January 06, 2017

Podcast: Putting ‘Human-Centered Design’ to Work Against Poverty

An early-education project encourages parents to look on everyday moments like brushing teeth and bath time as opportunities to engage with their infant and toddler kids.

IDEO, the Palo Alto, Calif., company that designed the first mouse for an Apple computer, has become nearly synonymous with "human-centered design" — creating products and services in a way that puts users and their needs at the forefront. In 2011, the firm launched a nonprofit arm,, with a mission to apply human-centered design to alleviating poverty.

"It’s really a way that we go about understanding people and their needs, and designing solutions with them," Jocelyn Wyatt, the organization’s executive director, explains in this edition of the Business of Giving. That involves concepts like "in-context observation," shifting the center of problem-solving from conferences rooms and nonprofit offices to the places where the people being served live and work.

Another key tenet is "analogous research": finding inspiration for a project from a seemingly different sphere of activity, as when IDEO, designing a hospital operating room, consulted a NASCAR pit crew for insight on how teams handle stressful situations in close quarters.

In this podcast, Ms. Wyatt talks about how incorporates these ideas into working with foundation and nonprofit partners on poverty-related problems, the courses and design tools its makes available for social-service groups, and its use of pop-up-style prototypes to quickly and cheaply determine if a design works in areas ranging from sanitation to education to family planning.

Listen to the full interview below and/or scroll down to read a transcript from the Business of Giving.

Denver: For many people, the Number 1 company that is synonymous with human-centered design is IDEO, founded in Palo Alto back in 1991. One of their claims to fame was the design of the first mouse for the Apple Computer. And then in 2011, they launched a sister organization, a nonprofit called Their mission? Human-centered design to help alleviate poverty. And with us tonight is their Co-Lead and Executive Director, Jocelyn Wyatt. Good evening, Jocelyn, and welcome to The Business of Giving!

Jocelyn: Thanks so much for having me.

Denver: Give us an overview of and what the organization does.

Jocelyn: is a five-year-old nonprofit organization and, as you mentioned, we really started because we believed that there was a real opportunity to apply human-centered design to poverty-related challenges. We work with partners in the US and internationally to really help them improve the programs, services, or products that they’re delivering– that ultimately go to improve the lives of people in low-income communities.

 Denver: And before we get too deep into the conversation, what exactly is human-centered design?

Jocelyn: Human-centered design is an approach to creative problem solving. It’s really a way that we go about understanding people and their needs, and designing solutions with them. So human-centered design really starts with spending time with people and their contacts in their homes or workplaces, goes through a process of creative ideation– coming up with lots of new solutions, prototyping those solutions, and ultimately working with the partners to bring those solutions to market.

Denver: When most people think of human-centered design, I think they immediately think of products. And whereas you do some work in products, that’s only a relatively modest part of your portfolio. What’s the rest of it?

Jocelyn: Yes. So in addition to products, we design a lot of services. These could be financial service products, like loan products or savings products. We design communications campaigns; these would relate to behavior change around something like reproductive health or handwashing.  We do work on designing businesses, which could be a water delivery business or a sanitation business. We do work on designing programs which, again, could be a health program or a program to provide farmers with loans. So, really, lots of different types of intangible design, as well as the more tangible design work.

Denver: Let’s go into a  bit about how you go about this work, and you touched on it some. One of the things you mentioned was “in-context observation.”  What exactly is that?

Jocelyn: “In-context observation” is about going and seeing people where they are. A lot of qualitative research happens in observation rooms, in conference rooms, or in offices which feel very inhumane and bit boring in a sense.  It’s really hard to pick up on any external cues in that type of setting. It generally makes people feel more nervous. So, instead, at, what we do is go to people where they are. We meet them in their homes, and we talk to them in their living rooms. We make observations about what’s surrounding them, and we get to meet their family members. Or we’ll spend time with people in their workplaces or with farmers on their farms. We go to them so that we can both talk to them, and in conversation really learn a lot, but also through observation, learn a lot from what’s surrounding them and the people that are around them as well.

Denver: Great. Another part of this process is analogous research. Tell us what that is and give us some examples, if you could.

Jocelyn: Sure. Analogous research is about looking to other, analogous examples for inspiration– to bring that inspiration into the question at hand. One example from the work that IDEO has done that’s classic is when IDEO was working to design the operating room for a hospital; they went out and spent time observing a NASCAR race pit crew to really see how  that pit crew coordinates. How did they act quickly in a really stressful situation? What could they learn?

On the side, we took that example of analogous inspiration on a sanitation project that we were doing in Ghana. We went to a boat supply store to look at how toilets were installed in boats. What different toilet options were in boats, because we had really significant space constraints? And we were also looking for a similar type of cartridge model for a toilet. So we got inspiration from the marine industry that we brought into the sanitation industry.

Denver: That’s absolutely brilliant. It really is. And perhaps the most important element of this is rapid prototyping. Speak to that.

Jocelyn: Rapid prototyping is  about just putting solutions out there really quickly to get initial feedback from customers. So, with work that we did to develop a water delivery business, called SmartLife, in Kenya, we spent about three days coming up with what those prototypes might be.  Then we worked with a local team to take over a local kiosk and put in place a pop-up business where we would sell water, as well as other hygiene and cleaning products from that kiosk.  What would happen when we put up that kiosk for just a single day?  We also hired someone to go door to door to sell subscriptions to water to see if she could get people to sign up for a week’s worth of clean drinking water, and then deliver that water to those families for a week.

What prototyping will teach us is where we got the thinking wrong, where the solution is broken, where it needs to be improved.  What part of the solution is desirable to people, and what part of it really doesn’t work?  We go through many iterations of prototypes, both in terms of service prototypes, as well as product prototypes, communications prototypes. That ultimately gets us to the right solution.

Denver: Yes. That’s the way to do it. For so many years, we’ve been trying to get the plan just right before we got out there. You just throw it out there, get some feedback, and iterate.  And keep on doing it until you have something that people want.

Let’s talk about a couple more examples. One is this work you’ve done with Marie Stopes International around contraception for teenage girls in places like Zambia. Tell us about that problem, what you found when you started, and how you were able to reimagine the solution.

Jocelyn: The challenge that we tackled with Marie Stopes in Zambia initially… and then later in Kenya… was that Marie Stopes was reaching mothers with family planning services. They were doing a really effective job at reaching women with reproductive health options, but they were seeing very few young women. And then at the same time, instances of unplanned pregnancy amongst young women, aged 15-20, were rising. Our work was to take the reproductive health services and make them applicable and desirable to young women.

What we ultimately ended up designing was a multi-part system. We designed a communications campaign called the “Divine Divas.” The divas were super-hero girls that represented different forms of contraception. We worked on designing the communication materials to really respond to girls in the way that they could understand that information about the different options that they had. We designed a peer outreach program for peers to go out within their communities; we trained those young women to be able to talk about contraception and really encourage their peers to come into the clinics.  Then we designed in Zambia the clinic experience itself: What would the clinic look and feel like? We created a pop-up nail salon within the clinic to make it feel more like a teen center, with fashion magazines and nail polish. We worked on training the providers to ensure that the actual providers of the reproductive health services were also providing good information to the young women and were treating them with respect.

That all has  led to a pretty significant increase in the number of girls that are seeking reproductive health services in both Zambia and Kenya. We’re now taking forward a lot of these learnings– with additional work in this space with PSI and DKT– across sub-Saharan Africa as well.

Denver: Even just the way you started, the idea of family planning is not what an 18-year-old girl is thinking of.

Jocelyn: That’s right. It doesn’t really resonate with her when you say the words “family planning.”

Denver: Well, if you ever hoped to be considered to be a good parent in this country, one of the things you have to do is read to your child every single night.  But that can be a little more difficult when you’re parenting in poverty. So, you came up with a program called “Vroom,” in partnership with the Bezos Family Foundation. Tell us about that one.

Jocelyn: Several years ago, we partnered with the Bezos Family Foundation. They were asking the question: “How might we support parents in engaging their young children, especially between the ages of 0 and 3?” What we found was that, as we are talking with many parents, many of them had really not done well in school. They found reading to be a real challenge.  So reading to their child– which was the only advice that they were really getting– just didn’t really resonate with them. So what we focused on was:  what mattered most was that parents engage with their young children. That engagement could be through saying the names of the streets as they are riding on the bus together, or saying the names of all the fruits and vegetables as they were passing through the grocery store. The reading was just a tool in a sense, but there are other ways to engage with your child – telling them stories or singing them songs.  

Our work really focused on that initial base of research. Then the Bezos Family Foundation took that forward to design the campaign which was called “Vroom.” The campaign is about giving parents ways… tips, tools, and tricks to be able to engage with their young children outside of just reading to them. This program with the Bezos Family Foundation has spread to a number of different states through different community-based organizations and has gotten pretty widespread reach at this point. And what we’ve heard is that it really has been helpful to parents in thinking about how to engage with their young children.

Denver: Build that relationship, and get those synapses firing. That’s really the name of the game. Let’s talk a little bit about product design.  One product you might tell us about is a seed planter in Ethiopia.

Jocelyn: We started working with the agricultural transformation agency in Ethiopia, with support from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The challenge there was to help farmers who were planting teff, which is the national grain of Ethiopia, to be more efficient and effective in their agricultural work. The traditional practice of planting was to scatter the seeds and just throw out a handful of seeds.

But what was much more effective and what created a much higher yield was if you planted these seeds in rows. Teff is actually the smallest seed. It’s about like a kernel of sand, and it’s very difficult then to plant the seed in rows. And so what we worked to create was a really low-cost planter, which would plant four rows of teff, as well as the fertilizer simultaneously– a much more efficient way to row plant these fields. What we found is that through the good design of this product– both in terms of the mechanical engineering, as well as the industrial design–  we were able to really dramatically increase yields on these fields when the ATA did studies, but also we are able to make a machine that the farmers really enjoyed using. This was something that they could push pretty easily; it got through the mud and was something that they really wanted in order to be able to increase their yields and, ultimately, their incomes.

Denver: You put burlap around the tires, right?

Jocelyn: We did. When we took our initial prototypes out to Ethiopia, they immediately got stuck in the mud.  We just couldn’t  push them more than 3 or 4 feet. We were struggling to figure out what to do with this.  We went to a local workshop and found an Ethiopian guy who said, “Oh, yeah, the way that we get around this mud is that we just put burlap around things, and the burlap actually wicks off the mud. So, we wrapped the tires in burlap.  Sure enough, that was really the solution. That came from local ingenuity, local solutions that then were integrated into the design work we were doing.  Ultimately, a version of that became part of the final design.

Denver: Let me ask you one more. I know that you like to talk about the people you work with, not as clients, but rather as partners.  And one of the very best corporate partners out there is  Unilever. What have you done in partnership with them?

Jocelyn: We’ve had a long-standing relationship with Unilever. We  focus broadly with Unilever on how we can design new services and social businesses to both drive new opportunities for Unilever, but also to improve people’s lives. There are a couple of early projects that we worked on with Unilever. One was the Clean Team project where we worked to create new sanitation business for people to be able to have access to toilets in their homes in Kumasi, Ghana. So, that business continues to grow. We’re serving about 5,000 people or so in Ghana with those toilets, and Unilever is really a supporter of that business today.

Another one that we worked on was the water delivery business in Kenya, called SmartLife which was really focused on delivering clean drinking water, as well as selling other Unilever products at kiosks in sites outside of Nairobi. That business was another one where we worked with them to design both the service delivery model, the business model, and the branding.

Denver: Great partnerships. There are cases, Jocelyn, where well-intentioned design firms from the West bring forth human-centered design solutions intended for people living in the developing world, that can be… well frankly… a little tone-deaf. What are some of the pitfalls here?  And what does do to avoid them?

Jocelyn: I think a lot of this happens when people are designing solutions for other communities that they’re really not familiar with. I think this happens a lot when people are designing in relation to challenges or competitions, where they’re maybe designing from their dorm rooms or from their apartments, where they’re not spending time in context, where they’re not bringing prototypes out.

I think a few things that we’ve really focused on at– first, is always partnering with local organizations, and working really closely with those local teams who understand the context on the ground.  Design the solutions with them, and ensure that they are culturally appropriate and relevant. Second, we also ensure that we do spend time on the ground. That’s a really critical piece. We won’t do the design work unless we’re able to spend time on the ground with the communities that we’re working with. And then the third, is prototyping. It’s so critical for us that we are testing these solutions; we’re putting them in front of people; we’re getting really honest feedback. That allows us to iterate, refine and continue to work on something until we get it right.

Denver: Do you try to teach your designers empathy?

Jocelyn: Yes. Absolutely. Empathy is really a core value.  For us, when we talk about the mindsets of human-centered design, empathy is certainly at the top of the list.

Denver: Part of your mission is to spread this human-centered design throughout the social sector. What are you specifically trying to do here?  And how is that effort going?

Jocelyn: So, we do have a real mission of spreading human-centered design to the social sector. We do that in a number of ways. One of the most significant is through a platform that we have called Design Kit. And so, we’ve developed a web platform:  We’ve developed The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design, which lays out all of the methods, as well as the mindsets for human-centered design.  That’s the tool kit for the field.  Then finally, we’ve created three free online courses in collaboration with +Acumen. One is an Introduction to Human-Centered Design; one is a course on Prototyping; and then one is The Facilitator’s Guide– to allow others to teach human-centered design.

Those tools have now reached about 500,000 people in over 200 countries around the world. So, yes, it really has spread like wildfire.  We just see a tremendous amount of interest from people in the social sector and beyond who really want to learn more about human-centered design and practice it themselves.

Denver: Yes. My experience in the social sector would be the human-centered part  isn’t all that difficult because I think there are people in the sector who are tuned to people. But the whole idea of rapid prototyping– that is like a foreign language.

Jocelyn: Yes. That’s right. I think you’re absolutely right that so many of the pieces of human-centered design have been practiced before. I think if we look at participatory research, for instance, human-centered design is really built off of that… or anthropology. There are so many different things that have been practiced in the past that human-centered design is quite well-connected to.

But I do think this notion of  building things and putting things out quickly, rather than writing a lengthy proposal, then doing a planning period of six months or a year, and then a start-up phase… It could be two years between the time you come up with an idea, and the time that you’re actually running your program in more traditional development sectors. Whereas with us, it could be a matter of days or weeks before we get something out there just to start to test it. And, of course, the scale-up process takes a long time.  But in order to know what to scale up, we need to really try things out on a much smaller scale first.

Denver: The sector isn’t known for speed. As you look at innovation in the sector, you have been a leading voice on the vital importance of more unrestricted funding. Why is that so important in your mind?

Jocelyn: So unrestricted funding allows nonprofits, included, to take risks, to try new things, to grow. It allows us to experiment. It allows us to really find new solutions. What happens today is that the majority of funding that’s going to nonprofits is restricted funding… which means that you really do have to write that long proposal, and follow that lengthy plan. And even when you know that things are not totally on-track, there’s not a whole lot you can do because you have a requirement that you need to fulfill for the grant, or the contract that you have.

What I’ve really argued for is that there is a need for funders to be giving nonprofits unrestricted funding to take the risks themselves, to determine the direction of the programs, to be able to readjust midcourse, and to really, ultimately, allow the nonprofits to be the ones to determine what the work is that should be done.  Because those are the folks that are closest to the ground, closest to the needs of the communities. They’re the ones that really know what needs to happen, oftentimes much more so than the funders.

Denver: I think you’re slowly beginning to see a movement in that direction, but it is coming very slowly. is a mission-driven, nonprofit design organization, and there are not a ton of those around. So, when it comes to measuring the impact of your work, you almost have to… well… design something. So how do you go about measuring it?

Jocelyn: We’ve really been on the path to understand:  How do we effectively measure the impact of our work? Today, what we’re looking at are three levels of that impact. The first and most important is: “How are we improving the lives of people living in poverty?” And so there, we’re looking at, for instance, the number of girls that are seeking reproductive health services, and the number of unplanned pregnancies… and if those are decreasing in the communities in which we are working. Or, we are looking at the number of families that have access to toilets now that didn’t have access to clean sanitation before. And, what are the health or education outcomes as a result of that?

So, the first order of importance is how are we ultimately improving people’s lives? The second is at the organizational level. We partner with nonprofits, foundations and social enterprises. Alongside developing solutions for them, we are also really working to build their capabilities. We’re training our partners in human-centered design and innovation and look to see:  What’s the difference in terms of the way these organizations are acting prior to working with us and after working with us. And then the third is:  What is our influence on the sector? Are we seeing that other reproductive health organizations are working with young women differently? Are we seeing that US Aid and the Gates Foundation are including a request for human-centered design in their requests for proposals that they’re putting out there? Are we seeing human-centered design is taking the lead at big conferences?

Denver: Are you seeing it?

Jocelyn: We are seeing it. I was at IDEO for about four years, working to push this forward, and now at for five years.  I would say in the last decade, we have certainly seen that movement really take off. Ten years ago, literally none of those things were happening, and today, so much of that is happening.  I think that that’s a result of the work of many different organizations–of universities, of private design firms, of nonprofit design organizations.  But all of us together have really created this movement and groundswell within the social sector.

Denver: That is so good to see. Let me close with this. One of your cultural values is optimism; another is curiosity.  You’ve already mentioned empathy. As a leader of a nonprofit organization, what is your philosophy, Jocelyn, about creating a nurturing and healthy work environment?  Maybe you could name one or two of the things that you do at that are quite distinctive to the place?

Jocelyn: I think we are an organization that places real emphasis on our values. We actually share the same set of values that IDEO has created. IDEO worked a lot a few years ago to create The Little Book of IDEO, which was really a focus on the articulation of what those values were. We do things like: we have the values painted on our walls, in our offices. At each of our weekly team meetings, we’ll emphasize a certain value, and we’ll talk about what that means.  Then we’ll ask people to give examples of when they saw their colleagues really acting out that value. So, the values are really a core part of who we are. We ask everyone to sign up for those values when we give them their offer letter so that they know the culture it is that they’re entering.

So, those values are about collaboration. They’re about making other people successful. They’re about failing fast. It’s about doing more, and talking less. There’s a whole series of different values. I think optimism is a really critical one for us, which is really that we believe that there are solutions to these really intractable challenges in our world.  And it is our job to uncover them. I think our culture is one where there is not much hierarchy. There is a lot of playfulness. It is a culture that is really loving and deeply caring and empathetic, as you mentioned. And I think, ultimately, all of that makes us better designers and makes us better able to do the work that we’re doing.

Denver: That clarity and alignment is so important, and it’s so refreshing to hear. Well, tell us about your website, maybe a little more about that course with +Acumen on human-centered design, and where listeners can learn more about this fascinating work.

Jocelyn: So our website is That’s where you can see more examples of our project work, of our impact, our team, different opportunities for jobs and working at Our team continues to grow both in New York and San Francisco.

We also have the website Design Kit has access to all the methods and mindsets of human-centered design. You can download The Field Guide for free on that website, and there’s also access to the three courses that we offer in collaboration with +Acumen. So those are really the best ways to learn about our work.  And follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. We’re on all the social media platforms as well.

Denver: Well, Jocelyn Wyatt, the Co-Lead and Executive Director of, thanks so much for coming by this evening, and for a great conversation. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program.

Jocelyn: Thanks so much.