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Research in Practice

The Human Factor

Students’ designs benefit from experiences with real clients.

JEE Selects

By Carla B. Zoltowski, William C. Oakes, and Monica E. Cardella

Design is a central activity of engineering and one of the core criteria for evaluating and accrediting engineering programs. It also poses many challenges for faculty. That’s particularly true of incorporating human-centered design approaches—which require engineers to focus on the people for whom they are designing. The approach has been shown to increase productivity, reduce errors and development costs, and improve quality. But it requires designers not only to keep pace with technology, but also to understand how technology can be integrated in a way that keeps the stakeholders’ diverse social, cultural, and ethical considerations at the forefront.

In today’s global economy, developing effective design skills during the undergraduate years is more important than ever. But what does it mean for undergraduates to demonstrate a human-centered approach to design? To answer this question, we conducted a phenomenographic study to explore the qualitatively different ways in which students understand and experience human-centered design.

Students from a variety of design experiences, including traditional courses, service-learning projects, internships, and co-ops, participated in semi-structured interviews where they reflected on their “designing for others” efforts. The transcripts were compared and contrasted, revealing seven unique categories of how students perceived human-centered design. Five related categories were nested hierarchically, from users viewed as a source of information to deep understanding of user and context, then mapped against the design process and integration to plot an “outcome space.” (Two additional categories represented ways of experiencing human-centered design that were distinct, because they either did not include users in developing an often technological solution or, like some service projects, did not involve design methods.) Our analysis found that the least comprehensive category in terms of outcomes reflected a linear design process where user information was considered only at the beginning. The most comprehensive category reflected an “empathic design” approach, where student designers demonstrated a broad understanding of stakeholders, interacting with them informally and deeply incorporating their aspirations and other information into their designs.

The findings have many educational implications. The overall structure of the outcome space suggests that there is both a “design” aspect and an “understanding of the users” aspect needed as students develop human-centered design skills. For example, students in the technology-centered category tended to be seniors with design experience whose approach showed a lack of appreciation for the user’s knowledge, skills, or role in design. This implies that becoming human centered may not result from simply learning more about design or developing disciplinary skills. Students also may require some component, whether internally or externally motivated, that helps them develop an understanding of, and appreciation for, stakeholders. Similarly, students without design skills experience and understand the human-centered approach very differently even from peers with limited design skills.

The study also revealed that students often enter college with ideas about design, but that a human-centered approach reflects a different way of thinking that must be explicitly taught and discussed. Moreover, the findings suggest that opportunities that involve real users, such as receiving critical feedback from a client when delivering a product, or immersive interaction with stakeholders, let students experience human-centered design in more complex ways. Students also were keenly aware of the context of the design experience—and how its authenticity affected their approach to design. Students often disregarded safety and durability issues, for example, if they knew they were designing for the professor only or if the project would get discarded at the end of the semester. They were designing to the requirements of the particular situation, but is that really what we are trying to teach? As educators, it is important that we understand how context affects a student’s learning of design.

While more work is needed in this area, our study has practical contributions for engineering educators seeking to develop effective learning experiences that provide students with the skills and knowledge they need for innovative and responsible design practice.


Purdue University’s Carla B. Zoltowski is education administrator of the EPICS (Engineering Projects in Community Service) program; William C. Oakes is associate professor of engineering education and an EPICS director; and Monica E. Cardella is an assistant professor of engineering education.




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