Can Human Centred Design Change the World?

Written by Rob Lee, Experience Design Leader in Melbourne, Australia.

Human Centred Design has the potential to change the world, but it needs to change.  How so?

IDEO has most popularly used principles and tools of HCD to transform communities in developing countries. The business world has also adopted many aspects of this into their product development process, focusing on exploring the unmet needs of customers and tailoring products to these needs.

As businesses use these tools more frequently, it is easy for the social element ot be forgotten as well as our definition of value.  What determines the social in social issues and innovation?  Who are the individuals we are centring our attention and efforts to create value?  Value in HCD has consistently been explained as the intersection of a customer’s desirability for a solution, as well as the feasibility and viability for a business to provide this.  

As a professional in the design space, I have touted the benefits of HCD for a long time.  I still believe that design offers generosity, openness and a genuine empathy for others; however it can still very much be a servant of the commercial metrics of success and movements to the bottom line that businesses crave.  

I believe the time has come to expand our thinking of value in human centred design so it captures a value net that encompasses the greater good, the environment and long term social progress.

Here are two ideas I’ve found useful in adapting our perception and assessment of value and opportunity.  

Systems and Humans | Society and the Individual

Large scale societal issues (e.g. poverty, obesity, sustainability) often require enormous effort and co-ordination to address.  It’s no surprise it can leave people feeling overwhelmed. However, there are tools to cultivate our ability to switch between micro and macro views of these large issues and the systems that surround them.  

The Circular Design Guide is one toolkit/collection of methods that can assist with elevating this conversation amongst the people around you.  Experimenting with framework templates such as Butterfly Diagrams, Product Journey Maps or Disassembly Worksheets may unlock/reframe your understanding of value in a completely new way.  Another such collection is the Systems Thinking Toolkit from FSG which offer more mapping tools to understand a system in its totality.  

With patience and repeated practice, we can avoid the risk of building more weakness into the overall system and start to build a dialogue of how we can look beyond a company’s specific view of user-centred desires.

From “How Might We” to “At What Cost?”

Some HCD experts have recently asked us to move from human-centred to  ‘humanity centred design’.  Building of much that has been discussed before; we start to re-think the consequences of the designed experiences we expect people to consume.  What are the costs that we generate by creating ease and obscuring waste?

Artefact Group created a delightful tool called The Tarot Cards of Tech which allows groups of people to put the bigger picture into focus.  It is a series of cards that deliberately evoke and elicit positive and negative futures.  Think of it as a tool that naturally appeals to our sides of natural optimism and cautious apprehension.

It’s possible to imagine how an exercise like these Tarot Cards may have influenced Silicon Valley companies such as Facebook and AirBNB to make different choices. Both Facebook and AirBNB revolutionised our ability to connect and experience relationships and places in such a radical way that it’s very hard to imagine worlds before them.  Yet, how did Facebook inadvertently become a platform for Cambridge Analytica’s data scandal to distort information and impact the US Election? How has AirBNB’s platform pushed lower-income residents out of their neighbourhoods to allow tourists to get access to the top residential properties?

These questions are important ones to ask.  Our world is only going to become more complex and connected. As a result, knowledge and accountability of adverse effects on our environment and society become far more important skills for the problem solvers of tomorrow to have.


There’s no easy fix to the new challenges that our world will continue to face into the future.  Many questions loom large; but a shift to a more systematic view of key societal issues will lead to better outcomes for society at large. It is imperative we exercise our creativity in the way we approach problems and how we ask questions to ensure we expand our view of ‘needs’, ‘value’ and ‘impact’- both positive and negative.

Questions to consider

  • How do we think about the systems, impacts and issues beyond the individual?  Methods and tools in Circular Design can help us paint more accurate views of the environment and society.
  • How do we anticipate what aspects of the future might change something incredible to something dangerous?  Scenarios and situations in the Tarot Cards of Tech can help illustrate this world for us.

You can connect with Rob on Linkedin or follow his website at to see more of his portfolio.

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