What is human-centred design?

Published: 8 February 2024

Human-centred design is a really practical and repeatable approach to solving social problems. It involves two things. Firstly, it involves design, making something new in the world, and also this idea of human-centredness. How can we understand the experiences, the motivations and the behaviours of our end users? And how can we integrate that into the social programs that we develop? Human-centred design is a really practical approach to ensure that the lives of our end users feed into the design of the social programs that we practice and use. 

Human-centred design is absolutely crucial to everything that we do at Social Finance. And that’s because people are at the centre of our work, whether we are developing a new data tool for children’s social care, whether we are trying to understand how to build a new outcomes fund to provide end of life care for cancer patients, we really do need to understand the lives of our end users. 

We start off by asking the really big questions. What’s the problem that our clients are trying to solve? What are the lives of our users like? Then we conduct some explorative research to get to the bottom of those questions. That can involve things like interviews, focus groups, and maybe some more participatory methods.

Thirdly, we think really carefully about how we can collaborate with our users, with our partners and with communities to design and scale new solutions to those problems. And lastly, when we are working at scale, we try to collect evidence and data of what the impact of our programs actually is. That enables us to test and iterate over time.

If we think about what human-centred design is really trying to do, it’s trying to understand the lives of our users and ensure that that feeds into decisions that are made in a boardroom. But that’s not always the way that things have been decided. So we have to work very carefully with our partners to bring them on a journey so that they might understand the work we’re trying to do.

How has Social Finance used human-centred design in practice? We partnered with Wellcome on an exciting prize that would enable research teams and data teams to innovate and develop new tools to support research in the mental health space. Because we knew that the outputs of this collaboration were going to affect people who have lived experience of mental health challenges, we wanted to make sure that they were involved from the very start.

So we set up a youth advisory network. This was a group of people who had experiences of anxiety and depression, but also experience in the research field, and wanted to see what they could do to change the structures that influenced their lives. The youth advisory network was really involved in the decision-making processes that set up the structure of the prize. We didn’t just say to them, this is what you’re going to do. We gave them the opportunity to tell us what they wanted to feed into, what they wanted to change. 

For instance, they were able to write blog posts and different communications as part of the prize. They were also involved in the selection of the teams who were actually part of the prize itself. This is a really exciting way to see how we can embed lived experience in the work that we do.

What has been the impact of involving users? We don’t have a counterfactual. We can’t actually see what it would have been like if we didn’t involve users really early on in the process. However, I think there are tangible examples that we can point to and that usually involves when there’s been the development of a new product, a new tool or a new technical solution. And so I’d really like to talk through one particular example now, and that’s Family Context.

Family Context is a tool that Social Finance developed working with Leeds City Council and also with Stockport. This work was funded by the Local Digital Fund. We conducted years of research that involved participatory research and also interviews with social workers. 

And we found out that it was really hard for social workers to understand the connections that children have in their lives. Which other authorities they are talking to, which other agencies are those children engaged with, and who are the other people who are safeguarding those children. Without that critical information, it was really hard for social workers to make decisions for those children. So we needed to understand that. And then we moved forward to develop a tool to support them.

The result was Family Context. This is a tool that enables social workers to see the different connections for each child. This enables them to make more effective decisions to safeguard those children. I think it’s a great example of seeing the impact of this work out there in the world.

Human-centred design is a practical and repeatable approach to solving social problems, and it is crucial to everything we do at Social Finance. 

In this video, Camilla Devereux, Design & Research Practice Lead at Social Finance, explains what human-centred design is, and outlines how it informs our work.

The interview was conducted as part of the Uncovering User Voice programme for Big Society Capital and Good Finance.

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