This post is part of a human-centered design (HCD) theme for February. Students reflect on their experiences within the HCD class and how the acquired skills have impacted their lives. Two other articles related to this theme that you can check out are this one from Forbes by the president of Harvey Mudd College, and this one from The Student Life (TSL) by Becky Hoving.


By Laura Zhang

Going into the first day of Introduction to Human-Centered Design, I didn’t know a single person in the class, nor did I have the slightest idea what design thinking was. Needless to say, I was excited but nervous. At first, even small things, like our daily warm-up exercises (which are just super fun icebreakers) felt very out of my comfort zone. Dancing and making a fool out of myself in front of twenty-five other people? Definitely not my usual cup of tea. However, our awesome instructors, Fred, Kareem, and Shannon, quickly helped us get over any hesitations and become fully immersed in each activity. I came to love 4:15 PM, when I knew they would have one of their great Spotify playlists in line and an awesome course plan ready to go.

Fostering a class dynamic of positivity, support, and engagement is a crucial building block to the HCD course experience. The entire course focuses around empathizing with people, hence the name Human-Centered Design. I learned how to conduct interviews, define users and their needs, generate ideas for solutions, prototype those solutions, and test/re-test the prototypes on real people. This process required a lot of pushing my own boundaries, and learning to take initiative. I had to be comfortable asking strangers to do personal interviews and to test out my prototypes. While this was difficult, if I didn’t dive deep in my interviews, then I wouldn’t find the most relevant user or tap into the true nature of their problem. The instructors also brought in their personal expertise from leading design projects and teams with various companies, design firms, and international non-profits. They were very inspiring and supportive every step of the way. Guest lecturers with a wide range of design backgrounds (such as Elaine Young, clothing artist; George Kembel, founder; and world-renowned strategic thinker, Roger Martin) were also invited to class.

My personal favorite project was our last one. For Design Project 3 (DP3), we got to choose our own topic, and “amplify” an unheard voice within our topic. My team focused our project around de-appropriating ethnic foods. We reached out to restaurant owners in the Village, podcast writers in New York, and food activists in the Bay Area to get the information we needed. Throughout the process, we learned to use each person’s individual strengths, and by working as a cohesive team, were able to come up with a storybook menu idea (that the manager of Saca’s Mediterranean Grill in the Village loved). We all felt passionate about this topic, and it felt empowering to create a prototype that made us proud. During the final DP3 showcase, we got to show off all of our hard work. My friends came to see what our specific design process was all about – and some of them are taking the class now!

Passion really is what drives this class. Fred, Kareem, and Shannon are all equally as passionate about what they do as the students are about the class, and that energy feeds off each other. My friend Sophie Zagerman described this course as “transformative.” After taking the class myself, I understand why she chose that adjective. This is not your traditional class. It doesn’t teach you a formula that works every time. It gives you a framework and toolkit to approach solving huge, ambiguous problems that have no solutions. It teaches you to accept confusion, embrace frustration, and to think about “failures” and “setbacks” not as bad things but as learning opportunities; these are also lessons for life. HCD teaches you to think about relationships between people and their surroundings, from every aspect, micro to macro. Many of the soft skills you develop in this class such as listening, empathizing, and communicating effectively help you grow into a better person. You may not notice it at first, but one day as you are walking around, you will start to notice a poorly-designed door handle here or an un-empathetic listener there, and slowly you will not be able to un-notice them. I find that these kinds of transformative experiences, one that actually shifts your mentality and perspective on life, are rare. They stick with you for the rest of your life. This class was such an experience for me. So with progress from day one to now (HCD ’17 class alum), I can definitely say without a doubt that taking this class was one of the best decisions I ever made.

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