Getting to the core of human-centred design: SIX speaks with Mariko Takeuchi

As part of our work to demystify innovation within international development, we spoke with Mariko Takeuchi, human-centred design expert on the core of the methodology and what NGOs can learn from the private sector. Mariko is a Strategy Consultant and Advisor working on behalf of clients and funders including Helen Keller InternationalLandMappGates FoundationWWFUNDPUNFPAIDRC and more.  She previously was the Founder and Director of the InCompass Human-Centred Innovation Lab at iDE.

Get to the core of HCD
There’s a lot of buzz at the moment about human-centred design (HCD), but I want to take a step back for a moment and take away the wording to get to the core. HCD is just the vernacular for the methodology. The core is about deeply understanding your end user and all the stakeholders in the system. It’s about taking insights and translating them into actionable strategies- developing, rapidly prototyping and making adjustments before you either scale or implement.

Every company that is successful in designing products that are sustainable all start with a deep knowledge of their users and those in the system. This is a non-negotiable for a starting point in developing a strategy.

It’s imperative that every NGO and social enterprise that serves people invest the time to not only understand their service but also their users’ needs beyond what they know already.

I think that there’s a lot that can be learned from the private sector. The big companies find ways to continuously adapt to the changing needs of their users/consumers. You always need to question what you know to go further for your consumer. Thinking that you know your customers already is the Achilles Heel in any organisation that delivers services.

Think about the question
Too often, people start proposing the method to solve the question without properly thinking about the question first.

What really excites me is when the client engages with design research and starts digging deeper to better understand their users and comes to that sense of wonder, or the aha moment. Often it’s something that they already know but it just becomes clearer. A great insight isn’t something that’s necessarily new to the client, as they’re the experts in the field. They already know their customer base and their field, but they have a million pieces of information and they don’t have the time, latitude and fresh eyes to understand the why behind the behaviour.

It’s when you start translating your insights into strategy- that’s when you start coming up with great ideas.  The realisation and deep understanding of the needs of your user and stakeholders is a great enabler of strategy and an easy way to develop innovative ideas, evaluate and iterate them.

Human-centred design isn’t just brainstorming. Everyone has done brainstorming before- but the key difference is that it’s often done without strategic guidance (i.e. based on the highest priority needs facing users) and a clear goal.

Closing the gap between implementation and strategy 
I see a lot of human-centred design projects at the moment that don’t follow all the way through to implementation. Too often designers work with the local team to a degree, but as with any consulting, in the handover there’s a gap in knowledge with the client and the consultation and that’s where you get the failures. Clients are often excluded in the design and research because of budgetary constraints.

I’m really interested to see how far I can push the budget and the resources available to involve the client in the design process without compromising quality or the budget. By including the client in the design and decision making process- not only do you make sure that the findings resonate and are internalised, but you also empower the client to translate the research into actionable strategies. In my most recent project, we were working with the field staff, in their language, having them all participate to co-create the solution that they ultimately would be delivering. Although it’s not easy, it’s a step toward closing the gap between strategy and implementation.

However, even when you try to involve the client- the implementation can fail if you don’t have cooperation from midlevel and field staff. An essential part of the human-centred design methodology is that people don’t just give their opinions, but that humans that are critical to the successful implementation of a solution are  actually involved in the design of the solutions.

I’m still experimenting with this right mix of how to empower the client- it’s still hard to know when they are too many cooks in the kitchen- particularly when you’re talking strategy. You need to balance all of the variables- speed, cost and quality of the work. I’m constantly thinking of how far we can push this and moving beyond just ideas to include more prototyping, which is always difficult when you only have two days with the client.

The obsession with buzzwords
HCD is growing in popularity but not necessarily in understanding. The obsession with buzzwords is detrimental to the development sector. People forget the meaning or understanding of words or certain acronyms. Too often, people throw around words to get funding or to be part of the hype, but they don’t understand the rigor, resources or appropriate methodology that is expected. I’m worried that HCD will just become another methodology that comes and goes and that we’re going to kill it by applying the approach inappropriately or with improper resources..

The lack of accountability- particularly the lack of check and balances for quality service delivery in the social sector enables this. It’s the responsibility of both the funder and the partner to ensure quality service delivery. This goes for all services, including for enterprises, firms, and individuals offering HCD services. Ideally, we would have some sort of mechanism to increase the accountability of service providers in terms of their quality and capacity.

Funders should also take greater responsibility for ensuring that HCD is not “sprinkled in” to every proposal simply for the sake of adding another buzzword. The methodology requires time, consideration, resources, and organisational commitment to deliver results. At the moment, it seems that many NGOs are adding HCD into proposals to increase their likehood of winning funds. But without strategic commitment to and pre-meditation around how HCD will be applied, the outcome may be disappointing. With respect to raising quality-standards for HCD, funders have a lot of power through increasing accountability in the sector.’

This interview was conducted as part of our work with Bond to demystify social innovation in NGOs. You can read the whole report here.

If you want to get in touch with Mariko to find out more, please contact her at