What do you mean by human-centred design?

What do you mean by human-centred design?

What do you mean by human-centred design?

People often ask me how I keep up with everything. There’s two answers to that.

The first is this: I don’t. I keep up with the specific things that people are paying me to look at. It just happens that this covers a broad spectrum of topics, from search engines to super yachts.

When you do research on such a broad range of topics, you gather a lot of context along the way. That helps you to get your head around other stuff, or at least makes you sound passably knowledgeable about a lot of things.

Shelagh Fogarty once described me as ‘a man who knows a lot about a lot’. ‘A lot about a little, and a little about a lot’, might be more accurate.

The second answer is that, as a rule, I listen when I walk and write when I sit. To my shame this largely excludes books from my intake. Instead, I consume a huge amount of material through podcasts. This lets me get the sense of the arguments in the big books of the day — frequently from talks give by the authors themselves.

I always intend to buy the books as well, or listen all the way through on Audible, but often it doesn’t quite happen.

Design thinking

Walking through London to a meeting this week, I was listening to a podcast from the RSA, a talk given by one of the partners at IDEO, Sue Siddall. It was on the subject of ‘design thinking’, a subject of great interest to me right now as I am redesigning some of the Applied Futurist’s Toolkit in advance of the next Futurism for Business course at the University of Salford.

At the end of the talk, as usual with the RSA’s excellent events series, the host invited questions. The first voice was very familiar to me. Even though he didn’t give his name I knew straight away it was my friend, the designer Johnny Grey. He asked what Sue had meant when she talked about ‘human-centred design’ — not because he was unfamiliar with the term, he explained, but because of a sense of caution about its use.

The answer revolved around addressing not just the needs and challenges facing the end customer but the needs of those people delivering the service as well.

This got me thinking.


When I first designed the Intersections foresight tool, it was to fulfil a need that I had. I wanted to structure my investigations into the near future of the different markets I was being asked to address.

The Five Vectors of Change had already emerged from the projects I was working on: five consistent trends that seemed to be affecting every sector, whether public or private, local, national or international. What I needed was a way to connect these trends to the realities of a specific sector I was addressing.

I realised looking back at the projects I’d worked on that the places where the incoming five trends caused the most dramatic change, were where there was already pressure:

If there is stress on your margins then greater diversity in the supply chain can dramatically improve the situation.

If your customer service is poor, then rising consumer expectations of performance are going to be more problematic for you than others.

If you are a deeply vertically-integrated business, then you might struggle to adapt to an increasingly networked economy.

These are Intersections, the points at which incoming trends collide with existing Pressure Points.

The view from your window

Back when I was in marketing, our new business pitches always used to include a section called ‘The View from Your Window’. It was a few paragraphs that told the client that we understood their business and their market. When it was a big pitch we used to interview members of staff in the business to get this insight.

I realised I needed a similar process.

Over time, I’ve refined a set of questions that can be re-used across industries to understand the Pressure Points that companies are facing. It’s amazing how often issues that are widely recognised in the lower ranks can shock management. Organisations are often a lot more opaque than we think.

Pressure Points are human

I’ve always talked about my toolkit as being about structure, not people. I’ve left the more human elements of strategy and change to specialists in that area. I’m an engineer by training and I have a strong belief that there are structural design solutions to a lot of the problems that my clients — whether companies or industries — are facing.

What I realised from Johnny’s question and Sue’s answer is that actually I have been addressing a human component all along.

The questions that I ask people to find the Pressure Points, are about their feelings: what frustrates them, how they rate their own performance and that of the people around them. This has proven to be a very effective way to find problems in the core of a business, but it also speaks to their more human needs. To the changes that will improve their experience.

Now when people ask where the human element comes into my views on the future, I can give a much clearer answer.

The needs of the user

There’s a second constituency that Sue Siddall mentioned that I haven’t addressed, and that’s the needs of the user. The people actually applying my toolkit for themselves, as consultants or leaders in their own business.

One of the most valuable pieces of feedback from the first course at Salford was that people wanted the tools to be more usable on a day-to-day basis, not just for projects. They also wanted them to be simpler: I’m learning you can almost never make things too simple when it comes to designing tools.

For the next course I’m taking the five or six steps in each of the two tools taught on the course, and making each one into a ‘micro-tool’ in its own right. For example, one little tool can be used to prioritise the Intersections that you focus on, or it can be used as a format for a to-do list to prioritise your work. One that can be used to understand future impact, can also help you to prepare for a meeting with a new constituency — perhaps a client or a different function within your business.

Strategy and storytelling

The most human development of all to the toolkit over the last few months has been to the way that I communicate what it is. With due thanks to Phil Lewis, Applied Futurism is about strategy and storytelling.

How do you set strategy in an increasingly fast-moving world? How do you communicate your vision for the future to all the audiences that matter? How do you build an organisation that is truly future-ready?

These are the questions that Applied Futurism seeks to answer.

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This article is by Tom Cheesewright. This post forms part of the Futurism series. For more posts on this subject, visit the Futurism page.

Tom Cheesewright


Futurist speaker Tom Cheesewright is one of the UK's leading commentators on technology and tomorrow. Tom has worked with a huge range of organisations across a variety of markets, to help them to see a clear vision of tomorrow, share that vision and respond with agility. Tom draws on his experience to create original, compelling talks that are keyed to the experience of the audience but which surprise and shock with unexpected facts and examples.

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