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A Brief Look at HCD

As a developer, you may often forget that a human being is on the other side. You’re working on the backend while the user interacts with the changes you make which manifest on the surface of your site. That’s the cycle, right? Explore ideas, design according to those ideas, refine those designs, and then launch. This is true in user-centered design (UCD), but as practitioners continue to use this principle, a glaring pattern is revealed: that science-based knowledge of human behavior is vague or is downright missing.

Developers often focus on information about user needs, then testing and revising until the design is ready for the world. But it is worthwhile to explore ever elusive human side of the user instead of treating him as a statistic.


UCD is a process-based discipline, while the human-centered design (HCD) approach to product development is rooted in knowledge of human psychology. While the distinction isn’t absolute, it is clear that UCD does not tap into the huge pool of knowledge we have amassed about humans, knowledge that could potentially impact the innovativeness of your design solutions.

One example of how HCD could impact design is how the powerful memory mechanisms humans have for location in a spatial layout, but many development optimizations like responsive GUIs and great content overtakes this mechanism. Some UCD practitioners simply address the human side implicitly through general knowledge and do not design with a deeper intent to tap into the knowledge about how humans think.

The result is design teams often fitting products to the user instead of to humans, and end up with products that generate friction in daily use or burden users unnecessarily. Great solutions are often stumbled upon as well rather than guided by knowledge.

Emerging Patterns

While it is true that psychology is unable to deliver concrete answers in a practical fashion, new theories have evolved to close the gap between theory and practical use of psychological knowledge in design.

A human’s mental resources can be described to have two processes that underlie our behavior, as author Daniel Kahnemann explains in Thinking Fast and Slow. There is a basic system and an intellectual system.

HCD appeals to the basic system of our thought process, and helps to give designs truly intuitive characteristics.

Through Its Paces

One test to help with HCD implementation is by using the peripheral vision to determine whether a layout is sound. Peripheral vision taps into the basic system of cognitive function, whereas focal vision falls into the intellectual system. Peripheral vision appreciates only the coarse structures of the layout instead of the fine details of text and symbols.

Creating layouts and design elements that appeal to our ability to sense macrostructures (good text layouts, simplicity, image placement, etc.) allow for immediate understanding as opposed to having to look closely to appreciate a product.

Consider movie editing principles. With such little screen time, filmmakers are able to get the meaning of a scene across with brief visual and audio cues but the effect is astoundingly impactful. The same goes for good HCD implementation. Create GUIs that support appeal to human peripheral vision to make your content instantly understandable, or embed your own well-edited videos that explain in detail a topic that a certain page in your site talks about.

Of course, combining UCD and HCD will optimize your design process to help you come up with the best quality in terms of human interaction, and the ever-closing gap between theoretical psychology and practical applicability will make HCD even more significant in product development. While HCD is only glossed over here, there are plenty of toolkits, resources and guides to follow in order to give your site that much-needed human element.

Published in Development


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