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Proportion Stories

Training people in human-centered design isn’t enough.

Proportion Global Community | Live session #7 | HCD Training

Written by Thomas Schuurmans and Ayah Yacoub

The world is full of complex challenges that are not easily met. It requires a deep understanding of the root cause, as well as understanding the behavior of people and the system in order to overcome them.

Luckily, human-centered design (HCD) is currently growing in popularity in the development sector. Almost every accelerator program includes HCD as part of the non-financial support to scale-up companies. An increasing number of NGOs include it in their program design, as it is often required by the donor.

As a result, there is increasing demand for HCD capacity building. But becoming a HCD professional isn’t achieved in a three-day course, in the same way that you also won’t become an entrepreneur after a three-day entrepreneurship course, right? So how can HCD professionals structurally contribute to building the capacity of staff in start-ups, scale-up, governments and NGOs? Capacity building should go beyond one-off training.

Three key challenges of one-off HCD training
We see three challenges in the delivery of one-off HCD training:

  1. Everyone can claim to be a HCD expert, which jeopardizes and dilutes the value of HCD.
  2. There is a high staff turnover in the development sector, making it hard to transform the culture of organizations into being more open minded and innovative.
  3. Senior decision makers might not see the value of HCD yet, making them less inclined to invest in HCD capacity building of their staff.

Challenge #1: Everyone is an HCD expert

The biggest pitfall for HCD might be that everyone who has completed a short term (online) course claims to be an expert. A global certification for HCD professionals may be a solution, but to be honest, this is not really within our DNA as designers. Even as HCD professionals, we continuously learn and learn. So, who honestly has the mandate to give out these certificates? The only thing that is given out are certificates of completion of a course.

Solution: In our view, it all comes down to hours of practice. The more hours you practice HCD, the better you get at it. Empathy and creativity are like muscles. You need to exercise them in order to get stronger. Hence, HCD training is just the start of your journey. So ambitious learners need to be able to follow a learning and practicing journey. This is where HCD professionals come in; they can offer coaching on the job. This could be done remotely , but even better would be coaching in the field. Proportion Global is a community of HCD professionals in over 26 countries in the global south; we see this coaching offering as a big opportunity that can make a big impact on learners.

Challenge #2: High turnover of staff

The second challenge is the high turnover in staff, especially in the development sector. When a group of people are trained to use HCD and they are very enthusiastic about it, it is very encouraging and suggests that the organization will make greater use of HCD. However, once employees with his knowledge leave the organization, there is the risk of the knowledge being lost. A senior manager might be replaced by someone who is not (yet) convinced by HCD and he or she might cut all HCD activities. This can be extremely disheartening for HCD-skilled staff members as well as the trainers, as it can seem that all the work to embrace and use HCD in their work was wasted.

Solution: Let’s adapt our mindset in which people moving around is a wasted effort. If people are changing jobs or employers, it actually contributes to organically spreading the HCD methodology. A smart thing we can do as a community of practitioners is to make more visible those who are HCD practitioners and are eager to learn, by uniting them in an online community. It will become easy to see who your partners in crime are within your organization. People might leave your organization, but they are entering somewhere else. So it’s possible that new HCD-minded people will join your organization. So through an online community, we can actually keep track of individuals as HCD champions rather than keeping track of departments or organizations. By being able to identify the HCD champions, you can pull towards each other, instead of pushing people.

Challenge #3: Senior decision makers might not see the value of HCD yet

The people receiving one-off HCD training sessions are often not the final decision makers. Hence, HCD trainees should be willing to speak to their managers about the value of HCD and how it can best be applied in their work.

Solution: The benefit of building a community of HCD learners, as explained earlier, is not only about stimulating peer-to-peer learning. It also allows practitioners to submit and share real life case studies that demonstrate the value of HCD. This ever-growing portfolio of case studies will give more ammunition in convincing senior management to invest in HCD capacity building for their organization.

What if government employees who have applied HCD in public service and policy design can share their knowledge and submit their case studies? What if we have case studies from NGOs practicing HCD in the health care sector across the global south? What if accelerators showcase how HCD support for their scale-up companies has been effective?
The collective portfolio of case studies will empower HCD champions to convince their senior decision makers.


One-off training is just the beginning of someone’s journey to become a HCD practitioner.

Beyond this first training, HCD learners could benefit from:

  • continuous on-the-job coaching from HCD professionals, either remotely or — preferably — in the field.
  • the opportunity to join an online community of learners and mentors for peer-to-peer learning and to be able to search for “partners-in-crime” in order to change an organization or industry at large.
  • access to a portfolio of case studies that demonstrate the value of HCD. All practitioners can submit to this portfolio, making it rich and easy to search.
  • access to convincing pitch decks in order to communicate the value of HCD to their superiors, with the potential for an HCD agency or HCD professionals as partners for credibility.

Please share your comments and additional ideas you have for HCD novices to develop themselves into experienced practitioners.

This Medium article is the outcome of a live session held with human-centered design professionals from Latin America, Africa and South Asia, who are all members of the Proportion Global Community. This community makes Proportion Global the most fine mazed design agency in the world. Proportion Global offers clients the best teams for tackling complex design challenges across the global south, with professionals in nearly every country powered by an immense collective track record. If you like to join our community and bi-weekly live sessions, then please visit




Proportion is a global human-centered design agency that innovates for social impact. We offer innovation services to companies, NGOs, and social businesses. Enjoy the stories by our community of HCD experts across the globe!

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Proportion Global

Proportion Global

Proportion is a global human-centered design agency that innovates for social impact. We offer innovation services to companies, NGOs, and social businesses.

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