Human-Centered Design 101: Leading With Transparency, Empathy and Respect

First Republic Bank
January 4, 2021

Founded in 2011 as a design firm, IDEO’s nonprofit division aims to design a more just and inclusive world. The organization’s 65 staff members work out of San Francisco, New York City and Nairobi, Kenya. They have reached 8.9 million people by devising more than 70 solutions in 39 countries. “The range of solutions could look like many things: services, systems, products, strategy,” explained Ridhi Arun, a Senior Program Coordinator at

In a webinar for First Republic’s nonprofit community, Dagmawit Mengestu, Senior Program Coordinator at, and Ridhi explained what Human-Centered Design (HCD) is, how it works and its potential value to other nonprofits.

About Human-Centered Design

The goal of Human-Centered Design is to create solutions or adaptations that are desirable, feasible and viable. “It’s really a creative problem-solving approach,” Dagmawit explained. The backbone of’s work, “is a process that starts with the people you’re designing for and ends with solutions that are tailor-made to suit their needs,” she said.

The desirability, feasibility and viability trifecta is key to HCD. “We begin with listening–working to understand partners’ needs and desires from their point of view, and using their experiences as a jumping off point for design,” Dagmawit explained. “We often say that HCD contains this trifecta: It has to be desirable (meaning there has to be a need for it from the community you are working for), it’s viable (it can live on beyond our work and has a viable sustainable model), and it’s feasible (meaning that it’s designed to the capability of the context and adapted to its needs).” Moreover, empathy is at the core of HCD and’s partner-centered approach; only by intentionally learning how clients see and experience the world and their immediate environment can designers effectively develop solutions.

How HCD Works

Inspiration, the first of three phases integral to HCD, provides the spark for design, from inspiration flow ideas and, ultimately, implementation. A design team works together and individually in a flow of convergence and divergence along the way.  At, designers carry seven mindsets throughout their process. These mindsets explore and uncover the philosophy behind their approach to creative problem solving:

  1. Creative confidence: “The belief that you can, and will, come up with creative solutions to big problems in the world.”
  2. Make it: Using anything from cardboard to digital tools, make something based on your ideas. “You are taking the risk out of the process by making something simple first.”
  3. Learn from failure: Arrive at a solution by listening, thinking, building, and refining from a place of not knowing.
  4. Empathy: “The people you’re designing for are the roadmap to your solution.”
  5. Embracing ambiguity: It’s not comfortable, but start from a place of not knowing and remain open to lots of ideas.
  6. Optimism: “We have to believe that progress is the only option.”
  7. Iterate, iterate, iterate: Get more ideas by seeking continual feedback from your partners and clients.

“We try fast, fail fast, and fail often in order to reach higher confidence in our solution,” Dagmawit explained.

How the HCD Process can work for non-designers — and your nonprofit

These principles provide the ethos for the inspiration, ideation, and implementation phases of the design process. The HCD process and mindsets are meant to be taken up by anyone–and when paired with craft expertise, can be a holistic and creative approach to solving challenges.

First and foremost, learn from people. “We embrace an informed beginner’s mindset,” Ridhi said. “We’ll want to learn from the people we’re designing with, as they are the true experts in their lived experiences.” This requires working alongside your partner community and immersing yourself in their context by being a fly on the wall or listening deeply through various methods. Additionally, seek out experts’ insight. “Folks have dedicated their careers to studying and exploring some of the same challenges we seek to solve, and we would be remiss if we did not base our process on this rich foundation of expertise,” Ridhi said.

“After listening deeply during the Inspiration phase through design research, our teams will download and begin synthesizing,” Ridhi said. “This is a moment for the team to share stories, pattern-mapping, converge on key insights, and begin to diverge again into ideation.” Once team members have shared their learnings, they create frameworks for devising possible solutions; this can be with journey maps, 2x2s, and other tools.

Ultimately, your team will develop a statement (at, this is a design statement) to explain the problem at hand succinctly and then create a right-sized question to guide the design process

The Ethos behind this isn’t to center the team, but to center a right-sized question that’s broad enough to catalyze new ideas, yet is narrow enough to keep the topic from overwhelming.

During the Ideation phase, team brainstorming helps generate an abundance of possible solutions to the question. HCD provides seven guidelines for brainstorming, which apply to any nonprofit team:

  1. Defer judgment
  2. Go for quantity
  3. Be visual
  4. Embrace wild ideas!
  5. Build on the ideas of others
  6. Stay focused on the topic
  7. One conversation at a time

With ideas in hand, it’s time to create prototypes of a handful. Prototypes enable teams to try potential solutions and — crucially — receive feedback from end-users and partners. designers define “prototype” “in the broadest sense; it’s an invitation to receive feedback,” Ridhi said. Where applicable, the process involves crafting physical mock-ups, and it always includes getting rapid feedback to “make failure smaller, faster, and cheaper.”

With multiple failures and refinements behind the team after “iterating on a prototype a few times, we use what we’ve learned to design a product, service, or program,” Ridhi said.’s solutions range from financial planning tools for Latinx families in San Francisco, to tying financial planning to family planning for married adolescent in Ethiopia, to creating welcoming mental health clinics for young people in the Bay Area.

How to Get Started

As other nonprofit organizations implement Human-Centered Design techniques, including working with and alongside partners and clients, they might wonder how best to bridge the gap between partner communities and designers. Ridhi offers this simple approach: “Always lead with empathy, transparency and respect.”

To get started, visit’s Design Kit, where you can find the Field Guide to Human-Centered Design and gain access to’s mindsets, methods and more.

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