10 Critical Competencies to Master for Human-Centric Design

September 9, 2019 | New Workplace Leadership | 10 min read
10 Critical Competencies to Master for Human-centric Design

Innovation is a necessary core competency for all organizations in the digital economy, and it is often the ability to innovate, which enables a sustained competitive advantage. Design thinking is a customer-focused, iterative approach to business practices that can solve common problems for organizations and their customers in more innovative ways. With a goal-oriented approach, design thinking enables organizations to create value by more effectively ideating to uncover a broader set of possible products and services to better meet customer needs, deepen customer and supplier relationships, and improve the design of digital experiences.

The multi-step design thinking methodology seeks to address often unarticulated user needs through disciplined creativity. Specifically, it begins with a deep discovery of customers' needs, often through empathy and observation, to better understand what is important to them. The process then progresses to defining the shared problem and then ideating on many possible solutions in concert with the end-user. From there, it necessitates the rapid development of a minimum viable prototype in partnership with key stakeholders. Finally, the prototypes are tested to solicit end-user feedback in an ongoing, iterative fashion.

In tandem with the design thinking process, however, organizations can take it a step further, and employ Human-centered Design, which ensures that the resulting products and services create a positive, long-term impact for end-users. Together, design thinking and human-centered design offer a process and mindset which can enable organizations to create viable and highly effective solutions for the most challenging customer needs.

This multi-faceted process, however, is often counter to the traditional approach to problem-solving. We’ve been taught to analyze information, generate and evaluate alternatives, and carefully contemplate our plan before reaching a decision. In contrast, the design thinking process and human-centered design mindset have a different approach toward decision-making and action; they involve building to think, as opposed to thinking first before acting.

“Design thinking has great power to solve problems for us. It’s not just about the design of a product, it’s about any complex problem. It’s a set of tools and techniques that enables us to engage in creative problem solving that is rooted in really understanding the experience of the user and how we can make it better.” - Mike Roberto, Skillsoft Expert Insights on Design Thinking, Skillsoft, 2017

To be successful, organizations must embrace innovation and seek opportunities to understand customers at a deeper level than ever before. Employing a design thinking approach requires both creative and critical thinking, as well as being comfortable with moving forward without all the answers. How then, can organizations and business professionals upskill their teams with the ability to apply design thinking approaches with a human-centered design mindset? These ten critical topics are essential to mastering design thinking and skillfully applying it with a human-centric design approach.

10 critical competencies to master for human-centric design

1. Research

With design thinking, the goal is to drive innovation inspired by people. To do that, research is needed to discover the user’s desirability, feasibility and viability of a new product or service. The purposes of research in this context are to spend time learning about the full context of the problem through the customer’s eyes, determine who should be involved in the process, and identify the target users who will benefit most from the innovation (including internal and external stakeholders). To do this, start with a curious mindset and embrace the spirit of discovery to identify the knowns and unknowns via observation and initial end-user interviews.

2. Ethnography

Use further eyewitness observation to gain a deeper insight into what customers want, need, and value, as well as what brings them joy. Dive into the context of where, why, when, how, and with whom they consume a product or service. Be sure to carefully consider the point of view of the customer in your observations.

3. Testing

This skill involves gathering direct input on actual users of the product or service (usability testing). Testing aims to uncover not just how users think that they use a product, but rather how they actually use a product. You might use a heuristic evaluation inspection method to do this. A heuristic is a rule of thumb that is easily learned, easy to remember, and based on experience, allowing you to evaluate the performance or fit of a product or solution. With a heuristic evaluation, you can identify usability problems in the design; this involves examining a product and judging its compliance with recognized usability principles.

4. Observing the customer

In further observing the customer, the goals are to employ empathy for effective observation and then marry that observation with interviews, in which you ask end-users to show you what they do. Invite stakeholders into the process as much as possible. The outputs of in-depth observation and interviews can include stakeholder mapping, experience mapping and persona development.

With stakeholder mapping, the outcome is a list of all the people you’ll need on the team to ensure success, including project members, those who will be impacted by the new solution, and anyone evaluating your success. The stakeholders should then be grouped by similar need and then ranked in order of importance. Continue to refer to this mapping as you progress through the design process.

Use experience mapping to reveal gaps and unmet needs for key internal stakeholders, users or consumers. The outcome should be a graphical representation of your customers’ experience in their various interactions with your company, providing insight into the journey a customer takes before, during and after a sale.

A deep understanding of your buyer persona(s) is critical to driving innovation. Employ persona development to detail fictional, archetypal end-users to represent your ideal customer. Also consider negative or exclusionary personas, which are a representation of whom you don’t want as a customer. The most effective buyer personas are based on solid market research, and observations and insights gathered from your customer base, based on experience mapping, surveys and interviews, for example.

5. Organizing insights through affinity clustering

As a result of your research, observation, and interviews, you’ll likely generate a considerable field of data. Create an Affinity Cluster to organize the data into themed groups. This may help to uncover hidden relationships that could lead to additional design directions, as it facilitates a shared understanding of the information and promotes generative discussion.

6. Assessing and filtering insights

A critical part of identifying opportunities is the ability to discover strengths, weaknesses, and potentialities. The POD tool (Pain points, Opportunities and Delighters) is a collaborative tool which helps you organize data in a way that encourages input. It also helps to identify issues and insights to generate solutions.

Learn more about this tool by viewing a sample of our new curriculum in this topic titled, “Using PODs to Define Opportunities” from the course titled, “Design Thinking for Innovation: Defining Opportunities,” developed with subject matter provided by PDD Innovation.

Before going on to creating solutions for these opportunities, you can use selecting the hits to prioritize the opportunities while reducing bias and promoting consensus. This same tool is useful at many different stages of the process – for example after generating ideas to choose and prioritize which ones to move forward with.

7. Generating and framing insights

Once you’ve mastered how to gain an in-depth understanding of your consumers or users, proceed to effectively develop insights and opportunity statements to act as a springboard for ideation. To do this, continually reframe the question of “how might we?” to invite a broad range of ideas and varying viewpoints. Specifically, step into the shoes of the end-user and think of them facing the problem. By envisioning the various customer personas in the situation, you’ll be less constrained by your experiences and better able to overcome the tendency to fixate on specific solutions based on your own bias.

Additionally, use storytelling to create a narrative of the user experience and help generate a wider range of possible solutions. Take care to avoid confirmation bias, in which we tend to fill in the blanks with what we think should happen. Instead, tell the story as it unfolds.

8. Generating ideas

You’ll likely be tempted to identify potential solutions much earlier in the process – now it’s finally time to generate ideas for potential solutions! The team should ideate in a supportive and inclusive environment. Keep multiple and varied ideas alive during the initial stages of the prototyping process to allow flexibility.

One method to accomplish this is an Idea Matrix, which uses a two-dimensional table of criteria (usually up to five columns and up to five rows) and populates it with ideas that correspond to the intersecting fields. Columns represent project goals, people and experiences (i.e., stakeholder needs, drivers, customer journey phases), while rows represent mechanisms that can help facilitate solutions (i.e., technologies, trends, system elements.) Even if direct relationships between the criteria cannot be found; perhaps a related criterion will spark other creative ideas.

Additionally, you can employ a Round Robin Methodology, in which team members brainstorm their ideas independent of each other, possibly with differing variables. With this, be careful to avoid inter-group influences. As ideas are then shared, team members can use the original ideas to continue to further ideate.

Finally, use a Concept Canvas Methodology, in which an analytical tool is used to examine an idea via a quick pitch, the value proposition, and a sketch of the key concepts, It presents the end-user with an interactive tool in which feedback can be collected. This process allows for an easy comparison of multiple concepts.

9. Modeling ideas

Whether your solution is a physical product or service, it must meet the needs of the stakeholders it is meant to serve. To understand how well it does that, create a representation of it before it is released, so that stakeholders can experience it and provide feedback on how well it meets their needs. One way to do this is to create a prototype. Prototyping allows you to quickly identify actionable ideas or paths for further exploration and rapid initial evaluation. Remember that this is an iterative process in which you can explore rough prototypes in a collaborative environment with internal or external stakeholders.

10. Communicating ideas

It’s now time to review and pitch your idea. Once the team has reviewed the prototyped idea, while considering the defined problem and the end-user, the solution should be documented and pitched to the stakeholders for determination of next steps in the development process. In the pitch, include your research methodology and results, as well as design outlines and recommendations for implementation, quality management and metrics tracking.

“Design’s greatest superpower is that it helps navigate the unknown through cycles of creativity and critical thinking. Design asks that we enter the process with an open mind; it assumes that we don’t know the answer from the very beginning, which liberates us from going into the process with a promise of certainty. Sure, we hope to get to somewhere that has value for our intended audience or user. But that doesn’t mean we know how we will do that from the outset. If we did, we wouldn’t need a design process.” - Lisa Kay Solomon, Skillsoft Expert Insights on Design Thinking, Skillsoft, 2018

Skillsoft’s New Curriculum: Design Thinking for Innovation

Skillsoft has the tools your organization needs to ready your workforce to tackle the challenges of design thinking and human-centered design head-on. On the heels of our strong leadership position in Digital Transformation training solutions, Skillsoft is expanding our Designing Digital Experiences curriculum with cutting-edge content on Design Thinking. We developed our new Design Thinking curriculum in partnership with PDD Innovation, a leading expert in innovation and human-centered design for over 35 years.

Four new state-of-the-art, video-based courses leverage the latest research in adult learning science and facilitate learning in the moment of need:

  • Design Thinking for Innovation: Stakeholder Engagement
  • Design Thinking for Innovation: Defining Opportunities
  • Design Thinking for Innovation: Brainstorming and Ideation
  • Design Thinking for Innovation: Prototype and Testing

With this new design thinking curriculum from Skillsoft, along with our comprehensive Digital Transformation Training collection, organizations have access to a full portfolio of video-based courses and powerful tools needed to discover and define opportunities, brainstorm and ideate possible alternatives, and prototype and test solutions.

Heide Abelli is the SVP of Content Product Management at Skillsoft.

Janet Yesk is the Design Research Principal at PDD Innovation.