Getting started with the design thinking process
Design thinking often begins by empathizing with the people impacted by the topic or problem you’re focusing on.
Developing a sense of empathy is about trying to understand what it's like to actually live someone else's life. To empathize with another person you must recognizing their situation, and experience a shared emotional state.
To do this, you will:
- Figure out which people are impacted by the problem you want to solve, and talk to them.
- Visit these people in the environments where they are typically located, such as their home, school, or place of work.
- Ask open-ended questions that help you understand their point of view.
- In addition to talking to people, take time to observe them doing tasks or activities related to the problem. Remember, sometimes what people say and what people do can be quite different.
This process is known as conducting “user research.” When it occurs at the beginning of a design process, it’s typically called “discovery” or “generative” user research.
Why do user research?
User research can help you:
Step away from your assumptions and develop a broader perspective.
Identify what the actual problem is that need to be solved - often it’s not what you initially expect.
Uncover requirements for an ideal solution.
- Find new sources of design inspiration.
Let's take a look at a case study where the design team used user research to better understand how social and cultural factors would need to be considered in their solution.
Case study: Improving maternal health in the developing world
PATH is an international nonprofit organization that creates innovative solutions to global health problems. Their work includes lifesaving vaccines, drugs, diagnostics, and devices, as well as collaborative programs with communities.
PATH partnered with Artefact, a US-based design company, to investigate one of the most serious yet preventable health challenges in the developing world: maternal morbidity and mortality. To learn more about the challenge of maternal and newborn health, visit the PATH website.
Beginning with user research
The design team’s approach began with user research in Bangladesh and Uganda. They aimed to deeply understand the local environments, social systems, and cultures that impact care-seeking behavior and life-threatening infections. The team quickly realize that no matter how perfectly designed a diagnostic tool may be, if it wasn’t culturally acceptable, widespread adoption would not follow.
Understanding local beliefs and traditions
Through their immersive research, the design team identified several factors that kept women from giving birth in clinics or hospitals, thus increasing the risk of infection for themselves or their babies. One of these cultural factors was the fear of “the evil eye” (a curse) that might be placed on a vulnerable newborn. Fearing this, women deliver babies in their homes, or in the homes of traditional birth attendants.
The design team had to accept this strong bias towards giving birth at home. They focused on reframing this risky infection period in a way that would allow them to introduce the diagnostic tool, while not threatening traditional beliefs.
Developing a design that fit with traditional beliefs
After months of discovery-design-iteration cycles, the team developed several concepts for diagnostic tools. One concept they came up with was a fever patch that women would wear immediately after labor.
The patch can detect a continuous fever over a 25-hour period, which is a signal of infection. Since many women experience intermittent fevers during labor, the seriousness of a continuous fever is commonly ignored.
The fever patch is a non-invasive measure that shows when a woman has a fever by filling with a red pattern that spreads over the patch. It gives an authoritative, clear signal to women and their untrained caregivers that immediate help should be sought - and fits within the cultural preference for giving birth at home.