Q&A: How human-centered design works at the world's largest foundation

Tracy Johnson during a workshop on human-centered design. Photo by: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

SEATTLE, United States — Tracy Johnson, senior program officer for user experience and innovation at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, gets mixed reactions when she makes the rounds from team to team.

“I will say there are meetings I go into where people’s faces fall and they think, ‘Oh my God, she’s back. We wish she would go away. We don’t understand her,’” she told Devex at the Seattle headquarters of the largest foundation in the world. “That is changing, and more and more I’m met with smiles, and they think, ‘Okay, Tracy is going to ask about this issue and get us to think from a different perspective and perhaps come up with some different ideas as a result.’”

Johnson is responsible for building capacity among Gates Foundation staff in human-centered design and identifying ways to apply it across the foundation’s portfolio of grants. Examples of her work include Lab.our Ward, an effort to rethink the maternity ward experience. Also called design thinking, human-centered design is an approach to problem solving that incorporates the wants and needs of the end users of a product or service in every stage of the design process — and Johnson is among the professionals bringing the practice from the private sector to global development.

The Gates Foundation’s work on HCD, as it is often called, has included partnering with IDEO.org, the San Francisco-based firm that has brought the traditionally private sector practice to the social sector, applying these methodologies to their own work and the work of other donors and NGOs. After attending some training sessions with IDEO, Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Gates Foundation, began to see the value in learning about demand side perspectives and decided the foundation needed an in-house expert on the topic.

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    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology and innovation in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported from all over the world, and freelanced for outlets including the Atlantic and the Washington Post. She is also the West Coast ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit that trains and connects journalists to cover responses to problems.