• LinkedIn icon
  • Facebook 아이콘
  • Twitter 아이콘

Human Centered Design: Leveraging Research for Creative Social Innovation

July 03 |

 I’ve always been interested in and impressed by working with Acumen, one of Knowledge for Good’s biggest partners. So I was extremely excited when Adam Thurland, a Shanghai-based branding consultant, reached out about starting a community in Shanghai to run a course offered by Acumen+ on Human-Centered Design (HCD) as a social innovation toolkit. 

Setting up the course 

After a brief meet-up, we ended up with an intimate group, consisting of Adam, two Siemens engineers (Pengfei Liu and Can Li), and myself to run the course. As a team, we walked through the four steps of the design-thinking process of Human-Centered Design to create innovative solutions to a selected social challenge over three months. 

The four of us met throughout the next few weeks to complete all the workshop components for the course. A few of the workshops had fieldwork components, for which we re-grouped into teams of two to complete in our own time. Team members rotate to host each workshop, and voted to decide on the design challenge and other critical moves together.

Human-Centered Design

Pioneered by the design firm IDEO, Human-Centered Design is an approach to design-thinking that draws inspiration from interacting and emphasizing with a target audience. In the social innovation context, Human-Centered Design encourages basing a solution on insights derived from real-world research without assumptions or attempting to define or simplify a problem first. 

Coming from a design background, Adam was curious how design thinking would function among a diverse group like ours; Pengfei and Can saw the course as a project exercise to tackle the disconnection they felt between engineers of industrial devices and actual users. For me, my work at AlphaSights has been the perfect demonstration of the critical role and impact that first-hand experience and knowledge bring to strategy work and innovation. I was thrilled to adopt a new, systematic approach to generating and utilizing research creatively to tackle real-world challenges.

human centered designThe Process

The course is organized according to the following four steps of the HCD process.

1. Inspiration: choosing a design challenge; building and conducting human-centered research.

2. Ideation: conceptualizing insights into themes and “How Might We” questions to inspire solutions.

3. Prototyping: unpacking selected ideas into storyboards involving people; creating prototypes for testing and reiterations.

4. Implementation: creating action plans for prototypes.

Discovering that we are the target audience

When choosing the challenge, we arrived at tackling “how to provide healthy food solutions to people in need” out of a shared passion for food. However, we immediately found that we needed to narrow down “people in need.”  Contrary to the western context, families with lower income tend to have more access to wet market ingredients and home cooking over-processed food served in urban China. 

A 2018 study by the Chinese Nutrition Society shows that eating out (cafeterias, restaurants, food delivery, and street food) is becoming the lifestyle for over 90% of white-collar workers in tier-1 cities. Over half of the population sampled self-identify as having unhealthy diets. Although the question begs further research, we agreed to define “people in need” of healthy food as average office workers, who easily find themselves at the intersection of questionable ingredients, food additive overuse, filthy kitchen environments, and greasy and carbohydrates or sodium-heavy cooking styles when it comes to eating out.

Having defined our scope, we debated other aspects to  “narrow down” along the way, for instance limiting solutions for eating out vs. home cooking or focusing on workers with families vs. those without. In the end, in the spirit of HCD, we agreed to embrace our target audience as a whole through conducting fieldwork in separate locations, Despite our differences in approach, we arrived at very similar insights in our field research and were able to blend in inspirations unique to our backgrounds into the final solutions below. 

1. Insight: Coworkers and family members are the biggest sources of influence and inspiration when it comes to healthy eating.

Question: How might we include coworkers and families in our solution for healthy eating?

2. Insight: Office workers are concerned with the safety of ingredients in delivery food, although many still choose delivery food at work.

Question: How might we enable users to understand and keep better track of the source of restaurant ingredients for delivery and restaurants?

3. Insight: Older generations tend to focus on prevention and longer-term solutions, while younger generations focus on once-for-all quick fixes to the problem.

Question: How might we turn quick fixes into a long-term solution?

human centered designSolution 1. The Health KOL Network

Develop a network of workplace health influencers by providing content and support to lead engagement activities in workplaces, and ultimately inspire colleagues to make healthy eating choices during office hours.

Solution 2. Healthy Eats: a 3rd party food safety certification provider

Giving average consumers access to food safety certifications and data based on comprehensive supply chain assessments of restaurants.


  1. Don’t start with the problem; start with your target audience in mind.
  2. Respect differences in team members’ backgrounds. When there’s disagreement, run with two different ideas.
  3. Find inspiration in people, but don’t overlook yourself as part of the target audience.


Jenny Chen joined AlphaSights in July of 2017 and served as an associate for our consulting accounts.