Human Centered Design

When creating products or services, designers have the habit of putting themselves in the shoes of the consumers they’re trying to target. This empathy allows for the creation of products that people need and value. Could this ‘design thinking’ be translated into the policy-making context? Could policy-makers put themselves in the shoes of the people they are trying to reach? Can this help them craft interventions that respond to the needs and aspirations of these people? If so, how does one operationalize this empathy?

Not long ago, the Northern Atlantic Autonomous Government and Council in Nicaragua asked UNICEF support to develop a regional policy for children. I must confess I wasn’t thrilled with the idea at first. I’ve seen my fair share of time-consuming policy processes that result in beautiful documents that end up sitting on a shelf somewhere instead of being put to good use.   

Nevertheless, the need for a regional policy made sense. Children growing up in this region face numerous constraints that make it difficult to thrive. Home to the largest concentration of indigenous and Afro-descendant children in the country, the region is also one of the poorest and most prone to natural disasters. A policy could help guide and craft realistic interventions in a context of scarce resources. But to be relevant, the policy couldn’t be a product of wishful thinking of well-intended people. It needed to make sense for the people in the region. That's when the traditional policy-making process wasn’t an option.

The human-centered design (or design thinking) is a methodology that combines rigorous inquiry and creative analysis, drawing on the tools of ethnography, journalism, and systems thinking. 

When I first approached the Regional Government and Council with this idea, there was widespread enthusiasm amongst many but also skepticism. It helped that none of us really knew how this idea would work in practice. Because the idea was not perceived as top-down, we were able to fully discuss our concerns as a group and research opportunities together. 

Throughout, I tried to keep the enthusiasm going by focusing on a shared vision: a realistic policy that can improve the lives of children. The fact that this hadn’t been done before (to my knowledge) was also a selling point, as the committed policy-makers were excited to be part of something unique and innovative. 

Embarking into uncharted waters was also a powerful tool to blur traditional party lines. When everyone is ‘on the same boat,’ there’s more cohesion and union towards a common goal. So, to further cement this embrace towards innovation, and help avoid resistance; we went on a road trip. Traveling is another potent way to mobilize energy and bring people together. Political lines were further narrowed during these co-creation consultations in 28 communities in 7 indigenous communities. During this immersive experience, the goal was only to record what we saw and heard. There were no pre-cooked solutions waiting to be vetted. Just listening and understanding.

Authority was further broken down as the real experts were the people sitting on a wealth of experience. The government was only there to provide a scaffold for people to tell their stories. 

We all performed service trials to try out public services, not as observers, but as actual users. In the course of a week, 20 of us tried to register a child, sleep at a maternal house, attend (good and bad) schools, and, in the case of men, carried 30-pound backpacks to simulate a day of pregnancy.

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but in seeing with new eyes” - Marcel Proust

All these innovative Design Thinking techniques allowed people to better understand the need for change by seeing things differently and putting themselves in the shoes of the people they were trying to reach with the regional policy. 

The development of the policy is still ongoing.  But the introduction of these innovative techniques served a double purpose. First they helped us move away from traditional policymaking processes that often led nowhere. We tried something new and that’s an accomplishment in itself. 

Second, these very techniques were helpful in mitigating resistance to change. They allowed everyone to feel comfortable in their uncertainties. When implementing an innovation is OK not to have all the answers and it's OK to take risks. Being honest and humble about it creates camaraderie and a more leveled playing field to induce positive changes.