe team in developing many Adobe applications for more than 12 years.

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