Innovating through human centered design


Image credit: CreatEDU Design Thinking

How can we innovate if we don’t know ourselves?

Human centered design | TOMA-Now is working with some really smart, innovative people, introducing different ways of looking at new challenges. One of the approaches focuses on human centered design. This is turning out to be a game changer not only for our social impact partners but for large businesses that are looking for more robust strategy adoption.

Human centered design (HCD) is the practice of design, whereby the end user of a product, process or service is placed at the very heart of the design process. The consumer or user becomes the expert, and the designer a custodian of their insights and stories – responsible for translating ‘real needs’ into something that truly serves the user. It emphasises the voice of the person or group who is being designed for, and relies on interviews, observations and interaction with those who will be impacted by the outcome.

Deep listening and being empathetic

HCD Practitioners understand their research to be rooted in deep listening, in being empathetic as they immerse themselves in environments, suspending all assumptions and bias. This moves designing for towards designing with, and in theory, it replaces interpreting what people need with deeply understanding what they need, by asking them first. For some, this appears to be obvious, and yet human centered design processes so often fail.

For a truly human centered approach to take place, we as designers and design process facilitators are required to create a space where deep truths can surface – Where users can feel grounded, embodied and present enough to share their honest feelings, fears, thoughts and needs. This not only requires the designer to understand themselves in an entirely new way (completely free of any bias or assumptions of their own) but it also requires the users to really know themselves. They are being asked to identify their needs and to communicate them clearly, bridging the gap between being passive recipients of imposed design solutions, and having a sense of ‘agency’ over their own story. This is a challenge for two reasons. Firstly, it asks the user to communicate what their real fears, thoughts, needs and desires are and then asks the designer to translate those accurately. Secondly, it means that before they can share these insights, they need to identify them and there is seldom enough attention paid to how difficult that can be.

Global trends

Globally, we are a culture of consumers who have become so used to being told what we want or need that we adopt those stories as our own. We are consistently exposed to the same stories or types of stories within specific contexts, and in framing our own narratives we repeat what we associate with those contexts. We perpetuate realities without interrogating them. It is understood that when it comes to sexy brands and products we advertise and when we speak of social change we raise awareness. When it comes to commercial products we ask for investment, and when it comes to social good we ask for donations.  We frame our stories within certain contexts, the way we have come to understand those environments, and in doing so we influence the systems that govern our reality.

The strains and stresses of everyday life leaves little room for us to connect with what we truly experience. Whether we are confused youth with too many choices and bombarded with social media, sleep deprived mothers, or living in scarcity, it can be difficult to separate ourselves from the ‘fixed stories’ we have come to claim as our own.

Re-imagining the future

If we are to re-imagine a future and address the social and environmental challenges that we are faced with, it is critical that HCD practitioners are not limited to being informed by insights that are rooted in fixed stories, embedded in the experiences of existing systems. To inform any real innovation, we need to go slower, to be quieter and to understand what it takes for us to gain a sense of agency over our own narratives.  We need to understand how to create the conditions that will allow us to move beyond repeating what we have always heard, and sense into a deeper place of knowing ourselves.

Learn more about how human centered design can create a meaningful impact for your organisation: contact us at

About the Author

3d20c3dAnne-Marie Hanna is a Design Researcher and Story Facilitator and longtime TOMA-Now collaborator.

She holds a Masters in Philosophy, Specializing in Inclusive Innovation |