What is Human-Centered Instruction

HCN In Practice

Learn more about how HCN is transforming Learning & Development in engineering organiaztions.

Human-centered Instruction (HCN) is an instructional model that brings the methodologies of HCD and Instructional Design together under a single discipline. It’s utilized by large corporate Learning & Development groups in partnership with the organizations they support and by smaller companies looking to create a talent advantage through growing and developing their teams.

The hallmark of HCN is the two disciplines it takes its name from:

  • Human-centered design (HCD) "starts with the people you’re designing for and ends with new solutions that are tailor-made to suit their needs." It places a focus on building empathy for the individuals served through inspiration, ideation, and implementation.

  • Instructional Design (ID) is designed to make "instruction more efficient, effective, and appealing." Backed by cognitive and adult learning theory, it focuses on improving both the act of instruction and its outcome.

Modern Learning and Development cannot rely exclusively on HCD or ID alone in developing instructional material. In creating a symbiotic relationship between human-centered design and instructional design, it is possible to take the strengths of both systems and apply the resulting system to create excellent corporate training.


First published in 1999, human-centered design (HCD) gave designers a formal system by which to bring empathy for the end user into the design of interaction. Since its inception, HCD has been adopted by organizations as varied as IDEO, Google, and Stanford's d.school.

HCD and it's higher level parent, Design Thinking, contain strategies for assessing learner needs and exploring alternative methods of instruction. HCD equips educators with the tools to create meaningful custom instruction with higher relevance by building empathy for the learner. HCD methodologies such as effective interviews, immersion, and rapid prototyping enable educators to undertake instructional development process free of preconceptions, while methods such as piloting allow for fast iteration while risk is minimal.

HCD and Design Thinking are not without flaws. Human-centered design offers precisely one method for determining the success of created instruction and remains vague on tools for collecting and processing feedback. Another system is required to help HCD realize its full potential; one that focuses on the effectiveness of the instruction itself.


Pioneered in the early 1930s, instructional design (ID) focuses on making the acquisition of knowledge and skill more efficient, effective, and appealing. Modern instructional design methods contain six core tenants

  • Instructional design is learner centered

  • Instructional design is goal oriented

  • Instructional design focuses on real world performance

  • Instructional design focuses on outcomes that can be measured in a reliable and valid way

  • Instructional design is empirical

  • Instructional design is typically a team effort

While the HCD methodologies focus almost exclusively on empathy for the learner, modern instructional design systems emphasize goals, performance, outcomes, and empirical measurements of success. Based on cognitive theory and adult learning principles, the discipline of instructional design focuses on how and why we learn.

Instructional design on its own lacks the strategies to build empathy. In spite of all modern instructional design systems being learner-centered, few offer the techniques, tactics, and tools necessary to create compassion for the learner. Though most ID systems champion an iterative process, few provide practical frameworks for managing learnings uncovered during the development phase of instruction.

Just as human-centered design needs instructional design, so too does ID need HCD.

The Human-Centered Instruction Phases

Saying “human-centered design informed instructional design” is too verbose to be practical. When HCD and ID come together, the shortened term is “human-centered instruction.” HCN consists of three distinct phases: Exploration, Creation, and Integration. Drawing from Kemp's model of instructional creation, these phases are non-linear and iterative.

Every step of human-centered instruction applies ideas, tactics, and techniques from both traditional instructional models and HCD methods.

Exploration: Empathy and Outcomes

The Exploration phase defines itself through information gathering and determining realistic outcomes for the instruction. HCD's Inspiration methods and ID's analysis methods work together to identify the problem better and set expectations for success.


Creation: Development and Evolving Discovery

The Creation phase defines itself as a need to achieve a testable model of instruction for iteration quickly. HCD's collection of Ideation methods and ID's sequencing and development models create an environment for fast learning on how education can be built, delivered, and extended.


Integration: Delivery and Enabling Scale

The Integration phase defines itself by not only the delivery of instruction but requires that there exists the necessary support to train the next generation of instructors. ID's evaluative systems ensure the success of goals from the Exploration phase, while several HCD methods give educators the tools to guarantee empathy for the learner remains throughout the process.


From custom technical training to leadership onboarding bootcamps, it's possible for companies of any size to bring together HCD and instructional design to begin practicing human-centered instruction in all training solutions.

Human-centered instruction, HCN, and this document are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.