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Designing products with “human-centered” purpose

How three innovative companies find the humanity in design by putting the end user at the center of everything they make

Designing products with “human-centered” purpose
Lauren Cascio, design director of HoloLens, Darcy DiNucci, vice president of user-experience design at Ammunition and Michael Sprague, director of market, sales, and service at Lincoln speaking about “The Humanity of Design” at the 2019 Fast Company Innovation Festival.

We are in the midst of a design revolution. Advancements in technologies ranging from the size of processors and the emergence of cloud computing to the emerging fields of artificial intelligence and machine learning have changed the ways companies approach their work, resulting in a deep focus on the end user from the very start.


This shift was the topic of a recent panel at the annual Fast Company Innovation Festival, where senior leaders from Lincoln, Microsoft, and Ammunition discussed how their companies have incorporated “human-oriented design” in their product development. The range of industries represented on the panel spoke to just how widespread this design evolution is. Here are four key takeaways from the session.


Michael Sprague, director of market, sales, and service at Lincoln, emphasized the importance of human-centered design for the automobile company. “It’s about understanding the deep-seated needs that consumers have,” he said. “Observing them, probing their needs, watching their behaviors—constantly gathering this data and then infusing it into the products and services that we offer.” Sprague added that an important thing the company discovered from its research is that consumers value time above all else, and Lincoln has made “giving time back” a central point of their design process.

Sprague pointed to the hundreds of touch points Lincoln designers considered when creating the latest iteration of the Aviator, the car company’s SUV, including time-saving, multifunctional features. “It wasn’t just understanding what happens when you’re driving your car, but also what happens before and after you press the ignition,” he said. “When the Aviator senses you approaching, the lights come on, the vehicle lowers itself to make it easier to get in—the car embraces you, as if saying, ‘Welcome back.’ Those precious saved seconds or minutes accumulate over the course of a car’s lifetime. And with Americans on track to spend 70 billion collective hours behind the wheel this year, those time savings add up.


Products without a clear, defined purpose don’t have a place in modern marketplaces. That’s why Microsoft’s Lauren Cascio always starts with one question when she’s designing a product: Why?

“Thinking about the scenarios that are actually useful in people’s lives is a really important part of what we do every day,” said Cascio, the design director of HoloLens, Microsoft’s mixed-reality headset. “So, we end up asking, ‘Why would we use this, and what about it matters?’ It’s really important for us to talk to our customers and give them hands-on experience with what we’re making, so we can better understand what’s working and what’s not.”

Darcy DiNucci, vice president of user-experience design at Ammunition, emphasized how purpose-driven design dictates the way designers work. “One of the services we offer to our clients is helping them understand what’s worth designing in the first place,” DiNucci said. “It’s about first principles: Why are we creating this? Why would it have these features? Are we offering anything of value to customers? You have to ask those questions before you start.”



Smartphones are the one piece of technology that every designer must keep topmost in mind. Their ubiquity has influenced the design of everything from cars to televisions, and the panelists all emphasized the importance of integrating them into their product design. “The phone is driving so much of the user experience now from an automobile standpoint” said Sprague. He pointed to the ability for Lincoln owners to open their car doors from their phone, joking that “everyone loses their keys [but] nobody loses their phone.”

Ammunition’s DiNucci took it a step further, saying that as smartphones are the “center of everyone’s life” her team factors them into the “customer journey” for almost everything they make. “Every time we consider a product, we consider how it enters your life, how you learn about it, how you interact with it,” she said. “And we look for every opportunity to make that easier. Often that includes a phone.”


Stories were also on the minds of the three panelists, who all stressed the importance of a good narrative in their respective industries. “Storytelling creates that emotional connection between engineers, designers, and consumers,” Sprague said, adding that the theme of “revitalization” is something that Lincoln can use to differentiate itself based on consumer research, providing calm over chaos in today’s fast-paced world.

Cascio and DiNucci both discussed their respective firms’ use of user stories to drive collaborative development and bring their products to life. For Cascio’s HoloLens team, it was a matter of understanding who the end user would be. “Vivid stories matter so much, and that was something we struggled with in the early days of thinking about what a mixed-reality business application [might be],” Cascio said, adding that her team has worked night shifts with airline workers and on factory floors to get to better know the people they’re designing for. “We have designers who come to meeting with tears in their eyes saying, ‘I met this amazing person, and she’s struggling,’ ” she continued. “So the whole team feels so invested in the problems that they’re solving at a human level.”

Ammunition’s DiNucci discussed the concept of narrative more abstractly. She sees her role as a designer as answering questions that haven’t been asked—which can mean putting yourself in the minds of users that don’t exist yet. “This thing that doesn’t exist yet is solving a problem that doesn’t exist either,” DiNucci said. “So, figuring out how to meet consumers where they are and add to their experience—that’s our challenge.”


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