Calling on human centered design

In the past few years, "design thinking" has become a buzzword that has touched all sectors of business and academia. Harvard Business Review, in a cover article on the topic, posits the rise in complex technologies and the need for easy interfaces as reasons for the surge. But ultimately, what is design thinking and why is it all the rage?

In short, "design thinking" is a framework for asking questions. It puts the user at the center of all design decisions, and encourages solutions that best meet the user's needs.

More derisively, people think of it as that technique where you write on Post-it notes with permanent marker, then stick them on white boards.

In November 2015, New York Times tech reporter Steve Lohr wrote a piece documenting IBM’s recent investment in design. Perhaps my favorite part of the article came in the form of a reactionary letter to the editor, where a long-time employee called out design thinking, saying, "I was putting Post-it notes in “parking lots” before a lot of the IBM new hires were even born."

“The software development life cycle," the commenter wrote, "A process that has been followed for decades, has as its initial task the identification and documentation of user needs, or requirements. So, nothing really new here.”

And the respondent is right, in a way. A lot of praise for design thinking implies that never before have software developers asked questions of their users.

That said, I see two differences between status quo and the rise of design thinking: need finding and rapid prototyping.

In the need-finding phase, design thinking places emphasis on the human experience. An article by John Zimmerman and Jodi Forlizzi, Professors of Human Computer Interaction (HCI) at Carnegie Mellon, says that the newly varied uses of computer technology has forced HCI to "[shift] its focus from a narrow view on usability — increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of task completion — to more broadly consider the human experience." Now that they're solving problems about how people interact with computers in their everyday lives (instead of just at an office), design thinking is critical for evaluating possible issues and solutions.

Though most commonly associated with software development, design thinking has applications beyond engineering to any field where a designer must respond to the needs of a client or user, while weeding out personal bias in the process. Architect Renzo Piano acknowledged the need for such a process in his 1998 Pritzker Architecture Prize acceptance speech, saying, "There is always the temptation to impose one’s own design, one’s own way of thinking or, even worse, one’s own style. I believe, instead, that a light approach is needed. Light, but without abandoning the stubbornness that enables you to put forward your own ideas whilst being permeable to the ideas of others."

Design thinking seeks to create a framework for providing just such a light -- but firm -- touch.

After conducting initial need-finding, design thinking instructs designers to go through a period of rapid prototyping. Fortunately, there are many products on the market today that make it easy for anyone to whip up a functioning web application -- accessible across an array of servers around the world -- in as little as five minutes and at nominal cost.

"Deploy or die," declared MIT Media Lab Director Joi Ito in his TED talk. “The Internet caused go from an MBA-driven innovation model to a designer-engineer-driven innovation model and it pushed innovation to edges, to the dorm rooms and startup,” he explained.

With great fortune, the Brown Institute for Media Innovation is situated squarely at the edges he's describing.

At Brown, we’ve been experimenting with design thinking and rapid prototyping as an approach to start each of our projects, as well as a strategy for continually testing the applications being developed and the stories being told.

For me, it's most interesting application has been in the design of software for a market absent of options. This has come in projects like Nueva Nacion -- an inaugural framework for viewing Panama's government data -- or in our Base Camp workshops, which have spawned projects like, a dashboard for visualizing the mess that is U.S. contracting data.

And the importance of human centered design has never been more clear than through our hackathon held in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme's Climate Information for Resilient Development in Africa (CIRDA).

Hackathon participants made their way to beautiful Livingstone, Zambia, where they spent their first day as observers, listening in on the CIRDA annual meeting taking note of the problems facing both the meteorological (met) departments and the public met departments are meant to serve. Participants were then given 36 hours to build applications to address one (or many) of these challenges. And in those 36 hours, the need for human centered design took center stage.

Each of the projects pitched at the hackathon fills a niche in the barren technological landscape of the 11 so-called "last mile" countries -- countries that CIRDA has been working with to improve access to climate and weather information. That's not to say that amazing products addressing climate change and agriculture in Africa don't exist -- looking at you Esoko! -- but the field appears to be relatively open, especially in contrast to the landscape I'm most familiar with, the U.S.

Because of this, very little documentation exists around the technological relationship between met departments and agriculturalists, agricultural extension officers and farmers. And so teams needed to do some proper need-finding before coding up their solutions.


One project, Extend, developed by a group of five talented programmers from three different continents, is a platform for agricultural extension officers to monitor and communicate weather and climate information to farmers.

For those removed from the environment (me), let me explain. Met services in the "last mile" countries collect data from weather stations around the country. This data is then turned into information which is shared with extension officers. From there, extension officers turn this information (seasonal and short-term forecasts) into usable data for farmers, be it advice on planting, fertilization, use of pesticide, watering, etc. Extend turns this manual and analog process into an automatic digital one.

From a facilitator's perspective, the reason this project was so successful stemmed from its continual dedication to need-finding. From the start, the team elected members devoted to need finding/user research, not programming.

Instead of assuming they had absorbed the complexities of the challenges facing the met services in a day of plenary, they acknowledged the importance of asking questions. Perhaps more important, the team determined the questions and challenges that were out of scope of their project. This is quality design thinking at play.

After spending the last week reflecting on the hackathon, we're excited about next steps. The first thing we plan to tackle: on the ground reporting and need finding.