7 ways to champion a human centred design culture

Shane Burford

Shane leads a team of human centred design consultants responsible for delivering digital transformations at ASX-listed consultancy, RXP Group. He has worked with brands including Telstra, NAB, Toyota and Myer on a variety of HCD projects.


Human Centred Design (HCD) has come a long way in the last decade with many forward-thinking organisations now asking for HCD teams on their projects. It’s increasingly seen as essential to unlocking innovation, driving superior customer experiences and reducing delivery risk.

Yet, while HCD is now firmly on the map, leaders, including marketers, are still struggling to embed the principles of HCD in their organisations. While it’s relatively easy enough to commission a design project, it is much harder to sustain the project from inception to delivery.

We explored 32 organisations that truly embed HCD into their teams, as well as organisations that really struggle with design, to understand the differences, so leaders can create more effective design teams. These organisations represented financial services, technology, utilities and telecommunications, education, retail, automotive and government. We classified each as either ‘Maturing’ or ‘Exemplar’ based on design output. We analysed these cohorts separately to determine key differentiators and distilled this analysis into seven key principles to enable HCD to thrive.

Champion HCD as a strategic pillar of success from the top down

Leaders in Exemplar organisations not only commissioned HCD projects, but also championed the process to differentiate their organisation and drive business value. These leaders were also more likely to actively participate in the process and provide strategic steering to develop more effective HCD outcomes.  

Leaders in Maturing organisations, by contrast, often commissioned HCD projects, however, were not invested in the process as a strategic differentiator. As such, when cost or business pressures emerged, these programs were more likely to be cut.

Embed the 'voice of the customer' into operations and ongoing decision making

Exemplar organisations developed a culture of listening to the customer, where research and testing were the most important parts of projects. Maturing organisations often perceived collecting customer insights as a ‘cost-line’, easily cut from the project plan because they often felt they already had all the answers.  

Exemplar organisations, by contrast, acknowledged their ignorance, knew they didn’t have all the answers and explored the needs and pain points of their customers to ensure they build the right things to drive organisational growth.

Make human-first decisions. Cost, technology and deadlines are secondary

While it is attractive to base design decisions on cost, available technologies or timeframes, this can be destructive to delivering value for the customer. Exemplar organisations support projects to base their decision making on customer insight because they know if it does not land with the customer, all other factors are redundant.

Drive collaboration in projects and the broader organisation

Maturing organisations often struggled to collaborate because of silos, trust issues and competing priorities. Exemplar organisations, by contrast, fostered a culture where collaboration across the business was not only desired but expected. Dispersed teams in Exemplar organisations invested in video conferencing or had co-located teams.  

In addition, teams were often cross-functional to enable structural collaboration between different roles.

Enable creativity to thrive by making ‘safe’ environments where it is ok to 'fail fast'

There is nothing more vulnerable than putting an idea or concept into the world for others to critique. The design process is inherently creative and therefore vulnerable. Exemplar organisations foster a creative culture by being open to new ideas, a desire to prototype early and often and then, of course, fail fast and often. Maturing organisations often substituted creativity with fear, blame, ego and aggression. Ideas were ‘shot down’ early and often making it unsafe to be creative.

Excellent project management enables great design

Great design projects have clear objectives and are structured for success. This enables new people joining the project to know the background, what their role is and how they contribute to the team. Maturing organisations are often unclear about the objectives at the start resulting in changes to scope throughout the project and wasted effort.

Surround design teams with people who can inspire and educate

Exemplar organisations have strategies to support the recruitment and retention of top design talent. Exemplar organisations have thought leaders driving their organisation forward, encouraging top talent to join and building the next generation of leaders.  

Maturing organisations often recruited ad hoc with mixed talent profiles that resulted in top talent often leaving earlier than necessary. HCD is essentially a tool to drive optimal organisational outcomes. As leaders mature their HCD practice, it is essential to champion design and the 'voice of the customer' to guide effective human-first decision making. From the foundation of customer centricity, it is then important to enable great design through collaboration, effective project management and a 'fail fast' culture.   

Tags: human centred design, RXP Group

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