As we navigate the world as individuals — making choices, solving problems and interacting with others — it is inevitable that bias comes into play. Seeing as though each of our realities are colored by completely unique arrangements of circumstances and experiences, we are prone to trusting and relying on our own assumptions and judgments — especially in a pinch.
Yet where our biases become problematic is when we begin to consider that we are one of 7 billion individuals on the planet. Further, that each of those individuals live in their own unique version of reality. As such, it is imperative when we consider the needs and wants of others, we also refrain from making assumptions.
In the world of design, we know that making assumptions about our end-users is the antidote to great innovation. Yet the constraints of time and finance often prompt us to fall back on preconceived notions. This is where engaging in a process that consistently challenges and dismantles individual assumption becomes imperative. Enter: human-centered design.
Here are five examples that showcase the power of the human-centered design process to extinguish assumptions and to ignite bold and remarkable innovation:
A recent article by the Harvard Business Review points to a story from the Kingwood Trust, a UK-based charity which provides person-centred support for autistic adults and people with Asperger Syndrome. A member of its design team had been observing a particular nonverbal adult with autism who lived in one of the organization’s facilities and had noted that he was engaging in damaging behavior such as picking the leather from a sofa or rubbing indents into a wall.
Originally, based on these observations, the designer began to work on solutions related to the prevention of destruction. However, she soon recognized that this was a linear and obvious path to take, based on the assumption that the man’s actions were driven primarily by a destructive impulse. Taking a human-centered approach, she reframed her research and began to expand her queries, asking, “what if these actions were motivated by something else?”
Actively flipping her perspective, the designer then endeavored to mimic the man’s actions in her own space, and in doing revealed an unexplored bias: that the activities this man was engaging in made for a very satisfying audio-tactile experience. Going forward, it was decided that the organization's innovation design team would diversify their design intentions beyond the disabilities and safety of residents, and also focus on their strengths and pleasures. This led to the creation of popular tactile living spaces and new related activities for residents that would work with, rather than place limits on, the behaviours that brought them comfort.
A World of Difference
On account of their disruptive, human-centered products, India-based social enterprise Embrace Infant Solutions has been awarded numerous accolades over the years. It could be argued that their most well-known product, an ultra-low-cost, portable and electricity-free carrier which insulates babies against the cold, achieved cult status in the human-centered field because its designers refused to rely on assumptions along the road to creation.
The story goes that Linus Liang and his team at the Stanford d. School were challenged to design a universally affordable incubator for Embrace. Initial research told them that the overwhelming majority of premature and low-birth weight baby deaths in the first month of life were occurring in low to middle income countries, where the high cost of infant incubators was often out of reach. As committed human-centered thinkers, the team began by observing users firsthand — specifically healthcare workers in Nepal responsible for treating premature and LBW babies — and keeping an open mind throughout the process.
No surprise to these human-centered designers, that many surprises followed their observations. It was revealed that incubators were actually plentiful in Nepal’s cities, and that problematic births were most commonly beginning in rural villages, with the vast majority of babies dying en route to hospitals because caregivers were unable to regulate their body temperatures. Reframing their mission, the team gathered information directly from the rural villages as well as knowledge related to body temperature regulation.
The result was the Embrace Infant Warmer —which boasted a heating pad that would be readied with boiling water and which could maintain the perfect body temperature for a baby for up to four hours. In the prototyping process, the team further discovered that the Celsius temperature-reading on the bag led to confusion and trepidation amongst rural users. In acknowledging their previously unrecognized cultural bias, the team replaced the reading with a simple happy face that would indicate the bag had reached the ideal heat, and sad-face when the pad needed reboiling. A quick and easy solution that led to increased usership and to saved lives, all thanks to the human-centered design process.
A Vote for Various Perspectives
In a Stanford eCorner lecture, former Stanford d. School alumnus Michael Tubbs — who has served as Stockton, California’s youngest mayor and the city’s first African-American mayor since taking office in January 2017 — tells the story of how flipping a common assumption on its head led him towards him to these significant achievements.
In the process of developing his campaign to run for city council, Tubb explains that surrounding experts had repeatedly advised him to “only speak to people who vote.” Having been trained in the human-centered method, Tubbs knew that in developing any service, product or campaign for intrinsically diverse human beings, it would be imperative to reach beyond the biases of experts and to explore divergent design.
In doing so, Tubbs flipped the recommendation on its head and made his way out to the poorest development in the city where people were prone to not voting. He explains that in speaking with these individuals about their hopes and aspirations, they began to surface new issues that had never been tabled by the area’s political leaders. In representing their historically quiet voices in the public realm, Tubbs inspired many who may not have been inclined to vote before to do so — and better yet, to do so for him.
In 2008, Casper co-founder Jeff Chapin took a leave of absence from his then-career at IDEO and traveled to Cambodia to help build its sanitation market. He saw first-hand that rice fields were often used as village latrines, and that 8 out of 10 Cambodians practiced open defecation and were unlikely to wash their hands, leading to severe implications to public health.
Proceeding to engage in lengthy conversations with individuals in a number of villages, he found that in Cambodia, it was a ubiquitous practice for villagers to upgrade their homes over time rather than to purchase appliances in their entirety. As such, he and his team strategized to design and market latrine systems using an upgrade path — one that would start from the basic plumbing stage and allow the villager to build their dream latrine over time. When they presented the linear diagram as well as to-scale prototypes to villagers, Chaapin says, “I’ve never seen such blank stares in my life.”
It turns out the team had made two major culture-based assumptions: that the villagers were used to digesting information in a graphically linear format and that they’d interacted with to-scale models before. Both assumptions proved to be false, prompting the design team to return to the drawing board and to represent the idea using transparent paper and to overlap the chronological latrine upgrades on top of one another.
Chapin explains that this recognition of bias and subsequent pivot in delivery led to two outcomes: one, the villagers understood the product path and two, the design team observed that in all cases, their audiences were interacting solely with the base paper on the transparency layout. It turns out that they didn’t want help with anything except the bottom layer — or basic plumbing, and possessing that piece would prompt them to do the rest. As such, the team refocused their delivery on plumbing guts exclusively, resulting in an acceleration of the local sanitation market and of healthy practices in the area.
The Vision of Many
Another example of the bias-busting power of human-centered design comes once again from the Harvard Business Review, with a story about the Children’s Health System of Texas. For years, a common bias had been pervasive amongst many of the hospital’s clinicians: that medical intervention was what mattered most in healthcare.
When the pediatric medical center’s vice-president chose to apply human-centered design in the organization’s model, a subsequent discovery session challenged participants to set aside this bias and to open the door for divergent discussion around the delivery of care. As a result, a new full-spectrum model of care would be imagined — one that would include educating and creating support networks around the local Dallas community.
Further seeking to not make assumptions for their end-users, the organization then invited the community to be part of the design of a new wellness ecosystem. They began working on this process by way of a single condition: asthma, and brought together hospital administrators, physicians, social workers, parents and faith-based organizations to participate in human-centered design sessions.
The initiative had a domino effect — resulting in housing codes being revised to reflect children’s health issues, local pediatricians adopting new sets of standards for asthma protocols and parents of children with asthma acting as peer counselors in the community. This process became the organization’s benchmark for tackling other conditions that were once only met with medical intervention, relieving pressure on the healthcare system, inspiring efficient processes and forging bonds within the community as a whole.