How to embrace human-centered design for your startup

Combining the right methodology and mentality, anyone can unlock the power of Human Centered Design – it’s all about looking at a problem in a customer-focused way!

So you’ve identified a problem and talked with as many potential customers as possible to better understand their needs, but what next? Now it’s time to start actually designing your solution.

The key is to remain customer-focused; design the product your customers truly need. For this, Human-Centered Design is a very useful methodology to ensure that you are solving problems that people actually have and that your solution effectively takes their needs into consideration.

But…what is it?

Human-Centered Design (or HCD) empowers entrepreneurs to see all problems, even those which seem insurmountable, as solvable, giving you the power to have a real impact with your product or service. What’s more, a design process which follows a user-empathetic approach is far more likely to achieve a solution which is equal parts desirable to users, technologically feasible and economically viable. As with our approach to customer discovery, effective solution ideation is dependent on understanding those for whom you are designing your product.

The basic approach is to generate ideas through extensive customer discovery, regroup those ideas and build loads of simple prototypes, test as much as you can with potential customers and continuously adapt and modify your design, even after it’s been launched.

As laid out in their Field Guide to Human Centered Design, IDEO sees three broad phases in order to implement effective HCD:

  • The inspiration phase

  • The ideation phase

  • The implementation phase

The initial observation and inspiration phase is about learning from the people who face the problem you’ve identified; immerse yourself as much as possible in your customers’ lives to truly understand the problem you’re attempting to solve.

Identify design opportunities and phrase key questions

Making the leap from key themes to design opportunities can be a little tricky so IDEO suggests creating “insight statements” by rephrasing each theme as a short statement. The idea is to then transform your insight statements into questions which your solution should answer.

For example, while developing Bridge for Billions, a key piece of insight we had was that entrepreneurs in traditional incubation programs were unsure sure if their mentors fully understood their vision and thoughts regarding the project. Sometimes mentors would deviate and say, maybe you should do X when the entrepreneur didn’t want to do X. So this insight into the problem we were trying to solve gave us a new position to consider: “how might we help entrepreneurs structure their thoughts so that a mentor can provide the feedback they really need?”

By phrasing your insights as “how might we” questions, you can create open-ended building blocks which focus on your customer’s experience. These are sometimes also called “design questions” and should be broad enough to allow for a range of solutions but specific enough to be able to roughly guide the principle elements of your design.


Now that you have concrete design questions taken directly from your customer’s experiences, get your team together to brainstorm as many innovative and wacky ideas as possible that can successfully answer your “how might we” questions. A good strategy is to write down the questions you want answered so that everyone can see them. At this initial stage, promote an open dialogue of creativity rather than focus on the immediate feasibility of ideas. Generate as many ideas as you can!

This process can be made even more effective by including not only your team members but also the customers you’re designing for. Even if you’re just brainstorming with your design team, stay focused on the needs and desires of your customers.

Prototype, test, refine

Taking the ideas you’ve come up with during your brainstorming, mix-and-match solutions to create complex ideas from the strongest concepts. Make the move from single ideas to more coherent solutions. At this point you might find it helpful to iterate certain “design principles,” i.e. characteristics or concepts which cover the most essential elements of your solution – those which truly define your design.

Now’s where you need to get visual! Sculpt, build, draw, whatever, just make the solutions you’ve come up with tangible via simple prototypes. This gives you something to test with the end-user.

Making a scrappy prototype also allows you to focus on the key elements of your design which need testing with your customers. The hallmark of HCD is rapid prototyping and reiterating your design principles on the fly. Build on what you learn from your customers, don’t be disheartened by failure and above all stay focused on what your customers want. Keep tweaking your design principles, testing, and integrating user feedback.

There are three key points to keep in mind throughout the design process:

  1. Constantly observe user behavior: this mentality shouldn’t be limited to your customer discovery phase; all throughout the design process remember to carefully observe their reactions. This can indicate latent needs and desires which could be integral to your design.

  2. Put yourself in the end-user’s shoes: empathy is key — try and understand the problem from your users perspective bring them along with you throughout the design process.

  3. Embrace ambiguity: rather than approaching the solution ideation process with preconceived notions of what the solution should be, embrace the ambiguity of not knowing the answer and allow this mentality to drive innovation.

Combining the right methodology and mentality, anyone can unlock the power of Human Centered Design, you don’t need to be particularly ‘creative,’ it’s about looking at a problem in a customer-focused way!

What are your thoughts about Human Centered Design? If you’ve already gone through a solution ideation process, what was your experience? Did you focus on the end-user?

Bridge for Billions is an online incubation platform, matching entrepreneurs with qualified mentors. We guide entrepreneurs through the process of developing their business idea into a structured business plan through our Leap Program.

Related topics: ideation, starting a business

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