What’s a human centered process, anyways?


Understanding how a human centered process differs from other kinds of processes is incredibly important if you’re an entrepreneur, business manager, trainer, or coach. Designing a human centered process poses challenges that force you to think outside of the box, but mastering the art of human centered process design can help you realize breakthrough results, including happier customers, more productive employees, and much, much more.

The easiest way to understand the difference between the demands of human centered design and other types of design is to contrast it with its polar opposite: designing for a machine.


Human vs. Machine

One thing that humans and machines have in common is that we’re both capable of following instructions, and whether you’re a human being or a machine, those instructions will usually be communicated in language. For humans, that language might be English, Spanish, Urdu, or American Sign Language; for machines, that language will almost definitely be computer code: Python, PHP, or Ruby on Rails, for instance.

Writing a process for a machine to follow is labor-intensive and difficult. I know from personal experience that it takes an incredible amount of effort to write line after line of perfectly accurate code. Accuracy and clarity are critical when you’re writing a process for a machine, because that machine will respond in a completely inflexible, but also perfectly reliable way. It’s never having a bad day. It doesn’t get distracted by the fact that its daughter had a runny nose when it dropped her off at microchip daycare. It’s never tired, never experiences a streak of inspiration or a moment of genius, and it quite frankly doesn’t care what you think about how it measures up to your expectations.

Of course, that’s a big part of the reason why we’ve turned to machines to carry out some of the more routine, less palatable work that exists in the world. In a context where you have a business process that needs to be completed exactly the same way over and over with incredible precision, speed, and accuracy, a machine can out-compete a human being any day of the week. But there’s a lot you sacrifice for that kind of precision. A machine can’t interpret. It’ll never be able to infer what you “actually” meant if you give it inaccurate instructions. It’s not motivated to work harder to meet expectations, and it generally can’t exercise judgment about how to proceed unless you supply it with a completely ironclad algorithm to follow.

Writing process instructions for another human being involves writing in natural language, which is admittedly more familiar and comfortable, at least for me, but when you’re writing for another human being, you have to account for the fact that people don’t always behave reliably and predictably.

That’s actually a benefit, not a drawback. A human being can interpret, fill in gaps, make inferences, and apply inductive or deductive reasoning to solve problems in a way that a computer never could. Unfortunately, we humans don’t just bring our wit and raw intellectual horsepower into the equation when following an unfamiliar process. We also bring our biases, assumptions, and misconceptions to the table, often times with laughable results.

One of my funniest memories is a great case-in-point example of this. I met my husband Ben while we were in college, and at that point in his life, he’d only been out on his own for a very short while. Let’s just say he hadn’t exactly mastered the fine art of cooking yet. We were preparing for a potluck dinner and he offered to help out in the kitchen. I said, “Sure! That would be great. I’m making deviled eggs for the potluck. Can you please put a dozen eggs into that pot of water for me? I’ll be right back.” I left the kitchen for about five minutes, and returned to find my husband standing next to the stove with a completely bewildered look on his face. “What do you want me to do next,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything made like this before.” Sure enough, he had broken all twelve eggs into the pot of water.


Human Beings Need Access to Context

Context is critical for success. If my husband had had a context for what a deviled egg was – for example, if he’d seen a picture of what the end product was supposed to look like, it would have been immediately apparent to him that a deviled egg is first hard boiled in the shell. I assumed, quite wrongly, that he had all the context he needed to follow through effectively on my instructions. Assuming that someone else has enough context, or worse, the same context as you, is an ingrained bias that everyone has. Period.

The important distinction here is that human beings want, and need, access to context, but shouldn’t necessarily be forced to slog through contextual material if they already have a pretty solid sense of what it means to achieve a successful outcome.The example I like to use here is phlebotomy, which is the science of drawing blood. If you’re a phlebotomist and you’re getting ready to draw blood from a patient, you darn well better know how to tell the difference between an artery and a vein. But if you’re an experienced phlebotomist studying up on hospital policy at your new place of work, you probably won’t get much use out of reviewing that material.

A related problem is that we often take for granted that everyone has the same contextual understanding of what success means, which isn’t a very sound assumption. In fact, failure to clearly design success and make sure everyone is on the same page about what a successful outcome looks like is one of the eight fundamental failures of process design. A best practice here is to make sure that someone who is completing a process has easy access to a clear definition of what success looks like, as well as easy access to any other contextual information they might need as reference material.

Human Beings Need to Stay Motivated and Engaged

Human beings need to be inspired and motivated to stay in productive action. When your brain doesn’t stay actively engaged, the quality and pace of your work both decline. One of the most common reasons for disengaging from a process is that you don’t have an experience of progress. The longer and more challenging the work is, the more important it is to make sure that someone is experiencing a sense of progress along the way.

I had a friend in college who was a super high achiever. She was more willing than anyone I’ve ever met to burn the midnight oil to keep her grades up. She went on to earn two master degrees at Harvard, and is now the executive director of a prominent education nonprofit. I remember asking her once how she stayed so motivated. When I first met her, we were just going into our junior year of college. Given her educational goals, she knew she had seven more solid years of hard work ahead of her. I asked her once how she kept herself in high gear, and if it ever felt like she was never going to reach the finish line.

She had two practices that she had put in place to make sure she never lost sight of the dream she was working toward. The first was that she had mapped out a step-by-step plan that took her all the way to the final semester of grad school. She knew where she wanted to work after she graduated. She knew where she wanted to apply to graduate school. She knew what classes she wanted to take next semester and next year. Because of this, it was really easy for her to understand how every single class she took and every single paper she turned in contributed to her future.

The second practice was that she celebrated every time she reached an important milestone. Every time she turned in a big term paper, she took herself out for a nice lunch. She celebrated with her family and posted her grades on the refrigerator every time she completed a semester. It may sound hokey, but there’s a good reason why it worked: She didn’t feel like she would never reach the finish line because she knew exactly how far away the finish line was. It was easy for her to see exactly how far she’d come and exactly how much farther she had to go, and because she stopped to celebrate along the way, each milestone she reached felt like a victory – even if it was a small one. 

I have no doubt that she turned in hundreds of essays over the course of the nine years she spent in college. Mathematically, each one of those term papers was less than 1% of the total work she had to turn in to graduate. But because she had put practices in place to help her assess and celebrate her progress, she stayed in action. 

Human Beings Need to Learn

Contrary to popular myth, a job well done isn’t actually it’s own reward. Here’s a simple thought experiment to prove the point. Do you revel in a job well done if you weren’t the one who did it? Do you often find yourself moved and inspired by the simple knowledge that lots of people, everywhere, are doing a good job at…. something? Probably not. Although most of us don’t begrudge others the joy of having done exceptional work, what we really enjoy is knowing that the job was well done because of our own personal efforts. It’s human nature to want to learn and take pride in what we do. It’s rewarding to feel like you’re getting better at something, becoming an expert.

One easy way to make a complex process more engaging is to blend information that supports process execution with information that supports process learning. Give your employees and coworkers the tools they need to get better at something, and not just to bang out whatever work may need to be done at the moment. Help them internalize the process so that it will be easier and come more naturally in the future. Help them understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, and how their work connects and relates to the work that everyone else is doing. Simple step-by-step process instructions that aren’t geared toward learning are boring, and they end up sliding right off the Teflon part of your brain.



It’s a lot harder to design a process for human execution than most people realize. Although we intuitively understand that human beings aren’t automatons and that we don’t always reliably carry out the instructions we were given, a lot of the instruction manuals and training guides out there assume that we do. They’re not designed with a human being in mind. A well-designed human centered process takes into account the complexity and nuance of the human experience. The instructions are supplemented with contextual information that can help reduce your confusion and biases, and that help you make well-informed leaps of genius. They provide you with a way to track and understand the progress you’re making, and support you in feeling a sense of victory when you’ve reached an important milestone along the way. They’re equally focused on work output and constructive learning.

This make seem like a lot of work, but if managers, trainers and humans don’t design processes that take into account the quirks that make us uniquely human, they won’t be able to reap the tremendous benefits that only a human being’s passion, motivation, and intellect can bring to the table.

Feel free to weigh in below. In your experience, how is human centered process design unique?



Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>