What do successful social entrepreneurships have in common? A key element is design. When you look at successful social initiatives of large corporations (Grameen Danone) as well as start-ups (embrace), you will almost always see how smart design makes a difference. One of the best concepts of smart design is IDEO’s “human centered design” (HCD). This is a set of design approaches and tools that put the end-users’ needs in the center of design solutions, and ensure that their experiences drive innovation. The HCD process is responsible for ideas such as the HeartStart defibrillator, CleanWell natural antibacterial products, and the Blood Donor System for the Red Cross.
Still, focusing on the end-users’ needs in the development process of new products for the base of the pyramid (BOP) is easier said than done, which is why many social entrepreneurs still fail to meet their goals. Now IDEO.org, which stemmed from IDEO’s work in the social sector, comes to their help with a new platform, HCD Connect that brings together people and projects across diverse geography and sectors so they can build on each other’s ideas and tap into the power of the community.
IDEO.org’s first step was to create the code of HCD, covering all three phases of the process – Hear (determine who to talk to and how to gather stories), Create (generate opportunities and solutions that are applicable to the whole community) and Deliver (take your top solutions, make them better and move them forward implementation). And thus the IDEO’s Human-Centered Design Toolkit was born. The toolkit, a step-by-step guide designed specifically for people, nonprofits, and social enterprises that work with low-income communities, walks users through a human-centered design process and supports them in activities such as leading workshops and implementing ideas. In the spirit of open innovation, it was provided for free and since 2009 the toolkit has been downloaded more than 74,000 times.
Although the toolkit became popular and was also used by many organizations, like Engineers without Borders and Heifer International, it was clear that it is only the first step. After all, guidelines are just guidelines. For example, the IDEO innovation process is well known and it is only made up of 5 steps (understand and observe, synthesize, visualize, prototype, evaluate and refine and implement), yet few bring it to perfection like IDEO. The secret sauce is in the implementation. And so, to help NGOs and entrepreneurs find the secret sauce together, IDEO.org decided to build a collaborative platform, HCD Connect, where participants will share stories and help each other to better implement the HCD process.
HCD Connect, which was launched earlier this month with a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, already has many members that share their stories. One story, for example, is from IDEO.org Fellow Salvador Zepeda who explains how to effectively use interview questions in the prototyping process, based on his experience designing financial services for people who earn between $360 and $900 per month in Mexico. Another story is about increasing enrollment of community health insurance in rural Rwanda. The project team plans to use HCD methodology for understanding the perception of community health insurance within the community and for creating new innovations.
Reflecting IDEO.org’s goal to improve the lives of people in low-income communities around the world, some projects also take place in developed countries. For example, there is an initiative of students cultivating women entrepreneurs in North Philadelphia. This project connects women from urban and rural communities through the co-learning of farming, nutrition and entrepreneurship skills and the co-creation of a sustainable agriculture business to provide access to self-employment opportunities, education and healthy food.
Participants share their stories, answer couple of general questions about their use of the HCD process and their project, interact with other participants, and can ask the community questions and so on. In a few months, community members in the “agriculture” focus area will also be able to apply for microgrants of $1,000-$10,000 to initiate or implement project solutions.
HCD Connect should also be addressed as part of a larger trend of using crowdsourcing and co-creation platforms to drive innovation in the development process of new products. Yet, it is still unique in its focus to create added value by connecting people and encouraging them to share stories and receive inspiration and practical solutions from one another.
While HCD is not a magic bullet and has its own limits, past projects using HCD, as well as examples of start-ups working in the HCD tradition like embrace and d.light, show the potential in using it systematically. If we seriously want to get BOP solutions to market faster and more efficiently, we need innovative approaches like HCD and platforms like HCD Connect that maximize their value to the organizations and entrepreneurs. If it will work, we’ll all benefit from it.
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Department of Business Administration, CUNY and the New School, teaching courses in green business and new product development.