Inspiration: How to understand the people

Human centered design was born with the aim of designing solutions that are human focused. To find the best solution when innovation is a big task and time taking as one have to fully empathize with the people. In HCD, one places the people he is trying to serve and other important stakeholders at the center of the design and implementation process. The focus is on understanding the dynamics between stakeholders and the system. These people are not abstract “users”, they are real human beings who will use your product to accomplish their goals. So how do we understand the people we are trying to serve?

Techniques and steps to understand the people

Include the Right People in the Process

It is critical to choose whom to include before understanding the people. Users differ depending on what the designer wants to achieve or innovate. To choose the right people to start by defining the criteria of the participant. In many cases, a user persona will be more effective in mapping all the criteria of the people you want to serve, thus deciding on the right participants. Groups to consider including in user research are people who:

  • Currently, use a similar service.
  • Do not currently use a similar service but may need it in the future
  • Have problems using a similar service
  • Work in the service / help others use the service 

Direct Engagement with People Who use the Product

To understand the people you are designing for, you need to engage with them, talk to them, and give them a room to talk to you. To engage with the people, these steps are crucial as they somehow allow you to feel what they feel using the product.

Observation:  To observe the people you are trying to help, you need to put them in their natural context and observe their context of use. Context of use can be defined as how systems are employed in the real world. Observation helps to understand how people do things, how they solve the problem you identified and their ongoing behavior in a realistic situation. Using interviews or surveys, participants or the people may tend not to say the whole truth to please the interviewer or to get over it, but observation will allow you to see their pain points and places where users have a difficult time doing something in their natural context, which increase your understanding of them. Observation helps to see what people do and not what people say they do.

Nothing has such power to broaden the mind as the ability to investigate systematically and truly all that comes under thy observation in life.

Marcus Aurelius

Research and understand the context of use with questionnaires/interviews and surveys: This is not entirely effective as observation, but it is also one of the tools to use to understand the people. Interviews can fix biases the designer had in mind. In many cases, the designer has a shallow understanding of the context and thinks the people are in the same situation as he/she is. Using interviews and questionnaires, one can get people’s thoughts, beliefs, and motivations more deeply. Interviews will allow us to know, understand and explore people’s behavior and thoughts. Doing surveys is an excellent way to validate the information gathered from observations and interviews as they can be shared with a more significant number of people the designer could not observe or interview. However, to fully understand the people, try to limit the rush when doing interviews and surveys, especially surveys, as users can rush through without too much thought. 

Active Listening: To understand the people you are trying to serve, listening skill is a must. Active listening is to earnestly listen and show an interest in what the person is saying. It will make the interviewee feel comfortable to share more and valuable information. It will also help you concentrate on the person and what he is saying so that you do not miss anything, including body language.

Understanding the people through evaluation: At the evaluation stage during iteration, The designer can understand more the people. Users will give valuable insights on the product itself and if the system’s functionality is matched to the user’s expectations. For the designer, It becomes effortless to understand how easy the system is to learn for the user, how satisfied the user is with interacting with the system and identify areas of the design that negatively impact workload and trust. However, evaluation as a way of understanding the people should only be used at the end of the HCD process, precisely in the iteration process. Otherwise, it will be a waste of inputs to understand the people when you already have a non-people-focused product. Understanding the people start from stage 1 of empathy and ideation and goes till iteration. For example, if a nail manufacturer decides to do quality control at the end of the manufacturing line, it is useless because inputs would be lost, yet he could have performed a sequential quality check at various points to avoid total loss of inputs.

What They Say and What They Don’t Say

People do not always give all the details. They may withhold information out of fear, distrust, or some other factor. Moreover, people have different communication skills levels. Some may express themselves in ways not highly articulate. To understand them, the designer has to try to understand what is not being said or what is being hinted at. Designers need to develop intuition, imagination, and empathy to dig deeper without being too inquisitive about extracting the right kinds of insight. Designers need empathy to understand people thoroughly. There are some thoughtless acts or hints, or twisted words a user can do or say that can be a good insight for the development of your product. We can find opportunities for new solutions to help people within unconscious acts.

Mix user goals with user preferences to identify people’s need

Goals are the things users need to do, and the preferences are what the user may want or like, such as layouts, colors, style. Let me explain this with an example. People interact with an e-commerce website so that they can access a service they want to shop for. Their goal is to shop, not interact with the website. However, if the website does not have an excellent UX that matches the users’ preferences, users will tend not to achieve their goal, which was shopping—so understanding the users in understanding their goals and preferences and mix the two.

If a designer combines all these techniques stated above, he can be sure that he is on the right path to designing the right thing.

Blog written By:

Michaella Mpundu

Jean de Dieu Manishimwe

Jules Iradukunda


[1]”IDEO’s Human Centered Design Process: How to Make Things People Love | UserTesting Blog”, UserTesting, 2021. [Online]. Available:,and

%20feel%20what%20they%20fee.  [Accessed: 04- Oct- 2021].

[2]M. Gray, “Active Listening: Mastering the art of engaging conversation – Nomat”, Nomat, 2021. [Online]. Available:  [Accessed: 04- Oct- 2021].

[3]”Simple, clear and fast public services”, Digital transformation Agency, 2021. [Online]. Available:  [Accessed: 04- Oct- 2021].

[4]”What is Human-Centered Design”,, 2021. [Online]. Available:  [Accessed: 04- Oct- 2021].

29 thoughts on “Inspiration: How to understand the people

  1. Thanks for this article. I liked the techniques and steps you guys gave to understanding the people. Mixing user goals with user preferences to identifying people’s needs was new to me, so thanks for the knowledge. I will definitely implement it in future projects I work on.

    1. Mixing the goals and preferences was a new aspect to us too, but it makes sense now that i understood it well. Definitely something developers should use.

  2. I really like the part of engaging your users and observing them and the environment in which they operate. I think we tend to get comfortable with sending surveys and doing virtual interviews. These are good of course when the users are not that accessible but being present really gives you deeper insight into their daily lives and what influences their actions.

    1. Being present I think it is the most useful way to understand the people. Every other method comes after that

  3. Totally agree with observations being the most effective way of understanding users.
    Observing users guide you to put together good and useful questions during interviews to understand the users more

  4. Good research! but I disagree with the point you said if a designer combines all the techniques you mentioned they are assured to come up with a good product

  5. Thanks, it was interesting. But I disagree with the first point, including user persona. You can include the people you interview based on criteria, but at this stage, the user persona is created based on the research you made, not before you understand the people.

    1. I understand that in most cases personas are made from data collected from interviews with the people.But after doing some research and combining it with personal experience, We get to know that a persona can also be made before the define process. A user persona can be a representation of the goals or behavior of a hypothesized group of users. one can do a persona according to his hypothesize then after research you do another persona that reflect your findings. This technique as stated before, it is used to select the people you want to interview. If you are a mobile app dev that wants to innovate , you can’t interview everyone that uses smartphones, you need like a guide to know the people to approach, to select the group of people you will interview. Understanding the people can be easy, but if you selected the wrong people it is just useless. So a persona can be used and designed according to assumptions so that you know the exact people to interview and save time.

      1. I also had this same confusion. But your response clarifies things a bit. Perhaps instead of saying we’re defining the user personas at this stage, we can call them ‘user groups’ – since they help us define who our target users are and go further to the interview stage which then informs our user personas.

      2. I agree with Ziithe and Mahali that you want to use a user persona post interview rather than before the interviews. What Michaella is referring to a criteria for selecting participants eg: I want to interview university students in Rwanda that are between 18 and 25 years that are not foreigners

  6. Good job on raising such interesting points about understanding the user. Listening to users guides you to ask important follow-up questions as well as develop great personas.

  7. Great post! Definitely resonate with the mixing user goals with preferences, this is a great way of making sure we actually come up with good products instead of wasting our time getting lost in fitting every users preference which can even end up spoiling a product.

  8. Great article on understanding one’s users, plenty of helpful takeaways from this. It’s definite that listening and understanding the people you’re designing for will help you create a solution that closely matches their needs.

  9. Good Article , I think the part about including the right people in the process was very insightful . Often times we allow are biases to sway us to either pick people that are readily available or users who are only partially affected by the problem .

  10. Great Post! I liked how you included observation as a way of understanding the user you are working with. Because it will help you actually understand how these users work and how they do things.

  11. Great article; I liked the last part where sometimes the designers should try to deep dive into what the user is trying to say as sometimes they don’t communicate/express straightforwardly.

  12. Nice article, I like the methods you shared that help you understand the user. I am not very sure that users have UX preferences, I think that users have processes that they are used to. For example, users expect certain things from an e-commerce website. But this does not mean that you cannot try and take them a little bit out of their comfort zone.

    1. Yes i agree that sometimes we should push the users. However don’t push them too far from their preferences. Apart from that yes users need to explore new things instead of staying in the same cocoon.

  13. This is a great read. I enjoyed reading your different standpoints on the approach to human-centred design. However, I think I would agree with Mahali on the point that you should design your user persona based on the information and research you get on the problem you are solving.

  14. Great read!! I have never considered how much one limits themselves when relying on just surveys and or interviews.
    You brought out the idea of observation, which essentially allows you to see the unsaid and experience the unspoken.
    There’s a level of authenticity that observation brings that I see myself definitely incorporating as a human-centred product designer.

  15. Wow, this is a very nice piece of work and it’s timely. I really like it. My only question is with respect to active listening and I quote, “To understand the people you are trying to serve, listening skill is a must. Active listening is to earnestly listen and show an interest in what the person is saying”……How do you show interest, as a practical way of showing interest for the person to feel comfortable around? For example, I don’t think looking into someone’s eyes directly shows active listening. Maybe you can add more flesh to it here in the comment section.

    1. To show interest can be easy as to just nod your head, smiling and making just small noises like “uuh uuh, ok, yes, i see”. Active listening and showing interest is also respecting your interviewees opinion and avoiding interrupting them. If you need clarification wait for them to finish and ask.
      Another point of active listening is to stay focused. Sometimes interviewees will speak non stop and it can get boring a bit, stay focused on what they are saying so that you may have follow up questions on what they are saying. One day I participated in an interview for a marketing research project, the person who was asking me questions was reading all the questions from his paper, he did not ask me any improptu question or any question to clarify what i was saying. I could see right away that he wasn’t focused so i just gave short answers and stupid ones to get over it.
      Make the interview as a small conversation, the way you converse with a friend about something that happened, be like that.
      The final point i can say is to paraphrase. try repeating what has been said to show that you understand it. Don’t do it to every answer but do it to some of the answers the interviewee is giving. It will show the person that you’ve been paying attention. It also allows the speaker to correct you if you haven’t understood correctly.

  16. You have done a great job at pointing out things that we often miss like mixing user goals and preferences, and how interviews help a design remove the biases that he/she had at the beginning.

  17. Thanks for the article, liked the way you highlighted how the interviews help a lot as not only we can get what the users say but also that their body language says a lot.

  18. Great job explaining how to understand the users we design products for! Could you please elaborate on how to understand what users want/mean even when they don’t outrightly say it? How does a designer read between the lines while also making sure not to making wrong assumptions about what they mean?

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