Keeping the Human in Human-Centered Design

Justin Daab Customer Experience Design

Recently, at Experience Design Week in Denver, we led a round table discussion with a group of experience design professionals who worked for a range of companies; some as large as Amazon and Google, some as small as a recently-pivoted tech startup. No matter the size of the enterprise, we heard the same issues discussed as challenges from nearly every participant:

  • Clearly defining and coming to consensus around what problem to solve
  • Maintaining the perspective of the end customer throughout the design process
  • Designing an experience that satisfies the needs of a broad range of potential audiences—from end consumers to internal audiences and external trade partners

Generally, we’ve found that difficulty with those issues stem from a lack of empathy for, or deep knowledge of, the human beings for whom we’re actually designing the experience. As we advised in the session, we’ve found that infusing the design process with detailed user narratives can go a long way toward solving these common challenges and keeping the human in human-centered design.

Here are a few of the solutions we recommended in our session:

Use storytelling to build understanding and consensus.

Within organizations, perspectives vary. When people only see functional and technical specifications, for the most part, they’ll understand the purpose and vision of the project filtered through the lens of whatever job title or department they hold.

When you take the time to begin drafting a broader story around the project, it helps build a more universal understanding and consensus. When building these stories, we leverage our personas (more on those in the next section) and begin to add highly detailed contextual information to our customers’ journeys. We describe not only what encounters and steps are taken, but also what’s happening in their lives to generate the encounter, what their thought processes are and what emotional triggers and results are at each point.

Our shorthand for this is an emotional requirements document. We’ve found if we can build a narrative that all stakeholders agree on and it conveys the desired outcome on an emotional level, it’s far easier to gain shared understanding and consensus around the functional and technical requirements.

Don’t create personas. Bring human beings to life.

The use of personas in experience design is certainly nothing new. But far too often, we’ve seen companies create them in a fashion more analogous to a generic LinkedIn profile, or worse, a listing of demographic data.

Again, we find more detailed persona narratives add an incredible amount of value to a project. We recommend adopting more of a day-in-the-life perspective. Where and how do they live? Who are the people in orbit around them–friends, family, etc.? What do they do for work? For play? What are the emotions that are driving them into orbit around your brand or your experience? What are they greater social pressures affecting their decisions?

The more we take time to build out these persona narratives, again, the easier it is to communicate consistently across various teams and stakeholder groups. The better we know the humans that are going to use the experience, the better we can all understand how to design for them.

Use story to explore hierarchy and prioritization.

The act of writing a story does a number of interesting things. It forces you, the author, to edit and prioritize to keep the story moving. Further, it lays bare whether assumptions made still ring true when put into the context of a real human making considerations. And finally, behaviors that are too complex to be described well or efficiently are likely too complex to perform and should be reimagined.

When we complete all of our individual persona and journey narratives, we review them and assess what are the common core motivations, needs, desires, etc. Then we explore what differences are significant. In the end, the stories serve as a tangible guide to what’s really important emotionally—which is always a good indication for what should be prioritized visually and experientially.

If you still have questions or would like to chat in greater detail around how to keep the human in human-centered design, please don’t hesitate to reach out at


Magnani is an experience design and strategy firm that crafts transformational digital experiences to delight users and deliver sustainable competitive market advantages for our clients.


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