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PHOTO: Mike Wilson

Companies and executives everywhere are talking about artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, customer experience, design thinking and more. This is a good start. But if they use these technologies simply as bolt-ons to existing processes or as marketing buzzwords, businesses will miss an enormous opportunity.

Whenever design discussions begin with technology as an answer — or worse, the one and only answer — alarm bells should immediately go off. Good design always begin with human purpose in mind, and that starts with good questions.

Before Jumping Into the Technology Discussion, Ask Better Questions

Imagine you’re designing a taxi-hailing app. What is the first question you should ask?

Typical questions might include issues like “What features do competitive apps have?” or “How can we make our design look cooler than others?”

One European app-design team started from an entirely different point of view. They asked, “Who is likely to need a taxi?” and “How can we help them get home safely?”

This led to an “aha” moment and a focus on designing the app for people who have celebrated a bit too much and need a taxi. It also took into consideration that their temporary impairment might make using a taxi-hailing app challenging. So the designers made a wonderfully human-centric decision: if the smartphone’s accelerometer sensor detects the user having a hard time tapping the touch targets, the app automatically makes the touch targets larger and easier to press.

Rather than starting from a position of assumption or judgement, the designers focused on the human purpose.

Companies should ask themselves several questions. Are they designing experiences to be easier and better for the people who must use them, or to be faster/cheaper/more convenient for the organization to execute? What does the organization learn from each customer interaction? Is it capable of acting on what it learns, and just as important, does it want to act?

Related Article: Balancing User Experience and Creativity in Design

Human-Centricity Can Help Lower Costs

Nearly every organization wants to provide acceptable customer service at the lowest possible cost. The human purpose is different: customers want to solve problems as quickly as possible.

These purposes may appear to be in conflict, but they are not.

A lower-cost, AI-driven, self-service model –– one in which technology can help answer up to 75% of people’s questions instantly –– is entirely in sync with the human purpose. For old-line organizations, where the channel mix of customer service is still typically 80% humans answering the phone, shifting to AI and self-service is a fantastic opportunity.

Meeting human needs is at the core of good design. But how can leaders tell if their team’s design is good and truly human-centric? What elements should they look for?

Related Article: Up Your UX Proficiency in These Areas

5 Signs of Genuine Human-Centric Design

1. Conversations are about humans, and only rarely about technology

If the customer experience requires a whiteboard and a long description of the underlying technologies to explain why it’s so wonderful, it’s probably not all that wonderful. Well-designed, human-centered digital design should aim to be invisible. The ideal design is one in which the user accomplishes his or her purpose without any friction.

2. The process focuses on value, not features

Racing to add features is never the answer. Products that try to do everything rarely do anything well. Products that win almost always have a product owner who defines what matters, making sure there is completeness of purpose. A successful product like Apple’s AirPods really only has one feature: it cancels noise and does it really well without buttons or knobs. It is true to its purpose and provides a magical user experience without the cognitive burden of unnecessary features and functions.

3. The output feels like magic, not the process

Strategic design methods don’t mysteriously open a portal to a land of perfect products. Strategic design is grounded in hard-won experience that spans decades. It’s about holistic innovation, shifting from gut reactions of perceived market demands to purposeful action based on genuine consumer needs. Good design thinking means generating and painstakingly testing hypotheses. By researching and analyzing an organization’s internal and external inputs, data and trends, companies can design innovative solutions that range from individual product to massive systemic change. But it’s iterative, not easy.

Related Article: Use Design Thinking to Put Yourself in Your Customers' Shoes

4. Human-centricity is about making the right compromises

The myth of the brilliant, uncompromising designer is just that, a myth. Design needs to be viable, doable and achievable. Successful design is a series of compromises informed by the research and data inputs, and in collaboration to make the choices that matter most to the consumer.

5. Human-centricity aims at creating things that can grow

Aiming for a perfect, standalone product doesn’t make sense in a world where products have subscriptions and are intended to be upgraded and part of a larger ecosystem. In fact, it’s often users who are in the best position to decide how a product should improve based on their needs. The design thinking process needs to respect and embrace that reality.

As businesses speed toward the future, by all means let’s talk about AI, machine learning, customer experience, design thinking. But, let’s make sure we put people first.