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Human centred design is defined as a creative problem-solving approach that focuses on generating solutions that are based on meeting the needs of the people we’re designing for” – (IDEO).

To problem solve effectively, we need to understand and empathise with the people we’re designing for, to be inquisitive about their experiences and context, and be able to adapt (quickly) to new information we learn along the way.

This article explores how these three attributes – empathy, inquisitiveness, and adaptability – are crucial in helping us in pairing the actual problem with the right solution.

Skill #1: Being empathetic

In the context of Human Centred Design, being empathetic means that we consider the context and perspectives of others, as well as their needs, goals, and pains. This is a critical part of being a human centred designer, as we use this quality to build trust and leverage the experiences and expertise of the people around us.

In practice, approaching everyone we work with (our stakeholders, users, and team) with empathy helps us to:

  • Gain a better understanding of stakeholders’ goals and motivations and the problem we’re trying to solve
  • Appreciate and understand end-users’ perspectives, needs and pain points
  • Facilitate a collaborative approach to ideation and problem-solving
  • Create a space that enables alignment on the outcome we’re driving for

By empathising and understanding others, we’re able to create solutions that are well-considered, diverse, and meet users’ needs whilst achieving business goals.

Skill #2 Being inquisitive

Another important aspect of being a human centred designer is being intentionally curious and asking (a lot of) questions. We recognise that in most situations, our stakeholders and users are the experts of their own contexts – and our expertise is in helping to surface what matters. We’re constantly looking to get to the core root of the problem – knowing that often the first problem a client may come to us with isn’t always the right problem. This requires a lot of metaphorical digging and not taking things at face value. We do this in a few ways:

  • Uncover and surface our stakeholders’ assumptions and hypotheses
  • Explore the quantitative data, if it’s available, to get a broader perspective of what challenges currently exist
  • Gain qualitative insights by talking to end-users to understand why the challenges may be occurring
  • Look beyond what people say and observe what they do (which is usually where we get the most meaningful insights)

Our inquisitiveness doesn’t stop with our interactions with others: we also need to question ourselves before we jump to an assumption or solution. Our brains are known to be pattern matching machines that work hard to create order out of chaos. We therefore need to ensure we’re aware of our personal bias and not over-generalising learnings from previous experiences.

‍Skill #3 Being adaptable

The third key ingredient for being an effective human centred designer is being able to adapt to new environments, and deal with new challenges and contexts.

To be able to do this successfully, we need to have an open and adaptive mindset, with a willingness to work through the ambiguity that typically comes along with these situations. Some ways we demonstrate this:

  • Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, especially when we’re new to a project or problem
  • Being responsive to new information and accommodating potential changes this might result in, such as a change of scope or problem statement
  • Pivoting designs and solutions in response to our user insights and feedback

Being adaptable means that we’re focused on making things better, rather than perfect – so we can deliver the most value for our users and stakeholders.

TL;DR 3 Key Skills of Human Centred Designer

Much like how defined frameworks or tools aren’t enough to guarantee an effective product, service or experience – the three (Empathy, inquisitiveness, and adaptability) are also not sufficient on their own. Empathy, inquisitiveness, and adaptability all work together to help us become better human centred designers and focus on what really matters – the humans we’re designing for and with.

Written by Niharika Puri-Bayliss and Brendan Coram