The unified theory of human-centred design and its success — the wheel of innovation

Throughout my designer’s career I was always puzzled by what is it which makes the difference between successful innovative companies such as Google or Apple and the ones which failed, such as Nokia or Kodak.

Since I learned more about User Centred Design I came to understand that it’s this ‘thinking differently’ which grants a long term success. Nowadays, some people call it “Design Thinking”.

Unfortunately, there is so much noise around this topic, so that most people are unable to recognise the signal anymore which is to change the way we are accustomed to think.

But what do I mean by ‘thinking differently’? Well, primarily this involves quite a leap for our minds. Something like taking a mirror and turning it back to itself. Some people believe the Earth is flat and they can’t be talked out of that. They know it’s flat. The popular way to say the same thing is by quoting Albert Einstein:

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.

The core idea of success grounded in this theory is that successful companies need to satisfy human needs on various levels at once. So that when a solution becomes obsolete, they still have an ocean of other possibilities to satisfy the same human need in different way. In other words to solve a root-cause of the problem they were solving before, grounded in basic human needs.

For example, if Nokia’s purpose was to build phones, satisfying the need of people being able to talk remotely, it’s quite a narrow definition. But what if, on the other hand, the need was broader, for example to communicate or even connect. And what if we know what is the motivation behind and why people actually do it and how does it resonate in their emotions?

In other words, to focus on needs and not solutions or on verbs rather than nouns, if you will.

Wouldn’t it be then much easier to adapt to the newly established market environment and build other solutions satisfying the need to communicate or connect rather than just continue making dumb phones?

In this article, among other things, I will try to flip your minds to think differently by making connections between various theories and philosophies.

Needs space vs. solutions space

To be able to understand what I mean by focusing on needs we have to be very clear about what I mean by needs.

This classification is based on Robert H. McKim’s needs classification. Bob McKim was a professor at Stanford University who introduced needs-based design in 1959 and his disciple David Kelley established Design Thinking ( at Stanford University and set-up a world renowned company — IDEO.

Example of a need to reach office, Vladimir Korbel 2018

So in this example the solution, the product is a car, a Ferrari to be specific. It’s a solution, object, noun. It’s not a need.

In this hypothetic example we made up that perhaps the need is to commute and try to understand by asking the why question what is the fundamental reason grounded in emotions. This technique is called WHY — HOW laddering as the more we ask why, the more abstract and emotional reasons we get and the more we ask how, the more specific we get.

On the side note there is a morality aspect where obviously the broader the needs get the more moral they are, as for example nobody can question the morality of providing shelter to family as opposed to owning a shiny Ferrari.

Other example is Money, it’s not a need, it’s a solution to transfer value. An alternative solution would be a barter or a promise such as a cheque.

So if nothing else is taken from this example it should be the distinction between needs and solutions.

The Wheel of Innovation

Building upon McKim’s theory and using it as one of the seven pillars (plus one paramount principle) incorporated in the Wheel of Innovation, in which I observed the same or similar kind of pattern.

I believe that understanding these principles and how they are interconnected will fundamentally contribute to helping you reverse your minds and “think differently”.

Upper part of the wheel contains theories whereas lower part contains examples. All is connected within the sections of the circle both horizontally as well as vertically.

The Wheel of Innovation, Vladimir Korbel 2018
List of Theories included in the Wheel of Innovation, Vladimir Korbel, 2018

1. Theory of Five Ws and How

Why / What / How laddering concept is an ancient concept of Greek philosophy and theatre which has been introduced more than 2400 years ago. Incepted by Aristoteles and used by Aeschylus in his plays it laid a foundation to understand people’s behaviour.

It is also a way how to make sense of any situation.

WHAT — the goal

WHY — the motivation or reason

HOW — the solution, product, service, journey, experience

The three which are not used here are WHO, WHERE and WHEN. Mainly because WHO may vary based on persona or it can even be the business and WHERE and WHEN gives more of the context.

2. Mathematics Theory

In mathematics theory and its definition of freedom and limitation gives us another perspective.

Freedom in mathematics is the ability of a variable to change its value. 
In universal algebra it is called variety. We can think of limitation to its extreme which would be a constant, one solution, one option, no choice.

A complete attachment to one option.

In analogy to an apple tree, the fundamental need of a seed would be to grow, whereas the solution would be enough water and good soil. Or maybe fertiliser which can be a product. Or a gardening service.

3. Stanford’s Design Theory of Needs

As mentioned earlier, while solutions are nouns, objects, concrete tangible things, needs are verbs as those are still waiting for their noun in the sentence to appear. This noun can still be anything, therefore understanding needs gives us also freedom of coming up with new solutions to the same need. 
Whether those are business mechanical needs such as increase efficiency or human needs such as to be loved.

4. Trifecta for Innovation

Every solution has to be needed by the people which face the problem (desirable), it has to satisfy their human need(s). It also has to serve a business purpose (sustainable for the business) and obviously it has to be technically possible to build it. Introduced by Tim Brown in his book Change by Design.

Tim Brown, Change by Design

5. Buddhism

Emptiness is form and form is emptiness is a central teaching of all Buddhism. It is believed that there are fundamentally two sides of everything which is sometimes wrongly called dualism. It is actually quite the opposite.

A great example that this is true comes from Lord Buddha himself. He said people suffer because they desire. So if they didn’t desire they wouldn’t suffer. But what if people desire not to desire? Isn’t it already a desire?

Form is Emptiness — Emptiness is Form

As you can see this resembles the famous Yang and Yin symbol representing unity. It is derived from a Hindu theory of Advaita Vedanta, which literally means non-dual.

6. Theory of Forms

Abstract vs. Concrete. All concrete solutions have to be reasoned not only in mechanical conditions but also in emotions which may sometimes feel a little abstract. 
By stepping back into the unknown (abstract) we can then forge ahead into ideation (concrete). The theory of forms was established by Plato et al.

7. Taoism and Socrates

In Lao Tzu’s book of wisdom Tao Te Ching it is emphasised that the truly wise men and leaders are the ones who admit themselves they don’t know.

In pursuit of knowledge, 
every day something is added. 
In the practice of the Tao, 
every day something is dropped. 
Less and less do you need to force things, 
until finally you arrive at non-action. 
When nothing is done, 
nothing is left undone. True mastery can be gained 
by letting things go their own way. 
It can’t be gained by interfering.

Very much like Socrates’ paradox: I know that I know nothing.

8. Zen / Chan / Dyana

Zen Buddhism in Japan, Chan in China or Dyana in India, all emphasise the role of the Beginner’s mind.

Beginner’s mind means avoiding preconceived ideas, prejudices and assumptions even when studying subject on an advanced level. Just like a child would do.

“In the Beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few”. “When your mind is compassionate, it is boundless.” S. Suzuki


Examples of Needs and Solutions

In these examples we have solutions on the outer ring, business needs in the middle one and human needs in the central ring.

Business needs can be further split like Automate / Increase efficiency and so on, where the higher the nearer to the company’s mission (Balanced Scorecard).

Whereas human needs are different, they are more split based on how near they are to our hearts.

So for example reducing bureaucracy can be a nice business need to start with.

Gathering the human point of view and human need(s) regarding context would be then the first step in the process. So the human need would be do what they love to do but the problem is they have to waste time doing paperwork.

So from the business need DIGITISE we’ve got the human point of view which follows in the user story:


The human problem then would be too much paperwork and bureaucracy and fear of making a mistake.

And ideating on solutions would follow afterwards.


In this article I explained what a human need is and why it helps companies to focus on multiple layers of human needs and not only on solutions.

I explained the principles which human needs’ theory is based upon and introduced similar theories which emerged throughout the history of humankind in order to explain one paramount principle.


That one principle, which makes companies successful is not to start solving customer problems based on assumptions, but by doing an in-depth, qualitative research to understand the human needs first based on compassion, emptiness, desirability, humanity, wisdom, … rather than assumptions or ego.

In other words to step-back, admit ourselves we don’t know and go and learn from the users of the problem by truly stepping into their own shoes.

Or put simply by enabling companies to FEEL.

Author: Vladimír Korbel

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