It’s hard to imagine that it’s been nearly 20 years since I sat in a classroom at the University of Washington absolutely enthralled with the concept of Human Centered Design (HCD), a discipline I loved so dearly, I went on to complete a certificate program thanks to the sheer pleasure of attending relevant classes.
Back in those days, I was working in video games, and though I didn’t realize it at the time, the role I held was an integral part of this very discipline. You see, my literal job was to play the games whilst in development. In addition to logging bugs (errors in code that impact playability or experience), my primary function was to provide designers feedback about character appeal, level difficulty, storyline, playbalancing, and overall sources of enjoyment and strife.
The concept was simple: They wanted to build a game people like me enjoyed playing, and by designing for me specifically, with my explicit feedback in mind, they were more likely to succeed within my demographic.
It’s been 17 years since I graduated college, left the world of broken and incomplete video games behind, and entered my actual field: Content Marketing. There’s been an enormous amount of evolution since then - cell phones replaced pagers, computers don’t need their own bedrooms anymore, phone calls don’t kick you off the internet, shoot - skinny jeans decimated wide legs, and enough time passed that wide legs came back again?! All that transformation, and yet looking at HCD basics, the approach still feels much the same.
There are people who may feel nervous about that observation, believing worthy approaches should evolve greatly with time, but to me personally, the endurance of the perspective speaks volumes: Customer experiences matters, designing for it from the beginning creates meaningful impact to outcomes, and centering humans - your intended, consuming humans - is the best way to pull it all off.
Straight from my JNCO- and red-plastic-pager-laden youth (corroborated by reports from experts here in modern day), here are 3 tenets to human centered design - and ultimately improved CX - you can use for your marketing strategy and products today:.
1. Empathize with your customer
“Empathize” is a deliberately chosen word here, and is a very different goal than to sympathize. You’re not feeling for your intended audience, you’re feeling with them. At a minimum, this requires you to pretty deeply seek, comprehend, and understand their position.
What, specifically, you’re attempting to design for your customer (whether that be a webpage, a marketing email, a social media presence, or a new product) will necessarily inform your exact process, but here are a few basic things to keep in mind:
It’s important to know your customer and seek feedback from people like them; Aunt Mary’s opinion might be an insightful one, but if you’re a boogie board manufacturer and she has no taste for wake, it’s probably pretty gosh darn irrelevant.
It behooves you to diversify your methods of gathering intel. While an intended audience may speak eloquently to insights, intentions, and irritations you wouldn’t have otherwise been privy to, it's a known fact that by our very nature, humans are terrible self reporters and perhaps even worse at predictions. So listen, of course, to their narrative, but set yourself up well as often as you can, to view their actions, obstacles, troubleshooting, and outcomes directly as often as you can.
Gathering empathy to inform your product, service, message, or action should happen at absolutely every stage of the game. If you’re designing a website, for example, you’ll want to gather information about the mindset of someone who’s not visited it yet (and maybe hasn’t even thought to) - what are they worried about, what made them take action? How did they feel when the event took place? What was driving them? You should consider then, too, the thoughts and feelings of someone who’s just arrived on said website - what unique experiences, feelings, and challenges do they face? Our circle isn’t complete, of course: without beginning to empathize with the visitor who has visited then, how did they feel after time on your site? What actions will they take next, and did their time with you better prepare them?
What is simple is oft not also easy, but getting this part right is absolutely key: Define who your ideal customer(s) are, develop a variety of ways to observe, understand, and get to know them. Only then are you ready to design with their needs in mind.
2. Design with your customer in mind - and - in the process
You read that right. Your customer (or a group of trusted individuals carefully selected to represent them) should be an integral to your design process. The key feature of this stage of the plan is the creation of a Minimum Viable Product (or MVP).
An MVP is the functional, lightest-possible-weight-to-design version of your intended product. In school, where our intended final product may have been a user-informed software design, the MVP may have been a drawing of a particular interface. We’d then ask a would-be representative customer to “use” for a task we’d designed it to help them complete. They’d do so with no-to-minimal instruction, while we watched to see how intuitively our hand-drawn interface was used.
This process has - for my entire adult life intrigued me - it is fascinating to see the way different minds tend to think. What had been obvious to me as a designer so often completely confounded my intended audience, or perhaps even more earth shattering, it was shocking how often I’d totally misunderstood their previously stated irritations or goals (or, as is likely given previously stated limitations to self-reporting, the user never accurately understood nor represented it themselves).
You can see the ploy of efficiency that’s rewarded here: A minimal investment to get a product to the point that it's testable, and oodles of feedback to implement before entering higher fidelity rounds. It’s a winning strategy for your business to build better outcomes from the beginning, and for consumers to literally inform the development of the product, service, or message they’ll be most excited to consume.
3. Iterate often, ongoing, forever
If steps one and two are executed properly, step three here will be a breeze because the value is so obvious, accessible, and illuminating. The trick here is to balance the iterative looping of empathy, development, and feedback (both stated and through observation), with meaningful progress against your launchable goals. Obviously, feedback is most meaningful when it’s implemented into something that ultimately comes to life, and the thing that ultimately comes to life is far better when informed by said feedback. With a little practice, you’re sure to strike a balance.
Once you get used to thinking about your deliverables first as MVPs and your end customers as meaningful parts of the deliverable development, you’ll see that you can use Human Centered Design principles to improve CX on any number of things:
Customer service modalities
Product return procedures
Even your HCD process itself!
There aren’t a lot of elements of my 2001 self that survived hotly illuminated and energized to this day. My ongoing admiration for and fascination with the human condition is one. Pair that with a human-centered iterative process that I can use to uncover insights that’ll improve their experience in some way and make my product better? I’m head over heels in love. Almost as much as I was back in the day for those JNCOs
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