Human Centered Design and Precision Listening

Human Centered Design

The Gifts that Keep on Giving  

by Blake McKinlay

I was lucky to start my career with iDE, an industry leader in using markets and business to achieve development goals. Fundamental to iDE’s approach is a commitment to listening to the customer. This mantra is nothing new and for many readers probably sounds like more sizzle than steak. What I have learned is that almost everyone agrees its important to listen to the customer, but few people actually do it well. In my experience, it all comes down two crucial skills that any problem solver needs to master – human-centered design (HCD) and precision listening.

Human-centered design is a creative approach to problem-solving spearheaded by IDEO. It’s about keeping a relentless focus on people as you understand the problem and explore solutions. There is a real science to using HCD and anyone interested should check out IDEO’s Design Kit and Acumen/IDEO’s free online course. I use many of these tools and methods every day, whether I am working to design a better office layout or managing a beta test for The Level Market, but the change in mindset triggered by HCD is the real secret sauce.

What is this change in mindset for me? It’s quite simple honestly – don’t look for the solution that I think is best, look for the solution that best meets the needs of the people that will benefit from it. If you want to bring solar power to rural villages, don’t start by designing what you believe is the perfect solution and then try to convince people to use it. Instead, chat with the families that need power, find out what they like and dislike about their current energy options, and discover what would be their dream solution. Then, design a solution that ticks all their boxes and you won’t need to convince them to use it.

It’s really quite amazing what happens when you truly commit to keeping people at the center. You begin to think differently about how to approach a problem. You realize you don’t have to do all the work on your own. You are forced to admit to yourself (and your company) that you don’t actually know the answer and the best way to find the perfect solution is to work with the actual users to reveal it.

Fundamental to HCD is having long conversations with anybody that may interact with your final solution. These conversations are a gold mine. They allow you to get into the brain of your customers and potential partners and understand what will motivate them to act. Take advantage of these conversations and truly listen to the other person. I don’t mean listening so that you can respond, I mean really listening so that you can understand life in that person’s shoes. The sad reality is that the large majority of us are really bad listeners. It wasn’t until I worked with Whitten & Roy Partnership and learned precision listening that I realized how little of what was being said I actually heard. Precision listening requires removing your own bias, keeping your thoughts to yourself, and making a point to not interrupt. The real goal is to let the person speaking drive the conversation and then look past the words you hear to find the inspiration that is driving them. Everyone you speak to won’t have the answer, but their words reveal their true motivation. If you can tap into that, they will line up to buy a solution when it exists.

When I was in college studying global economics, I would never have guessed that the two skills I would value most later in my career would be a human-centered approach to problem-solving and my listening skills. After using these skills day after day and applying them to almost any problem I have, I can confidently say I drank the Kool-Aid (and I liked it). The best part is these skills are available to anybody with a computer. Take a chance, listen instead of speaking, and put humans at the center. You will be amazed by what happens next!


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