Teaming behavioural science with design for humanitarian innovation

27 September 2017

Liz Barker, Global Head of BE Intelligence at The Behavioural Architects, spoke last week at an event at the Royal College of Art bringing designers, behavioural experts and humanitarian aid experts together to discuss 'Where next for Humanitarian Innovation and Design?'

Despite a plethora of media-friendly humanitarian 'design solutions', many of these seem a world away from what might actually succeed with impact in the real world. For many stakeholders, the model of such solutions being 'handed down' from a distant benefactor is an uncomfortable one, outdated and politically suspect.

It appears there's a long way to go to improve the development and delivery of appropriate and effective humanitarian products and services.

In her talk, Liz outlined what insights from behavioural science could bring to humanitarian innovation and design:

  • How behavioural science can strengthen methodologies used to research - to really get at the heart of the user experience
  • How we can use behavioural science to better analyse the context - incorporating concepts like discounting the future, affect bias and loss aversion to explain current behaviour or understanding the science of habits to explain embedded behaviours.
  • How we can use behavioural science in design - steering the user experience through how a product or service is designed and used.
  • And finally, how we can use behavioural science to change behaviour - what techniques can we use to encourage adoption of new products and services.

Other talks revealed some of the behavioural problems facing humanitarian aid such as adoption failures. For example, how products like solar cooking ovens handed out by aid agencies in refugee camps are not being used by refugees who prefer their traditional charcoal fires and instead use the reflective material from the solar oven to line their tents.

Yet, by analysing how people are adapting and innovating what they have available, we can learn more about their needs and learn from their creativity to identify the best solutions, looking at how people are solving design problems themselves instead of arriving with a solution pre 'baked' on another continent. Users can be thought of as the 'contextual experts' - the designers are really the novices!

One talk from a Medecin Sans Frontier nurse told how she and a logistician had worked intensely with a UK design agency to devise a design solution to hold up the tubes of IV fluid when transporting patients in a vehicle. With so much contextual knowledge and understanding of the problem from time spent working intensely in the field, teamed with the expert input and guidance from the design agency, they were able to outline and devise a practical and efficient solution which is now being tested in the field.

These and other talks really highlighted that identifying and designing the best solutions is a cross-disciplinary exercise, where the whole can be far greater than the sum of the parts by forming a team with a multitude of different types of expertise - from designers, behavioural scientists, users and other stakeholders.

The event was facilitated by Dr John Stevens, researcher and lecturer in Innovation Design at the RCA, and by Bas Raijmakers and Geke van Dijk of design research consultancy STBY, and hosted in the Royal College of Art's Senior Common Room, in Kensington on 22nd September 2017.

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