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From Human-Centered Design to Human-Centered Product

Ten years ago, I led a project for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to create the Human-Centered Design Toolkit, a step-by-step approach to the IDEO process that made the tools of human-centered design open to everyone. Since then, I’ve been a primary advocate of Design Thinking and bringing human-centered design approaches to organizations such as Life Technologies (acquired by Thermo-Fisher), Visa, and government agencies such as the CFPB.

But in the last five years, I’ve started to shift my thinking. The problem with advocating Human-Centered Design is that it can often be interpreted as the exclusive domain of designers. “Design” like “Engineering” is a specific function in organizations, comprised of people with a particular skill. Designers call this the craft of design.

But is being human-centered a craft?

In 2014, when Salesforce embarked on the project to re-invent its CRM experience, the first thing we did was to divorce human-centered design from the craft of designers. The work of human-centered product design — especially the aspects of design that involve developing empathy with customers, seeking inspiration from analogous industries, getting divergent in our thinking, and getting tangible early — would be the work of everyone in the product organization: product managers, engineers and designers. Through that approach, we were able to create the Lightning Experience, the largest redesign of Salesforce’s CRM products, and to ship it a month early, before Dreamforce 2015.

At Amazon, the number one Leadership Principle (LP) of the company is Customer Obsession. Everyone in the company, regardless of title or function, is responsible for “Inventing and Simplifying” (another LP) on behalf of the customer. The work of human-centered product development is the work of everyone in the company, not just designers. As numerous Amazon executives have publicly noted, this customer obsession permeates the organization and is the #1 reason for Amazon’s success.

I think it’s time we stop talking about Human-Centered Design and start talking about Human-Centered Product. Human-Centeredness in creating and developing products is everyone’s job, and should not be limited to people who can use the Sketch program or who graduated from an art school. While designers are the first to say this (usually), in too many companies, when the word “design” is mentioned, it is automatically bucketed into the mental category of user interfaces and making the product pretty.

On the other hand, too much of our Product organizations — especially in the tech industry — are dominated by Technology-Centered and Product-Centered approaches. Human-centeredness is too often an afterthought, something that comes later in the marketing, sales, or UI design phases of product development. By talking about Human-Centered Product, we will also shift the focus from technology to people as the starting point in product development. Humans (customers, users, partners) should inspire the “what should we build” of product. And then technology, art, marketing, and brand as the elements that provide the “how should we build it.” Just like brand, engineering constrains the what we build conversation, but should not over-determine it. Customer obsession and the value we are building for customers should come first.

Starting with a Human-Centered approach to Product also means hiring human-centered product leaders and training/rewarding our product teams for their ability to focus and create value for customers. While this seems obvious coming from an organization like Amazon, where customers are at the center of everything, in some tech organizations, this might be met with some resistance and will require change management.

What do you think?

Should we stop talking about Human-Centered Design and start talking about Human-Centered Product? Would this be welcomed in your organization?

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