In my previous blog post, I explored ways successful organizations approach digital transformation. While I touched on the user experience as a key area of focus, I didn’t get a chance to drill down into the topic of human-centered design, or to share a favorite anecdote about peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and computer engineering.
A few years ago, I asked some colleagues about how they got into the IT sector. There were the usual stories about courses or projects that became increasingly technical in scope; but one story stood out. In the colleague’s introductory computer science class, a professor had paired-up students. One would give directions on how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and the other had to follow them, verbatim. The process was surprisingly difficult, and the results less than ideal. The objective was to show how challenging it is to provide the precise language to computers to deliver the desired output. (Though free food for a hungry college student was no doubt an appreciated bonus.)
Generations of CS majors were taught with the modality of teaching people to speak to computers at the center of the curriculum. But even as the discipline of user interface design and user experience grew with computer adoption, for many software engineers, it took a back seat to a focus on functionality. The result, unfortunately, led to experiences that left end users confused and frustrated.
Flipping the PB&J sandwich mindset
Fortunately, that mindset seems to be shifting quite rapidly among IT and business leaders. To be more accurate, while they may have understood the importance of the end user for some time, a confluence of factors has provided a sense of urgency to focus on user experience in a growing practice called human-centered design (HCD) or design thinking. In short, it’s a school of thinking in which new solutions are developed with a deep understanding of the human problem(s) they will solve.
Here are four major factors that contribute to the growing importance of HCD:
- Feeding a virtuous cycle: As interfaces with consumer devices such as smartphones and tablets have become more intuitive, our expectations for ease of use on other devices and settings (i.e., in the business world) increased as well. Every organization is now competing with the user experience of the best apps for ride sharing or pizza delivery. The rise of agile development allows organizations to incorporate user feedback quicker to improve solutions, which further raises expectations in a virtuous cycle.
- Getting more from data: The more end users engage with apps and devices, the more data they create on how, when and why they interact: what works – what doesn’t. This gives developers and designers unprecedented data about app usage. In combination with agile methodologies, this data helps developers understand the precise language of their users (rather than their computers) and deliver the desired interface. Ideally, it enables them to anticipate what users need, before they need it, in a rapidly iterative process.
- Doing more with data: Devices can process increasingly complex data and turn it into compelling and engaging output. This includes alerting a retail customer to personalized offers (based on predictive analytics) or providing optimized maintenance schedules and remote diagnostics for a manufacturer’s field service team (using machine learning). As customers are empowered to do more with data, this fuels even greater demand for more complex interactions, which in turn requires greater understanding of human-centered design principles.
- Putting the power at developers’ fingertips: Developers no longer must reinvent the wheel every time they build new products and services. The rise of open source software, low code development, application program interfaces (APIs), and software as a service (SaaS) make it easier to produce powerful applications. The ability to develop apps in the cloud (a topic worthy of its own blog post) also reduces the need and risk to invest in expensive infrastructure. Time and resources are freed to focus less on the code, and more on the people using the app.
The business impact of HCD
Just because you have the power to do more with HCD, does it mean you should dedicate precious IT resources to it? From my experience with clients who are transforming themselves for a digital world, it’s not just a good idea. It is – from a customer, employee and executive perspective – a business imperative.
Customers expect more: In today’s digital world, how a customer engages with an organization becomes as important as the organizations’ products and services. In a power outage, for instance, the ease with which a customer can report issues and receive status updates is as important to that customer’s overall opinion as the speed with which the utility can restore service.
Employees can do more: When an organization adopts a HCD approach to its own workforce, it reduces inefficient and redundant processes, and increases productivity and learning. Take a child welfare case worker who has to make challenging, often life-changing decisions in the field. Being able to make real-time decisions based on health, school, housing and other data – organized and available in an intuitive interface – would significantly improve her effectiveness, and positively affect her clients and community.
Executives understand more: A large part of HCD is exploration and ideation. Done well, it provides executives with a new understanding of the customers they serve: identifying unmet needs and opportunities. It also helps to drive strategy around digital transformation. Rather than retail banking executives thinking “we need a chatbot because our competitors have them,” for example, they can focus and align resources on the needs that such an investment in technology fills.
Exploring how HCD can impact your organization
Granted, while this post gives an overview of the drivers and benefits of HCD, it doesn’t address the process of adopting and realizing its full value. Fortunately, this aspect is a central pillar of our emerging technologies practice, and our experts can provide a more detailed view of the design methodology that helps clients put humans at the center. If you want to explore how HCD can empower your organization, our new brochure “Transforming experience with human-centered design” would be a good place for you to start.