Introduction to Human Centred Design podcast episode transcript


In episode one of the Reimagined Workforce podcast, I provided a very brief explanation of why we need to transform our workforces so we can not only survive, but thrive today and tomorrow.

This requires some creative thinking, to allow ourselves to dream a little and stop ourselves from thinking we can’t and allow ourselves to think what if we can.

In our next episode, I speak with Ian Arnold about his approach to Human Centred Design which is a methodology that can be used to drive innovation to solve to complex problems. In large government organisations where Ian and I have worked for several years, these complex problems are so difficult to solve, they are often referred to as ‘wicked’ problems.

Essentially, a wicked problem is one that:

  • Is difficult to define
  • Is unique
  • Is socially complex
  • Has multiple causes and interdependencies, meaning you might ‘fix’ one problem but that will have an effect on another
  • Is never completely solved
  • Has solutions that are better or worse, not right or wrong
  • Sits outside organisational boundaries.

Human centred design is a social technology that brings a diverse group of people together to immerse them in a problem so they can empathise with those experiencing it. This brings an emotional connection that motivates people to solve it.

The intention of hcd is to find an implementable solution that improves people’s experience. There are additional benefits that are realised as participants develop knowledge, gain deeper understanding of their customers and are often profoundly changed by their own experience.

The beauty of hcd lies in it’s ability to stimulate generation of new ideas while overcoming intrinsic biases and habits that can limit innovation by exploring the validity of unspoken and unconscious biases.

Human centred design assumes that the people facing the problem are in the best position to solve it. When selecting participants, it is critical to gather a diverse group of people who genuinely care about the outcome to bring multiple perspectives, knowledge and expertise.

The HCD consultancy IDEO claims the value of human centred design is found at the intersection of the solution’s feasibility, viability and desirability. They believe that if a solution meets these three criteria, it will deliver sustainable value for those facing the problem, the organisations invested in delivering the solution and their customers.

HCD relies on a blend of analytical and creative thinking which requires ambidexterity to move fluidly between exploration and exploitation of ideas.

In episode 6, Ian mentions the double diamond. This is a relatively simple depiction of the human centred design methodology, but there are others that provide a little more detail that might also be useful.

I shall provide some links in the show notes for this episode for those that would like to explore this further. They all apply similar steps and when you understand why they are used, you will be able to determine when to apply them.

This allows hcd to become a flexible process to meet the needs as they evolve. This is important because you are dealing with humans and their emotions and will need to constantly be gauging how they are feeling to determine the next best step. Personally, I love being involved in human centred design because what you work on really matters. It brings a sense of purpose, meaning and shared connection and often results in making positive changes to many people’s lives.

I will explain a little more about the process here and attempt to bring it to life by exploring one of the workforce challenges facing Healthcare that Alicia Cook mentioned in episode 2. I have elected to explore Alicia’s comments around university placements being demand driven based on the number of people wanting to study courses and her suggestion that we may be better served if university places were based on the likely workforce demand for people with that expertise in the future.

If you were establishing a human centred design process to explore an innovative solution to this complex problem, you might include past, present and future students, university academics, government policy makers, teachers and healthcare organisations.

So let’s explore this example using the double diamond.

The double diamond is exactly as it sounds, two diamonds lying side by side.

The diamond on the left represents the problem and the one on the right is the solution.

The diamond is used because it illustrates movement from divergent through to convergent thinking.

ICreating a shared vision

Although it isn’t reflected in the double diamond, when starting a project with a new group of participants, I find it is useful to start by creating a shared vision for a better future.

If we use our university places example, a future vision might be that every student seeking to contribute to healthcare is able to explore options that, when implemented, will lead to meaningful and fulfilling careers. This is a very simple example, but let’s go with it for now.

To help create the shared vision, use prompting questions to encourage participants to dig deep into what it is they care about and are motivated by. You might ask them:

  • What is your ideal future?
  • Why do you care about the number of university degrees being offered?
  • What are your concerns?
  • What are your hopes?

Open discussion between participants and collaboratively derive a vision for what the group intends to achieve that is mutually beneficial for participants, the organisation they work for and the people they serve

I find that if people have a shared vision for what they want to create, their hearts and minds are invested and it is much easier to engage them in the hcd process.

Problem : Divergent

In the problem phase, your role is to facilitate divergent thinking to encourage participants to empathise with the people they are designing for. This is achieved by providing participants with quantitative and qualitative data to immerse them in the user experience.

A warning, this can be confronting and uncomfortable for participants who have been identified as people who care about what they do.

As a facilitator you will need to empathise with participants by constantly monitoring how they are responding to adjust your approach and walk the delicate balance between making people uncomfortable enough to be motivated to change and losing them because they feel judged, incompetent or helpless to solve a problem which is by definition unsolvable.

Be mindful that your participants are likely to fear failure which may inhibit their participation. Remind them that failure is an essential part of the process and the only way we can bring innovative ideas to reality.

Structure and process will be your friends here as they will provide participants with the guardrails within which they can operate. Remind people that it is normal to feel uncomfortable at this stage, but that the benefits will outweigh the discomfort when a better solution is found that ultimately improves the lives of people they care about.

Case studies of successful human centred design projects that achieved similar outcomes to the vision the group have established can be helpful. It’s a little bit of nudge theory to say, ‘hey they did it, we can too!’

Continuing on our education example, we might provide participants with quantitative data on the number of university places vs the number of jobs, the number of students who do not complete, the number of graduates who leave the professional within a few years, the average time spent working in the studies profession.

This is a good start, but it needs to be brought to life.

Ethnographic research gathers qualitative data by observing and interacting with subjects in their real-world environments. It is uses in human centred design to better understand the experience of users facing the problem that the group are intending to solve.

Qualitative data can be gathered through observation, focus groups, interviews and storytelling to gain an appreciation for what the user is experiencing to understand the impact the situation is having at an individual level.

So, for the university student who successfully completed a qualification but was unable to secure a position, how did they feel, what were the costs and consequences, what do they wish was different, what could have been done to avoid them being in the position they find themselves in now, what would they like to be done for them now?

A gallery walk can be a useful way to present both quantitative and qualitative data to participants. This might include a several photos of individuals, statements they have made, journey maps and visualisations of the problem from their perspective.

Participants are asked to walk through the gallery and imagine themselves in the same experience. This is likely to evoke emotions but also drive motivation to deliver a better solution.

A gallery walk can be conducted in person using large format printing and post-it notes, or it can be conducted remotely using collaboration tools like miro or slido.

What is most important in the divergent phase of the problem diamond is to ask participants to avoid trying to find solutions, but rather to allow time for contemplation to better understand the experience of the person they are designing for and how it might be improved.

As humans, we have a natural tendency to want to find a solution and often we will go with the first solution that comes to mind rather than explore other options to determine which might work best.

If solutions do arise throughout the problem definition phase you might like to keep a record for later, but avoid exploring them until the problem is defined.

Remaining in the discovery phase can be uncomfortable because participants who are most likely used to being time poor will want to forge ahead. The facilitator needs to help participants feel comfortable with discomfort so they can further explore the problem to uncover the root cause.

For our education example, there will be a plethora of problems. It might be the economic cost of education that does not translate to any real value, it might be the psychological cost to the individual that derives from feelings of inadequacy, it might be the opportunity cost of not having a qualified workforce to meet workforce demand. This is just a start, there will be many more.

Problem: Converge

Once the problem has been fully explored, the group needs to narrow down what the underlying cause might be by moving from divergent to convergent thinking.

This point can feel a little overwhelming as there will be a large volume of information to draw on for insights and participants may be unclear about how to tackle it.

The best approach here is to group concepts with similar characteristics into themes. This makes the task feel manageable and positive outcomes feel achievable.

What is absolutely critical here is that the group reach a consensus on what the root cause of the problem is, based on their analysis of their immersion. This way, the solutions that are developed in the next phase will be sustainable. If solutions only address symptoms of a problem, they will not be effective in the long term as the root cause will remain and the problem will persist.

Once the problem definition is agreed, you can develop a design brief that includes a set of assumptions about what is true that have been proven or disproven during the problem phase.

This provides clarity and direction to the group as they move to designing and developing solutions.

For our university example, and can I remind you, this is fictitious. Let’s imagine for a moment that the root cause of the problem was determined to be the degree of specialisation for a healthcare professional. This may limit the job opportunities for degree qualified individuals who have a range of valuable skills and knowledge but not the full complement required. Can you see that this problem definition leads itself to different solutions than you might derive from a problem definition that merely focussed on the number of positions available?

Solution: Divergent

We are now in the solution phase.

In my opinion, this is where the fun begins.

After what can feel like an eternity of analysing all that is wrong with our current state, we allow people to move to collaborative solution design.

Trust me, this is a far more enjoyable experience where the creative juices start flowing and possibility and hope abound. We are back in our comfort zones as humans who want to make the world a better place by finding solutions to problems. And because we worked through the problem phase, we can be confident we are addressing the right problem.

As with the problem diamond, we need people to engage in divergent thinking first, to explore the full spectrum of possibilities for how the defined problem might be solved.

Here it is important that when we dream about what might be, there are no constraints. In this world we are reimagining, time, money and resources are limitless and real or perceived barriers can be overcome.

To generate ideas, start with any of the ideas you may have recorded during the problem phase and use a range of brainstorming techniques to build on those. This can be conducted in person or online. You might like to encourage people to come up with as many ideas as possible on their own and then share them with the group. Allow enough time for participants to go beyond the obvious.

Encourage participants to be introspective and monitor their own thoughts as they move through this process to identify their own underlying assumptions and biases so they can be addressed as part of the process.

When generating ideas, quantity is more important than quality so remind participants of the need for psychological safety and never allow a person to be judged, only an idea. Recognise people for their contribution, not for the ideas themselves.

Ask participants to do away with ‘that’s how we have always done it’ thinking and reimagine a new tomorrow that is better than today.

Reinforce the vision throughout this process to maintain motivation and engagement.

Ask participants to identify and share any barriers they perceive to bringing these ideas to reality to explore whether they are real and if so, can be removed or reduced.

Remind participants that they are part of a diverse group and there is a heightened possibility that someone in the group may be able to break down barriers, so better that they are shared so this might be possible.

For our university example, let’s imagine that one idea might be to adapting courses so they have broader application. Because we are operating in a complex environment with multiple and diverse stakeholders, this may raise awareness to factors that may not have been previously known to all. This was something Alicia alluded to that is a very real possibility. This may mean that an idea is genuinely not be possible you become aware of a new barrier to proceeding. If this occurs, it may be necessary to return to the problem phase and reflect on the problem definition, taking this new information into consideration.

Solution: Convergent

So moving to the convergent phase of the solution diamond.

As ideas are generated, help participants to develop simplified versions of the proposed solution called prototypes. Prototypes enhance the fidelity of an idea to be tested to inform how it might be iteratively improved.  

Some examples of prototypes might include detailed storyboards, physical resources, sketches, wireframes, role plays, models but there are many more.

Proof of concept experiments can demonstrate value on a small scale without the need to invest too heavily.

Build feedback mechanisms into the process to gather insights from all participants and end users to inform solution design enhancements.  As participants are all working toward the same vision that is something they care about, feedback is more likely to add value to the final solution.

Throughout the process, ideas that are deemed feasible, viable and desirable should be developed and explored further while others can be discarded.

Ensure outcomes can be measured

Generating, prototyping, testing and evaluating ideas is an iterative process that inevitably eliminates options until an ideal solution is found.

So in conclusion, HCD is not a strictly linear process. You will need to use your instinct, expertise and judgement to move fluidly between phases where appropriate.

I would suggest that anyone who is new to human centred design could develop a better understanding by engaging in the process as a participant. This will not only expose you to the practice in action, it will also provide you with a real life user experience that you can draw on when facilitating a project yourself.

As with everything we discuss on the Reimagined Workforce podcast, there is not much more to say but I will leave it here for now.

Thanks for making it to the end of this podcast. I absolutely love bringing these episodes to you and have to admit to getting a lot of pleasure from the positive feedback people send through. It definitely makes the effort with it and I really hope it helps you to help others.

Take care and I hope you have a super creative day.

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