Human-centered design. This phrase, so common today, seeks to explain how organizations design experiences centered around the needs of those they serve. And yet, too often the language used to describe human experiences is lifted from a playbook centered around the business. 

In this playbook, humans are depicted as going through phases of “awareness,” “acquisition,” “adoption, ”or “retention,” rather than “curiosity,” ”hunger,” “or other motivating terms specific to their context and representative of their perspective. Words like “consideration” and “conversion” imply the question: “how do humans fit into our business?” instead of “how might our business serve humanity?” Yes, you may be mapping the steps a customer takes to use a product you produce or service you deliver. But do you understand their experience? When was your last relationship where you said you wanted to “retain” another human? This stilted language betrays how business-centered an organization is, despite its claims of building meaningful relationships with those it serves. 

Human-centered design requires human-centered language. A business is more likely to be successful if it considers the context in which it serves humanity. Impactful human-centered design work tells stories, and any storyteller knows that language evokes as much as it depicts.  Human-centered language is not lengthy prose; it does not need to over explain through highbrow written words, which when spoken, seem only to pontificate presumptively on purpose. Instead, it is concise, colloquial diction. It is people-first instead of business-first. There is no template because it is dependent. 

A few examples from our work at Method illustrate the value: 

Waiting While Craving

A quick service restaurant (QSR) visit is more often than not an impulse decision made just a few minutes before one walks in or drives through. There is no time spent in worlds of “awareness” and “consideration.” Method worked with a global quick-service restaurant to digitally transform their brand, starting by mapping human needs. We found that humans buying fast food move from hungry to order to wait to receive to eat in quick succession. “Wait” might never show up in a typical journey map phase of “conversion” or “purchase,” but can make or break an experience that is measured on speed. How a QSR handles the wait time – by reducing it or changing how that time is perceived – can make or break perception. A “human-centered” journey map that doesn’t expose this opportunity is not doing its job. 

The Dizzying Glee of “Gotcha!” 

A petcare organization serves the pets, but more importantly, the pet parents. The relationship building between the pet parent and pet during the adoption process and first year is so intimate that the petcare organization is at best sitting in the sidecar. A pet parent moves across an emotional rollercoaster of deliberating to prepping to Gotcha! to adjusting to bonding. Gotcha! is a celebratory moment, for it is the day the pet comes home to the family. Compare that word to “acquire” – the difference in the sentiment it conveys paints an entirely different picture of the opportunity that a petcare company could have to celebrate and support its potential customers. 

Defining Dignity

A large airport ecosystem serves a complex population of travelers, including international travelers, business travelers, elderly travelers, families, and those traveling with disabilities. Method worked with a transportation authority to imagine an improved future experiences for these travelers powered by technology. We began with a human-centered investigation of the current state. We mapped all of the micro-interactions the traveler might experience. That was expected. However, our many hours in the airports revealed that there was one key population that was lost. The employees, who are the lifeblood of this ecosystem, work in conditions where they have limited access to tools and often even simple things like a breakroom. There was one word that best described what’s missing for them  — dignity. How does a population that is meant to serve travelers do that when there is a lack of dignity? When defining strategic recommendations, language allowed us to not only highlight those we were expected to serve, but those who were underserved.

The point is: words matter. As humans, we have needs, wants, motivations and pressures that propel us forward across our finite timelines. Language forces a reckoning of where a business can truly serve purposefully. It’s not about being constantly wanted and needed by a customer, but about identifying the moments where a business can choose to really serve. 

So the next time someone asks you what your business’s customer conversion or retention plan is, ask them one simple question: How might we achieve our goal in the context of the needs of the humans we serve? Could we use language that is spoken commonly, and not dusted off from a playbook? Perhaps you’ll find a “wait” or a “Gotcha!” moment – or better yet, a population in dire need of dignity. Your purposeful language will bring these human needs to life in a way that allows your business to serve them better.