CIOs find big benefits in shift to human-centered design

As a service organization, Save the Children wants to know the impact of its programs.

And the information it needs to gather to make that judgment differs from data typically collected by reporting software, says Sarah Angel-Johnson, the UK-based NGO’s CIO and vice president of business and technology solutions.

Using traditional measures, around project outputs, was serving neither the workers nor the children they aid as well as the organization wanted. So Angel-Johnson and her IT team have been reframing their thinking, drawing on the principles of human-centered design. They’re creating personas, including one representing children, and considering scenarios from their perspectives, asking, “What do they need?”

“It has revolutionized how we approach technology and data,” Angel-Johnson says.

Angel-Johnson, herself a practitioner of human-centered design, says she started cultivating the discipline within her technology team soon after joining the nonprofit in 2020, believing that conventional IT has often missed the mark in what it delivers.

“My view of tech is it’s a ‘how’ and we’re often missing the ‘who,’” she says. “Everyone wants to adopt tech without asking, ‘Who will use it?’”

She compares that approach to making a car engine first, without considering what the driver actually needs from the engine. “In most organizations that I’ve seen, we start with tech and it’s the wrong place to start. We need to flip it,” she adds.

Human-centered design on the rise

Angel-Johnson describes human-centered design as “a mindset that puts people at the heart of any work; it’s around empathizing with people.”

But she and others note that human-centered design is also a discipline that brings specific skills and techniques to the process of building a product or service.

Technology teams build better, more robust products and services when they have a true understanding of individuals, their needs, and their journeys, Angel-Johnson says.

“I find my results are more robust. They’re closer to what’s actually needed, and I have higher returns,” she says, adding that leveraging human-centered design principles also helps technology teams deliver faster and at lower costs — mostly because they’re hitting closer to the mark on their first delivery.

This focus on the individual — the human element — happens not by chance but by intention.

Angel-Johnson established a human-centered design approach as part of her overall transformational agenda and her digital and data global strategy. She created teams that included practitioners of human-centered design (new hires as well as upskilled employees) who are “empathizing with the users” and working with product managers and software professionals using agile development principles to turn ideas into reality.

Case in point: A team recently created a child-centered tool, which sits on Salesforce, that gathers and consolidates data to illustrate whether all the projects supporting an individual child helps meet his or her needs — something that informs Save the Children not just on a project output but on overall outcome and impact.

Although specific figures are hard to come by, analysts, researchers, and CIOs say there’s a growing interest in and adoption of human-centered design. And with good reason, as adding this discipline to technology shops creates more useful and useable products and services, they say.

To those unfamiliar with the practice, human-centered design may seem similar to user interface design or more broadly to user experience concepts. But human-centered design goes further by  putting the human at the core of the entire process, not just the interface or the experience.

That’s a change from traditional IT thinking, which historically starts with the technology, says Lane Severson, a senior director at research firm Gartner. “The prominent form in IT is machine-driven or tech-centric,” he explains.

In contrast, human-centered design starts with personas and questions around the personas’ needs, wants, and ambitions as well as their journeys, Severson says.

That, according to practitioners, is what sets human-centered design apart even from user-centered design, as user-centered design still starts with the product and then asks how users will use and experience it — rather than starting with people first.

Research shows that a shift to starting with individuals and putting humans at the heart of innovation and ideation produces measurable results. Severson points to Gartner’s 2021 Hybrid Work Employee Survey, which found that employers with a human-centric philosophy across the business saw reduced workforce fatigue by up to 44%, increased intent to stay by as much as 45%, and improved performance by up to 28%.

Despite such findings, Severson and others say many CIOs and technology teams — and organizations as a whole — have yet to adopt the approach. CIOs often have more immediate challenges to address and other workforce changes to make, such as the move to agile development.

Yet Severson says more technology shops are bringing in human-centered design and seeing good returns for their efforts.

Human-centered design in practice

Katrina Alcorn, who as general manager for design at IBM leads the software design department and design thinking practice, has been a human-centered design practitioner for more than 20 years and says it’s not only a mindset and discipline but common sense.

Still, she acknowledges the approach has been slow to catch on. “You’re creating something for a human, but more often than not we have a tendency — especially with highly technical solutions — to start with the core tech and then figure out how to get people to use it,” she says. “That’s just backwards.”

Alcorn says IBM has been strengthening its muscle in design thinking. The company now offers training and certifications, which give not only designers but others working with them a common understanding of the concept and its principles as well as the language.

“What I call discovery you might call the observe phase, so we do have to align our language to be successful,” she says, adding that technologists who are good listeners and who are curious, empathetic and open to new ideas are already demonstrating key elements of human-centered design.

But that isn’t enough to succeed — at IBM or elsewhere. “It’s not enough to hire designers and say, ‘We do design thinking,’” she says. “If companies want to be successful with human-centered design, they have to create the conditions for designers to thrive.”

Here, embedding human-centered design within the product and service teams is key. As is building out those teams with staff who are familiar with the principles, value the approach, and allow time for research and other parts of the process to happen.

“You want to bring your designers in early, in the problem-framing stage,” she adds.

Delivering human-centric results

Joseph Cevetello, who brought the approach with him when he joined the City of Santa Monica in 2017, is one such CIO doing that.

Cevetello, who had learned about human-centered design during his tenure in higher education, is a fan of the approach. “There’s no better way to get to the needs of the people, the customers,” he says. “I can’t think of any better way to approach innovation than to have that human-centered mindset.”

Cevetello, who models the approach to help instill its principles within his IT team, had staffers work on a project with the Cal Poly Digital Transformation Hub using the human-centered design approach to ideate solutions. That effort paid off, as Cevetello saw his team use that approach in early 2021 when developing a mobile app aimed at making it easier for citizens to connect with the city.

Like others, Cevetello says the human-centered design process all starts with empathy. “To me, empathy is the key to all of it, empathy meaning really trying to engage in a robust inquiry into who the customers are and what their challenges are,” Cevetello says, adding that one of his first tasks was getting his IT team to think in these terms. “I had to get them to think about citizens as customers and these customers have needs and desires and they’re experiencing challenges with what you’re providing. It sounds simple, but it’s very transformational if you approach it from that perspective.”

Sathish Muthukrishnan, the chief information, data, and digital officer at Ally Financial, also believes in the value of human-centered design and the need to start by asking, “What do people really want?” and “What do customers need from banking?”

“We have moved from problem-solving to problem definition,” he explains. “So we’re sitting with marketing, sales, internal engineers, finance and figuring out what we’re really trying to solve for. That is different from building something for people to buy.”

To build the capacity to do that, Muthukrishnan created an innovation lab called TM Studios, whose workers engage directly with customers, handle external research and review customer feedback. (Technology team members rotate through TM Studios to gain and enhance their human-centered design skills, Muthukrishnan notes.)

Muthukrishnan also looks for new hires with experience and skills in human-design thinking, and he offers training in the discipline for employees. Furthermore, Muthukrishnan expects his team to put human-centered design to use, starting with the inspiration phase.

“That’s where you learn from the people you service, immerse yourself in their lives, find out what they really want, emphasize with their needs,” he says. That’s followed by ideation — “going through what you learned and how Ally can use that to meet their needs” — and then implementing the actual product or service.

Muthukrishnan says these tactics ensure “what you’re delivering is most useful and extremely usable for the consumers you’re building for,” adding that the approach enables his team to consider all potential solutions, not just a favored technology — or even technology at all.

Ally’s conversational AI for customer calls is an example of the results. Ally Assist, as it is called (“We don’t trick people into thinking it’s a person,” Muthukrishnan says), will transfer customer calls about Zelle money transfer issues to a live person because Muthukrishnan’s team recognized through its focus on customers “that those are issues that need a human interface.”

“That,” Muthukrishnan adds, “is human-centered design.”

Design Thinking, Software Development