Human Centered Design / by Usamah Khan

Photo by    Jonathan Simcoe

Designing a product for people is no easy task. Designing one that can be used in a way to actively help their lives, well, that's even harder. Determining a gap in the needs of a group of people can be seemingly straightforward. But designing with only your assumptions about the needs of the people you are designing for can take whole process a few steps back. You may find yourself building something that's of no use. Finding out the needs of your users, their culture and what they themselves want is key to any design process.

This, I learnt, is the concept of Human-Centered Design (HCD). It's about building a deep empathy with the people you are designing for and really understanding them. This design approach can be applied to all sorts of different industries and sectors like products, services or spaces. In product design, sometimes thoughtful design is just as important as style. In the case of limited resources, the standard approach won't work so you have to be creative to push the project forward. For services, it's all about advertising and understanding what your user base needs. Lastly in designing spaces you need an acute feel of how the space is going to influence behaviour and feel of its users.

These ideas are pretty complicated to take in and when building a product, making a mistake in any step of the process can be costly and time consuming. Luckily, there are lots of great products out there that were designed with this philosophy in mind and some designers who made mistakes have shared their strategies for success.

I really wanted to learn this. So, over the course of 7 weeks from May to June 2016 I took part in a course offered by NovoED and +Acumen in partnership with IDEO to learn the complexities of Human-Centered Design. The course provided an intro to the methods of HCD including research methods, concept generation and prototyping a solution to a real-world design related challenge. I had an amazing time learning and designing with team members from across Canada and I wanted to put together my thoughts, findings and reflect on the time I spent.


The Design Process


So without further ado, the first thing we learnt was at the heart of the whole program - the roadmap for the design process. What we were going to do was begin with an idea and cycle through 3 steps, converging and diverging to meet the needs of the user.

Inspiration ---> Ideation ---> Implementation

Figure taken from Design Kit Manual

Figure taken from Design Kit Manual


This was the roller coaster I was going to ride for the next few weeks.



Choosing a Design Challenge


The first thing was to get inspired and choose a design challenge. Our team was diverse in experiences, expertise, age and lifestyles so things already started out interesting. After some initial icebreakers and mini challenges we quickly started the process. +Acumen had provided a few design challenges to take on and we had to decide what to pursue. We had two options:

How might we enable more young people to become social entrepreneurs?

How might we provide healthier food options to people in need?

We decided to pursue the second option. It wasn't as simple as just voting though. We had to resolve between us what we wanted to pursue and how interesting it was to us. A key aspect to understanding who you're designing for is defining what you know, and then reviewing what you don't know. As it turned out, with all of us combined there was a lot we didn't know.

Firstly, what did this mean to us? From "healthier food options" to "people in need" that meant very different things to each of us. Three of us were students but in different stages of education, from undergrad to masters to a post-grad program, and the last two of us were out of school, but for different amounts of times. While I'm not fresh out of school, I still live with many of the same habits as I used to employ in school. So it was easy for me to empathize with people in that stage of their lives too.

Healthy eating was pretty specific to me. I like to exercise a decent amount and read about good energy filled and recovery foods. So I said eating healthy means getting in a decent amount of carbs (pasta, bread, rice) for energy, lots of chicken and steaks for protein and fats in the forms of cheese, olive oil and nuts. This was my assumption on what healthy eating was. Even now as I type this I'm thinking how could there be anything wrong with this. But after hearing everyone else's answers on what it meant to them I realized I was very mistaken. Some people believed cheese wasn't a good part of a healthy diet. Others were keen to cut out carbs in the process of getting healthier. I don't think any of us had the "right" answer, and I don't think that mattered. What mattered was we were all differently informed and forcing my own opinions on healthy eating on them wasn't going to a) affect them positively and b) help change their habits.

Pretty healthy looking eh? But I'd be willing to wager a body builder looking to maintain muscle or a runner looking for energy would disagree..or at least wouldn't take this on face value. Photo by  Jannis Brandt

Pretty healthy looking eh? But I'd be willing to wager a body builder looking to maintain muscle or a runner looking for energy would disagree..or at least wouldn't take this on face value. Photo by Jannis Brandt


We did agree on some things though. Processed foods were bad and to be stayed away from, eating at home is pretty much always better than eating the equivalent outside and that it was wrong to assume that healthy foods costed more than unhealthy ones. Going on these few insights we started to get an idea of something we could work with.

Defining "people in need" was less divisive, but had much more of a spread of answers. With our ages spanning from 21 to 35 we had different frames of reference. For us, they came in a few categories: people living alone for the first time, young professionals with busy lives, those with no cooking skills and those with simply no knowledge of healthy eating. As it turned out, three of us ended up being those in "need".

This was the first step in the process where I realized so simply that my own assumptions about what the world needs were never going to cut it. Just being with four other people of largely different backgrounds already put me in a place where I could identify the gaps in what I thought I knew.

With our design challenge defined we moved on with the process.


Planning our Research Methods & Learning from People


How were we going to learn about the people directly involved with our challenge and who were those we could reach and are peripherally related? The simplest way it turned out was "just ask them". Interview everyone we can, those within the big broad mainstream and those on either side of the spectrum.

We weren't going to just walk up to strangers on the street though. We had to plan logistics and who were going to meet. Thankfully with a large and diverse group we were able to tap into our own personal networks and get a good spread of answers to go on. Also we had to figure out other things. Where were we going to meet? For how long? Were there any activities we could do together to enrich the interaction?

It was easy to think of who we were going to meet. We had already established we were a diverse group and all had our own assumptions and understandings about our respective social groups. So we made a list of those close to us; students, working professionals and young married couples. We also thought of a few of nutritionists and "health nuts" to gain some perspective on the extreme of the spectrum.

Friends and family were generally happy to share, but that made us think further in to how we needed to create a comfortable space for people to talk. Discussing food habits is very personal. I think it's something that most people judge themselves on. Sometimes during our conversations I found myself asking "are they telling me what they want to believe about their eating habits or are they telling the truth?" I couldn't very well discount the words of every interviewee but making sure they were comfortable enough with me, their surroundings and the conversation was pretty important getting useful insights.

Lastly, we all had to do our own part to do in the research department. Finding secondary sources, reading online journals, books, consulting experts and understanding recent innovations was also something we had to do. Most of the time you aren't the first people to ask these questions so building on the work of others who have gone through this process is a huge time saver and knowledge builder. 


Building Our Interview Guide


With a plan of attack, we needed to put together a questionnaire. To identify our objectives and brainstorm questions we started by interviewing each other. By doing so we identified questions that were insightful and were able to improve those that weren't as good. We didn't want to make a strict questionnaire since we were all quite social people and with an understanding that we wanted people to be comfortable, we had to make room for spontaneity and improvisation. But we did need a guide, a roadmap we could dip in and out of.

To get a good understanding we asked a range of open ended general questions and some deeper ones. 


Open Ended

  • Lifestyle questions

  • What do you do for a living?

  • Do you live on your own or with others?

  • Do you usually just cook for yourself or others as well?

  • Describe your last meal

  • What was in your last grocery list

Probing Questions

  • Describe your fav meal

  • Do you eat at particular times or whenever you are hungry?

  • How often do you do groceries?

  • The last time you cooked, how did you decided what to cook?

  • Do you like to eat alone or with people?

  • What would you classify as healthy food?

  • Do you consider yourself to be a healthy eater?

  • What is it you find yourself eating most often? Why?

  • How do you feel after eating?

  • Does food gets spoilt? How often?

  • Is eating healthy important to you?


These seemed like questions that would give us a lot to work with. Some tips they gave us were try to learn details related to some key categories from where we could glean the most insight. So we made an effort to get some information on personal details, motivations, tried to get out some frustrations and understand their interactions with this topic. In the end, we were happy we had a good chunk of questions to go on.


Getting out in the Field and Interviewing People


The final step was to go out, meet with people and learn about their eating habits. We managed to talk to about eight people each which gave us a wide breath of interviews to pull insights from.

Sample results of an interview. Tried to type as I heard it and isolate key aspects of what was being said

Sample results of an interview. Tried to type as I heard it and isolate key aspects of what was being said

It was fun to talk to people about this stuff, especially people who were close to me. It's not a topic that gets breached very often. 

I found it surprising to talk to my roommate of four years and learn about the conscious decisions he had made about his eating habits over the years. I had no idea about his thought process.  But to be fair, I realized that I had my own process as well but it wasn't something I ever voiced. I mean, who wants to hear about my grocery store habits and why I buy the things I do. 

Have you ever gone out shopping with a friend to get ingredients for a pot-luck or meal at home and find that they're taking a weird path at the store and going about things in the 'wrong' order? It makes no sense! Well, meeting with other people, things started to make sense. Even aspects of my own home! I found out the reason why we had a box of Oreos (that we normally don't have) ended up being because the grocery store moved where the tomato sauce was so my roomate took a different route in the store that led him passed the cookie section.

What was even more interesting was that, other people I interviewed had the same habits to share. I was expecting a large variety of behaviours but it turns out people in the same point of their lives, experience a lot of things the same way. But just ever so differently. Enough to make it weird to me.

Again this brought me back to the idea that this was stuff I never would have thought of or have made an assumption on. Even the absence of assumption was highlighted to me.

With every step taken in a effort to inspire, we were on to the next step - finding the gap in the market to build a product and fill it.


Ideation - Synthesis

Capturing Our Learnings


With all our interviews complete we met up to synthesize and capture our findings. This stage was a lot of fun. We were spread across Montréal and Toronto for the first parts of the project, but for this we all decided to meet up for a week in Toronto. It was time to share stories, identify holes in our planning and capture what people were saying.

To find common themes to build upon we got together and one by one, went through everyone we had interviewed. We captured memorable quotes, interesting facts and observations on almost two whole packs of Post-it notes and hung them up everywhere. I'm a very visual person so this worked great for me and I could tell that it was working for everyone else too. We were able to build rich stories that everyone could really get involved with and feel like they were there at each interview.

Surrounding yourself with information where you physically have to get up to move and interact gets everyones energy up. We met one Wednesday night at 6 and didn't leave till past midnight and we were ready to keep going. There was something so exciting about connecting the dots and working through it all as a team.

Looking through all our notes we needed to find the "Gems" - the most insightful and interesting pieces of information to each of us. Then as a group we organized them into small clusters of repeating behaviours and themes. We kept clustering and refining until we were able to focus on 4 key themes where we extracted the most valuable insights. The recurring themes were quite interesting



  • Vegetable and fresh fruit are allowed to go bad easily

  • People feel guilt when their food spoils

  • No spoilage is rare

  • Prepping ahead of time for meal time mitigates this

  • People search online for recipes for leftover ingredients

  • One solution for spoilage - Turn left overs into smoothies

  • Having a plan and eating with a normal routine generates less spoilage


  • Ditto last statement in "Spoilage"

  • Plans for day are organized around time slots you will eat

  • Consumption of planned snacks helps curb hunger and over eating

  • Planned smoothies made every morning

  • One Spouse was on top of meal planning for family due to being very health conscious

  • Meal planning driven by Buzzfeed inspirations



  • People never learned how to grocery shop (?!)

  • People never learned how to cook

  • A LOT of people learn recipes from Facebook/Instagram via BuzzFeed recipes

  • Using google search for left-over ingredient recipes is common, but unweildy


  • People buy food items on sale even if they don't need them

  • Cost conscious people buy groceries wholesale, ex. from Costco

  • Eating out is considered unhealthy for body and wallet

  • The less money this person spent on food the more satisfied they were

  • Person with "healthiest" lifestyle only spent $25-30 per week on groceries


Some of this seems obvious looking back on it, but one thing that still sticks out to me is the insight "People never learned how to grocery shop". This was a question I started asking in my interviews. I had a hunch and people were alluding to it so I decided to ask it straight out. I even asked myself this, and I don't ever think I did either. My Mom taught me how to put together a shopping list based on a meal plan but the actual act of going to the store, finding a route, deciding on basket or cart, getting a rewards card, shopping on student nights, understanding sales on produce happen close to expiry etc. All of this, I learnt on my own, and quite honestly, it might not be something I would have ever thought to teach someone had I not done this process of understanding food habits.

I keep coming back to the biggest takeaway from this project which is, there's just so much about human behaviour I didn't know and still don't know. But this isn't information people don't want to give. It just takes making some time to understand your own knowledge and planning for the questions you want the answers for.


Insight Statements


With our insights, we tasked ourselves to create "Insight statements". These are statements related to uncovered challenges that aim to help us understand why certain themes emerged and where potential areas for design exist. This was kind of a summation of our findings but concrete statements that we either had the evidence to back up or that we were confident enough to invest time and energy exploring. 



  1. Food spoils because people don't know what to do with it

  2. People feel guilty about waste and spoilage

  3. Those who plan have less spoilage



  1. Planning saves people money as they buy meals for their week

  2. Planning promotes healthy eating

  3. People who plan have a better idea of their consumption habits



  1. People use online resources for planning food lists/finding recipes

  2. Many people never formally learnt how to cook or grocery shop, specifically in a nutritious and cost effective manner

  3. Many people do not know the variety of ways different food may be used


  1. Eating healthy is cost effective (contrary to common belief)

  2. Cheaper foods are more likely to be bought regardless of if they're needed

  3. Buying in bulk is often a means to reduce cost


These insights proved valuable but we had to back up for moment. It seemed at this points our interviews and information gathering had taken a strange turn. We no longer seemed to be focused on our original design challenge of "How might we provide healthier food options to people in need". The people in need wasn't being addressed, or at least what that meant. And while healthier food options was still at the top of our heads, it wasn't a key theme. But what was. We isolated four components that were at the heart of what our challenge had become.

  1. Maximize nutritional value

  2. Minimize spoilage

  3. Maximize savings

  4. Insights came from young adults


We refined our design challenge to "How might we enable young adults to eat better at a lower cost?"

Interestingly enough, here was where we had our first disagreement as a team. Or at least, it was just me that felt uncomfortable. We decided to move forward with a new design challenge because we were veering away from the old one and the rest of team believed that we had diverged too much. I believed that since we were going to build on our insights in the next step, we shouldn't limit ourselves here.

This week's workshop leader was the most experienced out of all us in what he had accomplished  and had built a product once. So he was confident and adamant that we revise at this stage and I guess that motivated us to follow his lead. All the other teammates were happy with his direction, but I was uncomfortable with it, for the first time in the whole process.

It was strange, but I thought back to the workshops the others had lead (mine was coming up) and there were definitely ideas and strategies that had floated by us that the majority of us had liked but maybe one of us didn't. I remembered everyone had compromised at some point. For some it wasn't a big deal, but it bugged me.

Now, disagreements and projects disputes are common place in any workspace. Compromise and understanding are important in maintaining a working team. So this wasn't new for me. But I think the fact that this was project about building on our ability to empathize made that disagreement that much more personal. I imagine that has to be the biggest challenge in the early stages of building a start-up. It made me start to appreciate the teams behind even the smallest of products.

It reminded me of writing music with my friends growing up. Music is so personal that it's very hard to take rejection well. Even simple suggestions are difficult to swallow. You had to really trust who you're writing with, and vice versa. So thinking back on that I decided to let my feelings here go and trust in my teammate. It worked out for the best.


How-Might-We Statements


Moving on was easy now. We had all the insights, but how were we going to turn them into opportunities for design? This part of the process was focussed on taking our insight statements and creating How-Might-We (HMW) questions to launch our brainstorm.

As a team we chose our 4 favourite insight statements relating to each cluster and worked to turn them into actionable HMW questions. We had to make sure we could answer and build on them so we needed to take care that they were neither too broad, nor too narrow.

Insight: People who plan have a better idea of their consumption habits

How might we create planning tools for nutritious meals?

Insight: Food spoils because people don't know what to do with it

How might we provide people with solutions for their leftover ingredients?

Insight: Many people never formally learnt how to cook or grocery shop, specifically in a nutritious and cost effective manner

How might we translate healthy recipes into cost effective grocery lists?

Insight: Eating healthy is cost effective (contrary to common belief)

How might we empower people to eat healthier in an economic fashion?

With this, all that was left to do was brainstorm solutions to each of theses statements. On to prototyping!


Ideation - Prototyping

Photo by    William Iven

Photo by William Iven


For this last part of the project we were on to building and designing a product. We were confident that our insight statements would lend themselves to some awesome ideas. We were feeling good about our dynamic and creative juices were flowing. We made a decision to shortlist our HMW statements to two and go from there.

This was the result of our brainstorming.


How might we provide people with solutions for their leftover ingredients?

  1. "Meals on Wheels" for leftover ingredients
  2. App for inventory of groceries or meals in excess in the area of what is available - building a community by inviting neighbours into home/community center!
  3. A recipe planner - put ingredients in get recipe out
  4. An app for understanding household food economics - “cost per square footage” “cost per meal/head/unit” family structures!
  5. A food sharing, ask or offer platform - “Where can I get butter?” - People who need items can ask from a app/forum. This give a voice to the people who are lacking an item and allows for an avenue to offer an ingredient that may be going bad, to someone who can use it when you can’t. To build a community of food sharing within neighborhoods where users can earn karma and use as a virtual currency

How might we translate healthy recipes into cost effective grocery lists?

  1. A backwards based grocery list app - I want to eat these meals, give me a recipe using ingredients I already have to make to make it!
  2. An app for common substitutes
  3. Bring local trusted members of the community into schools or community centers as food coaches/good eating mentors. Have a rating system to promote best healthy eater
  4. Cooking for yourself is more expensive - batch cooking app to offer community to get rid of wastage. Or batch shopping app where one person buys in bulk and distributes to community – rotating basis!
  5. Having someone/something present in a grocery store (app, person, flyer) equipped with a list of healthy recipes using what’s on special. Essentially: combine items that are on sale into a recipe- e.g. "Pasta Bolognese on sale!" instead of “Tomato sauce and ground beef on sale."

We had A LOT of ideas to go on. This was amazing, everyone was so involved and even though we hadn't built anything yet, every idea came with a sheet of a design prototype, a drawing of the plan in action or a flowchart of activities. Ideas were coming to life and we were feeding off each other so much that we all had a say in each one of these ideas.

But now came the difficult part. We had to choose what we wanted to pursue. We chose one idea from each theme and then put them through a test. We rated them 1-5 in 3 categories:

A. How excited you are for the idea?

B. How innovative the idea is? 

C. How feasible/practical would the idea be to implement? 

It came down to the wire.


"Pasta Bolognese on sale" 

Flyer, person or in store app offering full recipes using items that are on sale

Team score: 45.6/60


"Second Life"

Ingredient exchange platform for foods bought in bulk or approaching expiry

Team score: 47/60

Final Prototype Idea


"Second Life" was going to be our baby. So with that in mind, we gave her a birth certificate (wrote our mission statement).

Many ingredients never find their way into a dish or as nutrition for someone. Furthermore, many people have trouble affording healthier ingredients. This platform aims to provide a "Second Life" to ingredients that are approaching their expiry or were bought in bulk, enabling those in need to gain at a lower cost.

Referring back to our design challenge, how was this going to address the complexities of "HMW enable young adults to eat better at a lower cost?"

We wanted Second Life to provide a platform where highly perishable items (such as vegetables, fruits and meats) could be supplied to people who are looking to save money and eat healthier food options.

With this platform, perishable items will be saved and reused. We found these were core items that tend to drive a lot of the cost of grocery items. If we were to create a community where we give people the ability to share their ingredients they have no need for, or find they can't realistically use, we can minimize spoilage and repurpose and help spread good food that people can make use of.

Plus its free!

We thought it would be really cool to incorporate some aspects of our "Pasta bolognese on sale" idea. Ingredients marketed as recipes are effective because you're no longer selling items but an experience. So as part of our platform, we would include some sort of data tool whereby we'd be able to notify people that "there's chicken kale salad in your area!"

Other ideas we had were batch cooking to decrease initial costs of purchase and offering cooked food to others, promoting a sense of community. The inclusion of a reddit style, yet one directional, "Karma" system would be great so that users can develop popularity. It could also help emerging businesses and entrepreneurs to tap into their communities using the oldest community building tool - food.

The initial idea for Second Life runs on an app platform. But we hope the community spreads beyond the platform and can have different effects based on socioeconomic groups.

  • Kids wanting to share food in a community centre or their schools - builds knowledge of cooking, ingredients and creates health consciousness among them

  • People who need to buy groceries in bulk from Costco/Sam's Club and return with too much to actually use can create a community similar to "Car pooling" but sharing the cost of certain items - e.g. you getting a crate of oranges and "grocery pool" partner getting onions and you trade for your excess.

Plus it's free!


Our Storyboard


Well, it's easy to describe what we want from the product, but to really understand the workflow we brainstormed a storyboard  from both the offer and ask end.

Note. Please excuse my attempt at art..we drew this in the window of a Second Cup



Scene 1

You come home and want to make dinner but notice that you're missing an ingredient. You're a cost conscious consumer so getting a good priced item matters

Scene 2

Open up the app and check "Looking for" and search for "Onion x1". If no matches, post to board and it will push to those in your community. As you share you grow Karma and increase your push radius


Scene 3

You find a match! Get the profile of the user, their ingredients, if they need something and their location and Karma

Scene 4

Go pick up your produce! Or wait for your produce if your friend wants to come over!



Scene 1

You come home, open up your fridge, look around and notice you have lots of food, some of which if you don't use you'll need to throw away. Being cost conscious and knowing you'd feel bad if you let it spoil you think "Someone must have a need for this".

Scene 2

You open the app and post what you have and what you want to get rid of. You wait for matches. If the app doesn't match you, you can post on the forum for people to search.


Scene 3

You find a match! Have someone come over and pick up the produce. Note, by building Karma it'll be easier to connect with those in need

Scene 4

Share your produce! Wait for your friend or go and see them!


Final Thoughts


So that was that. All that was left was to build a prototype and implement it. Unfortunately, we didn't make it to completion before the end of the project. With all our conflicting schedules and we weren't able to dedicate the time to build that this idea deserved.

Building an app takes a lot of time and resources, however we're on our way to building something in the near future. The potential for this app gets us excited. The framework can offer a multifaceted approach to minimizing spoilage, while also building a community in a day and age where neighbourhood interactions aren't what they once were.

Once we build a prototype we hope to iterate on our original product through compiling feedback from forums, tests and reviews of the product. We hope to gain insights regarding the success rate of exchanges on our platform, the value of karma points to users, the frequency of use of the app and the level of success it has seen in minimizing spoilage.

Until then, the key aspect I took from all of this was that design is incredibly exciting, but difficult. At every point of the process I was reminded that my assumptions on how people would react, behave or think were just wrong. I'm confident that even my assumptions on how I think people will use this product will turn out to be wrong. But you have to start somewhere, and that somewhere is the point where instead of assuming you start empathizing and asking real questions as to "What are other people doing?" and "How can I learn more?".

I highly recommend anyone who made it this far to take the course over on NovoED. A new session just opened up and it's free. You'll learn all the tools to approach Human Centered Design and regardless of whether or not you finish the course, build a product, or just do 3 interviews, you'll take something away that'll make you understand humans just a little bit more, and that's always a good thing.


Thanks and References


Just wanted to acknowledge my teammates in this whole process. They were an amazing group to work with and everything I've written is a compilation of their ideas and mine. I would never dream of taking sole credit for this work. Hopefully one day we can continue what we started here with Second Life. Thanks guys!

A lot of the information came from not just the workshop guides but also IDEO's Field Guide to HCD that's available for free!

Lastly thanks to anyone who took the time to read this. Like always, I'm happy to chat, discuss design and global issues or brainstorm with you. Just get in touch