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Open-Source Innovation: IDEO’s Human-Centered Design Toolkit

A free guide to user-focused design can be applied anywhere from a for-profit design firm to an NGO working in a developing nation.

Designers Accord

As designers working to improve the quality of life in other countries, the firm IDEO has spent more than 10 years creating a methodology focused on designing for the user. And now, IDEO wants to give all of that methodology away. A series of PDFs that are free to download, the Human-Centered Design Toolkit hopes to empower organizations and design firms by giving them their field-tested tools for social impact in a way that focuses more on sharing information than authorship.

The toolkit began as a conversation between IDEO’s CEO Tim Brown and a program officer at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, who first broached the idea of creating some kind of common language around designing for social impact. “Human-centered
design has always been IDEO’s approach to creating innovation,” says HCD Toolkit project lead Tatyana Mamut. But it was the Gates Foundation’s work in developing nations where IDEO saw
an opportunity to apply their three core values for sustainable design:
human desirability,
technical feasibility and technical viability. “What we’ve done
with this toolkit is taken the basic structure of that methodology and
turned it into a process that makes it applicable to the developing

IDEO employee Tatyana Mamut plowing a field in Ethiopia as part of field research.

The Gates Foundation pointed them towards three organizations they had worked with in the field and thought would benefit most from the collaboration: International Development Enterprises (IDE), Heifer International and the International Center for Research on Women. IDEO then embarked on several deep dives to develop the content in context, traveling with IDE to Cambodia and Ethiopia to work with them on design projects for irrigation technology and market information for farmers, and with Heifer Internation to Kenya to work with increasing dairy cow production.

IDEO is well-known for sharing its information outside of its
walls–producing books, case studies and papers on its methods. One of
the firm’s core tenets is to build on the ideas of others, in the hopes that those ideas could expand beyond the design world, says Mumat.  “IDEO is
all about impact, and the impact that can be made in the
world through innovation,” she says. “I think that one of the things
that this toolkit can do through its openness is to have greater impact
than a 500-person firm could ever have.”

There was also the notion of sharing these tools with non-designers. “There’s excitement around this notion of design thinking, especially
within the social sector, but there’s not much of a common
understanding of what that means,” says social impact lead Jocelyn
Wyatt. “By putting the toolkit out in the world our hope was that we
help social sector organizations, which we think could really benefit
from the approach.”
In addition, tools like this also increase the understanding of design among
non-designers, which the team believes will elevate the work of
designers everywhere.

A design team gains inspiration from a Cambodian farmer through the use of innovative research methods.

In creating the materials, the designers knew they wanted the
information to be free and easily accessible. The toolkit can be
downloaded as PDFs, either in its entirety or in segments, but IDEO is
also examining self-publishing clients where designers can procure a
printed and bound piece for those who want a physical book to take into
the field. Although an acknowledgments page gives some attribution to
those involved, there are no credits. The design is streamlined and
simple, making it extremely accessible, even to someone with a very basic
understanding of design.

Although all the first applications were agriculture-based, the HCD Toolkit has
since been used in the medical field, by Vision Spring in India, and in a large-scale water transport and
santitation project in India. IDEO has also received reports of designers using it in Africa, Southeast
Asia and South Asia. Another beauty of open source is that as the
toolkit is being used, it has also been modified by the users. In this
way, IDEO is very much
relying on other designers to enhance the materials: They’re now
working on a revision of the toolkit that takes some of their ideas and
feedback into consideration.

VisionSpring prototyping eye camps for children in Andhra Pradesh, India.

According to Kara Pecknold, an Emily Carr University student who took the HCD Toolkit to Rwanda, it was the ability to use the toolkit as a way to communicate with those far outside of her own design-based context that provided the most value. “I found great benefit from using the cards as a means to have a conversation,” she says. “To access other cognitive levels that might be more difficult in a country where the lack of shared language can limit understanding in the design process.”

In fact, that’s exactly the kind of universal application that IDEO had in mind. “The goal would be if we can get to a common language and common set of methods, or even a common approach towards design, that any project needs to start with the people who are being designed for,” says Mamut. “That would be an absolute dream scenario.”

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About the author

Alissa is a design writer for publications like Fast Company, GOOD and Dwell who can most often be found in Los Angeles. She likes to walk, ride the bus, and eat gelato.