Human-Centered Design (HCD) is used by designers of both print and digital products and services. According to Design Kit, a platform created by IDEO, HCD is, “…a process that starts with the people you’re designing for and ends with new solutions that are tailor made to suit their needs.”[1] HCD is a highly effective way to design, especially when it comes to solving customer problems, but putting humans at the centre of the design process raises some important questions. Can HCD help solve problems that are yet to be faced by a consumer? Can consumers clearly articulate the issues that they are facing or think beyond their current frame of reference? Due to these concerns, this paper will argue that HCD cannot foster true leaps in innovative design. For the purposes of this argument, the specific field of eReader design will be focused on to provide an overview of HCD’s limitations on radical innovation. Foundations of HCD will be presented along with the current state of eReader design, and lastly alternative approaches will be discussed.

Why HCD isn’t enough

In the very definition of HCD lie clues into why it cannot be used for radical innovation. According to Wikipedia, “Initial stages [of HCD design] usually revolve around immersion, observing, and contextual framing in which innovators immerse themselves with the problem and community.”[2] Imbedded in that statement is the word innovators. The designer must inherently already be an innovator who brings their own set of skills and knowledge to the table to produce results. What happens if the designer is not inherently an innovator? The definition falls apart. HCD is then not about innovation itself, but rather the people involved; designers and experts that bring their knowledge and creativity with them and apply it to a human centered approach.

The purpose of this paper is not to discredit the benefits of HCD, it is an incredibly valuable design framework for iterating upon and refining eReading products. It is however limited in its ability to create something entirely new. In 2015, Jing Ma of the College of Design and Innovation stated,

“HCD is regarded as a typical approach to incremental innovation capable of enhancing the quality and value of the product in the current domain; but is claimed to have little position in radical innovation.”[3]

Users don’t always know what’s best

There are many issues with putting a user at the centre of the design process. Users may reject an idea as something they would never use, but upon seeing the completed product in person, they may realize that they have a need for it. On the other hand, they may come up with an idea of what they think they want, but in reality, they would have no use for it. A 2014 Context Parameters article states, “In short Human Centered Design (HCD) succeeds when things are observable, knowable, tangible and measurable. For the times those criteria are not present we need an alternative to HCD.”[4]

EReading devices have homogenized over time, leading to their current format.[5] Most companies have come to agreement on the screen size and general look and style that they should have.[6] This user focused evolution involves companies testing and watching users interact with their products then iterating better and more usable versions. Incremental innovations in eReading technology today have more to do with the surrounding service infrastructure than the hardware itself, competing for market share with service infrastructure advancements such as cloud storage, social media integrations, annotation tool, text adaptability and more.[7] Does this mean that eReaders themselves have finished evolving? How will the next device to revolutionize reading come into being? One could argue that if they have been standardized then the problem has been solved, but eReaders are still a young technology with only a decade of widespread usage. HCD thinking tends to contain itself within the limitations of the current technology at its disposal. This again, is embedded in its definition. As described by Dave Thomsen “…this holistic approach to design takes inspiration from real people, works within market and technological constraints, and considers every product touch-point as an opportunity to surprise, delight and deliver benefits to users.”[8]

The state of eReader developments

Developers are doing incredibly beautiful experiments with books, but none of these formats have really taken off. Companies are challenging the form of the book, whether it’s involving augmented reality, multimedia enhancements, or interactive texts.[9] David Pierce in a 2017 Wired article quotes Sean McDonald of the FSG Originals imprint, “One of the things that holds you back from developing a highly interactive, graphic, endless storytelling interface is that we don’t have the infrastructure for that.”[10] The reading experience has been solidified in our culture for hundreds of years and has not made many radical changes beyond how we flip pages or swipe screens. It is possible to infer that radically new eReader hardware would help spur the adoption of new reading formats.

Pierce’s Wired article also argues that due to Amazon’s dominance in the world of books, it is up to them to really evolve forward, however it appears that, “Amazon’s overwhelming commitment seems to be not evolving the book but preserving it.”[11] After the first Kindle was developed, Amazon’s incremental innovations worked to replicate print more closely over time such as their use of E Ink technology.[12],[13] Reading is such an embedded part of our lives, therefore it is difficult to seek user input as a way of imagining and creating new devices for the act of reading.

How to foster radical innovation


In order to design radical innovations, an alternative framework to HCD is required. A survey of articles on fostering innovation in design leads to countless discussions on collaboration. Collaboration between members of a creative team should still involve discussions with the user who will ultimately use the product or service, but it’s up to the experimentation of the designers and experts to innovate and take an idea to an entirely new level. Frederik Pferdt, Chief Innovation Evangelist at Google,

“…found only one distinction between innovative and non-innovative teams—psychological safety. A team that has psychological safety is a team where people feel safe trying new things, openly sharing ideas, and bringing their full selves to work.”[14]

In 2008, Roberto Verganti conceptualized a model for radical innovation that includes utilizing collaboration from many disciplines outside of a specific company.[15] He calls outside disciplines external interpreters, which are, “…architects, artists, firms in other industries, schools, [and] the media.”[16] This offers a framework for creating more accessible design discourse for companies to apply to their own design research in order to create new insights and meaning.[17]

Collaboration in this sense can be thought of as creating an environment for innovation where other design research and thinking methods can then be put in place to enhance the possibilities of radical leaps in innovation taking place. One such method that will be briefly described here involves meaning making. Donald A. Norman and Verganti in 2012, put forward a framework for understanding four types of innovation.[18] Market-pull innovation involves incremental innovation by assessing the needs of the user, but the other dimensions have the ability to lead to radical innovation. [19] Technology-push innovation, is due to a radical change in technology; Technology epiphanies are shifts in meaning that take place because of a new technology or re-contextualizing existing technology; and lastly, meaning-driven innovation involves understanding shifts in societal and cultural dynamics, creating new meanings.[20] A framework using meaning and technology may offer more opportunities for radical innovation.

Design Research

Norman and Verganti go on to discuss various types of design research that can be deployed to reach these types of innovation. Basic design research, tinkering and human-centered research all play a role, but design-driven research is used as the pinnacle for radical innovation which involves creating new meanings.[21] Verganti also discusses this design‐driven innovation approach in a 2008 paper,

“This strategy aims at radically [changing] the emotional and symbolic content of products through a deep understanding of broader changes in society, culture, and technology. Rather than being pulled by user requirements, design‐driven innovation is pushed by a firm’s vision about possible new product meanings and languages that could diffuse in society.”[22]

Let’s keep innovating!

Human-Centered Design thinking has its place in the modern world of eReader device development, but it has limitations when used as a tool for radical innovation. Customers can tell you how they want existing devices to function better, but it is unlikely that they can be relied upon successfully to imagine a whole new way of doing things. The limitations are summed up perfectly in this quote by Norman and Verganti,

“The more that researchers study existing human behavior, activities, and products, the more they get trapped into existing paradigms. These studies lead to incremental improvements, enabling people to do better what they already do, but not to radical change that would enable them to do what they currently do not do.”[23]

The framework of HCD and the methodologies that reside within it such as UX design are extraordinarily pervasive today and for good reason. Using these tools for design helps enhance the products that people use, but different approaches need to be considered to leap towards something entirely new.

ereader for ebooks


[1] “What is Human-Centered Design,” Design Kit, accessed October 15, 2018.

[2] “Human-Centered Design,” Wikipedia, accessed October 15, 2018.

[3]Jin Ma, “When Human-Centered Design Meets Social Innovation: The Idea of Meaning Making Revisited,” Cross-Cultural Design, Methods Practice and Impact 7th International Conference CCD (2015): 352, access October 15, 2018,

[4] “When Human Centered Design isn’t a silver bullet,” Context Partners, last modified June 2, 2014.

[5] Simon Peter Rowberry, “Ebookness,” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 23, no. 3 (2017): 289-305, accessed October 8, 2018,

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Dave Thomsen, “Why Human-Centered Design Matters,” Wired, accessed October 18, 2018,

[9] David Pierce, “The Kindle Changed the Book Business. Can it Change Books?” Wired, last modified December 20, 2017,

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Amazon employ’s User Experience designer. UX design can be thought of as a design methodology within the overarching framework of Human-Centered Design. To read more, see

[13] To read more about E Ink technology, see here

[14] “This is the Way Google and IDEO Foster Creativity,” IDEO U, accessed October 10, 2018,

[15] Roberto Verganti, “Design, Meanings, and Radical Innovation: A Metamodel and a Research Agenda,” Journal of Product Innovation Management 25, no. 5 (2008): 436-456, accessed October 10, 2018,

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Donald A. Norman and Robert Verganti, “Incremental and Radical Innovation: Design Research vs. Technology and Meaning Change,” Design Issues 30, no. 1 (2014): 89, accessed October 18, 2018,

[19] Norman and Verganti, “Incremental and Radical Innovation,” 90.

[20] Norman and Verganti, “Incremental and Radical Innovation,” 90.

[21] Norman and Verganti, “Incremental and Radical Innovation,” 91-92.

[22] Verganti, “Design, Meanings, and Radical Innovation.”

[23] Norman and Verganti, “Incremental and Radical Innovation,” 89.