In an attempt to fill the academic void left after graduating university, I, along with some fellow MaRS interns, signed up for a course in human-centred design.

I was first introduced to the concept of human-centred design (though not by that name) during a field study in East Africa, where I was often frustrated by projects that seemed inappropriate for the given sociocultural environment. While I had hoped this course would develop my skillset for a future career, I didn’t realize just how relevant it would be to my day-to-day life. The idea of human-centred design applies to products, spaces, services and systems, and I’m sure we can all think of more than a few examples of each of these that seem to be designed without us users in mind.

Human-Centered Design for Social Innovation is a five-week self-directed workshop organized by +Acumen in collaboration with IDEO.org. My six-person “design team” meets weekly to discuss our course readings (which consist of concepts and case studies) and to navigate design challenges. These challenges are meant to expose us to the necessary skills and attitudes, as well as to the obstacles that will be faced when pursuing human-centred design.

So what is human-centred design?

Human-centred design is a three-phase approach that puts people at the centre every step of the way.

  1. Discover.
  2. Ideate.
  3. Prototype.

The approach is human centred, collaborative, optimistic and experimental.

Embracing the beginner’s mind

One principle that was really emphasized in the first lesson was: “Your beginner’s mind is your friend.” I think this is great advice that does not get repeated often enough. It’s OK—in fact, it’s better—if you don’t have all of the answers. For human-centred design (and life beyond) you need to be open-minded, ask questions, make mistakes and be very willing to learn from others. It is when we think that we are experts that we overlook the true problems, get stuck in a certain way of thinking, miss opportunities and create inefficient solutions.

It’s important to approach a problem as a beginner and to remember that, in human-centred design, the users, consumers and audience are the experts.

Positive deviance

Positive deviance is a concept developed by Jerry Sternin that suggests that there are individuals within every community whose unique behaviours enable them to find better solutions, even though they possess the same resources and knowledge as their peers. Positive deviance not only encourages the use of local expertise, but it also promotes creative thinking, experimentation and being solution oriented.

The link to entrepreneurs

There is substantial overlap between innovation and human-centred design in terms of the necessary skills, attitudes, challenges and motivations. It is important for entrepreneurs to embrace the beginner’s mind throughout the development of their venture.

While entrepreneurs are almost certainly not novices in their particular field, remaining open to new ideas will result in a more successful product or service. Often, entrepreneurs themselves are positive deviants, approaching challenges in unique and disruptive ways.

As entrepreneurs go through the discovery, ideation and prototyping phases of their ventures, it is crucial to remember to always keep humans at the centre.

Ilana Birnbaum

Ilana is a summer intern with the Business Services team at MaRS. She recently graduated from McGill University where she studied anatomy & cell biology and international development. In the fall she will be pursuing a master’s degree in public health at the University of Toronto, focusing on global health. See more…