Why the art of human-centred design has become a vital CX tool

Digital innovation has become critical as people increasingly rely on digital services and tools, but without embracing human-centred design, projects risk failure, says design studio founder Nick Gower

Human-centred design was once seen very much as a ‘nice to have’ but has increasingly become an essential element to a digital change project. And indeed, it's a key element of the success, or otherwise, of this kind of innovation, says a global expert in the practice.

Human-centred design, in its essence, is building digital products and services that deliver some kind of benefit to people. If it’s government services, it might be a digital driver’s licence or financial wellbeing tools or digital platforms to provide cost of living assistance, design studio Future Friendly co-founder, Nick Gower, explained to CMO.

While the continuing trend for customer centrism may be driving the push for human-centred design in digital innovation today, it wasn’t always the impetus. Gower said what really triggered executives’ interest in practice was the huge failure rate of digital innovation projects.

“Huge amounts of money goes into innovation change projects and digital services, and a shockingly high percentage of them fail, more in the past, but still far too many now,” Gower said.

“In lots of cases, the projects that succeeded tended to be the ones that had the closest involvement of the customer. It stands to reason now, but it wasn't obvious in the past. And once more traditional executives got involved in human-centric design processes, they realised how powerful it was and how it challenged a lot of notions around who their customers or citizens were and what they needed."

Design beyond customer at the centre

Apart from the customer benefits, Gower said human-centred design offers significant business and organisational benefits.

“It helps you understand what to do, but it also helps you understand what not to do. And in times when the need to change is critical and funds are tight, prioritisation is one of the key differentiators between success and failure. And human-centered design is now one of the most practical business tools you can,” he said.

This shift, when embracing human-centred design, is putting the human element into the actual design phase from the get go and right through, rather than just at a single research stage and doing the rest of the design and testing phases without the human input. It’s embracing the human element, those people for whom the platform or service is designed, all the way through, which orients it around the end-user.

“It involves rapidly generating prototypes so that a customer could experience a new service that you wanted to offer days after you've decided that you want to design it, not weeks, months or in some cases years. Then doing that over and over again. So over the course of a 12-week project to design a new service, for example, we might test with five people every week, and create high-fidelity environments for them to experience that new service,” Gower said.

The heightened awareness of diversity and inclusion means these are increasingly important considerations when designing new tools and services. Where once there may have been a single, standard user prototype, now there must be consideration given to inclusive and diverse users based on the particular tool or platform being created.

“We've seen, and we practice, an extremely rigorous approach to including the full scope of the type of human diversity that you would expect to see in the customer set. It's still important to have an understanding of who your customer is. I think the point of inclusion is to look at what everyone in that customer set,” he told CMO.

The Covid effect

The pandemic, along with the bushfires, have pushed many organisations further down the path of digital transformation. Gower said digital services and platforms are now a core piece of infrastructure that most people need for their lives to function. He stressed humans are actually very skilled at helping other humans and it’s this mindset that needs to guide new digital services and tools, to mimic the human assisting element rather than simply digitising a manual process.

“The point is to make sure that we don't take a really great human process and digitise it and actually design the human contact out of it,” he explained.

Brands looking to be part of digital services will need to resist the urge to insert themselves too overtly in the processes and avoid creating unnecessary steps just for the sake of branding in a way that reduces the seamlessness of digital interactions. Gower said there's a real drive, particularly from brands and from more traditional marketing mindset, to own the experience of people doing things. 

“If I'm trying to pay for something, I as a brand, I want to insert myself into that process, and, therefore, I'm going to make an app, which has my logo that you log into that sends me emails and those sorts of things. But really the best experience is one where I didn't even know that I engaged with the brand, which has been for all intents and purposes removed from the experience,” he said.

“It's certainly possible, and you're seeing it more and more with the automation in government and with the connectedness of government, that really powerful businesses exist and the only experience that customers have of that business is just a problem going away.I think we'll see more and more of that. ‘How can we solve this customer problem without creating a new one for them?’"

Finally, when it comes to quantifying the importance of the human element in design, while there’s no human centered heuristic rulebook or like the list of things, it’s about ensuring a constant process of human engagement, Gower said.

“Human-centred design is a different way of thinking of the world. To consider ‘what does my customer need?’ And asking of them, not deciding for them, and then kind of co-creating that product with them,” he said.

One of the principles that has really jumped out at Gower in his design work is the contrast between the role of computers and the role of people. “With people, anytime you speak to a person you're getting advice and anytime you interact with a computer, it's information,” he added. 

“Anytime we're giving people information on a computer, it's just one of very many pieces of information that they could get from that computer. But when a person says something to someone, as humans we’re connecting."

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