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.

Impact Analysis & Mobile Data Solutions

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

As an international development professional, I often joke that I have no marketable skills. An exaggeration, of course, but it's hard not to feel that way when surrounded by software developers and statisticians. Therefore, part of my professional development journey has been to improve my skills related to ICT4D -- information and communication technologies for development -- and impact analysis.

I recently completed two courses that complemented this goal nicely: +Acumen's Making Sense of Social Impact: Building Blocks of Impact Analysis and TechChange's Mobile Data Solutions.

Making Sense of Social Impact

Acumen is a non-profit venture fund that invests in companies, leaders, and ideas that address global poverty. They call this "social impact investing." With this worthy goal, they've developed an approach to ensure that their investments are delivering as promised.

They begin with a problem, such as the limited availability of sustainable lighting for the poor in developing countries. The theory of change is that affordable, portable solar lanterns will eliminate the reliance on kerosene, thereby reducing instances of lung disease, mitigating carbon emissions, and decreasing household spending over time. (Click here to learn more about solar products company d.light.)

To arrive at this proposed solution, d.light had to learn about its target market and unique local challenges. Even after the solar lanterns were distributed, d.light continued to measure whether the input (lantern distribution) contributed to the desired outcome (reduced kerosene use, reduced indoor pollution) and long-term impact (fewer instances of lung disease, reduced carbon emissions).

This is where efficient and effective surveys are of utmost importance.

Mobile Data Solutions

In the old days of global development, enumerators would travel home-to-home with a stack of papers and a pen, interviewing subjects who spoke numerous languages and dialects. Transcription could take months and produce costly errors.

Today, organizations increasingly rely upon mobile devices to quickly and transparently collect data about people, projects, and programs.

For example, in Uganda, young people use their own mobile devices to participate in weekly SMS surveys to share information about disease outbreaks or inform public policy. In other cases, enumerators use their mobile devices to record answers during traditional home-to-home surveys, but instead of waiting several months for data to be transcribed, the data can be immediately exported for analysis.

I experimented with, a service that allows users to build SMS surveys for free:

In addition to tips for survey design, the course provided a brief introduction to data visualization best practices. Which of these graphs best represents the change in numbers of deaths from communicable diseases relative to other causes of deaths?

Fortunately, I've slowly been working my way through the Edward Tufte books that have been gathering dust in my apartment, so I got this one right. The graph on the left might be more eye-catching, but it obscures the data. It's always preferable to have a simple graph that clearly conveys the significant trends.

So, that's another two classes down! Now, I'm going to try out some of the open-source mapping and data visualization resources shared in the class (now that I'm free from the pressure of getting too creative with my charts).