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Human Centered Design

To empower people technology has to meet them where they are instead of asking them to come to it. Open data is just numbers on a page if the electorate doesn’t understand how to interpret it. Civic engagement apps don’t make change if the disenfranchised don’t have smartphones. You can’t know your rights if they are explained to you in jargon you don’t understand.

Human Centered Design responds to this challenge. It is a methodology that is heavily used by technology companies and in a growing array of sectors including finance, healthcare, and - critically - government to ensure that their products and services are intuitive and impactful.  At its heart of Human Centered Design is the key insight that successful products and services are built on strategies that start identifying who a product or service is for and then placing them, rather than the interests or cultural assumptions of the team or organization attempting to solve them, at the center. As generations of industrial designers, technologists, and service architects can tell you, this is hard but essential work. As generations of rights and democracy activists can tell you, local need, local expertise, and local context are paramount.  In our work, human centered design is foundational to our approach to DemTools and our consultation with partners around the world.

 

...successful products and services are built on strategies that start identifying who a product or service is for and then placing them, rather than the interests or cultural assumptions of the team or organization attempting to solve them, at the center.

The typical human centered design process involves stopping the conversation as early in the strategic process as possible to ask, “who specifically are we building this for?” and “how would they describe their needs?” The design team puts away their keyboards and their code and spends time, conducting quantitative and qualitative research, and interviewing and brainstorming with members of the community. In the process the team deepens our understanding of what the community knows it needs, how that need is contextualized in their day to day lives, begins to gauge what a solution to the need might look like that feels natural, intuitive, and delightful to them. In each project and context, our  team seeks opportunities to deepen direct engagement with the community throughout the design process, building with rather than building for them.

NDI takes core insights and techniques from traditional, commercial sector human centered design practices and adapts them to the needs of the democracy community and our partner organizations. This means wrapping human centered design in an interdisciplinary approach that includes key strategic tools from the worlds of organizing, governance, sustainable development, iterative software delivery, and participatory action research, among others. The resulting framework, which we call Co/Act, informs how we select and deploy DemTools and provides a low-cost, high impact curriculum for our partners around the world.