The Tailwinds of Human-Centered Design in 2020 and Beyond – Disruptor League

by Greg Heist, Chief Innovation Officer, Gongos, Inc.

“No. I don’t think the Empire had Wookies in mind when they designed it, Chewie.” – Han Solo to Chewbacca about the Tydirium Imperial Shuttle they’re flying

While we can forgive the Galactic Empire for not factoring the needs of Wookies into Imperial Shuttles (it was after all, long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away), modern corporations no longer have that luxury.

The shifting sands of competition and the elusive quest for brand “stickiness” only amplifies the critical need for Human-Centered Design (HCD) as a core growth strategy. In light of this, it’s also not surprising that the emergence of this discipline continues to gain traction as a centerpiece of designing human experiences.

I’d like to first point out that HCD embodies a broad array of types of innovations – from user experience (UX) and customer experience (CX) to product design and packaging. And while oftentimes HCD and design thinking find themselves cohabitating under the same roof, design thinking is a technique that you execute against to arrive at a given solution—of which one of them could be great design.

As with any industry trend, it’s also an excellent time to take a step back and look at HCD and ask, “Is Human-Centered Design actually just a rage du jour or does it truly have staying power?”

Based on several powerful and enduring cultural ‘currents,’ I believe there are three reasons to believe that Human-Centered Design will continue to gain traction and prosper as we approach 2020 and a new decade:

  1. Consumers increasingly crave great design
  2. Great design is now the great differentiator
  3. Human-Centered Design is an antidote to life’s complexities

Let’s explore each of these, in turn, to understand their potential impact on the influence Human-Centered Design will have in the future.

Consumers increasingly crave great design

“Design advantage is the primary difference between a $300 laptop and a $2,000 one.” –  Emerson Stone

While we live in the Age of Data, we equally live in the Era of Design. While this era has to some degree been present for a long time, the launch of the iconic iPhone marked a key tipping point. Under the leadership of Steve Jobs, the iPhone marked a singular and remarkable technological achievement. Never had a product with such technological power and sophistication been married with such a beautifully simple and elegant user experience.

The smartphone revolution has not only revolutionized a product category. It has created a deep cultural imprint of the importance of a truly human-centered approach to interacting with technology itself. The reverberations of this revolution can be felt in experiences and settings far removed from the smartphone. Slowly but surely, we collectively expect design to be a part of our experience with products and services we use on a daily basis. Whether it’s walking into a store, browsing a website, taking delivery of something or opening a package, the game has changed. Consumers expect more…and value great design as a result. In this new world, Human-Centered Design is no longer “nice to have.” It’s central to the ultimate success or failure of any innovation.

Great design is now the great differentiator

“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” – Steve Jobs.

In the world of 2020 and beyond, creating designs that are centered around human needs and the ways in which we use various products and services is increasingly becoming the cost of entry. No longer do corporations have the luxury of putting a product on the market that promises great benefits alone.

As recently discussed, consumers increasingly value their experience with a brand and its product. The battle lines for corporations fighting for the hearts and minds of consumers are increasingly defined in these terms. Central to human experience is design, both in the traditional sense as well as in the application of Human-Centered Design.

Applied in this light, great design resulting from a human-centered approach creates differentiation in more than just the product, package, or specific service. Instead, it creates differentiation by merit of the ways it weaves together a broad array of customer touchpoints into a meaningfully different experience of the brand itself. Being able to design experiences that transcend traditional notions of product, service, and channel is the key to unlocking a uniquely 21st century way to create meaningful distinction.

Starbucks was an early pioneer in this field, making a multimillion-dollar investment in defining and designing their entire brand experience. In applying this broad lens to their human-centered innovation efforts, Starbucks was able to design an experience that seamlessly weaved together the sights, sounds, and aromas of the in-store environment with the selection and taste of menu items paired with a range of digital content, experiences, and capabilities that allowed Starbucks to truly differentiate itself. In a world where coffee shops are ubiquitous, Starbucks stands as a titan in the space, in large part due to the role human-centered innovation played in creating a truly unique brand experience.

Human-Centered Design is an antidote to life’s complexities

“Design is the intermediary between information and understanding.” – Hans Hofmann

While it’s a cliché to say that life is increasingly complex, it’s also the reality in which we live. The explosion of data, information, and digital stimuli we are exposed each day far outpaces our brain’s capacity to make sense of it all. Research shows that we process more than 34 gigabytes of information every day. That equates to reading over 174 newspapers per day. And, this represents a 500% increase over a 25-year period.

While our brains can partially process this daily deluge of information, it comes at a hefty cost: we are less capable of separating the trivial from the essential. Unable to make this distinction, the neurons in our brain are stressed, contributing to the fatigue we often feel at day’s end. This is clearly a modern and human-centered dilemma. And fortunately, it’s also a challenge that Human-Centered Design can provide an antidote to.

Great design is ultimately about distilling the essence of what is being created, or, as Antoine de Saint-Exupery stated, “A designer knows he has achieved perfection, not when there is anything else to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

Human-Centered Design is critical in achieving design’s promise, since the process itself is focused on uncovering the essential core of the problem and ensuring it is carried through to what is ultimately created. The Nest Thermostat is a brilliant example of this, fusing a radically more powerful set of capabilities with a more simplified, elegant design and user experience.

In light of these three truisms, it’s clear that Human-Centered Design has the potential to arm organizations with powerful capabilities to sustainably grow and prosper. From a strategic perspective, corporations can also feel confident that HCD isn’t just a passing fad. Rather, it embodies a competency worth investing in, both now and into the future.