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Part one: Disrupting design and tech with HCD and Low-code

Human-centred design and development is due for a shake-up - and it's arrived.

Published on
October 12, 2023
Nathaniel Powell

The current state of HCD

Over the last 20 years, Human-Centred Design truly took off. It’s gone from being a niche business practice to having its own seat at the Executive table, with Australian giants like Commbank & Macquarie joining the likes of PayPal and PepsiCo in appointing Chief Design Officers. Consultancies now have entire human-centred design practices and are rapidly trying to expand them through acquisition. The “niche practice” is now an entire industry.

The problem with HCD today

It's not all rosey with HCD, however. There are a few issues with HCD that we see time and time again that are due for a shake-up:

  1. Glorifying the artefacts. This may sound controversial, but HCD isn’t about Customer Journey Maps. Too often, companies large and small establish their own design practice without establishing their purpose, instead becoming manufacturers of personas, journey maps, and service blueprints. Don’t get us wrong. Artefacts are still very much a part of our toolbelt - but that’s it. They’re tools. And like any tool, they were created to serve a very specific purpose: understanding and responding to the needs of people.
  2. Design as a support function of development. If you’re only there to design screens that the development team needs, then you have to ask if you’re really practicing human-centred design. In HCD, the user calls the shots, and it’s the designer’s role to create something in response to their needs, not the needs of the business. Developers and designers need to work together, but neither can be subservient to the other.
  3. Forgetting to connect with people. If we do one thing and one thing alone as human-centred designers, it’s connecting with real people. Yes, it might sound scientific with words like ‘research’ or ‘discovery’ or ‘testing’, but at the end of the day, all of these things represent activities that are emotional. It’s the secret sauce of HCD: being able to connect with someone such that you can capture their needs, desires, and dislikes - the essence of their complexities - and reflect them within what you create. HCD uses empathetic research to look beyond big data sets, not wade through them.

HCD is about impact

The beauty of HCD isn’t in the tools, the techniques, or the tactics. It’s in the impact, i.e., creating solutions that create positive, sustainable, long-term impact for users. It shapes solutions to seamlessly slot into the gap in a person’s experience and enhance it. While all of the issues mentioned above are difficult to navigate, there’s one that erodes the impact of HCD more brazenly than any other and goes by largely unchecked.

Technology's holding us back

The technological debt companies have accrued over the past few decades is astronomical, leading to pressure from leadership to use old tech on new projects. We’ve all seen it - brilliant designs left on the cutting room floor or lost amongst bug-fixing backlogs because organisations insist on building them in their 50+ year-old legacy system. The result? Years wasted and millions of dollars thrown at projects that by the time they’re built are old news. The value of speed to market is hard to recognise until a competitor beats you to it.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. New technologies are emerging every day. Technologies so sophisticated that they allow designers AND developers to skip across the mire of legacy systems rather than wading through it, no longer waiting for their turn to build the things that customers actually want. And that’s exactly where we're headed. Global leaders like ING, Zurich and Toyota are already deeply invested and the results speak for themselves.

Low-code + HCD: disrupting old-tech

We’ve spoken about Low-code development at length previously. Low-code is an application development method that elevates coding from textual to visual. Rather than a technical coding environment, low-code operates in a model-driven, drag-and-drop interface. All development skill levels — professional developers, novice developers, subject matter experts, business stakeholders, and decision makers — can use low-code to build value-driven enterprise business applications. Low-code sounds great but it's nothing new. In fact, Low-code has been around for a while. What's caught our eye is how it's approaching a similar inflection point to what HCD experienced in the past two decades.

Regardless, Low-code is not disruptive in and of itself. It's what you do with it.

The true disruption comes when Low-code development is integrated with human-centred design.  Design and development teams can bring new value to customers by bypassing old ways of working and even older tech stacks. At a glance, HCD and LCNC have a lot in common:

User centric focusDesigns for and with end-usersEmpowers users to be involved in software creation
Rapid PrototypingUses prototypes to gather feedbackAllows for rapid app development and testing
CollaborationInvolves designers, developers, and users working togetherEnhances collaboration at development stage with visualised, composable architecture
EmpathyRequires designers to empathise with user needs and pain pointsRequires developers to understand end-users' requirements
Flexibility and AdaptabilityIterates designs based on user feedback and testingAllows for quick application adjustments as user or business needs change, and feedback is provided
SimplificationSimplifies experiences by focussing on the users' 'job-to-be-done'Simplifies the development process to address user 'jobs-to-be-done' quickly
Continuous ImprovementIterates designs based on user insights and feedback over timeModular and easy to build, allowing for continuous updating

On paper, HCD and Low-code development makes sense, but it's the day-to-day practicalities that leave the old ways behind. Read part two of this series to find out how it works, how it can sit alongside existing tech, and most importantly, how you can start getting MVPs to market in record time.

Speak with an expert

Daragh Henchy
Head of Digital Experience & Implementation
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