Using a Human-Centered Design Approach to Better Meet Your Target Populations

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In recent years, many nonprofits have started to become more introspective about whether or not they are truly meeting the needs of the populations they are trying to serve. Many have become interested in involving clients and consumers in the process of designing solutions, and shifting to a mindset that is more empowering and consumer-driven. While this general shift represents a positive development in the field, many find themselves stuck on how exactly to go about this process. A human-centered design approach offers a great paradigm for organizations that are seeking to become more inclusive.

Human-centered design (HCD), also known as design thinking, is an innovative approach that puts consumers in the driver’s seat. Using this perspective can help your organization to design programs, projects, and products that better meet the needs of the populations that you serve, building empowerment in the process. It has been used successfully by for-profits and nonprofits alike, and is particularly favored by organizations that seek to address social and public health-related problems. A human-centered design lens is a great option for organizations seeking to reach their target populations in a more effective and inclusive way.

The HCD process involves several distinct stages, which are repeated after receiving feedback from consumers. The beginning of the human-centered design process involves observation, inspiration, and empathy. This is where designers must do whatever they can to put themselves into the hearts and minds of the people for whom they are designing. This is a phase where openness is valued, and receiving is better than giving. Tools and approaches in this stage include individual and group interviews, expert research, and basic observation of conditions, habits, and environments. It is important to identify pain points, and to continue to ask, “why is this important?”

Following this initial phase, designers begin to narrow in on a definition of the problem at hand, making sure that any potential solutions are designed with ultimate impact in mind. Designers zero in on the identified problem using observations and input gathered in the first steps of the process. It is crucial that all team members share an understanding of goals and purpose, and are designing around this shared understanding. This stage involves discussion, more listening, and creative thinking. The challenge and goal within this phase is to frame the issue at hand as a design question.

Once designers have jointly and specifically identified the problem that they are trying to solve, exploration and brainstorming begin. Within this phase solutions are explored, tested, and iterated. Human-centered design does not demand immediate perfection, and so leaves room for the development of a “more perfect” design over the course of the process. After receiving feedback on initial ideas on potential solutions, designers go back to the drawing board again and again. This approach allows designers to use feedback from potential users to inform more and more improved versions of a product or program over time.

Human-centered design is inherently empowering. It taps into and assumes the presence of an innate human creativity that has the potential to solve whatever problems present themselves to us. It also assumes that individuals are the best source of information for what is important to them, what they need, and where they want to go. This stands in contrast to the philosophy of aid programs of the past that assumed the stance that if poor and underserved populations would just “do this” or “do that,” then they would be able to advance. Programs with this attitude so often fell short because they failed to empower the people that they were meant to serve, and so ended up badly missing the mark.

Using this approach can present some internal obstacles for those accustomed to a different way of doing things. Firstly, it’s important to name that it can be a bit of a shock to the ego to consider the idea that we may not actually know the best answer after all. We so often have a wealth of ideas up our sleeves that we’re eager to implement, with the best of intentions in mind. It can be tough to put on the brakes and be told to just listen for a while. Beyond that, empathy is fundamental to the process, and this can be a difficult skill to develop. It can also be tough to get comfortable with the idea of iteration. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to have the right answer right away, often to the detriment of the creative process.

Human-centered design operates from principles of empowerment, collaboration, flexibility, and openness, and it can be seamlessly integrated into your organization’s process using a few simple tools and methods. However, the most important component of this process is a shift in thinking from top-down to bottom-up. How willing are you and your organization to make that shift? Taking this question into consideration can lead to some big and important changes to the work that you do, resulting is greater impact and connection to community.

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