A Conversation on Human-Centered Design
Ayush: Can you trace, through some examples perhaps, how the studio’s understanding of human-centered design has changed over the years?
Babitha: At some level, I think it was a basic curiosity and our love for stories and travel that spurred our foray into human-centered design, which is at its core about empathy and deep understanding of people’s needs and designing for those needs. A lot of our projects have taken us to interesting places where we have had the chance to delve into myriad contexts. Whether it was looking at designing a phone helpline system for education, where we went to rural West Bengal and spent time with government school teachers, or more recently, attempting to address the plastic bag challenge in Cambodia, most of our projects have taken us to spaces where we have had a chance to embed ourselves deeply within a context and listen & observe — with humility, openness and a learning attitude. In that sense, it feels like we worked through our own process of human-centered design and constantly adapted in order to make meaning for all our stakeholders. Probably it was liberating to not tie ourselves down in buzzwords and definitions.
A lot of our projects have also thrown us into unfamiliar contexts, within India but also across Asia and Africa. However, our primary need to stay true to real people’s needs and aspirations, ensured that we went in with curiosity (while simultaneously building on the practice and learnings that we evolved over the years) and built local partnerships (as we were cognizant of the fact that deep contextual understanding cannot be built instantaneously). And this approach has constantly held us in good stead across contexts.
Ayush: Is the idea of design thinking bloated compared to what it can truly deliver?
Babitha: I guess that tends to happen when something becomes a buzzword; when it becomes a swiss army knife that you wield not because it serves a purpose and is the most appropriate tool to use, but because it makes you look like a ‘cool, hipster who drinks kale smoothies and rides a fixie.’ So I don’t know if we can blame design thinking itself for this. Design thinking is about assuming a beginner mindset as well as recognising that complex problems often do not have simple, straight-forward solutions, but often necessitate sustained engagement and iterative approaches. However, like all buzzwords, we tend to often latch on to new methods as omnipotent problem-solving techniques; and to add to that, we want clean solutions and we want them quick. Tools and methods, need to be constantly revisited and adapted for each unique context, especially when this uniqueness is the core of what we are trying to explore.
Within Quicksand, we are constantly reinventing the way in which we approach project contexts. Of course, the easier and more ‘efficient’ way to do things would be to figure a certain process and replicate that efficiently. And when we let design thinking fall into this trap, we are probably doing ourselves a disservice, by letting go of the unique strengths, adaptability and human-centeredness of the process.
When it comes to designing complex solutions or artifacts to impact longer-term sustainable change — say, a new service to ensure the reduction of plastic bags in an emerging market — the problems of integrating a new design can be intimidating and difficult to act upon. It needs to be about impacting organizational culture (in being able to view customers as key partners in the design process, which might necessitate changing established business models and behaviors) and breaking down traditional hierarchies of information and decision-making. Thus genuine innovation emerging from design thinking, may never see the light of day. To increase chances of change, the larger systemic design needs to be re-thought; while that is never easy, it is definitely vital. The extended manner in which we engage with our clients, often asking and working with them through the tough questions, is also what helps design thinking ‘deliver’. In the absence of a willingness to engage with complexity and nuance, design thinking will also end up being a trope.
To increase chances of change, the larger systemic design needs to be re-thought; while that is never easy, it is definitely vital.
Babitha: Why “Strategy and Innovation powered by the principles of human-centered design”, and not a Design Thinking firm. Could you draw out the distinction?
Ayush: We have often debated what is the right starting point for a conversation with our partners. And it feels like Design Thinking and Strategy & Innovation present two very different scenarios.
Design Thinking makes a case for how every decision that attempts to improve the quality of human life is essentially a design decision. And so in that context, design thinking tries to make itself relevant for a wide spectrum of human experiences including complex issues like improving public transportation, rethinking public sanitation or increasing humanitarian impact. This is a clear departure from the more popularly understood notion of design which emphasises aesthetics or form over function.
While the practitioners of design thinking are clear about the distinction between the two, here’s where we have sensed the struggle lies. Firstly, organizations curious about the practice are still looking to find the familiar tropes of design. Not altogether a bad thing, but sometimes it takes the focus away from the process and runs the risk of forcing a design output where it might be premature. Secondly, while the values of collaboration are deeply embedded in design thinking, the semantics reinforce a stronger allegiance to the traditional practice of design than other disciplines. The practice in itself therefore appears exclusionary and one that sits uncomfortably with other practices and frameworks-not for any other reason but the manner in which it is perceived.
Our reasons for leaning towards innovation as a positioning strategy are manifold. Innovation as a starting point indicates an intent-a statement on where an organization wants to get to. Design thinking on the other hand is a manner of sense-making and solution-ing, the nuances of which are still largely unfamiliar and misunderstood.
As a trans-disciplinary practice, Quicksand’s position of strength lies at the confluence of disciplines like design, business, arts, social science and technology. Innovation is a more inclusive vocabulary that keeps possibilities open for different disciplines and practices to weigh in from their unique vantage points.
And finally, in the current state of affairs, design thinking has a way of normalizing the process around a cookie cutter description of stages and activities when in reality the process is lot more fluid, dynamic and flexible. We prefer the openness of the word innovation. Not without its own set of confusions and misunderstanding, it still embodies a shared value of pushing new boundaries in order to reinvent and rethink.
As a trans-disciplinary practice, Quicksand’s position of strength lies at the confluence of disciplines like design, business, arts, social science and technology.
Ayush: Can you speak about how this idea of human-centered design permeates the studio practice outside of just the methodology that we would apply on various projects?
Babitha: The idea of making sense of our attempts in a highly personal manner, whether in client projects or independent pursuits, has ensured that we stay true to the core idea of human-centered design even within the studio. The way the studio practice has evolved over the years has not been through an impersonal fashion, but in a manner that took into account all of our collective interests and aspirations. This passion to ground all of our efforts in honest enquiry and understanding what people really want to experience, has permeated not just client projects, but also independent pursuits such as UnBox.
Whether it is about the studio rallying around personal interests and motivations or about creating communities of practice with external partners and friends, there is always a humane basis to our pursuits, irrespective of the scale. How can we create an engaging festival experience, if we did not involve partners in the co-creation of it? How can we build rich learning experiences, without allowing for flexibility in that journey, to account for what participants can bring to it? How can we engage with a range of external experts on independent, boot-strapped ventures, if we cannot relate first as friends and partners?
The nature of our work may change over the coming years, but I hope that the soul of it does not and we continue to build on these ideas of curiosity, honesty, and empathy with an extended community of partners and friends.
Ayush and Babitha are partners at Quicksand