How to sell human-centered design

6 min read David Renwick

Picture this scenario: You’re in your local coffee shop and hear a new song. You want to listen to it when you get back to the office. How do you obtain it? If you’re one of the 232 million Spotify users, you’ll simply open the app, search for the song and add it to your playlist. Within seconds, you’ll have the song ready to play whenever and wherever you want.

This new norm of music streaming wasn’t always the status quo. In the early days of the internet, the process of finding music was easy but nowhere nearly as easy as it is now. You’d often still be able to find any song you wanted, but you would need to purchase it individually or as part of an album, download it to your computer and then sync it across to a portable music player like the iPod.

Spotify is a prime example of successful human-centered design. The music service directly addresses the primary pain points with accessing music and building music collections by allowing users to pay a monthly fee and immediately gain access to a significant catalog of the world’s music.

It’s also far from the only example. Take HelloFresh, for example. Founded by Dominik Richter, Thomas Griesel and Jessica Nilsson in 2011, this company delivers a box of ingredients and recipes to your door each week, meaning there’s no need for grocery shopping or thinking about what to cook. It’s a service that addresses a fairly common problem: People struggle to find the time to go out and buy groceries and also create tasty, healthy meals, so the founders addressed both issues.

Both HelloFresh and Spotify are solutions to real user problems. They weren’t born as a result of people sitting in a black box and trying to come up with new products or services. This is the core of human-centered design – identifying something that people have trouble with and then building an appropriate answer.

The origins of human-centered design

But, someone is likely to ask, what’s even the point of human-centered design? Shouldn’t all products and services be designed for the people using them? Well, yes.

Interestingly, while terms like human-centered design and design thinking have become much more popular in recent years, they’re not entirely new methods of design. Designers have been doing this same work for decades, just under a different name: design. Just take one look at some of the products put together by famed industrial designer Dieter Rams (who famously influenced ex-Apple design lead Jony Ive). You can’t look at the product below and say it was designed without the end user in mind.

A radio by industrial designer Dieter Rams.
A radio by industrial designer Dieter Rams.

Why did human-centered design even gain traction as a term? David Howell (a UX designer from Australia) explains that designers often follow Parkinson’s Law, where “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. He notes that designers could always do more (more user research, more ideation, more testing, etc), and that by wrapping everything under a single umbrella (like human-centered design) designers can “speak to their counterparts in business as a process and elevate their standing, getting the coveted seat at the table”.

Human-centered design, for all intents and purposes, is really just a way for designers to package up the important principles intrinsic to good design and sell them to those who may not be sympathetic to exactly why they’re important. At a broader level, the same thinking can be applied to UX as a whole. Good user experience should naturally fall under design, but occasionally a different way of looking at something is necessary to drive the necessary progress.

So human-centered design can really just be thought of as a vehicle to sell the importance of a user-first approach to organizations – that’s useful, but how exactly are you supposed to start? How do you sell something that’s both easily understandable but at the same time quite nebulous? Well, you sell it in the same way you’d sell user research.

How to sell human-centered design

Focus on the product

In the simplest terms, a product designed and built based on user input is going to perform better than one that was assembled based on internal organizational thinking.

When utilized in the right way, taking a human-centered approach to product design leads to products that resonate much more effectively with people. We looked at Spotify at the beginning of this article for a company that’s continuously adopted this practice, but there are countless others. AirBnB, Uber, Pinterest and more all jump to mind. Google and LinkedIn, meanwhile, serve as good examples of the ‘old guard’ that are starting to invest more in the user experience.

Understand the cost-benefit

In 2013, Microsoft was set to unveil the latest version of its Xbox video game console. Up until that point, the company had found significant success in the videogame market. Past versions of the Xbox console had largely performed very well both critically and commercially. With the newest version, however, the company quickly ran into problems.

The new ‘Xbox One’ was announced with several features that attracted scorn from both the target market and the gaming press. The console would, for example, tie both physical and digital purchases to users’ accounts, meaning they wouldn’t be able to sell them on (a popular practice). The console would also need to remain connected to the internet to check these game licenses, likely leading to significant problems for those without reliable internet access. Lastly, Microsoft also stated that users would have to keep an included camera system plugged in at all times otherwise the console wouldn’t function. This led to privacy advocates arguing that the camera system’s data could be used for things like targeted advertising and user surveillance.

Needless to say, after seeing the response from the press and the console’s target market, Microsoft backtracked and eventually released the Xbox One without the always-on requirement, game licensing system or camera connection requirement.

Think of the costs Microsoft likely incurred having to roll back every one of these decisions so late into the product’s development. If you’re able to identify an issue in the research or prototype phase, it’s going to be significantly cheaper to fix here as opposed to 3 years into development with a release on the horizon.


As the Spotify founders discovered back in back in 2008, taking a human-centered approach to product design can lead to revolutionary products and experiences. It’s not surprising. After all, how can you be expected to build something that people want to use without understanding said people?