I read a brilliant article ‘Design Thinking for Social Innovation’ published in the Winter 2010 edition of the Stanford Social Innovation Review today. The article comes out of IDEO, a global innovation and design firm, and has been authored by Tim Brown (CEO and President of IDEO) and Jocelyn Wyatt (Leads IDEO’s Social Innovation Group).

The article talks about the need for human-centric design to solve complex problems in today’s world and takes you through the key elements in the ‘Design Thinking‘ process. Through examples, from the water treatment centre of Naandi Foundation in Hyderabad,India to the Mosquito Net distribution program in Africa, it brings out the importance of design thinking in every aspect of creating and delivering a product or service.

“The design thinking process is best thought of as a system of overlapping spaces rather than a sequence of orderly steps. There are three spaces to keep in mind: inspiration, ideation, and implementation. Think of inspiration as the problem or opportunity that motivates the search for solutions; ideation as the process of generating, developing, and testing ideas; and implementation as the path that leads from the project stage into people’s lives.” says the article.

Inspiration is the first step towards creation of a product or service. Though creating briefs and distributing them to the team members might help, one can always argue on how well-defined or vague these briefs should be. Observing how things and people work in the real world, which might require living with local communities, is very helpful for drawing inspiration. The example of the use of positive deviance initiative, where the problem of malnutrition in Vietnam was solved by discovering the solution within the same community, is a good example of drawing inspiration.

Talking about Ideation, the authors highlight the importance of letting ideas flow and making the devil’s advocate defer any judgement to the end of the brainstorming session. They say that though most corporations try to restrict choices while ideating on projects, which might seem good in the short term, divergent thinking and more ideas are what lead to disruptive solutions and are beneficial in the long run. It is advisable to have multi-disciplinary people, who have ‘T’ shaped profiles (specialization in an certain field and openness and curiosity towards other fields), collaborate to get great ideas.

The last step of the Design Thinking process i.e. Implementation, holds key to the creation of the final product or service. During this phase, prototyping is extremely important as is explained through the case of VisionSpring. Testing within a small and well chosen sample set of users can help create a revolutionary product.

Well, if you want to learn Human Centric Design (HCD) and use it for innovation, you can use the IDEO designed HCD Toolkit, which helps organizations understand people’s needs in new ways, find innovative solutions to meet these needs, and deliver solutions with financial sustainability in mind. The toolkit was created in collaboration with the Gates Foundation and non-profit groups IDE, ICRW, and Heifer International.