Human Centered Design: What, Who, Where, When, Why, How

I’ve been on hiatus from this blog since I began curating the blog for GrantCraft. I will try to at least cross-post my personally-authored posts here and revive my own writing as time permits!

Affinity clustering activity following a Rose-Thorn-Bud from Foundation Center’s youth philanthropy retreat, May 2014

What: Human-Centered Design (HCD) puts humans at the center of a creative and critical thinking process that promotes rapid generation of ideas, helps organize and process lots of information, guides group input, and ultimately helps make better decisions. It relies on our human capacity for empathy, as well as our ability to be intuitive, to recognize patterns, to construct ideas that are emotionally meaningful as well as functional.

Who: You! HCD helps to harness the unique perspectives and ideas that we can find difficult to get our arms around. It’s inclusive, allowing all voices to be heard including introverts and extroverts, senior program officers and communications associates, the tech-savvy and people who prefer pen and paper only.

Where: In meetings, at your desk, at strategic planning sessions, in the field. Make sure you’re in a place that has a flat surface like a wall or a table and some post-its, markers, and sharpies.

When: HCD can be used for observing people, seeing how they interact with a product or service, understanding challenges and opportunities, and testing ideas in real-time. In short, there are opportunities at any point in a project to use design thinking.

Why: HCD approaches problems and solutions more thoroughly and thoughtfully by allowing more ideas and diverse perspectives to surface. It focuses on action instead of just thinking, makes abstract ideas more tangible, allows for uncertainty and challenges, and better integrates the human experience.  It supports thinking outside the box and provides anonymity of ideas, making it easier to iterate and ideate as a group without bias or confrontation. Plus, it’s fun and keeps things interesting!

How: Read up, get trained, and seek out resources to find out more. There are a few non-negotiables when doing HCD:

  1. Plan early and with a partner.
  2. Secure necessary supplies.
  3. Set ground rules.
  4. Clearly explain the activity so people can fully participate.

As the activity progresses, you’ll also want to digitally record outcomes (take pictures!) and create a safe space by being mindful of different personalities and perspectives.

Looking for more? Here are three great resources for those getting into HCD:

  • The Luma Institute provides terrific resources on HCD, including books, planning materials, and activity templates. I can personally vouch for their terrific two-day trainings, too.
  • Ideo created a free HCD toolkit designed to help social enterprises and nonprofits “understand a community’s needs in new ways, find innovative solutions to meet those needs, and deliver solutions with financial sustainability in mind.”
  • Beth Kanter’s blog, especially her post summarizing a day-long meeting in which we both participated at a foundation.


Tips for “Networking” at a Conference

Any of you who read my blog (loyal in my extended blogging absence!) know that the word “networking” is a little dirty to me because the intentions aren’t always as pure as “connecting”. However, I’m asked all the time how I approach networking at conferences. Here are some pointers I share:

  • Do your research beforehand. If attendee lists (either specific names or organizations) are available, make sure you know background for ‘important’ people in the room, and ask colleagues/netsuite about existing relationships.
  • Dont spew information. Instead, ask people questions about themselves and their work.
  • Don’t make people feel like you’re trying to sell them something. Instead, listen to what’s on their mind and respond to that.
  • The best conversations are those that aren’t about work at all. Get to know people to really build a relationship. That often means showing a little of your personality; you can maintain privacy, but think about a few topics you could be comfortable talking about outside of work and don’t be afraid to do that.
  • Be careful what you say about other people – you never know who knows who.
  • The best networking often happens during meals and evening activities, so pace your energy levels to make those times count.
  • Write something to jog your memory on the back of people’s business cards as is helpful.
  • Make note of what article or website(s) would be helpful to send to someone in followup to your conversation, and then follow up! Within a week is usually a good call, but up to two is fine.

And, in doing all of this, focus still on connecting and not having a transactional interaction!

What’s Your Slavery Footprint?

This provocative site was shared by a design consultant in a meeting this week. Yes, the design of the site is quite interesting, but the content of the site is what stood out most to me. Spend 10 minutes taking the survey; it’s very illuminating. 

What’s Your Slavery Footprint?

Do things, tell people.

According to Carl Lange, these are the only two things you need to do to be successful, which he (very well) defines as taking advantage of personally interesting opportunities. Matt Swanson wrote a follow-up post with the reminder that telling people about what you do can come in the form of writing, of blogging. I absolutely agree that sharing what you do, what you have a passion for, with other people opens doors; I have found this true in my life with my paid job, side gigs, hobbies, friendships, and invitations to happenings I wouldn’t otherwise be privy to. Nobody wants to listen to a boastful, overly self-confident jerk, but people generally respond well to learning of sincere personal successes. Lesson: Don’t be afraid to share your passions.

Do things, tell people.

Dove conducted an experiment about how women perceive their own beauty. Very interesting to watch.

[Update 4/18/2013: I have heard as much negative about this ad as positive over the last several days. Posting was not an endorsement but rather a spark of conversation. My personal opinion: On one level, this is fascinating to see the difference in how people view themselves from how they’re viewed by strangers. To me, the difference in the second drawing was more a tone, a confidence, that makes someone more ‘beautiful’. On a different level though, I’m bothered by the homogenous subjects (just women in their 30s and 40s of mid-range weight and appearance with no normal blemishes or other noticeable appearance features) even though Dove usually does a better job than most with showing a range of women, and also the idea that beauty means narrower face, less freckles, fuller hair, etc. At the end of the day, I don’t think this ad/experiment is really helpful, and the interesting qualities would be better served outside of the beauty brand context. That’s my take.]

Top 7 telephone tips for calling a company’s main line

You’re calling a general line and don’t know who will pick up. Here’s a list of my top 7 telephone tips resulting in better communication and customer service:


  1. Identify yourself. Who are you and what is your affiliation? It’s very hard to field an inquiry without someone knowing who you are. Most people forget this.
  2. Speak clearly. Especially when calling from a mobile phone and/or outside, it can really be hard to understand you unless you speak slowly and enunciate.
  3. Do not speak in a run-on for 2 minutes before pausing. You might have the wrong number, be talking with the wrong person, and/or information might be lost or confused. You are just wasting your breath. Instead, start with the thematic nature of your question, and ask who best for you to speak with.
  4. Do your background research. If the company you’re calling has a website, look there first for your question. If you’re calling to follow up on previous engagement with that company or a staff member there, have that information in front of you. This sets a tone for a more productive conversation.
  5. Listen well. If the person who picks up tells you their name, company information, reference number, or anything else, note it. In the event that you get disconnected and need to call back, you have information to resume; in the event that your question isn’t answered and you speak with someone else, you have reference materials; if they are helpful, you’ve already begun recording information.
  6. Don’t assume the person who picks up is dumb; usually, it’s a person who knows more than you might think whether their primary job is receptionist or they’re a program employee manning the phones that hour. If they ask for information, don’t assume what they do or don’t know; tell them they information they ask for. They will inquire further or redirect if it’s outside their scope.
  7. Always, always be nice. Say thank you. Keep the tone of your voice courteous and not pushy. I promise that you will receive better assistance.

Simple! Now go make phone calls!