Innovate blog: What does it mean to be human-centred?

by Martin Wilson

Philippe Starke's Alessi lemon juicer

Photo: Alessi

Philippe Starck’s iconic Juicy Salif lemon squeezer. It's a beautiful design but not the easiest to use. Philippe is rumoured to have said: 'It's not meant to squeeze lemons, it is meant to start conversations'.

Imagine your job is to come up with new ways to reduce the number of deaths from young people tombstoning. 

One day your boss comes to you and says: ‘The youth are a hazard to themselves, they need to find sensible things to do. Let’s design some cool jigsaws for teenagers, to keep them occupied with something safe, at home with their friends.’

While your boss has good intentions, he’s not thinking about those teenagers. The idea doesn’t consider young people’s interests, and it isn’t a solution that fits their wants and needs. In other words, it isn’t very human-centred.

Human-centred design, an approach used by the Innovation Team here at the RNLI, is a problem-solving method that requires you to put your consumer’s needs first when tackling an issue. You must know your consumer deeply, empathise with a real problem they face, and come up with solutions they’d embrace. 

A creche in Bangladesh

Photo: Angela Robson

We can see human-centred design in action with the creche appeal in Bangladesh, which provides sustainable solutions for communities to help prevent drowning in their villages. 

40 children drown every day in Bangladesh, where ponds, rivers and wells are an ever-present danger. Research shows that children aged 1–4 are particularly vulnerable to the dangers of open water, with drowning responsible for almost half (40%) of all deaths in this age group. These children are most at risk between 9am–1pm when parents are busy working and undertaking essential chores to keep their families fed, clothed and healthy.

The solution? Community-led creches called anchals, which provide a secure place for children from Bangladesh to play and learn while being protected from the everyday risks of drowning. The RNLI is helping by aiming to raise at least £40,000 to fund community-led creches

Embracing a human-centred design approach means believing that all problems – even very challenging ones like gender equality, poverty and clean water – are solvable. 

Moreover, it means believing that the people who face those problems are the ones who hold the key to their answer. You need to truly understand the people you want to help. 

This means putting your consumer at the forefront of your creative process, ensuring that everything you create is a true, long-term solution to their needs.

How does human-centred design work?

There are three stages in the human-centred design process: inspiration, ideation, and implementation.

The human-centred design process


Phase One: Inspiration

The inspiration stage needs on-the-ground research. This means talking directly to your audience and understanding their experiences. What makes them happy? What makes them frustrated? What do they do first thing in the morning? What takes up most of their time?

Essentially, you want to see the world from their point of view and understand the true causes of the problems they face, because this is what you’re trying to solve.

Phase Two: Ideation

This stage gets a bit trickier. It’s where we start to envision a future that doesn’t yet exist. We’re now looking for solutions that could help people become better, happier, and more productive. It gets us to the ‘big idea’ and the creation of a prototype that can be tested with the consumer to see if it really does meet their needs.

Phase Three: Implementation

By this stage, the prototype has been tested, we’ve collected feedback and we’re ready to release the big idea to a wider audience.

Human-centred design in action

Let’s look at a couple of real-life examples that used a human-centred design approach. 

1. HelloFresh

The founders recognised that people have trouble finding time to shop for groceries and struggle to create healthy, affordable meals. Created in 2011 by Dominik Richter, Thomas Griesel and Jessica Nilsson, the company delivers a box of fresh food to your door, with easy recipes included.

2. Spotify

Remember the days of paying 79p for a single song, or hanging around the aisles of Woolworths searching for your favourite album?

One of the most impressive displays of human-centred design that we have seen in recent years is Spotify, a product that showed many that they had a problem before they even knew it (we refer to these as hidden needs).

Thanks to Spotify, users can get all their music in one place for a monthly fee. 

Feeling inspired?

If you’re interested in finding out more, take a look at IDEO, who have lots of experience in using human-centred design to create products, services and experiences. 

And as for the RNLI? Watch this space.