Human-Centered Design for Leaders & Problem-Solvers

Click here to read the first post in my series on expanding my education through MOOCs.

In Hyderabad, India, a team of foreign engineers spent many months developing a clean water delivery system that was healthy, safe, and largely affordable. Yet many households did not use the service -- and continued to risk water-borne illnesses -- because the engineers were oblivious to a simple fact of life in Hyderabad: The service's mandatory water jugs could not be carried comfortably on the hip or head, as most local women preferred.

This was one of a dozen compelling case studies in IDEO's Design Kit: The Course for Human-Centered Design. The course introduced how a human-centered approach to design (sometimes referred to as "design thinking") can be used to develop innovative and sustainable solutions for poverty reduction. Human-centered design is iterative, collaborative, measurable, empathetic, and focuses on the real needs of the target population -- rather than their needs as imagined by foreign consultants.

While taking this course, I also read Work Rules!: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead by Laszlo Bock. As Senior Vice President of People Operations, Bock develops creative approaches for improving life at Google -- determining financial incentives for top performers, reducing food waste in cafeterias, and standardizing hiring interviews, for example. Each approach is piloted in small teams or offices, and the results are thoroughly measured through interviews with employees and applicable data. Many approaches fail, sometimes spectacularly, but those with the greatest impact on employee happiness and productivity are implemented throughout Google.

IDEO and Bock share a fundamentally similar outlook on leading and problem-solving, and after completing the course and book, I feel energized to approach my professional development with new insights. Here are a few:

  • Don't assume you know the solution. Design, test, measure, and repeat.
  • Expanding on that thought, I once believed that strong leaders were born with the right answers, and they could conjure up an innovative solution simply by brainstorming hard enough. Instead, strong leaders ask smart questions, are receptive to feedback, experiment (or in Silicon Valley's preferred terminology -- fail), and bounce back from mistakes with resilience and grace.
  • Creative people are highly observant. Creativity comes from noticing relationships between seemingly disparate topics, and from applying novel approaches to existing areas. For this reason, creativity often emerges from multidisciplinary people, such as a web designer with an understanding of social psychology.
  • Look to the margins -- a top-selling employee, or a family with healthy children despite living in extreme poverty -- to find the variables that determine positive outcomes.
  • To gain creative confidence, you must stop self-editing. (This is a tough one for me!) Everyone has terrible ideas, but if you remain silent out of fear of failing, you will never grow.

Next up, I'm taking the Digital Analytics for Marketing Professionals course on Coursera. I'm also looking forward to a user experience course from UC San Diego, and will continue to explore the world of information-communication technology for disaster response.

World Bank on Coursera: "Turn Down the Heat"

Click here to read the first post in my series on expanding my education through MOOCs.

The latest in my MOOC-athon was a course developed by the World Bank's climate change group: "Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4 Degree Celsius Warmer World Must Be Avoided."

Despite its unwieldy title, I was impressed by this course. It filled in the technical gaps in my climate change-related knowledge -- for example, why exactly are sea levels rising? how can climate change cause both drought and floods in the same region? -- and provided statistics that I can cite in future assignments.

For the final project, students were instructed to "create a digital resource that conveys an action or program that a community, country or region can implement to respond to climate change." Since I just returned from a trip to San Francisco, I decided to dig a little deeper into the causes of California's drought, and highlight a few promising (and not-so-promising) policy measures. Per the project's instructions, I'll structure my analysis as an educational tool targeting a general audience:

Causes of California's Drought

California is now three years into its worst drought in history. The drought has triggered wildfires, air pollution, and billions in agricultural losses, and Governor Jerry Brown has declared the state a "natural disaster area." But what caused the drought?

Since December 2012, a zone of high atmospheric pressure off the West Coast -- four miles high and 2,000 miles long -- has prevented rain and winter storms from reaching California. While high pressure zones commonly appear during the winter months, the strength and persistence  of this particular zone (dubbed the "Ridiculously Resilient Ridge") is unprecedented in modern history.

Although diverted rainfall has contributed to the drought, snow is the more significant factor, as snowpack provides 75 to 80 percent of the state's usable water. During the winter and early spring, snow sticks to California's Sierra Nevada mountain range, and then slowly melts into reservoirs and groundwater aquifers. In comparison, rain quickly runs off land and into the ocean. In 2015, California's snowpack was only 6 percent of normal levels.

Stanford scientists agree that the extreme atmospheric conditions responsible for diverting rain and snow from California are more likely to occur in an environment of elevated greenhouse gas emissions. That is to say, California's drought is almost certainly linked to human-caused climate change.

Policy and Infrastructure Solutions

Dams Some fiscal conservatives have suggested infrastructural solutions to the drought: aqueducts and dams to collect river runoff before it reaches the ocean. Supporters say increased water storage would provide relief during periods of drought. This approach would require the elimination of environmental regulations that require water to be used for the health of ecosystems, rather than for human activities.

However, dams are not the best solution for California's drought. According to Friends of the River, a California-based advocacy organization, the five proposed dam projects would cost $9 billion while only providing 1 percent of the state's annual needs. Furthermore, dams do not increase the amount of water available -- they simply store water during times of plenty for use during times of drought. Yet in an environment of climate change, it is impossible to know when (or if) California's rivers will resume flowing.

Desalination Plants Desalination (or "desalinization") is the process of removing salt from water, rendering it potable. Nearly 98 percent of the world's water is salt water, compared to 2.5 percent for fresh water. Through a process of reverse osmosis,  desalination plants can make this plentiful salt water suitable for human consumption.

It is a costly and energy-intensive solution, however. In Santa Barbara, it costs about $300 to produce an acre foot of water, compared to an estimated $1,700 per acre foot for desalination plants. Desalination plants are also harmful to the environment, absorbing microscopic marine life and minerals while releasing more salt into the ocean. For these reasons, only .2% of the water consumed worldwide is desalinated salt water.

Agriculture Avocados are the subject of many human interest drought articles these days. The green superfood is a major product for California, with one billion pounds sold annually. However, it takes 72 gallons of water to grow a pound of avocados, compared to nine gallons for a pound of tomatoes. That math doesn't add up for a state in the middle of a historic drought.

As an avocado lover, I hate to say it -- but it's time for agriculture to bear the brunt of the drought's costs. Agriculture consumes 80 percent of the state's water, while contributing only 2 percent to GDP. Reducing water consumption by mere percentages in the agriculture sector would make a bigger impact than dams, desalination plants, and human conservation efforts combined.

Farmers need to find more efficient methods of growing their crops -- and dramatically reduce the production of crops like rice, almonds and avocados. We need to reform "use-it-or-lose-it" water rights laws that provide legal rights to all water on a landowner's property, while relinquishing the rights if the water is not used. The agriculture sector cannot be exempt from executive orders to reduce water use. Finally, a water tax is a risky political move, but it would provide an enormous incentive for businesses to find innovative solutions for reducing water consumption.

Of course, this is a simplified analysis of a highly-complicated problem. But it was a great learning experience for me, and I'm grateful to the "Turn Down the Heat" course for that!

Introduction to Marketing (Coursera)

Click here to read the first post in my series on building a business education through MOOCs.

I'm no stranger to marketing trends. I'm a voracious reader of Fast Company and the Harvard Business Review, and I closely follow the social media presence of innovative brands like Warby Parker and Everlane.

In my own job, I also use marketing principles -- overseeing design and branding for big conferences, crafting social media messages, and selling our success to donors.

However, I've never enrolled in a formal marketing class, and I've been hesitant to describe my skills with that term. Because honestly, the term "marketing" has been a little shrouded in mystery to me -- isn't it a field of slick "Mad Men"-types bent on selling me overpriced juice and yoga gear?

So, two big thumbs up for Wharton's four-week Introduction to Marketing on Coursera! It did a great job of outlining the basic concepts, and I've come to understand that I would greatly enjoy a career focused on marketing, especially for a socially responsible, "double bottom line"-style company.

The course was divided into four modules:

1. Branding: Marketing Strategy and Brand Positioning 2. Customer Centricity: The Limits of Product-Centric Thinking 3. Online-Offline Interaction & How to Find Lead Users and Facilitate Influence and Contagion 4. Branding:  Effective Brand Communications Strategies and Repositioning Strategies

While much of the material focused on product-based companies (rather than non-profits or development agencies), a few lessons struck me as universally applicable:


Develop a mantra that defines your brand in 30 seconds or less. Simplify, inspire, and be consistent.

Typical Development Agency Message:

"We engage in ex-ante recovery planning and leverage and inform medium- to long-term recovery and reconstruction projects."

Better Development Agency Message:

"We help governments prepare for disasters before they strike so they can break the cycles of poverty and impaired development.”

I notice a tendency within the development world to use the most complicated terminology possible -- are we hiding behind jargon? Not confident in letting the results speak for themselves? Whatever the reason, it's time to think more like the private sector and develop clear, informative messages about the "products" we deliver -- poverty eradication and environmental sustainability.

(Of course, there are also non-profits that are all fluff and no substance. Messages must always be backed with data and results!)

Referrals and Brand Ambassadors

More and more, I see companies on Instagram partnering with local "brand ambassadors." And it works -- I'll see a stylish D.C. resident photograph a new coffee shop, and inevitably, I'll head there myself that week.

The connection to global development is more tenuous here. But it does make me re-think our social media approach. Is it worthwhile to tweet your latest publication at the hundreds of other development agencies that make up your followers list? Or should you instead target a few influential individuals -- respected politicians, journalists, or representatives of countries you serve -- who can share your success stories with different and larger audiences?

In other words, who are the most influential figures in your community? Can they generate referrals? And how do you make social media less like a lecture to an empty room and more like an engaged conversation? Sometimes I suspect the social media presence of D.C. think tanks and development agencies is exclusively made up of interns tweeting at each other...

Next Steps

Now that I have the theories, I plan to dive deeper into digital marketing analytics. Coursera will be offering several relevant courses in the next couple of months, starting with Digital Analytics for Marketing Professionals.

Design of Everyday Things

Click here to read the first post in my series on building a business education through MOOCs.

This week, I wrapped up Udacity's "Introduction to the Design of Everyday Things." This two-week online course was self-paced, low-intensity, and a lot of fun. Here are a few of my takeaways:

  • Design is foremost about user experience, rather than aesthetics.
  • Good designers have the ability to empathize with their end-usersand ensure that they find the outcomes they seek.
  • Design thinking can be applied to all settings and career paths, whether through designing a web application or shaping the experience of a first-time Sweetgreen visitor during lunchtime rush.


Design concepts are often intuitive, but the right vocabulary can make your thinking more logical and precise. Here are a few terms I learned from the course:

Affordance: features or experiences that are determined by the properties of an object and the abilities of a person.

  • For example, sitting is an affordance of a chair, made possible by the interaction between the design of the chair and the shape of the human body.
  • Similarly, an anti-affordance prevents you from taking action. For example, metal bars in front of a pedestrian-only street.

Signifier: a symbol, sound or image that provide clues of underlying concepts or meaning.

  • For example, a green light signifies that an electrical device is turned on, or a HIGH VOLTAGE sign teaches us not to touch that velociraptor enclosure.
  • Similarly, a false signifier, like a fake CCTV camera, seeks to prevent crime by suggesting the area is under surveillance.

Conceptual Model: a highly simplified explanation of how things work, sometimes inferred, learned over a period of time, or passed from person to person.

  • For example, the water cycle provides an easy-to-understand model of the continuous movement of water on Earth.
  • A designer is responsible for helping users form an accurate conceptual model about a product.

System Image: the visual cues (shapes, forms, signifiers, or instructional models) that provide information about how to interact with a product.

  • For example, a defibrillator is illustrated with three steps that clearly instruct people how to use the device under stressful circumstances.

These frameworks help designers to create intuitive and effective products and processes.

Everyday Design

Bad design is often a result of confusing signifiers and system images. Take the example of Snapchat: I use it every day to send my friends kitchen mishaps and surreptitious videos of cute dogs. None of these seem significant enough to warrant a permanent text message, but they represent those everyday moments that bring us together. With Snapchat -- even more so than email -- I feel closer to friends who are scattered across the country.

However, my appreciation ends with Snapchat's user interface. During my first few months using the app, I would swipe wildly to figure out where to add friends, send messages, or view stories. I could never remember, and the app provided no clues to help me along. (According to this Slate article, I'm not alone.) Universally-understood signifiers -- such as a book for stories, an envelope for messages, and arrows to navigate between features -- would have made a big difference.

Another important question is: Am I solving the right problem? One of my college roommates was a systems engineer, and she shared a story that has stuck with me. Her professor presented a problem: Apartment residents complained about a slow elevator. The engineers could have replaced the elevators at great cost and time. What did they do instead? Install mirrors by the elevator doors. Now the residents had something to distract them, and the wait time no longer felt objectionable.

Finally, less is more when it comes to instruction manuals. I occasionally visit a co-working facility in Washington, D.C., that attracts a bright, entrepreneurial crowd. The other day, about six of us were gathered in the kitchen. I observed as two-by-two, members approached the "Pour-Over Brew Guide" posted on the wall. After a few moments of reading the poster, they returned to their laptops, defeated.

The problem? There was too much text and no images to illustrate the process, which made it confusing to determine a conceptual model for making pour-over coffee. (Which, I've since learned, is pretty easy.)

The instruction manual that intimidated us all.
The instruction manual that intimidated us all.

Now that I've finished the course, I look forward to applying these lessons when I write about complex international development processes in the future.

Sketches for the final project: creating wireframes for a skill-sharing app.
Sketches for the final project: creating wireframes for a skill-sharing app.

A Business Education -- For Free

For the past ten or so months, I've worked as one of the World Bank Group's thousands of short-term consultants. All in all, it's been a great learning experience -- shaping the post-2015 development agenda, meeting bright and driven young people, availing myself of the plentiful croissants.

But there's one caveat: Short-term consultants (about 40 percent of the Bank's staff) are permitted to work no more than 150 days in a fiscal year. And that leaves me with a lot of time on my hands until July 1st.

So, I've decided to use the next several weeks to tackle a few goals.

Building Business Skills

I graduated from Johns Hopkins SAIS with a master's degree in international relations and economics, and I have nothing but positive things to say about the program. However, a traumatic management consulting-style interview taught me that I have a lot to learn about the theories and vocabulary of business.

Recently, I stumbled upon Laurie Pickard's blog, The No-Pay MBA. Pickard, an international development professional in Rwanda, is working her way through a massive online open course (MOOC) curriculum to gain the knowledge of an MBA -- for free.

Working at the World Bank, I've become increasingly interested in social entrepreneurship and project management. Following Pickard's lead, I've identified a few courses that will help me build those leadership and analytical skills:

April 1st to Mid-May

Mid-May to July 1st

I plan to give them all a try, and then pursue three of these four-week courses per month. I'll report back with lessons learned, as well as progress in other goals -- my Chinese could use a refresher, for one.

(Fortunately, I have strong support at home: My boyfriend had his own successful funemployment last fall!)