Is Human-Centricity Still Innovative Thinking?

Katie Hill

Katie Hill

Lead Design Researcher

October 15, 2019

Connected event during Elevate Tech Festival in Toronto September 25, 2019. Photo by #ElevateTechFestival.

The Elevate Product 2019 stream boasted a dazzling and diverse line-up of speakers. After scrolling through the bios and topics for the day, I had high hopes. I eagerly anticipated absorbing loads of new tips and tricks from these eminent product builders, who hailed from some of the top tech organizations in the world. By the end of the day, I walked away surprised, but not in the ways I’d imagined. Unexpectedly, the main takeaway was that many of the themes discussed were already aligned with my practice and way of thinking. 

Initially, I was disappointed. Where were all the coveted trade secrets that I came for? Upon reflection, however, I realized that I was underwhelmed because I am privileged to regularly engage with the issue at the heart of at least half of the product stream talks. Many of the speakers were focused on the importance of understanding your product’s users, by whatever means possible. They were advocating for something that I realized I’ve learned to take for granted as a researcher. 

With that, my disappointment shifted to surprise. I became amused at the discovery that my disappointment was rooted in the assumptions I’d made. By the time we broke for lunch, we’d heard four different takes on the importance of human-centricity from four compelling speakers. But ensuring product decisions are aimed at solving true human needs is something that is literally my job to understand and champion. Surely, (I had wrongfully assumed) everyone else is thinking about that all the time too.

Human-centricity on the periphery

What Elevate Product reminded me is that human-centricity is, in fact, still on the periphery within many organizations. Tackling issues like balancing the needs of clients and customers, how products should be adapted for different cultural contexts, or finding ways to facilitate the creativity of a product’s user base are everyday activities for researchers. We know that these kinds of wicked challenges—raised by Shawna Wolverton of Zendesk, Samantha Stevens of Tinder, and Chris Slowe of Reddit, respectively—are simply not solvable through ingenious fixes or savvy hacks, even for the most qualified of product builders. Instead, it requires you to have a willingness to let the users take the lead, and the humility and hard work to empower them to want to.

For me, it seemed obvious to hear these speakers talk about how they found success by prototyping and testing with power users, learning about a target market by spending time there, or sharing user feedback with folks from across the company at regular cadences. Now, I understand that I am fortunate to not only be familiar with these ideas and approaches, but also to have the ability to put them into practice. Creating products from a place of human-centricity means not just wanting to build products that meet user needs, but also being supported to take the time to find out what those needs are in the first place. At many organizations, gaining that kind of support still requires massive cultural shifts.

Cultivating human-centric organizational cultures

At Connected, creating better experiences for the users of the products we build has always been at the core of our work. Importantly, this focus on users goes beyond just our practitioners, and is critical to the roles of those that support us—operations, growth, marketing, and leadership. As Wolverton pointed out, creating the products that your customers want means the entire business has to buy in, so that we’re all working to create consistent, high-quality experiences.

At Elevate Product, I was reminded that we researchers find great fortune when we wind up in workplaces like Connected—where everyone is onboard to design and develop with user desirability at the top of mind. Of course, when a company deems it necessary to invest in hiring researchers, the odds are in our favour. Nevertheless, as a professional service provider in a growing company, I still encounter the occasional client who questions the basic idea of human-centricity. 

In the world of product, some folks still have a hard time reconciling the “move fast and break things” mindset with the researcher’s call for in-depth understanding of user needs. Citing that Katharina Borchert of Mozilla is currently obsessed with thinking about how to make organizational decision making more transparent to users will be a great boon next time I need to build a case for getting feedback from users on a new onboarding flow. Or, I can champion Reena Merchant of Google’s ambitions to design for what’s meaningful, rather than simply delightful, during my next conversation about what makes a truly innovative research insight. 

Furthermore, events like Elevate Product deepen my empathy for many of my peers, who have higher hurdles for gaining buy in for user research. For folks in smaller or more engineering-focused organizations, persuasive talking points, compelling case studies, and the advocacy of eminent product builders are still much-needed tools to help build the case for human-centricity. Speaking with attendees from start-ups about the talks at the end of the day, I could hear how excited they were about Merchant’s UX hierarchy of needs or Borchert’s arguments for starting user engagement from the premise of openness. For those who don’t yet have research resources or capabilities within their organization’s workforce, I was reminded that simply going out and talking to users is still a daunting idea. I was pleased to learn that the product talks helped them to feel a bit less afraid and a lot more equipped to start baking some human-centricity into their product development process.

In Sum

Even though I did not leave Elevate Product with my mind blown, the talks reminded me to check myself and my assumptions about how other organizations—and humans—operate. It was humbling and eye opening to reflect on the talks with my peers and colleagues, prompting me to remember what I can take for granted as a researcher in a company where human-centricity is embedded in our culture. From my privileged position, my next step is to think more about what I can do to help. Taking a cue from the speakers at Elevate, I think publicly sharing my point of view on the things I learn from other humans ought to be a pretty good place to start.

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