Putting girls at the centre: six lessons from SPRING’s use of Human-Centred Design

Putting girls at the centre: six lessons from SPRING’s use of Human-Centred Design

In a world full of complexities, human-centred design – a mindset and methodology that focuses on the needs and desires of users – has become a respected approach to improving the success of humanitarian and development projects. Aiming to make a real impact on girls’ lives, SPRING used human-centred design (HCD) to help businesses design products and services for girls of different ages. In this blog, Isabella Di Paolo, who headed the SPRING Business Performance Evaluation, explains how SPRING businesses applied HCD and what we have learned from the experience.

The idea is simple: by putting the beneficiary at the heart of the design process, we are able to see a problem from their perspective – and what needs to be done to solve it. It is not surprising, then, that we have seen HCD making its way from the world of design to international development over the past decade and that many consider it now crucial for successful project delivery. After all, including the people whose lives we aim to transform in every stage of the design of an intervention – from inspiration to ideation and implementation – means to attune to, and possibly best meet, their needs and desires.

As SPRING used this approach so that businesses would be able to best determine and respond to girls’ needs, our evaluation carefully looked at how, and to what extent, HCD supported the businesses’ prototype development and core business operations.

These are our six findings:

  • HCD helped businesses better understand and reach girls. Although the financial support offered by SPRING was the main motivation for many businesses to participate in the programme, the chance to refine their products and business operations with the support of experts and free consultancies was another main reason to participate. This shows that the opportunity to learn and expand one’s know-how is just as important as the financial incentive, and accelerator programmes should honour this.
  • Both theory and practice are important to understand and apply HCD. SPRING businesses received training and gained direct experience in applying HCD through bootcamps and support from the implementing partner. As HCD provided businesses with an understanding of girls and their backgrounds as well their challenges and needs, they were able to refine what they offered to adolescent girls – which was particularly valuable for businesses that did not previously have a youth or gender focus. One business from our third cohort pointed out that the combination of theory and practice was one of SPRING’s greatest strengths:

‘I think that [HCD] was […] the big takeaway for us from SPRING. Now that has completely been mainstreamed in our work and we are using that […] as the foundation for anything that we do.’

  • The SPRING experience shows that HCD, when used correctly, can lead to better designed products and services. Among all businesses that reached more than 5,000 girls, continued use of HCD was the most effective way to understand and respond to the needs of adolescent girls – a crucial step to leading an empowered, self-determined life.
  • Businesses refined their offerings by continuing to carry out HCD research over time. this allowed businesses to better refine their prototype and offer innovative solutions relevant to girls’ lives and needs. Maya, for example, an e-health business in Bangladesh focusing on menstrual health, learned through continuous HCD research that users were not using the ‘ask’ page as they were confused about how to use it. In response to that, Maya changed its user interface and created a more user-friendly box to ask questions. It also placed the question button on the top toolbar to make it more visible. This resulted in an increase in the number of girls asking questions.
  • HCD helped businesses meet nuanced needs. Businesses recognised that adolescent girls make a heterogenous group where each sub-group has specific needs that play into their consumer behaviour. Consequently, businesses allowed for some flexibility in their prototype to tailor their products and services to these sub-groups. In Pakistan, for example, Sehat Kahani introduced medical visits at home – in addition to visits in the clinic – to be able to reach teenage mothers and young brides, a group that usually has limited freedom to leave their homes.
  • It can be beneficial to apply HCD principles across the entire population, rather than just girls. Some businesses targeted users beyond girls. In Nepal, Fightback – a business that teaches self-defence to girls – broadened its target group. Since the feedback from the user research showed that boys felt excluded, the business realised how important it is to sensitise and to educate boys on gender-related issues and responded including them to safety training.

Of course, HCD is not the be-all and end-all, either. HCD is often related to higher costs, and businesses reported that staff turnover and competing priorities were challenging for them. In that sense, HCD remains a methodology that is not always easy to implement in the real world – but the SPRING experience shows us that investing in continued application and uptake of HCD can support business performance after the end of the programme – and the girls they aim to reach.

For further insights on the impact of HCD on business performance and girl reach, please read Tetra Tech’s Summative Business Performance Evaluation report.