Human-Centered Design Can Save Lives

Bari Samad's picture

Designing an appealing brand of hand soap typically might not follow the same process as designing a solution to a life-threatening, global health problem would. So it’s not often that I discover processes used for designing consumer products that are also well-suited to solving complex social problems.

Design Thinking may be one of the few exceptions.

TechSoup’s Glenn Fajardo was recently in Malaysia and had a chance to speak with the organizers of the *Weekend who use Design Thinking in their weekend events to create innovative solutions to social problems.

Here are a couple of impressive examples of Design Thinking actually saving lives:

  • Reused syringes kill 1.3 million people each year by spreading viruses such as AIDS -- Imagine a syringe that is designed to lock and break if someone attempts to reuse it after the first full plunge. Learn more.
  • 4 million low-birthweight babies die within the first 28 days of life due to lack of affordable incubators (to regulate body temperature) -- Imagine a cheap, portable incubator that is designed to be used in remote areas and costs less than 1% of the typical $20,000 one. Learn more.

Inspired by the work of global innovation and design firm IDEO and taught at Stanford University’s, Design Thinking has its roots in the business sector, but it is increasingly used by non-profit organizations for tackling tough social problems.

According to the folks over at IDEO:

The design thinking process is best thought of as a system of overlapping spaces rather than a sequence of orderly steps. There are three spaces to keep in mind: inspiration, ideation, and implementation. Think of inspiration as the problem or opportunity that motivates the search for solutions; ideation as the process of generating, developing, and testing ideas; and implementation as the path that leads from the project stage into people's lives.

Let’s take a deeper look at each of these spaces.

Inspiration -- As the foundational step in the design thinking process, it is critical to observe and understand the people (users) for whom you are designing. This is accomplished by empathizing (observe, engage, immerse) with users and their behaviour in the context of their lives in a real-world setting. An example may be to live amongst a community in rural India to fully immerse and empathize with the potential users of an affordable incubator blanket.

Ideation -- Yes, this is about generating ideas, and lots of them. Divergent thinking is encouraged to create disruptive solutions that will prove beneficial in the long-term. Bringing in multidisciplinary teams, valuing their diversity and practicing radical collaboration is key to successful ideation. Powers of Ten is an example of an ideation mode that increases or decreases the magnitude of the problem by asking questions like “What if it cost more than a million dollars to implement?” or “less than a dollar?”

Implementation -- In this phase explorations and ideas are used to create the final product or service. There are two key elements to implementation:

  1. Prototyping -- getting ideas and explorations out of your head and into the physical world. Post-its, storyboards, or a role-playing game are all great examples. Prototyping works best when done interactively to obtain more empathy for users.
  2. Testing -- typically done with a small, carefully selected sample set of users. The goals are to learn more about users and refine the prototypes, solutions, even the initial problem framing itself.

All sounds simple right? It’s actually a pretty detailed and intensive process. But all that effort can be well worth the amazing and revolutionary possibilities.

What IS simple -- and brilliant -- is that whether it is used in the business or social innovation context, Design Thinking is at its core, human-centered. And it is not just the products or services produced that are human-centered, but the process itself.

Are you interested in learning more and applying Design Thinking concepts and processes in your work?

Here are some resources to get you started:

Image source: Stanford University -