An introduction to human experience design

Feb 21, 2023 - 4 min read


An introduction to human experience design

Author: Amber Sawaya

Sometimes, simply changing a single word in a name can bring about a profound shift in the way designers build and support various products and services. One such shift is a transition from user experience design (UXD) to human experience design (HXD). 

The rumblings started a few years ago—statistician and Yale professor Edward Tufte famously noted that only two industries describe their customers as users: “illegal drugs and software.” Ultimately, it took a pandemic for the push to see users as more than data points—to see them as humans—to take center stage.

Here’s an introduction to human experience design and why it’s so important for creatives to consider. 

The human experience design origin story

Back in the ’80s, legendary author and researcher Don Norman coined the phrase “user experience.” UX, according to Norman, “encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.” About 25 years later, that term comprises an entire professional discipline, with a wide range of careers available within it. Designers and researchers flocked to this new discipline because it spoke to so many of them. Creatives knew how to communicate with people visually; now, there were ways to measure how things were working and make them even better. 

The digital world—though its surface was barely scratched when Norman coined UX—is the world within which modern UX designers do the most work. As access to social media expanded since the 2010s, designers have had more power to test and improve at micro-levels.

In the present, businesses have not only realized the power of design—they’ve also found ways to monetize it and show the return on investment. And that emphasis on monetization has often resulted in decision-making and design that manipulates users with addictive UX strategies, considering them users of a product above all, rather than as humans.

Enter human experience design

Human experience design is the next evolution of UX, and its focus on consideration will make it the next wave of design in general. Now that we know a lot more about this field of study, designers can be more thoughtful and more inclusive, expanding the responsibility to consider the entire human experience. It’s time to move beyond the users to the makers, the environment, and the resources needed to create a positive experience. 

HXD expands cost/benefit analyses

With every project designers and marketers set out to complete, it’s important to analyze the cost and benefits of the project. Usually, this is a pretty simple process that primarily considers money. Can you afford to build a new website? Should you do a print brochure or only distribute it digitally? Which project management software will you purchase? The solution to your analysis lies in the answers to those questions.

Human experience designers have financial considerations, of course, but there are many more factors, as well. They’ll be faced with decisions regarding:

  • Time and attention 
  • Bandwidth, WiFi access, and speed
  • Environmental impact
  • Production and manufacturing ability 
  • Ongoing support needs
  • Accessibility

HXD is more inclusive

Anchor & Alpine, the design agency at which I’m a partner, recently completed a project for an organization called Optimizing Autism. The org came to us with the goal of connecting companies and neurodivergent people looking to work together. Because the end result would be a more accessible digital experience, everyone on the project from our team had to be better informed about working with (and for) this group.

The changes we made to accommodate those with autism were very subtle—sometimes, it was as simple as editing button text from “View All” to “View All Training Materials Here.” But these changes made the project accessible to a marginalized group, and that was a priority. We found that with just a little extra knowledge and care, we could offer an inclusive experience for people with autism—a community that is estimated to include one in 54 children. 

Successful HXD takes a bit more work and planning—from writing descriptive alt text, to crafting appropriate microcopy, to ensuring your project works with screen readers—but it’s worth it. The work results in a better experience for more people, and it allows your company to reach additional demographics.

Making the shift to human experience design

To make any meaningful change, you have to think big, plan medium, and act small. That principle applies to putting human experience design at the forefront of your work. First, think about shifting from UX to HXD for yourself—that’s big. Next, commit to being more inclusive and considering all the factors that impact the experience of the product/service you work on—that’s a medium-term plan. Finally, start with granular things. Include alt tags on web images, make UI language more descriptive and clear, and become (at least somewhat) familiar with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)—these are small changes.

There are tools and services that can help your design become more inclusive. We’ve seen companies like Accessibe that offer add-on accessibility for the web. There are Sketch plugins that will help you with things like color contrast. Google Search Console will let you know if your sites don’t meet visitors’ needs because your type is too small or too light in the Mobile Usability Reports. 

Shifting to an HXD mindset starts with a consideration for the parts of the human experience that your designs are going to impact.

“I believe that thinking about the consequences of your work, the issue of ethics, is essential,” said graphic design legend Milton Glaser. “Since [designers are] specifically involved in the transmission of cultural ideas, ideas about value, then we have to examine the meaning of what we’re proposing.” 

Now is the time for creatives to lean into this mindset. This year and the global pandemic have given many of us additional clarity about what we take for granted and what it’s like to miss out. We’ve also seen the voices of the Black Lives Matter movement stand out. Another call to do better, to include and support our shared humanity. Companies and designers ignore these voices at their peril. Design is no longer “nice to have,” and soon, even human experience design will be a given in every organization. 

I’ve been a long-time champion of the power of design. I’ve been a UX practitioner for years—from user interfaces and web apps to tone of voice and AI assistants to physical/environmental experience design. UX was a fantastic way to make headway into building better products. The evolution of HXD is something I’m excited about and actively working towards in my agency and with our clients. I hope to see more designers embrace this path so we can all do better together. 


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