Experience design

The ultimate guide to Human Centred Design (HCD) and how it can help you achieve any business goal.

This is our ultimate guide to Human Centred Design (HCD).

Design thinking is all about taking a step back, looking at problems with empathy and designing prototypes, testing those prototypes, and using feedback to iterate solutions.

By implementing a Human-Centred Design (HCD) approach, you are actively involving people in your design process, gathering feedback and insights from them, and using that information to inform and shape the final design.

First, let’s take a looks at some components of product and service design.

What is Human Centred Design?

Human-centered design is a design approach that focuses on creating products, services, and experiences. It’s all about focussing on the needs, wants, and goals of your customers (or staff).

It’s not your idea – you become the facilitator and the people create the idea.

HCD can help your business in many ways:

  1. Better customer satisfaction:
    By focusing on the needs and preferences of users, human-centered design can help create products and services that are more tailored to their needs, leading to higher levels of satisfaction.
  2. More efficient:
    By gathering feedback and insights from users throughout the design process, businesses can identify and address potential problems and limitations in their designs before they become issues. This can lead to more efficient and effective products and services.
  3. More innovative:
    By involving people in your design process, businesses can tap into a wealth of ideas and insights that can help drive innovation and new product development.
  4. Better customer loyalty:
    By creating products and services that are designed with the needs and preferences of users in mind, businesses can build strong relationships with their customers, leading to increased loyalty.

Usually HCD relies on using ‘methods’ or standardised technique to help you gain empathy and guide your customers through the design process. For example, if you’re building an app that’s designed for the elderly population, you might want to explore how vision-impairment impacts your app design.

Human Centred Design is critical in many aspects of building a business:

  1. Consumer products:
    HCD can be used to design consumer products such as smartphones, appliances, and home goods. For example, a company might conduct user research to gather insights on how people use their smartphones, and use that information to design a phone with features that better meet their needs.
  2. Experiences:
    HCD can be used to design physical spaces such as retail stores, offices, and public parks. For example, a retail store might conduct user research to understand how customers shop and what they are looking for, and use that information to design a store layout and product displays that are more intuitive and appealing to customers.
  3. Digital products:
    HCD can also be applied to the design of digital products such as websites, mobile apps, and software. For example, a company might conduct user research to understand how people use their website, and use that information to design a more user-friendly website with features that better meet their needs.
  4. Customer Service:
    HCD can also be used to design services such as healthcare, banking, or transportation. For example, a healthcare organization might conduct user research to understand the needs and preferences of patients, and use that information to design a more patient-centered healthcare experience.

A crucial part of the HCD process is interviewing customers, observing their behaviours and understanding not only how they use your product, but the other things they do in their everyday lives.

For example, are your customers distracted with family duties (do you need to send SMS reminders because your customers are busy), do they have any fears or desires which impact the way they interact with your product (e.g. beauty products and services) and do they do what they say they do?

What is Design Thinking?

Design thinking is all about your approach: what are the tools and techniques that you use to design products and solutions for your customers? It tells the process you go through.

Design thinking is a problem-solving approach that involves a set of methods and techniques for creatively and systematically approaching complex problems or challenges.

I’s a way of thinking and working that is centered around the needs, wants, and limitations of people, and it emphasizes the importance of creating solutions that are both functional and desirable.

Of course, Design Thinking can be used in a many different contexts, from product design to business strategy to social impact.

It is a flexible and adaptable approach that can be applied to a wide range of problems and challenges, and it is often used in conjunction with other design methodologies, such as human-centered design or lean startup.

Critically, there are five key steps to Design Thinking approach:

  1. Empathy:
    Understand the needs, wants, and limitations of the people who will be using the product or service. This can involve conducting user research, gathering feedback, and observing people in their natural environments.
  2. Define:
    It’s important that you understand what type of problem you’re trying to solve. Before you start, you should clearly define the problem or challenge that needs to be addressed, using insights and information you gather from your customers.
  3. Ideation:
    This is the fun part. Generate a wide range of ideas for potential solutions to the problem or challenge. This can involve brainstorming sessions, sketching, prototyping, and other techniques.
  4. Prototyping:
    Create a physical or digital representation of one or more of the ideas generated in the ideate phase. This can be a low-fidelity prototype (such as a sketch or wireframe) or a high-fidelity prototype (such as a functional prototype or mockup).
  5. Testing:
    Gather feedback on the prototypes from users or other stakeholders, and use that feedback to refine and improve the design.

What is Service Design?

Service Design looks at a very specific part of the customer journey. It’s about mapping the different touchpoints and looking at the different ways a customer experiences your product or service.

Service design, on the other hand, is a design discipline that specifically focuses on designing and improving the experiences of people interacting with a service.

It can involve designing all aspects of a service, including the physical space in which it is delivered, the interactions between service providers and users, the systems and processes that support the service, and the communication channels through which it is delivered.

Imagine your business has a call centre, you might use service design to map out the experience for different types of enquiries that your customers might call the contact centre about, or the different departments that they speak with who are involved at every step of the way.

Fortunately, with service design, there’s usually quite a lot of insights available. Calls centres usually have call recordings, so it’s easy to inspect and observe the customer’s interactions.

Also, service design is a bit harder to overcome, because unlike tangible products, customers can have completely different service experiences, depending who they speak with in your organisation.

Getting frontline staff involved in service design processes is critical, because they speak with customers everyday, and know exactly what does and doesn’t work.

What are some HCD techniques?

There’s a lot of techniques which are useful to help your teams and your customers design a solution.

Method 1. Interviewing

Experience design is all about understanding people, their behaviours, wants, needs and desires.

One of the best methods of research is to conduct an interview because it helps you to get information directly from the person – not relying on electronic surveys or forms.

Interviews also help you to eliminate bias and deepens your empathy for others. You might think your customers want one thing, but during an interview you may observe their behaviours or things they say which contradict their behaviours.

Types of interview

There are generally two types of interviews you can conduct for experience design research:

  • General: understand people, their lives, needs, wants and desires and worldview with ethnographic research
  • Specific: learn about how people interact and experience a specific product or service by exploring specific interactions

Before the interview

  1. Set the topic: Do you know exactly what you need to find out about a specific product or service, or do you just want to understand a general population and their purchase motivations?
  2. Set a time: Generally allow 60 minutes, but prepare to talk for 45 minutes
  3. Set a location: For general ethnographic research, it’s best to interview in the person’s usual surroundings – for example their home, school, or workplace. Otherwise, select a location with minimal distractions.
  4. Select interviewees: Be mindful that if you are reimbursing an interviewee for their time (e.g. providing cash or a free product), that their feedback or insights may not always be genuine if their motivation is to receive payment. It’s best to get feedback from interviewees who are willing to do it for free – these are people who are most passionate about your product or service and provide the best insights.
  5. Recording equipment and documentation: It’s best to record the conversation, as there are things you will miss when writing notes. The more simple the recording equipment (e.g. iPhone), the more relaxed the interviewee will be. Using expensive, high definition equipment can make the interviewee feel like they need to be too composed and scripted with their responses.

During the interview

  1. Introduce yourself and where you are from, to build trust.
  2. If necessary, sign any Talent Release forms – especially if you are recording the interview.
  3. Let the interviewee know that you will record the conversation, simply to help you with your notes, and you may play the recording to your colleagues who aren’t able to be present at the interview, help them relax that you’re not going to publish the recording online.
  4. Begin with open questions, to get to understand the person: “Tell me about your home/work/school life”.
  5. Then ask deeper questions: “What would help to make things easier when you are travelling to work” etc.
  6. Take notes constantly, it’s OK to keep your eyes on your page taking notes while the interviewee is talking.
  7. If you’re conducting in-placement research (at home/work/school) and the interviewee mentions something, it’s ideal to ask them to show you – “Would you have that available to show me, or after we finish the interview?” so you can see exactly what they are talking about. A really good example was once a person mentioned about how their most valuable possession was their bike and if it was stolen with would really impact their life. However, after asking them to show where they keep their bike, it was left out the front of their house, without any locks or other security – clearly showing that they didn’t protect their bike as much as they said they did.
  8. At the end, thank them for their time.
  9. Afterwards, make sure you collect your notes about what you observed or any extra comments the interviewee made once the recording stopped – they’ll often tell you more things as you’re saying goodbye. Then, listen to the recording again to capture any additional things you may have missed in your notes.

Best practices

  • Avoid putting words into the interviewee’s mouth – say things like: “Tell me about…” or “How did that make you feel” NOT “Did that make you feel happy/sad/etc?”
  • If you are an employee of a specific brand, product or service that you want insights about, then begin by letting the interviewee know that you are from another team or department that works separately from the team that manages the product or service – this lets them relax and provide honest feedback or recommendations. Otherwise they may be simply tell you what they think you want to hear.
  • If there are long periods of silence, do not try to fill it with more questions, if you leave enough silence, the interviewee will often tell you something interesting that you may not have expected them to share.
  • Be mindful that what people say they would do vs what they did are completely different. Always ask “Can you tell me about a time when you did ..” NOT “What would you do if..”

Method 2. Journey Mapping

There’s no easy way to understand your customer experience, but journey maps can help you gain empathy and identify opportunities to improve the experience.

What are journey maps?

Customer Journey Maps are visual representations of a customer’s experience. 

By mapping the customer journey, you can uncover insights and pain-points, which makes it easier to prioritise improvements.

What you need

An effective customer journey map includes:

  • Stages – the level of engagement with your brand
  • Touchpoints – when a customer interacts with your brand
  • Stories – what they experience at each touchpoint
  • Emotions – how they feel throughout the journey
  • Activities – how they interact with your brand

Method 3. Affinity Clustering

If you’ve got a lot of feedback from customers, you can start to see trends really quickly if you use sticky notes and build an affinity diagram.

Affinity clustering, also known as affinity diagramming or some might know it as the ‘KJ’ method, is a technique used in design thinking and problem-solving to organize and analyze large amounts of information or ideas.

It’s often used to help teams find patterns and relationships, and to get insights and ideas.

  1. Get data:
    Collect data or ideas from a variety of sources, such as user research, brainstorming sessions, or existing documentation.
  2. Sort sticky notes:
    Sort the data or ideas into groups or categories based on their relevance or similarity. This can be done individually or as a team, using post-it notes or other visual tools to organize the data.
  3. Cluster and label: Combine similar groups or categories into larger clusters, and give each cluster a label that describes its main theme or focus.
  4. Review and revise:
    Review the clusters and labels to ensure that they accurately reflect the data or ideas, and make any necessary revisions.
  5. Analyse and find insights:
    Analyse the clusters and labels to identify patterns, trends, and relationships, and use those insights to generate ideas or solutions to the problem or challenge at hand.

Method 4. ‘How Might We’ statements

Most of the time, HCD helps us to redefine our problem.

If your boss comes to you and asks ‘We need to increase sales’ or ‘We need to reduce cancellations’ – that is your opportunity to rephrase the problem.

Many people go about designing products or services based upon what they personally think is the right solution. A biased solution is never the best solution. One of the biggest problems is to build a solution that doesn’t meet the customer’s needs or wants. 

“How might we” (HMW) statements are a tool commonly used in human-centered design (HCD) to frame a design challenge or problem in a way that is open-ended and solution-focused.

They’re often used for brainstorming sessions or other ideation activities, and are designed to help teams generate a wide range of ideas and solutions.

A “how might we” statement typically starts with the phrase “How might we,” followed by the problem or challenge that needs to be solved. For example:

  • “How might we design a product that is more engaging?”
  • “How might we improve the customer experience in our retail stores?”
  • “How might we make it easier for people to access our online services?”

“How might we” statements are designed to be inclusive and collaborative, encouraging teams to think creatively and consider a range of potential solutions.

It’s often used in the early stages of the design process, when teams are seeking to understand the needs and preferences of users and identify potential areas for improvement.

Before you can create a project plan or start building prototypes, you need to first understand your problem.


If you don’t first take the time to understand your problem, you may waste all of your time building a project plan and researching customer needs when you don’t actually know what you’re trying to solve.

Getting the right problem statement helps you to make sure you’re maximising impact and building solutions for problems that actually need solving.

“How do we give customers the best mobile experience so they can connect with friends and family?”
“How do we increase mobile phone sales?”

Method 5. Speak with your customers

To really understand your customers, you need to immerse yourself in their world, understand what motivates them – their needs, wants and desires.

Understanding empathy is crucial to building a solution that your customers will desire and want to use.

The best way to understand your customers needs, desires, fears and opinions is to directly speak with them. Even better, spend a day walking in their shoes, understanding what motivates them and their pain-points.

Relying on verbatim feedback and commentary from friends, family, surveys or research online is simply not enough.

Speak with potential customers

Calling or meeting your customers to understand why they do the things they do will help you to create a solution that the customer actually needs or wants. 

  • Telephone: Call your customers asking them why they purchased your product or used your service.
  • Interviews: Invite a small sample of customers for a one-on-one interview asking about their purchase behaviours, what motivates them to understand their fears and desires.
  • Immersion: The best way to understand a customer is to immerse yourself in their lives or communities – you can see how they make decisions and gain deeper empathy.

Method 6. Building prototypes

Have you heard people in research and design teams talk about MVP?

They’re not talking about ‘Most Valuable Player’.
They are talking about ‘Minimum Viable Product’.

When you start to design your solution, you want to make sure it meets the needs of your customers.

However, you don’t want to spend too much time building a solution, especially if you aren’t sure it’s actually what your customers want.

If you really want to create a product or service that meets your customer needs, you need to build prototypes. Unfinished and ugly prototypes.

A prototype is not your actual product, it shouldn’t look like a final product, and it shouldn’t be your Minimum Viable Product (MVP).

An MVP is a product or service that has the minimum set of features required to test a hypothesis about how users will interact with and benefit from it.

The goal of an MVP is to get feedback from real users as quickly as possible in order to validate or invalidate the hypothesis and inform the next steps in the design process.

MVPs are often used to test prototypes or early versions of a product or service with a small group of target users. Designers can gather valuable insights about what works and what doesn’t work for users, and use this information to iterate and improve the design.

This means you can avoid investing a lot of time and resources into a product or service that may not meet the needs or expectations of users.

If your prototype looks pretty, you’ve done it wrong.

You can build a prototype using lego or cardboard. Or Powerpoint. It’s that simple.


If you make your prototype look perfect, when you ask your customers for feedback they will inadvertently give criticism about the design and aesthetics, which is what you don’t want.

  • Create a wireframe for websites – a black and white prototype of the layout of your website.
  • Use placeholders where logos and branding will appear – your solution should focus on the functionality, not the design

An example

Imagine you’re building a website. You could spend hours and hours building and designing the colours and the fonts and the animations. At the end of it, your customers might still complain “I couldn’t find the thing I needed”. Instead, you could build an MVP wireframe, a black-and-white prototype of your website, with the basic navigation and the information or process your customer is looking for.

Digital tools to help you get started

If you need some help to get started, here’s some of our recommended tools and prototyping software.

  • Miro — The online collaborative whiteboard platform to bring teams together, anytime, anywhere.
  • Sketch — Sketch gives you all the tools you need for a truly collaborative design process. From early ideas to pixel-perfect artwork, playable prototypes and developer handoff.
  • Moqups — Make wireframes, mockups, diagrams, charts, and prototypes within one creative context.
  • Figma — Figma connects everyone in the design process so teams can deliver better products, faster.
  • UXPin — Meet UXPin Merge. The innovative tech powering code-based design.
  • InVision — Invision is a design collaboration and prototyping tool that helps teams create and share interactive prototypes of their designs.
  • Mockup.io — Mockup.io is an online platform that helps you create stunning visuals for websites, apps, and more. It’s easy to use and provides a library of templates, icons, and illustrations to help you create beautiful designs quickly.
  • MockFlow — Online whiteboard for brainstorming user interfaces with your team
  • Mockingbird — GoMockingbird is an online tool that helps you quickly create interactive wireframes and prototypes for websites and mobile apps. It’s easy to use and lets you collaborate with others in real-time.
  • Mockup Machine — Use Mockup Machine services to design online mockups, wireframes, UX/UI mockups, software mockups, and prototypes.
  • Fluid UI — Fluid UI is a web-based prototyping tool that helps you create interactive mobile and web prototypes quickly and easily. It has a drag-and-drop interface, a library of UI elements, and a range of collaboration features.
  • Mockup Builder — MockupBuilder is an online design tool that helps you create stunning visuals for websites, apps, and more. It’s easy to use and offers a wide range of features to help you create professional-looking designs quickly and easily.
  • Proto.io — Build interactive web, iOS, Android, and other low or high-fidelity prototypes right into your web browser. Drag and drop ready-to-use, easily customizable templates, UI components, icons, and more, to prototype in minutes! No coding skills required.
  • LucidChart — Lucidchart is the intelligent diagramming application that brings teams together to make better decisions and build the future.
  • HotGloo — HotGloo is a UX, wireframe and prototyping tool designed to build wireframes for web, mobile and wearables.
  • Canva — Canva makes it easy to create professional designs and to share or print them.
  • Mockplus — The all-in-one product design platform for prototyping, collaboration, and creating design systems. Mockplus helps you create better design experience faster and easier
  • Marvel App — The collaborative design platform. Wireframe, prototype, user test, design and inspect designs in one place, for free.
  • UXtweak — Conduct qualitative UX study as your users complete specific tasks, directly on your live web. Try it for free now!
  • Adobe XD — Adobe XD is a vector-based user experience design tool for web apps and mobile apps, developed and published by Adobe Inc.
  • Axure RP — The most powerful way to plan, prototype and handoff to developers, all without code. Download a free trial and see why UX professionals choose Axure RP.
  • Balsamiq — Balsamiq is the company behind Balsamiq Wireframes, the industry standard low-fidelity wireframing tool.
  • Webflow — Build your site for free and take as long as you need.
  • Flinto — Flinto is a powerful design tool that helps you create interactive prototypes for mobile, desktop, and web apps.
  • ProtoPie — Build better products with our realistic & no-code prototyping tool. Ideal for all designers, UX researchers, and developers.
  • LucidSpark — The virtual whiteboard that connects teams so they can bring their best ideas to life
  • JustInMind — Easily create web and mobile app prototypes and wireframes with Justinmind UI prototyping tool.
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