On the Frontiers of Human-Centered Design

This summer I’ve been exploring the whole wide world of social innovation and human-centered design and talking with studios that are leading this work —like Ideo.org, Greater Good Studio, Public Policy Lab, and Design Impact.  When I tell my friends and colleagues that I’m interested in social innovation, they usually respond with, “what does that mean?”  When I mention human-centered design their reaction is something like, “huh?”

Let me explain. The way I understand it, big global design firms like Ideo popularized human-centered design as a core method to create innovative products and services for clients like Apple and Nike.  The principle is that the best way to design stuff that is really transformative for people’s daily lives is to deeply understand the person you are designing for. You need to watch that person go about their day, understand what they are motivated by, see their biggest frustrations first-hand. Then you can prototype a product or service directly based on their needs, and even better, involve that person in helping to improve your prototype by getting their feedback and watching them use it.  What you end up with is a product or service that directly caters to the person you are designing for.  And as a result, what you design is not just more effective, but can actually be transformative in a person’s life.  Human-centered design is definitely not rocket science.  It’s a common sense approach.  But in the design industry, it seems like it was fairly revolutionary to move away from thinking about consumers as “users” and designing for them from a distance.  

THEN (this is the part that’s exciting for me) a number of people from the design industry who had been using this human-centered practice with corporate clients started to say, “Hey, this technique is super effective for coming up with incredibly innovative and powerful solutions that change people’s lives.  What if we applied this design approach to social issues?  What if we used design to create transformative products or services or systems for vulnerable communities?”  And that’s how you get solutions like Greater Good’s work to empower Chicago citizens to help design a better public transportation app that encourages more people to get out of their cars.  Or Ideo.org’s work designing a high quality and affordable solar light for families in Kenya and India living on less than $1.25 a day.  Or Design Impact’s work to strengthen programs helping low-income women in Northern Kentucky get and maintain good paying jobs in advanced manufacturing.  

Now, I LOVE this stuff.  My entire career has been focused on working with local communities to find innovative solutions to complex problems.  Like fundamentally changing the way police and social services were interacting with the community in Oakland, California, so those systems could proactively prevent the homicide and gun violence that was devastating the city.  Or working with the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation in Washington DC to pilot new healthcare delivery systems across the United States that would better serve high need patients.  I’ve been practicing human-centered design my whole professional life!

And I’m really excited to learn even better ways of doing it. That’s why I’m currently participating in Ideo.org’s Design Kit: The Course for Human-Centered Design.  As a change agent and practitioner, as someone who loves to connect with people, create new systems, design new experiences, find interesting solutions and take action to implement them, human-centered design is an awesome addition to my toolkit.  It’s a super systematic and fun way of collecting insights, discovering design opportunities, brainstorming and testing innovative solutions, and implementing new ideas.  It’s a powerful approach for staying true to the community you are creating with.  And ultimately, human-centered design is a method that allows truly transformative and revolutionary ideas to break through, come to life, and have incredible impact in the lives of the people I care about.  This motivates me more than anything.

I can’t wait to share the solution I’ve been working on with my ideo.org team this last month.  My next addition on human-centered design: coming soon!