HCD Guide Series

Design operations guide

How to design solutions based on discovery research
Web designer and illustrator at work on a computer


Reading time: 3 minutes

Get started with design

Human-centered design generally has four phases: discover, design, deliver, and measure. This guide focuses on the operational components of the second phase, design, and should be used in conjunction with its companion design concepts guide. Design happens after discovery research, when you take all that you’ve learned, and use it to create something that improves people’s experiences with a product, process, or system.

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.

This guide explains how to go about the work of design, while the concept guide explains why we do design. Together, the two will give you an orientation to HCD, and walk you through the workflow to move a project from research insights towards product development.


Participants are the people for and with whom design teams work, because they participate in the use of the products, services, and systems we design. 

Thinking of participants as “users” or “customers” sidelines them into simply receiving products, services, and systems. In contrast, “participants” are equal to the design team and the leadership stakeholders, and the project is driven primarily by participants’ input. While designers create prototypes and solutions, they can only create and refine them through continued collaboration with the participants throughout the design process.

Please see the HCD Design Concepts Guide for more details on the reasoning behind this terminology.

Giving participants an active role in the life cycle of our work is sometimes called participatory design. You can take a class from the Lab at OPM to learn more about this practice.

Team structure

Map your team’s skills, resources, and assets to the requirements of your proposed designs, and recruit any needed technical expertise, such as engineering, social work, or graphic design, as soon as possible.

Set expectations

Setting expectations is one of the hardest parts of the design phase. Since you are making something that is not yet known, estimating time and personnel needs is by definition difficult. On the other hand, your design team will need to make some sort of time and personnel estimation for supervisors, partners, and other stakeholders to get approval to start the design phase. The following illustration of the design phase work, and the accompanying framework, will help you envision the work that will occur in the design phase, to help your planning.

A timeline of the different phases of design, with sections for research outputs, existing designs, gathering references, iterating, testing, and piloting.
Click to enlarge the above image

Initial project timeline

Each design phase differs depending on the nature of the thing you’re designing, the bandwidth and expertise of the team, access to the participants and stakeholders, and the scope of the project itself. If necessary, create a rough map of each of these parameters to understand your timeline.

You’ll need to answer the following questions in your timeline:

  • What sort of access do you have to stakeholders and participants?
  • 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 and emotional intelligence? Or is your team heavier on technical knowledge?

The timeline you map at this stage is simply a best estimation of how much time your project will need, based on what you know at this early stage. You can use this estimation to set expectations with your supervisor, stakeholders, and teammates. Hint from a design professional: A good rule for estimating project timelines is to take the total amount of time you think the project will take and then add 20%. This extra padding allows you to absorb the inevitable bumps in the road that come along with creating new products, services, and systems in our complex, multi-faceting work environment.