WTF HCD? — Adapting the HCD methodology for inclusion.

June 7, 2021
Featured on UX Planet

I’m going to say something controversial here, Human-Centred Design (HCD) sucks. OK, maybe it doesn’t suck entirely, but, wait… let me explain.

I have recently begun to write a book on inclusive and accessible design methodologies. As I began my journey, I was of the opinion that if I was to implement an Inclusive Design approach, HCD was the best methodology to follow. After all the goal of employing HCD is to develop solutions that meet the users needs. But when we think of the complexity of humans and humanity, how can HCD’s approach of one solution for all be accurate?

The Good

What distinguishes HCD from other problem-solving approaches for inclusion is its obsessive focus on understanding the perspective of the person who experiences a problem and their needs. More importantly, HCD determines whether the solution designed effectively meets the user’s needs. At its most impressive, the very people who experience a problem are the most constant part of the design process and when possible, become part of the design team itself.

As the name suggests, Human-Centred Design includes humans, it asks the designer that when they sit down to create a solution for a problem, the first question should always be what’s the human need behind it? The inclusion of humans is great from an inclusivity perspective, it goes without saying that including users within the design process is going to reduce bias and help to produce a better outcome.

There is also the foundational principle of HCD that asks the designer to empathise. Empathy is about understanding the problem by immersing yourself within the communities that will be affected by the design. Designers need to spend time directly with those who experience a problem, observing how their environments work, and consulting experts on the issue to fully grasp all the challenges that need to be overcome in order to create a solution.

This stage, and much of the HCD process is about asking questions instead of making assumptions about why things are the way they are. Those who can adopt an inclusive designer’s mindset when approaching problems that affect other people, will have the greatest success in creating solutions that actually make an impact.

The Bad

So where’s the problem? As with most methodologies within design the outcome of HCD is to provide a single optimal solution that meets the needs of the users, while doing it at speed. Within HCD this part of the process is understood as convergence — the practitioners involved, take the research and concepts and start to converge their approaches, with the ultimate goal of determining a singular direction.

But humans are diverse, we are complex creatures, made even more complex by our cultural and societal influences. Let’s explore a scenario — if I asked you to make a cup of tea, I suspect the way you make it will be either entirely or just a little bit different from the way someone else makes it. This real life example correlates perfectly to the way humans interact with digital experiences. Unfortunately, HCD encourages one approach for many rather than the consideration that there may be multiple approaches for all.

So, OK maybe I exaggerated slightly, HCD doesn’t really suck but as with any approach as we learn more about our users and our processes, it is important that we refine our methodologies. With HCD there are a number of areas we can address to be more inclusive when carrying out the process.

And the inclusive way…

Designers are still encouraged to start with the traditional HCD method of divergent thinking at the beginning of a project, it’s still important to get lots of new perspectives and innovative ideas. Be open to broadening up the design space, and envision endless possibilities, where viable include users — this divergent phase is a time for disruptive design ideas. However, what is important during this stage, is being aware of some of the destructive assumptions about what it is to be human and human behaviour. Question your own biases and the biases of others, be aware that while observing and working with users there are not assumptions made or conclusions jumped to about who they are and their experiences.

As the process and the gears associated with it are set in motion, the problem statement gets further clarified, and teams are making the momentum required to further refine the solutions. This is a time of convergence. Unfortunately, this can also be the time when groupthink is possible. Groupthink is the practice of thinking or making decisions as a group, resulting typically in unchallenged, poor-quality decision-making. Groupthink is also exacerbated when there is a time pressure. To prevent groupthink, assign someone the role of a dissenter, a dissenter’s job is to challenge the ideas by questioning what could go wrong, be it through misuse or unintentional error. A dissenter forces divergence at a critical point within the process.

As the process concludes and the team are headed to a solution, the onus is on the designers and their peers to understand that divergence and dissonance isn’t synonymous with discredit, or lack of thoroughness for that matter. Problem statements, and the users for whom these solutions are created are ever evolving and ever different. Acknowledging the evolution of users, their expectations, journeys, contexts in which they operate, is not only sensical for designers and their peers, but fundamental for a successful HCD process and effective product solutions. As a result, you may find that you need to extend some of your interactions and solutions to allow access for all, the ultimate Inclusive Design goal.

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