The Conversation of Design

Why storytelling is essential to people, partners, and possibility

Telling stories is an age-old way people share ideas. At IDEO.org, storytelling sits at the core of how we learn about the people whom we design solutions for. The stories we hear from people inspire great design, and we design great stories to inspire others.

When we tackle a poverty-related challenge, we use a process called human-centered design, which begins by talking with people. In practice, it involves less talking and more listening. We visit people in their homes, tag along for a day in their lives, and learn to feel some of their biggest frustrations and aspirations. Our process involves fewer words and more live action. We ask people to participate in activities, cut and paste collages, act out role-plays, and play games. By doing so, what we learn is richer and our ideas are stress-tested by the people we seek to serve.

In 2014, we partnered with Mercy Corps to help survivors of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines rebuild their livelihoods. The communities most affected were low-income, rural, and without banks. So, our team asked, if these people had never used a bank before, what financial services would they feel comfortable using? How could they get the money to restart the farms and businesses they’d so recently lost? In addition to interviews where we asked people these same questions, we created an interactive board game called Loan Surprise, named after a popular game show in the region. All it needed was a big board, three big dice, and people to play.

The IDEO.org team designed the Loan Surprise game to understand what kind of financial services people affected by Typhoon Haiyan might want. By prompting them to tell the story of their recovery, we learned so much about what they want and need.

With a roll of the dice, a player might see a loan for $100 and plenty of time to pay it off, but if he or she couldn’t repay the loan, he or she would have to dance in front of the entire village. For the community, this was an embarrassing punishment. With every roll of the dice, we quickly saw a different combination of terms. We watched closely to observe people’s body language, and asked what the player thought and felt about the results.

By designing a visually compelling way to more deeply engage with the people we’re designing for, we had greater access to stories of how rural people felt about banks and the financial products available to them. We learned that because many had unsteady cash flows, they were afraid to take loans they may not be able to pay back. Though everyone knew loan sharks were expensive and exploitative, sometimes they were the only option because there was always one nearby.

Ultimately, by designing this game, we created the circumstance in which to harvest amazing stories. We got the information we sought by design.

And by the end of our time playing Loan Surprise, we had identified which elements of a financial product invoked excitement and which elicited fear. These stories inspired the IDEO.org team to design a financial product that would appeal to and meet the needs of the typhoon survivors. 

But that’s just one side of the coin. By creating well-designed visual stories, we’ve also been able to spark the social sector to adopt human-centered design. In 2011, the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP) sought to move the needle on improving financial inclusion for the world’s poor by applying human-centered design. Over the next three years, CGAP sponsored seven projects in eight countries and worked with several human-centered design firms, including IDEO.org. At the end, they wanted to share what they’d learned and promote more customer-centered financial services.

Rather than publish a traditional report, CGAP wanted to try something that pushed the boundaries of what it delivered to its international development and financial services audience. 

So we worked with them on a visually rich and story-driven take on our design process. The result is the online publication "Insights into Action: What Human-Centered-Design Means for Financial Inclusion." 

What sets "Insights into Action" apart is that unlike so many social sector reports, insights and stories come first. In a way, it mirrors our approach to storytelling while practicing human-centered design. Lead with people; make sense of what they tell you; design for desirability.

We imagined "Insights Into Action" as more of a magazine than a report, which gave us a chance to lead with stories, share key insights, and support them with splashy charts and visuals.

Our goal was always for "Insights into Action" to feel more like a magazine and less like a report, and make people want to pick it up. We leaned hard on infographics, flow charts, and decision trees instead of long-winded case studies. CGAP also wanted to address the sector’s major criticisms, so we imagined these concerns in a series titled “From the Desk of a Skeptic.” In one sidebar, the Skeptic asks, “What are HCD’s top three drawbacks?” to which CGAP provides candid, pithy responses.

In the nine months after its release, "Insights into Action" became the most downloaded publication from CGAP’s website, with nearly 4,000 downloads. What’s more, it’s helped CGAP consider how the group can continue to communicate its insights in more design-led, story-driven, and human-centered ways. 

For us, design is a conversation. And much of our work comes in designing the right kind of conversation. If we’re not hearing directly from the people we’re looking to serve, we’re simply talking to ourselves.


This article first appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of Change Agent, published by The Communications Network.

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