Human Centred Design in Practice

Quicksand is currently working with ACRA on an ambitious project to reduce plastic bag use in the major cities of Cambodia. It was proposed that a strategy that combines product and service design, behavior change programs and policy advocacy at the highest governmental levels, would perhaps be most effective in steering this change. The following article outlines the strategic approach Quicksand is adopting while steering this gargantuan effort.

Service-product development rooted in a human-centered design (HCD) process

While human-centered design process is an emerging but powerful methodology for robust product and service development, it’s applications are varied and non-standard. Our work in this field over the last ten years, specifically in developing contexts, has led to an articulation of the process that we believe is unique and especially relevant to high-context cultures of the Global South. The basic tenets of this process that we feel are extremely relevant are:

Sketches by Shiraz Iqbal.

(a) HCD as a tool to mine human experiences for powerful insights:

Research methodologies borrowed from fields of anthropology and innovative research tools that help users articulate their motivations and aspirations beyond the obvious, makes design research particularly powerful in mapping human experiences. By having a multi-disciplinary team anchor the research — comprising of designers and project managers alongside researchers — the process of triage is more effective and real time.

(b) HCD as a storytelling and facilitation tool for collaboration:

It is understood that solutions would be sustainable only when they are co-created and stakeholders can relate to a sense of ownership of emerging solutions. Creating open platforms (both physical and virtual) for sharing and collaborating, and landing the insights with relevant teams through rich, evocative storytelling tools like film and new media, makes HCD one of the most effective facilitation tools.

(c) HCD as a prototype-led, iterative process:

Research that doesn’t give stakeholders a window into the discussions around product development early on is likely to yield sub-optimal results. While we understand that the final solution may be proposed only towards the end of projects or engagements, creating tangible scenarios, prototypes and experiences right from the beginning allows the team’s assumptions to be checked and modified. It also allows stakeholders to respond more reliably and without facilitation bias. HCD moves away from a monolithic research plan and espouses research that happens in stakeholder-inclusive short bursts.

Service-product development that incorporates principles of behavior change and efforts around policy formulation

We feel that having a clear track of activities that bring in aspects of behavior change and policy framework into the service product development process is important for eventual success. For example, the study of human motives in the field of behavior change, provides an excellent framework for product and service ideation. On the other hand, providing a systems perspective to decision-makers that clearly draws out all the inter-dependencies of a product service strategy, would set the right stage for an enabling environment.

Coggle Diagram by Irfa Javed: Secondary research map of the Life of Plastic Bags in Cambodia.

Local knowledge, global expertise

Quicksand has worked in a variety of cultural contexts including China, Indonesia, Singapore, Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa. As a design research firm, we believe local knowledge of culture can’t be substituted and is an important input at the insights, ideation, prototyping and validation stage. These knowledge gaps can be plugged through partnerships with cultural translators, research networks in the region and by reaching out to design schools who can augment the cultural understanding that the core Quicksand team is able to develop.

More important perhaps is the relevance of this topic to the global discourse on environmental sustainability. The successful implementation of similar programs in other contexts around the world, necessitates that impact be delivered through the marriage of local knowledge and global expertise. Thus, an important part of the process and structure should lay out a systematic plan for bringing in contextually relevant expertise vis-à-vis these interventions.

The applications of an HCD approach are varied and non-standard, which makes it especially relevant to the high-context cultures of the Global South. It is this process that we articulate through our work.

Complex interplay of supply chain, material science and local competencies for production

Translating insights around human experience into a product strategy that has to be developed at scale and with stringent cost and supply chain considerations in mind requires expertise that can:

(a) Understand and critically evaluate local production and supply chain capabilities from the point of view of supporting eventual up-scaling.

(b) Bring global trends and best practices in material science and technology especially as it pertains to the given domain and assess its replicability in the local context.

(c) Provide prototyping support and capability so that new concepts can be evaluated through interactions with key stakeholders.

Engaging in co-design is not solely about researching the community’s needs by listening to them, but also empowering them to design alongside us.

Public engagement through carefully managed outreach and knowledge dissemination efforts

Understanding current behaviors and patterns and developing product-service scenarios cannot happen in isolation. Conceptualizing a new product-service through a deep understanding of current behaviors has to be accompanied by actively thinking of manners in which public and key stakeholder opinion can be mobilized early on in any engagement.

We strongly believe that solutions and systems need to arise from truly understanding and designing alongside communities whose lives, these solutions seek to improve. Co-design as a means to ideate together and get meaningful feedback is a core aspect of Quicksand’s process. This is not solely about researching the community’s needs by listening to them but also empowering them to design alongside us.


Originally published at quicksand.co.in on June 17, 2015.