Big Ideas Judge Ishita Jain: Human-Centered Design for Social Impact

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By Francis Gonzales

Ishita Jain, a judge in the 2018-2019 Big Ideas Contest, specializes in using design as a tool for social impact. She works at the Autodesk Foundation, where she supports entrepreneurs and innovators focused on innovative design solutions to the world’s most pressing social and environmental challenges. Ishita honed her passion for design through a Master in Design for Social Innovation at the School of Visual Arts, where she developed skills in ethnographic research, facilitation, user experience, systems mapping, data visualization, social entrepreneurship, and leadership.

Big Ideas sat down with Ishita to learn how social entrepreneurs can use the human-centered design process to drive their work forward and increase their impact.

How would you describe human-centered design?
I would define human-centered design (HCD) as a bottom up process where end users and other stakeholders play a key role in shaping solutions that meet their needs. The HCD approach prioritizes participation by community members and helps remove biases that we might have as people coming from outside of that community attempting to solve a problem.

What are the differences between the use of human-centered design in the private sector versus the social impact sector?
Ultimately, I think the difference between HCD in the private sector as opposed to the social impact sector comes down to intention. The driving goal in the private sector is to make a product user-centric, so that people will consume more of it and thus increase corporate profits. In contrast, in the social sector, HCD is a tool that can be used to understand and develop solutions to problems where there may not be a monetary incentive.

What role do you see human-centered design playing in the social impact and international development space today?
I see HCD as a tool to create environmental and social value. It can be used in many ways, but the four that resonate most with me are:

  1. Problem Finding: The HCD methodologies and frameworks help you get to the core of a problem. The problem statement will evolve over time and the longer you look, the closer you’ll get to the true problem.
  2. Community Understanding: As practitioners in the social impact space, we often come from outside the community we’re trying to help. Our decisions and hypotheses are initially based on assumptions. HCD methodologies can be used to engage community members and build empathy to prove or disprove those assumptions.
  3. Rapid prototyping: Sometimes we can get stuck in research mode, but the HCD process forces you to test early ideas. Presenting your prototypes as works in progress will help users feel comfortable commenting on what they like or don’t like.
  4. Continuous learning and reflection: The HCD process encourages daily reflection and analysis. The key here is continuous learning. With each finding, asking yourself, “What does it mean?” and “How does it change my work?”

Is there an example of an organization successfully using HCD methods that you can share?
The one that immediately comes to mind is Proximity Designs, a nonprofit social venture working to reduce poverty and hunger for tens of thousands of rural families in Burma/Myanmar since 2004. Proximity addresses extreme poverty by treating the poor as customers and offering innovative and affordably designed technologies and services. For example, its customers replace their rope and buckets with Proximity’s foot-powered irrigation pumps and typically double their net seasonal cash income. Proximity spends countless hours observing and interviewing rural households, learning what they value, identifying root problems and most importantly, developing empathy that leads to lasting solutions to the problems they face. The insights Proximity gleans from intimate exposure to customers are what drives its on-site product design lab. Products are manufactured locally and reach customers through a nationwide distribution network linking independent agro-dealers, village entrepreneurs (who work as product reps), and village-based groups.

What advice do you have for a team that’s been working on a project for six months or a year and then realizes they want to apply HCD methods?
The HCD process can be applied at any time, but you can’t be so wedded to your current solution that, if you learn something new, you’re not willing to pivot. You might realize that you’ve been working to solve the wrong problem, and then think you have to start from scratch. But actually, you don’t have to, because you’ve learned everything that got you to that point and you can build off of that.

Do you have to be a designer to practice human-centered design? What does it take to practice human-centered design?
Absolutely not! Anyone can practice HCD. It’s all about having the right mindset and toolset. In terms of mindset, the five things I think about are: 1) Being open to ambiguity, 2) Adaptability, 3) Ability to learn from failure, 4) Empathy, and 5) Collaboration.
In terms of toolset, the things I keep using are:

  • Mapping frameworks: Stakeholder mapping and systems mapping can be used to better understand the landscape.
  • Storytelling methods: Framing the problem/solution in a compelling narrative is essential when communicating with stakeholders including partners, funders, and users.
  • Monitoring and evaluation: Design is such an iterative process that your objectives will change over time, but it’s important to figure out what your north star is (e.g. reduce plastic waste) and use M&E to assess your progress in reaching that goal.
  • Facilitation: Design is a team sport. The best designers are adept at bringing people together from diverse backgrounds to work towards a shared goal.

What resources would you suggest to people who are interested in starting to incorporate human-centered design principles and methodologies into their social impact work?  
Podcasts are a great way to get a sense of what people are doing all over the world. My favorite podcast is Social Design Insights by the Curry Stone Foundation. Another resource I would recommend are open innovation challenges. Tackling an issue you care about on a challenge site like OpenIdeo is a great way to start practicing HCD. I participated in an open challenge and found it interesting to see how people from all over the world were thinking about the same challenge in different ways. Toolkits are also a great free resource. The top on my list are Design for Health from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and USAID, the DIY toolkit by Nesta UK, and the NYC Civic Service Design toolkit. Another resource that I can’t emphasize enough is conversations with people working in the HCD field. These informational interviews will give you a fuller sense of how you really do this work.

Any final words of advice for student innovators reading this?
Make sure that the needs of the people are at the heart of your innovation. I would also challenge budding human-centered designers to think about a new concept: environmental-centered design. This involves asking: “How does one design for a ‘client’ who doesn’t have a voice?” While I see a lot of value in the HCD methodology, I am critical of thinking about human needs in a vacuum, without considering wider environmental concerns. This is especially true for the private sector. We want so many new things, but at what cost? It’s becoming more and more necessary to know our own limits in terms of how far we can stretch our planet’s resources.