IDEO Field Guide to Human-Centered Design

It was interesting to read “field guides” from two different organizations. As a candid impression, reading the field guide from IDEO was uncomfortable. It felt like something of a sales pitch for this particular design process. From the photos included to the design ideas mentioned, it felt like a paternalistic and “othering” perspective, as much as the content was about listening, researching, and considering who you are designing for or with. One thing I felt lacking --and please correct me if I’m wrong in my rushed reading of this-- was a discussion of how to measure or assess outcomes. If you’re trying to help make someone else’s life better, how can you know? How do you get honest feedback about whether your design was quality, or how it can be improved? Perhaps the biggest aspect I felt left out of this field guide (again, please let me know if I just missed this) was a discussion of power dynamics. When someone from a position of wealth, resources, or a foreign country, is trying to design for someone in a completely different context, in a position of poverty or oppression, I have great reservations about the power dynamics in these situations. How can you know in your interviews, research, design process and rollout whether you are just seeing reflections of power disparities in the designer and the consumer of the design or whether you are able to truly see the design problem? If, for example, you’re trying to give people a mobile app for healthcare, you could just be missing the whole point that there’s corruption on the federal and local levels leading to disparities in healthcare and a lack of local healthcare workers and resources. I did not see in the field guide any point at which there is an assessment on the designer’s behalf as to whether the design is ethical and justified. I think there should be a serious reflection on the part of the designer to say, “perhaps my idea is not well-suited here; perhaps I can help in another way. Maybe, for example, if I truly want to help, I shouldn’t design a mobile app as I initially wanted to do, but I can lend power and resources from my position to advocate for anti-corruption measures on another level.” I would also want to see some reflection about a serious look at the motives of the designer: is it just a personal idea that I want to see come to fruition? Is it really altruistic? I think if helping people is the bottom line, it is important to think about the consequences of the actions and whether they are just serving to perpetuate or exacerbate particular power dynamics or disparities, or whether it overall improves the situation.

I saw the ECCD field guide speak much more to the point of power dynamics. I appreciate the line on page 4, “Design is the intention behind the outcome.” The focus on acknowledging and dismantling power constructs felt particularly impactful and relevant. On page 19, the description of humility, “recognizing the influence of your own biases and perspectives.” And further, “Name the systems of power, privilege, and oppression that have impacted, and continue to impact, the life experiences of yourself and of those you engage with.” I think these are also interesting points that we have already reflected on in this course, and will be important as we go forward in the spring semester. I found some points on page 23 relevant as well, including “Be critical of how history is being taught…Who wrote this narrative?” The ECCD field guide did address many of the same points as the IDEO field guide, including questions about “Am I designing with the community being impacted by the project, of for the community” (page 27). However, the approaches and perspectives are quite different.

@Veronica, I think you bring up some really good points about both design field guides. I had some surprisingly different takes to them though (although, to be fair, I am currently finishing up a course where we executed ideas from the IDEO field guide almost to a T, so I am coming at this with a fair bit of bias). I agree that the IDEO guide does not contextualize enough, although I do not think this field guide is intending to contextualize – rather I think it exists to give concrete strategies and techniques that designers can use throughout the design process. Despite this, I think the design process outlined here does have some safeguards against context-free designing.

One thing that the Design Thinking for Social Innovation article, which is working from the same school of design thought, mentioned a lot is the idea that design thinking is not a linear process – it is instead “best thought of as a system of overlapping spaces”. In practice, this entails moving fluidly back and forth between research and implementation as you gain new insight from your user testing and prototyping, and trying to ‘fail early and fail often’. By making low resolution prototypes to test in small capacities, you can wet your feet in solution concepts without committing to an idea that is doomed to fail because of the lack of proper context. Theoretically, by applying empathy, immersing yourself in the life and experience of your user group, letting the concrete results of your testing guide you, and embracing failed design concepts, the final concept you settle on will be one that really works for your user group in the societal context in which they exist.

My major grievance with the ECCD field guide is that it approached the contextualization side well, although missed the mark on its practical implementation. While I agree that there exercises like “Eyes, Ears, Mouth” can help codesigners embrace the awkwardness and vulnerability of design, I think these types of activities can often feel somewhat patronizing or can make your codesigners feel that you are imposing a direction and structure on the design conversation.

Personally, I see the two guides as complements – the ECCD guide has wonderful advice for maintaining an empathetic perspective and for ensuring that your design stays contextualized, while the IDEO guide gives practical and actionable strategies and steps to follow to encourage idea generation – something which is often portrayed as a single enlightened idea coming to a lone inventor from the ether.