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By adopting a human-centric approach, a new structure or infrastructure –  whether it’s a bridge, playground, park, or reservoir – isn’t simply a physical object consisting of raw materials and labour. Instead, it’s the manifestation of community aspirations. It’s a carefully considered design brought to life. It’s a way to solve underlying issues and make lives better. That’s because human-centric design places people firmly at the heart of projects.

What is human-centric design?

Human-centric design represents a shift in the way that people approach projects. Rather than focusing solely on the material benefits to clients, it involves taking a more holistic approach that meets the needs of the project’s end users. By doing this, the overall social, environmental and economic outcomes for the project area are often higher (e.g. building a project quicker is more expensive, but has less economic impact through reduced traffic delays). It’s reframing our clients’ issues in human-centred terms

Imagine you’re redesigning a congested stretch of motorway where commuters are spending their time stuck in slow-moving traffic jams, getting increasingly frustrated. A human-centric design approach to solving this issue focuses on the commuters and the issues they’re facing.

It’s not solely the fact that they’re wasting time in traffic. It’s the ramifications of this fact. A slow commute means they’re late to the office, which means they need to work extra time to make up their lost hours. This could be difficult to achieve if they have commitments, such as picking up their child from daycare before it closes for the day. Which then means they need to spend their evenings making up for the time they lost in the office – due to their slow commute – and losing out on valuable family or recreational time.

A human-centric design approach puts the end users of clients at the heart of the solution. It’s less about clients, and more about humans and how smart design can solve their problems.

Achieving human-centric design

To be truly successful in creating human-centric design, humans need to be a central part of the design process. At WSP-Opus, this not only means involving clients and project partners at every project stage, from inception workshops to align our ideas through to project close-out, but also the wider community, including local Iwi. This is predominantly achieved through public consultation sessions, and having dedicated Iwi liaison staff.

Like for Auckland Council’s Kahawairahi Reserve community engagement day where we developed a range of engaging kids’ collateral, such as an innovative co-branded ‘Let’s play today’ ‘Thinking Cap’. This was a two-sided, colour, A3 sheet illustrated with graphics on stickers. By following instructions on the internal brim, kids could fold and make their ‘cap’ before writing about their community and what they’d like to see in their park. This was supported by a feedback sheet inviting kids to share their thoughts, and stickers as a small thank you gift. On the open day, there was a higher than usual turnout, despite poor weather. Our engaging and different collateral attracted people’s feedback, as Catherine Hamilton, Principal Landscape Architect explains: “A number of people were so enthused they returned and brought friends and family to share their ideas for the park’s development.”

By involving humans fully in the design process, we can ensure any design, technology or process inherently meets the needs of the user – us humans.

Human-centric design in action

Miasteczko Wilanow, Warsaw

In Warsaw, there’s a stunning example of human-centric design. It’s a 450-hectare housing development, Miasteczko Wilanow, the largest urban development in Europe this century which holds 10,000 people per square kilometre. Yet despite this investor-pleasing high density, this is a development with people and their wellbeing firmly at its heart.

To create a human-scale, intimate suburban feel, an architectural policy enforced a maximum building height (five storeys). Natural features abound, including green belts and water features. Fitness is embedded into residents’ lifestyles with numerous recreational opportunities – jogging tracks and cycle paths snake through the development. To create a human-focused city, rather than a car-focused city, underground car parks allowed the developer to use the smallest legally-permitted street dimensions.

Removing the need for a car or reliance on public transport, everything the community needs is within walking distance – shops, cafes, restaurants, schools, churches, a jogging track. Ensuring the environment suits the needs of children, playgrounds are within 70 metres of every single apartment. This suitability for children is reinforced by the five-storey policy, which is less of a barrier for getting outside and playing than living 20 storeys up in the air. The creation of a diverse community has been supported by the range of apartments available, with 30m2 studios on offer alongside top floor penthouses.

These features combined help to create a community-filled, family-friendly environment with a vibrant and well-used retail, commercial and hospitality scene coexisting peacefully next to residential living.

Northern Corridor Improvements project, Auckland

When it came to our design approach for the Northern Corridor Improvements (NCI) project, the impact on the project’s end users (i.e. Kiwi drivers) played a central role in our decision-making process. We employed a “ghost-busters” strategy that aimed to reduce the ‘ghost’ markings that occur during temporary traffic management. ‘Ghost’ markings are faint outlines showing where lanes had previously sat and can distract and confuse drivers, creating an unsafe driving environment. To ensure all Kiwi drivers using NCI could make it to work or home safely, our “ghost-busters” strategy involved designing traffic switches (i.e. when a lane of traffic is moved to the other side of the carriageway) so they stayed on the permanent lanes. This meant only one width of lanes was moved at a time, reducing the number of traffic switches and ‘ghost’ markings. While the construction costs were slightly higher, considering the whole outcomes for the end user meant that this solution was preferred, even in a competitive tender environment.

We also focused on minimising the impact on the busway to avoid disruption to bus users, not just drivers. We designed the construction programme to avoid severing existing dedicated busway lanes until alternative dedicated lanes are constructed.

The benefits

So why does human-centric design matter? There are many intangible benefits. Engaging humans in the design process means there’s an increased likelihood of creating a solution that will be used and enjoyed by humans, now and into the future. Additionally, increased human participation in the design process means more creative and innovative solutions.

There are happier, more satisfied and engaged employees in a thoughtfully-designed workplace. Calmer drivers enjoying more reliable, safer journeys. A more connected community centred around a facility – a playground, a swimming pool, a community centre – that they played an integral role in designing and developing. Broadly speaking, human-centric design also tends to incorporate more of a focus on sustainability which can contribute to better social and environmental outcomes.

But research is also showing more tangible benefits, including economic, by boosting employee productivity which can contribute to a country’s higher GDP. A recent study by researchers from Imperial College London suggested that creating the right working environment can have a material impact on staff productivity, and contribute up to GBP 20bn to UK GDP.

As the modern world becomes more automated, from self-driving cars to chatbots on websites, human-centric design is more important than ever, helping to create a world in which humans can thrive in a safe, sustainable and enjoyable environment.