Design Thinking and Development

DAI’s Jessica Heinzelman recently sat down with Mike Rios of 17 Triggers to discuss how we can make development projects more 'delightful'.

Jessica and Mike

Design thinking seeks to improve our lives in small and big ways. The private sector applies design thinking to sell more, increase customer satisfaction, and grow market share. These same processes, however, are increasingly being applied to development, with more donors calling for human-centred design in proposals and providing programs the time and resources to validate assumptions or rework technical approaches.

DAI is increasingly applying design thinking to our work, including engaging 17 Triggers, a Cambodia-based design thinking firm for good causes, to train civil society and non-governmental organisations to apply design processes. We sat down with Mike Rios, Chief Innovation Officer at 17 Triggers, to get his thoughts.

What is design thinking and what can it offer development?

Let's look at an example using two airports: Nairobi airport in Kenya v Incheon airport in Korea. When you go through both airports, the steps you take to fly are the same:

  • Arrive at airport.
  • Check your bags.
  • Go through security.
  • Walk to gate.
  • Use bathroom.
  • Eat.
  • Board plane.
  • Fly.

But the airport experience is wildly different. At each step, the Nairobi airport is filled with headaches. The lines are long, it's cramped, unannounced gate changes are frequent, and there is only one bathroom. Incheon, on the other hand, features free showers, massage chairs, a cinema, wifi, and live classical music. What makes one airport a drag and the other a dream? Incheon certainly had design thinkers—professionals who know how to design a 'delightful' experience.

Unfortunately, most development programs don't use design thinking, and from a customer (or beneficiary) point of view are full of headaches. Service is often lousy, waits are long, and things are often broken. The good news is that design thinking has the potential not only to make programs more delightful, but to save time, cut waste, and achieve significantly more impact.

Development practitioners already design programs. How is design thinking different?

Whereas status quo programming is typically designed from the top down, design thinkers work from the ground up. For example, we recently worked on a project with People In Need (PIN) to reduce newborn deaths in Cambodia by reaching out to mothers with automatic voice messages containing information on how to care for their new babies. We started by literally mapping how a mother would potentially experience PIN's program:

  • Go to health center.
  • Deliver baby.
  • Receive verbal information from midwife on newbord care.
  • Sign up for voice message service.
  • Go home.
  • Receive advice from grandmother on newborn care.
  • Receive pre-recorded messages.
  • Call or go to health center in event of problem.
  • Celebrate when healthy baby survives 90 days.

Based on firsthand observation of midwives, mothers, and grandmothers, we then identified the headaches at each step. We found two that jeopardize the project's success: first, midwives rarely give consistent or concrete advice; second, grandmothers give advice that is often harmful—yet because of their cultural position they're hard to ignore or correct.

With these headaches in mind, we brainstormed hundreds of ideas to complement the voice messages, one of which was a simple baby cot mobile that midwives could use to make messages easier to understand. Mothers could also use them as authoritative counterweights to unhelpful grandmothers. PIN rapidly tested the mobile at one health center first, and based on the initial reactions, used it to design its pilot program.

The result? In Kampong Chhnang province, where the pilot test was conducted, the newborn death rate is normally 45 for every 1,000 births. Among the 455 mothers in the design thinking-designed program, not a single baby has died.

How can we integrate more design thinking into development projects?

While development folks say they want to follow best practices, few embrace private sector approaches. Design thinking isn't just a fad in the private sector, it's the way of thinking that creates the world's best products: iPhones, Kindles, Dropbox, Amazon.

For design thinking to work in development, we first need donors to stop requiring predetermined outputs and workplans at the beginning of a project. Twitter, PayPal, Nokia, Starbucks, and Hewlett-Packard wouldn't exist if they were forced to follow a strict three-year plan with no flexibility. Second, we need the development industry to reward bold new ideas instead of compliance. How different would the world be if Thomas Edison had focused on 'making a brighter candle' because the terms of reference required it?