In the last few weeks of the spring semester we put a focus on Human Centered Design (HCD), a practice that can help generate new and innovative solutions for solving social challenges by designing for people’s specific needs. In order to introduce HCD to students and faculty, the Leslie eLab, in collaboration with Bridge@Wagner Design Lab (Melissa Cole) held three workshops and invited Robert Fabricant, Principal at Dalberg Design Impact Group, for a talk to give students first-hand accounts and experience.

HCD has gained in popularity and influence among nonprofits and innovative service providers, as they have found that designing not just for but with the end user will yield better, cheaper, and more sustainable products and services. HCD’s origins go back to the ISO standard for human centered design for interactive systems, which is based on six principles:

  1. The design is based upon an explicit understanding of users, tasks and environments.
  2. Users are involved throughout design and development.
  3. The design is driven and refined by user-centered evaluation.
  4. The process is iterative.
  5. The design addresses the whole user experience.
  6. The design team includes multidisciplinary skills and perspectives.

While taking these principles to service and product development for social problems has it’s challenges (such as cultural differences, resource constraints), the process allows for participation of local users and is therefore more democratic and immediate, and can yield more creative solutions by combining diverse expertise. IDEO, which is credited with establishing a widely-used HCD language, states that solutions need to be desirable, feasible, and viable. This means that services or products that people don’t actually want will not be used, even if they are well designed, or feasible. One of the most compelling arguments for HCD is that everybody can participate in the process, as it facilitates the creation of solutions that people actually want to use because they were part of the design process. Feasibility means that solutions can be built and implemented in the location of use, taking into account local resources and constraints. Viability is important as it is a crucial aspect of sustainability. If a system cannot be maintained and operated it cannot generate benefits to the people using it.

In our workshop series, we presented participants with case studies and activities so they could experience first-hand what building innovative solutions means. We prompted them to hear (What is the other person’s problem?), create (Co-creating a solution that would answer their problem), and deliver (Building a product or service that is desirable, feasible, and viable). The first workshop focused on creating tailored solutions for improving a partner's urban transportation experience through interviews, idea generation, and rapid prototyping. In the second workshop, participants heard the story of a Filipino-born New Yorker who struggled with systemic challenges of education, immigration, and college access since her arrival in the U.S. as a teenager. Participants created 'insight' and 'how might we' statements around the top challenges she faced and brainstormed possible solutions to overcome such challenges. Finally, the third workshop centered on a low income community in Bangkok, Thailand, where homeless dwellers saw opportunities in garbage collection and subsequently founded a social enterprise that generates profit through recycling, thus providing economic opportunities. Workshop participants were initially given problem statements, based on which they formulated their own possible solutions, employing stakeholder relationship mapping, and idea generation and organization methods.

We were also happy to host Robert Fabricant, Principal at Dalberg Design Impact Group, who gave an inspiring talk about design principles and HCD solutions. Mr. Fabricant has ample experience in product design with frog designs and also in developing solutions in resource constrained environments, such as developing countries. Interestingly enough, he says, the processes of designing are fairly similar in any environment as you always have to look at customer needs, resources, trends, and business opportunities. Almost counterintuitively, he made a case that a lot of design is common sense - simple, practical solutions are more likely to be adopted. Design is also a team sport: diverse teams can create wonderful solutions when building on each participant’s knowledge and experience. And yet, “getting simple solutions right is a lot of work.” Designing is always an iterative process that tests and retests multiple ideas and prototypes until a solution that is desirable, feasible, and viable is found. Ideally, like any carefully crafted product, these solutions “sit at the intersection of customer needs and business wants.” Only if all of these aspects are met will products and services be able to meet and alleviate social challenges.