by Sali and the research people team

What is design thinking?

Like “innovation”, “design thinking” has become a buzz word in humanitarian action, used by donors, NGOs, UN agencies and local actors. For example, DFID has used design thinking in its AMPLIFY innovation challenge fund, UNHCR innovation services have disseminated resources about design thinking, the Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF) has used design thinking to develop an emergency sanitation design, and the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) has used design thinking to “reimagine the humanitarian system” and recommend new solutions in its Constructive deconstruction work. Is design thinking the next big thing? Or is it just a new fad?

This blog post looks at what ‘design thinking’ actually is, why we think it’s a helpful methodology  for organizations, humanitarians, and donors, and what we’ve learned so far about using design thinking in our work.

The term “design thinking” was first coined by Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO. He defines it as the process of using interdisciplinary knowledge and skills to understand the system that the users (or beneficiaries) are part of. This is done by putting people at the heart of the problem solving process. In other words, it is the process of creating solutions with the end users, not only for the end users (see this paper).

The process starts with trying to empathise with your end user – you put yourself in their shoes, to understand how they might behave, act, feel and make decisions. Next, you work with end users to clearly define the problem or opportunity. This is followed by activities to generate ideas, prototype, and test the ideas. Iterations, or small changes to the way the solution or idea is implemented, are essential and core to the design thinking process.

Why is it useful for humanitarians?

Emerging from the private sector, design thinking has been central to many successful entrepreneurs: if a product or service doesn’t connect with a user or solve a real problem, it won’t sell. Design thinking has proved financially efficient too. By testing ideas early and engaging with customers, innovators can develop ideas in line with people’s needs, before they invest time and money into the wrong thing.

By contrast, humanitarian actors have too often used a ‘problem-centred’ approach – focusing on solutions to abstracted problems rather than designing interventions around specific people.

By focusing on what can make people’s lives better, design thinking can help humanitarians put beneficiaries and people affected by emergencies at the heart of the response and tailor solutions, services and assistance to their felt needs and ensure aid is provided in a dignified manner. This is not a silver bullet: like other participatory processes that have been tried, it takes time and commitment to deep partnership with affected communities.

How do we apply it to humanitarian action and research?

We’ve found that design thinking includes several useful tools and techniques that can be applied to solving humanitarian challenges. In particular it has three important principles:

  • problem framing: deducing the root causes of the problem
  • people-centered approaches: focusing on people, including both average and extreme users
  • system thinking: thinking about the whole system, and not just the specific problem you’re trying to address

We’ve been practicing applying these concepts to how we work as a research organisation. It helps us design our research, but also the services we provide to our clients. We’re passionate about our research impacting the humanitarian sector, and that means providing research and evaluation that humanitarian actors can really use. By trying to understand how they work and identifying real needs, we can develop realistic recommendations and useable insights.

Five approaches that we’ve found particularly valuable are:

Be diverse

The more diverse your team is, the more likely that you will benefit from different perspectives that will help you to better understand end users, their needs, and possible solutions. We’ve benefited from being a multidisciplinary team of researchers from different academic expertise, technical specializations, skills, competencies, languages, and types of humanitarian experience. Being a diverse team of researchers from the UK, Uganda, Egypt, and India has meant that all our perspectives are challenged and has widened the lens through which we see our research.

Use personas

Personas are lifelike personalities and profiles of beneficiaries or users, that help you understand how different users think, act, behave and feel – which you can then use to try to empathise with their positions. While there is no such thing as one ‘representative’ person facing a particular emergency context, we’ve tried to take time to build up a persona of some of our users, mapping out some ‘facts’ we know about them, the ‘problems’ they face, the ‘behaviours’ they show, and what their ‘goals’ are.  Understanding them helped guide us to design the best tools for each user. This method has helped us when we had limited time or direct communication with users and beneficiaries.


Observation is a way of collecting data by watching people’s behaviour, interactions and activities in a normal setting. We’ve used unstructured observations in schools, market places, and community meetings in humanitarian settings, and have found that new issues emerged from these observations. We’ve also found that true empathy is hard and takes time: unless you have walked in someone’s shoes you can’t really understand their experience and so it is important to stay humble and curious about what’s you’re seeing. We’re currently designing a toolkit with the Response Innovation Labs that includes some observation tools – we’ll share them as soon as they’re ready.

Develop great feedback mechanisms

Feedback mechanisms are structured processes we use to collect user suggestions, opinions and problems. In a recent project, we user-tested a set of M&E tools with field teams, field managers, and HQ teams in four countries. We collected feedback weekly, by phone, email, skype, through formal workshops with users and informal chats with industry experts. The feedback was collated into a log that organized the comments we received and how we use them to iterate. Having multiple, rapid, and concurrent feedback opportunities allowed us to engage with lots of different users to understand how useful they found the tools.

Iterate, iterate, iterate!

Iterations are small changes to the way the product or idea is implemented. In the project above, we continuously tweaked the M&E tools, fixing problems, clarifying language, and re-sharing the new tools with new teams.


This is the start of a series: stay tuned for part 2! If you’d like to read more in the meantime, we like this toolkit on designing for public services and this introduction to design processes.

To learn more about our research relating to humanitarian innovation, visit our portfolio or contact us. You can also read about our philosophy and principles here.  

Keywords: Humanitarian innovation, design thinking, human-centered design, humanitarian action