Kieran Whiteside: The welcome rise of human-centred design

Putting users first should be an essential approach to designing effective solutions to the UK's most pressing social problems. So why aren't more organisations using it?

Kieran Whiteside
Kieran Whiteside

Human-centred design is a creative approach to problem-solving that starts with the people you’re designing for and ends with new solutions that are tailor-made to suit their needs. It’s all about building a deep empathy with the people you’re designing for. Simple enough, right? And surely a central principle of any charitable organisation? Well, yes and no.

Too often, well-intentioned organisations design a product or intervention first, then try to find affirmation from their target audience. The charity sector is not immune to this flawed way of thinking, yet the negative consequences can be greater for them, especially if they fail to deliver positive outcomes using credulous public funds.

Human-centred design offers a way to prevent this happening and builds solutions that are more effective. We saw enormous benefit from this form of design thinking when building Good Finance, and I encourage others working in or with the social sector to consider whether it can help you.

So here are my top DIY tips to get started.

1) Leave your ego at the door
The most important place to begin is to acknowledge your own ignorance. You are not the one using the product or service and should not pretend otherwise. Don’t let what you believe to be "right" get in the way. Embrace ambiguity and uncertainty. You should always start from the place of not knowing the answer to the problem. This is what sets this approach apart from others – the belief that ideas will come and encouraging new solutions to old problems.

2) Get out and understand your beneficiaries’ needs
Any good human-centred design process starts with contextual research. In order to get to solutions you have to understand people, their environment and their motivations. Building empathy with your user is the only way you can begin to understand the complexities of your beneficiaries and their needs.

A number of tools can help you do this, include creating personas and doing a card sort, as well as more traditional methodologies such as surveys and interviews. This does not have to be costly or time-intensive and you can even build on your existing methods of data collection to help shape future projects.

3) Prototype and be iterative
Once you’ve begun to understand your beneficiaries’ needs, fears and barriers, you can start to come up with potential solutions. Try to prototype early with your strongest idea. That way you can begin testing with your target user from the outset. Only when you begin testing and seeing how a beneficiary interacts with a prototype can you learn, adapt and iterate. Then it will help you to arrive at a potential solution that can be embraced whole-heartedly by your beneficiaries. Even better is to co-create your prototype with your target user, empowering them and gaining valuable insights into all the facets of your idea.

4) Leave room to adapt and fail
Failure is an inevitable part of the process and should not be feared. You will rarely get it right at the first attempt, so the trick is to provide the right environment to fail with minimal negative impact. That’s partly why prototypes and testing are so important. Admittedly, this might be difficult for smaller organisations with less time and resources, but there are simple tricks you can do, such as creating a trusted environment that rewards particular kinds of failure and empowering your employees to push boundaries by asking for forgiveness instead of permission. Most importantly, though, it’s about going out and giving it a try.

5) Become the status quo
Along with "systems change" and "block chain", "design thinking" has ostensibly cemented itself into the corporate lexicon of our times – easily dismissed, perhaps, as a phony catch-all cure. And it’s safe to say the charity sector has had its fair share of those in the past.

Nevertheless, advocates do not view it as a panacea, and nor should it be. It is merely a way of solving problems that can become better embedded into a charity’s method of building products and services. By putting beneficiaries at the beginning and end of the design process, you instantaneously give your intervention a head start and a greater chance of creating the impact you intended. For that reason, I think it’s a welcome addition.

Kieran Whiteside is project manager of Good Finance, which helps charities and social enterprises navigate the world of social investment

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