Human Centred Being: When Human Centred Design isn’t Enough

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The rise of human centred design

If you’re working in any kind of professional organisation, you’ve probably come across human centred design… Or design thinking, or experience design, or co-design, or service design or some other variation of design that your organisation has latched onto as its particular flavour of design related ‘buzz’.

I don’t really mind which one you use. The intent is what is important and in most cases, the intent is the same. Put people at the centre of your business, products, services, experiences and workplace. Design with their needs, motivations and desires in mind. To do that, understand them. This requires you to engage with them - not via quantitative data, but in ways that allow you to go deeper.

When I came across human centred design, back in my days working at Deloitte. I thought I’d discovered the best thing since sliced bread (with lots of butter, we all know bread on its own is no fun). ‘This stuff is amazing!’ I touted to anyone who’d listen. ‘It’s all about people!’ And it was. And it still is. But…

Are we just human centred doing?

Over my years of working in Human Centred Design, something has almost always felt a little off. In many of the projects I have led, the focus has always been on the doing.

Scope the project. Bring the consultant in. Do research with the customers/users/staff/citizens/students/members. Generate insights. Brainstorm ideas. Develop prototypes. Test. Iterate. Repeat.

In my case and context, this has been me ‘the consultant/designer’ coming in and doing the work. Trying to help an organisation take a more human centred approach to fixing or creating something to serve their audience. In other cases, this is often done by an internal team. In rare cases, it can be picked up by anyone in an organisation who has the skills, nous and permission. But in almost all cases, it is targeted at a ‘something’ a particular improvement, innovation or creation.

It is no secret being more human centred and focusing on people’s experience is becoming more and more important for any kind of organisation these days. And while doing human centred ‘stuff’ is definitely a step in the right direction, human centred doing will not shift the fabric of the way an organisation works.

Introducing human centred being

To really transform organisations to be more human centred, we need to change the paradigm from human centred doing, to human centred being.

Human centered being is both a verb and a noun. It can be something we enact, as well as something we become. While we might work towards it through projects, actions and doing, the end-game is not about a ‘thing’ (whether tangible like a product, or intangible like an experience or a service). The end game is how we behave. How we act, connect, interact, respond and so on.

To be human centred, people need to be human centred. Not just when they are thinking about it for a specific goal, but all the time. They need to live it, breathe it and embody it.

Encouraging human centred being

There are so many things we need to do to be human centred, but for today, let’s look at some of the things we really need to change. We need to:

  1. Decouple the idea of human centredness from ‘designing’. When it is always attached to the word design, it gives people an excuse not to participate. Design feels like something you need to learn. So if someone doesn’t feel they have the skills or the permission, it can be a licence for them to opt-out.

  2. Start teaching human centredness outside of processes. I’m talking things like the Double Diamond. Human centredness doesn’t just happen over time, or over the course of a project. It can happen in the tiniest of moments, in individual behaviours, across cultures. You can’t always fit these things into a process.

  3. Begin to empower all individuals to tap into their innate capacity for human centredness, don’t just teach tools and methods. I honestly believe being human centred is something we can all access without the need for anything fancy. Tools and methods have their place, but we actually know this stuff deep down. After all, we are human.

  4. Explore and embrace our own humanness. Being human centred is not something you do to someone, it requires a reciprocal relationship. One human understanding and responding to the needs of another human. So to do this, we need to be able to connect to ourselves and others openly. This requires us to be willing to feel, express and tap into our emotions. The good and the bad.

This does not mean we have to stop designing. Human centred design in all its different forms can be an incredible way to create better products and services, better organisations, better societies and a better world. But we can’t do it with design alone. The kind of change we need in our world to really make a meaningful impact requires us to look at how we all show up as humans in life and work every day.