Why human-centred design is like a 4 foot 7 Japanese woman

It was Sunday night and time for some Netflix. There was a new show in our feed called ‘Tidying Up with Marie Kondo’. Ooh this looks interesting. We selected it. 

There on the screen was a living doll, dressed in white - “the world’s most organised person” - as she patiently helped normal, everyday, and overwhelmed people tidy their homes. 

We watched one episode. Then another. And another. I turned to my girlfriend and said, let’s do this! 

So I bought Marie’s first book, ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up’, downloaded it to my Kindle and proceeded to read half of it that night. I was hooked. And since then we’ve been tidying up like never before. As have many others who've joined the Kondo craze.

Marie’s approach (known as the KonMari method) is to systematically sort through EVERY SINGLE THING in your home and only keep those items that ‘spark joy’ in your life. Simple right? 


It’s challenging. It’s confronting. It’s ironically messy. And yet this straightforward process leads to very deep and revealing insights about how and why we live the way we do. It shows us the cause and effect of the choices we’ve made. It then gives us scope to alter and align our future direction with an approach that is much more conscious and significant.

Sounds A LOT like human-centred design (HCD).

HCD is also a deep and messy process. If you’ve heard of or seen the double diamond, you’ll know that it diverges and converges twice. It requires opening up, allowing mess and uncertainty, sorting it then doing it all over again.

It’s like leaving the safety of the shoreline and turning your boat into the vast unpredictability of open water. Twice. It requires courage and great presence to navigate the unknown. The unknown, in this case, is what’s inside us as a human collective.

In the KonMari method, it is about taking all the hidden items, the stuff that’s stored away, out of sight, crammed, jammed and rammed into the darkness of “no one will ever see this” and exposing it. 

For example, the first step is to take ALL YOUR CLOTHES and put them on your bed to form a sartorial Mount Fuji. After the initial shock of discovering your material excess, you then proceed to hold every item, one by one, and ask yourself if it sparks joy. If yes, it’s a keeper. If no, it’s thanked for its service and mindfully discarded. (Side note: we’re an environmentally conscious household, so I’m happy to say at least 95% of what we no longer needed was recycled, donated or repurposed.)

Marie states in her book that the keep/discard process isn’t the most important part. It’s the mindset you adopt while doing it. Mindset is a fundamental necessity in human-centred design and something we avidly teach at Huddle. It is the key to a deep and successful HCD practice. 

In Marie’s case, she’s asking you to switch your mind to OPEN so you can access your emotional states. Your heart. Your truth. Your ‘why’. And for those of you who’ve tried the KonMari method, you will know the logic of the rational mind doesn’t always gel with the intuitive intelligence of the heart. That part of you that really knows what's going on. Resistance is rife. You bargain. You excuse. You promise you’ll use that unused thing, even though you never will. And you do your best to avoid going too deep into your own psychology because it starts getting uncomfortable. 

But that’s the point. 

Face and embrace the discomfort so you can release what’s in the way and experience peace and clarity on the other side.

Human-centred design is similar in that it requires a fundamental shift in mindset. Only then can we strip away the well rehearsed, socially acceptable, surface reasons for doing things and ask “why is this actually important to you, dear customer?”

If you ask it enough times (with assistance from some fancy tools and frameworks) and dig deep enough, you’ll get to the core of the problem. The real problem. And 99% of the time, it transcends the perceived problem stated in the brief the client gave you. 

The journey to discovering the real problem is often full of discomfort because it requires you to venture into the irrational realm of emotions. Emotions change, they expand and contract, and they certainly don’t fit into strategies and processes and paint by number solutions. 

To delve into emotions is messy. But it must be done. That is what human-centred design is: asking, observing, accepting the WHOLE person, especially their emotional states. Only then can a solution be devised that solves the problem in a meaningful and lasting way. That's because humans are driven by their emotions, even if they're not fully aware of them.

The KonMari method is the same, but instead of asking “why”, it asks “does it spark joy?” This powerful question very quickly zeroes in on your true values. This is evidenced by the choices you’ve made that have shaped your life and led you to this moment. It rapidly exposes who you are. 

Take your book collection as an example. Right now it’s most likely a jumble of topics you’ve been collecting for the past umpteen years. Once you KonMari them, whatever is kept is what you truly care about now and intend to care about into the future. 

One of Marie’s clients who committed to the process realised all the joy-sparking books she kept were about social welfare. At the time, she was working in IT in a job that was not aligned with her values. She was doing it for money alone.

By simply noticing what really mattered to her through organising her books, it gave her the impetus and courage to quit her unsatisfying IT job and start a babysitting business. Her intention with the business was to support mothers who wanted to pursue their own careers and not be burdened by the guilt and worry of wondering if their kids were safe or not. Her alignment with her own values in turn created great value for others. 

Human-centred design often uncovers such pivots. An organisation may be heading in one direction and through the HCD research process, it is discovered that, wait a minute, no one wants a re-skinned version of this old service. They want something different because that’s what’s important to them. The customer. The one who keeps your lights on, your staff paid and your company mission on track. The one you’re in service with.

It’s worth mentioning here that as you move through the KonMari process, your sensitivity to joy and what truly matters to you becomes sharper and clearer. Be warned though, before that clarity happens, there is a shaky period that unearths fears of scarcity, guilt, duty, unhealthy sentiment, past regrets, secret hopes, and the ghosts of unrealised desires (like fitting into a pair of pants you wore when you were 18). The reward for traversing these emotions is freedom, relief, space, expansion, connection and of course, joy. 

HCD follows a similar path: there are ups and downs, moments of frustration, muddiness and uncertainty. There is also excitement, luminosity and flow. It’s all part of it and in fact, necessary. This emotional rollercoaster sharpens your awareness of the people you're in service with and makes you invest in the outcome.

Marie Kondo’s superpower is that she understands the rich, emotional journey that accompanies the simple act of tidying up and she gently, persistently navigates her clients through it. She knows that if they diligently follow the process, even when it gets tough (and it does), they will come out the other side with a fresh new vision for their lives: clear, aligned and optimistic. 

A good human-centred designer does the same. She shepherds her clients through the turbulent and often contradictory waters of stakeholders’ and customers’ worlds to find a place of clarity and focus. From there, optimal solutions flow and everyone wins.

This shepherding can be summarised as this: Get the right design. Then design it right. 

In other words: do the deep, necessary research to find the why behind the perceived problem so you learn the real problem that needs solving. Then once you know the problem, design a solution that actually matters to those receiving it. 

The power of both the human-centred design and KonMari methods is that committing to them connects us with universal truths about what we as humans really need. Then we can take those truths and transform them into things of value for ourselves and those we serve. Isn't that why we're all here?

The final sentence of Marie Kondo’s book is this: “Life truly begins after you have put your house in order.”

Taken from a human-centred design perspective: “Life is truly meaningful when you put people first.”

So do.



written by Ben McEwing


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