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How To Solve Complex Problems With Design Thinking (With Case Studies)


The online world has changed the way we solve problems. Instead of one person in charge, we now have a range of individuals from different backgrounds that can solve problems in their communities. Yet, when looking at big problems, finding a process to keep everyone accountable is important. In this article, I’m going to outline how (and why we think) design thinking is the perfect process for solving the worlds biggest problems. 

We’ve talked about what design thinking is, and the human-centered approach of design thinking. So today let’s look at practical solutions to problems by using design thinking. 

Design thinking means starting with observation, rather than a problem, and learning by making.

When you start with observation, you give yourself the flexibility to make sure that you’re asking the right questions. The traditional method for problem solving involves a lot of guesswork. For example, if you want to help marathon runners perform better at a race, you can look at race statistics, observe practice schedules, and watch athletes on race day. All this can be done without actually talking to a runner.

Design thinking aims to include community members in the process. The first step would be to actually talk to the runners. Spend time with them and ask them questions. Engage in a real and thoughtful conversation about their problems and be a good listener. Many designers stop here, but the best design projects take this a step further. After interviewing the runners, they would invite them to help brainstorm and design their product. This ensures they really understand the people they are trying to help. For example, I can tell you how hard it is to run a marathon, but you don’t really understand until you are out there doing it. This helps to take innovation out of the hands of designers and CEO’s and put it into the hands of everyone. 

We also want to use prototypes to speed up the process of innovation. You can do all the research you want. But you can’t understand the strengths and weaknesses of a product or service without putting it out into the world. 

A great way to get in touch with the design process is to answer the following questions:

_1. What is - what is the current reality in the community you are trying to help. 

  1. What if - what could the solution be? Brainstorm and generate ideas. 
  2. What wows - which ideas stand out from the crowd? Prototype those ideas. 
  3. what works - test and experiment with your prototypes to discover what works and what doesn’t._

Let’s take a look at how the following organisations used design thinking to solve big challenges in their communities:

Asili. A sustainable community-owned health, agricultural, and water business in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

The problem:One out of every five children don’t live to their fifth birthdays in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). 

The process:The first step for the team was to observe the communities in the DRC and understand which factors were leading to the 20% mortality rate among children. They found that many die preventable deaths from diseases like pneumonia, diarrhea, and malaria. Yet, after spending time interviewing residents they discovered one of the main barriers to accessing healthcare was a lack of communication and transparency from the current healthcare clinics. The team then invited some of the community members to a 2-day workshop so that they could be full participants in designing the program. This was integral to design products and programs that could actually be integrated into the community. 

The solution: Asili now offers agricultural services, clean water, and a health clinic to its members. This has vastly improved the healthcare and health outcomes for children under 5. 

Brilliance by D-Rev. Combatting Jaundice in the Developing World

The problem:  Worldwide, jaundice affects millions of newborn babies. Though the illness isn’t specific to developing countries, factors such as rates of premature birth, insufficient prenatal care, and limited hospital resources mean that children born into poverty suffer disproportionately from the severe consequences of delayed or inadequate treatment.

The process: The team visited hospitals and clinics in the developing world and talked to as many doctors as they could to better understand the problem. After these interviews, they realised they did not need to create a new technology, but needed to re-design the current technology to be more sustainable. They quickly made prototypes to test internally and sent the best ones to the doctors they had interviewed, along with follow up questions. Once they found the best solution, they partnered with a medical manufacturing company to create the product on a larger scale.

The solution: D- Rev has now sold their sustainable devices to a number of hospitals and clinics in the developing world. Their designers are busy studying how many babies are being treated each year, and how many lives are being saved that would not have been possible without the new machines. 

The Strengthening Participatory Organization(SPO). Aid distribution after monsoon flooding in Pakistan

The problem: The 2011 monsoon flooding in Sindh, Pakistan’s southernmost province, affected an estimated 5.5 million people. The floods compounded the damage caused by flooding in 2010, and the lack of clean drinking water, food, healthcare and shelter resulted in communicable and non-communicable diseases across the province. It also destroyed agricultural land and livestock which resulted in a loss of livelihoods. Aid organisations needed a way to monitor their distribution of supplies and get feedback from local communities. 

The process: They first researched the access that citizens had to mobile phones and how they could use them by sending out surveys. They found that while most people would have access to mobile phone, literacy rates in the country were low so it was important to build accessibility into the solution. 

The solution: SPO partnered with FrontlineSMS, an open source messaging software. They set up a numbering feedback system which they were then able to distribute to local communities on cards in the local language. They focused on building relationships in the community so that the solution was used to give feedback about aid distribution.