Publication Date
April 1, 2016

"We see opportunities to gather data and improve our designs everywhere. Even in situations where things seem uncertain or difficult to quantify, we simply can't hold for the perfect conditions before we iterate then measure the impact of our work."

IDEO.org is an organisation working worldwide to improve the lives of people in economically poor and vulnerable communities through design. IDEO: creates new products, services, and experiences; empowers others to become creative problem solvers; and tells stories of human-centred design in action. Since its launch in 2011 and after 64 projects and many prototypes, IDEO.org here shares a roadmap for how this mission-driven design outfit tracks and understands its impact.

In the IDEO.org approach, "[w]orking closely with impact-minded partners, those dedicated to mapping the lifespan of a swiftly evolving design, is critical. Ultimately, we rely on the implementing prowess of our partners, and the recipe for serious impact includes working with organizations who make our designs real, rigorously track the effect, and are ready to pivot based on what the data tells them....Building a diverse portfolio of cross-sector work allows us to keep experimenting, to push the edges of technology, make small bets, and push ourselves to understand the next frontier for human-centered design. Once we identify those areas where we can make a real difference - financial and reproductive health are two - we'll already be on track to build the teams, resources, and relationships to double down on specific programmatic areas."

To understand this approach, the report provides a snapshot of IDEO.org's portfolio (in 23 countries worldwide). Guiding these projects is the belief that, whatever the organisation is designing - be it a product, service, or experience - "keeping the people you are serving at the center of the process is key to unlocking new solutions." Examples include Moneythink Mobile, a digital app that helps high school students in Chicago, Illinois, United States (US) build healthy financial and savings behaviours, and Speak Up Box, a new way to report gender-based violence in Kenyan slums. Key takeaway messages from IDEO.org projects, both those that have been successful and those that have struggled, include:

  • Keep an open mind as to what the ultimate design could look like; ask the right questions, and do not race to an answer.
  • Long-term projects need smart phasing; get feedback and test the viability of your design along the way.
  • Don't be afraid to borrow and evolve the stuff that works already.
  • Unlocking your partners and getting them prototyping can be the path to an effective design.
  • Design the solution your partner is excited about and capable of implementing.
  • Due diligence on prospective partners is crucial; look for red flags and take them seriously.
  • Make sure you and your partners are squarely focused on the needs of the economically poor.
  • Your partner's team on the ground is as important as the one at headquarters.
  • By starting a project already locked into a solution, you may prevent yourself from designing what people need.
  • A good solution must be feasible and viable for your partner to implement.

The report then provides 3 stories that explore whom IDEO.org collaborated with, what they helped them design, and how they and their partners are working to improve lives. For example, Vroom is an initiative with the Bezos Family Foundation that is seeking to make early childhood development tools more accessible to low-income US parents. A suite of tools, activities, and an app, Vroom inspires parents to turn everyday moments, like putting out the lights and brushing teeth, into brain building opportunities. In its pilot in Southwest King County, Washington, the foundation learned that working with existing networks of providers and community organisations is essential to delivering these tools to families.

IDEO.org contends that, to truly scale the kind of design-led innovation they think the social sector needs, it is necessary to get human-centred design into the hands of those working on the problems of poverty. To that end, IDEO.org has grown Design Kit, their learning platform, to 408,000 people in 211 countries and territories. Tools and resources range from courses to a website to a book on human-centred design. (See Related Summaries, below.) As the report details, IDEO.org talked with 3 changemakers who, with the help of these tools, are solving problems from a design perspective. Next, the report shares 3 profiles of organisations in the social sector that, working with IDEO.org, have internalised human-centerd design. One of the collaborations explored here is with the United Kingdom (UK) Department for International Development (DFID). In partnership with DFID, IDEO.org created Amplify, an initiative that identifies big development challenges and then supports organisations around the world to design new solutions. Jonathan Wong, former head of the Innovation Hub at DFID, says: "Here's an example of human-centered design helping us work more collaboratively. With the Amplify refugee education challenge, we had our education team working collaboratively with our humanitarian team. It's been a really interesting experiment in helping us develop an even more collaborative culture within DFID, and has allowed us to create easy, low-friction ways to test new ideas and work across sectors."

IDEO.org explains that, since its inception, they have been "telling stories, creating tools, and building a community of global problem-solvers to push the practice of human-centered design. To us, getting human-centered design adopted across the social sector is as important as anything that we've designed." The report provides examples of ways in which social impact design appears to be on the rise. Quoted here is Paul Brest, Professor (Emeritus) Stanford Law School and former President, Hewlett Foundation, who opines: "IDEO.org is playing a leadership role in integrating human-centered design with strategy and social science to address the world's most challenging social problems. Its adaptive, non-ideological approach, coupled with its transparency about failures and willingness to learn from them, provides a model for others in the field."

See video