Understanding Human Centered Design (6 Part Series)

May 28, 2019 - Part 1 of a 6-Part Series

This post is the first of a series dedicated to helping readers understand design thinking (or human centered design) and its application through the United Way Hub for Social Innovation.


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Coffee and the Spirit of Innovation

I am a coffee snob. I just love a really good cup of coffee to kick start my day and to help me get past the morning’s drowsy cobwebs.

My passion for coffee is evident by the fact that I have several coffee house loyalty cards in my wallet. But I also have the My Starbucks Barista app on my phone. I find the app to be pretty amazing. It gives me the ability to order and pay for a drink through my phone (using either tactile or voice commands), triggering the baristas at my favorite Starbucks location to prepare my beloved grande latte or grande Sumatra french press in advance. The best part is that they have my beverage ready for pickup as soon as I walk in the store, allowing me to forego the long order line. I simply walk in, pick up my drink, and walk out. The app and process alleviated the pain (although not necessarily huge) of standing in line and waiting for the ten people in front of me to get their drinks first. It truly is a wonderful service.

But, how did Starbucks come up with this model?

In a Forbes article released in 2015, the authors note that Starbucks developed the app and service from a 5-year business growth strategy.

“We believe customer convenience will be a key driver of revenues for Starbucks in the future. With a voice based ordering system, the company is looking to make this option more personalized, just like talking to a Barista. This is a sign that Starbucks is committed to innovation, both at its stores and in technology to enhance customer experience. This should drive growth for the company in the long term.” - Forbes article

Notice what the authors focused on in their description of this service - the customer’s convenience. The hope is that this innovative service will build customer loyalty and drive more sales. This focus on customer convenience (their desires) is at the heart of human centered design (or design thinking).

Introduction to Design Thinking

Design thinking is a creative way to solve problems and it has been championed primarily by the California-headquartered design consulting firm, IDEO. You may not have realized it, but I can guarantee that you have benefited from design thinking applications beyond just the Starbucks app.

One example was IDEO’s role in developing the creation of the computer mouse. We take it for granted now, with our touchscreen smartphones and large MacBook trackpads, but the mouse revolutionized the computer industry by making navigation more user friendly.

The approach of using design thinking traditionally has been centered on the design and development of products and services of for-profit companies who wish to improve their product line in the hopes of increasing their sales. But recently, design thinking has been implemented within the social sector as a way to identify and create new ways to solve societal challenges.

Human Centered Design for Social Innovation

The United Way Hub for Social Innovation utilizes design thinking methods to facilitate the creation or redesign of social services to help our community overcome some of our toughest social issues. As was stated in the Starbucks example above, design thinking is centered on meeting the needs and desires of the customers or end users of a product or service. In psychology, Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs is used to identify the various levels of needs of all humans. Within the context of social innovation, design thinking is simply a way to discover and help to provide the human needs within society systems of care.

Considering our social sector, and the various products, services, policies, and systems that contribute to social “progress,” it is vital that we consider the needs, pain points and desires of the actual humans that we are intending to help. As we use design thinking, the intent is to create design, or enhance products, services, policy recommendations, and system changes that are useful, usable, and desirable for the humans at the root of those challenges.


While many of our community challenges are indeed deep rooted issues (such as racial equity), we believe that design thinking practices can provide fuel for new solutions for our residents that could help them overcome some of their most biggest barriers to advance.

In this series, we are going to help you understand the basic stages of the design thinking process. Each month, we will address one stage of the process and begin to frame out how the United Way Hub for Social Innovation implements this approach within our community change work.

The Design Thinking Roadmap

Design thinking illustrations come in hundreds of varying forms, but within the United Way Hub for Social Innovation, we like to mainly use the two versions below.

Design Thinking Process Illustrations  The Design Thinking Diamond (top) & Basic Bullets of Design Thinking (bottom)

Design Thinking Process Illustrations
The Design Thinking Diamond (top) & Basic Bullets of Design Thinking (bottom)

The top version we kindly refer to as “The Design Thinking Diamond” while the bottom version we call “The Bulleted Basics of Design Thinking.” As you can see from first glance, the Diamond version shows a much more in-depth aspect of the design thinking process. It is important to note that while the illustrations suggest a linear, step-by-step process, in reality, the process is more of a series of iterations, pivots, and “go back to the previous step” elements. This is really important to grasp. But, like going on any journey, utilizing The Diamond and/or Bulleted Basics gives social innovation teams a roadmap to follow in guiding their efforts.

Patrick Miles

Patrick Miles

As the Director of the United Way Hub for Social Innovation, Patrick helps collaborative teams develop creative strategies to tackle some of our community’s toughest issues.

Patrick has over 20 years of experience in the nonprofit sector with direct involvement in development, strategic planning, cross-cultural impact, communications, marketing, special event planning, and community engagement.

He is an alumnus of Indiana University and an avid Gooner (Arsenal Football Club supporter).

Upcoming Posts in this Series

For this series, we will utilize the Bulleted Basics for the naming convention of illustrating the stages involved, but we will refer to the Diamond illustration within the details.

  • July - Chartering the Challenge

  • August - Building Empathy

  • September - Reframing the Challenge & Designing Ideas

  • October - Testing and Building (and the Importance of Iterating)

  • November - Launching and Implementing Solutions