Human-Centered Design

Your constantly-updated definition of Human-Centered Design and collection of topical content and literature

What is Human-Centered Design?

Human-centered design is a practice where designers focus on system users’ human needs. Cognitive science and usability engineering expert Don Norman sees it as a step above user-centered design. Its four principles are people-centered, solve the right problem, everything is a system and small and simple interventions.

“The challenge is to use the principles of human-centered design to produce positive results, products that enhance lives and add to our pleasure and enjoyment. The goal is to produce a great product, one that is successful, and that customers love. It can be done.”
— Don Norman, “Grand Old Man of User Experience”

See why human-centered design is a vital approach for accommodating real users.

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The Trouble with “Users” is They’re Only Human

At many points in technological history, Don Norman helped designers understand their responsibility to the people who use the things they design. Great advances were made in electronics and computing throughout the second half of the 20th century. The problem was, the designers of many systems often overlooked the human limitations of the people who had to interact with them.

Early computers were extremely hard to understand. The first ones — created in the 1940s — required specialists to operate them in closed environments. By the 1980s, things had changed; A large portion of smaller computers were being used by people without specialist knowledge. Problems were bound to arise, and did. The early Unix system Ed (for “Editor”), for example, did not prompt users to save their changes, causing many users to erase their work when turning off their computers. Highly visible prompts to save our work were yet to come.    

MS Word's prompt asking the user,

Simple interactions that we take for granted, such as the save dialog, did not exist in the early computers. The next time you see a save dialog box on a document editor, think about Ed!

The status bar at the top of Google Docs indicates whether a document is saving, and when the last edits were made.

From no save prompts, to the “Do you want to save changes” dialog box, to auto-save: The save functionality in documents has been iterated over the years to improve the experience for the people working with these tools.

Don Norman also studied the control rooms of potentially hazardous industrial centers and aviation safety. Following the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979, he was involved in analyzing the causes and potential solutions. A partial meltdown of a power-station reactor had released dangerous radioactive material into the environment. The problem centered around, not the highly competent staff members, but the design of the control room itself.

From design mistakes such as this, we learned crucial lessons. It was clear that designers had to accommodate the human needs of their systems’ usership. There could be no room for ambiguity or misleading controls, for instance. Designers would instead have to anticipate human users extensively through how each system looked, worked and responded to them. So, rather than focus on the aesthetics of the interface and the design itself, designers needed to understand and tailor experiences for the people at the controls, accounting for their various states of mind while interacting with and reacting to changes in the system. To avoid disasters, the dehumanizing idea of “users” had to vanish so designers could put people first in design. It was time for human- or, better still, people-centered design.

The cockpit of an aircraft, with hundreds of switches, dials and buttons.

Human-centered design insights are vital factors in safety.
© September20th, CC0

Follow the Clear Path to Human-Centered Design

In 1986, Norman and co-author Stephen Draper’s User Centered System Design: New Perspectives on Human-Computer Interaction was published. The result of extensive collaboration between researchers across the U.S., Europe and Japan, this comprehensive volume represented a shift in human-computer interaction. However, the authors realized they didn’t like the term “users”; the emphasis demanded a more “human” entity in control. Their timing was superb. Not only had the home-computing market exploded, but strides in technology would soon usher in the Internet age, greater connectivity and more complexity in the systems that people of all types would use.

Norman coined the term “user experience” shortly afterwards. This signaled a focus on the needs of the people who used products throughout their experiences. Norman explained the reason for the evolution away from “user” was to help designers humanize the people whose needs they designed for. Human-centered design has four principles:

  1. People-centered: Focus on people and their context in order to create things that are appropriate for them.

  2. Understand and solve the right problems, the root problems: Understand and solve the right problem, the root causes, the underlying fundamental issues. Otherwise, the symptoms will just keep returning.

  3. Everything is a system: Think of everything as a system of interconnected parts.

  4. Small and simple interventions: Do iterative work and don't rush to a solution. Try small, simple interventions and learn from them one by one, and slowly your results will get bigger and better. Continually prototype, test and refine your proposals to make sure that your small solutions truly meet the needs of the people you focus on.

It's important to remember, as we focus on the human aspect, we expand our scope to societies and, ultimately, humanity-centered design. And as our world becomes more intricately involved with complex socio-technical systems and wicked problems to address, the insights we leverage from human-centered design will continue to prove essential.The four principles of Human-Centered Design: People-Centered Design, Solve the Right Problem, Everything is a System, and Small & Simple Interventions.

© Daniel Skrok and Interaction Design Foundation, CC-BY-SA 3.0

Learn More about Human-Centered Design

Take our 21st Century Design course:

Read this JND article for additional insights about the human-centered design principles:

This thought-provoking MovingWorlds post explores human-centered design extensively:

Literature on Human-Centered Design

Here’s the entire UX literature on Human-Centered Design by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Human-Centered Design

Take a deep dive into Human-Centered Design with our course User Experience: The Beginner’s Guide .

User experience, or UX, has been a buzzword since about 2005, and according to tech research firm Gartner, the focus on digital experience is no longer limited to digital-born companies anymore. Chances are, you’ve heard of the term, or even have it on your portfolio. But, like most of us, there’s also a good chance that you sometimes feel unsure of what the term “user experience” actually covers.

[User experience] is used by people to say, Im a user experience designer, I design websites, or I design apps. [] and they think the experience is that simple device, the website, or the app, or who knows what. No! Its everythingits the way you experience the world, its the way you experience your life, its the way you experience the service. Or, yeah, an app or a computer system. But its a system thats everything.

Don Norman, pioneer and inventor of the term user experience”, in an interview with NNGroup

As indicated by Don Norman, User Experience is an umbrella term that covers a number of different areas. When you work with user experience, it’s crucial to have a good understanding of what those areas are so that you know what tools are available to you.

Throughout this course, you will gain a thorough understanding of the various design principles that come together to create a user’s experience when using a product or service. As you proceed, you’ll learn the value user experience design brings to a project, and what areas you must consider when you want to design great user experiences. Because user experience is an evolving term, we can’t give you a definition of ‘user experience’ to end all discussions, but we will provide you with a solid understanding of the different aspects of user experience, so it becomes clear in your mind what is involved in creating great UX designs.

If you are new to the Interaction Design Foundation, this course is a great place to start because it brings together materials from many of our other courses. This provides you with both an excellent introduction to user experience and with a preview of the courses we have to offer to help you develop your future career. After each lesson, we will introduce you to the courses you can take if a specific topic has caught your attention. That way, you’ll find it easy to continue your learning journey.