Connecting the dots with human-centered design

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There are many great lessons that I have learned while working with IDEO.org for the past couple of months but what I loved most about this assignment is that as the In-Country Community Manager for the Amplify program, I got the opportunity to work directly with our community and break my assumptions and stereotypes by meeting people, interacting with them and learning from their experiences. In short, I would say that the whole process of learning and applying human-centered design rewired my brain but just like you can’t connect the dots looking forward, the whole HCD process is one that requires a lot of patience, a capacity to learn to re-learn and an openness that allows you to learn from the ideas that come your way without being judgemental.

The goals that we, the ICCMs, set for ourselves were pretty clear.

  • To reach out to organizations and introduce them to the Amplify challenge
  • To train individuals and organizations in Pakistan on using HCD
  • To build a sustainable community around design thinking in Pakistan

On reaching out to the community

To make outreach most effective for the third Amplify challenge on ‘how might we improve education and learning opportunities for refugees’, I started by defining the types of organizations so I could get my message across to as many organizations as possible while keeping it relevant and came up with these two classifications

  1. Organizations working with refugees directly.
  2. Organizations working on education innovations.

Since the challenge in question required the organization to design for a special community i.e. refugees so my best bet was to reach out to organizations which were already working with such a community and build their capacity for education design or reach out to education innovation specialists and introduce them to the needs of refugees.

For Pakistan, I started the outreach by making use of social media and getting the word amplified by having education influencers share our message over the web, other than that I made use of emails,  direct phone calls and meetings wherever possible to introduce Amplify to the organizations and what I learned was that social media (Facebook in particular) turned out to be most effective tool for generating leads as mostly all of the organizations had Facebook presence with listed contact details. In short, I learned that social media would be highly effective for small intros about the challenge but face-to-face meetings would play a heavy role in getting those orgs to actually participate in the challenge as they would feel comfortable after having met an ICCM.

I also learned that small-scale organizations would be more responsive and were interested to learn about the challenge and its specifics as compared to the big guns of the development sector. My aha! moment was when I realized that a great number of edutech startups were suddenly interested in participating in the challenge. The only way these edutech startups were different to traditional development sector organizations or NGOs were in the way they understood technology and its applications. The downside was that these startups didn’t have hands-on experience working with communities so there I got this amazing idea to pair up a few edutech startups to traditional NGOs and make them apply for the challenge since it was a marriage of technology and community – the two ingredients to what we were looking in the solutions for this challenge.

On training individuals / orgs about HCD

This would be one of the major challenges throughout the journey as HCD, in its originality, is a complex and lengthy process, one that sometimes doesn’t even yield the right results and might not work but the objective here was to introduce the interested organizations to the basics of human-centered design and how it works with help of workshops so they could go back and use this method in their own work to refine the idea or product which they would eventually pitch to Amplify.

To do this – I organized two workshops, one for edutech startups in Karachi and one for traditional development sector organizations in Islamabad. In the workshop, the third Amplify challenge itself would be used as the mock challenge for the day, making the organizations learn through the basics of human-centered design process – inspiration, ideation, implementation. It was interesting to find out that some organizations had already developed processes which were very close and similar to the HCD process itself while for some organizations this was something very new and incredible.

To quote a participant from the workshop, he said “This [process] has opened my mind. I have never thought about my users but this has given me a new lens and I am hoping to use a more user-centric approach while designing for our beneficiaries from now on”

This workshop lead me into my next aha! moment where on furthering interacting deep down with the organizations and questioning them I learned that they had mostly never talked to their users before designing for them and would usually resort of self-made assumptions without any interviews, data or feedback from the users. Edutech startups seemed more responsive to learning the HCD process as compared to traditional organizations because of the virtue of being young, dynamic and open to change.

On building a community 

This was that one goal that was truly close to my heart because essentially building communities is what I do for a living and also something I am most passionate about.

As I said earlier, you can’t connect the dots looking forward but when I look back, I am wowed with what I have been able to achieve with and for my community. To connect the dots, you must first know that they exist and be able to find them and as the ICCM for Amplify in Pakistan, I have been able to find these dots (individuals, organizations, education experts, innovation experts, design thinkers etc) that when connected form a community. I still ask myself, “Can design solve the refugee education problem?” and I am not so sure about the answer but when I ask myself, “Can design build a better community?” – Definitely yes. Because good design should be about people and their needs and the moment you can build a community of people around a certain problem, eventually you will figure out a way to solve it.

Looking forward, the way I see things have changed now is that I sense a growing interest in HCD in Pakistan and I see a small community springing up which wants to learn and use design thinking approach to solve community and business problems and I am hopeful that the community will grow (more than it already has) and that soon we will see this approach being recognized by organizations, institutions and even government to solve mainstream problems that are far too big and far too real. Also, I hope to see companies and businesses adopt this innovative methodology to make it a part of their intrinsic routines and processes.

What I loved throughout the journey is that I got to learn and practice human-centered design myself with support the best HCD team in the world and got the opportunity to interact with ICCMs from Africa (Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda) and most importantly the opportunity to find and connect those dots that I will always be in touch with as a mentor, supporter and well-wisher.

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