Putting People First: Human Centered Design

By Rachel Adrian



Engaging the people at the center of an issue is the most crucial element of project design. Unfortunately, project designers often skip this step when trying to implement social change. We recently purchased IDEO’s Human Centered Design Toolkitto learn about the responsibilities of project designers in inspiring the people they work with and we have been employing some of its’ ideas in our work. For social change to be sustainable, effective and innovative, we must give community members responsibility for what is going on in their communities and incorporate their input at every step of the design process.What is Human Centered Design?Human Centered Design encapsulates the idea that in order for progress to be made, the people at the center of a problem must also be at the center of the solution. It seems like a very simple idea but for decades, development workers didn’t work in this way. Instead they found solutions that had worked in North America or Europe and put them to work in Latin America, Asia and Africa.I had the opportunity to see the exact opposite of this kind of development in action when I visited Ecuador in 2010.  We visited a remote community, high in the Andes and I quickly noticed something very strange. There were pristine, exceptionally clean concrete bathrooms every few hundred meters between the houses. Over the weeks that I visited I began to notice that we, the tourists were the only people using these bathrooms. I asked one of the community leaders what was going on with the bathrooms and he told me that in the 1990’s, an NGO had showed up one day, and had started building these bathrooms, but they hadn’t discussed the project with anyone in the community. While outsiders felt that running water and washrooms were a necessity, the people in the community were content with the way things were and didn’t see the need for these expensive, ugly little buildings spread throughout their community. They were never shown how to flush the toilet or how to maintain the modern plumbing. While the washrooms were built with positive intentions, consultation was needed to find out what the community wanted and how to best implement the idea. 

This is where Human Centered Design comes in. It is the idea that when developing innovative solutions, especially in the developing world, we must consult the people themselves at every step along the way.



Implementing Human Centered DesignThe Human Centered Design Toolkit outlines the steps to working with people living on less than $2 per day and involving them in an innovative design process that really works. It starts out by giving three ‘lenses’ of Human Centered Design.

  1. 1. Desirability: What do the people want?

  2. 2. Feasibility: Given outside support and timeline what is technically and organizationally possible?

  3. 3. Viability: What do you have enough funds to successfully accomplish?

These lenses direct and focus your question to make it manageable. The perfect Human Centered Design project needs to sit right in the center of these three lenses.

Next: Hear, Create & Deliver. These are the three steps to moving from an idea to reality.Hear. Once you have identified an issue that exists within the community, you need to narrow it down even more. The best questions are centered on the people themselves. Instead of asking “How can we improve small business practices in Latin America?”, ask “How can we support struggling small business owners in Lima, Peru?”. Once you have chosen your question, ask community members what they think about the issue. Make sure that you get as many opinions as possible. As researchers, we must also remember that what people say they do, and what they actually do is sometimes very different. Integrating ourselves into the culture as much as possible helps us to see how people really live.Create. Once you know what the people think about an issue, start talking about solutions. Ask them what they think should be done, how these issues have been handled in the past and don’t be afraid to probe deeper for more insights. Having both development workers and the community work together cohesively is essential and will lead to a more sustainable, relevant and positive solution. By getting the community members involved, they will take ownership over the project and be inspired to help build it, maintain it and incorporate the new ideas into their everyday culture.Deliver! Once you have completed the Hear and Create steps, it is time to deliver. Develop prototypes and possible solutions for the issue at hand, making sure to run them by the community members for possible insights. ExamplesThere are many examples of projects that have succeeded with the help of Human Centered Design. I recently discovered a non-profit called D-Rev producing innovative new ways to provide necessary medical treatment for people living in poverty. They have recently produced a prosthetic knee joint that will be available in the developing world for less than $80, incredible!Find out More!The Human Centered Design Toolkit was funded through the International Development Enterprise (IDE) through a grant provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The toolkit was designed to help NGO’s and social enterprises to innovate and develop real, sustainable solutions to today’s problems using Human Centered Design. You can purchase the hard copy or download a digital copy for free, here