Design Thinking is Making Headway in International Development

Recently I’ve fielded questions from several actors across the international development sector who are wondering what this whole “design” thing is about. The frameworks and concepts of human-centered design are increasingly finding a toehold. They haven’t been fully embraced yet, but there’s a lot of interest in how they might be utilized.

Of course, design thinking is still met with skepticism in parts of the development sector—and for good reason. High-profile examples of flashy gadgets like PlayPumpsSOCCKET and OLPC (especially in its early versions) rankle professionals in the development sector. Indeed, there’s much to scoff at when design is done poorly: by designers far removed from the end-users and their context, but nonetheless filled with assumptions about local needs, and funded by other outsiders who are more enamored with flashy technology than practical solutions. That’s a recipe for failure.

However, we’re starting to see that skepticism subside as the relevance of good, thoughtful design becomes clearer. I’ll admit to being a relatively recent convert myself. As I talk with think tankers and academics, practitioners and policymakers, I’m hearing that the frameworks resonate for two major reasons.

First, design research is inherently multidisciplinary. That makes it well-suited to complex problems that refuse to fit in easy boxes. When done well, it draws out a nuanced understanding of people and their contexts. This characteristic has allowed design to find relevance in a number of sectors. In development, where complexity and wicked problems loom large, the thinking provides a useful alternative to disciplinary silos.

Second, and even more important for development, the human-centered elements of design provide a critical counterbalance to the donor-driven incentives that often result in terrible development practice. The development sector faces countless systemic challenges resulting from the fact that funding comes from one place, while services or products go someplace else. This necessarily draws a strong accountability line away from those who are meant to benefit from the work. Design methods provide mechanisms for keeping our analytical focus on end-users, for operationalizing the empathy that we already feel, and for communicating the findings in a compelling (but still nuanced) way to donors or other outsiders.

These aspects mean that design can directly address some of the sector’s biggest challenges. As we’re starting to see more successful applications of design in development—such as institutional ethnography to understand service providers or iterative user testing for mobile applications—the sector is responding.

When talking with other development professionals, I try to include a word of caution: design thinking is no silver-bullet (nothing is) and it’s not magic. We consider it to be one tool in a larger kit. You can’t just sprinkle magic design dust on a problem and see it go away. But if you bring it to bear in the right ways, you just might unlock some insights and opportunities that were otherwise obscured.

P.S. Want to help us bring thoughtful design principles to development? We’re hiring.

Futher reading.