What’s next for Human Centered Design? 

By David Weissburg

Design is always evolving

We’ve been making and designing things for thousands of years, and our perspective on design has evolved, along with our technology and scope of impact. Human Centered Design provides us with useful methods that leverage empathy, sense-making, and prototyping mindsets to inspire the development of emotionally and functionally valuable human experiences. 

But it’s worth asking whether HCD is the pinnacle of our craft. The design practice is always evolving, and it gets bigger and better the wider we look. So, what’s next? What might we focus on? How might we center our design, or perhaps on what or whom might our design teams center themselves? 

Think beyond the individual person

At Fidelity Labs, we have worked for years on ways to get to know our customers, what their needs are and how to provide them with great financial products and services. But we’ve traditionally been viewing them through a straw; we see only them. One customer. But money isn’t used by a single person, ever, and lately we’ve been noticing something intriguing: We consistently see the critical need to design for more than the person in the middle of our framework.

This idea materialized for us when we were building an online estate planning tool to help customers organize a sensitive part of their financial lives. And we thought, hey, this is a great opportunity to use design to support the customer’s relationships. So, we started having conversations about their loved ones, their shared activities, and even interactions with their lawyers and advisors so that we could design the tool not as an interface, but instead as a conversation that humanized the relationship it was meant for.

We are learning that relationships are no longer the exception. Perhaps they aren’t the rule, but they are a strong percentage of the experience. Could we be moving toward a world of what I like to think of as Relationship Centered Design?

Recognize the relationships

To formalize Relationship Centered Design, we first need to recognize that relationships can play a key role in our work, and that we need to look for them early rather than bump into them along the way. We also need to realize that not all relationships are the same and that the social levels, hierarchies, emotions, and stages of a relationship between people can vary. There is also peer-to-peer relationships and business-to-peer relationships to consider. Each one is different and can be designed for differently.

So how do we do that? Can we just be smarter designers? Maybe some of us. But I think we need new types of specialists to join our teams. Could we add scriptwriters for dynamic conversations? Family counselors for the tricky conversations? Community-based organizers? Social scientists? All types of disciplines could contribute something to push the practice to design for the critical role relationships play in individuals’ lives.

Champion the human experience

That brings me to my final thought. I expect that some of you are thinking “We already do this,” and you’re probably right. It is happening, but we need to recognize it, especially when it comes to the use of technology. We designers must work with tech, but it must be always in the service of humanity and humans, and the language we use and the skills we acquire must support that. We cannot get distracted by technical or business passions. Instead, we must always focus on the people.

And furthermore, what we call our “craft” matters. It’s our flag, our mental model for what we do. There’s a big difference between User Centered Design and Human Centered Design. Perhaps by calling what we do Relationship Centered Design, we’ll better see what the people we serve want, need, and deserve. What do you think is next for the empathy engine of design? Where will we next center our craft?