Photo credit: IDEO
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Human-centered design is a project design approach that emphasizes designing for people over design for problems. It helps ensure that our solutions reflect audiences’ needs and experiences, rather than developers’ assumptions.

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A few years ago, global development experts found that access to proper sanitation was a major issue in some areas of Laos. They found that there were not enough sufficient toilets there, so people were resorting to open defecation in nearby fields. This was causing major public health and safety issues. And so the experts decided to spend a bunch of money to build toilets in these communities. Problem solved, right?

Unfortunately, years later when they came back to evaluate their project, the implementers found that the community members were still defecating in the fields and they were using the new toilet facilities for rice storage. The project was a failure, from their perspective.

This is a classic example of designing for problems. We identify a problem that others are having and then we develop and implement the solution that makes the most sense to us. We look at design challenges from a technical, engineering perspective. While this may seem logical at first glance, in practice, we often discover that this approach leads to a misunderstanding of the problem itself, the motivations and perceptions of the people we are attempting to serve, or the cultural context in which it is taking place.

In the case of the sanitation project in Laos, the community members’ primary concern was rice storage, not sanitation. They believe this had the largest effect on their well-being and livelihoods. And they did not perceive open defecation as a health or safety risk.

Human-centered design is a project design approach that attempts to address these challenges. Rather than designing for problems, it challenges us to design for people – that is, prioritizing user interaction and feedback and striving to make solutions as accessible, desirable, and culturally appropriate as possible. It is putting humans, not engineering, at the center of the design process.

A human-centered design approach to the Laos sanitation effort would call for prolonged interaction with the community members in order to understand their core needs and interests, as well as how they might perceive and make use of potential solutions. In doing so, they might have chosen to pursue options that raise awareness of the health concerns related to open defecation or to shift to addressing the rice storage challenge before working on sanitation.

There is no set process or methodology for human-centered design. It’s an ethos with several core principles, especially:

  • Empathy: Truly seeking to understand the perspectives and needs of those you are serving; understanding that this project is first and foremost about people, not engineering
  • Engagement: The best way to understand  these perspectives  and needs is to continuously involve and seek feedback from those who are being served.
  • Prototyping: Rather than pushing forward one solution that you hope will work, test various different options to uncover unintended consequences and assess usability. Iterate from there.

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Ultimately, the core message of putting people at the center may seem obvious and remarkable. Of course we should design projects that put people first, right? However, it’s important to remember that for decades we have not operated in this way. Instead, we have chosen to see our core challenges as academic, engineering problems. At its core, human-centered design is a please for humility and empathy. We may believe we know what makes sense to and what’s best for others. But we don’t. Only the people we are serving know what’s best for them.

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IDEO (pronounced “eye-dee-oh”) is an international design and consulting firm founded in Palo Alto, California, in 1991. It was one of the early proponents of human-centered design and put these principles at the center of its approach to this day. IDEO works with organizations to respond to complex challenges with solutions that truly understand and embrace the human context in which they exist.

To contact IDEO for help with your organization’s big design challenges, go to: https://www.ideo.com/contact.

IDEO also has developed a library of resources that can help you bring human-centered design to your projects, such as The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design, shown below, and a suite of online tools.

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The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design

by IDEO.org

The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design is your textbook to practicing human-centered design for social innovation. Written for both new and experienced practitioners, the Field Guide reveals IDEO.org’s process with the key mindsets that underpin how we think about design for the social sector.

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Peter Schulte is the founder and editor of Kindling. Peter is also Senior Digital Engagement Associate for the Pacific Institute and the UN Global Compact's CEO Water Mandate, connecting businesses to sustainable water practices. Peter holds a B.S. in Conservation and Resource Studies and a B.A. in Comparative Literature from University of California, Berkeley, and an M.B.A. in Sustainable Systems from Pinchot University. He lives in Bellingham, WA with his partner Sara, child Owen, and cat Winnie.

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