Confessions of an HCD convert

By Cara Nolan

I’ve always been skeptical of human-centered design, aka, HCD... 

This neat three-letter acronym, and the fleet of buzzwords that come with it, can sometimes seem hard to escape. Everything from food delivery apps to the latest World Bank poverty alleviation program is ‘co-designed’ in ‘iterative’ ‘agile’ ‘sprints’ to generate ‘innovative’ and ‘transformative’ solutions. 

So, when I found myself working at YLabs, a human-centered design studio with offices in Berkeley and Kigali, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to see what HCD really stood for - beyond the jargon.

Over the summer I worked on CyberRwanda, a direct to consumer (DTC) project aimed at increasing youth knowledge, quality, and access to reproductive health services and reducing unplanned teenage pregnancy in Rwanda. In recent years, Rwanda has made remarkable strides in increasing access to modern contraceptive methods, but has reached a stumbling block around access for adolescents. After all, if you’re young and unmarried, you’re not supposed to be having sex anyway, so why would you need contraceptives? Or so the traditional wisdom has gone. But with rates of teenage pregnancy rising, the government realized something needed to change. CyberRwanda is one part of the response. 

Since its inception in 2016, every step of the process has involved Rwandan youth in the decision-making process. In fact, one of the first young Rwandan women involved in design research is now employed as the project’s technical coordinator. This, I learned, is the first key tenet of HCD: involve the end-user from the very beginning. Don’t just ‘let their voice be heard,’ let them drive the process. Empathy is central. 

Through listening to young Rwandans, YLabs learned that the biggest barriers to access for young people were a lack of trustworthy information and an embarrassment about purchasing contraceptive products even if they were accessible. Suddenly, an overwhelmingly complex issue had tractable points of intervention: youth-friendly education and a discreet mechanism for purchasing contraceptive products.

From this insight, YLabs continued to refine the product over time. This is the second key tenet of HCD: iteration. By releasing prototype after prototype, you can gradually work towards something that fits. During my time at YLabs, I learned the biggest danger can be waiting too long to bring a prototype to your users for feedback - if it’s too flashy or too polished, people tend not to provide such useful comments and suggestions because they feel like they are looking at a final product. 

Over the summer, we found that if our prototypes looked a little rough around the edges, people were more willing to bring their own creative suggestions to the table without fear of offending us. Constant iteration gave us the chance to continually center and recenter on our objective: reducing unplanned teenage pregnancies. It also enabled us to build buy-in over time with key government stakeholders, partners, and community members. 

Compared to many other development projects I’ve seen, I feel most confident that CyberRwanda can achieve its intended impact. As my team and I helped to facilitate focus groups with young people in schools and youth centers, we could immediately tell it hit the mark. 

People’s eyes would light up as they played with the digital product on tablets and phones. “[CyberRwanda] is relating to our daily life and answering the questions we have,” said one girl, “It’s even more interesting than Facebook!” One group of young men burst into applause because they were so excited about what the program could do for them. Teachers begged us to bring the product to their school without delay because they were tired of seeing some of their most promising pupils drop out due to pregnancy. 

Not only did it seem to meet user needs, through its iterative process, the CyberRwanda had built up strong buy-in and trust from its key stakeholders; a prerequisite not only for program success but also longevity. 

So what’s my verdict? I’m an HCD convert. For all its buzzwords and hype, human-centered design codifies and emphasizes the importance of critical components like putting the user in the center and continually testing and refining your approach. And for that, I’m prepared to put up with the jargon.


Cara Nolan is a Master of Development Practice student at the University of California Berkeley and worked with YLabs as a research associate in 2019 as a part of her practicum. Find out more about practicum and internship opportunities at YLabs.

 
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