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What Role Does Design Play in International Development?

Human-centered design is a framework that ensures that humans are closely considered throughout the design process. It’s a term you’re most likely to hear if you work in the technology industry, but it’s a framework that you can certainly apply to any workflow or process. One context where it may have a bigger role to play than we realize is in international development.

As designers, we’re used to working with non-designers as our clients and partners. Our clients hire us to help them achieve their goals, and we use our design skills and expertise to help them do so. A key part of this process, particularly for me as a User Experience Designer, is to keep end users top-of-mind at all times. To do this well, I take a human-centered design approach. 

When it comes to international development, there are certain limitations, vulnerabilities, and implications that make designing particularly unique and challenging, which is why incorporating human-centered design is so essential. For example, factors such as language differences, lower access to technology, inability to reach vulnerable groups, and unknown cultural norms have the ability to derail an international development project altogether. A human-centered design approach helps to ensure that these factors are acknowledged and addressed appropriately and at the right time. 

To put this into practice, here are a few scenarios where your international development project may benefit greatly from a human-centered design approach.

1. Your end-users and stakeholders know more than you do about the landscape

If this is the case, you’ll want to employ the following human-centered design tactics:

  • Do your research thoroughly before having any workshops with your users. This will help you ask the right questions of the right people.
  • Make sure you have the right people in the room during all meetings and workshops, . Ask probing questions and gather as much information as you can. 
  • Acknowledge concerns and/or questions as they arise. Don’t feel pressure to answer right away, but note them and make sure to address them later.

In an international development context, partners, end users and stakeholders may be geographically dispersed across different areas and time zones. Depending on which conversations need to take place and when, you want to be confident that you’ve got the right people are in the room (either physically or virtually) and that workshops and working sessions are as efficient as possible. 

2. Your end-users already have ideas for potential solutions

In this case, set aside time during design workshops to sketch potential solutions together.  This may not necessarily lead to the solution, but it will help with idea generation and usually leads to interesting discussion, e.g., why did you do this? Who were you designing for? Etc. This helps people get their ideas out in different ways. 

In an international development context, you encounter unique limitations and factors, including international teams, differing cultural perspectives, tight project resourcing, etc. These make it all the more crucial that your in-person working time is used efficiently. Doing quick sketching with time for questions and feedback can help accommodate for these factors. Acknowledge that you want their feedback and that you’re not trying to design for them, but with them. This can empower people and encourage them to co-own the solution, rather than being told what to do.

3. Your end users need to know their voices are being heard 

Whatever the initiative, the aim of your design is to make something that helps end users. Some ideas to make sure this actually happens:

  • Implement an iterative process that allows for testing, updating, and improving. It’s the best way to address concerns that arise during implementation, as well as to address a changing landscape.
  • Ask for feedback from communities on the ground and ensure they know their feedback is important. This will help them to own the solution and make it successful. It’s never a good idea to implement a solution and then walk away assuming that it was the perfect solution from the get go. 

In an international development context, communities can be particularly vulnerable, so providing the best solution is paramount. Providing aid shouldn’t just stop at providing a solution and walking away. Work with communities to ensure that all voices are heard, and that improvements are made. Your end users may be even more susceptible to landscape (e.g., technology, audience, political, social, etc.) changes, so being able to iterate and adapt solutions is even more important.

Ultimately, human-centered design for international development ensures that end users are key stakeholders in the process, which will help drive a solution that is actually adopted, utilized, and helpful for the people that use it.

Want to learn more?

If you’re interested in this topic and exploring more about what makes human-centered design for development (HCD4D) unique, you should consider attending our very first HCD4D Meetup Event on Tuesday, September 25, 2018 in Washington, DC. If you’re unable to join us this first one, please still join our HCD4D Meetup Group and stay tuned for future events.