How to develop a human-centered design mindset

By Catherine Cheney 30 October 2016

Photo by: startupstockphotos.com

In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Rena Greifinger, Population Services International’s technical adviser for youth and girls, stood before a nyakanga, who leads girls through ceremonies that marks their transition from girlhood to womanhood. Draped in fabric, she acted out a scene in which a teenager asked questions about her health. Afterward, Greifinger sat at the table with the nyakanga and, with the help of a translator, got her feedback about an early stage idea the PSI team had developed in partnership with medical providers, teenagers, and the nyakangas so often left out of conversations on how to reduce teenage pregnancy in Tanzania.

“When we design for people, we design with empathy,” Greifinger told Devex. “We immerse ourselves in their worlds, engage them in developing solutions, and ultimately seek to delight and inspire them.”

When done well, human-centered design leads people into projects with questions rather than solutions, pushes them to be constantly curious, and forces them to check their assumptions, she said. While the most effective approaches to address global poverty are designed in partnership with the people they are intended to serve, sometimes professionals needs to be reminded of that reality.

How can you learn to incorporate human-centered design into your work? Devex spoke with a range of human-centered design experts and global development practitioners about the educational resources available to a sector that would benefit from learning how to work with beneficiaries as partners.

1. Make sure you are willing to adopt the mindset.

Rather than spending millions of dollars piloting an idea developed in a boardroom, PSI is spending a fraction of that cost, by starting with rough prototypes made up of paper, glue, markers, and lots of imagination. Human-centered design, or HCD, helps PSI turn qualitative data into deep insights about its target audience, that are then used to design solutions. A prototype is brought to the community, and feedback leads to several rounds of iteration, at which point the idea is either abandoned or refined into a pilot.

“HCD is not only a tool or a process but a mindset,” Greifinger said. “It is a philosophy that at times contradicts what we have learned in traditional development settings, but in other ways complements it completely.”

She suggested global development professionals interested in HCD consider the value it might bring to the work that they do, or find components of HCD that fill gaps, which in the case of PSI was in making markets work for its end user. It might not be the purest form of the discipline you need, but aspects of HCD that complement and support what you are already doing. What is important is to have an understanding of what HCD is before deciding whether it is the right methodology for you, she said.

“HCD allows us to meet users’ actual rather than perceived needs,” said Linda Vesel, senior research and knowledge management officer at the international humanitarian organization Concern Worldwide. “It is a mechanism for decision making, prioritization and consensus building. In this way, we work together with users to understand their needs and help them build their ownership for the solution.”

Melissa Higbie, deputy country representative for PSI Tanzania, talks with Devex about human-centered design. via YouTube.

2. Consider what program or resource is right for you.

Both formal and informal education can help global development professionals understand HCD and gain access to the tools and techniques they need to carry it out. There are many boot camps, multi day courses, and certificates administered by universities and design firms alike, from The Design Gym in New York City to an open access course from IDEO.org to a free online course from Acumen applying HCD to poverty related challenges. But universities only just beginning to incorporate coursework on human-centered design for international development.

Stanford University has its own institute of design, courses including Designing for Extreme Affordability, and a new graduate scholarship program resulting from a $400 million gift from Nike founder Phil Knight. Tulane University has a center for social innovation and design thinking, with a program today featuring stories from Kenya on HCD for international development. Design for Social Innovation in New York City offers the first Master of Fine Arts program in social impact design, with an upcoming conference on HCD and health. And the first university to offer doctorates in human-centered design is the University of Washington, which got a $210 million donation from the Gates Foundation earlier this week with the goal of improving global health.

“In the humanitarian world, developing human-centered, stakeholder-centered and community-centered solutions makes the difference between night and day,” Mark P. Haselkorn, professor of Human Centered Design and Engineering at the University of Washington, told Devex. “Without co creation, you end up with a lot of waste — wasted time, wasted effort, wasted money, you name it.”

When conducting research on the right programs for you, it is essential to do your due diligence, said Robin E. Mays, a Ph.D. candidate working with Haselkorn at UW.

“In one way I’m really glad human-centered design has been adopted as a buzzword, but in another way I’ve seen it abused, like all buzzwords,” she said. “People are like, yeah I’m a human-centered designer and the tenets are unclear and people put it on their resume or in their proposal without actually knowing it.”

The terms human-centered design and user-centered are often conflated, she said, even though user centered design is about products and human-centered design is about people and systems. She also encouraged global development professionals to seek out those programs that position the designer as the facilitator, with the ideas of stakeholders leading the process, rather than those programs that position the designer as the decisionmaker, merely incorporating the feedback of stakeholders. Mays left her role as senior emergency logistics manager and head of preparedness and planning at World Vision to learn from and collaborate with Haselkorn, and she is already bringing the HCD mindset back to the sector, with projects including work with the Red Cross Global Disaster Preparedness Center.

At the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting, Jocelyn Wyatt, executive director of IDEO.org, talks about her work applying human-centered design to the social sector. Via YouTube.

3. Have a human-centered experience.

When Devex asked Jocelyn Wyatt, executive director of IDEO.org, about her tips for graduate school, she had three main pieces of advice: spend time abroad, spend time with guest speakers, and intentionally select diverse groups.

“Whether it's spending a semester as an exchange student at another campus, a summer internship opportunity, or a travel experience during a break, take the opportunity during grad school to visit parts of the world you haven't been,” Wyatt said. “These years are a great opportunity to gain new experiences and broaden your horizons. And employers will be impressed with your international experience, especially if it's been in the developing world.”

While travel is essential, guest speakers allow students to meet people from around the world without stepping foot off of campus, and offer a unique opportunity to learn from people who make you think differently, Wyatt said.

“Offer to pick up guest speakers from the airport, give them a tour of the school, or host them for lunch while they're on campus,” she said. “Take the opportunity to develop your network by getting to know some of the great people who will come through during your time at grad school.”

Campus environments also offer a unique opportunity to meet and collaborate with people from a wide variety of backgrounds.

“Get to know people from other countries and cultures and who come from different disciplines than your own,” Wyatt said. Learn how to be successful in multidisciplinary, diverse groups of peers as it will be helpful to you as you enter the workforce.”

It is also essential to get experience outside the classroom. In March, Greifinger arrived in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, from Palo Alto, California, where she had participated in a  design thinking bootcamp led by the d.school faculty at Stanford University. While she commended the program for packing a lot of learning into four days, she said her time in Tanzania even was more valuable because of its relevance to her work.

“I would encourage students and other professionals to find a small team of people that are equally interested in trying out HCD and then using one of these self led courses to solve for a problem in their local community,” Greifinger said, explaining that these informal programs can be a good way to test out whether a formal program is a smart next step. “The best way to learn human-centered design is to do it.”

You know you need a postgraduate degree to advance in a global development career, but deciding on a program, degree and specialization can be overwhelming. Devex and our partners are digging into all things graduate school and global development in a weeklong series called Grad School Week. Join online events and read more advice on pursuing a postgraduate education here.

About the author

Catherine cheney devex
Catherine Cheneycatherinecheney

Catherine Cheney covers the West Coast global development community for Devex. Since graduating from Yale University, where she earned bachelor's and master's degrees in political science, Catherine has worked as a reporter and editor for a range of publications including World Politics Review, POLITICO, and NationSwell, a media company and membership network she helped to build. She is also an ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network and the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute.


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