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This guide is part of the
Digital Transformation Advisor Playbook.

When people hear the word, “design,” they often conjure images of popular art, fashion, or home interiors brought to life by “creatives.” Design feels out of reach for many people -- but the practice of human-centered design makes it widely accessible for more practical applications. Leveraging human-centered design in your digital transformation is key tactic to ensure a successful project. 

Human-centered design, or design thinking, is at its core the act of designing solutions for real people. It’s not just about creating visual design or user interfaces that people enjoy. It is a repeatable process that leverages design principles and human insights to develop creative ways to address any problem. Popularized by the design firm IDEO, human-centered design involves an iterative problem-solving process built on four key principles:

  1. Solve the “right” problem. Before getting to the work of designing a new approach, product, or service, you have to understand the root problem you’re working to solve. Often when we see a problem to fix, our limited experience points us to symptoms of a much larger issue -- and we miss the real challenge that needs to be addressed. Finding and fixing the root problem by conducting research and talking to real end users ensures that you spend time and resources wisely.

  2. Focus on the people. Our society tends to be solution-focused. What technology will we use? What will the product look and feel like? But without thinking of all the people who will be impacted by the solution, our designs end up flawed from the start. How many products can you think of that have flopped or been scrapped because people choose not to -- or truly can’t -- use them? Throughout the design process, it’s critical to consider the people you are designing for and listen to their needs.

  3. Consider the entire system. You cannot design solutions in a vacuum. Every part of the user experience is interconnected; focusing on just one piece, such as onboarding, won’t necessarily make the entire product or service better. Instead, as you define and design each component, always keep the big picture in mind. What do you want your users to think, feel, and achieve with your final product?

  4. Iterate and validate design decisions. No designer gets it right the first time (and by employing this process, you are a designer!). You will be working with imperfect or incomplete information, especially as you work to bring human insights into the process. The most effective and efficient approach for creating a workable end product includes ideating and prototyping a variety of solutions -- and testing them with real people. Above all, it is important to remember that you are not the end user. Nothing can replace testing your product with real target users to gain insights about what works, what doesn’t, and what needs to be tweaked or redesigned.


Figure 1: The human-centered design process

Why Use Human-Centered Design in Digital Transformation?

“The launch of the new system generated a lot of interest and buzz, not all of it positive. Many felt they were not included in the decision-making process, even though they were expected to use the system every day. Others were left wondering why the system duplicated functionality already available in other systems while not addressing the organization’s most pressing needs.”

Does any of this sound familiar? 

Embarking on a digital transformation for your organization can be an exciting endeavor -- though it can be potentially costly. Getting it wrong can result in lots of sunk resources and a loss of trust in the organization (and in you). Taking a human-centered approach can help alleviate the risk of your transformation going sideways.

In any digital transformation, you’re dealing with three key components: the business, the technology, and the people. Each of these areas should be given relatively equal consideration, yet it’s often the people who get overlooked. By integrating your end users into the process from the beginning, you’re not only solving for the business impacts of your new technology but also solving for real pain points and challenges that real people face in your organization.  

A human-centered approach has the added benefit of getting buy-in from across the organization and laying the groundwork for change to smoothly unfold. According to a McKinsey report on change management, “to feel comfortable about change and to carry it out with enthusiasm, people must understand the role of their actions in the unfolding drama of the company’s fortunes and believe that it is worthwhile for them to play a part.” Asking for user input on the change that needs to be made -- through interviews, focus groups, surveys, ethnography, co-creation workshops, and other tools for gaining insight -- gives people an opportunity to have a stake in the proposed transformation and helps them see where they fit into the long-term vision.

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