Technology Salon

Washington DC

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a discussion at the intersection of technology and development

4 Challenges to Using Design Thinking in ICT4D


On project teams, everyone envisions a solution or product. When everyone leaves the room, most imagine a “piece of an animal” or even “the whole animal” in completely different ways. When teams have designers, some of these barriers are eliminated because designers create testable prototypes of “the whole animal”.

Prototypes present ideas in a tangible form and an opportunity to improve ideas through iterative testing. This was the example given at the Design Technology Salon about why design thinking is valuable to the creation of products and services in international development. The Tech Salon lead discussants included:

While most attendees agreed that it would benefit their development projects to incorporate design thinking, there are a number of challenges facing organizations to do so. Here are four challenges identified at the Salon:

  1. Showing ROI
    The conversation about design thinking and user experience happened in the private sector 10 years ago. In the private sector, a major indicator of success is profit. Private companies quickly learned that improving user experience benefited their bottom line. They also absorbed short term losses to improve long term outcomes. Given funding cycles in development, It would be challenging to absorb short term losses, because some projects only have a short-term. If the goal of development is not to earn profit, how would projects prove design impacted outcomes? The definition of success can vary greatly from usability to the attractiveness of a product.
  2. Convincing donors, funders, or making internal shifts
    Two perspectives on donors and design thinking emerged during the Tech Salon. The first being that it would be difficult to convince funders to budget for design resources because it is expensive and would be harder to show a tangible ROI. The second perspective said that donors and foundations are already willing to support the incorporation of more design within projects, and that the onus is on organizations to incorporate necessary actions into proposals. Development teams themselves would need to make internal shifts to incorporate iterative design processes into their teams and work. Some participants admitted this internal shift for organizations may be a greater barrier to implementing design thinking than convincing donors.
  3. Request for Proposals (RFPs)
    If RFPs require prescriptive actions from the beginning of a project, does that mean the iterative nature of design is fundamentally incompatible with development projects? Unfortunately, to create better products, development organizations may need to seek funding from non-traditional sources to incorporate more iteration and agility into projects. It does seem improbable to run iterative projects based on inflexible project plans. Maybe some funding streams should be sacrificed in order to bring more quality products to field projects.
  4. How to bring designers into more integrated roles
    Many of the participants said there are designers at their organizations, but they usually work with marketing teams. What if they were added to project team discussions? Is it possible to create more integrated roles for designers? This would require the flexibility and willingness of designers to join project teams. As we know, more and more roles within ICT4D are requiring hybrid skill sets. It would require designers who wanted to apply their skills in a different medium.

Many people likened the desire for design centered thinkers to the early days of ICT4D specialists. At this point, ICT4D skill sets are less specialized and more integrated with project work in general. Now organizations hire more technically savvy employees for teams in general. Will user centered designers be in demand as specialists within ICT4D and become more of the norm in the future?

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