What Designers Can Learn From Poverty Fighters

Originally published on Medium: What Designers Can Learn From Poverty Fighters

Redefining the Role of the Designer

Teaching organizations how to think like a designer is a daunting task, yet it is an exciting challenge we are facing more each day. As our work becomes increasingly synonymous with innovation and smart business, designers play a greater role in changing the DNA of organizations.

Consultancies like Adaptive PathIDEO, and Frog Design have already expanded beyond digital interfaces to creating end-to-end services, improving customer experience across all touchpoints. It’s not hard to envision the next step in evolution — helping clients achieve organization-wide adoption of human-centered design. Imagine the impact of financial, healthcare, and educational institutions that not only understand how to listen to their customers, but more importantly are able to create user-centric solutions to address widespread problems. However, the road will not be an easy one. These entrenched organizations are often hampered by complex internal structure, politics, and limited resources, making the internalization of human-centered design a difficult task.


Scene from “The Class (Entre les murs)

Scene from “The Class (Entre les murs)

Similar challenges are prevalent in most international development projects, including those led by Engineers Without Borders Canada (EWB). As an organization that strives to alleviate poverty in Africa through systemic change, EWB faces obstacles such as a fragmented landscape of service providers, complex bureaucracy, and a severe lack of resources. Despite all this, EWB is successfully disrupting the charity model of development by empowering local leaders to create sustainable change in their own communities. Its initiatives under this approach have received strong support from locals in Africa and organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Below are three strategies developed by EWB overseas volunteers that can help designers create long-lasting internal change within client organizations.

Note: Although I direct these strategies at design consultants, they are just as applicable to those working on internal design teams.

Engineers Without Borders—  Kumvana Progra

Engineers Without Borders— Kumvana Progra

1. Understand the Landscape and Empower Champions

In EWB’s agriculture initiatives in rural Ghana, volunteers and staff members have embedded themselves in local communities and developed partnerships with key business, educational, and government institutions. Their goal is to understand the landscape which stakeholders are operating within and empower champions in the community. EWB’s time spent in the field has given the organization insight into relationships between farmers, businesses, government, and NGOs, helping to connect farmers with investment capital, supplies, and new markets.

EWB also empowers locals to increase their effectiveness as changemakers. The Kumvana Program trains 20 young African leaders over 6 months, providing leadership training, work experience, and valuable networks to catalyze change within their own communities and organizations. EWB has recently taken this a step further by investing in ventures that seek to drive radical systemic innovations in Africa. These types of partnerships can take years to develop but have been essential in implementing sustainable solutions to poverty in the area.

Long-term engagements give design teams the time to understand internal dynamics of client organizations and identify champions who can carry the project forward. Knowing who to require buy-in from is an important part of successful implementation. Organization-wide adoption of design principles will not happen overnight, but can be gradually achieved through the success of continuous small initiatives. By shifting from the single project to an account-based model, consultancies can establish stronger partnerships with clients and be better positioned to influence strategic decisions. Design consultants should also consider how they can empower internal design teams to have a stronger voice in their own organization, possibly through training workshops or mentorship programs.

Co-creation workshop at Adaptive Pat

Co-creation workshop at Adaptive Pat

2. Create Internal Demand for Change

NGOs have built thousands of latrines in rural communities to address poor sanitation conditions — a leading cause of death in developing nations — only to find them turned into sheds and chicken coops. The challenge is a lack of community involvement and ownership over health initiatives. Projects involving behaviour change are often met with resistance from locals, especially ones imposed by outsiders. Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) is a different approach that has seen promising results. A core piece to CLTS is participatory learning — inviting community members to learn about sanitation through live demonstrations. One example includes setting a bowl of rice near an area of open defecation. Community members watch on as flies land in the rice and feces, contaminating the food until it turns brown. Through CLTS, they internalize the connection between their current behaviour and the contraction of disease, often leading to internal demand for improved sanitation practises. Self-motivated communities that seek their own health solutions see a higher rate of behaviour change than ones subject only to external pressure. In Zambia, over 245 000 people are now living in “open defecation free” zones due to the CLTS approach.

Design consultants propose recommendations while implementation is often left to the client. Without the commitment from internal client teams, these projects may never become reality. Co-creation workshops that involve clients in problem identification and concept brainstorming are effective ways to create a sense of client ownership over projects. Educating them on the value of human-centered design can foster internal demand for its application in other business areas. Helping clients establish their own internal design teams can empower them to carry out their own design initiatives and ensure the existence of a user advocacy group.

Engineers Without Border

Engineers Without Border

3. Measure Outcome, Not Output

Over 40 000 rural water points and latrines have been built throughout Malawi to provide access to clean water and sanitation in rural communities. When measuring the output of development initiatives, the statistics are encouraging; however, the reality is that a significant portion of wells break down within months due to lack of maintenance. When measuring the outcomes of these initiatives, it becomes clear that the invested resources aren’t achieving the impact expected. EWB is working with government partners to implement a Decision Support System, mapping water coverage, monitoring the status of wells, and allowing decision-makers to identify more effective ways to maintain them. The mentality of measuring outcomes vs. output means that NGOs and local governments can evaluate the true impact of their initiatives and pivot when goals aren’t being met.

The success of a design project is usually measured by the output — the quality of deliverables and the satisfaction of the client — but rarely how deliverables have improved actual customer experience. Oftentimes, the client contact that gives the brief is not the client team to implement the proposal. Understanding why projects failed or succeeded in implementation can help design consultants improve the success rate of projects. This may be as simple as setting up a formal channel for project follow-up a few months after the client engagement ends. Outcomes to track may include the level of customer satisfaction, level of customer engagement, client team buy-in, or efficiency of service.

Although these lessons were sown from the maize fields of rural Africa, they are just as applicable in the open-spaced design offices in San Francisco. There are still countless systemic issues facing our financial, healthcare, and educational systems here at home. Design consultancies cannot fix these problems on their own. It requires a change in mindset from all individuals and organizations. Designers who dare to think big will not only be crafting the next innovative products and services, but also empowering others to do the same. As our roles evolve, we must also evolve our design approaches to suit the scale of our desired impact.