Human-Centered Programming Toolkit

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Human-Centered Design Tips and Techniques

Developing Empathy

“We need to inhabit the lives of the people we are designing for, understand their interpretations, and develop a deep respect for their experiences, perspectives, and culture, in order to bring something meaningful and useful to market.” — Michael Chapman, IDEO

  • Primary Experience.   Deeply connect with beneficiaries of your programs.  This requires first hand experience with their emotional world, their daily life, their context, their goals and aspirations.  Walk a mile in their shoes before you design them new heels.  Maybe they need hiking boots.  Or maybe they need running water so they don’t have to hike five miles to get water every day.
  • Shadow Observations.   Find opportunities to shadow your beneficiaries in their day-to-day experience.  Gaining access to their world will require you to build trust.  Trust comes from authentic relationships.  If you can’t build these relationships, how could you possibly design solutions that will actually help?
  • The 5 Whys.  Ask “why?” five times.  This will help you get to the root of a problem.  Why is this a problem?  Why does that happen?  Why did that occur?  Why?  Why?  Dig deeper every time, you will be surprised what you find.
  • Interview beneficiaries in their environment.  Contextual interviews are conducted in the beneficiaries environment, and allow for observation in motion.  Empathy interviews encourage you to explore stories and the emotions that are evoked through those stories.  As with shadow observations, this requires trust and rapport.  Be authentic and present if you want the same.
  • Journey Map. A journey map follows the beneficiary’s experience sequentially.  Consider how their experience with your product or service starts, continues, and ends.  This often provides ample opportunities to innovate and iterate on an experience.
  • Persona.  Create a character with a backstory and a name, and use that character to guide design discussions.  Articulate what motivates them, what frustrates them, their personality, and more.  Quickly you will move from designing for an “audience” to designing for a person, with a name.


“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes.  Art is knowing which ones to keep.”— Scott Adams, Comic Creator for Dilbert

  • Empathy First.  Ideate AFTER you have gained empathy and observational information.  Too often we come up with an idea and then run with it without first doing the hard work required to understand the perspective of the beneficiary.  Only ideate after you truly know your beneficiary.
  • Include beneficiaries.  When ideating, bring your beneficiaries to the table.  Gather their ideas in any way you can.  Their ideas will inspire yours, and will give you additional critical insight into their lived experience.
  • Invite multiple perspectives.  Who you have at the table is just as important as the approach you take to ideate.  Invite engineers, educators, designers, community members, or anyone who may bring a valued perspective.
  • Stoke.  Before an ideation session, warm-up the group with an interactive activity.  Drawing a picture, singing a song, doing some yoga- anything to get the group’s creative juices flowing before you start to brainstorm.  It helps participants think of problems in new ways and will head off negativity.
  • Be Open.  Don’t shoot down ideas at this stage! Set ground rules to encourage your ideators to be open to every idea on the table.  Think big, think many.
  • Yes, and… Respond and build on ideas by saying, “Yes, and…”  This is a technique from improv comedy that encourages us to develop ideas.  Watch as ideas take on an organic form and grow.
  • Sticky Notes.  Sticky notes are the great democratizer of idea generation.  They help draw out ideas from everyone in the ideation session, avoiding the problem of having one person’s idea start to dominate the discussion.  Give everyone a stack and let them loose.   Once you have a slew of ideas, start to organize them thematically.   Then give each person a set number of votes to vote on the ideas that interest them the most.  This will help you to let the best ideas float to the top.
  • Give space for the old and the new.  Some of the best ideas are a deconstruction of an existing program or service.  Allow for and encourage this thinking.

Prototype and Test

“The faster you can iterate, the faster your pace of improvement and innovation.”— Ann Mei Chang, former CIO of USAID, Author of Lean Impact

  • Minimum Viable Product (MVP).  Consider your idea- what is the lightest weight way you can test it?  The quicker you build something, get it in front of your beneficiaries so they can test it, the quicker you will learn.  Then iterate… Build, measure, learn.
  • Make it quick.  The faster you iterate, the faster you learn what is truly helpful for your beneficiaries.
  • Make it inexpensively.  What is the least expensive way you can build a prototype?
  • Build a lo-fi prototype.  Use paper, duct tape, cardboard,  role-play, or a sketch to give you a physical sense of the product or service.  Build something you can actually give to a beneficiary to see how they interact with it.
  • Observe, don’t coach.  Don’t coach them on how to use what you built, just observe what they do with it.  This may surprise you.  Learn from their interactions to improve your next iteration.
  • Learn and evolve.  
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