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

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.

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.

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COLLABORATION IS KEY
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-centereddesign 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 sawan opportunity to apply their three core values for sustainable design:human desirability,technical feasibility and technical viability. “What we’ve donewith this toolkit is taken the basic structure of that methodology andturned it into a process that makes it applicable to the developingworld.”

HCD-kit

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.

A CULTURE OF SHARING
IDEO is well-known for sharing its information outside of itswalls–producing books, case studies and papers on its methods. One ofthe 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 isall about impact, and the impact that can be made in theworld through innovation,” she says. “I think that one of the thingsthat this toolkit can do through its openness is to have greater impactthan 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, especiallywithin the social sector, but there’s not much of a commonunderstanding of what that means,” says social impact lead JocelynWyatt. “By putting the toolkit out in the world our hope was that wecouldhelp social sector organizations, which we think could really benefitfrom the approach.”In addition, tools like this also increase the understanding of design amongnon-designers, which the team believes will elevate the work ofdesigners everywhere.

HCD-kit

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

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BUILDING IMPACT
In creating the materials, the designers knew they wanted theinformation to be free and easily accessible. The toolkit can bedownloaded as PDFs, either in its entirety or in segments, but IDEO isalso examining self-publishing clients where designers can procure aprinted and bound piece for those who want a physical book to take intothe field. Although an acknowledgments page gives some attribution tothose involved, there are no credits. The design is streamlined andsimple, making it extremely accessible, even to someone with a very basicunderstanding of design.

Although all the first applications were agriculture-based, the HCD Toolkit hassince been used in the medical field, by Vision Spring in India, and in a large-scale water transport andsantitation project in India. IDEO has also received reports of designers using it in Africa, SoutheastAsia and South Asia. Another beauty of open source is that as thetoolkit is being used, it has also been modified by the users. In thisway, IDEO is very muchrelying on other designers to enhance the materials: They’re nowworking on a revision of the toolkit that takes some of their ideas andfeedback into consideration.

HCD-kit

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

A COMMON LANGUAGE
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.”

If you have a design and sustainability story to share, let us know about it! And follow us on Twitter @designersaccord to hear what the Designers Accord community is thinking about.

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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.

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