Solving problems with human-centred design

  • November 16, 2015
Solving problems with human-centred design

Human-centred design is on the rise, but why is it gaining in popularity? And how might it contribute to our work? Isaac Holeman [2013], a designer with Medic Mobile, led a workshop delving into these questions as part of Gates Cambridge's Learning for Purpose programme with fellow scholars. Here's some of what we learned together.

More than anything, human-centred design is an alternative approach to problem-solving that has proven itself useful across geographic and disciplinary boundaries. It has helped to bridge the gap between ‘wicked’ problems and sustainable solutions by putting humans at the heart of our design processes. The approach has successfully enabled ordinary designers and change agents – anyone with a passion to solve a particular problem – to unleash human creativity in extraordinary ways.

Human-centred design, or design thinking, has emerged over the past several decades from different spheres of study and interests. Engineering, art and design schools, political movements and ethnographers have contributed to the collection of design thinking methods, albeit at different times for different purposes and often in insolation from one another. Over time, these “best-practice” tools and methods have been woven together into what is now formally recognised as Human-Centred Design.

Feedback mechanism

The key elements of design thinking include user-feedback, prototyping and divergent and convergent thinking. Stakeholders are internalised into the design process and become key players in partnership with the design team in the generation and iteration of ideas. Designers work off each other to come up with as many ideas as possible (i.e. divergent thinking), and then make prototypes of top ideas to gain feedback from stakeholders impacted by the problem. Getting ideas into the hands of those who are most likely to use or be influenced by the final solution as early and as often as possible is key.

Designers use this feedback mechanism to help sieve through and select the best possible solutions from the pool of ideas (i.e. convergent thinking). Check out this talk on human-centred design. Isaac explained how the application of human-centred design has helped people deal with complexity in global health and described design thinking as an “approach to technology that puts people first”. It addresses practical inquiries, such as why human-centred design is a powerful tool, and what design thinking might look like in the field.

An example given in the talk illustrates how Medic Mobile used design thinking to advance health in a developing country. Isaac and the design team assisted community health workers at a facility who were keen to improve communication between local patients and hospital doctors further away. The innovators’ ideal solution involved equipping every health worker with a mobile phone. Each phone would have a technology embedded for tracking and transmitting medical information.

Human-centred design allowed Medic Mobile to accomplish the goal. The team visited the health workers at their facility, observed daily activities and discovered something unexpected: the mobile phone network at this facility only allowed for a trickling of connectivity in one window of the building. The discovery came from an observation, which begged the question, “Why do health workers at the facility put their phones in pouches hung on this one particular window in the building?” The health workers explained it was the only spot in the facility that had a mobile phone connection.

Spotty network connectivity impacted Medic Mobile’s decision to develop a mobile text-based alert system, rather than a cloud-based interface which would demand far greater network connectivity than was available at the facility. In this situation, human-centred design was fundamental to creating a feasible technology and to its adoption.

As Isaac eludes to in his talk, human-centred design is the result of a repeated cycle of actions. After several rounds of divergent and convergent thinking, prototype testing should no longer reveal shocking information or surprising user-feedback. When designers reach this point of “saturation”, eureka! The team – with the help of key stakeholders – has discovered the idea that is the better solution.

Design thinking isn’t rocket science, though it is an art that profits from practice. Whether you are a graphic artist, engineer, ethnographer, or journalist, try taking the “Marshmallow Challenge”. Workshop participants with no prior knowledge of human-centred design found that this exercise was a great way to appreciate and practice putting design thinking into practice. For more information about human-centred design and the Learning for Purpose programme, visit these sites:

– Background on Medic Mobile & design:

– Isaac’s TEDx talk about human-centred design and global health in Cambridge, 2014:

– Learning for Purpose workshops:!workshops/cjrx

We all face challenges in our work. Human-centred design offers one approach to facilitate collaborative processes, address complex problems and design better solutions.

*Allison Kindig [2015] is a Gates Cambridge Scholar and is doing her MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development. Picture credit: Clear Light Bulb with Glowing Filament by is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

Allison Giannaros

Allison Giannaros

  • Alumni
  • United States
  • 2015 MPhil Engineerng for Sustainable Dev
  • Trinity Hall

I am from the Midwest, and have strong family and community ties to rural agriculture and wildlife conservation. The intellectual and personal connections I’ve made within and between my disciplines of industrial engineering, global health studies, and business administration at the University of Iowa have intensified my passion to help people and the environment thrive. My research on alternative cooking technologies in rural India and Cameroon, as well as a spectrum of experiences working as an engineer in the public and private sectors, has made me both more aware of the complexity of my chosen field of sustainable development AND eager to strengthen my own understanding of the scientific, behavioral, and economic forces which shape it. I completed the MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development to learn how I can integrate the principles and practices of sustainable development into my work as an engineer. I am thankful to be a Gates Cambridge Scholar alum, and grateful to keep learning from shared lessons and experiences with fellow scholars around the world.

Previous Education

The University of Iowa

Latest Blogs

How Cambridge Analytica influenced Nigeria’s elections

My research broadly tackles questions of technology, equity, and accountability within the Global South. I emphasise the West’s use of sub-Saharan Africa as a testing ground or laboratory for its nascent technologies before launching them in the West. This blog is an excerpt from my recent presentation at the 2022 Gates Day of Research, titled […]

Why algorithms are necessarily value-laden

Algorithmic decision-making systems applied in social contexts drape value-laden solutions in an illusory veil of objectivity. Machine learning plays an increasingly prominent role in mediating institutional decisions in everything from corporate hiring practices to criminal sentencing. This ongoing AI spring has invigorated discussions of the ethical dimensions of these techno-social arrangements. In particular, there is […]

Preparing for all scenarios in an unstable world

On March 9th, Mohamed A. El-Erian joined the Gates Cambridge community for a virtual fireside chat, where he discussed decision-making in conditions of uncertainty, the economic impact of the pandemic and relief efforts and the importance of diversity of thought and scenario planning. El-Erian is President of Queens’ College, Cambridge and Chief Economic Advisor of […]

How can the international community help Belarus?

Last Sunday represented a tipping point in the recent history of Belarus which has had an immediate effect on the lives of its citizens, including mine. Independent exit polls and observers representing the diplomatic community, verified by the crowdsourcing platform Golos, show that, had it been a fair and transparent election, the uninterrupted, 26-year-long reign […]