The Human-Centered Design Process is Androgynous

Illustration for "The Human-Centered Design Process is Androgynous" by Misa Yamamoto.
Back to top

By Katie Krummeck, BA

Looking through the lens of American psychologist Sandra Bem’s definition of androgyny, human-centered design asks participants to take an androgynous approach and to adopt the best of both masculine and feminine traits to improve problem-solving outcomes.

As the conversation around human-centered design as a driver of innovation continues to gain traction, many have sought to unpack what exactly sets this way of working apart from the status quo. While discussions about design mindsets and abilities and the evolution of design methods are a critical part of the conversation, I seek to bring another lens to the exploration of what makes human-centered design such a valuable process. Analyzing human-centered design methodologies through a gendered lens has helped me realize why the process helps many people—across many professions—work more effectively in teams, draw inspiration from empathizing with others and create breakthrough solutions to complex human problems.

The American psychologist Sandra Bem’s pioneering work on gender roles, self-perception of gender identity and androgyny introduced the idea that men and women can and do adopt both masculine and feminine traits. After taking Bem’s Sex Role Inventory, those subjects who self-identified with high numbers of both stereotypically masculine and stereotypically feminine traits were deemed androgynous. 

Stereotypically masculine traits (characteristics generally attributed to or associated with men according to societal norms) included: 

  • Acts as a leader
  • Analytical
  • Independent
  • Willing to take a stand
  • Willing to take risks

Stereotypically feminine traits included: 

  • Compassionate
  • Sensitive to the needs of others
  • Understanding
  • Yielding

Bem went on to argue that people who identified with a blend of gender stereotypes could adopt those traits when situationally appropriate, leading to increased performance in both their personal and professional lives. While these notions disrupted deeply held beliefs about the way men and women “naturally” behave, Bem’s ideas were part of a larger conversation in the 1970s that strove to break down assumptions about the roles, attitudes and behaviors of men and women.

Looking across the modes of the human-centered design process, I noticed that both stereotypically feminine and stereotypically masculine traits were embedded in each of the different modes. Could it be that human-centered design, just like Bem’s definition of androgyny more broadly, increases performance by leveraging both stereotypically masculine and stereotypically feminine traits? What if, when building collaborative teams, every individual could leverage the traits and qualities they each possess, regardless of how these traits map to their sex and gender identities?

To unpack this idea, let’s review the modes of the human-centered design process with an eye toward the mindsets and postures each mode requires of designers (regardless of their sex or gender identity).

When launching a design challenge without an idea or prototype already in mind, human-centered designers begin the process with a phase of work focused on empathizing with others. This mode of the human-centered design process requires designers to put aside their ideas about the problem and step into a mode of active and intentional listening and observation in order to develop a keen understanding of the needs and motivations of the people for whom they are designing. The process of empathizing with a user and yielding expertise in favor of meeting the needs of that user are stereotypically feminine traits.* 

Once human-centered designers have gathered data from the process of empathizing with the users for whom they are designing, they must move into an analytical mode of thinking. To move forward in the design process, designers must make sense of the data collected and develop a strong point of view about what the users they meet need and want. This process of analysis and inference requires designers to take a stand and take some intellectual risks. This move from an open posture of active listening and observation to a far more strategic, analytical approach demonstrates how the human-centered design process transitions from a stereotypically feminine posture to a more stereotypically masculine one.**

From there, human-centered designers need to take the conclusions they have reached about their users and turn those conclusions into vehicles for idea generation. During this part of the process, commonly called ideation, designers collaboratively generate solutions for the users for whom they are designing. It is during this process that both stereotypically feminine and stereotypically masculine traits flourish. The more feminine traits of yielding to others (or making room for everyone to contribute), deferring judgment and quieting the analytical mind are essential to creating and keeping the momentum of ideation. The more masculine traits of taking risks, generating status quo-busting ideas and working quickly are also essential to generating many potential solutions.

Once many solutions have been generated, human-centered designers must converge on a small set of solutions to prototype with users in the field. This process of idea selection requires the more stereotypically masculine traits of taking a bold stand and having a bias toward action. 

Equipped with low-resolution prototypes, human-centered designers return to the field, where they engage with users, listen for feedback and iterate on their ideas. Testing prototypes is really another way to gain empathy with users, thus initiating another more stereotypically feminine mode of the design process.

Because the human-centered design process effectively forces participants to engage in a mix of what Bem identified as both stereotypically masculine and stereotypically feminine behaviors, the process offers a way into what she theorized as a particularly effective—androgynous—way of operating in the world. Unlike the participants she interviewed, however, the design process sidesteps the question of identity. All designers who practice human-centered design necessarily use an androgynous approach, regardless of their own identities or proclivities. It makes sense that a process focused on human needs and motivations is fully human, relying on the full potential of each designer, not just the masculine or feminine traits that happen to correspond with the designer’s sex.

In a business environment that continues to be dominated by the assumption that leaders and high performers must exhibit stereotypically masculine traits, it is not surprising that the androgynous human-centered design process, with its healthy mix of both stereotypically masculine and feminine ways of working, has gotten traction as a major value-add and source of creativity and innovation. 

As human-centered design continues to gain traction as a proven and valuable methodology for creative problem-solving, my hope is that human-centered designers will continue to push the boundaries of hyper-gendered, stereotypical behaviors despite societal pressure to adhere to those roles. Because human-centered design, itself drawing from many disciplines (engineering, the humanities, the social sciences), seeks to leverage the best approaches to the creative process without reverence for academic silos or rules, I believe the process can help us as a society to open up opportunities for people to inhabit many postures and work in many ways when solving complex problems. In other words, if the human-centered design process is inherently androgynous (taking the best from both stereotypically masculine and feminine traits), then androgyny is a strategy for achieving creative confidence and driving innovation.

*This does not mean that men cannot or will not demonstrate these mindsets or behaviors. Rather, according to Bem, if men are exhibiting these stereotypically feminine traits, they likely fall into a more androgynous gender performance than those who exhibit only stereotypically masculine traits. Imagine, perhaps, the “sensitive man.”

**Just as the “sensitive man” is perhaps a person who embodies a more androgynous gender performance, leveraging the analytical mind is, of course, not solely men’s work. In the transition from empathizing to analyzing, I am demonstrating how stereotypically feminine or masculine traits get mapped on to the work of both men and women.


Katie Krummeck is the Director of Programs at the Construct Foundation in Portland, Oregon. She was previously the Director at the Maker Education Project at Southern Methodist University’s Lyle School of Engineering.