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What is human-centered design?

This article has been vetted by University of Phoenix's editorial advisory committee. 
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Kathryn Uhles, Dean, College of Business and IT

Reviewed by Kathryn Uhles, MIS, MSP, Dean, College of Business and IT

At a glance

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How is human-centered design applied in business?

Human-centered design (HCD) is a design thinking method that puts people at the center of the creation, problem-solving and design process. It advocates for understanding people’s needs, desires and behaviors and then innovating solutions or products for them. Whether a business is creating a product or service from the ground up or focusing on product innovation and development, human-centered design can be a critical part of the process.

The concept has roots in the broader philosophy of design thinking, which involves approaching problems from a user-focused perspective. It’s a process of empathizing with users, defining their needs, ideating solutions, prototyping, testing and iterating. Human-centered design adds a layer of specificity, emphasizing a true understanding of users’ needs before designing solutions.

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Joseph Aranyosi
Associate Dean,  College of Business and Information Technology 

To get a better understanding of human-centered design in business, we sat down with Joseph Aranyosi, an associate dean of the College of Business and Information Technology at University of Phoenix.

Aranyosi explains: “HCD can be applied to any industry that delivers products or services; e.g., manufacturing, healthcare, finance. It’s most readily seen in software and technology, e.g., the iPhone, smartphone apps, but can also be applied to customer service, production processes, inventory management, banking and payment processes, etc.”


Human-centered design principles

To create an end product that truly resonates with users, HCD relies on the following core principles:

  1. Designing for the audience: Who are your users, what do they need and what are their pain points?
  2. Choosing the right problem to solve: Sometimes the problem you initially think needs solving isn’t the actual issue. HCD encourages the iterative redefinition of problems based on feedback.
  3. Thinking about the whole system: Consider the entire user journey and broader user experience, not just isolated pain points.
  4. Prototyping and testing the solution: You’ll constantly refine and enhance the solution based on honest user feedback.

Design-thinking principles ensure that designers are open to feedback and as adaptive as possible.

We also spoke with J.L. Graff, MBA, an associate dean of UOPX’s College of Business and Information Technology, to learn more about employing HCD. He advises to consider the following:

  • Will users be able to remember how to perform infrequent tasks?
  • Will users feel overloaded with tasks or information?
  • While resolving some errors and failures, will new errors and failures be created?
  • Users’ concerns and characteristics are not organized in the same manner as, for example, software programs and computer systems.

How does the human-centered design process work?

There is no one step-by-step approach for applying HCD, as each project is unique and has its own number of stages to progress through. However, a typical framework involves the following stages:


Inspiration comprises the initial research and understanding of user needs. Here, designers must learn more about what needs they’re trying to fulfill. A few critical steps in this process are:

  1. Conduct research: This could involve interviews, surveys, ethnographic studies or observation of users interacting with existing products or services.
  2. Define user needs and problems: This crucial step helps clarify a specific need and directs the design process.
  3. Brainstorm potential problems to solve: After you’ve defined user problems, look at them from different perspectives and think about new ways to approach them.
  4. Prioritize problems: After you have a list of possible issues to address, prioritize them. Consider the impact of solving each problem and how feasible it is to do so.

Once you’ve chosen your primary problem, it becomes the focus of your design efforts moving forward.


After identifying a problem worth solving, it’s time to brainstorm, prototype and refine. Here’s what this process might look like:

  1. Ideation: You’ll want as many ideas as possible, so explore techniques like mind mapping, sketching or role-playing.
  2. Selection of ideas: Evaluate each idea based on its potential impact, feasibility and alignment with user needs. Select the most promising ideas to take forward into the prototyping phase.
  3. Prototyping: Create a tangible representation of your ideas. This could be a sketch, 3D model, storyboard or a digital mock-up. The goal is to bring the solution to life in the simplest and quickest way possible so you can start testing.
  4. User testing: Put your prototype in users’ hands. Observe how they interact with it, ask them for their thoughts and feelings, and take note of difficulties they encounter.
  5. Refining and iterating: Make adjustments to address issues users encounter or to meet their needs better. Then, create a new prototype and test it again.

You’ll likely go through several prototyping, testing and refining cycles.


As you refine your prototype, revisit the earlier stages and adjust as needed. For instance, if you find that your product needs more features than you anticipated, go back and reevaluate your approach. You may need to redesign or add features to the existing prototype.

“HCD focuses on key features first and then explores additional features or refinements to existing features in later iterations; i.e., satisfy your core purpose really well and then refine or add to it in subsequent steps,” Aranyosi says.

Through this iterative process, you have to walk and rewalk through each stage in order to arrive at the right solution.


Examples of successful human-centered design in business

Here are a few areas where HCD has made a beneficial impact:

  1. Technology: At least one major technology brand makes impressive products that emphasize intuitive interfaces, elegant design and integrated ecosystems for a functional and pleasurable user experience.
  2. Retail: One online retailer has become the go-to platform for online shopping because it makes the process as easy and fast as possible for customers. From one-click ordering to detailed product reviews, user experience is at the forefront of this company’s business approach.
  3. Food delivery: A popular ride-share company created a component for their app that makes ordering food easier and faster than ever, allowing customers to pick their meals from various restaurants and pay through the app.

These examples demonstrate the power of human-centered design for a local and worldwide community.

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The role of collaboration in human-centered design

Human-centered design is a highly collaborative process that relies heavily on soft skills, such as teamwork, communication and empathy. Here’s why soft skills are so important:

  • Different people bring different ideas, insights and perspectives, helping to identify potential biases and blind spots.
  • Communication among team members is key for understanding user needs, generating ideas and creating a unified vision for the product or service.
  • Teamwork, scrum meetings and ongoing communication helps ensure everyone is aligned on the design process and helps move projects forward efficiently.

When a team works well together, they are well positioned to create solutions that genuinely resonate with users.

Challenges and limitations of human-centered design

Human-centered design is not without its challenges and limitations, including:

  • Biases: All humans are subject to cognitive biases, and designers are no exception. For instance, confirmation bias might cause a designer to pay more attention to user feedback that supports their preexisting assumptions while disregarding other equally valid but less familiar feedback. These biases can distort the design process and lead to solutions that don’t accurately reflect all users’ needs.
  • Resource constraints: HCD can be resource intensive. Small businesses or startups might find it challenging to allocate sufficient resources to fully implement HCD. It might also be difficult to quantify the return on investment for these activities, which can make it harder to justify them to stakeholders.
  • Resistance to change: Implementing HCD often involves a shift in mindset and practices for an organization. Some members might resist this change, especially if they’re used to more traditional, top-down decision-making.

While implementing HCD can be a long, difficult process, it’s worth the pursuit for a more comprehensive and useful solution or product.

Graff shares: “Research continues to show that nearly two-thirds of implementation efforts fail. While HCD does have its challenges and limitations, I believe that the time and effort of using HCD is worth the investment. For organizations facing resource constraints, which is a valid concern, I would only add that the absence of the human-centered design may result in increased training and support costs, increased stress, lower user satisfaction, and possibly a negative impact to the product/service quality and aesthetics.”

Earn a business degree from University of Phoenix

If you’re looking to learn more about HCD, Aranyosi notes that it’s taught in several business courses at UOPX, especially those involving project management. Learn more about flexible, online business programs with a fixed tuition at University of Phoenix. Here are several programs to consider:

  • Project Management Certificate (Undergraduate) — In this certificate program you’ll learn skills such as project planning, project performance, project implementation and coordination, and more.
  • Associate of Arts with a concentration in Business Fundamentals From management to accounting, skills learned in this program are essential for anyone looking to build an educational foundation in business. 
  • Bachelor of Science in Business In this program, skills taught include, learning how to integrate decision-making skills to address business needs, integrate business concepts and principles to advance organizational goals, analyze interrelationships among distinct functional areas of an organization, and analyze logistics involved in global business operations.
  • Bachelor of Science in Business with a Project Management Certificate — In this program, students take courses in inclusive leadership, principles of accounting, principles of macroeconomics, finance for business, business data analytics, marketing and more.
  • Master of Management Take your understanding of business organization and management to an advanced level. This degree program is great for those with experience in the workforce who are looking to take on greater leadership roles. 
  • Graduate Project Management Certificate — This graduate certificate program provides courses in project management, leadership and risk management, as well as courses in leading change, project quality management and project management capstone.
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A graduate of Johns Hopkins University and its Writing Seminars program and winner of the Stephen A. Dixon Literary Prize, Michael Feder brings an eye for detail and a passion for research to every article he writes. His academic and professional background includes experience in marketing, content development, script writing and SEO. Today, he works as a multimedia specialist at University of Phoenix where he covers a variety of topics ranging from healthcare to IT.


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