Grad course teaches inclusive, human-centred design research 

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By Elaine Smith 

After completing an advanced diploma in design, designer Rupsha Mutsuddi took her education a step further by pursuing a master’s degree in design at York University. The graduate course that influenced her most has been GS/DESN5104 M – User-centred Design Research Methods and its exploration of inclusive, human-centred design, taught by Shital Desai, an assistant professor and York Research Chair in Accessible Interaction Design. 

“It has had a big impact on me, and I am planning to continue on to pursue a PhD that focuses on this approach,” said Mutsuddi, who will graduate in the spring and focuses on doing research and design using a health-care lens. “It’s unlike anything I’d come across before in my design education.”

Shital Desai
Shital Desai

Desai taught the research methods course in 2023 and uses inclusive, human-centred design methods in her own accessibility research. Inclusive design places users and their context at the centre of the development process so the designer can create products that are responsive to their needs. It requires the researcher to engage with the user community to determine what their needs are before proceeding with a design, and Desai believes this approach is something all design students should understand before joining the workforce. 

“My objective is to introduce students to various user-centred design methods,” said Desai. “It means creating an empathetic connection with people. It’s more than just doing a survey and an interview. You need to listen to people’s stories and have the desire to develop a connection. You need to understand your population. It takes time and effort.” 

Mutsuddi can attest to the patience required. She is interested in design for people with dementia, an interest that sprang from watching her own family care for her grandfather, who suffered from dementia before passing away more than a decade ago.  

“You get the best results [from people with dementia] when you are discussing an issue as part of a conversation around the context of people’s everyday lives,” Mutsuddi said. “It’s a method called contextual inquiry. If you’re interested in designing more accessible technology, you ask people to describe the technology they use in their daily lives, whether it’s a coffee maker or a transit app on their phones. Then, you can see the features they like. 

“Human-centred design involves the community and users from the beginning of the process to the end, compared to usability testing, which asks people to test a product once it’s developed. You want to understand their needs from the very beginning.” 

Desai has found that post-COVID, students aren’t comfortable talking to people, but human-centred design requires engagement. She has them do relevant exercises in class, such as interviewing each other as a way to develop empathy for classmates. She also teaches them about other ways to get people to open up, such as playing games together to get insight into their choices and start them talking. One of her students, she noted, collected relevant images and news stories to show the interviewees as a way of getting them to discuss their own experiences.  

In doing human-centred design research, understanding the power balance is very important, as is taking cultural considerations into account, said Desai. 

“Often, people are not open to talking about their vulnerabilities, so you need to develop empathy first, otherwise there’s a power imbalance. You have to understand ways or methods to distribute power or you won’t get information that is reliable and relevant to your design. And [consumer] behaviours may be different depending on cultures, such as with the cars we buy and drive.” 

One thing seems clear: understanding inclusive, human-centred design can only benefit Desai’s students as they look toward the job market. LinkedIn, the social media site used for networking and job hunting, calls it “an emerging field,” and the National Institutes of Health in the U.S. notes, “Over the last decade, there have been increasing examples of the use of [human-centred] design thinking for global health.” 

“I see it in a lot of job postings and my colleagues tell me that it’s important for them, too, because industry sees value in it,” said Mutsuddi. “It’s bigger in Europe and Australia, but it’s just emerging in Canada and we need to catch up. I believe it will become more of a focus not just in the design industry but in other industries.” 

Luckily, all of Desai’s students will be well prepared.