While Jeremy and I are enthusiastic about using design thinking for governance innovation, we are first social scientists, and second designers. We know human centered design is not a silver bullet — we want to understand both its utility and its limitations, and how to use in in compliment to existing approaches. As we have experimented with design thinking this past quarter — on real governance issues, with the people addressing them, in the field — I have started to notice when we are primarily using our traditional frameworks and when we are leading with our design tools. This has helped me begin to see how human centered design fits with traditional analytical approaches (what one might call “systems thinking” or “identifying a binding constraint”).
Because human centered design hinges on designing for, well, a human, one has to identify specific interaction points between the innovator and the user to focus design efforts. For example, when we addressed freedom of access to information in South Africa, we focused on various users requesting information from the government. Information requests, however, are only one part of a much broader system linking access to information to improvements in governance. The issue could have been not whether each user group is requesting and getting information, but what they are doing with it to hold governments accountable.
We have seen that our first step in applying human centered design to governance issues is to forget about our newfound design skills and think like social scientists. We work with our partners to understand the problem they want to address, identifying likely constraints within the overall system and the relevant users in each area (for example, with information requests the users were activists, journalists, citizens, and NGOs). Without doing so, we risk focusing on the wrong part of the problem, limiting the efficacy of even the most compelling ideas.
Once we do this, we hone in on the users of interest and begin to apply the tools of human centered design by doing empathy work (interviews, observation, and immersion to uncover user needs). We are also starting to understand, however, that this empathy work is not just about need finding, but also validating or refuting our initial hypothesis about where to focus within the system.
Take for example Embrace, the oft-cited case for the power of human centered design in international development. Embrace is a $25 infant warmer for premature babies, which relies on a wax packet that is warmed in water and retains heat (and thus does not require electricity). Embrace came out of the work of a student team in the d.school course Design for Extreme Affordability. We use the Embrace example at the d.school to show how design thinking can lead to a complete reframing of the problem. The students were originally given a design challenge focused on building a lower cost incubator for clinics in Nepal, but when they went to do need finding, they realized that babies never made it to the hospital. Most premature babies were born in rural communities and died before they could get anywhere due to high transportation costs and the babies’ inability to keep themselves warm. The Embrace team realized that they should instead focus on the rural mother in need of a way to keep her baby warm, instead of a clinician in need of a cheaper incubator.
This was a systems insight that came out of the team’s need finding work, not a user one. The biggest mortality issue for premature babies wasn’t in the hospital with clinicians; it was back at the village with mothers. Human centered design, particularly its tenets of rapid prototyping and iteration, allowed the team to then develop a product that could work for in a rural setting: very inexpensive, not requiring electricity, and easily sanitized. The tools of ethnography embedded in design thinking then, are as critical for determining binding constraints in a system as they are for identifying user needs.
We find ourselves relying on our political science and economics backgrounds in ideation as well: both brainstorming and selection. Our foundations in political and economic theory help us identify ideas that are compelling not just because they meet the identified user needs, but also because of their implications for systems dynamics and human behavior.
We are still very early in our thinking of how human centered design compliments other approaches and where it is most effective (and why). But these early realizations start to show us how much traditional thinking is actually embedded in human centered design; through systems level analysis during need finding and putting people on design teams who have the expertise to think about ideas in complex ways.