Putting the Human into Human Centred Design

This blog post focuses on the relationships between power, user research and design. Consideration of power and empowerment was central to my PhD research, and my community sector roles as well as my user research work. Based on all of these. I believe that. it is impossible to achieve anything more than incremental change without challenging existing power structures. This is because vested power interests and existing organisational structures and hierarchies are amongst the most significant barriers to improving user experience in most organisations.

User Research as Part of Human Centred Design

Something I’ve noticed during user research contracts is that whilst most organisations, most organisations who are forward thinking enough to hire a user researcher anyway, seem to like the idea of taking a user centred approach to product and service design challenges.  My experience however tells me that they don’t always fully understand the full implications of what that means.  Applying user research to inform design decisions means taking a human centred design approach and fully embracing the principles of human centred design often requires disrupting existing decision making and power structures. 

User research is part of a wider process of design and development.  It cannot provide robust solutions or recommendations by itself, it needs a framework to operate within. User research can help a design or development team to identify issues that the people using their products or services frustrating or difficult to use.  Figure 1 illustrates how user research fits with the wider design process.  At each point insights from users feed into the process of making design and development decisions. 

Figure 1  (Savarit 2020)

The design process can be summarised as follows:

  • Start with user needs
  • Design with data
  • Iterate. Then iterate again
  • Understand context

Power and the Ladder of Participation

Starting with user needs links with consideration of power.  I find that Arnstein’s ladder of participation provides a useful framework to consider user research and power.  Some organisations think of themselves as user centred when they are at the middle, doing for, level.  This can include tokenistic forms of data collection through consultation.  Over reliance on survey data is a common issue.  Whilst I fully accept that survey data has its uses, it is more suited to helping understand what users find problematic rather than why.  Engaging in dialogue about why different users have the frustrations they do is necessary to involve them in the process of finding solutions to their problems. 

Figure 2 (Arnstein’s Ladder of Production – Think Local Act Personal 2020)

Understanding Context

Existing structures include existing power structures, cultures and attitudes. As part of the process of making sense of data these contextual factors need to be considered. Due to the importance of understanding context stakeholder engagement and dealing with organisational politics are often considered important components in the practice of user research. I outline some thoughts about how to engage in organisational politics as a user researcher in this earlier blog post

“When people ask me how a typical workday looks for me, I always say that 50 percent of my time is devoted to research planning, execution, or analysis, and the other 50 percent involves politics”  (Sharon 2020).

If the implications of power imbalance are overlooked – power / decisions remain in the designers’ hands, even if users have been consulted they are not actually involved in design decisions.  Higher up the ladder of participation we get to co design.  Co-design as well as giving participants the status of co researchers. It also ventures into complex social issues/ systems change and so  drawing from social science disciplines that have theoretical models around power become increasingly important (Weinstein 2019). 

In my user research, the approach I take to draw upon social science comes mostly through the understanding that I have gained through social science education (which includes 5 social science based post graduate qualifications). In my PhD research I took a more direct approach with the application of Bourdieu’s theory of practice to highlight the existence of social, cultural, symbolic and economic capital within health and technology system structures. Awareness of such structures now implicitly feeds into my process of reflection, sense making and thematic analysis.

Another way of addressing power issues is to involve users in the process of making design decisions not just collecting data from them. Co-design is a process by which users can be considered a partner in the research and design process not just a source of data to be collected.  As illustrated in figure 3, this is reflected in the idea of designing with not designing for.  One way that this can be put into practice is to include users in stakeholder committees that play an oversight role in the research process. Much has been written about how to involve users in this way in participatory action research literature.

Figure 3 (Peacock 2020)

Open Government

In a public sector context co-design has been linked to the idea of open government.  Open innovation platforms have been used to involve citizens in collaborative forms of decision making (Plantinga, P. & Adams, R. 2020).  Getting to such participatory forms of open government however requires culture change and disrupts power as traditional ways of working are challenged as decision making becomes shared.  Another challenge is that existing organisational processes and information management systems in governmental organisations may not be compatible with open government (Hansson 2014).  Boyle, Clark, and Burns (2006) argue that the inclusion of citizens in shared decision making disrupts power as citizens are perceived as experts in their own circumstances.  The implication here is that to fully embrace more user centric and collaborative approaches organisations need to move away from the top down hierarchical structures that remain prevalent in many public and private sector organisations. This relates to a wider philosophical debate about how to best deliver public services. Some argue that better services can be delivered at lower cost by moving away from the idea of delivering services for communities towards delivering services in partnership with them. The Wigan Deal is a well known example for what this can look like in practice.


In this blog post I have highlighted some of my thoughts about how to address the resistance to user empowerment that often gets in the way of effective user research. Much has been written on this issue in design literature and in articles in related fields such as participatory action research. These give many more examples and insights about how to address the issues that I highlight. My point here is that the ideas of co-design that I advocate are not new and should not be considered particularly revolutionary. There are many well documented examples that have shown how well these approaches work in practice. As outlined here, the theoretical and conceptual models that such approaches are based on date back to the 1970’s.

One question that remains is, why are barriers to user empowerment still an issue in user research and design. As indicated in this blog post, my hunch is that this has a lot to do with organisational cultures and structures. In most of my user research roles I have been involved with capacity development as well as the delivery of user research. I have been employed as a user research contractor due to insufficient user research capacity within organisations. Employing user researchers and designers on a contract basis however only partially addresses the issue. For the insights that emerge to have meaning and impact, structures need to exist to enable organisations to act on the insights that emerge.

A related issue that I highlighted in another recent blog post of mine is to do with the skillset of many user researchers and designers. Designers are often often from a visual / graphic design background that does not prepare them for engaging with the complex issues of organisation and culture change that is needed to get to the root causes of the issues that prevent excellent levels of user experience being achieved. I argue that the combination of my social science education and management experience make me well placed to help organisations break down the barriers that get in the way of achieving excellent user experience.

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