Center for Social Entrepreneurship

at Middlebury

Human-centered Design: Designing a Path Out of Poverty

CSE Friday Speaker Series, September 26, 2014

Jocelyn Wyatt, Executive Director of IDEO.org

by Otto Nagengast ‘17

Jocelyn2Thirty-five years ago, a group of engineers from Stanford University teamed up with a group of designers from the United Kingdom to launch a design firm. Their aim was to design products that had both excellent form and function. The firm designed a string of successful products like the first Apple mouse, which revolutionized the personal computer. In 1991, they became IDEO, a name that has since become synonymous with brilliant design.

All of IDEO’s work stems from what they call design thinking. According to IDEO’s website “this approach…brings together what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable.” After great success in product design for private companies, IDEO realized that their design philosophy had enormous potential if applied more broadly.

Three years ago, Jocelyn Wyatt co-founded IDEO.org. The goal of the initiative is to apply design thinking to helping the poor. As Executive Director, Jocelyn has been responsible for building IDEO.org from the ground up. She has hired 30 staff members, and she will hire another 20 people this year. IDEO.org is a diverse group that includes professional designers, business school graduates, researchers, and lawyers, which enables the group, as Jocelyn described, “to connect the dots.”

Before carrying out a project, a team from IDEO.org does extensive research. Designers engage in on-the-ground, in-context observation in order to seek inspiration. The team studies extreme users in order to create the best product. An extreme user like a chef, for example, who uses a knife for hours each day can reveal more about how to make a knife than a casual cook. The team does analogous research. Jocelyn gave the example of a surgical team who studied a NASCAR pit crew to learn how to work more efficiently as a team. Jocelyn says, “this inspiration helps designers take new leaps in their thinking.”

Since its inception three years ago, IDEO.org has carried out 45 projects. One of these projects, sponsored by the Hewlett Foundation, focused on reproductive health among young women in Zambia. Studies have shown that to reduce birth rates among women, it is more effective to delay a woman’s first birth than to focus only on reducing the number of children she has. The team wanted to connect with Zambian girls in order to better understand their sexual behavior. However, getting young women to open up about the topic can be difficult, so the team created pop-up nail salons and offered free manicures. This created a safe and comfortable space for team members to inquire about a young woman’s sexual behavior. The team also launched “Divine Divas,” a group of cartoon characters who each represent a contraceptive method. Ms. Ambition uses the implant. Ms. Perfection prefers the pill. The Girl on the Go goes with the injection. The aim of these initiatives was to remove the stigma surrounding sex and contraception in Zambia, which prevents young women from seeking out family planning services.

IDEO.org has also been contracted by the Gates Foundation to design a seed planter for teff, which is the grain used to make injera, one of the staples of Ethiopian cuisine. Farmers in Ethiopia typically plant teff seeds by throwing the seeds across tilled soil. But planting teff in rows can boost yields by up to 50 percent. The problem, however, is that there are no planters that most farmers can afford. This is where IDEO comes in. As part of the thorough IDEO design process, the team has tested many prototypes, including one that Jocelyn said, “got literally stuck in the mud.” The team, though, learned that farmers put burlap on other pieces of equipment to keep them out of the mud. The team took their prototype to local builders and had burlap installed on the wheels. IDEO.org is now testing 55 planters, and they hope that through similar innovations they can design a planter that is both affordable and effective.

Innovative ideas can be tremendously effective in the fight against poverty, but they require diligence, hard work, and creative minds. IDEO.org understands  embodies this truth. Through innovative and quality design, they are helping those living in poverty to carve out a better life.


Jocelyn Wyatt from IDEO.org addressing students as part of CSE Friday Speaker SeriesJocelyn7Jocelyn4

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