What the heck is human-centered design? I once heard it dubiously described as college art students surrounding a nude model as they sketched. But, mostly the term elicits a shoulder shrug from people who feel like they should know what it is, but don’t. For me, however, I’ve been lucky enough to have been exposed to it over the last few years at Zion & Zion, where I spend my days as a Sr. Copywriter. Prior to participating in a weeklong design thinking bootcamp at Stanford University’s d.school, I had coworkers previously participate in the same human-centered program—and pass along some of their learnings. Last July, it was my turn to take the trip to d.school, along with two other coworkers, and jump feet first into this workshop of quick-paced, radical collaboration, and complex creative problem solving.

Okay, so again, what exactly is human-centered design, or design thinking as I’ll refer to it going forward? The Stanford d.school explains design thinking as “A methodology for creative problem solving.” But I wouldn’t be the only one to tell you there’s a whole lot more to know packed into those six words.

To give you a clearer, sixty-thousand-foot understanding of design thinking, I’ll explain it as a set of tools and methods used for creative problem solving by utilizing a process of five stages. After a need, or problem, for design thinking is established, we begin with the Empathy stage to best understand a user’s experience within the context of the problem. The process progresses into the Define stage of explicitly expressing the problem to be solved as seen through your user’s experiences. Then comes Ideation where numerous radical solutions are generated. Prototyping is then performed to bring form to the most innovative idea(s), and after that comes Testing to gather feedback, insight, and deeper empathy for your user for the purpose of more successful solutions.

I know it sounds exhilarating, but this article isn’t about teaching you how to do design thinking; it’s about my experience and what I took from it—in and out of the course.

Prep Time

Before embarking on this four-day course of 12-hour days, I took a moment to unwind and clear my head at the airport before we left. This was an important trip, but it was happening in the midst of learning—just a few days prior—my dad was diagnosed with metastasized, malignant skin cancer; caring for my 13-year old boxer with Leukemia; adjusting to life with a fantastic 5-month old baby boy; along with my wife and me trying to steer clear of the unnecessary family drama that was also occupying my mind. Needless to say, an intense course at Stanford was going to need a clear mind. And I had a lot to clear. So, I decided not to think about anything during our two-hour flight except for what was coming out of my earbuds.

As some flights do, it began with a little chitchat with the person in the window seat next to me. He was a young 23-year old guy from a rural area outside Prescott, Arizona. He was being flown out to Hawaii for a job interview with a screen-printing company. As we shared a little about ourselves, he, with a seemingly throwaway comment under his breath, mentioned how this was his first time ever being on a plane. Aside from babies, I’m not sure if I have ever sat next to someone on a first-time flight. Part having fun with the situation, and part reassuring him, I replied, “Well, this will be fun.”

As the flight went on, I enjoyed watching him peer out the oval window from 39,000 feet watching the tiny specs of life happening below us. Following a slight jolt of turbulence, I fed his uncertainty with a reassuring “This is normal,” and a later, “That’s normal too,” during heavier jostling. I wondered if I might have been providing unwelcomed commentary, but his return looks led me to believe he appreciated it.

About an hour later, and after getting through a fair portion of my music playlist, the plane landed. With slight envy, I wished my first-flight neighbor good luck on the next leg of travels to Hawaii. For me, I was back in the Bay Area where I grew up, and that felt good in its own right. More so, I was looking forward to this Stanford experience.

Meeting The Team

That evening, after checking in to our hotel, the three of us assembled at the school to meet our coaches and individual team members. We then broke off and got to know each of them over charcuterie boards and wine. Fancy.

My diverse team of six included a CEO from Tel Aviv, an engineer from the suburbs of Tokyo, an Executive Director at Kaiser Permanente IT, a Healthcare Administrator at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, and our spirited coach who was younger than all of us by a couple decades. Within our small group of six, I was pleased to meet another Doug. And there was yet a third within the entire group of 90+ people from around the globe. I say this for no other reason than it rarely happens that there’s more than one Doug in a group; our name is one that I call the “uncommon common name.” Nonetheless, we were an excited group ready to learn all about design thinking.

The next morning, we quickly got started, jumping into the uncertainty of it all and learning as we went. This is a major takeaway of the course—spending less time perfecting and preparing in lieu of refining as you go. Our concentration was to be on exhibiting exploratory behaviors rather than evaluative.

Within the first hour, we dove into a couple participatory exercises as we learned the framework and five stages of design thinking along with what we’d be doing for the next four days. In this article, I’ll be concentrating on the stage that opened my eyes the most—Empathy. As an advertising creative, I’m quite familiar with the other stages of Defining a problem and Ideating for solutions. Prototyping and Testing stages are quite interesting in their own right, but Empathy had an effect on me more than others during my trip—in more ways than one.

Empathy Breakdown

When it comes to design thinking, Empathy is where it begins and is the foundation from which we build upon. You can consider it the human portion of human-centered design. The problems we work to solve in design thinking typically belong to someone else or a user; rarely are they our own. In order to build empathy for our users and learn their values, we engage in a triad of methods: observe, engage, and immerse.


Watching users and their behavior within the context of their lives, how they interact with their environment gives us clues as to what they think and feel. It helps us understand their needs.


Interacting with users involves directly interviewing them—either through scheduled interviews or interceptions. It affords us even deeper insight into their beliefs and values.


This involves plunging into the user’s environment to help yourself further understand first hand who you’re designing for. You want to experience what they experience.

The d.school makes this point:

“The best solutions come from the best insights into human behavior. Discover the emotions that drive user behavior. Uncover user needs (which they may or may not be aware of). Identify the right users to design for. Use your insights to design innovative solutions.”

Solution creation is a great opportunity for us to bring our own experiences and unique perspective to a problem-solving task. But this can be good and bad. Although tapping into your own experiences can be advantageous in problem solving, our own viewpoints carry assumptions and personal opinions that we could maintain as truths. Within these may actually lie bias or stereotypes that limit our ability to truly create empathy for our user. Your truth is not necessarily theirs. It’s important to assume a beginner’s mindset in order to remove yourself from the equation and conduct a design challenge with fresh eyes.

5 Ways to Assuming a Beginner’s Mindset

Having a beginner’s mindset means not making assumptions. Like in the beginning of this article, I mentioned that someone’s notion of human-centered design was people surrounding and sketching a nude model. You never quite know what someone’s interpretation of situations are until you dig in and ask. When interviewing users, these tips will help you get the most of your time and understand their experiences. It helps to have someone along with you to take notes while you personally engage in conversation with the user.

1. Don’t Judge

Interviewing is another time to tap into your generative mode, opposed to an evaluative approach. It’s important to observe and engage users without judgement. It will help them feel more comfortable telling their story, and help you see things through their eyes.

2. Question Everything

Another way of saying this is: assume nothing. Ask questions and dig deeper even if the things you feel you already understand. If a user says, “It was a cool experience,” don’t assume you know what they mean by cool. Follow up with questions about why or what made it cool?

3. Be Curious

Take the position of curiosity. Dig for the story whether it seems familiar or uncomfortable. Concentrating on the emotional high or low points, versus factual information, helps create better insight into the user.

4. Find Patterns

Look for interesting situations and emotions common across user stories. This might be a good area to explore.

5. Do More Than Hear Them—Listen

This means truly paying attention to how they tell their story. Do they speak more passionately about a certain point? Do they suddenly use hand gestures? These are cues to focus in and really absorb what they are telling you without thinking about a response.

Hitting the Streets: Empathy Interviews Gone Wild

San Francisco is an interesting city, especially if you enjoy people watching. And if you really want to ratchet up the scale of interesting things to experience in San Francisco, empathy interviewing is your gig.

As quickly as we arrived at Stanford’s d.school on our first day, we were off on a 30-minute chartered bus ride to the Mission District of San Francisco to practice our empathy interviews. Our coaches gave us the practice challenge of reimagining the commute in San Francisco. The task at hand was interviewing people on the street to get their impressions, experiences, and understanding of the city’s transit system.

Before we knew it, and almost as quick as our nerves had a chance to set in, we were on the streets of San Francisco and ankles deep in the Empathy module. (Fret not, being knees deep comes a little later.)

Interviewee: James

The first user my team approached was James, a seemingly homeless man with unkempt clothes and several tattered plastic bags filled with personal belongings. It wasn’t long into interviewing him about transit experiences that he divulged he was a graphic novelist. Being unfamiliar with what a graphic novelist is, I asked. He informed me that he occupies his time by writing and illustrating his own fictional stories loosely based on his own experiences over the years. He was proud to add that a couple secondhand book stores carry a few of his stories. Although a bit sporadic, his interview was intriguing; and his welcoming, sharing nature pleasantly caught us off guard. We parted ways with a fist bump, but not before he taught us the all-important “locking of the bump,” a simultaneous twisting of connected fists after bumping knuckles. “You got to knock it, then lock man,” is what he left us with as his departing words. We got as much useful transit stories out of our encounter as you just did.

Interviewee: Dan

The second interviewer we spoke with was apprehensive at first and chose not to remove his earbuds as he gestured “no” while walking past us. But after mistakenly thinking we were tourists asking for directions, he stopped and took a step back for us. We explained we weren’t lost but were interested in if he had a particular transit story that he distinctly recalled and that we’d like to interview him. Dan, an Asian lawyer in his early 60s, gave a slight nervous chuckle as he relayed a situation that recently occurred. He showed us his broken pinky finger—still in a splint—as he shared with us a time he was riding the bus with his partner and was punched in the face out of nowhere by a mentally unstable man. To the disappointment of Dan’s partner, he added, Dan quickly retaliated by slapping the man back, breaking his finger in the process. Dan, signaling his relief still to this day with a big breath, let us know that his slap to the man’s face didn’t faze his mentally distracted behavior one iota. “It’s a dangerous place, and you just want to blend into the crowd and not react to people,” Dan told us. He finished by telling us, “But I just reacted that day.”

Interviewee: Eric

Eric was easy to interview. In fact, he approached us, asking what we were doing. Surely, we stood out with clipboard and loose papers being shuffled around as we carried on down the street.

We told Eric, a gay man in his late 40s that stood about 5’-6”, we were interviewing people about memorable transit experiences and asked if he had any he wanted to share. He told us about the time he was riding the bus alone and witness a small group of school girls on board acting rambunctious. He said he thought nothing of it until they took the backpack of another girl, riding by herself, and started tossing it around to keep it away from her. He continued by telling us how he can’t handle seeing people get picked on and he stood up to tell the five schoolgirls to give the backpack back. All seemed relatively normal in his story, until he told us, “They gave the backpack back to her, then waited until I got off the bus. They followed me off the bus, and then beat me up. I got my ass kicked by five 15-year old girls in front of a gay bar.”

Now, this is what I was referring to as being knee-deep in empathy interviews.

Interviewee: Daniel

By far the most memorable interview we had that day was with a 25-year-old guy named Daniel who was born and raised in San Francisco. We first wanted to approach Daniel while walking a few paces behind him on the sidewalk. We noticed his quick-paced meandering gape uninterrupted by his head-down texting. With his long hipster-style hair bun, jeans sagging just below his butt, Off The Wall Vans, and his too-busy-to-notice-his-surrounding focus, he stood out to us as someone who would want nothing to do with us, to say nothing of sharing his story about a transit experience. But we went for it anyway.

A bit confused as to what we were wanting, Daniel was still surprisingly very willing to help us. After a quick explanation of what we were up to, he told us of a particular transit day that stood out to him. He mentioned an older Asian man in his 90s that he used to see on the bus. Daniel explained, at first, he would see the man quite a bit on the bus. Then he started seeing him walking more often and wasn’t sure why. Daniel, being the conversationalist that he is, let us know he started talking to the older man more and more when he would see him on the bus. Through his conversations, Daniel learned the man had diabetes and would only ride the bus when his feet hurt; it was the days the man felt good when Daniel would see him walking. Daniel surprised us by telling us that he felt responsible for cheering up the old man when he was riding the bus—knowing that he was in pain. “I wanted to make his days better if I could,” Daniel said.

It was certainly a turn in his story we didn’t expect from Daniel. And, he wasn’t done yet.

We asked him about any other memories that made him enjoy or dislike the bus. To me, it seemed Daniel felt he had already opened up so much that there was no harm in sharing one more recollection. He went on to tell us, “I remember, the day. It was 4/20 [April 20th, a stoner’s holiday] because I only had one thing on my mind that day,” he said as he looked to me with a seemingly insider’s head nod and grin. He told us how it was the last day he rode transit, and how he now gets rides from his mom. (That’s who he was texting when we first spotted him.) He continued explaining why by telling us how his bus driver Lloyd was unique and someone he felt close to, and that’s the reason he doesn’t ride the bus anymore. With a smile, he continued on, “I had just smoked [a joint] and I went down stairs to catch the bus. As I got on, I realized I forgot my wallet, but it was cool because Lloyd would let me ride for free sometimes. I would always ride upfront and we’d just talk. He’d tell me all sorts of things; he’d tell me about different buildings and their cool history. That was the day he gave me a huge stack of bus passes and then told me he was retiring.” Then Daniel shocked us by telling us, “I cried that day he retired; he was the coolest driver and now it’s no fun anymore. I don’t ride the bus anymore.”

We were taken back by the juxtaposition of Daniel’s hurried appearance and the sentimental person behind it all who is capable of creating meaningful cross-generational connections.

College Campus vs Street Smarts: Two Arenas Reaffirming One Ideology

It wasn’t until after the fourth day of our design thinking course, our plane landed back in Phoenix, and I was back to work that I realized something profound about my entire experience. As much as I was tuned in to the concept of design thinking, I hadn’t stepped back from it all yet and taken the fundamental groundwork of it—empathy and assuming a beginner’s mindset—and consciously applied it contextually to my trip as a whole or our everyday interactions and run-ins with people.

I was reminded that the quick assumptions we make on a daily basis about people and circumstances can often be wrong, even if they do come from our own perspective and experiences. Each person and every circumstance—albeit similar on the surface—are unique. There’s a unique truth to be unveiled, worthy of empathy and connection on some level. But, daily assumptions, judgement, and a tendency to feel we know the entire story from a five-word news headline, creates the atmosphere for us to feel we know the truth before we really do.

Little did I know that prior to lifting off in Phoenix on our way to San Francisco, I’d have sitting in the plane seat next to me a situation that called for deeper digging and empathy involving a 23-year-old guy who’d never flown before. Empathy for, and a connection with, a homeless man on the streets of San Francisco. That I’d identify with, and have empathy for, a 60-something year old man I might have just walked past on the streets of the Mission District. Or, that a hipster kid who went out of his way to make meaningful connections with strangers would show me what true empathy is all about.

Consciously, I, and probably most of us, know this to be true, but it’s the quick assumptions we make about someone, without thinking twice, that could use a closer look and may just lead us to a deeper and more beneficial understanding. Whether in our private life or work, starting with empathy and a beginner’s mindset could very well have an unimaginable effect on our outcomes.