Human-centered Product Design Experience with Zaka

Jad Sarkis
Jul 22, 2020 · 7 min read
Zaka: a promising Lebanese Artificial Intelligence (AI) startup teaching, building, and connecting AI talent

Way back, and I mean way, way back in 2500 B.C., Phoenicians were renowned as the best traders and merchants in the entire Mediterranean sea. They went the extra mile as to immersing themselves in the cultures and languages of their customers and understanding their needs to fulfill them adequately.

Fast forward to the future, the now as we say, evolving business models are not looking very quite different from that culture. The human-centered design process was the first thing I touched at Zaka (metaphorically, of course, thanks to COVID-19.)

My name is Jad Sarkis, and I am a qualitative research intern at Zaka: a startup launched in Lebanon and located pretty much everywhere (remotely and online) with an amazing team of passionate humans. As for me, I am an undergraduate student at the American University of Beirut, studying Computer and Communications Engineering.

The main project I was involved in during my internship is their AI Academy curriculum being designed to prepare its participants with industry-grade skills in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and to promote a creative and autonomous experience to tackle state of the art challenges in the field.

By the end of this academy, participants will find themselves to be ideal candidates for job openings in the data science and AI market. This is not done through magic tricks. In order to shape perfect participants, making use of human-centered design (HCD) is vital as it provides a curriculum and experience that fits the market need and the participating individuals to render optimal outcomes. This is what makes this program stand out from the rest.

Design alongside your users to develop products that they need. Source

But what is human-centered design and why is it so important? When one builds a product - any product, from dairy foods to high-end GPUs, the chances of selling it will be directly and exaggeratedly proportional to the fulfillment of the needs and demands of the target user. If a company needs to increase sales, getting to know the target demographic for example is vital, and this is where HCD comes into play.

Let’s take an example, shall we? A company as big as Netflix could not have been as successful had they not used human-centered design. Put simply, Netflix understood the customers’ needs and decided to build a platform based on them. There was this ‘static’ trend getting more and more common among teens and young adults, so much it was even given a name: binge-watching.

When you binge-watch, you are spending an entire day on a season of a TV show or watching the entire Harry Potter franchise for example, ‘static’ in front of your screen. Netflix took note of this trend, saw the opportunity and decided to profit off of it. Their entire website and app are shaped meticulously to answer one main question: how can we help people binge-watch the shows and movies they like? They worked with this question in mind and became a phenomenon that transformed the idea of television and introduced streaming to the world.

So I guess HCD’s vitality is justified. It can improve the product any company is trying to sell.

The HCD process. Source

To elaborate on this process, here’s a list of the main steps that the Stanford School Method deploys in its HCD program: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test.

  1. Empathize

The Empathize phase involves conducting interviews and piling up a cluster of qualitative data. In this phase, we dive into the fundamentals of human-centered design and get to meet the humans behind it.

2. Define

The Define phase will gather the data found in Empathy and neatly sort out the ideas to come up with the needs and insights of the user. Those are found by searching for the implicit emotions and ideas within each chunk of data we got from the user.

3. Ideate

Based on the user’s needs and insight, we move to the Ideate phase which requires us to think of “How Might We” (HMW) statements, putting those user needs in the form of a question. Once we have the HMW statements ready, the brainstorming sessions kick in!! In these sessions, we try to bring up the most out of this world diminishing the boundaries of reality: crazy ideas to answer the HMW statements.

4. Prototype

A bunch of these ideas will be the “chosen ones” and taken with us to the next phase: Prototyping. This is where we build low-resolution solutions. We need to minimize the cost of building those prototype as much as possible because we still find ourselves in early design stages. We should be able to dispose our prototypes in case it does not meet the customer’s needs without having lost too much cost (time and money) in the process.

5. Test

To know if the needs are met through the prototype, we will have to go into the Testing phase, which is the last step of the design process. In this phase, we venture out into the field with our low-resolution prototype, and yes, you guessed it, test it directly with its target users.

Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash: HCD is based on the needs of people and target demographics. It connects people’s needs with the sold product’s ability to provide.

HCD is not a unidirectional process. You will typically exit your Testing phase with feedback that needs to be taken back into new Prototyping. Occasionally, you might find that you need to revisit your Ideation phase and go as far as re-defining your HMW statements.

This is an iterative process where your only constant is the user.

During my time as an intern at Zaka, I was exposed to this entire process described above and I’ll tell you how.

When I was just starting, my supervisor and I launched our research with the Empathize phase by looking for potential companies in the data science and AI field to interview. Two companies answered and were more than happy to conduct qualitative interviews.

The first company, let’s call it Company A, is a consulting firm focusing on business technology strategy and building outcome-predicting dashboards through AI. We had a chat with their CEO. The second company, Company B, works in the aviation industry and uses AI solutions to optimize runway safety and security. We interviewed their CTO. The main questions we asked them during the interview were related to finding new talent, getting to know more about the company’s inner workings, and understanding how they deal with technological advancements. The most recurring problems both companies mentioned were the fact that young local talents did not have the needed knowledge of the latest trends and advancements.

Moving to the Define phase, we realized how Company A’s main problem was struggling in finding curious talent and students who had a well-developed technical and business background. Company B on the other hand needed a way to find new talents who were curious and autonomous in doing their own research on advancements.

If you think about it, one main word was popping up in the minds of the interviewees: curiosity. Students were just not curious enough even though it represents an asset that is indispensable in our evolving markets. Curiosity may have killed the cat at some point, but it definitely did not stop an exponential growth in the world of technology and AI.

Pulling all these strings together in the Ideate phase, we came up with two HMW statements, one for each company:

  1. “How might we help Company A hire new talent without having the need to constantly train them with new skills?”
  2. “How might we help Company B head in the right direction and capture the talent they need?”

In the Prototype phase, we really stormed our brains in multiple sessions and looked to come up with ideas fueling the interest of both these companies in a way we believed would make participants of the academy curious. Some of these rendered ideas included:

  • White-boarding exercises. This teaches participants to present a business idea or any idea by walking the listener through the steps of building a solution and drawing them on a whiteboard.
  • Including Human-Centered Design sessions. These sessions are just as important as the technical classes. It allows the participant to solve a problem from a different point of view rather than just being tech-savvy.
  • Integrating recurring technical challenges to boost creativity and curiosity.

And arguably the most important one was making use of games. One main idea was to include gamification in the program: interactive games where participants work in groups on solving technical problems as fast as possible in a bid to spark their curiosity, critical thinking, and prompt decision making.

Finally, for the Testing phase, if a rough draft of these prototypes is built and run in the program and we feel they did not work, we would have to iterate till we reach the desired outcome for all of our target users.

From an HCD perspective, this qualitative research internship project is a very important step in building Zaka’s AI Academy. Getting to know people’s needs and working out solutions based on those needs is the first step in creating a better world and changing people’s lives, not just in AI but in the broader sense too.

The academy’s aim is to foster the best talent. We want to educate locals and bridge existing gaps. With the current and increasing challenges happening around us, developing the minds of our younger generations can solve many problems and greatly improve our living conditions.

Here’s to a better, human-centered future.


This article was edited by Tony Soulage.

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