• Opinion
  • September 3, 2019
  • 9 minutes
  • 1

Bringing human-centred design to your team? Start here

Opinion: How to put humans front and centre in the design process

This opinion article was written by Jodi Leo, VP of Research and Design at Nava, a public benefit corporation that uses human-centred design practices to improve government services. For more like this, see our government innovation newsfeed. 

As the VP of Design and Research at Nava, a public benefit corporation that uses human-centred design practices to positively transform how millions of people experience government, I have the honour of working with a team of more than 20 designers and researchers.

But I know for many organisations, it’s not always possible to hire a user research and design team. Thankfully, there are lots of resources available to help small teams (or even a single person!) bring human-centred design practices into any project, within any organization.

I’ve gathered a few of my favourite books and articles to help you get started. However, you may use these resources in your work, remember Leah Buley’s words in The User Experience Team of One: “If you only do one thing, the most important concept here—and indeed, the most important concept in the whole field—is to actually talk to users.”

Human-centred design

Designing for the Digital Age: How to Create Human-Centered Products and Services, by Kim Goodwin

Kim Goodwin has been one of the most important thinkers on human-centred design for decades. Her book is an essential tome for anyone — in any field, from medical devices to enterprise-level web apps — who’s getting started in this work. If you want to know what ethnographic research is, don’t Google it. The answer you need is in this book.

Human-centred design for interactive systems: International Standard: ISO 9241-210: 2019

These guidelines were created by the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO). ISO is an independent, non-governmental group of 164 national standards bodies, comprising more than 45,000 experts from across the globe. In defining standards for human-centred design, they use concise, refined language that’s useful when talking to government partners. But please note: these guidelines do not address content strategy and are, therefore, lacking.

Indigenous Research Methodologies, by Bagele Chilisa

A writer and scholar, Chilisa is one of the foremost thinkers on indigenous research and evaluation methodologies. Her book is vital to ensuring we include diverse perspectives, languages, backgrounds, and motifs in research preparations and practice.

Lean UX: Applying Lean Principles to Improve User Experience, by Jeff Gothelf

It’s not uncommon to be asked to apply human-centred design within agile processes. Both are popular methodologies but attempts to bring them together can be awkward. In this book, Gothelf shows teams how to fit design into engineering-heavy agile methodology.

But some of my favourite things in this book are the templates he put together to help teams articulate tactical, testable hypotheses. Completing them will help ensure your project is focused on delivering value to users. (I included Gothelf’s “Assumptions Worksheet” in my Crash Course in Human-Centred Design for Policymakers — see page 34 of the slide.)”

The User Experience Team of One: A Research and Design Survival Guide, by Leah Buley

I’ve already mentioned Buley but it’s worth calling this book out again. It’s a great guide for anyone working in an organisation without an army of researchers or designers. Buley makes human-centred design approachable and feasible even for a solo person who may also be new to the practice.

Digital transformation

Articulating Design Decisions: Communicate with Stakeholders, Keep Your Sanity, and Deliver the Best User Experience, by Tom Greever

One of the biggest hurdles for people who are new to these practices is telling the story of design and letting stakeholders know what type of feedback they want and when. This book helps designers remember their audience and also gives practical insights on why you should.

Digital Transformation at Scale: Why the Strategy is Delivery, by Tom Loosemore, et. al.

Loosemore’s name probably means a lot to most Apolitical readers. As the founder of GOV.UK, he’s done a tremendous amount to help people working in civic tech evolve their practices.

The subtitle is the key to this book. Loosemore emphasises that instead of focusing on strategy and “boiling the ocean,” you should deliver smaller projects that you can point to as successes, and then expand your work.

This book is also a helpful primer for understanding the types of stakeholders you may encounter, who may be fearful of change. One chapter, for example, called “Preparing the ground,” describes the value of including important stakeholders from the beginning to ensure success. As he says, “Stories of digital change often leave out the bureaucratic hacking needed in the background. You can’t change anything for good without those skills on the team.”

Human-centred design and policymaking

Beyond Tech: Policymaking in a Digital Age,” by Jennifer Pahlka

Pahlka addresses how designers have been able to make inroads in government and how she hopes this can translate into policymaking. While human-centred designers collaborating with policymakers is still a new frontier, I’m hoping it grows over time.


Badass: Making Users Awesome,” by Kathy Sierra. A video from her talk at Mind the Product San Francisco, 2016

Kathy Sierra distils her brilliance as a game developer and programming instructor into this talk. Intended to help designers think about the actual lived experiences of humans, it will inspire you to hone your design skills every time you watch it. Sierra also produced a book of the same name (which you should buy!) but her gently chiding and passionate presentation makes the video particularly inspiring. I quote her in the introductory lecture of every class I teach; as she says, “The key attributes of sustained success don’t live in the product – the key attributes live in the user. Instead of looking for common attributes across successful products, we must look for common attributes across successful users of those products.”

If you use any of these resources to help bring human-centred design and user research into your organisation, I’d love to hear from you, so please send me an email. — Jodi Leo.

Hungry for more human-centred design? Jodi Leo recently presented her Crash Course in Human-Centered Design for Policymakers in a Webinar for Apolitical members. Follow this link to listen to the webinar, and get Jodi’s top tips for how to put humans front and centre in the design process.

Hungry for more Apolitical? Click here to see all our upcoming webinars — They’re free!

About the author: Jodi Leo is an interaction designer, user researcher, and educator. She is the VP of Research and Design at Nava, a public benefit corporation that uses human-centred design practices to positively transform how millions of people experience government. Jodi has worked with Apple, Citibank, Lexus, and other Fortune 500 companies. She is a professor at SVA Masters in Interaction Design and a critic at RISD.

(Picture credit: Unsplash)


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