Human-Centered Design and The Wallet Project
*leather wallets from Chinatown Singapore, photo taken by yours truly

What comes to your mind when you hear the word design? Color, shape, packaging? In many industries, design is often misinterpreted as the visual layer of a product. The fact that aesthetics is the most obvious aspect end-users see in a product is perhaps the reason why product teams give it more attention. Indeed, how something looks like is part of design, but the functions, why and how those functions are made available to end-users are equally important aspects that are less discussed in many product design process.

Human-centered design (HCD) or user-centered design (UCD) (I’ve found no conclusion of which term exactly to use) is a process that aims to understand not only what the user needs but also why she needs them. Its ultimate goal is to come up with a product that satisfies the user requirements as well as encourage her to use it in  the long term. By following HCD, product teams should not be carried away by technology limitations or decisions imposed by company executives, but rather dig deep on the problems that led to the requests and come up with optimized ways to solve them.

As layman and common sense as it sounds, HCD is not as integrated in the software industry as much as we hope it should be. I am fortunate to be an associate of an enterprise that attempts to engrave HCD not only in the products they offer to their customers but also in the applications used within the company.

A few weeks ago, I attended a 6 hour training on human-centered design where I learned about the Embrace Warmer – a safe, accessible, and ultra low-cost alternative to an infant incubator.* Embrace started as a class project in Stanford University, home of the – founded by David Kelley and funded by Hasso Plattner (co-founder of SAP).

To follow-through with the HCD training, we did The Wallet Project as a team building activity last week. The Wallet Project is a mini project that goes through the human-centered design process in 90 minutes. Participants are paired to build each other’s ideal wallet. The outputs of the activity are prototypes done under 7 minutes given a set of materials provided by the facilitator. Here are the prototypes I came up with given my partner’s requirements; I managed to produce 2 versions. Can you guess what his needs are?

Click for later

An interesting observation raised during the discussion was that there was a significant gap between the initial solution people came up with after hearing the requirements and the final prototype built after receiving feedback about the wallet designs in the Houston session, but not during our (Singapore) session.  One of the participants interpreted this result as a cultural difference. He said that Asians tend to agree more on ideas to avoid conflict, as opposed to our American and European counterparts who would have expressed their concerns on even the slightest flaw of a solution presented to them.

In her book Quiet, Susan Cain allotted an entire chapter discussing the personality differences between Asians and Westerners.** Below is a quote from that chapter which I feel concisely expresses what happened during our training:

“From a Western perspective, it can be hard to see what’s so attractive about submitting to the will of others. But what looks to a Westerner like subordination can seem like basic politeness to many Asians.”

This subordination could have made the Asian designers stick to a solution that doesn’t deviate too far from the requirements given to them, and would have restricted them from being more creative. The same subordination could have made the Asian customers agree to the initial solution proposed by others without questioning the details of a prototype thinking that it is just a prototype, and that their concerns – which they are hesitant to express to avoid a heated discussion – would probably be fixed in the actual product.

Human-Centered Design in Business Intelligence

You might think that HCD doesn’t apply to BI solutions, because we simply get data from sources and transform them into data warehouses and multi-dimensional platforms. As long as we do this process using industry practices then nothing could go wrong – it’s a straight-forward task that is rather technical than artistic. I beg to disagree.

There are many ways a BI solution could go wrong if we don’t ask the root cause of the business requests. For instance, the business would ask for several cubes for different set of data. Since the development team usually don’t understand the business process and how data is spread across the enterprise systems, we will follow the request blindly and consume hundreds of thousands of dollars building multiple cubes; only to find out later we are extracting the same data twice and that the separate cubes could have been one and the same – albeit with perspectives. Had we only asked the business why they want separate cubes, we would have known that when they analyze a certain department or domain, they want to see only the dimensions and facts related to that topic, and not because the source data are logically different.


Human-centered design is a process that aims to create products that address users’ needs (not requests) and help them realize what is more desirable through iterative prototyping and early feedback gathering. HCD is industry agnostic, and therefore applicable when building business intelligence solutions. Finally, cultural differences could impair the results of an HCD process. So whenever you think you are all set to build a product, first ask yourself: Does my design address the root cause of the user requirements? Have I asked all the questions I needed to ask or only the ones I feel would not cause friction between my team and the customer?

* Watch Jane Chen’s TED talk on Embrace here.

** Chapter 8 Soft Power : Asian-Americans and the Extrovert Ideal, Quiet, Susan Cain. Read my book review of Quiet here.

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