Reflections on DP1: Successes and Challenges of Human-Centered Design

Chelsea Lei

This project was my first experience with the practice of human-centered design (HCD). The steepest learning curve for me was in figuring out how to leverage the design thinking process to extract expertise from a multidisciplinary team methodically in order to deepen empathy and generate novel solutions. While the design process itself has clearly defined stages, the incremental steps within each stage are less clearly prescribed. In our teamwork, we tended to have free-flowing discussions, which were insightful but not exhaustive in explaining observations or developing the range of solutions. I wonder whether a more structured approach might prompt team members to be more conscientious in bringing in their own disciplinary perspectives and result in more efficient and thorough empathy and ideation, assuming this could help lead to more novel solutions. 

Another issue is how to balance the attention given to serving user need and the objective of solving systemic problems. I found it difficult to justify how the ideas we prototyped for the youth could result in better systemic outcomes and account for potential side effects on other users in the system. We needed a theory of change for how serving the user need we identified would improve the system overall. In striking this balance, I think the toughest challenge lies probably not in designing around user needs but around and through the intermediary human relationships and institutional linkages between the individual “user” and the “system”. Therein lie the keys to truly transformative HCD. 


Kevin Ho

As a person much more familiar with the Human Centered Design rather than Political theory and systemic thinking, the Sierra Leone project gave me the chance to make attempts to resolve these two different ways of thinking. Originally, I was a bit skeptical about the value of adding systemic thinking on top of human centered design, as I had a feeling that thinking about the system as well as the user would filter thought and limit the range of solutions our team would create, especially since it was challenging to move between these different scales of thought.

In the end, I would say our solution proved my skepticism wrong. Knowledge of the political system of Sierra Leone was a key generative tool for our solution, and allowed us to think of ways to connect multiple stakeholders together through our main user: the youth. Often in HCD, there is a bias towards creating solutions which work for the user alone; in contrast, systemic thinking encourages expanding the solution space to ideas and concepts which connect and engage different stakeholders. For problems in governance, such as those we faced in Sierra Leone, such solutions may have more potential, especially when designing for communities.


Jonny Dorsey

The ideation phase of the project has been a breakthrough for me personally. The process of transforming the empathy and insights into many, many potential interventions, meant to serve a specifically defined Point of View, is both enjoyable and mind-expanding. It led us down paths we would not have entertained if we had simply jumped to the phase of defining potential solutions. In previous efforts to build new programs, I’ve jumped straight from learning about the problem to designing a solution. I so wish I had used this process in the past.

I am happy with the prototype we have defined for youth. But I know that the hard next step for me would be to avoid attachment. In the past I’ve had to raise funds for ideas, sell ideas to partners, etc. before really launching anything. I’ve built attachment, and struggled to iterate at time. While we won’t be testing this important skill on this project at this time, I’m looking forward to experimenting with prototyping soon.


Aparna Surendra

Having recently completed DP1 (woohoo!), my biggest takeaway was the importance of having a project partner go through the design process alongside you. For me, the hardest part about HCD within our class context was negotiating a balance between my learning, and value-creation for Simeon and Timap. The design process embraces ambiguity, and there are definitely moments where you ask, ‘Where on earth are we? How did we get here?’. These moments are made all the harder when the project runs on a time-line (‘If we follow an unproductive line of thought, will we have time to backtrack?’),  and has such high stakes (justice and economic development in Sierra Leone). 

When Jenny, Jeremy and Liz made project arrangements with Simeon, they told him, “We have no idea what will come out of this.”  Them sharing this conversation with the class was comforting; it reinforced the idea that we were participating in an experiment and, in the spirit of experimentation, there were no guaranteed outcomes. At the same time, it was hard to reconcile this sentiment with our use of resources, especially given our week-long trip to Sierra Leone, and the team’s numerous meetings with NGOs and government officials. Particularly conscious-twinging were the communities’ investment in our project–in a number of villages, crowds of people spent the entire day waiting for our team, so that they could share their grievances with us.

Within this context, Simeon’s immersion in the class took on additional meaning –having him learn beside us emphasized that we were in a learning environment. Given these reflections, I’m curious about DP2: Magda and Nadine will be more conventional project partners, and we will have to use a different toolkit to engage them in our design process. 


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