Human-centered design: five lessons for urban planners

Human-centered design affords urban planners processes to see what happens when communities take an active role in designing.

Championed by world-renowned design consultancies, like IDEO or frog, human-centered design is an approach to product development that begins with the end-user. Unlike older methodologies, where products were created first, then tested by external focus groups only after being built, this first point of the contemporary design process is all about probing deep into the end-user’s experience, with the assumption that by understanding the context from which a particular problem arises, designers will then be able to better engineer the exact right solution.

Arriving at these insights, however, is no small feat. To do so, consultants take on the role of de-facto anthropologist, embedding themselves in the communities they’re researching for weeks at a time. They interview subjects, observe their lifestyles and daily habits, and try to understand their motivations and desires in hopes of reaching a novel access point to the design challenge at hand. It’s this approach – arriving at solutions out of the direct input from those that the design hopes to serve – that can benefit the work of urban planners, as well, as they seek to engage the local community around their projects.

So, what are some of the lessons from human-centered design that can be applied to urban planning? We’ve developed the following 5 approaches that any planner can integrate into their process to see what happens when communities take an active role in designing themselves.

5 Lessons for Human-centered design

1. Reach out to a Wide Cross-Section of the Community

Integrating community constituents into the planning process isn’t always easy. Certain stakeholders will go out of their way to make their voices heard, but others, will not be as eager to get involved. As a person at the helm of a community-orientated project, it’s your role to listen to the former, but also to reach out and engage the latter.

Consider conducting a series of meetings where all ideas and inputs can be heard, and built upon. You’ll want to announce these meetings in all relevant public forums, but it may also be worthwhile to go out and recruit participation in a more pro-active manner. Talk to local business owners and consider going door-to-door to make people aware of the opportunities for their participation.

It may also be a good idea to ask people to RSVP to these events, so you can scale your staff up, or down, depending upon the expected turnout. A brainstorming session, for example, where 100 people show up, might be better served by having 5 groups of 20 people brainstorming at the same time. By getting an approximate sense of the turnout in advance, you’ll be able to better ensure that these meetings are as productive as possible.

2. Facilitate a collective brainstorming session

A brainstorming session is the best type of meeting to hold first, This format allows you to present the design challenge at hand, and ask for the public’s ideas around a solution. Because everything is on the table at this phase, it’s a space for people to dream big about what they want for their community, which provides you some very valuable insights along the way.

The goal here is to create a space where people feel comfortable to express themselves, and the first way to do that is to remind them that brainstorming is a generative process, where there are no ‘wrong’ answers. Reassure them that the more ideas they have, the better the chances are that they’ll have a few great ones in the mix, and encourage them to share freely and without judgment of their own ideas, or others’.

human-centred design

Photo by wikimedia/cc.

In fact, some of the wildest ideas can steer the conversation in ways you wouldn’t expect, which can lead to surprisingly clever solutions. Part of the art of facilitating a brainstorming session is allowing for this natural flow, and creating space for people to be able to build on one another’s ideas in a way that doesn’t shoot the initial idea down. Your role as a facilitator is to find ways to open the conversation up, so that the ownership of an idea feels less important than the freedom to collectively iterate around it.

A good way to infuse this kind of creative energy is to make the process visual. Have colored post-it notes and write each and every idea that is voiced down, pasting them to the wall as you go. Then, at a later point once the generative phase has ended, you can move these notes around and into category buckets, to start getting a sense of the themes that your solution needs to make sure to address.

There are all kinds of primers for how to run a successful brainstorming session online, including tips for ice breakers, community-building exercises and trust games, if relevant. Do a quick search to see what feels appropriate for your community.

3. Interview the community, as a group

Unlike the wide-open free-for-all that your brainstorming session encourages, a group interview is set up to invite differing opinions and dissent – so be ready for it. The purpose of such a meeting is to capture these diverse points of view, hear everyone’s voice, and also hear these differing perspectives all together, to gain perspective of how the community, at large, operates, and what their values are.

The best format for a meeting of this nature is to have one member of your team facilitating the conversation, and another taking notes, with all participants wearing name tags. The facilitator should come to the session with both a ready-made list of question that they’d like answered by the end of the session, but also with the spontaneity to respond to the feeling in the room with relevant follow-up questions, as they emerge. They might also want to consider singling out individuals, by name, with direct questions so that everyone, not only the most vocal people, has a chance to provide their input.

4. Create a smaller working committee

While in the beginning, it’s important to get a wide swath of the community involved, at the next phase of your project, you need the actual head-down work to happen in a more intimate capacity, alongside community members who are truly committed to the cause. Keep an eye open at the brainstorming session and group interview for people who you might like to tap to get participate in a more demanding capacity, or have an open call for volunteers who might want to dedicate their time to such an effort.

Once the committee is established, empower them to take a full stake in the process, and set expectations around the format and frequency of future meetings – both with them and with the community, at large. It’s important for people to get the sense that they’ll be co-creating alongside you, and not just brought in at the end to react to something that’s already complete. To this end, before you kick off your first round of head-down creative work, make sure you’re on the same page with the committee by reiterating the community input you received in your brainstorming and interview sessions, and describing the direction you plan to head in, as a result. Ask for their input as if they were your client, and incorporate their direction into your first round of actual design.

5. Include wider community feedback along the way

After you’ve worked with your committee across some early iterations to get to a more concrete solution, it’s time to present it back to the community, at-large. It’s a good idea to set these wider check-ins at regular intervals so that the larger community, not just the working committee, can feel as though they, too, are taking part in the project’s creation. By keeping the people you’re designing for abreast of your developments at every point, and soliciting their feedback, you not only generate enthusiasm around the project, but also ensure that the community will integrate and engage with your project, as if it were their own.

The above five steps are just some ideas to help ensure that the public spaces that planners create both reflect and serve the needs of the community they work on behalf of, but there are plenty of other approaches to achieving the same goal.

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