If you're asking how to design a better chair, you're asking a product-focused question. If instead you ask, How can I help someone who is tired of standing up? you're asking a human-centered question.

Often, we find clients asking us product-focused questions. Design a better knife, car, bathroom, table, office system. Those are the wrong questions.

Better questions are those that are human-centered, that focus on the wants and needs of the person engaging with this product:

  • How can someone with arthritis peel potatoes without hurting? (Hint: Use the now iconic OXO Good Grips line of kitchen tools.)
  • How can a guest using a shared hotel bathroom with two doors makes sure both doors are locked? (Hint: Without locking the locks at all--read about it in Ralph Caplan's best-selling book By Design.)
  • How can a person concentrate on heads-down work in open offices? (Hint: We've been working on this last one for four years with Herman Miller: Stay tuned for the reveal in June).

Re-framing the question around the user, instead of the product, is a simple but effective tool for leaders who aim to do human-centered innovation to grow their business and improve the lives of their users.

Here are two examples to help you understand how to be human-centered and why it matters.

How can I get my teenage son to do laundry? 

This is a question a participant asked us during a co-design session for GE appliances. By putting the teenage son in the center, the question shifts from the appliance to the person and their experience.

When you ask a human-centered question, you open yourself to empathy. You can imagine the dynamic between the mother and the teenager around a household chore; the disinterest of the kid versus the mom's need to get her kid involved; and a woman wanting to raise a young man who knows to do his chores as part of everyday life in a family.

A more commonly asked question would've been, "How can we design a washing machine for Millennials?" Note that having the product at the center of your question makes the product the star. The problem with that is that you can't empathize with the washing machine. And if you did, it would be misleading--designing a cool-looking handle, fashionable colors, a form that looks like a sneaker. It sounds absurd, but a lot of companies do it and add features to products that enhance products for product's sake, not for the user's sake.

Remember, make your user the star.

A simple exercise to get the product-focused questions out on the table, and out of your head.

Next time you or your team find yourselves asking a product-centric question, ask yourselves to solve it from the perspective of the product.

That is what I did with the Herman Miller team when we were designing the Resolve Office System, designed like a theater set for the performance of work, our first project together. I asked the team to switch places with me and answer the question they were asking me--"How can we create an office system that is technology-centered?"

It is a perfectly valid question. In fact, most companies ask us to answer questions like this. But it is not the right question. A tech-centered office system excludes people who have soft bodies, who hate having their backs exposed to passers-by, who love putting their kids' drawings on the walls, who bring in homemade sandwiches for lunch and stick them in their drawers.

It took me five minutes to make the point that the center of our system is the user. That lesson learned early on kept us on the right track for three years, all through the development of the product. The Resolve System honors the user and has resulted in a 50 percent increase in user performance in a case study done with British Airways.

Product-centered questions will not lead us to human-centered innovation. Re-frame the question around a soft-bodied person. You might change our lives.

Published on: Jun 2, 2018
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