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When might human-centred design work less well?

As we saw in the previous step, human-centred design might not always be the right solution for solving a problem.

Designing to specifications

If you’re trying to create a technical or mechanical system that has to behave in very specific ways, such as a new car engine, focusing on people might not help improve your design. An approach using expert knowledge, analysis and engineering techniques would be better, but you would still prototype and test your engine design very thoroughly. After all, if your engine fails in use it could seriously injure people.

Culture, value and competing needs

Sometimes it can be hard to start using human-centred design inside an organisation, as the people inside the organisation may not appreciate the value or benefits of the process. An HCD process can also take longer and requires skills in user research and testing that may be new to an organisation. It might be necessary to change the organisation’s internal culture before HCD can be used successfully.

There can also be times when the research process uncovers user needs which clash with the strategy or goals of the organisation. For instance, a shopping site might want their users to buy many items but an individual user may only want to purchase one thing. Balancing business needs with user needs requires careful thought. Ultimately, the business needs to be profitable to survive.

Genius and innovation

There’s a famous (if unattributable!) quote by Henry Ford about the design of the model T Car:

”If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse”.

The quote implies that sometimes you need a single innovative genius to create new things, because ‘normal’ people can’t imagine radically different ideas.

image of Henry Ford or Ford car

Ford innovated using factory processes and engineering to make a car that was cheaper than anything else available. This meant Ford dominated the car market at the turn of the 20th century. His individual expertise led to a hugely successful business.

In the late 1920s, Ford’s competitor General Motors (GM) researched the market and talked to customers to discover that they wanted different kinds of cars for different purposes, and even in colours other than black. The new cars GM designed and sold based on their research meant Ford’s market share fell from over 65% to around 15%.

Designing for the bigger picture

Human-centred design can often focus on the user, that is a single person interacting with your product or service. However, that focus can hide the wider impact and context of a design.

Perhaps you design a beautiful new mobile phone that everyone wants, but the screen needs rare metals that are mined in the global south under exploitative, polluting conditions. You’re solving a problem for the phone’s happy owner, but you’re also harming the environment and supporting terrible labour conditions for miners. Thinking responsibly about the social and environmental impact of your work should also be a part of your design process.

Over to you:

What other things might make it difficult to run a successful human-centred design project?

Share your thoughts in the Comments section.

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This article is from the free online course:

Get Creative with People to Solve Problems

University of Leeds