Human-Centered Design: What It Is And Why It Matters in Marketing


April 6, 2017

by Carla Johnson

I’ve been watching the backlash to Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner ad this week.

According to data from Amobee Brand Intelligence, digital content engagement around Pepsi has increased significantly (366 percent in just a day), but 43 percent has mentioned Black Lives Matter, 31 percent has labeled the ad as “tone-deaf” and 10 percent has tagged it as the “worst ever.” Amobee also looked at content engagement around the term “tone-deaf” in the last day, and 77 percent of digital content using the term mentioned Kendall Jenner and Pepsi.

In hindsight, it’s hard to believe Pepsi was blind to such an obvious gaffe. Whether it was a case of being surrounded by a team of “yes” people to flat-out cluelessness, who knows. In the end, the problem boils down to two glaring mistakes. It was –

  1. Brand focused. The obnoxiously obvious product placement made it clear that this was all about Pepsi and nothing about unity. This is about as inauthentic as a brand can get.
  2. Insensitive to its audience. Product first. Their audience is a backdrop. At best.

Ridiculous, right?

I guarantee, however, every marketer is guilty of the Pepsi blunder on some scale. We’re thumping our chest and defaulting to products. It makes light of the world of our customers and comes off as self-centered and consistently insensitive.

If you don’t believe this is something of which you are guilty, here’s a quick test. Choose a section of marketing copy – a brochure, web page or even social media post. Count the number of times you refer to your brand, what you do, or even yourself (this is a great exercise for sales people, too). Include pronouns such as ‘I,’ ‘me,’ ‘my’ and ‘our.’ Tally the number. Now, tally how many times you specifically refer to your customer or use the words ‘you’ and ‘your.’ How do they compare?

Humbling, isn’t it?

This is when marketers need to look outside our tribe and learn a big lesson from designers.

Human-centered design

Human-centered design is a design and management framework. It brings creativity into developing solutions by involving the people affected by the challenge. This helps designers understand the perspective of the people involved and come up with an answer that fits the context of their situation.

This approach to design started in the product world. But it’s gaining attention from smart brands that understand that to deliver amazing experiences to an audience, you first have to understand and have empathy for them.

Human-centered design looks at every touchpoint as an opportunity to surprise, delight and deliver benefits to users.

As marketers, we need to have the same mindset – to surprise, delight and deliver benefits to our audience every time they touch our brand…not just our marketing.

When it’s done well, a human-centered design approach to marketing fuels opportunities to connect more deeply – emotionally – with our audience. This, ultimately, will drive engagement and growth. Look at what Airbnb, Amazon and Google are doing. They’re investing heavily in the design of a more cohesive and sophisticated experience for customers. They’re setting expectations for larger audiences about what interactions with brands should look and feel like. This affects the expectations that these same people have with our brand, whether we’re B2C or B2B marketers.

Human-centered experiences

Marketers are missing the design aspect when it comes to customer experience. It’s not about how pretty something looks or how nice a piece works in a particular moment. It’s about designing the continuity of a human-centered experience that reflects the understanding and empathy for our audience. This is where Pepsi completely screwed up.

Here’s three questions marketers can start using today that will help design amazing experiences for customers at every touchpoint of the brand.

1. Ask the right questions.

Instead of asking, “How can we grow revenue by 10 percent this quarter,” ask…

  • How can we connect people around the world? (telecommunications firm)
  • How can we empower students’ success for a better life? (learning management software firm)
  • How can we inspire more people to get active (bicycle company)

By re-framing the question, marketers feel inspired, optimistic and creative. We’re ready to try new approaches because we see the impact our work can have.

2. Meet your customers

Marketers like to say we’re customer-focused. But when I ask my colleagues how many customers they talked to this month, I get sheepish grins and averted eyes. Because talking to customers is something we rarely actually do. We look at data and analytics. There’s certainly a place for that, but numbers only tell you so much.

It’s comfortable to stay in our offices and direct programs and teams from behind a desk. But that’s where ideas stagnate. We can’t be inspired by what we’re never exposed to. And our customers and potential buyers are the greatest source of inspiration we have. Learn how people interact with your company from every angle. From people who search for information (and never find you), to those who apply for a job. From the customer service reps who talk to customers all day long to the IT team who’s caught in the middle of a failed digital experience. What about the people who pull their hair out trying to pay invoices every month?

Marketers have to quit saying these interactions aren’t part of their job. Because the entirety of customer experience will be the responsibility of marketing, whether we’re ready for it or not.

3. Get Feedback

Let’s face it, we’re constantly fighting against looming deadlines. The last thing we want is to take time out for feedback. But that’s exactly how we become more efficient and effective with everything we do. We can check key assumptions, find blind spots (a la Pepsi and Kendall Jenner) and get rich insights that make our work more valuable. This doesn’t have to be super formal or overly structured. Sometimes it’s the rough ideas that spark the best conversations. Don’t defend, just listen. Then look for common themes in what you hear.

4. Think of experience design as a collaborative effort

Working with architects has been one of the best influences on me as a marketer. Architects regularly collaborate to iterate ideas. They have design reviews because they understand the value that different perspectives bring to the final product.  As marketers, different frames of reference help advance your thinking.

Sharing ideas also brings shared ownership of ideas. If you want to move an idea forward, you need to people to feel that they are a part of it. It’s no longer “my idea” it’s “our idea” and people’s swim lanes (aka silos) begin to blur. This is how we begin to transition cultures away from information hoarding and into idea sharing. It becomes more about the quality of the idea and success of the team.

Producing creative, innovative work isn’t easy. But it’s also not easy constantly churning out marketing content that’s ineffective and having to defend the value of our profession. Today’s the day to begin taking baby steps toward bringing a human-centered design mindset into marketing. Will it mean you’re producing better work next week, or even next month? Hopefully, you’ll be moving in that direction. Will you avoid insulting your audience with insensitive, brand-centered content?

Most definitely.

Learn more about human-centered design and download a free toolkit from IDEO.

Photo credit: ibmphoto24

About Carla

Carla Johnson Innovation Creativity Speaker Author

Carla Johnson helps leaders who are often paralyzed by traditional thinking. They suffer from slow growth, an eroding competitive advantage, low employee engagement, and depleted investor confidence. Their teams lack purpose and progress and constantly battle a resistance to change and new ideas.

As the world’s leading innovation architect, Carla’s spent 20 years helping leaders shatter limits and discover undiscovered possibilities. Through years of research, she’s developed a simple, scalable 5-step process that teaches people how to consistently produce inspired ideas that lead to uncommon outcomes.