Students' ways of experiencing human-centered design

Carla B Zoltowski, Purdue University


This study investigated the qualitatively different ways which students experienced human-centered design. The findings of this research are important in developing effective design learning experiences and have potential impact across design education. This study provides the basis for being able to assess learning of human-centered design which will allow educational programs to determine their impact, and what aspects are most effective. Because the object of study was the variation of students’ experiences human-centered design, a phenomenographic framework was used to guide the methodology of the study. The literature and research on service-learning and human-centered design informed the construction of the phenomenographic study and also provided ways to interpret the data and situate the results. Thirty-three student designers from a variety of academic contexts were interviewed using a semi-structured, open-ended approach in which they discussed concrete experiences “designing for others”, and reflections and meanings associated with those experiences. Analysis of the data yielded seven qualitatively different ways in which the students experienced human-centered design, or categories of description. Logically related, the seven categories of description formed an outcome space that was two-dimensional with distinct, but not independent, axes. The critical differences among the categories provided the basis for developing their hierarchical relationship. Five of the categories were nested hierarchically. From less comprehensive to more comprehensive, those categories included: Human-centered design as “User as Information Source Input to Linear Process”, “Keep Users’ Needs in Mind”, “Design in Context”, “Commitment” and “Empathic Design”. Two categories represented ways of experiencing human-centered design that were distinct: design was not human-centered, but “Technology-Centered” and human-centered design was not design, but “Service”. In addition, this study found that students’ understanding of the user and their ability to integrate that into their design are related in the development of more comprehensive ways of experiencing human-centered design, and a conception of both aspects is needed. Furthermore, critical or immersive experiences involving real clients and users were important in allowing the students to experience human-centered design in more comprehensive ways.




Oakes, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Engineering|Science education

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