Over the past few months I have been studying design approaches applied to sustainable development projects in agricultural value chains in developing countries through the lens of human centered design. Here’s a brief insight into my first experience of one of the principals of the human centered design process (exploring and understanding the problem first, before even starting to contemplate potential solutions) and a description of how it has enriched my own understanding of a thematic area in which I used to consider myself to be knowledgeable
What it takes to search for your problem
- prioritize understanding before anything else. This means creating space (freedom to think, talk, play, and move around) for working on the prime objective of understanding
- observe in a lateral sense to discover what significance a problem has, and how it is defined and expressed by the users in their own voice.
- all discussion which takes place with your users has a topic in mind, but no explicit purpose. Voicing purpose in problem exploration will likely lead to crucial assumptions in your perceptions remaining undefined and thus unvalidated (expert’s bias)
- refrain from doing any analysis on your observations. They will blind your inquiry into the problem. Only analyze after repetitive patterns start appearing in your observations.
The general feeling I got from this method of inquiry was that of being a total slacker, based on a self-invoked perception of not being productive. But the trick is to not let that feeling permit you to cut short the exploration of the problem area by attempting to nail things down too early. Explore until patterns start repeating and you’re likely to stumble on insights that your expertise has never revealed to you before.
The pains of staying away from describing or even conceiving the solution, whilst discovering the problem
Expertise encourages a tendency to look smart by exposing knowledge about a problem area, voiced in the form of solutions. But:
- your conception of solutions is a mirage. Despite your knowledgeable background, solutions actually mean nothing until the user starts voicing tentative parameters for a solution herself.
- signaling solutions instigates memes, and the problem definition starts leading its own life
- voicing solutions is an implicit promise to deliver a specific solution. You are likely to commit to delivering something that in the end won’t address the real problem at hand, if any problem at all.
The challenge I faced here was to drop my fear of discrediting my skills and competencies by not prescribing what should be done. You need to realize that the pay-off for your efforts (recognition, fame, happy responses) lies further on in the innovation process when you are able to define actionable insights. As with the problem search, tendencies towards immediate gratification by proposing solutions will increase the likelihood of introducing concepts that will not lead to feasible, viable nor desirable outcomes.
The pains of feeling incompetent, and not playing the expertise card need to be seen as an investment. The leverage that this investment provides will allow you to wield a significant force of creativity: focus, as in
- prototyping solutions with the right focus on a demarcated innovation space -> your users and their problems. This is where you can try out all your creative solution concepts
- using all relevant capacities and resources to address the need of the user
- users instantly understanding the intent of your solution, and intuitively tinkering and helping in your process of prototyping because they are empowered.
- instant recognition of signals of adoption or rejection with users.
The human centered design process thus ensures that your priority remains our focus, throughout.