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  • Writer's pictureChrissy Fleming

The Centered Human in Human-Centered Design

I met a 90-year-old woman recently who announced to me, within the first 5 minutes of our friendship, "I just REALLY LIKE people!" This struck me as funny in part because it was said so whole-heartedly, and in part because it was in such contrast to the "ugh, people" tone so many of my friends post.

In an industry as full of buzzwords as ours is, none has quite such a satisfying ring to it as "human-centered." Perhaps the revolutionary feeling we get when we use it is due to being part an industry that habitually refers to the people who interact with our products as "users." In all the blips and bloops of our computerized days, it's easy to lose sight of the humans involved. We talk about hearing "the voice of the customer" when we're feeling benevolent and create acronyms like "pebkac" when we're not. We treat the humans on our teams even worse than our customers, demanding that they give the company "110%"or consider "work hard, play hard" to be an ideal of work-life balance (playing softly or, god forbid, napping, are not options!).

In my days as a full-time product leader, it was often very easy to lose sight of my own humanness. I was commuting with the throngs of people that pour into and out of midtown Manhattan every day, making them and me feel more like cattle. Most company leaders I worked for valued things like working late, or better yet, being "first-in, last-out." They talked to me about extracting value--from our products, from our customers, from the teams I led--and shipping that value constantly. Even before I was a product professional, my classical music training pushed me to strive for excellence and near-perfection. It's so easy to get caught up in these concepts, to lost sight of your own value beyond your output.

I have now spent some time off the treadmill of these relentless professional pursuits, and as I've applied design thinking to my own life and reengaged as a consultant, mentor, facilitator, and trainer of the next generation of leadership, what I've learned about human-centered design is that it is impossible to get right without first being a centered-human.

"...what I've learned about human-centered design is that it is impossible to get right without first being a centered-human. "

The Centered Human

To be a centered human is to live in a way that is consistent with your own physical, mental, and emotional needs and values. The details of this will look different for everyone, because everyone is different, but the overall vibe of a centered human is pretty universal. A centered human knows who they are, what they believe, and what they need. They consistently listen to their bodies and provide them with the nourishment, rest, and activity they need to thrive. Centered humans have spent time thinking about what they want and what they believe, what is core to them and what is extra. They try to act consistently with those beliefs.

This does not mean centered people are perfect! If anything, centered people are well-aware of their own flaws and often pretty forgiving of them. For example, one area of my life where I'm pretty centered is in my parenting. I don't expect that as a mother of two, I'm never going to yell at my kids. That's just my reality. What I have decided is that there's a certain amount of losing my cool that is part of me being a parent, and I've focused my energies on being really good at repairing after a blowup. What's more important to me is living in a way that is consistent with my values--and demonstrating this to my kids. The more I've applied design thinking to my life, the more centered I am on what matters to me. For example, I LIKE my emotions, even the more frowned upon ones, because they help me connect to my kids, my husband, and my community. My anger powers all sorts of activism I do, so I'm ok with it showing up from time to time in less-desirable places.

(If all this centeredness sounds great, I'd recommend Designing Your Life as a fantastic, practical starting point).

Why Only Centered Humans Can Master Human-Centered Design

The focus of human-centered design is to be truly in tune with the humans involved in your product. It requires you to know and understand them, to know what their motivations and deterrents are, what they need, and how well that need can be met. It means listening, over and over again, and asking questions with genuine curiosity. You have to like them enough to want to solve their problems, be curious enough about them to want to learn more. I always thought of myself as a pretty human-centric person and a solid advocate for our customer, and I love the "un-sexy problems," but as I get older and more centered on who I am, I find I'm less likely to overlook a customer's need or desire than I was when I wanted my idea or my deadline to matter more.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that no matter how well-intentioned you may be, if you are routinely ignoring your own needs, depriving yourself of necessities like sleep, or bending your identity to meet corporate expectations, you are probably not in the habit of REALLY listening and advocating.

" matter how well-intentioned you may be, if you are routinely ignoring your own are probably not in the habit of REALLY listening

I've seen it over and over. Team members I worked with who didn't have much self-awareness and didn't like our customers frequently misunderstood them...and that showed in their designs. They ran interviews and asked questions, but they either geared the questions to lead in a specific direction, or they ignored the answers completely, justifying themselves by saying customers always want "a faster horse." Even I found plenty of times to convince myself I knew better than my customer.

A person who ignores their needs will struggle to understand the needs of others. A person who is unaware of their own motivations will have a harder time understanding someone else's. If you are constantly frustrated by your own failures and shortcomings, you're going to have a pretty harsh view of the shortcomings of your customers.

You may be able to master some of the skills, and hear some of what you're told, but if you are in the habit of ignoring what is there in front of you in your day-to-day life, you're going to miss what's there for your customers. To truly connect and center on people, you need to have regular practice. I've found that practicing design thinking on myself and my life has made me so much more insightful and curious with my clients and customers. And honestly, what better human to center design around than yourself? The rest of the humans around you will be all the better for it.

And maybe, like my 90-year-old friend, you'll come to REALLY like them.

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