Human-centered design in social innovation


Marica Rizzo


Human-centered design alone won’t change the world, but as a tool it increases the likelihood of designing impactful solutions by putting the person who will gain most at the heart of the innovation process.

The +Acumen course on Human-Centered Design, developed in partnership with, has had over 197,000 course signups from participants from around the world since it opened in 2013. In one case, the U.S. Department of Labor used this free course to run customer-centered design challenges for 600 participants using the course as a backbone.

The Department of Labor challenges shifted the focus back onto users involved and allowed workforce agencies from across the U.S. to glean new insights about their work and make immediate improvements. After an exercise reaching out to speak with customers, a Tennessee nonprofit career centre was shocked to discover that they were seen as a gatekeeper, and not the welcoming community resource as they thought. In another project, a youth summer internships campaign, they experienced a 113 per cent increase in enquiries after shifting their messaging based on information gathered through design thinking.

The beautiful thing about practicing Human-Centered Design, is that it’s just that – a practice. You don’t have to be an expert to have it significantly benefit your work. All you need is a willingness to learn and the confidence to act.

As a social innovator, the first step in taking a human-centered approach is to adopt a few key mindsets. One foundational mindset is creative confidence, or the belief that everyone is creative and that creativity can take many forms. Creativity is a way of approaching the world with imagination, and it is from this inventiveness that new solutions to intractable problems are born.

The other reason we hope social innovators tap into human-centered design as a tool for change is that deep learning is inherently built into the process. It is through the continuous inquiry, testing, and mini-failures built into human-centered design that meaningful progress can made on the most complex challenges.

This dedication to incremental improvement through iteration and the willingness to learn from failure allows social innovators to test a variety of possible solutions and arrive at the one(s) that will have the deepest and widest-reaching impact.

At +Acumen, we believe in embracing creativity, continuous iteration, and a ‘fail forward’ mindset while using human-centered design for change. These foundations help social innovators design smart solutions that will be a positive force in addressing our world’s most pressing challenges.

Marica Rizzo is Senior Associate at Acumen

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