Equity-Centred Design Thinking is all about Progress
When a tangled, messy problem stares back at us, our first instinct is to jump right in and begin teasing it into neat, manageable strands. Sounds good, right? Unfortunately, big, complex problems require us to look at things holistically, systematically, and with the knowledge that true progress needs new perspectives of understanding.
And understanding is just the first of three steps along the path to equity-centred design. The other two? insight and testing.
Let’s dive a little deeper into each.
Many problem-solvers jump straight to a solution. But real innovation comes from new perspectives, and new perspectives emerge from new understanding. Design offers a way to understanding, through people.
It recognizes that people are at the heart of every problem we solve, as beneficiaries, stakeholders, and participants. And it takes empathy-based approaches to understanding the people connected to a challenge. How does the situation affect them? How do their feelings interact with the challenge? What would make life better in a way they need?
When designing with people this way, it’s important to start with equity. Who is consulted, and how? Social inequities can be baked into design, but they can also be deliberately designed out. Equity-centred design includes specific tools and processes for doing so.
Understanding is the most crucial part of the equation, but also the part that’s most often skipped over. I help teams resist this rush. It’s understanding that drives insight and novel solution, that prevents us from spinning our wheels doing the same thing over and over, without understanding how people work.
Insight turns the messy data we get from ‘understanding’ into ideas that sharpen our focus. It’s as much an art as a science, and it’s much easier taught by experience than explained. But there are tools for developing insights, and I teach them to my teams all the time.
Storytelling is a big one. Stories extract themes from individual experiences and present them in a way our brains are hard-wired to follow. They close the gap between individuals, make it easier to see from other perspectives, and fuel change. Through story-based tools like personas and journey maps, designers organize complex data to find new opportunities.
Ideas are nurtured by understanding and insight. They’re tested in the real world. Design favors trial-and-error prototyping over expensive all-or-nothing implementations.
Our ideas fail if our understanding of people isn’t quite right. The ways in which they fail tell us how to readjust and try again. By taking many small, low-risk stabs at the problem, we grow a final solution that incorporates gradual learning and leads to better outcomes.
Wicked Problems are a Perfect Target for Design
Design thinking can be used to design anything: products, services, processes, programs, or building layouts. But it’s most necessary for really tough problems — wicked problems.
Wicked problems are ambiguous. They don’t have clear yes or no answers. Everyone has opinions and feelings and motivations and sources of knowledge, but no one can pinpoint a clear root cause or an obvious first step.
Housing for underserved populations
Mental health challenges and support in an organization
Food equity and distribution
Equity in hiring and admission processes
Wicked problems are often an organization’s most persistent challenges. In a way, they can’t really be solved, because there’s no final answer. But there are always steps that make things better or worse. There’s always improvement, and there can be substantial improvement.
That’s where design works best.
Benefits of Design: Culture Shifts and Solutions
Design responds to the messiness of wicked problems. It revels in the mess, exploring it until it sees new perspectives and new paths out. The more tangled a situation, the less well the problem responds to traditional linear approaches, and the greater the impact of design thinking.
Wicked problems are often tangled because of conflicting stakeholders. Because equity-centred design is about hearing everyone, it heals stakeholder relationships and encourages engagement. It designs with people rather than for them. It opens up equitable, accessible possibilities.
As relationships, understanding, and insight improve within an organization, mindsets shift. Not only do organizations find new ideas; they also change cultures as they better understand their people and themselves. That’s the transformative power of design.
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