Bilateral donors and foundations continue to look to digital tools to innovate. Why innovate? Given the intractable nature of many development problems, innovation speaks to the desire for different results, to try something new, or to apply something old in a new context or in a new way. Digital tools hold the promise that a program can leapfrog traditional development pathways, amplify impact, and create real game-changers in people’s lives. One way to increase the possibility of success in deploying any digital tool is to follow the principles for digital design - particularly design with the user. Human-centered design (HCD), and its close cousins, co-creation, design thinking, and lean startup methods, can serve not just as an activity but as a process for effective creation, iteration, and implementation.

Why Lean Design?

In the resource-limited world of international development, a “pure” HCD approach is often impossible: Projects simply do not have the time and resources to go through a full HCD process. In response, DAI has developed a “lean design” methodology, incorporating selective, tailored, and rapid iteration-focused aspects of HCD into our program design. Many of our digital projects are already incorporating elements of HCD using lean design approaches:

blog lean HCD.png Design thinking workshop participants make boats to represent data flows

  • In Central America, the U.S. Agency for International Development-funded CentroClima site and resilience-focused decision support tools were developed through an extensive series of design thinking workshops with people who care about this work—subject matter experts, stakeholders, and technologists. When we were having workshop participants create ships to symbolize how they could use the web-based tool for sharing large data sets, we weren’t just playing around: Generating real ideas from people takes creative approaches to facilitated activities, which is often at the heart of design thinking.
  • The Ghana Kosmos Innovation Center program uses elements of co-creation and lean startup to match technologists with technical experts to mash up innovations that create marketable products and services.
  • In our Innovation into Action Challenge last year, we matched new market entrants in international development with projects already operating in the field—thus introducing innovation sustainably and proactively into programs.

Applying Lean Design in Digital Project Implementation

So what does this tell us about how to effectively use these methods and processes in program implementation? I would say at DAI we are still in learning and iterating mode, to use an ICT term. That said, so far, we have three specific suggestions for projects looking to apply these methods:

  1. Apply innovation in the field! Real development change requires things to be thoughtfully done to disrupt existing intractable problems; therefore, we’ve got to apply the new approaches to a real development situation, not just a headquarters co-design workshop. Ensure that when you’re designing a new approach you’re doing it in the actual implementation setting, not a capital city hotel or a headquarters’ board room.
  2. Pick one HCD method and stick with it. It can be tempting to jump on the co-creation, design workshop, lean startup bandwagon. These terms—in a sense—describe ways to approach a process, not just conduct an activity and check a box. Working with our clients, we have been able to find the best solution from among the range or approaches, try it, and monitor the results and solutions that emerge.
  3. Optimize the innovation opportunity digital activities provide. Using HCD methods introduces elements of something new, something purposefully disruptive to what was done before on a given program or in an area of development. And digital initiatives, because they are often geared towards the introduction of something new anyway, are a great space for learning and adapting proven practices in new ways.

Do you have experience implementing lean design on programs? Let us know in a tweet via #DigitalDAI or @DAIGlobal, because we’d love to feature you on our blog!