Posts Tagged ‘people centered’

Reflections on design thinking for government: empowering policy makers and stakeholders

Yesterday I came across a post on The World Bank’s blog, “Design Thinking for Government Services: What happens when the past limits our vision of the future?” Given that I’m in the process of writing a report on the role that human centered design can play in government, that too for a developed nation, I’d like to take this timely opportunity to deconstruct the concept and reflect upon it further.

There have been numerous ways that design thinking has been explained to the general public in the past decade or so since the phrase gained notoriety. The most common understanding is that as introduced by the author of the blogpost linked to above:

We can either: (a) use statistics, trends, quantitative surveys, and historical data to produce reliable results; or (b) develop a deep understanding of the basic needs of end users for the specific problem that needs to be tackled and propose a valid solution that would satisfy these needs. The author makes a very good case for validity, which is usually forgotten by companies that prefer reliable results that keep most companies’ top executives and stock analysts at ease.

This call for a change on how to tackle innovation has originally been directed to businesses, and takes the concept of design thinking (that is, borrowing the thinking process of designers) to services and companies in general. However, I believe it should also be applied to governments, more specifically on how governments should take advantage of ICTs to improve service provision internally (within government entities) and to citizens.
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So what is design thinking for governments anyway? It is not that much different than its private sector equivalent. It is about going back to the basics. And I mean the basics, trying to understand what citizens need from their governments (yes, that far back) and then answering the question: how could governments (hopefully, leveraging the new set of technologies and devices that exist today – and their spread among the general population) be able to satisfy these needs? Then, it is all about building prototypes, testing, trial and error, and of course a good set of evaluation and feedback mechanisms

While the author has indeed noted in the footnotes that the design process has been simplified, imho the situation as framed is not as simple as that. I’d like to take a step even further back into the basics and look upon the system holistically in order to frame my own thinking on this topic.

Jay Doblin first introduced the concept of separating the act of design (giving tangible form) from the planning of design (what, how, when, why) in his seminal paper “A short, grandiose theory of design“. In seven pages, Doblin presents a straightforward and persuasive argument for design as a systematic process. He described the emerging landscape of systematic design so:

  •  For large complex projects, it “would be irresponsible to attempt them without analytical methods” and rallied against an “adolescent reliance on overly intuitive practices.” 
  • He separated “direct design” in which a craftsperson works on the artifact to “indirect design” in which a design first creates a representation of the artifact, separating design from production in more complex situations.

Doblin and others were responding to the increased specialization of design and the complexity of managing large design programs for corporations. It was a natural process to begin to discuss how design should move upstream to be involved with the specifications of problems, not only in the traditional mode of production which design had been practiced. 

Government is by virtue of its nature a large and complex system. To leap forward into the intuitive, empathetic mind state of a human centered designer without a rigorous methodology for analysis, synthesis and subsequent planning would be far riskier indeed than to offer stakeholders the tools to empower their decision making for more impactful outcomes.

Going back to Roger Martin’s words quoted by The World Bank author, develop a deep understanding of the basic needs of end users for the specific problem that needs to be tackled and propose a valid solution that would satisfy these needs, the critical part missing in this proposed embedding of design thinking is the answer to the question How to tackle and propose a valid solution? 

And it is this How? that the steps undertaken prior to the design and development of a solution can offer the tools to answer, for they begin first by attempting to understand the complexity of the situation in order to identify and frame the problem to be solved by the design processes and methods.

Until then, the concept as currently articulated will remain the purview of professional designers applying their approach to problem solving on the behalf of governments and international institutions such as The World Bank. That may fit in within the author’s articulation of “borrowing” the thinking but in real world terms, the steps of the process are not within any government’s ability to execute. They are not Nokia, to quote on of our interviewees, able to field a team of user researchers each time they seek to craft a programme for end-users (citizens).

What government actually needs is a set of tools that empower policy makers, advisors and planners to identify the correct problems where intervention is required and then to craft programmes that meet these needs. This aligns the intent with the actions undertaken and thus improves the impact of the outcomes. 

In the jargon of business and design, that could be said to be improving the success rate of an innovative product or a service in the market by lowering the barriers to adoption by the end users by offering them a clearly realized value or meeting an unmet need.

And, that is the fundamental premise of the human centered design approach to solution development.

Sampling uncertainty

This drawing was made by Jeroen Meijer of JAM visual design, Amsterdam, earlier this week during the workshop we held on Monday, November 26th, 2012.

Its a visualization of the chart I use to show how participants were sampled for the prepaid economy project. The axes represent the individual’s ability to accurately predict either timing or amount of their cash flow status, and thus, their ability to plan. By all rights, this should be on the Prepaid Economy blog where this topic has been an ongoing matter for discussion but I wanted to share the communication potential of this format.

Its also a way to segment the undifferentiated masses in the informal economy, where traditional means to segment a population demographic such as income level or education may not be relevant or skew results leading to misinterpretation. What if one could cluster by patterns of cash flow, and thus, consumer behaviour?

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?

Mapping the path to prototyping an adaptable user centered design process

We’ve all seen the classic User Centered Design (UCD) process diagrams, mostly linear, that attempt to communicate the steps yet unable to capture the iterative nature of the activity simply due to the limitations on how many circular arrows one can add without losing clarity. When I first began exploring the process deeply for application in emerging markets, this is the one we naturally used during a brainstorming experience with David Kelley back in April 2006:

But those of you familiar with the application in the practice of user centred design will recognize that this section applies to the design planning phase, prior to the design and development of the first prototype, boxed up here as “implementation”. You’ll also note that “User research” or rather, “Immersion” in the field, is left implicit, although one can say that it is represented by the green circle. Exploring as I was, back then, the intersection of where design met business, I felt this diagram was limited in its ability to communicate what really happened, much less why or how.

[Illustration of the Process of Design from a great height]

Shortly thereafter, in May 2006,  Damien Newman put the now famous “squiggle” up on his blog in response to a contemplative post of mine. Aha! I said, when I read what Damien had to share about his illustration:

So I decided to consider how to frame design activities in all disciplines, to discover which ones were worthy of placing on my map, could be the process one takes to set about producing a designed solution. I think in its most basic and fundamental form, the process of design that one embarks upon, can be seen in three steps/stages/phases (whatever): Abstract, Concept & Design.

At first there is a sort of theoretical, not yet in existence, essence of a thought, state or problem solution. As designers, we set about to bring that abstract state into a concept, something that can be communicated, perhaps visualized, definitely discusses and shaped. The final stage is the design of the concept, into the form, solution or final presentation of the concept.

I’m not sure if you were to have stood at Fort Point in San Francisco at around 1827, and said “We need a bridge to get over there” if that is a fair description of the Abstract, phase – but its about the time a typographer decides to start their first sketches of a typeface that it shifts from being abstract into a concept.

At a firm like IDEO, all design starts with a healthy amount of messing around in the abstract. Human Factors leads their approach to framing a design concept and problem – and they clearly (like others too) excel at bridging any gaps between these three phases, and at including the client, their customers and designers in the process.

This squiggle was in response to this post of mine from August 2005, Design vs Design thinking where I’d first attempted to distinguish between the tangible role of a human centered designer and those who were inspired by the human centered design process for business strategy and planning. But, as experienced practitioners and thinkers on the messy, chaotic, non linear creativity inherent in these activities will recognize immediately, the squiggle is too implicit to help communicate the process with clarity to audiences without exposure to the process, such as your typical client organization or institution. Linear, structured thinkers need to feel confident they understand what you are planning to do and how you’ll go about it before they’ll sign a check.

And so, we finally arrive at early 2008, where the first attempt to crudely diagram the evolving process for emerging markets and bottom of the pyramid (BoP) customers as articulated in my previous post from 7th November 2012, was prototyped so:

Quite a few circular arrows are missing from the How? and Next? phases here as it attempted to frame the bullet points from process description into a visual format. Now I hope that with the help of excellent visual thinkers involved in our current project, there is a chance that this process can be greatly improved.

Exploring the concept of user inspired policy planning

Getting up close and personal with Farmer Pedro at the Minbuza

Since late September I’ve been collaborating with Bart Doorneweert on an exploratory project for the Dutch government, taking a closer look at the design process for policy and planning related to private sector development of sustainable agriculture value chains. We’ve been thinking a lot about the user, the end user or the producer, that little guy at the bottom of the pyramid and where and how he fits into the grand scheme of things.

Bart’s most recent posts have been giving me much food for thought as they articulate the familiar (user centred design process, planning and thinking) in a wholly new way and I’d like to share some key snippets here:

Immersion is a project development time allowance for identifying patterns of behavior and capturing unpolluted data, which explain current behavior (also called exploratory user research).Even before you start working on developing a potential solution, you begin with finding focus by asking what would define the problem you are trying to solve.Immersion is a form of subjective inference: something, which depends entirely on an individual’s perception. However, if patterns check out and tend to repeat themselves in other circumstances, or replicate concisely, then subjective judgment is compounded to a more objective phenomenon, and becomes verifiable by others.It is then, when actionable insight appears, because the pattern has provided an insight and become a structure that organization can use to craft solutions.
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The purpose of immersion is to discover patterns, which can evolve to a new basis for objective decision making.

Immersion can be seen as a mechanism for mitigating the constraint that uncertainty imposes on organizational decision-making.

With the pace of change accelerating, the immersion exercise increases in value and in necessity. It will need to be done more widely and frequently to update our current objective decision making frameworks, and prevent them from becoming an obsolete representation of the actual world.

What I liked about the way he’s framed this activity of Immersion (call it exploratory user research or simply fieldwork), the first phase in the user centered design process, is how he has connected its relevance to dealing with the challenge of uncertainty and rapid change.

Uncertainty is the only certainty, I’ve often said, when it comes to the conditions in the operating environment at the Bottom of the Pyramid, and strategies demand flexibility and responsiveness in order to cope effectively with the perceived chaos of the developing world.  But what he’s added here is this little insight from the perspective of policy and planning for sustainable development programmes:

It was once the wish of social engineering to control for uncertainty in the social environment. The premise was that you could make decisions based on a certain desired outcome, and hedge against the risk of it turning out otherwise. But through a couple of decades of iterating on the concept of social engineering we now know that it can only achieve so much. The power to coerce people to choose one type of behavior over another dissipates under change and uncertainty. The framework has shown to be ineffective, or too costly at best, and the social environment has increased in dynamics thereby making it less controllable.

It has been said that 96% of innovations fail and much of it is a hit and miss spaghetti on the wall affair. Human centered design planning has claimed to increase the success rate of the new – whether a product or service – by starting with understanding the intended target audience i.e. user research, exploratory and broadly focused, in order to identify opportunity spaces (and unmet needs) for design and development of products or services that offer value and resonate with users’ worldview.  This is critical for ensuring that relevant, appropriate and affordable solutions are ultimately designed for the intended target audience. The aim, naturally, is to lower the barriers to adoption and decrease the dropout rate.

Conceptually we can take this thought one step further by applying the same approach to solution development for policy and planning of sustainable programmes for development in the agricultural value chain. We can begin our user centered approach by questioning and validating our assumptions about Farmer Pedro and refreshing our perceptions of his current day status, situation and aspirations, as much as any multinational mobile manufacturer, but in practice, how would this work in an arena that has traditionally been top down and on a grand scale?

Is it enough to be inspired by the human centered process, in a complex multi-stakeholder context such as this, to simply remember his presence in the meeting rooms of the first world, or is there a way to add his voice, far away though he may be, to the design and development process?

As Bart has written, too many programmes fail to continue once donor support is withdrawn i.e. they are not sustainable in and of themselves:

Rather than focusing on the results of a project, I propose to take a different perspective on the purpose of private sector development. The task of a private sector development project is to create a temporary organizational vehicle, which is geared to search for the new business model that will deliver replicable and scalable ppp impact. In other words, it’s not the impact itself we’re after, it’s the business model that will deliver the impact. Private sector development, as a complementary coalition of for-profit, and non-profits, should limit its resources to validating such a model, ie. a feasible, viable, and desirable model.Exit comes after such validation.