How to Use Human-Centered Design to Create Valuable and Successful Products or Services

By Evan Katz
Director of Human-Centered Design at Sparksoft
January 25, 2021.

If you want to build a successful product, application, program, or service that adds business value and provide users with something they want to use, you are in luck. There is a proven process that you can follow to ensure success in creating your next project.

You may have heard of Human-Centered Design (HCD) or Design Thinking, even included it as buzzwords in your new business proposal, but what do you really know about it?

What if I told you that if you follow the HCD process discussed in this article, you would be able to deliver a return on investment (ROI) of 85% or greater by building something that is useful, desirable, feasible, and usable? Would it be worth stepping out of your comfort zone to try it?

What is the Human-Centered Design Process?

Human-Centered Design (HCD) is a creative approach to problem solving where the process is used to understand the people for which we are writing policies, creating programs and services. It is a process that starts with the people you are designing for and ends with new solutions that are tailor made to suit their needs.

Story maps contain 3 levels; activities, steps, and details.
Each step of the process has many different methods including with the why, what, how, often with templates to help when applicable. How to choose which method to use for each step depends on the time and resources available to provide the desired outcome.

The goal of the HCD process is to understand and gaining empathy for what problems the users face, before coming up with solutions for those problems, specifically designed FOR them and WITH them.

How to get started?

Let’s say that you were hired to solve problems for your client. The client presents you with a list of problem statements that they are looking for you to help solve. You can address each problem by following the HCD process and:

  • Understand, Empathize and Define
    • Initiate phase is when you can deep dive into each problem statement, existing data is collected, scope is defined, and a project brief is created.
    • Immerse yourselves in the customer experience to gain insights and better understand the root causes of pain points / find opportunities for improvement.
  • Explore and Adjust
    • Synthesize phase is when analysis & interpretation of data occurs, themes, insights are discovered, and customer pain points are identified.
    • Ideate phase is when many possible solutions for the insights are dreamed up and generating ideas with the users and other stakeholders.
  • Design, Build and Improve
    • Prototoype phase where build interactive experiences to test our solutions with actual users, gather their feedback, revise as needed before re-testing our designs until we get it right. ("right" = meets the criteria that was set to ensure it is optimized for usability, while being desirable, feasible and usable)
      • It's during the Ideate and Prototyping phases that designers and developers should be working together to ensure the needs of the users are being met, talk through the design solutions being created and only then, start to focus on the technical solutions to be implemented.
      • NOTE: If technical solutions are developed before the research and prototyping phase is completed, you may cause limitations of what can be implemented, and therefore hinder the needs of the users from being met.
    • Implement phase happens while the prototypes are going through user testing, and the foundation of what users are expecting has been set. THIS is when developers should be choosing which tech stack should be used to implement the designs from prototypes into production.

Ideally, the Choice of Technical Solutions Should Be Driven by Users' Needs

Since it takes a fraction of time and effort to create interactive prototypes (ranging from low-fidelity sketches to high fidelity, responsive, HTML pages) to test and revise than it does to develop a complete development build, For the highest probability of success, development should not start or tech stack chosen until after the prototypes have been built, tested and seen favorably by stakeholders and users.

Usability testing a fully interactive and responsive prototype would allow Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to be measured such as time on task success rate, time on task, use of search vs navigation, user error rate and more. Users would provide the feedback of what they want, or researchers / testers would learn what users need through observations during user testing.

Case Study: Building a Decision Support Tool

When working on a project to build out a new decision support tool, before any proper user research has been conducted, the development team had already decided to implement a serverless approach; it is a new trend designed to save money on server costs, like a 'pay-as-you-go' phone plan, the client is only charged for what they use.

This approach means that any large data files would need to be stored as a JSON file would need to be downloaded and processed by the users' computer instead of a much more powerful server.

  • This approach already limited what useful features could be implemented.
  • While a laptop is bound / limited, a cloud server processor power is, in theory, infinite.

How this affects the design of the User Interface:

Users want: Developers response (based on technical limitations)
  • to preview and sort the data online without having to download it every time. Only want to download after reviewed and decided this is the dataset that the user needs.
Previewing in the browser is much quicker than having to wait to download excel every time only to review and determine if it is the right dataset they need or not.
  • Can't support preview since datasets over a certain size will timeout in the browser before it can be rendered.
  • Forces users to download report to their computer every time.
  • User would need to remember to delete the old excel files before their local disk space fills up.
  • to be able to search by keyword through multiple datasets to find answers.
  • Will only be able to search and list which datasets have the info you need, have to download and compile in excel instead of through interface.
User would need to have the technical knowledge on how to implement that.
  • to have clickable visualizations that would filter the results of the dataset.
No technical implementation knowledge needed
  • Visualizations and dataset would be too large to download and browser to render.
  • User would have to implement in excel as pivot tables
  • User would need to know HOW to implement pivot tables in excel
  • to have summary visualizations of their reports on the dashboard when logging in.
  • A separate JSON file would be required for each individual visualization = extensive effort required on the development side.

The result:

  • What started out as an opportunity to streamline the users’ workload, allowing them to get answers easier using a flexible and customizable, advanced decision support tool, has resulted in a wiki site with a list of excel files that have to be downloaded.
  • Due to the limitation of the serverless approach chosen to save money, the developers have spent a year of development time and client's money to produce an interface just like they had before using a secured wiki program called Confluence.

Take Away

By following the HCD process, you will understand the target users, gaining empathy for what problems they face so that you can design solutions for those problems for and with your users.

  • During the iteration phase, come up with many possible, blue sky solutions, before deciding which ideas are desirable, feasible and useful to create as prototypes.
  • Converting those chosen solutions into prototypes, testing with users and revising as needed is the best way to design solutions that are optimized for the users.
  • For the greatest probability of success, any technical solution should be chosen by developers only after user research has completed and prototypes are designed and tested. The choice of tech stack should be determined based on the needs of the users and features / functionalities of the prototypes designed. Otherwise, you risk creating too many technical limitations that may prevent the optimal solution to be implemented.
  • If you follow this process and complete each step with feedback from the actual users, your project will be a success.

About Sparksoft Corporation

Sparksoft is a certified Capability Maturity Model Integration (CMMI) Services and Development Level 3, ISO 9001:2015, ISO 27001:2013, HUBZone, 8(a), Small Disadvantaged Business (SDB), Women-Owned Small Business (WOSB), and Small, Women-owned, Minority-owned (SWaM), and MBE/DBE/SBE consulting firm. With our focused mission “to ignite innovation, inspire transformation, and implement digital solutions for a healthier nation”, we specialize in 6 specific digital health services: Test Automation, Cloud Services, DevOps Delivery, Cyber Security, Data Science, and Human-Centered Design. Since 2004, our exceptionally skilled people, proven leadership, and optimized processes all work together relentlessly to continuously push for more efficient solutions.

We have developed a support structure of Innovation Centers, designed to collect our lessons learned and identify opportunities for improvement. A key development from our Innovational Centers is the DevTOps framework, which uses an Agile methodology and emphasizes testing to optimize the project lifecycle. SparkLabs is an important impetus in our drive for innovation where our development teams explore ideas and turn them into real-world solutions. We continually pull from our experience and combine this with forward thinking technology from our certified partners like RedHat, Microsoft, AWS, Okta, Google, Databricks, and MarkLogic to conceptualize our novel and effective solutions such as MockSpider® virtual sandbox, ScriptHive® TDD/BDD automation, and 508bee® accessibility validation.

Sparksoft’s website is updated regularly with news of product launches, contract awards, certification and vehicle changes, key hires, and corporate milestones. Visitors are encouraged to explore the website and also connect with us on Social Media

Media Contact

Stephen Willingham


Business Development Contact

Gary Rubalsky

410.424.7700 x258