Five Takeaways from the Design in Development Tech Salon


On May 12, 2015, I attended the DC Tech Salon on Design in Development. Here are five key messages I took away from the Salon, though they don’t do justice to the robust discussion in the hour and a half we had to tackle this interesting topic. Per the Chatham House rules of the salon, the insights from the discussions are summarized here without attribution to specific participants.

  1. Design, at its core, is about creative problem solving.

The jargon surrounding design and the many ways different organizations have “put their stake in the ground” with human centered design, user centered design, usability design, design thinking, and a myriad of other terms can be intimidating.

At its core, design is about identifying wicked problems and finding creative solutions that people want to use.  Framed that way, the goal of good design is precisely what many of us working in international development are trying to achieve. Design provides a framework and set of techniques that allow you to develop a deep understanding of the people you aim to serve and  create and test those solutions.

And it’s not about products alone, though that’s often the space these conversations drift towards. Applying design thinking to behavior change or systems-strengthening projects can been immensely powerful. Even with a product, you’re ultimately trying to change behavior (for example, how someone is accessing information by designing a smartphone that puts the power of the internet in their hands).

  1. Design is about using data in real time to develop desirable, usable processes / products / systems.

Throughout the conversation, participants invoked the ways in which design centers on using evidence to make decisions. Rather than focusing on past data collected through surveys (which may not reflect current realities) or information archived in literature, design focuses on capturing real time information that can be acted upon through creating prototypes and testing ideas with users. It also focuses on routinely gathering more data and using that data to improve the program, rather than following a typical baseline-endline evaluation model.

Design often goes deep with a small, representative group of users, and applies systematic ways of capturing insights that draw on ethnography and qualitative research. While creative, design is actually quite methodical and provides a great demonstration of real time data use. When you learn something new about how your beneficiary thinks or feels, you can incorporate that insight into your program.

  1. We can learn from past movements adopting new ways of doing development as we explore and embrace design thinking.

Nearly a decade ago, “we wanted to m- everything,” injecting shiny mobile phones and other technology because it seemed innovative and new. In the early era of ICT4D, there was a Wild West of pilots, from SMS messaging services to mobile applications. Curious, tech-savvy staff found ways to integrate mobiles into programs, with varying degrees of success. No doubt that ICT4D projects have had great impact, but the field has markedly evolved. Now, most development firms have ICT or mHealth experts, in-house developers, and best practices around ICT programs have been developed.

Are we at that same cusp with design in development? With donors and firms dabbling in applying design? And what can we learn from our experience with the ICT revolution that we can act on as champions for design thinking look for opportunities to bring it into our organizations and projects?

Participants also noted that we can look to how design was integrated into corporations. Ten to fifteen years ago, many companies were facing similar challenges in bringing in designers and adopting a design approach in their business models. Their value proposition may seem different (an up-front investment in design capabilities to ultimately bolster their bottom line), but they faced similar questions as the development world does today.

This isn’t to say that every firm needs a massive cohort of in-house designers. Rather, we would benefit from having some expertise on how to apply these methods within our organization, and we can and should look to experts in this space eager to apply their knowledge to challenging social problems.

  1. There is a professionalism to design that shouldn’t be overlooked.

As one participant reflected, being in the presence of an incredible design facilitator and watching them work to pull out insights from a group of stakeholders can be awe-inspiring. Seeing all of your team meetings become fiestas of post-it notes doesn’t have nearly the same impact.

Designers spent a great deal of care, time, and effort crafting the experience participants have during a workshop. A team can put in six weeks of time preparing the experience of a one-day workshop.  Activities are structured to be fun, engaging, and draw out insights that wouldn’t happen around a board table in a typical meeting environment, and are very purposefully thought out in advance.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t immense opportunities for learning facilitation techniques and applying design approaches in our day-to-day work as development practitioners, but we should be mindful that design follows a more structured framework than the hyper-creative, fluid image it projects. Respect and learn from those designers who have honed their expertise with years of practice..

  1. We should be optimistic: there’s evidence of donors considering new models, and finding creative ways to add flexibility within development program funding.

From USAID’s Development Innovation Accelerator grants to funded design phases of programs, the funders who often drive development program priorities through what they chose to fund are exploring design themselves. It was evident in the discussion that there’s a hunger for finding innovative ways to plan programs, and momentum towards new opportunities for co-creation and more flexible program designs that allow for iteration and pivots.

The onus rests a bit on us, as a community of development professionals, to find the opportunities to apply design thinking in our projects and bring concepts from design into our day-to-day work. Much like the evolution of the ICT4D space, continuing the momentum of design for development and bringing in the voices of experienced designers in our planning processes (which may mean looking to new partners) presents an immense opportunity for development practitioners.

We need to clearly articulate the value proposition of using a design approach, including how it benefits donors, implementers, and, most importantly, beneficiaries, and find those opportunities to demonstrate and document how design can create more effective, impactful programs.