Human Centered Design Isn’t Customer Centered Design

John Garvie

Over the last few years Customer Centered Design has been popularized (to some extent) in the business community. But like most complex topics that hit the mainstream, its meaning has become obscured and confused with Human Centered Design. Let me explain.

Ideo was one of the first groups to popularize the idea of Human Centered Design in business. The idea behind Human Centered Design is that by leaving the office and really listening to and observing people you can get great insights. Ideo and others believe that businesses can use these insights to build stuff people will actually need and use. Makes a ton of sense, right?

Customer Centered Design, on the other hand, is an extension of and deepening of the old adage “the customer is always right.” Similar to Human Centered Design, it uses design frameworks and research methods like ethnography, rich data and keen observation to uncover customer’s new and evolving needs with the goal of better serving them. It’s also a general orientation to prioritizing the needs and experiences of customers over internal business priorities. This includes all business activities from strategy and product development all the way down to tactics and day-to-day operations. We’re spearheading efforts to embed Customer Centered Design points of view inside of companies of all sizes.

Today the terms Customer Centered and Human Centered have evolved to mean the same thing – the problem, though, is that they’re not the same.

Human Centeredness is a commitment to exploring the needs of people in general, using design frameworks and methodologies. Human Centered approaches help companies identify cool new offerings and possibilities but don’t take the needs of existing customers and established relationship dynamics into account.
That means that many of the ideas, concepts and prototypes that come out of using this approach don’t really work in practice for some of the world’s largest businesses with huge existing customer bases. That’s because the approach generally ignores the customers and people that made these companies great in the first place.

Customer Centered Design, on the other hand, is deeply mindful of the existing relationships and social contracts inherent in a customer-company interaction. It doesn’t short change legacy, loyalty, evolving perspectives or experiences over time of existing customers. Customer Centered Design is an approach that takes the nuance and complexities of the needs of existing customers and combines this with an understanding of what new customers may way to need or want to create compound value.

So, to sum this all up, innovation inside of large companies generally works best when Customer Centered Design is used, not Human Centered Design.

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