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The Human Center of Design: In Conversation with IDEO.org’s Patrice Martin

July 8, 2015

Patrice Martin is the Co-lead and Creative Director of IDEO.org, the San Francisco-based non-profit design organization. She’s passionate about the power of design to change lives, and works to not only create solutions, but also to get more people solving problems like designers. Before founding IDEO.org, Patrice was a Design Director with IDEO. Core77’s Allan Chochinov recently spoke with Patrice for our series on ‘Pathways to Practice.’

Allan Chochinov: Patrice, let’s start at the beginning. Most of our readers will be familiar with IDEO as a design consultancy, but many may not be familiar with IDEO.org as, well, an organization. Can you give us a brief rundown of your mission, your mandate, and how you came to be?

Patrice Martin: IDEO.org is a nonprofit design organization dedicated to improving the lives of poor and vulnerable communities through human-centered design. We work both here in the States and internationally to design products, services and experiences that are rooted in people’s needs and desires. We believe design can have a huge impact in the lives of low-income communities and we think about creating it in three ways. First is through the design solutions we create—the aforementioned products, services and experiences. The next is through teaching human-centered design to people working on the challenges of poverty. And the last is through telling really compelling inspiring stories about human-centered design changing lives.

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As for how we got going, IDEO.org launched in 2011 as a non-profit out of IDEO. We saw a huge opportunity for the social sector—non-profits, social enterprises and foundations—to benefit from design-led problem solving, and we found that the most effective way to deliver on that was to become a non-profit ourselves. We created IDEO.org to ensure human-centered design, creativity and innovation were being applied to our world’s most critical problems. So, in our first year we were a team of 12, and today we’re 40 people. We’ve completed over 50 projects across a real breadth of sectors like reproductive health, financial opportunity, agriculture and many more.

AC: And what are a couple projects that you’re currently working on that you’re jazzed about?

PM: We’re doing great work right now in the reproductive health field. We’re collaborating on projects in Zambia and Kenya with the global NGO Marie Stopes International and the Hewlett Foundation to ensure girls have access to contraceptives.

We started by spending a lot of time with girls themselves—in their homes, their schools, with their friends—and we got to know what mattered to them. It didn’t take long before we came to see why contraceptives weren’t fitting into their lives. But we also saw how, if the delivery system got a tweak, they could.

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What’s been exciting is instead of creating intimidating clinics targeted at adults, we’ve built a compelling brand and an environment that’s just for girls. Within the Diva Centers, girls do their nails while having natural conversations about sex (if they’re looking at their nails they don’t have to make eye contact!), they connect aspirations for their futures to contraceptives, they learn about reproductive health from their peers, and when they’re ready, they receive services in a safe and judgment-free environment.

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We’re also doing a pretty interesting exploration into applying low-cost sensor technology to the work of smallholder farmers. The farming industry in the US for example, is highly technical and makes use of all kinds of precision instruments. But this technology hasn’t reached small farmers and they struggle to make decisions on what’s best for their farms. They work by feel, not by fact. There’s huge potential to empower farmers with the information they need and can’t currently see to make better choices, save costs and increase yields, and create better lives for them and their families. Our team is actually now in Myanmar prototyping multiple sensors with farmers to figure out how to best leverage this technology.

Lastly, we’re in the process of building a new prototyping course with +Acumen. We’ve been amazed at the enthusiasm for our current online course on human-centered design, and are working hard to create the next level of courses for our community of problem-solvers.

AC: Tell me a little more about the Diva Centers. I’m a huge fan of the Girl Effect and I pretty much think that the raising up of girls and the enfranchisement of women may be the only hope we have of solving most of our intractable problems. But I cringe at “diva.” I guess you have to “dig where the taters” are on that?!

PM: I love the Girl Effect too and I hear you on divas, but to Zambian ears diva resonates differently than it might in the US. It lacks the Real Housewives connotation we have here. In Zambia it’s more like a cool self-assured woman who’s in control. The inspiration for the Divine Divas brand actually came from an interactive session we ran with boys to get their perspective on reproductive health. One boy actually described his ideal girlfriend as “a confident diva who is disease free.”

AC: And the low-cost sensors in Myanmar: I’m assuming this is about irrigation, or is it something else?

PM: Yes, irrigation is one of the ideas we’re excited about and we’re working on a concept that provides daily feedback on moisture levels in soil to guide farmers towards more accurate irrigation schedules for their crops.

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Another thing we’re working on is a quick way for farmers to measure their fields. We learned that farmers often don’t have a complete understanding of the sizes of their farms, which then means that many farmers have to make their best guess each season on inputs. Imagine estimating how many seeds or how much fertilizer you’ll need if you don’t totally know how much land you have. We’re looking at simple ways to get farmers this information. Some GPS mapping apps do exist, but we believe there’s an opportunity to build a simple and easy measurement tool for finding precise acreage on multiple crops within their farms.

AC: I wanted to turn the interview toward the Fellows Program. It’s been four years running now, and I’m wondering how are you feeling about it these days. Will it keep the same form moving forward?

PM: We’re actually changing things up and putting the fellowship program on hold for now. IDEO.org has had an amazing experience running the fellowship these past few years, but as we’ve grown our efforts around Design Kit, we’re realized that we can significantly increase our impact if we turn our energy towards teaching human-centered design more broadly. Last year we had over 600 people apply for just four fellowship spots, and though I’ll miss the incredible people we’ve had the opportunity to work with through the program, we’re excited to focus on supporting many more creative problem solvers. Our latest offer from Design Kit, The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design, has already had over 35,000 downloads since April.

AC: Before we get to the Field Guide—and we’re going to get to the Field Guide!—I wanted to ask a little about what you’ve learned from the Fellows Program (other than its admitted limitations of scale). I’m the kind of person who believes that history is changed by individuals, so I saw the Fellows Program as very much a Leadership Program.

PM: I don’t disagree with you, and we’ve learned so much from the fellowship and the fellows themselves. I actually think we as an organization are more prepared to teach human-centered design at scale because we’ve had the experience of going deep with these incredible folks. Personally, it’s helped me to understand how different and uncomfortable practicing human-centered design can be at first, and how intentional you need to be in supporting people’s learning journey. And of course I’m sure this resonates with you Allan, but I’ve definitely found that you become better at something through teaching.

I’ve deepened my own expertise of human-centered design through the questions and conversations I’ve had with our fellows over the last four years, and I know the designers on our team feel the same way. It’s hard work to do and teach at the same time, but we’ve also gained so much from integrating the Fellows’ expertise and perspective along the way. So maybe we’re both better teachers and better doers because of them.

AC: Now: The Field Guide looks pretty extraordinary. And this has built on some of IDEO’s previous how-to-do-human-centered-design work before, right?

PM: Thank you! It was a big team effort and we’re very proud of the results. And yes, exactly, The Field Guide is the next edition of the Human-Centered Design Toolkit, which was originally funded by the Gates Foundation and created by IDEO in 2009. The original toolkit was created to share the practice of human-centered design to the social sector—particularly nonprofits and social enterprises working across the world. It was one of our earlier steps at IDEO to bring design to the challenges of poverty.

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Since founding IDEO.org, we’ve gained a lot more experience and expertise on what it means to design in this context. So the Field Guide and Design Kit (it’s sister website) are now filled with these examples of practicing human-centered design with low-income communities in many different parts of the world. It’s got 57 design methods, 7 mindsets and loads of stories from the field.

AC: Well, certainly the objective of reaching more people makes tons of sense for this. Can you tell us some examples of individuals, groups or orgs who are using the tools themselves, and what they’ve fed back to you? (Or ideally, what the results have been; though it’s likely too soon to tell. The measurement of social impact work is of course a very hot topic.)

PM: The Field Guide lets people hold the tools in their hands, take them to the field, and get them to places the Internet doesn’t go. So for instance, people are now using Design Kit as a learning system. The website, the Field Guide, and the online Course for Human-Centered Design all work together to help people create solutions that are adopted and embraced.

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One of our partners from Population Services International told me that their team in Tanzania had taken our course and applied it to a challenge they were having in getting local women to take cervical exams. After their team spent the time to gain women’s perspective, to prototype and to try out ideas, they launched a new outreach strategy including local DJs conducting radio interviews with health providers and a call-in number for Q and A. Demand jumped so much in the first day of their prototype that clinics could barely handle the influx of patients and by day three the clinics had easily doubled their screening numbers.

Another encouraging example is from Uganda where a small group of entrepreneurs started an innovation center as a place for youth to collaborate on new business opportunities. These entrepreneurs enrolled in the Course for Human-Centered Design and took on the challenge to provide more nutritious food for children. After talking with families, the entrepreneurs found a few insights that changed the way they thought about the problem. For example, though women are in charge of the cooking and shopping, men typically control the finances. Men often see vegetables as a waste of money because they don’t fill you up. They also learned that women were very sensitive to cooking time, in part because of the labor associated with it and in part due to the cost of fuel. These insights informed the creation of a new product, Two Legumes—precooked beans that can be integrated into existing meals. The entrepreneurs are continuing to take the idea forward and it was actually recently shortlisted as a finalist in our Amplify program.

And another example I love is from a woman at Middlebury’s Center for Social Entrepreneurship, who has taken it upon herself to bring human-centered design to communities in her home country, Pakistan. Back in Pakistan, she ran a human-centered design session with young women who are typically marginalized and excluded from decision-making. She led them through the design process with challenges like, “How might we support university students who face financial problems in their education?” and, “How might we spread awareness in a community about child abuse?” The first workshop was a success and this summer she’s returning for round two with grant funding from Middlebury and the Field Guide.

So those are three examples of the ways and contexts in which people are using Design Kit. One of the great things about Design Kit is that though we’ve designed the artifact and protocol, there’s really no telling how people will be inspired by it or implement it.

AC: That really is the best thing about design (though it drives a lot of designers crazy)—that as prescriptive and controlling as we like to be, the ultimate use and consequence of our work product can often be completely unanticipated. Which, I guess begs the question (and I think you and I are probably pretty aligned on the answer): can anyone be a designer?

PM: This is a difficult question for me because I deeply believe in the value of “capital D” designers and at the same time I also believe that everyone is creative and can benefit from taking a design-led approach to problem solving. At IDEO.org, we want to bring the skills of creativity, empathy and experimentation to everyone working on poverty. But we as an organization also understand that craft and design excellence really matter. I don’t think learning to think like a designer and being a designer need to be the same thing. I went to design school and throughout my design career I’ve had the opportunity to work with amazingly talented designers who can make anything compelling. We need to figure out how to both solve problems in creative and human-centered ways, and execute those solutions beautifully.

AC: Let’s talk a bit about the promise of design. Earlier this week a popular short article was published by Jennifer Daniel, stemming from her experience on the Designer’s Debate Club on the hubris and, really, ridiculousness of the notion that “design can change the world.” What are you thoughts on that? And have they changed since you first got into design for social innovation?

PM: Well, I’m clearly not in Jennifer’s camp on this one, but that’s probably not a surprise. To me, this debate is coming from different definitions of what design is. I take design as a way of seeing the world, one rooted in empathy, questions, experiments, optimism; it’s a way of framing problems to get to new solutions. As I said before, I deeply value craft and excellence, but execution isn’t the whole story to me—it’s not enough. Design can change the world because it gets us to new answers and we desperately need new answers. This has only increased for me since I’ve been working in social innovation. The status quo isn’t going to get us there, but creativity and the right questions just might.

Huge thanks to Allan Chochinov and Patrice Martin for an engaging interview on human-centered design learning and practicing! Join us next week for an exclusive interview with the designers behind the successful participatory project El Guadual in Colombia.

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