The Role of Designers’ Subjective Interpretations in Human-centered Design

Interpretation is the basis of radical innovation

Design is the process of making sense of things, as well as solving the problems that are found through sense-making. Human-centered design is an approach that aims to incorporate the perspective of the user into this process so that the needs of the users are addressed better, which in turn leads to better solutions. In human-centered design, the role of the designer is to formulate the solutions by understanding the user, not by acting on the insights by the designer himself. This article evaluates the previous statement through aspects found in the literature. I start by proposing that human-centered design is always affected by the designers’ perception of the surrounding world and users. I call this collection of emotions, beliefs, and other human properties, the “designers ’ flavor,’ and continue by proposing that it plays a central role in innovation. The claims surrounding incremental and radical innovation are evaluated against the proposition of designers having an important role in igniting innovation.


To design is to create a plan or convention that will lead to a construction of an object, service system, or possibly even an experience. It is a direct result of human decisions and happens whether you do it while aware of it or not. As such, there are no human-made things that didn’t have a design, and the question lies in whether the item is a product of good design or bad design or something residing in between these two opposites. This leads to another way of concretizing the term design by calling it a property of an object that communicates the function of the object through it’s designed to form.

For example, if we imagine a person that is like us in every manner except that said person had never encountered a bucket. Now let us imagine a situation where this person encounters a bucket for the first time in his life. For a short time, this person would not have the slightest idea of the use of the bucket, but in good time this person would learn to use the bucket, for example, to transport water from well. This is a scenario of understanding the bucket’s function as a vessel is only possible because of the form of the bucket.

Additionally, to merely being the property that communicates function, the design is also the process that leads to solving of a problem by making sense of things [4]. The design of the bucket and the bucket itself was not born from a void; it was the result of both encountering a problem of transporting water from a well, and solving that problem. The solution was born from noticing a hindrance in life and solving it by understanding that the solution is constrained by the ones affected by the design. Such is the essence of human-centered design. But understanding human-centered design is not possible by merely reducing it to two components. If we want to inspect the way designers solve these problems through human-centered methods, we have to examine the process from the ground up.

As design is always the result of human decision, the same issues also affect it as other actions based on the human decision [10]. In some cases, these human characteristics of designers such as beliefs, biases, interpretations, and experiences might provide innovative solutions, while in others for example in the case of novice designer’s the solutions might turn undesired [19]. Take, for example the previously mentioned bucket. One designer that has interpreted the main goal as carrying as much as water as possible might design a bigger bucket. While another designer might focus on improving the ergonomics of the buckets handle. As such, it is hard to say which one of the designers have provided a better solution. However, this demonstrates how the design process and its outcomes change drastically based on the actor.

In this article, the design process, according to the human-centered design approach is inspected more closely and the methods employed in it are evaluated against the outcomes. The focus of this article is on the inspection of how the designers themselves play a central role in HCD. We look at a body of literature consisting of articles that critique the effectiveness of HCD and especially its role in the development of innovation. I propose based on the reviewed research that the UCD process is capable of producing even radical innovation, but not without first developing methods to address the human characteristics of designers.

Human-centered design — the basis for incremental innovation

Human-centered design (HCD) is an approach concerned with incorporating the user’s perspective into the process [1,2,14]. According to the ISO-9241–210 standard it aims to make systems usable and useful through focusing on users, their need and requirements, as well as the properties of the users. End products and services that are produced through the HCD process quite often also employ interactiveness, meaning that product is designed, evaluated and redesigned until the product is deemed ready [3,14].

As previously stated one of the key components in HCD is the understanding the humans who are affected by the product or service, also know as the users. [5] The HCD process emphasizes conducting qualitative and contextual research for better understanding of the stakeholders at hand [5,12]. From this understanding, we can produce requirements for the product. A central method in gathering qualitative data is ethnographic field research, which is the process of studying groups and people through immersing the designer into the social setting [6,7]. Immersion is especially essential, as no deep understanding of the subject at can come from only observing the daily life of the subject from the outside. Actual knowledge comes from action and experience in the context [13]. As crucial as immersion, is the production of field notes, transformation of knowledge into written records observation and participation [6]. However, this also points in the design process where individual differences between designers create different interpretations of both the problems that people come across, as well as ways they interact [19]. This, in turn, leads to differences in what type of solutions are devised by the designers.

Where ethnographic research provides sparks for ideas and directions in which to take the product, are many of the HCD methods defining, correcting, and adjusting in their approach [11]. Methodologies such as rapid prototyping, testing, use observations, and interviews are just some of the several methods for finding out how the on-going design process can be elevated to better reflect the requirements of the users. Especially central, this is deemed in the areas of usability and accessibility, where the implicit image that the designer has of these properties is by itself insufficient [8]. This type of “poking” the design in the right direction through iterative changes in usability, functionality, and accessibility could also be seen as a method of hill-climbing that aims to reach the designs local optimum, however, for this work there has to already be a starting point [4]. The important thing to notice from all of this is the fact the there is significant difference in how much designers’ interpretations affect the design solution generation versus how much they affect the development of already devised solutions. In the latter, the interpretations of the designers have a less significant role, as the methods are more structured [8].

Donald Norman and Roberto Verganti have stated that HCD can provide incremental innovation in products, a statement that was based on the observations of the types of innovation in different cases [4]. Before diving into the meaning of incremental innovation, the concept of innovation will need to be concretized. Robert Reimann explains that innovation is often misunderstood and narrowly applied to advances in technology and production methods, but should also be extended to include a human-centered perspective of on empowering people to do more and do things easily [5].

How Norman and Verganti define incremental innovation is similar to Reimann’s narrower definition. According to Norman and Verganti, incremental innovation refers to all the small changes that end up improving its cost-effectiveness, performance, desirability, or result in a new release of the product [4]. Norman and Verganti also note that most successful product undergoes continual incremental innovation, a matter that can be addressed to businesses often trying to beat their competition through better products. Good examples of products that undergo incremental innovation are computers, which often go through periods in which no radical change happens in them but properties such as performance, size, and energy consumption are enhanced with every iteration.

Figure 1. The diffusion of ideas, according to Everett Rogers. The blue line illustrates the successive groups of consumers adopting new technology. Yellow line illustrates the market share and its eventual saturation. Image CC-BY-ND

In addition to the earlier argument of incremental innovation being a driving force behind companies’ product differentiation process, it could also be argued that it is also behind the product adoption rate. Evidence to this can be formulated from the diffusion of innovations theory first introduced by Everett Rogers [9], which seeks to explain how and why new ideas and technology spread through cultures. The central concept of Rogers theory is that the potential users of a product can be categorized into 5 groups, whose sizes follow a normal distribution. Illustration of this can be found in figure one.

Rogers theory can be used to argue that HCD plays a central role in grounding innovation. The earlier mentioned viewpoint of HCD as a hill-climbing strategy is in line with this, as ideally, innovations’ should transition towards the goal of being more accepted by users [4]. HCD provides means for this through elevation of such properties as usability, accessibility, aesthetics, and experience. However, this notation has led some people to state that HCD is not capable of giving birth to radical innovation, as it focuses on incremental change in products. The next chapter will inspect this statement more closely as well as provide a counter-argument.

Radical innovation — where designer's flavor comes in to play

Today the concept of HCD is entirely accepted by practitioners [5.] However, not without critique [4,5,12]. There have been doubts that if HCD process really helps in understanding users, is it possible that it’s obscuring designers’ view of possible solutions and if the emergence of radical innovation is possible through HCD as stated earlier [4,12].

At this point, it’s time to refine the concept of designers’ interpretations or “designer flavor” to reflect on the arguments of radical and incremental innovation development. Although novel by name, designer flavor, or the more familiar individuality is an old subject and topic of research in many research fields such as philosophy, psychology, economics, etc. When I talk about designer flavor, I’m are talking about the the central properties of the human that create the basis for individuality, such as beliefs and emotions that in general can be seen as different mental representations. Our interaction with the surrounding world is based on our representations [11,14,16]. Therefore an argument that design process always is always a reflection of the designer can be made.

Bardzell provides an additional view of the previously stated and argues that the traditional approach of using the truth in the world is insufficient in some areas of HCD [14]. For example, user experience design (UXD) although extensively used and almost a buzzword, has a different definition and scope depending on whom the question is asked [14, 16]. According to Bardzell UX is one the areas of HCD that cannot be addressed by representationalist approach, which means that the correct knowledge is the product of representation (e.g., an idea or understanding) and given external reality. So, for example, the knowledge of how experiences are designed is “not out there” or there doesn’t exist a way to connect the reality and our mental representations [14]. Hassenzahl, who argues that the end products of design do not necessarily reflect upon the underlying needs, provides a similar argument. Experiences have to be designed from the point of understanding why people engage with such experiences, and as we are unable to understand fully how other people experience things [17], we have to someway incorporate our own experience into the process. As such, the designer plays a central role in the HCD process in incorporating these properties to the design, through his understanding of them.

As stated earlier Norman and Verganti argue that HCD in insufficient in producing radical innovation. According to them, radical innovation is born from either change in the meaning of the object or from the development of new enabling technology [4]. They continue that no evidence of radical innovation was found from the products that resulted from the HCD process and concluding that design research and formal analysis of needs is unnecessary for giving birth to radical innovation. The statement can be seen to hold the truth in the case of technological advances. The example used by Norman and Verganti comes from the world of video games. They provide convincing evidence of how the advancement of technology-enabled radical innovation that was sufficiently powerful in enabling the production of an entirely new collection of video games.

Norman and Verganti’s example of a change in meaning reviews how Nintendo changed the video game industry by changing the meaning of video games from a product targeted to niche segments to a product that meant meaningful experiences for everyone [4]. However, it could be suspected that this change in meaning ignited from the efforts of the designers at Nintendo to make video games more accessible by different types of people. This, in turn, can be simplified to consist of two parts:

  1. Understanding who are the users that cannot be reached by merely producing games with better graphics but also understanding why these users cannot be achieved through this method.
  2. Innovating a solution to bridge this cap between video games and a broader audience.

The first part is a direct consequence of understanding the people, which is the product of design research, and Norman and Verganti note that in this way HCD can provide a base for sparking innovation but it insufficient to do so by itself.

I now argue that although Norman and Verganti’s evidence holds in case that HCD is insufficient to produce radical innovation by itself, it is with the addition of designer's own interpretations fundamental to sparking radical innovation. It is the combination of these two that leads to employing a different design space that allows the development of radical innovation. Norman and Verganti’s idea of modifying the HCD process to require simultaneous development of multiple ideas and prototypes is not enough to spark radical innovation. The design purpose must be selected by the designer, not by the beneficiaries and be integrated continuously [12]. According to Sas, Cockton and Reimann and the problem with HCD is not that is doesn’t create radical innovation, as it was never meant do that. The problem with HCD is that it's not efficiently used to spark this innovation and cultivate it after the ignition [5,12,18].

As a final point I want to bring in the aspect of co-design to focus on the second part of the presented development of video games. As stated earlier, there are parts of the design where the truth in the world is not sufficient, such as experience design [14]. In these cases, empathy is central to the design process [18]. In co-design, this level of empathy can be elevated. And while I have argued that radical innovation can be sparked from the combination understanding the user and the designers’ interpretations of the world, there is still a possibility that no innovation is born and even some cases we end up with products that do not truly reflect the user's needs. Co-design could be seen as a solution to this as it has the potential for to provide better understanding of the users, help in making sense of things, and provide starting points radical innovation [18].


This article has reflected on the role of the designer in the HCD and reflected on what is the role of the designer’s interpretation to the process. The focus has been narrowed down to inspection of innovation, making use of the concepts of incremental and radical innovation. I have proposed that designers’ interpretations of the world combined with human-centered design, plays a role in sparking radical innovation. Due to the scope of this article, the subject has been only vaguely introduced and weight has been shifted to inspecting the concept in relation to theories of innovation development in HCD. However, the subject of designers’ interpretations role in HCD is interesting and should be examined on its own, in relation to several other factors of design.

As a conclusion, human-centered design is both a process and approach to how that should incorporate the user throughout the whole design process. However, simply involving user as a mean of incrementally improving the design is not enough. For establishing radical innovation in design, there has to be a way of incorporating knowledge of the user that cannot be found by purely objective methods. How designers interpret the surrounding world provides a starting point for this, but actual user involving interpretation can only be found by co-designing approaches.