Article published in the CSA Journal 87(2), 23-27, 2022.
The past two years have changed the ways people engage each other and the products and services they use. Remote work and remote medicine have been normalized, and digital transformation has accelerated. The adaptations we have seen are likely to stay, so what does this mean for aging industry businesses that are trying to innovate?
In a world where expectations and behaviors have shifted so much, it is more important now than ever to understand how people think, feel, and interact with products and services. As BCG notes in their 2020 article on the value of human centered design,[i] pandemic safety measures forced organizations to shift to fully or hybrid digital-physical delivery (MacDonald et al., 2020). Everything seemed to migrate online, and health technologies like telemedicine went from a novelty to a necessity nearly overnight.
Before the pandemic, digital transformation was a slow and somewhat resisted change in many organizations, but those that survived have adapted their business models quickly. And it’s not just businesses that have changed. People of all ages have been impacted, with one result being a massive increase in digital literacy. How many of our moms were familiar with Zoom family meetings two years ago? How many are now?
New modes of engagement mean more users of and higher expectations for digital technologies. As a result, aging populations who once might have been reluctant, or simply refused to adopt digital technologies, are now regular users. Designers of products and services for the aging industry need to consider these evolving needs and behaviors if they wish to be competitive.
Enter human-centered design (HCD), an approach to designing products and services that puts human needs before technology. HCD helps entrepreneurs have compassion and empathy for their audiences, understanding the relationship between what they produce and the meaning their product has for others (AIGA, n.d.). In contrast to the “If you build it they will come” philosophy, HCD starts by looking carefully at the human experience and people’s needs, and then comes up with solutions or new ideas. HCD is an iterative design process, beginning with discovery research and then soliciting feedback from potential or existing customers throughout the design process. Each iteration refines the idea, building confidence that the product or service is not just a good idea, but one that people will buy and use. The illustration below depicts the different stages of HCD and methods for each.
The human-centered design process is rooted in an exploration of unspoken needs through empathic inquiry. This is done by immersing oneself the lives of everyday people and exploring their needs, motivations, challenges, and the context of use. Once creators identify the problem or opportunity, they then develop concepts and give them form through artifacts like storyboards and lo-fidelity prototypes. These are objects to think with, not solutions in and of themselves. You put them in front of potential customers and get their feedback to help understand which ideas have traction and which don’t. Only then do you start to build, and as you do so it’s vital to continue getting feedback on higher fidelity prototypes to maintain alignment with customer needs. The idea is to build something that not only solves a problem or creates a new experience, but is also readily acceptable.
When I’ve pitched HCD to clients, a common reaction is “Why do I need to go through all this?” I know I have a great idea. Maybe you do, so let’s take a moment to consider the opposite approach. Over the years I’ve worked with many entrepreneurs who had a novel concept and charged forward without ever testing it with potential customers. Many of these leaders iconize figures like Steve Jobs, whose vision seemed powerful enough to form a multibillion-dollar company without ever embracing HCD principles. It is true that sometimes this works. But if you look at percentages, to solopreneur with a vision fails the vast majority of the time. Apple also rigorously tests their ideas with customers, so the story told does not reflect the full story of how the company is so innovative. The question I ask my clients is, “How confident do you want to be that other people will actually purchase your idea?” HCD increases confidence, which not only helps build better products, but also attracts investment. If you can illustrate the problem and prove that your concept can solve it, it is much easier for investors to commit. HCD will give you those data points.
Human-centered design helps entrepreneurs better understand people’s needs, motivations, and interactions, but it is also a more efficient and adaptive process that saves a lot of money. Consider this fact: It costs up to 100 times more to fix a problem after production than during the prototyping stage (JustinMind, 2017).
Prototyping is the stage in design when you create sketches and inexpensive models of the concept. If you have users interact with and give feedback on these early design artifacts, you will learn a lot. In my experience, 100% of the time users point out something you hadn’t thought of. Why? It’s simple really. We are all are biased by our own experiences and vision, and this creates confirmation bias: the tendency to see what confirms our ideas and ignore everything else. Moreover, no one wants to admit that their baby may be ugly.
In what follows, I’ll illustrate human-centered design through a case study relevant to the aging industry. My goal is to show the difference HCD makes, with proven outcomes and a clear return on investment. Afterwards, I’ll share some tips and resources that will help you get started should you decide to adopt this approach.
Part II: Case study
Bloom is a startup with a digital and physical wellness product. The product is a nutritional home testing kit, with a mobile phone application that scans the card and interprets the results. The app also has a meal planner, and gives users access to nutritional counseling and custom supplements for an additional fee.
I was hired to establish a research strategy and help improve the user experience, with the goal of improving sales and retention rates. People loved trying the product, but they weren’t using certain features, nor sticking around long. What this told me was that the marketing was excellent, but the product experience wasn’t. When I joined the team, they were conducting “usability” interviews with new customers. While the system of interviewing customers is great, the problem was that they were trying to do too much with them. They were not usability tests. Rather, they had a few usability questions mixed in with everything from a marketing survey to post sales satisfaction ratings. Moreover, the only place Bloom was engaging customers was after new features were released. At that point the development costs had already been committed, and the team resisted changing or letting go of unused features.
Over the course of a few months, I helped Bloom understand different methodologies and integrated research into their existing design process. I built templates for the team to use and trained them on how and when to use them. As a result, Bloom now loosely follows the HCD approach, testing concepts out before they develop them and then running dedicated usability tests of new feature releases. They still do customer interviews, but these are now focused on the overall customer journey. The insights that come from these three types of studies (concept testing, usability validation, and customer experience interviews) are delivered directly to the CEO and design lead of the company on a monthly basis. He listens carefully and pivots fast, changing the product to continuously improve the customer experience.
I say that Bloom “loosely” follows HCD because they, like many startups, cannot afford a full-time researcher and product manager. I can only give a couple hours a week as a consultant, and Bloom contracts out a user researcher for 10 hours per week to run the tests I design. That, and the fact that the design team changes things faster than we can do research, means that often features are released that have suboptimal experiences…at first. One of the great things about HCD at Bloom is that the CEO wants to learn, and between the various listening posts we have setup, we get feedback very quickly on what needs to be improved. While the system could be improved by taking more time to evaluate ideas before they go to development, he is constantly working to improve the user experience. That attitude, combined with the willingness and ability to pivot quickly, keeps Bloom agile.
In this case study, Bloom keeps their costs low by contracting out research and having internal employees wear multiple hats. It is not a perfect system for sure, but it works. By following HCD principles, Bloom has kept a finger on the pulse of its customers and understands exactly where changes need to be made. Research has helped the company understand where to invest in improvements to both the physical and digital product.
As one example, a significant error found and corrected was that customers were struggling to use the testing kit correctly. This led to inaccurate results and, in turn, a loss of trust in the product. Bloom responded by creating an animated video that walked users through testing and answered questions that came up in the research.
Another issue was that customers were not buying the supplements. We interviewed customers to understand why, and then presented new concepts for a redesigned product in a survey and asked their impressions, what more was needed, and how much they would spend on a custom product. Customer feedback helped Bloom determine the best price point, and they revamped the in-app offering to better meet the informational needs of potential buyers. Sales have increased as a result.
These examples illustrate just two of the many changes Bloom has made to their product while taking an HCD approach. Without continuous solicitation of feedback and iteration, Bloom might not succeed. The company is now saving costs by testing concepts before sending them to production. Bloom also understands the customer experience and where it needs improvement. One return on this investment is that Bloom continues to receive funding, which it puts back into the product to drive its evolution from a startup to a multimillion-dollar company.
So what does this tell us about the value of human-centered design? A company like Bloom started off with unique and cutting-edge testing card and supplement products, combined with a digital ecosystem to support and sell them. One might think that the products themselves are so good that a strong marketing campaign is sufficient to build the business. Bloom, like many startups, did exactly that. It worked for a time, but Bloom was suffering from an inability to retain customers, and no one was interested in the supplements.
Then they more fully adopted human-centered design, shifting their focus from the products themselves to the user experience. The CEO recognized and understood that, while he has a unique product, users can go elsewhere for the same thing. Other competitors were also starting to emerge, so a question the company faced was how to stay ahead. By investing in HCD, Bloom is working through all the challenges, expected and unforeseen, of developing a home wellness product. Competitors will struggle with the same issues, and the ones that make it will be those whose products are easiest and most satisfying to use. The point is that products and services can only be unique for a short time in the modern world, and people always have alternatives. The true differentiator is the customer experience, and HCD is a tested approach to designing products and services that are both needed and easy to adopt.
Multiple sources have shown that the return on investment (ROI) in user experience (UX) and user-centric design is one of the highest rates of return a company can realize in a business investment (Sheppard et al., 2018).In 2018, Forrester research conducted a study that found the ROI of IBM’s design thinking method to be 301 percent (Forrester, 2018).
Calculating ROI requires understanding and quantifying how UX affects key performance indicators. A few performance areas where UX has a demonstrable impact are:
- Development and labor hours to rework or fix problems in a released product.
- Customer service hours spent managing customer complaints.
- Impact on Sales, Net Promoter Score (NPS), and retention.
Given that human-centered design can move the needle in these and other business metrics, it is easily worth the cost of adoption. For businesses that have end-user customers, it is an investment that pays off in the long run. That is why everyone from enterprise software companies like ServiceNow to travel companies like Virgin America and Lyft have fully integrated HCD into their business models. In the aging industry, which is driven by people using products and services designed for them, HCD can be what makes or breaks a company.
Part III: Adopting HCD
If the Bloom case study seems familiar to your experience, you are not alone. Far from it. Many companies do not begin with a human-centered design approach. They adopt it when there is a problem, or when someone on the team has experience with HCD and convinces the team to try it. I am hoping that this article presents a strong enough argument for you to be curious. If you are wondering, “How do I meet the needs of changing aging populations?” or “How can I better compete?” then HCD can serve you well.
HCD works best when you adopt the approach from the beginning. Yet as Bloom indicates, you can realize benefits by bringing it in at any point. In today’s market, UX is a key differentiator, and it is not just for digital products. It is for all products and services, most of which have a digital component. We have already witnessed an acceleration of digital transformation, resulting in more digital users of different age groups, and with pretty high experience expectations. Meeting people where they are at is essential to becoming and remaining competitive.
So how can aging products and services succeed in the face of this rapidly changing landscape? How can you adopt HCD and realize its benefits? While the process may seem complex, there are principles that, if followed, will make a big impact.
- Be agile: release early versions of your product or service and then make adjustments based on the feedback you get. Remember: Perfection is the enemy of good.
- Test your ideas with real or potential customers who you don’t know, and from different segments. You will be amazed how many people struggle with something you thought was obvious and easy. Find and fix these usability errors as early as possible.
- Fail early and often. This design motto sounds harsh, but failure is the only way you learn and improve your ideas. Do it early, when costs are low, to prevent major rework expenses down the road.
- Put people first. You may have a brilliant idea, but it will never succeed unless people find value in it. If you truly want them to be loyal customers (and not just the subject of a clever marketing campaign), give them something they both want and need.
- Invest in a user experience that is efficient, effective, and satisfying. These international usability standards simply mean that a product or service works as intended, is easy to use, and enjoyable. A good UX outcompetes other similar products that may lack in one of these areas. Good usability also helps lower the barrier to adoption, which translates to better sales and retention (ISO, 2020).
In my experience, human-centered design is a mindset, an approach that can be enacted many ways. Does it help to have professional researchers and designers on your team? Yes, of course it does. But anyone can practice HCD on any budget. It just takes time, engagement, open mindedness, and a willingness to pivot.
To conclude, I will leave you with a few resources and a call to action. If you are interested in applying human-centered design to your business, you can self-educate or consult a product strategist. To find these individuals, look for local design groups on social sites like LinkedIn or Meetup. Network online and go to a Meetup event. You can meet a host of talent from product designers to user researchers and more. If you like reading books, The Lean Startup (Reis, 2011) and Build the Right Things (Weiss, 2019) are excellent resources that can inform your strategy. Online, Medium.com is a website for entrepreneurs and designers with tons of “How to” articles written by industry practitioners, and the UX Collective provides both resources and information on conferences where you or team members can learn specific tools and methodologies. And if you are serious about training up a team member, the Nelson Norman group has well designed one to two-day workshops that will enable any UX related skillset. Finally, you can self-learn many of these same subjects with Udemy courses.
These are just a few of the resources that I have curated in my professional career path, and each has served me well with clients. I would recommend them to anyone interested in adopting human-centered design.
My call to action is a thought experiment. People and products define each other, and value is co-created by the interaction between them. How well can a product or service succeed without a deep connection to and understanding of people’s needs, perceptions, and the context of use? I hope in this article I have demonstrated that HCD can improve outcomes by putting the customer experience first, and that it is never too late to make the shift. When customers win, the business wins.
AIGA. (n.d.). Design Ethnography Primer. Retrieved from https://www.scribd.com/doc/46873341/Ethnography-Primer
Forrester. (2018, February). The Total Economic ImpactTM of IBM’s Design Thinking Practice. Forrester Consulting. https://www.ibm.com/design/thinking/static/Enterprise-Design-Thinking-Report-8ab1e9e1622899654844a5fe1d760ed5.pdf
ISO. (2020, Feb 17). ISO 9241-210:2019 Ergonomics of human-system interaction — Part 210: Human-centred design for interactive systems. https://www.iso.org/standard/77520.html
JustinMind. (2017, July 25). How to calculate the ROI of your UX activities. UX Planet Blog. https://uxplanet.org/how-to-calculate-the-roi-of-your-ux-activities-b7ba7023246a
MacDonald, D., Shiever, H., Rekhelman, N., Raza, R., Gerrard, P., & Heacock, D. (2020). Human-centered design is more important than ever. Boston Consulting Group. https://www.bcg.com/publications/2020/the-importance-of-human-centered-design
Reis, E. (2011). The lean startup: How today’s entrepreneurs use continuous innovation to create radically successful businesses. Currency.
Sheppard, B., Sarrazin, H., Kouyoumjian, G., & Dore, F. (2018, Oct 25). The business value of design. McKinsey Quarterly. https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/mckinsey-design/our-insights/the-business-value-of-design#Weiss, E. (2019). Build the right things: How to design and build a product that people will love. Independently published