Designing Performance: A Human-Centered Approach to Innovation

Learn how design thinking can bring together diverse perspectives to create novel solutions.

When building new digital tools—or anything else, for that matter—how can you truly understand and cater to users’ needs? The key to success is adopting a human-centered design thinking framework.

A human-centered approach to innovation will guide you to pursue solutions that reflect the most critical needs of your customer base—even if they haven’t fully articulated those needs yet. Through this approach, you’ll merge what’s technologically feasible with the unconventional solutions that shake up industries, disrupting the status quo. Read on to learn how design thinking will help you unleash your full spectrum of creativity. 

What is a human-centered approach to innovation? 

The principles of design thinking center on the people you’re designing for, so a design thinking framework is inherently human-centric. Empathy lies at the heart of a human-centered design process, which focuses on discovering their wants and needs. This process employs a set of practices and tools that anyone designing a product or service can employ, learning to think like a designer using a set of principles for approaching creative problem-solving. Incorporating various perspectives, it merges technological possibilities with an understanding of what people need and want.

Those working in ecommerce and web design will reap many benefits from embracing this approach, which can transform how you develop product offerings. For example, it can help you understand how and why users interact with your website and, thus, which challenges or “pain points” your platform needs to solve for them. It allows you to take a deep dive into the real purpose of your site and to design around that rather than your own assumptions. And, of course, human-centered design can drive improvements that make sites and programs more intuitive and user-friendly.

What are some examples of human-centered design thinking in action? IDEO created Apple’s very first reliable computer mouse using this creative process. Steve Jobs used human-centered design to create user-friendly computer layouts, using the metaphor of the desktop to structure what users saw when they turned on their machine. Countless products created with human-centered design have changed the terrain of their industry in revolutionary ways.

What are the benefits of this approach?

Ultimately, human-centered design brings forth unorthodox solutions that no one has yet thought of. Several benefits of the approach work together to accomplish this goal:

  • Helping us get around our human biases. As Jeanne Liedtka says in Harvard Business Review, we too often block our own potential for innovation by assuming things must be done “as they always have been.” 
  • Garnering valuable insights about how a product, service, or proposed change will work. “A good conversation can surprise both the designer and the subject by the unanticipated insights that are revealed,” writes the Institute of Design at Stanford. 
  • Creating a sense of psychological safety that encourages risk-taking, as Liedtka says. The process leads designers to interrogate possibilities, broadening the scope of what is achievable.
  • Speeding up the idea generation process. While great ideas can arise spontaneously, a structured process can draw forth promising ideas in a targeted way. Inviting disciplined creativity identifies needs gaps and draws forth solutions in a faster and more streamlined way while often resulting in more effective solutions.
  • Integrating diverse perspectives to address problems holistically. Human-centric design bridges roles and disciplines to bring a new depth of thinking, encouraging disparate fields to converge.

In IDEO, an organization that spearheaded the development of the concept and methodologies of design thinking, professionals like industrial designers, engineers, environmental architects, and graphic designers work hand-in-glove with anthropologists, lawyers, and psychologists. Together, they can approach problems holistically rather than through a narrow lens. Needless to say, they can collectively spot and address problems as well as generate creative solutions. 

But what does the human-centered design process actually entail? Let’s walk through the key phases you’ll want to include in your approach.

How to embark on a human-centered approach to design

The Institute of Design at Stanford lays out key stages and steps of the human-centered design process. Embark on a journey through these stages to bring forth bigger and bolder solutions.


Strive to understand people’s needs. Watch them in their environment or carrying out a task, like searching for a product on your ecommerce platform. How do they interact with a product or perform the task? What challenges do they run up against? What do they really want? Think beyond a particular product offering to the solution they want it to provide. Engage with people in conversation, drawing out their viewpoints.

Identify “hidden needs” that people may not have expressed directly in surveys and other data, too. Keep conversations loosely structured, as Stanford says. Prepare questions, but expect to deviate from them. And look for differences between what people say and do. Ask a person to go through a task in front of you, like navigating your website, Stanford also suggests. Watch, learn, and listen.


Unpack what you’ve learned through a “sense-making” process, synthesizing the data and defining these insights. Use tools like a gallery walk to look at your data and determine the most critical insights it shares. In the gallery walk, you post pictures and brief descriptions of what you’ve learned on the walls of a room to visualize these insights more clearly. Walk around the room or hallway and add notes on post-its to record your detailed thoughts. 

Define the key challenge you need to tackle, drawing conclusions based on the info you’ve gathered. Write a problem statement that defines your user, needs, and critical insight you’ve discovered, Stanford says. This will frame the problem you’re trying to solve. You may need to narrow down the specific problem you’re seeking to address based on the insights you’ve uncovered. A narrow focus can lead to richer solutions by letting you focus your full creative efforts on a specific problem, Stanford emphasizes. 


Next, you’ll enter the “ideate” mode, says Stanford. You’ve reached the idea generation phase, when you’ll envision new possibilities that could achieve the desired outcome. During the ideate phase, search for a broad range of solutions rather than limiting creativity.

Various techniques can be used in idea generation, as Stanford explains:

  • Group brainstorming
  • Written brainstorming
  • Mindmapping
  • Bodystorming
  • Building or sketching ideas

Focus on desirability rather than viability at this stage, creating ideas without evaluating their feasibility.


Vote on two or three top ideas to bring into the prototyping stage. Consider both their desirability and feasibility when selecting these ideas.

Then, create mockups, roleplays, or other prototypes to test your concept. Keep early prototypes simple and inexpensive, so you can “fail quickly and cheaply,” as Stanford says. Use simple materials (or website mockups that model a specific layout or concept), and don’t spend too much time on the design. Embrace the spirit of play. If a particular concept seems viable based on your rudimentary prototypes, you can always fine-tune them.


Get feedback about your concept’s feasibility by testing your prototype with your intended audience. Don’t explain how to use it too extensively; instead, see if users can understand it intuitively. And make the testing process an experience for the user. This can involve anything that helps users “vividly experience” the concept in action, as Liedtka says. Use roleplays to make the scenario more realistic if need be. 

Continuously ask why things work and don’t work. Even as you roll out your product, keep asking for feedback. Ask these questions of your audience, and reflect on them through observation of how people actually use the prototype. And remember the importance of empathy, striving to understand how users think and feel as they interact with your prototype!

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Victoria Martinez

With over 15 years of experience, Victoria is a seasoned Web Developer. She specializes in Wordpress and Woocommerce, and has experience working with both agencies and clients.

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