In the creative landscape of the 21st century, design has become a cornerstone of industries worldwide. Its expansive nature, incorporating fields as varied as graphic design, industrial design, UX/UI design, and more, has led to a fundamental reshaping of products, services, and experiences. Today’s design industry is not merely focused on aesthetics but has gravitated toward creating meaningful interactions and experiences for users. A profound understanding of user needs, behaviors, and emotions has become paramount, birthing what is known today as “human-centered design.” This discipline prioritizes empathy, user insights, and continuous refinement to produce solutions that resonate deeply with end users.

Meet Ojashwi Sapkota, a prominent figure and a driving force in the realm of human-centered design. Ojashwi’s background is as rich and diverse as the discipline she excels in. With a foundation in economics and international relations from Knox College, she has built an impressive career in design and market research. Her professional journey includes critical roles in industry-leading companies such as Accenture Song and Shapiro+Raj, where she honed her skills and left a significant impact on a multitude of projects. Additionally, Ojashwi’s contributions to nonprofit organizations and Fortune 500 companies underscore her adaptability and versatility, thriving in various work environments.

The list of Ojashwi’s achievements is extensive. She is the recipient of several accolades such as the Sylvia and Irwin Jaffe Memorial Prize in Economics, the Robert F. Seibert Prize in International Relations, and the Director’s Scholarship in the Social Sciences Division. These awards highlight her high quality and impactful work, a testament to her dedication and exceptional proficiency in her field.

Ojashwi’s expertise lies in the integration of consumer research, business insights, and data analysis. This unique blend enables her to distill complex data, derive meaningful insights, and apply them in a consumer-focused context. The resulting solutions, therefore, are not just optimal but strike a chord with the users, fostering an emotional connection with the product or service.

Recently, we gained a fascinating insight into Ojashwi Sapkota’s approach to human-centered design through an in-depth interview.

We invite you to join us in unravelling the journey of Ojashwi Sapkota—a remarkable design researcher whose passion for human-centered design is influencing significant change, one design at a time. In exploring her story, we aim to illuminate the core essence of human-centered design and its transformative role across various global industries.

Hi, Ojashwi! Can you describe a project where human-centered design played a critical role in achieving the desired outcome? What was the impact of this approach?

As a design researcher, I utilize a human-centered design framework in all aspects of my work. My primary goal is to prioritize the needs of people and their voices throughout the design process. This requires a profound understanding of the end users of any products or services, discovering their challenges, and defining design opportunities and objectives.

I spearheaded user research utilizing human-centered design for a pet retailer planning to introduce a new service. They were interested in learning how digital touchpoints could ensure they provided the finest service to pet parents. In response, I immersed myself in the journey of pet parents—starting from the moment they seek a service for their pet, through choosing a convenient location, to obtaining guidance for post-visit care. From this empathy-driven understanding, I identified opportunities where a digital experience could meet their current needs.

These opportunities were then encapsulated in user journey diagrams to illustrate their potential impact on the users. These visual aids reinforced the pet parents’ confidence in the available services and helped them be better prepared for upcoming appointments.

How do you balance the needs and expectations of the end-user with the objectives and constraints of the business when utilizing a human-centered design approach?

I don’t perceive a tradeoff between user needs and business constraints. Designs that prioritize business requirements over user needs risk falling short in various ways. The key is to establish clear communication between the design team and business stakeholders, fostering a shared perspective on the optimal approach to satisfying user needs. Success hinges on a holistic view that balances user requirements and business goals.

Indeed, it can be challenging to satisfy both simultaneously. I believe it’s crucial to focus on the most pressing user demands and figure out how we can align them with business objectives. Following this, we can continue to test and iterate the product, regularly incorporating people’s feedback to meet business goals.

However, not all stakeholders are receptive to change, and some may not even recognize the value of human-centered design for their business. In such cases, it’s vital to involve these stakeholders in the design process. This engagement can begin with stakeholder interviews at the start of the user research process to understand their viewpoints. Subsequently, once the design team has conducted user research, the findings should be synthesized into actionable insights. The use of relevant user stories can demonstrate the value of meeting user needs to the business. This approach ensures stakeholder concerns are addressed while also fulfilling the needs of the users.

Can you share an instance where your empathetic understanding of a user’s needs led to an innovative solution or significant improvement in a product or service?

An empathy-driven approach can indeed unlock new opportunities for businesses as it centers on understanding how people’s needs are evolving. For instance, during user research for a fintech company’s app, I noted a significant shift in people’s perspectives since the pandemic. They were increasingly interested in utilizing the power of money to contribute positively to the world. The last couple of years have profoundly changed us all, and we continue to discover these impacts, specifically in how people’s relationship to money has evolved.

I observed a growing desire among people to aid others more readily through the routine peer-to-peer payments app they use in their daily lives. I suggested that the app needed to enhance these capabilities, making it easier for users to make altruistic donations.

How have your experiences as a design researcher shaped your understanding and application of human-centered design?

User research is a vital component of my design process. While the methods may vary depending on the project, the overall objective of understanding the end users’ viewpoint remains consistent. The most essential element in achieving this is cultivating empathy for users through active listening to their stories and observing their behaviors. This understanding enables me to guide designers in creating products and services that address real problems and deliver meaningful solutions.

Empathy plays a critical role not only in the human-centered process when understanding end users but also in my interactions with my colleagues. As a design researcher, I frequently work within a multidisciplinary team, collaborating with designers, product owners, and developers, among others. Recognizing what my team requires from me to excel in their roles is key to successful collaboration.

Could you talk about any challenges you have faced while applying human-centered design principles and how you addressed them?

One of the most significant challenges is creating inclusive products and services. The book Invisible Women by Caroline Criado-Perez has had a profound influence on my work. It underscores the pitfalls of non-inclusive design processes. As such, I always endeavor to include voices from all intended user groups in my work and to gather their insights. One of the silver linings of increased virtual platforms since the pandemic has been the ability to incorporate a broader range of voices into the research process. Remote testing has made it much simpler to engage with individuals from various parts of the country, ensuring that their perspectives are included, rather than just seeking the voices of people located conveniently for in-person meetings.

Another challenge lies in considering the ethical implications of our recommendations. Conversations around ethical considerations have significantly increased in recent years, and I am a staunch advocate for protecting people’s privacy. As designers and researchers, we must stay informed about ethical frameworks and best practices.

How do you incorporate feedback from users in your design process? Can you provide an example where user feedback led to a crucial design change?

Incorporating feedback from users is an ongoing process that occurs at various stages of the design process. I identify design opportunities by gaining a comprehensive understanding of users’ pain points and needs. Prototypes built from these insights are then tested to ensure they effectively address those needs. I collect this feedback and collaborate with the design team to continually refine the design.

Numerous examples of user feedback significantly influencing design decisions can be found in the apps I use daily. For example, Instagram now provides an option for users to either display or hide the number of likes on a post. This change came in response to reports about the number of likes creating anxiety and pressure among app users. While Instagram initially tested the removal of the feature entirely, they found that this wouldn’t cater to all user needs. Many people’s livelihoods depend on the engagement they receive on their posts. This adaptation by Instagram demonstrates their commitment to prioritizing user needs in their design decisions.

You mentioned the project where you discovered increased altruism during the pandemic, which influenced peer-to-peer payment apps. Can you delve deeper into how you used human-centered design in that project?

For that project, I was tasked with examining the user experience to understand what was functioning well and what required improvement. To achieve this, we scrutinized their key offerings and features. We also engaged in dialogue with several key stakeholders to understand their vision for the product and the user experience. Armed with this knowledge, we aimed to converse with individuals who used the company’s app or the apps of their competitors. We sought to understand their pain points, gains, motivations, needs, wants, and desires.

To achieve this, we designed a diary study to delve into how they used these apps and their relationship with money. Following the diary study, we conducted interviews with several individuals to gain a deeper understanding of what they sought in a peer-to-peer payment app.

How do you see the role of human-centered design evolving in the future, particularly considering advancements in technology like AI and machine learning? How do you plan to adapt and incorporate these changes into your work?

As technology continues to evolve, the significance of human-centric design will only increase. These technologies can significantly enhance our understanding of how to create human-centric products by offering deeper insights. These insights can help to better tailor experiences and ultimately drive more informed decision-making.


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