Posts Tagged ‘human centered design’

Systemic design thinking and complex adaptive systems

Going back to first principles has been a refreshing exercise. Even as our work has taken us into some wholly new places, there’s comfort in knowing that others have thought deeply about the concepts, though not in our context. I’m a firm believer in not re-inventing the wheel. Consider it a working prototype to be tested in a new environment, rather like I’ve been doing with Vijay Kumar’s innovation methods.

Here’s the context of the thinking I’d been doing on iterative programming for complex, adaptive systems – that is, taking on the wicked problem space of international development where the operating environment is rather greatly different from the predictable regularity of the developed world:

People-centered systems design thinking for complexity
Pivoting from “best practice” to “best fit”: An interdisciplinary perspective (Intro)
An Interdisciplinary Approach to “Best Fit” for International Development: Process and Tools (Part 1)
Enabling development’s paradigm shift from ‘best practice’ to ‘best fit’(Part 2)

Thus, it was with pleasure that I dived into exploring Peter Jones’ publications on social transformation. Two, especially, caught my attention.
The first lays the groundwork in the work of bringing together the two disciplines – systems thinking and design.  From the abstract of his Systemic Design Principles for Complex Social Systems:

Systems theory and design thinking both share a common orientation to the desired outcomes of complex problems, which is to effect highly-leveraged, well-reasoned, and preferred changes in situations of concern.Systems thinking (resulting from its theoretical bias) promotes the understanding of complex problem situations independently of solutions, and demonstrates an analytical bias. Design disciplines demonstrate an action-oriented or generative bias toward creative solutions, but design often ignores deep understanding as irrelevant to future-oriented change.While many practitioners believe there to be compatibility between design and systems theory,the literature shows very few examples of their resolution in theoretical explanation or first principles. This work presents a reasoned attempt to reconcile the shared essential principles common to both fundamental systems theories and design theories, based on meta-analyses and a synthesis of shared principles. An argument developed on current and historical scholarly perspectives is illuminated by relevant complex system cases demonstrating the shared principles. While primarily oriented to complex social systems, the shared systemic design principles apply to all complex design outcomes, product and service systems, information systems, and social organizational systems.

And once I noted there was a bit of an overlap between the references I’d drawn on for my initial exploration of design planning as the discipline from which to source methods to address the challenge of complex, adaptive systems as currently explored in the development space, I was relieved to see that I was on the right path for our own theoretical evolution.

This paper is a great starting point for our methods development for the context of the informal sector in the East Africa, particularly outside the urban centers. And, a second paper by Jones – Design Research Methods in Systemic Design validates many of our assumptions while working with only the methods and systems thinking from one school of thought – the Institute of Design’s philosophy and approach.

In future blogposts, I will attempt to triangulate the thinking from all of these disciplines – design planning, human centered design, systems thinking, and international development. There’s a paper I’m hoping to write by the Autumn, if all goes well and the abstract accepted for a conference at the end of the year.

Frame Insights: Going back to first principles in the Innovation Planning Process

After conducting research, we need to bring structure to what has been found and learned. We sort, cluster, and organize the data gathered and begin to find important patterns. We analyze contextual data and view patterns that point to untapped market opportunities or niches. Finding insights and patterns that repeatedly emerge from multiple analyses of data is beneficial. ~ Vijay Kumar, 101 Design Methods

“It’s what happens after the research that’s important” is something I found myself saying three times to three different people in three different contexts over the past couple of days. Anyone can go out and interview users and beneficiaries. What’s important is what happens during the Analysis phase.

To ponder this in detail, I wanted to go back to first principles, and drill down into the post research stage where we are expected to frame our insights.

Vijay’s slide pops out 5 key outcomes from this phase, and these are critical for solution development in the subsequent phase. These 5 outcomes from analysis of the data collected during the research phase are:

  1. Looking for patterns
  2. Exploring systems
  3. Identifying opportunities
  4. Developing guiding principles
  5. Constructing overviews

It is this stage that distinguishes the quality of the outcome. Now, in the case of our work in the informal economy operating environment, we have built up an overview of the landscape over the past several years, primarily through immersion and thick data collection using design ethnography methods.

Starting from the purchasing patterns and buyer behaviour of low income consumers, back in early 2008, all the way through to the development of guiding principles such as flexibility, we have explored and mapped the ecosystem from numerous vantage points.

Today, our synthesis of user research does not happen in isolation from the body of work – intellectual property – that has been developed over time, through experiential and practical knowledge.

This, then, is what underlay my conviction when I spoke about the importance of the quality of interpretation of the data, and the transmutation of these interpretations into implemented insights in the form of new product features, service design elements, or nuances of the payment plan in the business model.

Increasingly, the Frame Insights phase of our work has led to the evolution of our understanding of the commercial landscape in rural and informal markets where incomes tend to be irregular and volatile, and infrastructure is inadequate or missing. It is this that I’ve been attempting to capture under the category of Biashara Economics.

It’s not Africa specific. The patterns hold, give or take ~30% margin for historical/cultural/social differences, across continents. That is because these patterns are the natural response to the common characteristics of seasonality, volatility, uncertainty, and unpredictability. And this is why one can see the success of the prepaid business model around the world.

It strikes me here that this in fact validates the methodology and approach to exploration and discovery in unknown contexts, something I had framed as the starting point for the very first such project almost a decade ago. Over time, I discovered how much the methods, as delineated by Vijay in Chicago, had to be adapted for the context but that is a topic for another time.

Does the human-centered design industry believe in it’s own process?

Generic diagram found online

Generic diagram found online

Listening to users, and incorporating their feedback is considered the key differentiator for the practice of human-centered design. Yet, one wonders, if the design industry has understood that this philosophy must necessarily include the feedback from their clients as well. That is, while we are all aware of the navel gazing tendencies displayed by design thinkers and writers, we very rarely come across any pragmatic criticism of the industry itself, and it’s approach and processes, by those purchasing their services.

Yesterday, during my reading on ‘Doing Development Differently’,  I came across an incisive critique of what can only be called Big Design, by Geoff Mulgan, the Chief Executive of Nesta – the UK’s innovation foundation. His insights are worth pondering.


Source: Ben Ramalingam

One could almost interpret this as saying that human centered designers are unable to incorporate user feedback.

As Mulgan himself says on page 5:

I’ve several times sat in meetings with designers and design promoters, alongside policymakers, where the same pattern has repeated. The policymakers grudgingly accepted that they might have quite a bit to learn from the designers; but the designers appeared baffled when it was suggested that they might have something to learn from the policymakers, or from the many other organisations and fields with claims to insight into service design: social entrepreneurs, professions, consultancies, IT, policymakers. There are plenty of exceptions to this rule: but overblown claims that design methods are uniquely placed to tackle complex, holistic problems has not always helped to inspire a culture of collaboration and mutual learning.

When an overweening sense of one’s place on the team overrides ‘deep craft’, what are the future implications for the designer’s role in shaping their own environment?

And, what are the ramifications for the entire design industry, when Big Design’s Big PR hampers progress more than it helps?

Borderland Biashara: Mapping the Cross Border, National and Regional Trade in the East African Informal Economy

efl research team

Rinku Gajera & Michael Kimani, Malaba Border, Kenya, January 2016. Photo: Niti Bhan

And, we’re back! With apologies for the long delay in posting on the blog, we’d been busy wrapping up our groundbreaking design research for development programming project for Trade Mark East Africa this past month or so. As you can imagine, the last few weeks of any project suck all the bandwidth out and leave little for blogging or writing.

Let me be the first to say that this project could not have been executed or completed without a rockstar research team – Rinku Gajera, Research Lead, and Michael Kimani, Research Associate, together put in gruelling hours in the sun, and on Skype, to help increase our understanding of the informal economy in East Africa, particularly the informal trade sector – cross border, national, and regional. Emerging Futures Lab has been immersed in design and development of pioneering methodology for mapping the informal trade ecosystem – henceforward known as biashara, at the borderlands of the East African Community, since November 2015.

tmeaFor this opportunity, I must thank the CEO of Trade Mark East Africa, Frank Matsaert, who saw our passion and our belief in the worth and value of the informal sector, and recognized the need to understand the traders, their business practices, and their aspirations, as the first step necessary for the design of interventions that are not only people-centered, but cost effective and impactful.  We were granted creative license to colour outside the box of the terms of reference with our designer’s empathy and exploratory mindset, and frame this project as an exercise in developing the understanding necessary for the design of human centered methods, tools and frameworks for development programming. You can be sure that there will be more on this topic published soon on this blog, so grab the RSS feed now, or sign up for inboxed posts.

Download the Borderland Biashara Ecosystem Mapping project at the Kenya/Uganda border at Busia and Malaba.

Nov 2015Inception report Informal Economy, Kenya/East Africa/Uganda
Jan 2016Literature Review on Informal Cross Border Trade in the East African Community (EAC), the DRC and South Sudan
May 2016Final Report, General Public – Borderland Biashara, by Emerging Futures Lab

People, Pesa & Place:New lenses for design’s perspective on social & economic development

ideo model

This original Venn diagram visualizing the sweet spot of innovation success is a familiar one, with as many variations as there are practitioners. One of the most common is the one below, where business, people (or, as often, design) and technology replace the human centered qualities of viable, desirable and feasible.


I’ve used them both for years, particularly the latter, evolving it incrementally in the project for the Dutch govt where we looked at barriers to adoption of new agricultural techniques (technology) introduced in international development programmes.


Yet, I still struggled with this framing when actually considering solutions for programme design and development, or rather, any  products and services meant for the poor in the developing world.

Innovation, this Venn Diagram said, happens at the intersection of the attributes of viable, desirable and feasible. A solution that met these criteria would have greater chances of success. This made sense and it still does.

However, when it came to solutions meant for the lower income demographic, particularly where the majority were managing on irregular, often unpredictable, income streams, from such activities as informal trade and subsistence farming, there were additional issues to be considered. These were often critical to the success or failure of the newly introduced innovation.

For instance, inadequate infrastructure is a fact of life. Whether is variability in electricity supply in the urban context or lack of it in the rural. Things we take for granted in the operating environment in which these lenses were first framed – pipes full of running water, stable and reliable power, affordable, clean fuel for cooking, credit cards and bank accounts – are either scarce, inadequate or unreliable for the most part.

Feasibility, thus, takes on an entirely different meaning in this context. Each location or region (place) may have different facilities. Launching a service in Kenya or Tanzania, even for the most rural and economically challenged, means we can think of using mobile money solutions in the business model, while a similar service in India would have to be designed to adapt to the local context. On the other hand, India has an extensive postal system as well home addresses, while this is still a barrier to delivery in many African locations.

Similarly, the viability of a concept, in this context, must look beyond just the conventional definitions of business, business model or marketing. The embedded assumption here is that a marketplace already exists, with all the support services, information flows and distribution networks.

Further, the current version of this framework, does not offer cues to the research and design team to look for, and take into consideration, elements such as cash transactions, cash flow, lack of formal financial instruments, seasonality, and a myriad other underlying reasons that drive preference for payment plans such as pay-as-you-go or credit based on future harvests.

And as we all tend to promote these diagrams as a means to anchor our explorations and discovery process towards identifying the design drivers for innovative solutions, it seemed to me that we needed more obvious cues to signal that these issues not only exist, disparate from what we may be accustomed to, but also need to be clearly and realistically described. There is far too much tacit knowledge and too many critical assumptions embedded in the current process.


This diagram is my prototype of the next generation of the original Venn Diagram, where the attributes of the lenses have been interpreted in the context of the difference in operating environment. While it has emerged from a focus on the erstwhile Bottom or Base of the Pyramid or the poor – both of these terms are anathema to me when referring to people – I believe that it might very well make sense to use it for a wider range of incomes and consumer segments, particularly in the African marketplace.

People, of course, does not change from the original, and desirability – that is, creating something that will resonate with them – permits us to lower as many barriers to adoption and minimize the dropout rate. This element came to fore in the Dutch project where the question posed was related to the sustainability of donor funded programmes to effect positive change after the funding ends.

Place replaces Technology, as a lens through which to consider the feasibility of a solution. Furthermore, the benefit of this is that it opens up the framing of the solution space, away from technology per se, and lets us consider a broader range of interventions. Technological solutions may be only one factor, and not a given, as the current framing assumes from the outset.

Pesa is the word I’ve chosen to designate viability. It means money in more than one language across the developing world and thus implies more than just the marketplace which may or may not exist in the formal sense assumed in the first generation diagram. In the context of new products and services, it can cover all aspect of the business model including revenue generation, payment plans, pricing and timing of introduction. And in the context of programmes, it brings to the fore the need to look at means for economic impact, and, uncover a way to measure this impact. Irregular income streams tend to make it difficult for people to know what their monthly income may be or whether, this week, they’ll have that mythical $1.25 or $2 or $5 to spend today.

I look forward to your feedback on this and will be writing more on the diagram separately pertaining to both innovative products and services for the emerging African consumer market as well as a framework for social design innovation for the economically challenged.

Takeaways from experiencing the human centered design process

Design adds greater value in the long term by being applied to the HOW of business (practices and process), whereas being applied to the WHAT of business (products) ends up having limited value as those products become commoditized. ~ paraphrasing Clement Mok, March 1st 2005

For an audience who will neither practise the design profession nor tend to apply the user centered design process in their day to day work, what could be the essential takeaway from a day spent immersed in the experience?

Call it experience design, but crafting a workshop for a multi-stakeholder group cannot begin without first identifying what it is we wish for them to experience. I’ve been mulling this over for the past couple of weeks, ever since the questions were first posed and here’s my attempt at articulating the essence of what I believe to be the most important “Aha!” from this exposure.

Human centered: To practise, one must become.

Permit me to circumlocute for a moment in order to articulate this concept with clarity. There are numerous terms that have been applied to the way the producer (the manufacturer or the organization, as the case may be) communicated about their products and services to their target audience – “top down” approach, “push marketing”, “mass communications”, and of course, advertising. The idea was that you made a widget which you then advertised and promoted heavily in order to sell it to your intended customer base. “The job of advertising is to create a desire”. Wants rapidly became confused with needs, and this can be seen everyday in the mainstream consumer culture we are all immersed in.

Begin with the users.

Don Norman wrote the book to advocate user-centered design – a philosophy that things should be designed with the needs and interests of the user in mind, making products that are easy to use and understand.

John Heskett once said that an invention is not an innovation until it is adopted by the users.

Taken together, we find the seeds of the reversal in thinking that leads to a more “bottom up” approach or “pull marketing”, to use the vocabulary of the preceding paragraph. That is, one isn’t attempting to create demand so much as to identify it and then satisfice it, in a manner that offers value to the end user, thus lowering the barriers to the adoption of  your product or service or program.

Value is contextual. 

What might make sense for the producers, however, becomes even more challenging to gauge when attempting to provide solutions for end users across the vast gulf of disparities – of income, of socio-economic strata, of geography and culture and language, of experience and mindset, and thus, of values.

Understanding the difference. 

Human centered design took the premise that if we were to begin first by understanding our target audience, their environment and challenges, their lives and hopes and wishes and desires, we could identify “unmet needs”, or gaps in the system, which offered an opportunity for innovation. New products could be designed to meet these needs, thus offering a value to the customer and differentiating themselves from the competition, considered to be inadequate. This is the central premise of the user centered design approach to solution development.

Respect, empathy, humility. 
Thus, we could proffer that the human centered approach puts the intended target audience (the user) as the focal point or the frame of reference by which to assess and evaluate the design, from their perspective. What are their aspirations, dreams, hopes and challenges? What do they want to do? What is the benefit of your product or service or program, in the context of their daily life? Why should they adopt your invention?

You, sir.

We hope to enable a shift from the top down, “we know best for you” approach that characterised the past and closer towards our common humanity where we work together to solve our closely interconnected world’s problems.

Yeah, that last is a bit of a stretch but our aspirations must always be just a tad out of our reach no?