HCD Guide Series

Design concepts guide

Select methods for designing products, services, and systems
A woman sits on top of a lightbulb surrounded by gears, graphs, and computers


Reading time: 6 minutes

Welcome to the design phase! 

You’ve wrapped up the discovery phase of your human-centered design (HCD) research, and you and your team are ready to move into the design phase. In this phase, your team will build on the research you did in the discovery phase. Based on what you learned, you’ll design or evolve a product, service, or system that answers customer needs. 

This guide will help you understand the “why” behind the design process. (The “how” is explained in the HCD Design Operations Guide, and you can find a refresher on HCD principles and practices in this introduction to human-centered design.)

After learning the why, you’ll be able to apply what you’ve learned to other situations, and expand your understanding of how to grapple with complex problems. Our hope is that, eventually, you will be able to take what you’ve learned here and create original work from your learnings.

Note that these design guides are not intended to offer an exhaustive list of design processes. There are many other works that can do that for you, some of which we will cite. The purpose of these guides is to provide context and share some select methods for designing products, services, and systems that will help solve the problems highlighted from your discovery phase.

HCD process

The diagram below shows the overall HCD process: discover, design, deliver, and measure. These phases are sequential, but the process as a whole is cyclical. Each part builds on and references the others, and you can revisit previous phases as needed.

Four circles indicate the four phases of Human Centered Design: discovery, design, delivery, and measurement. Arrows connect these circles to indicate that the process is also cyclical, and steps need to be repeated at different phases. The design phase is highlighted.

Progress so far

Since you have either completed or are wrapping up the discovery phase, that means your team has:

  • Partnered with stakeholders to understand their broad needs and area of desired investigation.
  • Reviewed existing relevant research to understand the quantitative and qualitative data and professional opinions, patterns, project successes and failures that already existed in the area of investigation prior to this project.
  • Synthesized that information and identified productive areas of work that the team can perform to build upon that published knowledge.
  • Based on that understanding, defined a problem frame to investigate and received sign off from stakeholders.
  • Performed qualitative field research that centers on the experiences and desired futures of the people who live or participate in the area of exploration.
  • Synthesized the qualitative data gathered in that field research and compiled it into insights and opportunities for stakeholders.
  • Communicated those insights and opportunities to stakeholders.

If you’re not sure if you’ve completed all these points, or feel that you need more information or direction on them, please see the HCD discovery guides.

A note on team structure

Try to bring the same team members who participated in the discovery phase into the design phase. This team’s in-depth understanding of the research, as well as their practice in working together, will help to ensure a successful design phase that results in a useful, positive experience for participants and stakeholders.

If someone from the discovery phase team isn’t available to join the design phase, review the team structure you built based on the guidance in the HCD Discovery Operations Guide and evaluate which piece you might be missing, so you can find a replacement.

If your design phase will require technical expertise that your team does not have, such as engineering, social work, or graphic design skills, identify and recruit an available and sympathetic expert in that area as soon as possible. By including this person in your core team before you start the design work, the team will benefit from their input, and they will be able to invest more deeply in the project than if they were brought in at the end to simply realize your product, service, or system vision.

HCD Core Concepts

To set you and your team up for success in the design phase, this guide is broken down into several concepts. Knowing the why behind each concept will allow you to apply what you learn into new projects as you continue in your career. These concepts include:

A note on timelines

Each design phase differs depending on:

  • The nature of the product, service, or system.
  • The bandwidth and expertise of the team.
  • Access to the participants and stakeholders.
  • The scope of the project. 

If necessary, create a rough map of each of these parameters to understand your timeline. Try to answer the following questions:

  • What is the nature of your opportunity spaces? Are they big and conceptual? Or smaller and tactical?
  • Do you have a team with many conceptual skills? Or one with deep technical knowledge?
  • Do you have ready access to the stakeholders and participants, or is access less well defined?

If the majority of your answers are strategic, create a generous timeline for your design phase. You’ll need time to break down your design opportunities into workable parts, find partners with the right technical skills, and get on the calendars of your stakeholders and participants.

On the other hand, if your answers are more tactical, consider expanding your parameters to take on a slightly larger, more strategic opportunity space that can increase the impact of your product, service, or system.

A note on “Participants”

Throughout this guide, we will refer to the people for whom we’re designing as participants, because they are participating in the use of the products, services, and systems we design. They might participate by using our products, services, and systems in different ways than we intended, adapting them to their own needs, or they might use them for a while and abandon them. In this way, the participants have an active role in the life cycle of this work. This approach is sometimes called participatory design.

Thinking of participants as “users” or “customers” sidelines them into simply receiving products, services, and systems. This creates either a supplicant (i.e., please give me the thing or service) or an entitled (e.g., I deserve the thing or service without reservation and in the exact way I want it) orientation. This orientation separates and creates a power imbalance between the stakeholders sponsoring the work, the design teams researching and creating the work, and participants contributing their knowledge and voices to the work’s development.

In human-centered design (HCD), both the designers, and the people for whom the designed products, services, and systems are made, participate in the design, use, and evaluation processes. Participants are equal to the design team and the stakeholders, and the project as a whole is driven primarily by participants’ input. While the designers create the prototypes or models for solutions to participant needs, they can only create and refine these products, services, and systems through continued collaboration with the participants throughout the design process.