What do we mean by ‘human-centric software’?

Maddie Zapletal

Technical Writer
·8 min read (2112 words)
woman looking at screen

What springs to mind when you hear the word 'human'? 

Is it the palpable sensations of the human form? The rhythmic beat of the heart? The gentle rise and fall of the breath? The motion of our limbs? 

Maybe your interest lies in emotions - our ability to empathise, our capacity for fury, our delight and our despair.

Or, perhaps you’re drawn towards humanity as a whole - our purpose as a collective, our endless cycle of procreation. 

Now, consider the word ‘software’. 

What images does this conjure up? Lines of complex code? Algorithms governing our digital lives? The brain behind the hardware?

It could even be the cycle of anguish that ensues when faced with a sluggish computer.

In many ways, software represents the culmination of human ingenuity, a byproduct of our relentless drive to automate tasks, optimise processes and connect with one another across vast distances. 

Yet, at times, it may underscore a sense of separation between our physical selves and the digital realm we’ve constructed. When things go wrong or software doesn’t behave intuitively, it can intensify the disconnect between humans and machines, eliciting feelings of detachment and frustration.

So, how can we change this perception? How do we bridge this gap to ensure that our digital creations remain attuned to human needs and experiences? 

The answer lies in human-centred design.

The history of human-centred design 

Type 'history of human-centred design' into Google and you’ll quickly be presented with a whole host of articles on the origins of this coveted design approach. Many of these articles credit the emergence of human-centred design to the latter half of the 20th century, citing pioneering figures from cognitive science, computer science and engineering, such as John Edward Arnold, Herbert Simon and Donald Norman.

In many ways, these visionaries deserve the credit. They’ve done a whole lot of good for the advancement of human-centered design principles, inspiring others to focus on human values and deliver better experiences.

However, if we think about the concept at the most basic level, the idea of designing for humans isn’t a new one. 

Humans have been designing for humans since the beginning of time. Our ancestors designed tools to aid in hunting and gathering, crafted shelters to protect us against the elements and developed writing systems to help us communicate and promote knowledge sharing.

Whether for selfish pursuits or simply to stay alive, human-centred design is one of the key things that has propelled humanity forward. Even today, we engineer solutions to mitigate climate change, protect our wildlife and preserve our dying planet. We might frame these things as efforts to help the environment, but in reality, we do them to safeguard our own existence.

So, how did human-centred design make its way into software engineering?

It’s easy to assume that all software is human-centred. And, in a way, it is. It’s made by humans for humans.

But, what human-centric software is really all about, is putting the humans that use that software first. It’s about tactfully designing systems that meet users' needs and desires in the most efficient and empathetic way possible. It’s software designed with intent.

When we design human-centric software, we have to consider individuality, intuitiveness and accessibility. We have to take into account all of the things that humans want and expect, sometimes without them even knowing what they want or expect. 

Our ancestors did an excellent job at designing things for their immediate survival and comfort, but they were often driven by necessity and practicality, focused on addressing the most pressing challenges of their time. 

Their resources were different too. Without computers, smartphones or code, they didn’t have to worry about flawless UX or finding the best way to incorporate user feedback mechanisms into their mobile apps. The technology didn’t exist.

Fast forward to 2024 and we have a lot more to consider. But, rather than this being a burden, it presents us with a chance to shape people's experiences positively. 

In 2024, we know more. We have better tools. We have more possibilities. This enables us to create products that resonate with people and connect with them on a much deeper level. 

The beginnings of human-centric software

One of the earlier known applications of human-centric software was for a product called Palm Pilot, a nifty little pocket-sized computer that could manage contacts, notes, to-dos and events, and seamlessly synchronise them with the user's desktop computer. 

When the device was first released in the mid-90s, it faced stiff competition from companies like Apple and Psion PLC who had created their own portable products. Yet, thanks to its simplicity and instinctive interface, it managed to outperform its competitors and secure a niche in the market.


With human-centred design. 

In order to maximise their product’s potential, Palm Pilot’s manufacturer Palm, Inc., decided to collaborate with a design and innovation consultancy firm called IDEO who approached the project with a focus on understanding user needs, behaviours and preferences. 

Working together, the two companies conducted extensive user research, testing and iterative prototyping, enabling them to build a device that could seamlessly integrate into users' lives, offering intuitive features such as a touch-sensitive screen, handwriting recognition and synchronisation capabilities. 

This partnership and joint commitment to understanding the humans using their products helped Palm, Inc. to gain many loyal customers, establishing them as a leader in the handheld computing industry. But what was interesting about their product was that, unlike competitor devices, its design was actually fairly minimal

While products like Apple’s Newton and the Psion Series 5 seemingly had many impressive components, most of these were superficial or overly complex, resulting in a counterintuitive and cluttered user experience.

The Palm Pilot, on the other hand, took a quality over-quantity approach, concentrating on delivering essential functionality for ultra-portable computing and, doing it well.

In many ways, the Palm Pilot serves as a reminder that while innovation is often the driving force behind great ideas, we must always remember who we’re innovating for. 

If we can keep people in mind throughout the entire process, we stand a far better chance of making our projects a success. 

The emotional aspect of human-centric software 


And let’s not forget human emotion. 

Navigating the complexity of emotion is an integral part of the human-centred approach. At the end of the day, we’re designing software for humans, not robots.

Human interaction with software is imbued with emotion. We’re constantly reacting as we interact. And those reactions can extend far beyond the moment in which we’re using the software.

If those reactions are negative, it can have a lasting impact on both our perception of a product and the people who made it. 

Let’s take a look at an example to illustrate this. Just for one moment, imagine you are the person in the description:

It’s Monday morning and you’ve not got off to a good start. By 9:00 am, you’ve hit the snooze button countless times already, desperate for a few extra winks. You finally awaken to the piercing shrill of your alarm, only to realise you have overslept and are now catapulted into a race against the clock. 

The day unfolds and you have to tackle endless meetings while desperately trying to ignore the constant buzz of notifications demanding your attention. 

Finally, you return home, weary and seeking solace, only to be confronted with yet another hurdle – you need to make an urgent payment using your mobile banking app.

Feeling exhausted yet determined to complete this one final task, you frantically open the app searching for your intended payee. But, oh wait, what’s that? You can’t see the home screen. In fact, you can’t see anything other than a faded blue background where it’s frozen on the loading page. 

Desperate to make the payment, you close the app and re-open it. This time, you manage to enter the app and move past the loading screen. You feel mildly optimistic and proceed to navigate to your list of payees. 

But, uh oh. Now there’s another problem. As you select your chosen payee and begin the process of making the transaction, the app won’t let you specify the transfer amount. Normally it auto-populates into the amount field or allows you to manually enter a figure. But this time, it’s not happening.

In the days following the failed transaction, you feel anxious and upset, constantly worrying about the ramifications of your missed payment. And, as the days go by, this anxiety and woefulness shifts to anger as you spend hours trying to get hold of your bank, hopeful to connect with someone - anyone - that you can vent your frustrations to and fix the problem. 

Eventually, you decide to delete the app and switch to another bank. 


This scenario might feel familiar to you. It’s a poignant reminder of the profound impact that negative user experiences can have on our emotions and overall well-being. 

The software interaction that we described became an exhausting ordeal for the user, taking them on an emotional rollercoaster ride, turning a bad day into an even worse day and then eventually, impacting their entire week. 

And this is without knowing anything about the person. 

We don’t know if this person is old, young, single, divorced, a parent, neurotypical, neurodivergent; there could be a whole host of other factors at play. 

We mentioned him briefly earlier on, but Professor Don Norman makes a great point about this in his video for NNGroup on human-centred design. While sharing his thoughts on the design of products, services and organisational structures, he provides an invaluable piece of advice:

“Always think of the people, and all of the people”. 

It’s such a short, simple statement but he hits the nail on the head. 

When approaching human-centred design for software, we need to think about everybody. We need to question who these people are and consider functionality on both a practical and emotional level, anticipating every user journey and the emotions that it might bring up. 

So, how can we do this?

Putting human-centred software principles into practice with design thinking


In this section, we’ve provided a simple exercise that you can try to get you into a design thinking mindset.

Feel free to grab a pen and paper to write down your thoughts. 

Imagine you’re looking to build a piece of innovative software. It can be any piece of software you like - integrated or stand-alone, but it has to solve a problem.

First, think about the people who might want to use your software. These are people who might actively seek it out or who may respond positively when introduced to it. 

Next, think about the people who need to use your software. These people may react positively or negatively to the idea of your product but they have to use it, whether for work (as employees) or another purpose (think NHS patients, students, or customers with subscriptions). 

Ask yourself the following types of questions: 

What are some very real problems that these people are facing? 

What emotions might these problems bring up? 

How can you empathise with these people?

What technology exists already that attempts to solve these problems? 

Can your software do a better job of solving them? 

Further down the line, you’ll also need to test your software so you might want to take this opportunity to think about who’s going to test it. Consider the best people for the job.

Undoubtedly, you’ll want to use experienced professionals - developers, QA analysts and test engineers. But, you might also want to invite individuals from your target industry. These sorts of people can provide you with unadulterated feedback that reflects real-world scenarios and challenges. Who are they? How will they help to improve your product? 

Approach these questions with an open mind and try to make your answers as detailed as possible. It may feel challenging to begin with, but will pay dividends later on. 

Part of the reason why companies are still failing to make great software products is because they don’t question their decisions enough. 

With all of the possibilities, they become preoccupied with features, functionalities and technical specifications. And, although these things are important, they should never come before the humans whose job it is to determine the success of the product: the end users.

Final Thoughts


As we’ve discussed, human-centric software isn’t just about creating products for humans; it’s about creating products that truly benefit them. 

To do this well, we have to confront the complexity of all human beings. We have to recognise their expectations, listen to their challenges and use our own humanness to empathise with them.

If we humanise our products, we might just be able to break down feelings of disconnect and inspire others to see technology in a completely different light. 

Just imagine where that could take us!

Are you ready to try human-centred design?

At Newicon, we put our heart and soul into the software we create and, on every software journey, we put people first. 

If you’d like to learn more about our human-centred design process or want to book an innovation workshop, we’d love to hear from you.

Talk to us about giving your software a human touch. Book a call today.

I'm Maddie Zapletal

Technical Writer at Newicon

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