One of the primary reasons startups fail is a lack of market need. Or, in more straightforward terms: They built a product or service no one wants.

Creating a successful business requires identifying an underserved need, validating your idea, and crafting an effective value proposition. When taking these steps, one way to ensure you’re on the right path and developing products and services the market will adopt and embrace is to bring prospective customers into the process and leverage human-centered design.


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What Is Human-Centered Design?

Human-centered design is a problem-solving technique that puts real people at the center of the development process, enabling you to create products and services that resonate and are tailored to your audience’s needs.

The goal is to keep users’ wants, pain points, and preferences front of mind during every phase of the process. In turn, you’ll build more intuitive, accessible products that are likely to turn a higher profit because your customers have already vetted the solution and feel more invested in using it.

The Phases of Human-Centered Design

Global design firm IDEO popularized human-centered design, breaking it down into three phases:

  1. Inspiration
  2. Ideation
  3. Implementation

Here’s what each step of the process means and how you can implement it to create products and services people love.

1. Inspiration

This first phase is dedicated to learning from your customers. Rather than develop products based on preconceived notions about what you think they want, you take the time to discover what they actually want firsthand.

The inspiration phase requires empathy—the capability of understanding another person’s experiences and emotions. You need to put yourself in your users’ shoes and ask questions to determine what products they’re currently using, why and how they’re using them, and the challenges they’re trying to solve.

A useful concept to understand is Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen’s jobs to be done theory. The theory asserts that customers don’t buy a product; they hire it to do a specific job or achieve a particular goal. By viewing your offerings through this framework, you can begin to develop products centered on your users’ motivations rather than standard customer attributes, such as age, gender, income, and marital status.

Related: Jobs to Be Done: 4 Real-World Examples

To determine the job your customers hire your product or service for, observe how people use it and conduct user interviews. Ask questions such as:

  • What challenge were you trying to solve when you bought this product?
  • What other options did you consider when making your decision?
  • What made you choose this product over the alternatives?

With each answer, you’ll start to generate bold, new ideas. Your goal is to gather as much feedback as possible so that you can begin to spot patterns, behaviors, and pain points that can inform your ideal end product or service.

2. Ideation


The inspiration you gather in the first phase will lead you to the second: ideation. During this step, you want to brainstorm as many ideas as possible based on the feedback you gathered. Remember that, when brainstorming, there are no bad ideas. The only way to derail the process is if you ignore your users’ needs.

As you start to narrow down your ideas to what’s most feasible and viable, build out a prototype you can put in people’s hands and get feedback on. It could be as simple as a paper wireframe or PowerPoint presentation. The objective is to test your ideas, gather input, iterate on those ideas, and then test them again until you’ve developed an ideal solution.

3. Implementation

The final phase of the process is bringing that ideal solution to market. You should first consider where your users are and how they would prefer to be marketed to. Yet, as you roll your product or service out to a broader audience, continue to solicit and analyze feedback.

The iteration process should never end because your customers’ wants and needs will continue to evolve. Your goal is to adapt to meet them. Keeping humans at the center of the development process will ensure you’re continuously innovating and achieving product-market fit.

Related: A Manager’s Guide to Successful Strategy Implementation

Human-Centered Design in Action

A great example of human-centered design is a children’s toothbrush that’s still in use today. In the mid-nineties, Oral-B asked IDEO to develop a new kid’s toothbrush. Rather than replicate what was already on the market—a slim, shorter version of an adult-sized toothbrush—IDEO went directly to the source; they watched children brush their teeth.

They realized in the process that kids were having a hard time holding the skinnier toothbrushes their parents used because they didn’t have the same dexterity or motor skills. What children needed were toothbrushes with a big, fat, squishy grip that was easier for them to hold onto.

“Now every toothbrush company in the world makes these,” says IDEO Partner Tom Kelley in a speech. “But our client reports that after we made that little, tiny discovery out in the field—sitting in a bathroom watching a five-year-old boy brush his teeth—they had the best-selling kid’s toothbrush in the world for 18 months.”

Had IDEO not gone out into the field—or, in this case, children’s homes—they wouldn’t have observed that small opportunity, which turned a big profit for Oral-B.

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Leveraging Human-Centered Design in Your Business

By leveraging human-centered design in your business, you can avoid becoming another startup statistic and instead gain a competitive edge by creating products and services that customers love.

Are you interested in learning more about how you can develop winning strategies to achieve business success? Explore our online strategy courses.

Lauren Landry

About the Author

Lauren Landry is the associate director of marketing and communications for Harvard Business School Online. Prior to joining HBS Online, she worked at Northeastern University and BostInno, where she wrote nearly 3,500 articles covering early-stage tech and education—including the very launch of HBS Online. When she's not at HBS Online, you might find her teaching a course on digital media at Emerson College, chugging coffee, or telling anyone who's willing to listen terribly corny jokes.