The human-centered design of good writing

Published on
13 June 2023
Marina Fokina
Marina Fokina
Senior Consultant
Hi, my name is Marina and I’m a design fiend.  

It’s tempting to cast design aside as something that’s mostly about aesthetics. Yet I am very much in the “design is not just what it looks like and feels like — design is how it works” camp (that’s a Steve Jobs quote, by the way).  

Thus, design becomes an immensely powerful tool that we must wield carefully, everything we do is an act of design. If you dig into the semantics of what it means “to design” something, you will find the following definition:

“To do or plan something with a specific purpose in mind”

The dinner you’re cooking for your family? An act of design. The holiday you’re planning with your best friend? An act of design. The report you’re writing about a big project at work? You guessed it — also an act of design. 

What’s more, in these examples you’re not just deliberately creating something new (the act of design), you are impacting people with your design decisions. So why not put a little human-centered design (HCD) lens on this creation and focus on the needs of the human(s) you’re doing it for? Dinner and holidays aside, what can HCD do for our report-writing? 

The design journey 

The first step in the HCD process is empathising with the people for whom you are designing. This empathy implies putting yourself in their shoes to understand what their needs might be. Who are you writing this report for? How will your findings impact their lives? What do they actually need to know (as opposed to what you want to offload on them)? What questions are they likely to have?  

Step two is reframing the problem, based on what you understood through the empathising.  After switching gears to consider the issue from the reader’s point of view, has your understanding of the task changed? You might have started out thinking your report needs to demonstrate your diligence, thoroughness and efficiency … But, thinking about it from the readers’ point of view, you come to realise that the challenge is better framed thus: “how might I empower my readers to make an informed decision about this topic while reducing their cognitive load”? 

I get a little shiver of excitement when I see a question like that. Diligence and thoroughness smells like tables, flowcharts and pages of Times New Roman. Empowerment and saving effort conjures images of infographics, pithy headlines, white space and bullet points!  

Asking the right question gets you halfway to a solution.

Reframing sets guard rails for phase 3 — ideation and solution design. This is where you go all out with your creative thinking, while staying focused on the purpose of what you set out to achieve.  

Once you’ve settled on ideas, it’s time to prototype and test. In report-writing this might mean showing a few infographic ideas to a colleague, getting a peer review on a proposed structure, or sense-checking your phrasing. You might go about it in different ways, but the key is to seek feedback early and expect to iterate to get to a truly impactful result. If you leave it too late, when you’ve invested lots of time and resource into crafting the perfect deliverable, it’s human nature to be open to changing page margins or a typo at most. 

Three key principles 

That’s how I apply an HCD approach to report writing. It might seem a bit convoluted, but it really boils down to three key principles: 

  1. Understand the needs of the future reader 
  2. Frame what you need to convey in terms of what the reader needs to know 
  3. Treat your writing as a product that is created through an iterative process 

For me, treating challenges great and small as human-centered design projects is an inspiring and empowering way of working. I hope you too might be curious to give the empathise-reframe-ideate-iterate loop a try some time to see whether you have a similarly rewarding experience.  

Can we help you solve an organisational problem using HCD? Get in touch, we’d love to help.

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