Early on in my career, I was fortunate enough to receive some sage advice from an executive director at a small nonprofit that has stuck with me to this day. It came about in our first meeting, as she was running through her challenges in the community and I was immediately jumping to solutions and the ways I could help her overcome them. I thought I was being helpful, but in short, she told me: “Loren, we don’t need another pioneer.”
I remember initially being taken aback, because up until that point in my life I had associated only positive connotations with the word. What I didn’t understand was that I had entered a community where many “pioneers” had come and gone, touting their solutions with little insight from the community, and leaving with little regard for the unintended consequences they may have left behind. I had made a fatal error and jumped straight to solutions, with little context and insight into the problem at hand.
Unbeknownst to both of us at the time, we were discussing the first step of the human-centered design process popularized by IDEO, discovery. Human-centered design has been a growing movement for decades in the design thinking space (here’s a great article on its history, if you are interested) and relatively recently has become a hot topic in the social impact space. At its core, you put those in need at the core of your solution development by starting with observation and context.
So, let’s quickly run through the general flow of the human-centered design process.
I firmly believe this is the most important step to developing solutions that result in positive social change and truly meaningful impact. Here, it’s all about gathering empirical data and information through observation. Get out into the community. Immerse yourself. What do you see? What do you hear? Done well, and you set yourself up for success down the line. Done poorly, and you may develop solutions like a “pioneer”.
At this stage it’s about taking what you’ve learned and interpreting it. Now that you’ve seen what’s happening first-hand, what hypotheses can be drawn? Did you notice any trends? What have you learned? Who is impacted/involved? Did you identify any core issues that need to be addressed? Don’t forget to bring constituents into the process here. Don’t operate in a silo. Make educated guesses and look for feedback from those you are trying to serve.
Do you remember the IBM commercial with people “ideating”? Well, it’s ideation time and you should leave the yoga mats at home. Having been through many brainstorming sessions, it’s imperative that you create a safe environment, conducive to generating as many ideas as you can, with as little judgement and censorship as possible. Get diverse perspectives with people from all walks of life and backgrounds. The more the merrier. No idea is too off the wall. Let it flow (with some minor time for moderation and direction/prompts of course) and though it may be messy, the value is in the diversity of ideas.
This is the prototype or minimum viable product (MVP) stage for those coming from a more traditional tech or product development background and it works in the nonprofit/social impact space as well. It’s time to get your ideas out and tested in the real world. What works? What doesn’t? Were your assumptions and hypotheses correct? In most cases you’ll treat this as a soft launch of a new product or service so you can see how it goes and move on to the next stage, iteration.
As you may have read from my colleague Andrew’s agile piece, it’s still all about testing and learning. The discovery stage never ends. When you develop solutions, build in a feedback loop so you can continually learn and evolve. The end goal is to learn and evolve quickly. Rarely are you ready out of the gate with your first iteration (and if you are, it’s usually luck).
In the end, one of the most important things to realize with human-centered design is that it’s not a linear process. You’ll need to continually go back to each of the stages to get to a final solution that truly meets your communities’ needs. Gather additional feedback, invite community stakeholders, get diverse perspectives, and do more discovery. Test, learn, and iterate. The community will thank you for involving them and together you’ll pioneer solutions that result in truly positive and Impaktfel social change.