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Lean HCD: How to Do Human-Centered Design from Headquarters

By Adam Fivenson on January 3, 2018

lean HCD in ICT4D

Back in late 2015, I landed a unique design assignment via Nexos Locales, a USAID-funded, DAI-run project that works with municipalities around the Western Highlands of Guatemala to improve public financial management and citizen engagement.

A newly elected mayor in the municipality of Chiantla wanted to open his finances to the public to close the space for corruption, and I was asked by the project to scope out the activity.

Human Centered Design Meets Project Constraints

After calling the mayor, I put together an activity plan to propose to the project’s leadership team. The plan focused on getting to know the people of Chiantla: how they seek and share information, how they use (or don’t use) technology, and what their expectations were of their municipality, and using that information to tailor a solution.

Ever faithful to human-centered design (HCD) best practices, the plan featured:

  • Frequent, extended field visits to learn about the community and map stakeholders.
  • Multiple instances of creative empathy-building with citizens.
  • A fully engaged, multidisciplinary design team.
  • Multiple rounds of iterative development.

Sadly, my dream HCD activity plan met the sharp end of project realities; the activity wasn’t in the project’s work plan or budget, two significant hurdles for a project already managing 60 technical activities across 30 municipalities.

On the other hand, the activity was grounded in local demand, directly aligned to Nexos Locales’ project objectives, and offered a chance for the project to ride the rising wave of mobile and smartphone adoption across the region. So, the leadership team gave a tentative green light, provided I could do it all—from design to development—on a shoestring and without travel.

Our Many HCD Challenges

To agree would be a designer’s Faustian bargain: direct contact with end-users is a core tenet of human-centered design, and while attempting to design without it was possible, was it worth the risk?

  • How could we empathize with the people of Chiantla if we couldn’t meet them?
  • How could we make key decisions about the product without first-hand experience with users?
  • Should I have said no and leave the project to spend their limited resources elsewhere?

Enter “lean HCD,” a term DAI uses to describe a flexible, locally-grounded approach to human-centered design.

Our Solution: Lean HCD

Like traditional Human-Centered Design, lean HCD is all about developing empathy with users to gain an understanding of the political, economic, and social factors that guide behavior and decision-making, but with greater methodological flexibility and reliance on local experts, organizations, and institutions.

Lean HCD focuses on:

  • Balancing the resource restrictions of international development programming with best practices in empathy-based strategy and decision-making.
  • Outsourcing key aspects of design research and product development to local firms and experts who are closer to users both physically and culturally.
  • Recognizing the growth in connectivity and smartphone adoption by using messaging apps (e.g., WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Skype) to stay close to local players and run remote trainings.
  • Generating collaboration between local stakeholders throughout the iteration and development of the solution.

The focus on flexibility highlights the key distinction between the use of HCD in the donor-funded development space and HCD for the commercial sector: with donor agencies stretched for funding and proposal budgets stripped to the bone in an industry space that’s more competitive than ever, the incentive is to build in methodological flexibility while still creating empathy-based solutions that work. Lean HCD is how DAI bridges that gap.

What Does Lean HCD Look Like in Practice?

lean Human Centered Design
Now I am sure you have a few questions about how we applied Lean HCD with the mayor and the municipality of Chiantla, Guatemala:
Lean HCD at DAI

  • What did Lean HCD look like for Nexos Locales?
  • Did we get to know the people of Chiantla?
  • How did we gain insight into how they use technology?
  • When did we understand their relationship with their municipality?
  • Why did we choose the platform, form, and function of the solution?
  • What did we build?

Read the full story in Lean HCD: A Case Study in Human-Centered Design in the Highlands of Guatemala!

We hope it will be a useful guide for other development professionals who are tasked with designing ICT solutions for overseas development projects.

By Adam Fivenson and original published on [email protected]

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Adam Fivenson is a practitioner of community-centered strategy, policy, program and platform design. His work spans the intersection of technology, democracy, and development. Adam is co-host of the Tech for Democracy Happy Hour and author of Disinformation Toolkit 2.0.
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2 Comments to “Lean HCD: How to Do Human-Centered Design from Headquarters”

  1. Andy Dearden says:

    Hi Adam, Kristen

    Thanks – that was an interesting read – and an exciting project.

    I’m really interested by your experience on this project – and in particular the way that you framed the software development process in terms of the roles and relationships between yourselves, Nexos Locales, Mayor Alvarado, Erik Cifuentes, the team at Explico (and I guess USAID as funders).

    In terms of project structures, I would be interested in where you viewed the ‘design authority’ as lying, and how you went about managing the iterations during the project.

    In my previous research, I have arrived at a hypothesis that a successful project requires a “tight collaboration between a situation-focused but technically-aware change manager working closely with partners and end-users on site and the technically-focused, but situationally-aware software developers.”
    See: http://itidjournal.org/index.php/itid/article/view/1089/0

    I would be really interested to hear your reflections on that idea based on your experiences with lean HCD.

    Best wishes for 2018

  2. Adam Fivenson says:

    Hi Andy,

    Thanks so much for reading our report and for your thoughtful reply.

    First of all, I read your piece; excellent work and certainly an interesting comparison as a case study.

    As ours was far from a typical design challenge, particularly the travel prohibition, meant that our design team was never in a room together throughout the entire design process. Indeed, I was never in Chiantla until this past July, two months after the launch event. What saved us? The ability to communicate with Erik and the Mayor by WhatsApp, which of course wouldn’t have been possible even a year or two before, given the rapid growth of smartphones and 3G coverage in the Western Highlands. Of course that dynamic was also the reason why we ended up designing a mobile app to begin with.

    Yes, this was USAID funded, via a larger project called Nexos Locales that works with local governments all over the region. They approved the general concept (as well as the scopes of work) and were kept in the loop about advances, but generally speaking we had full range for creativity throughout (given our budget constraints)

    As for the design authority, while there were dozens of contributors, I wrote the draft scope of work for the developer based on our Frontier Insights work and discussions with key local players (mayor, departamental managers, etc…). The scope was designed to allow for a level of creativity and experimental leeway for the developer, and some aspects of the final product were not exactly how i had initially imagined. Some of them will stick around for round 2, others will be workshopped next month when we’re in Guatemala; We’re currently preparing for a round of design thinking sessions with civil society in Chiantla and two new expansion municipalities, selected through a competitive process.

    As for iterations, i acted as intermediary between them municipality (Erik & the mayor) and the software developer (who was in Guatemala City), taking feedback and then working with the developer to fix it. We also had the developer do three rounds of direct user testing and Nexos’s IT Specialist also did one round of testing. The results were rolled into subsequent versions, one by one, always with the launch date looming.

    “tight collaboration between a situation-focused but technically-aware change manager working closely with partners and end-users on site and the technically-focused, but situationally-aware software developers” is a thought provoking schema, although I’ll admit I’m not sure what you mean by technically-aware, technically-focused, and situationally-aware. Would love to discuss; drop me a line at adam_fivenson at dai dot com when you have a moment.

    Best, Adam