Harry West and His Very Human-Centered Approach to Teaching Design

Oct 20 2020

Harry West wants his students to design a better world. In the Human-Centered Design class that he teaches at Columbia, West encourages students to approach problems with an open mind and no pre-conceptions.  “In human-centered design, we don’t suppose the answers, and that’s the whole point,” says West, Professor of Practice in Mechanical Engineering.  “When we are building a new product, service or system, the real experts are the end users – the consumers, customers, citizens or employees - and we get to better solutions by talking to them, observing them and discerning their needs, wants and aspirations. Then, through an iterative process of ideation, prototyping and testing we converge on designs that really resonate with the people we are designing for and meet their needs.  In my class I teach how to talk to regular folks and listen out for what is important to them, with the ultimate goal of creating better experiences for them, and hopefully, a better world.”

West is the Principal of Invisible Design, a consulting firm that help companies align their creative and business strategies to solve business problemsSince his arrival at Columbia in 2016, West has been applying his professional design expertise to build a human-centered design and innovation curriculum in the School of Engineering. I began teaching at Columbia while I was running the design firm frog, and Mary Boyce, the Dean of Columbia Engineering, asked me to develop a 6-week mini human-centered design course,” explains West. “When I left frog, Mary suggested I join the faculty full time.  Teaching design has been a fantastic opportunity to gain fresh insight into where the design field is going, because I am reflecting and learning along with my students.”

In the Human-Centered Design class, students learn a basic vocabulary of design methods and processes. The class attracts students from across the university who work together in small group projects taking on a series of design challenges. The class begins with the design of a simple product and works toward the design of more complex systems of product, service, and business.

The human-centered design process is quite different from traditional engineering: the focus is not on technology, but on eliciting behavior change. “The goal is to design a better consumer experience that influences behavior and results in a desired impact, whether it is sales growth, reducing waste, or inspiring better health habits,” says West.

“I am also working with other schools at Columbia to give engineering students more opportunities to engage with students outside of the School of Engineering, and to collaborate with faculty in other schools to develop design programs tailored to the needs of their students,” says West. “I believe that Columbia offers a unique mix of capabilities, concerns, and context to be able to advance the methods of design and innovation to meet the needs of our time. Sheena Iyengar, S.T. Lee Professor of Business, and I are developing a video course on design for executives. Lydia Chilton, Assistant Professor, Computer Science and I are collaborating with Desmond Patton, Associate Professor, School of Social Work, to develop a course on design and technology for social justice. I am assisting my colleague Yevgeniy Yesilevskiy, Lecturer in Discipline, to bring a more human element to the Senior Design Projects class in Mechanical Engineering. Generally, I teach from the Design Studio which is part of Columbia Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Design. There is so much happening in design across the university.”

This interdisciplinary approach mirrors West’s own work with Invisible Design and at Columbia.  Recently, he began to assist a NewYork-Presbyterian medical team led by Ian Kronish, MD, MPH, Internist, Associate Professor of Medicine, and Associate Director of the Center For Behavioral Cardiovascular Health, on a remote patient blood pressure monitoring system. This spring, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the team pivoted to launch a remote discharge care program for patients with COVID-19. Because of the urgency of the situation, the new program was launched in just ten days. “The goal was to give patients - and their doctors – the peace of mind that comes from continuing care, but in a new way reflecting the demands of the pandemic,” says West. “The response was positive and the program is still running.”

Last spring, the Covid-19 pandemic also presented West with a new teaching challenge when Columbia moved to remote learning.  “The way I teach design is very interactive: students work in teams in the studio and I walk around the room providing coaching, help, and advice,” he explains. “This became much more difficult when we transitioned to remote learning, but I considered this an opportunity and a challenge to innovate my teaching approach.”

“This fall, I am iterating the design of the class with my students, who are providing ongoing feedback about what works and what doesn’t,”  continues West. “Most teams are remote, so we created a virtual space using commercially available tools to enable the students to have a similar experience to being in a classroom. I run the class through Zoom and CourseWorks, and the students have secondary channels of communication using Google Meet, Google Slides and Mural, which enables them to interact with their teammates in real time -  including as I am lecturing, which I encourage. Mural is a digital white board that enables students to visually explore ideas with each other during class.  Periodically, I stop lecturing and I join their digital spaces to coach and advise. Like any creative project, my teaching format will continue to evolve.”

“For next year, I am working on more lectures on the dark side of design and how to respond,” adds West. “Human-centered design enables us to make products that meet consumers’ needs, but this is driving a high level of consumption; how do we change so we do not destroy our world?  The overwhelming majority of design work is with a commercial intent and the measure of success is financial, but we need to bend design tools to pragmatically address other criteria of success, including reducing consumption and social inequities. Essentially, we need to go from human-centered design to humanity-centered design.”

“I’ve been part of commercial development for 25 years, and there are billions of dollars a year in product sales that I have played at least some part in,” continues West. “I have pride when I walk through a store and see a product that I helped design. However, I am also mortified when I think of those same products eventually in landfills. It’s an interesting intellectual problem and a moral imperative to think through the role of design as a tool to for behavior change: not only to increase consumption as it is used today, but also to reduce consumption in the future.  Companies are not forcing us to buy, we as consumers are choosing to buy more and more. So far, we haven’t been able to implement solutions to this problem in a market economy.”

“Human-centered design is a powerful tool,” he continues. “It is used by most consumer and customer-facing businesses today, so I want students to understand how the system works. It will make them better entrepreneurs, enable them to be more proactive in commercial settings, and poised to take on the leadership roles to improve this world that we so desperately need.”

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