Human-centered (re)design

Sara Cantor
Greater Good Studio
4 min readMay 11, 2020


How to reboot your program for the realities of COVID-19

Many social sector leaders are dealing with the same question these days: how will we change our program to respond to both the public health guidelines and the needs of our people? Especially for those of us who work face-to-face, convene groups or host events, a lot of nonprofit programs are in need of major changes. How will we build authentic relationships? How will we provide quality experiences? How will we reach those without reliable access to technology?

At Greater Good Studio, we certainly don’t have answers to these challenging questions, but we rely on a process called human-centered design to help us work through them. And human-centered design has a few principles that may be particularly helpful for the current situation.

Consider the following questions:

1. Who are your people?

Many of us are focused internally these days, and rightfully so — there is so much uncertainty, and a certain amount of self-preservation is critical to our very survival. That said, if you are tasked with changing a program, you must start by looking outward.

When you think about your program, who comes to mind? Certainly there are the people who experience your program — clients, patients, donors, or students, for example. But there are also the people who deliver it — case managers, nurses, teachers, or drivers, let’s say. And there are people who are affected, everyone from managers to support staff to family members. Start by defining the ecosystem of people who touch your program, and acknowledge that each may have different needs.

JCUA members showing up strong at the Right to Recovery virtual rally

Now remember: you are redesigning with them at the center.

2. What are they doing?

As problem-solvers, most of us have a tendency to ask people what they need, and then do our very best to provide it for them (within the scope of our work). I’m thrilled that this type of outreach is making the rounds — lots of surveys and phone calls to ask, “What do you need?”

That said, humans are notoriously bad at knowing what they might need in the future. Plus, much of what we all want right now is out of bounds because of COVID. That’s why these types of questions can leave us feeling frustrated.

But people are experts in their own experiences. So rather than asking your people to come up with the solution, focus on their current state. Questions are helpful when they center on someone’s present-day realities, such as what are you doing, what are you thinking about, and how are you feeling. These questions, customized to your context, can give endless amounts of rich data upon which to build a new concept.

For example, if you are running a food distribution program, rather than starting with “What food do you need?” you might start with “What are you doing for meals these days?” Or better yet, “What did you do for meals yesterday?” (People tend to gloss over details when they generalize, but asking about a specific instance yields the richest stories).

People line up early for food distribution in Miami-Dade County (image credit:

Collecting real-life stories of behaviors, thoughts and emotions is how you access latent needs. It’s your job (not your people’s job) to synthesize those stories, spot the patterns across them, and create ideas that respond.

3. What do they get from your program?

Many of us are jumping to translate our programs from physical to digital. And while technology is amazing, I might suggest one more question before making those decisions. Your program has value in its current format, but a new format might disrupt that value. So before you change a thing, step back and ask, “What value does my program currently give my people?” Now redesign with that end state in mind.

For example, many of us are heartbroken over the lack of graduation ceremonies taking place. But what does graduation provide — what value does it create for graduates? For families? For school leaders? Here’s my quick brainstorm: for graduates, I will guess that graduation provides…

  • a celebratory ritual
  • a transition from school to the “real world”
  • a chance to hear wise words of advice
  • a group bonding experience with fellow classmates

Now, translate each of these into a question that begins, “How else might we…?” For example:

  • How else might we provide a celebratory ritual for graduates?
  • How else might we create a transition for graduates from school to the “real world?”
  • How else might we enable our graduates to hear wise words of advice?
  • How else might we create group bonding experiences for classmates?

These types of prompts should inspire a productive brainstorm, which generates lots of ideas — some online, some offline.

University of Pittsburgh students celebrating graduation virtually this spring (image credit:

I know that none of us wanted to redesign our programs. As my friend and nonprofit ED Judy Levey said at a recent board meeting, “It’s far harder to create something new, than to run something we’ve already created.” But here we are. And you know what, constraints are a critical ingredient in innovation. By taking this opportunity to reexamine your program, you may indeed see it with fresh eyes. And who knows — maybe some of your changes will stick around…even after we return to “normal.” ;)



Sara Cantor
Greater Good Studio

Sara Cantor is a creative leader and human-centered designer focused on equity, inclusion and social innovation.

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