The "Human" in Human-Centered Design

Posted 5/30/17 by Jonathan Matta in Education


A picture is worth a thousand words. It’s a story - frozen, captured in time - one that both our visual cortexes can make an absolute mess of.

Every picture contains a story that its creator hopes is accurately portrayed. But our greatest deceivers, our eyes, craft a counterfeit by design.

What do I mean by a counterfeit? Imagine a photo of an active learning environment, a bustling classroom. What do you see? Flexibility, yes. Digital and analog tools like computers, pens and papers. Mechanical tools, occasionally. Engaged learners and teachers. Buzz words on writeable surfaces; you bet. Students are learning, teachers are teaching, all is right!

Now dig deeper and really look at the elements and people in that photo. Do you really know what’s going on in that space? While the photo tells an overarching story about learning, there are individual personal stories captured as well. Somewhere in that photo lives the WHY, the drivers behind the personal interactions and the physical space.

Why is that little girl seated at a desk using a notepad and pencil while another is standing at a table swiping away on an iPad? Why are several students enthusiastically working in a group while another is quietly reading in the corner?

You notice groupings of desks, cubbies for storage and chairs stacked in the background. How will those be used to achieve the teacher’s goals? The space is the conduit for connection and the catalyst for engagement, always supporting unique human needs.

These personal stories inform the larger picture. Many times though these personal tales are lost. Someone knows the true intention of that learning space but the meaning is muddied as the photo is passed along. The photo becomes one of the thousands of images we see on a daily basis. Ultimately our eyes deceive us, leading to a “me too” moment. I’ve been there, seen that, I know what’s going on in that learning space.


Human-Centered Design

This is where Human-Centered Design is essential. A Human-Centered Design process simply means that we design for the humans who will use the solution. Design is not based on our preconceived notions of what an effective learning environment is or those “me too” inclinations. Human-Centered Design creates the “why” and also lays the foundation for authentic creation.

What is “authentic creation”? Authentic creation moves a culture towards real change far quicker than the usually adopted strategy of “me too”; “I’m going to jump on that bandwagon”.

Through an iterative approach, innovation is driven by understanding the people and the intended effect and benefit of the design solution. That’s the end game. But where do designers and educators start and what is the process?

Start with empathy. Share in an experience with a student and/or teacher. Viewing a challenge, a learning environment or their education goals brings perspective, removing guesswork and ideas silo’d by our “me too” tendencies. Collecting qualitative data about user’s behavior leads to design drivers that make great design, human-centered design, possible.

One of my favorite empathy exercises to kick off the design process is the “backpack of the future” exercise.



We pass out the notecard above to students when we start to explore and reimagine an ideal physical space. An open question like this allows you to reach a large amount of students and receive feedback on a variety of topics – likes, wishes, wants, needs and desires.

It’s a simple exercise that imposes no limitations on user’s present or future mindsets. It allows free, curious, uninhibited thoughts to flow. After conducting the “backpack” exercise gather everyone’s “ingredients” and group into common themes, synthesizing the information so commonalities and differences easily come to light.

Synthesizing or making sense of this information is likely the most difficult portion of the human-centered design journey. It requires time, rigor, grit and experience. I highly recommend that you approach this process with a team of trusted experts. The insights and outcomes require more than a single perspective. Below is a photo of a recent workshop where a wall of ideas was created through a similar empathy exercise with single ideas grouped together by common, large themes. The results are design drivers rooted in empathy.


Idea Wall_crop.jpg

Next, take those drivers and activate the cultural vision via physical space. For example, if technology integration is a need how does that play with the wish of wanting a maker space area where students use their hands? Do you need separate spaces and different furniture solutions?

From there, prototype and start creating a physical learning environment that embodies the design drivers captured in the human-centered design process. As you work through the process, you’ll discover the importance of each and be able to establish the tools or products needed to make that vision come to life.

As a designer, the human-centered process is so fundamentally simple and yet, it’s hard work. It’s difficult to dive deeply into human behavior, organizational factors and cultural limitations. This work is intense but the end result will lead us away from “me too” and allow us to solve for “we are”.  

“Me too” is fast. Copy the space, take the emotion out of it, distribute, consume, and move on to the next thing.

We aren’t “Me too”. We are designers. We are thinkers. We are human centered and we are here to help you discover your vision of human-centered learning.


To learn more about dynamic scenarios impacting education, view "The Learner's Journey: 4 Learning-Space Scenarios That Reflect 13 Dynamic Trends Impacting the Future of Education".

Jonathan Matta

About the author: Jonathan Matta

Vice President of Education Jonathan Matta is KI's Vice President of Education. He champions a human centered design mindset, and believes deeply in the role that the physical space plays within activating and inspiring change in the future of learning. Jonathan is responsible for research and insight into the education marketplace, and works to guide both the KI team, along with K-12 and Higher Education institutions, on authentic design expeditions. His background is in designing learning spaces, and he has spent time learning design at Stanford University’s “,” along with coursework from IDEO. Jonathan holds a MBA from Seth Godin’s altMBA program, and earned his undergraduate degree at DePaul University. His investment in creative leadership and positive disruption within education are born from his own children, which he will oft reference as “NoElle.”