How to better understand people you’re designing innovation for

Looking to learn how to think creatively and brush up on innovative ideas to improve people’s lives? Read up on’s Field Guide to Human-Centered Design. Photo by:

Human-centered design offers problem solvers of any stripe a chance to design alongside communities, to deeply understand the people they’re looking to serve, to dream up scores of ideas, and to create innovative solutions rooted in people’s actual needs.

By keeping people at the center of the design process, and testing your ideas with them directly, you’re far more likely to arrive at solutions that they’ll adopt and embrace. And it all starts with digging in and hearing their voices.

There are a slew of methods you can use to better understand the people you’re designing for. At, we start by talking directly with the people we’re looking to serve, we visit their homes, immerse ourselves in their lives, and present them with different exercises to get them — and us — thinking creatively about what might improve their lives.

Here are five design methods we employ to keep people at the heart of our process. And to learn more about how we practice human-centered design at, check out the recently launched Field Guide to Human-Centered Design. It’s now available for purchase as a book or as a free PDF download.


Interviews are the crux of the inspiration phase for us. Human-centered design is about getting to the people you’re designing for and hearing from them in their own words.

Interviews can be a bit daunting, but by digging in deep with the community you’re looking to serve, you’ll unlock all kinds of insights and understanding that you’d never get sitting behind your desk.

Whenever possible, conduct your interviews in the people’s space. You can learn so much about their mindsets, behaviors and lifestyles by talking with them where they live or work. design teams always share the tasks when conducting their interviews. Make sure you’ve got someone asking questions and someone else taking notes and taking photos.


In our experience, the best route to fully comprehend the people, and the context, for whom we’re designing is to be there in person.

There’s so much to be learned by engaging with people where they live, work and lead their lives. And once you’re in context, there are lots of ways to observe the people you’re designing for.

Spend a day shadowing them, have them walk you through how they make decisions, play fly on the wall and observe them as they cook, socialize and visit the doctor — whatever is relevant to your project.

By immersing ourselves in the lives of the people we’re looking to serve, we get a holistic sense of their communities and the challenges they face. It also allows us to pivot quickly in our research, talk with local experts and bounce our ideas off of people in real time.

Guided tour

Taking a guided tour through the homes or workplaces of the people you’re designing for can reveal their habits and values far better than talking to them on the street. A guided tour is a great method to employ when you’re in the field, and it adds a physical dimension to a standard interview.

When you’re on a guided tour, have the people you’re designing for talk about their environment, and let what you see inspire questions. Take careful notes on both what you hear and what you see. And take photos if you can get permission. A guided tour of people’s homes, workplaces or commute will reveal not just the physical of the their lives, but the routines and habits that animate them.

Conversation starters

Conversation starters are a great exercise that we use all the time to get a reaction and spark dialogue. The idea here is to suggest a bunch of ideas around a central theme to the people you’re designing for and then see how they react.

The ideas we generate for our conversation starters are totally sacrificial, so if they don’t work, we drop them and move on. Some of them are silly, others are really far out, and others still make you stop and think.

For example, if you were working on a sanitation project and you wanted to get people to open up about, say, toilets, you might start with a bunch of provocative conversation starters: What is the toilet of the future, the toilet of the past, a super toilet, or the president’s toilet? The goal here is to encourage creativity and outside-the-box thinking from the people you’re designing for and to use that as inspiration to push the envelope yourself.

Peer observation

We talk to a lot of people as part of our research, but learning from the people we’re designing for can also mean empowering them do some of the research themselves.

We’ve found that social and gender dynamics, or research around a sensitive subject like sexual health, for example, can limit how much people are willing to tell us. But by bringing the people we’re designing for in as partners in our research and giving them the tools to capture the attitudes, opinions and hopes of their peers, we’ve learned more than we ever could on our own. It can be as easy as equipping your partners with cameras, pens and notebooks, and then letting them play reporter in their communities. And you’ll learn a ton about how community dynamics work when you’ve got a team member on the inside.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Aaron Britt

    Aaron Britt leads’s storytelling, editorial strategy, and communications all with the aim of pushing the social sector forward through human-centered design. With over a decade of experience as a writer, editor, journalist and video maker, Aaron's work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, the San Francisco Chronicle, Dwell and others.