Published on 11 March 2020
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Centering the human in design

What is HCD in practice? In the second in our series on Human Centred Design, Nishan Varatharajan explores the five stages of HCD.

At the close of the twentieth century, design practitioners faced an identity crisis. Their field — traditionally associated with symbolic and visual communications — had been stretched across the decades to accommodate practices from the industrial design of material objects (tools, domestic goods, machinery) to the administrative design of activities and organised services (public transport routes, mail delivery). To unify this growing breadth, and to stave off semantic satiation, the management theorist Richard Buchanan proposed a particular picture of design that proved hugely popular. The designer, he argued in his 1992 paper ‘Wicked Problems in Design Thinking,’ was not simply a visual-artist-for-hire nor even, more broadly, a creative big-ideas-generator who helped clients satisfy briefs. Rather, the designers was a professional service provider who helped clients interrogate challenges anew, test their core assumptions about the problem-at-hand and then experiment with possible solutions.

Despite its widespread adoption, this definition soon opened up a new question — how do designers actually go about defining problems? Writing in 1993, it was the anthropologist Lucy Suchman’s contention that most designers tended to frame problems with a ‘view from nowhere.’ That is, in the abstract, without direct experience of the problem space, by projecting designer preferences onto the user. As Suchman observed, this not only delegitimised user knowledge, but regularly led to the creation of things that were neither useable nor useful. To answer such critiques, the San Francisco design firm IDEO began to develop early versions of Human Centred Design across the 1990s. By the turn of the millennium, IDEO had officially codified the Human-Centred Design process into a five-step format (see below)1. With this model, IDEO proposed a number of powerful ideas at once — first, that user knowledge is the doorway into the problem/solution space; second, that successful design thus requires successful communication between designers and users; and, third, that designer-user communication requires empathetic ethnographic inquiry (to reveal problems) and rigorous user experimentation (to test ideas). In this blog, I will explore all five stages of HCD, with particular emphasis on the ‘Empathise’ and ‘Define’ stages.

Fig 1 Nishan Varatharajan

A visualisation of IDEO’s HCD Framework


The ‘Empathise’ phase consists of three overarching approaches to the ‘problem space’ which are heavily influenced by ethnographic and phenomenological modes of research; user observation of what people ‘really do’ in their natural context, user participation in tasks which reveal their thoughts/feelings/behaviour and designer participation in user tasks. 

The first approach, user observation, involves more/less obtrusive techniques to understand the problem at hand. This can range from ‘field studies’ (e.g. where a HCD team, designing a new pram for young urban families, observe how parents currently transport toddlers around a shopping centre) to ‘shadowing’ (e.g. where that same team follow one family for a week to understand pram-related challenges across multiple city contexts). The second approach, user participation, interrogates the problem space through ‘usability testing’ (e.g. where designers ask young families to trial a series of existing prams in a design studio), surveys/interviews (e.g. where designers ask young families to describe their last experience of using a pram, what motivated them to choose their current pram, what they like/dislike about it, and what their ideal experience of a pram would be) and ‘probe studies’ (e.g. where designers ask young families to keep a pram-related diary, or take part in a pram-related photo scavenger hunt, to record relevant actions, routines, moods and thoughts).

Fig 2 Nishan Varatharajan

A disposable camera for self-documentation during a probe study (IDEO, 2015)

In the final approach to empathy, designer participation, HCD practitioners do whatever they can to embody the tacit experiences of users. This ranges from minimalistic role-playing (e.g. the pram-designers act out a Sunday picnic scenario in their studio), to the use of empathy-building outfits (e.g. Ford Motors’ ‘Pregnancy Belly’, which uses weights, motors and prosthetics to impart the feeling of being pregnant) to full immersion (e.g. the pram-designers ‘borrow’ a child and live out the real week of a young family in the city). Through all such approaches designers are challenged to test their assumptions about the nature of user needs in the face of first-hand evidence.

Fig 3 Nishan Varatharajan

Fig 4 Nishan Varatharajan

Ford designers utilise the ‘Empathy Belly’  and ‘Third Age’ bodysuits (Ford, 2011)


In the ‘Define’ stage, the designer considers what she has learned about the problem space and seeks to construct working principles that will illuminate the contours of the solution space. Here the focus is on identifying the explicit (i.e. expressed or externally observable) needs of the user as well as their latent needs (unexpressed or prescriptive needs identified by the designer). Designers have an array of tools to help them uncover these design requirements including affinity diagrams, mind maps, empathy maps, user personas, business model canvases, storyboards and user case scenarios.

Affinity diagramming is a methodology for synthesising research data. Here, key insights from the ‘Empathise’ phase are re-articulated in the first person recorded on Post-It Notes, and clustered together through multiple rounds of similarity-based-sorting. For instance, after a design team follows a holidaymaker during the trip-booking process, they might articulate the holidaymakers needs and challenges as ‘I only have an accommodation budget of 250 pounds’, ‘I want a way to connect with local people in each city,’ etc. The assumption is that related insights will clump together under key themes that emerge organically from the data (see below). Trends in the data can also emerge through an ‘empathy map,’ a canvas which guides designers to fit their data into specific questions asked from the user’s perspective — for example, ‘What do they think/feel/see/say/do?’, and so on (see below).

Affinity diagrams

Affinity diagramming in session (author’s original)

Once initial findings are arranged, these are shaped to create user personas and user case scenarios. User personas are fictional yet realistic descriptions of an imagined user which make characteristics of key user segments salient. While the persona is an archetype, rather than a real human, they come to life through rich description, including details about the persona’s needs, concerns, and goals, as well as background information such as age, gender, behaviours, and occupation (see below). Once personas are formed they can then be cast into hypothetical user case scenarios through the comic-style visualisation of storyboards or through written narrative descriptions.

Fig 6 Nishan Varatharajan

Empathy Map Worksheet (Jarrett, 2016)

The outcome of all such analysis/synthesis in the Define stage is that designers will be able to clearly identify a discrete ‘how’ (a working principle, design challenge or ‘point of view’) that will ultimately connect the ‘what’ of the thing-to-be-designed to the ‘why’ (the desired value) of the brief.

Fig 7 Nishan Varatharajan

User Persona for Climate Activism/Sustainability HCD Project (author’s original)

Ideate, Prototype, Test

The final three stages of HCD (Ideate, Prototype and Test) are concerned with the ‘what’ of the design project — i.e. generating, refining and finalising ideas for the product/service that might serve as a solution to the problem at hand. Here, in short, designers brainstorm, mix, match, extend and rank ideas, transforming the best ideas into prototypes (deliberately cheap, minimalistic, disposable representations of ideas) before testing these prototypes with users to learn what users like, dislike, questions they have and new ideas they would add to the design. To return to our pram example, the design team might come up with a new hyper-collapsible pram, build a prototype out of cardboard, invite new parents to road test it over a weekend of activities and provide feedback through an online portal. These findings could help inform a new prototype, or finalise the design sent to the client. The goal of this process is to attain maximal validated learning with minimal cost before bringing a fully functional product into the world.


HCD revolves around the notion that, since design comes by its meaning in real life, design research must be done in real life. Yet here practitioners have a very specific, narrow conception of what it means to grasp ‘the real’; here, HCD privileges direct human experience. This approach, of course, has its merits — the embrace of embodied experience, the interplay between emotion and cognition, the focus on granting dignity to the user; these are all positive moves away from ‘design from nowhere’. In a limited sense, then, HCD is more holistic than design approaches that ignore the user, the emotions or the body. Yet, as I will explore in future blogs, HCD is not holistic enough to tackle the kinds of complex problems which are the focus of the public sector.


1. There are, of course, multiple iterations of empathy-based design (and even multiple versions of the HCD framework), and thus many of the practices articulated herein are present in parallel design movements such as co-design, participatory design, service design, user-experience design and so on. IDEO’s first five-step version serves as my exemplar since (a) it makes the process of problem definition more explicit and (b) is the version of HCD most well-known (and therefore the version actually implemented across the social sector).

Read the previous HCD blog: Bias by design – is human-centred design too human?

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.


Nishan Varatharajan

Nishan Varatharajan is a London-based researcher and consultant. In collaboration with Penny Mealy, Nishan’s work at the Bennett Institute focuses on the project ‘Practical Wisdom in a Complex World’. His...

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