Megan Goering '08: Human Centered Design as a Tool for Social Impact

Human-centered design (HCD) – a design and management framework that develops solutions to problems by involving the human perspective in all steps of the problem-solving process – is becoming an increasingly popular approach for companies to create products that resonate more deeply with their intended users.

The approach that HCD employs can also be used outside the business context, such as creating meaningful social impact. Recently, the Wilson Center for Innovation & Leadership invited Megan Goering ’08 to campus to teach a short course, Human Centered Design for Global Social Transformation, intended to help students develop a set of tools for bringing big ideas into reality in a way that works for real people.

In addition to providing experiential learning opportunities for emerging leaders who want to implement outcomes-focused, human-centered social impact, the course reimagines the boundaries of innovation and in particular, who can contribute to designing innovative policies.

“When we talk about innovation, sometimes what we picture is a breakthrough in robotics or a science lab, or a tech office building somewhere. But the reality over the last thirty years is that we are realizing that innovation doesn’t happen in a tech lab but where there are interactions with real people,” Goering explains. “The revolution in innovation and leadership with human centered design is that anyone who can talk to people and create new ideas can become someone who steers how science and technology can impact our communities.”

Lessons from the Course

The primary task for students throughout the one-month course was to develop a short skit that envisioned an “actual” and an “ideal” world. Whereas the “actual” world represented current reality, the “ideal” world demonstrated a potential reality. Goering describes that this exercise demonstrates design thinking, a way of approaching problems to create and validate desirable solutions. “Design Thinking invites us all to think and work like creators. Wherever a human experience is involved, design thinkers can use these tools to clarify and uncover a new way,” Goering explains.

For Katie Herbert ’20, design thinking allowed her to conceptualize and measure social impact as well as inspired her to embrace the challenges associated with leadership. "I think of my world, a world where women are no longer used as pawns in war, and that women who have to flee war are no longer victims of sexual assault,” Herbert writes. “To make this a reality, I am committed to creating a better world for women refugees and those facing political conflict. Specific techniques, such as design thinking, helped me to visualize and organize large ideas to make them more grounded and doable.”

In addition to teaching the short course, Goering hosted a workshop open to all students on prototype thinking. This focused on translating concepts into tangible next steps, for students engaged in Grinnell's SPARK program or working on other community-focused projects.

Particularly, Goering stressed the importance of using tools such as empathy and experimentation to arrive at designing policies, strategies, or services that integrate and respond to the needs of people and communities. She writes, “The toolkit and workshop explore the question: What if we train students to become master implementers, whose skills allow them to make a real difference while being responsible for, and responsive to, the impact and relationships they build along the way? Can this kind of toolkit help Grinnellians take theoretical ideas into real-life experiments, so that they can quickly learn from how theoretical issues pan out in real life?"

Goering stresses that the largest gap between research objectives and creating progress in an ever-changing world is delivering social impact to real people. “Human centered design is the toolkit that bridges scientific breakthroughs and unmade impact that people are longing for in the world,” she writes. Ultimately, Goering argues that human-centered design democratizes people’s ability to evoke real change. “What’s possible in leadership in this work is that anyone that is human can have a say how technology makes an impact. It’s the bridge! It has the potential to make everyone a leader for the world that they are about. And to demystify the ways in which communities can use technology cane for their own benefit – well, that’s what innovation should be all about."

The Wilson Center seeks to inspire and prepare students as innovators and leaders through courses, personal development, and events that emphasize experiential learning.

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