LEAP Dialogues: Career Pathways in Design for Social Innovation

Edited by Mariana Amatullo, Bryan Boyer, Liz Danzico, & Andrew Shea

360 pages, Designmatters at ArtCenter College of Design, 2016

Buy the book »

LEAP Dialogues, by Designmatters at ArtCenter College of Design, features 84 designers, educators, and thought-leaders discussing the growing demand for social innovation design and the many challenges and opportunities around designers’ work in the field. The following excerpt features a dialogue between Jocelyn Wyatt, executive director and co-lead at IDEO.org, and Jeff Wishnie, formerly of Mercy Corps, now senior director of platforms and services for the Digital Impact Alliance at the United Nations Foundation.

Jocelyn Wyatt: When I started working at IDEO in 2007, leading our social innovation practice, people in the social sector knew almost nothing about design. While design thinking had become relatively well known within the private sector, the same wasn’t true among nonprofits.

We found the early adopters of human-centered design (HCD) to be large foundations, like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, and the Kellogg Foundation, which were interested in both funding and employing design in their work. And we found a tremendous amount of interest among relatively small social enterprises like VisionSpring, Acumen and IDE.

It wasn’t until much more recently that we’ve seen large international NGOs—such as Marie Stopes International, Population Services International (PSI) and Mercy Corps—express interest and start to invest in building their own design capabilities.

Jeff, what have you seen in terms of the trajectory of NGOs turning to human-centered design?

Jeff Wishnie: I agree that HCD is a fairly new concept to NGOs, but design in a broad sense has played a role in NGO work for a long time. This is especially true in program design and the design of the systems to measure and assess impact, what NGOs call “Measurement and Evaluation,” or M and E for short.

And many NGOs, especially those that practice community development, have always followed the core tenet of HCD—designing with and for the/human/user/beneficiary. As one colleague told me: “”HCD gets all the press, but we’ve been doing community-based program design forever.”

Jocelyn: I agree that human-centered design may well be a new name for an old concept. My background is in international development and anthropology, and I certainly learned many of the same practices and methodologies coming from those fields. And I think you’re right, it’s less about the human-centeredness being new to many who have dedicated their careers to community development, but more about the experimentation and prototyping.

Jeff: Exactly. HCD is not just designing with the user, it also involves rapid prototyping and fast design-build-test-revise cycles. I think what has changed in the past decade is a growing recognition that traditional upfront design with long-running measure-and-revise cycles is slow and less than effective. More and more, NGOs—and importantly, the organizations that fund NGOs (like the foundations you mention)—are looking for inspiration from fast-iteration methodologies including HCD and agile management. This change has been driven by the success of fast-iteration in other domains and has been brought to the NGO world by experience designers, with organizations and IDEO.org in the lead, and also by the technology for development community (T4D) which contains people like me who cut our teeth in the worlds of UI/UX design and agile software development.

The first in the list of the Principles for Digital Development, developed by the T4D community is the HCD inspired “Design With The User.” So I see solid progress!

Embedded Capacity

Jeff: Most grant-funded NGOs, like Mercy Corps, are project driven. Each new grant-based program has its own budget and staff. Until the role of designers is recognized as a standard and key part of a program team, there aren’t permanent design positions available. As a result, design work tends to be given to outside firms. And by budgetary necessity, these outside engagements rarely last for the length of a program. The designers work up front, but aren’t around for critical later test-and-revise iterations.

So on the issue of careers for designers, how do you see changing either the way NGOs staff, or the economics of engaging outside firms, to make it possible to integrate design through the length of a long-running program?

Jocelyn: My experience working for a USAID contractor after undergrad was that it would take us months to do research and write a proposal, months for that project to be awarded, and then at least a year to really get things going. So, two years later, we were implementing a program that was at that point based on outdated needs and realities. Once the project started, we were committed to a five-year plan with little room to iterate based on our learning. I saw monitoring and evaluation as a way for us to prove our success rather than learn what was working and evolve it.

I also agree with you that the longer we do this work, the more we realize the importance of designers working alongside the implementation partner for the duration of the program rather than for shorter stints at the beginning. We’ve started designing our programs in financial opportunity and youth reproductive health this way—committing to supporting design and implementation for two-plus years while helping our partners build capacity.

I see a few ways this can happen. The first is when foundations or funders are willing to support a design organization to work alongside an organization for a long period of time. In addition to IDEO.org’s work with Marie Stopes International and others, I’d point to frog’s work with UNICEF or fuseproject’s work with The Girl Effect. This requires the design organization to figure out how to structure multiyear engagements and does require a significant amount of funding as you mentioned.

Another option is for NGOs to hire designers onto their teams for multiyear projects. This is easier when the designer has multiple skill sets—i.e., the person is a writer and a designer, someone who can work on communications and lead design projects, or a business designer who can support project management as well as design projects. The best designers, from our perspective, are T-shaped people who have a depth in one field (graphic design, writing, business) and a breadth across other disciplines (project management, communications, monitoring and evaluation). Our past fellow, Carla Lopez, is a great example of this. She worked for PSI before joining IDEO.org for a year. She’s now back at PSI serving in roles where she’s a technical lead as well as a design lead.

Jeff: Your insight on T-shaped skill sets is spot on. Most of the designers in the field are not hired into design positions—they are program managers or officers who bring design to their work and their teams.

One of Mercy Corps most successful recent programs was our anti-Ebola Social Mobilization program in Liberia—which is NGO speak for community organizing. Mercy Corps worked with over 75 local Liberian and international NGOs and community organizations to reach over half the population of Liberia with information, training and organizing to keep their communities safe from Ebola.

The best part of the program? It was designed from the beginning with iterative feedback loops. In particular, community organizers trained by the program gathered together on a regular basis to discuss what was working, and not, and revised training, materials and organizing methods.

Jocelyn: We need to figure out ways to better build the capabilities and embed human-centered design capacity within the NGOs with which we’re working. Bringing in trained designers is one element of this, but ultimately, that is in service of training up the local teams and the project leads. Workshops are a great start in terms of giving people exposure to HCD, but that’s really just the beginning. We need to be much more intentional about developing the tools and building the advocates within the organization to start to see that shift happen in a much more deliberate way.

I’d love to hear more about your experience with this at Mercy Corps and what you’ve seen in other organizations, Jeff. How have you helped build these capabilities with your teams?

Jeff: It takes a multi-pronged approach to build design capabilities into NGOs. I say this because in addition to the skills, program teams need the permission to approach problems in a manner that is not yet standard operating procedure. So at the same time we build skills to fight for that permission and work toward a future where this is standard practice and no special permission is required!

To your question on skills-building: I’m one of those people who believes that everyone can be a designer in the sense that we can all learn to develop informed opinions, techniques for testing these opinions, and how to refine those opinions (and our outputs) based on what we learn. But we need to practice these skills, and importantly, many people need to experience a few design-prototype-test-revise cycles before they actually trust that it can work.

For someone who has spent his or her entire career as you described your USAID contractor work (upfront design, predefined outputs written into a contract)—it can be very scary to try something as seemingly unstructured as HCD. It can seem way too close to “We’ll figure it out as we go.”

Don’t Wait for the Job Title

Jeff: The best way past the fear is to do the work. Not only do people learn that there is structure and process, but critically, the experience firsthand how the process consistently and reliable hones those raw ideas (opinions) into effective programs. So the most important way to build skills, and confidence, is to dive in and do some design projects. And doing this work side-by-side with experienced designers is extremely helpful. There is no better way to learn a skill than hands-on alongside people who are great at it.

At Mercy Corps, we’ve had good experiences training teams and spreading the design gospel by creating “design projects.” These are programs-of-work whose goals explicitly include learning and applying design methodologies. Rather than a “Youth Employment Program,” we would pitch an “Applying HCD to Challenges in Youth Employment” program. Defining the project as a design project gives the needed license to experiment with new-to-us methodologies like HCD.

This works pretty well, but it is a reminder of how far we have to go to make iterative design standard practice. We’ll know we’ve succeeded when iterative design is part of every project and there is no need to put “design” in the project!

For what it’s worth, this is also true in my primary job as a technologist—everything we do should leverage modern technology like mobile phone and connectivity, but we still need to define “Mobile Communications” projects.

To the question of encouraging NGOs to hire designers—I think we can look to NGOs adoption of information and communications technology (ICT) in their field programming as a model. For most NGOs, adoption of technology is driven by field staff with a specific interest in tech, who were hired for other positions—program managers, M&E officers, office IT staff, etc.—who took it on themselves to show how ICTs could improve a program.

Over time, as more and more field teams demanded help and support with technology, NGOs started creating technology specific teams. A few forward-thinking NGOs established central tech and innovation teams—the UNICEF Innovation team is the standout example—although it’s important to remember that teams like UNICEF Innovation built real momentum when they connected with those field-based pioneers.

I see the same progression happening with design in a broad sense. At Mercy Corps we have field teams eager to apply HCD to their work, who are working with funders to structure programs with strong HCD components. And eventually I see us expanding our HQ based internal consulting teams (which support all our country offices) to add designated designer positions.