By Crossland Staff Writer

On Human-Centered Design: An Interview With Justine Cassell of Carnegie Mellon University

Higher Education

Crossland team members have long worked as practical designers for their clients—designing business strategies, co-creating solutions to address difficult business issues, identifying key problems to solve, and making roadmaps to solve them. This “art” also has a science behind it. It lies at the intersection of user experience and human computer interaction—the marriage of design and business experience.

Through our network of partners, we have the pleasure of being able to enhance our decades of practical business experience with leading edge designers and academics. Justine Cassell, Director of the Human–Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University is one such expert.

Crossland recently had the opportunity to meet with Justine informally to expand its own knowledge on the topic and learn about forthcoming research. Justine agreed to be interviewed by us so that our clients could gain further insight into how human-centered design and user experience can benefit both businesses and nonprofits.

Q: What is human-centered design?

A: Human-centered design is all about allying design to behavioral sciences and cutting-edge technologies in order to come up with solutions that really work for real people. That means that, in addition to focusing on the most innovative technological solutions, it is also about designing solutions to key problems by accounting for how humans work, think, perceive, and interact.

Q: What differentiates great designers from average ones?

A: The best designers identify problematic situations that can be improved. In the past, it was about designing products; today, the goal is design of services, and in the future, service design will morph into systems design. In each of these cases, problem framing is a unique design skill that allows designers to imagine that which does not yet exist, and identify a path to that desired future.

A core differentiator of a great designer—and what is at the heart of what we teach at the HCII—is identifying the right problems, and figuring out how to approach them. Our a priori as human beings is to design for ourselves—to identify problems that we have, and find approaches that would make us happy—but once you learn to recognize that instinct, you can learn from it and ally it to techniques that allow you to understand deeply who other people are, how they work, think, perceive, interact. We teach our students to repeat the mantra, “The user is not like me, the user is not like me …”

Q: Where is the business world in implementing design capabilities?

A: Right now, businesses are moving away from product design and toward service design. Eventually, businesses will be doing what is already happening in academia, which is working toward systems design—systems of multiple people, and systems of people and technology. Healthcare in America is one system deserving of the attention of systems designers! And we believe the marriage of design, behavioral science, and technology is the way to approach designing a better healthcare system.

Businesses are catching on to systemic needs such as this one. Businesses are also moving forward in participant design processes or co-design, where users get involved in the process of designing for their own lives. This is relevant in the services world where there are many stakeholders involved in the running of the business. Users need to be empowered to use, develop, and adapt the service by gathering information and specifying it.

Another way the business world has illustrated its evolving commitment to design is in the way it manages its talent. Ten years ago, companies didn’t want to hire an HCI person—they thought HCI was the aesthetics you slap on to the marketing of a product: color of the box, shape of the object, etc. Now, businesses are beginning to realize that if they don’t have someone who understands the user, nothing they make is going to be relevant, desirable, or effective.

Q: You’ve talked about how to design for multiple users. Are there ways of involving multiple designers?

A: One method for involving multiple designers is crowd-sourcing, and it’s more and more popular, with good reason!

Sometimes crowd-sourcing involves calling on the crowd to assess the value of one’s design—HCII faculty member Steven Dow is looking at increases in creativity of designs when the crowd is called in. And sometimes crowd-sourcing involves calling on users themselves to participate as both designers and users of a system.

HCII faculty member John Zimmerman has called on this methodology in his Tiramisu system, a smartphone app that allows users to type in what bus has just come by while standing at a bus stop. Users can also report on how full a bus is, or report problems. All this information is then aggregated across hundreds of thousands of users, allowing users to build a system to find out where a bus is and why it’s not showing up on time. This app essentially empowers the citizenry of a city to take public transportation into its own hands.

Q: When you work on big projects, like re-designing the healthcare system, what are the key elements you focus on?

A: Re-designing something as important and omnipresent as the healthcare system requires the ability to imagine a future that is better than the present, and an assessment of how to get to that desired future from the present.

The process involves diagnosing the problem; assessing the landscape; designing an ideal state; and then creating a roadmap for getting there. For example, HCII faculty member Jodi Forlizzi has been working with healthcare providers at a major US medical group and one of the problematic situations she identified was with personal healthcare records.

The problem is that when you go to a doctor in another city or change to a new doctor, you have to go to great lengths to obtain your own healthcare records to help that new care provider understand your healthcare needs. That’s because currently healthcare records belong to a hospital or other healthcare provider, instead of traveling with the patient. On the other hand, the problem with making it so that records travel with the person is that some people don’t want their whole medical history to be all in one place—they don’t want all of that highly personal information in one place.

These are the kinds of issues that are difficult to solve outside a systems perspective on design. One needs to keep all stakeholders in mind.

So it’s important to remember that you need to understand people, a problematic present, and the technological possibilities of a preferred future. This is why managers have to start thinking more like designers. In order to solve complex problems for the long-term, you must understand the problematic present in a deep way, be able to empathize with people who are not you, and figure out how to come up with a solution.

Being able to do this is what puts organizations such as Crossland and institutions such as HCII at the head of the pack.

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