Using Human-Centered Design to Address Domestic Violence: Q & A with Jaspal Sandhu

Jaspal S. Sandhu, PhD Guest author

Jaspal Sandhu, PhD, Managing Partner of Gobee Group, a leading health and social impact design firm, and Professor of Practice in Maternal, Child and Adolescent Health at UC Berkeley, School of Public Health, joined Amanda Kim, Communications Officer at the Foundation, to talk about representation, collaborative problem-solving, and the importance of lived experience in creating health equity. Jaspal is the lead for Reimagine Lab, a Foundation-supported initiative that applies human-centered design to domestic violence.

Jaspal, can you define “human-centered design” and describe how it’s different from “design thinking”?

Human-centered design is a collaborative approach to problem solving that puts people first. Some people use the two terms interchangeably. Many people think of “design thinking” as a process with clear steps. “Human-centered design” is also about a process but it puts people at the center of that process. This ensures that there's not an "us versus them" way of thinking and it creates a way for many different organizations, groups, and individuals, to use design.

Who are the humans in human-centered design?

In public sector and social impact work, the people who are using a product, the people who benefit from the product, and the people who are paying for the product, are, in many cases, different. When we talk about people, we're talking about all of these groups who are integrated into a process that enables us to do good for people, on behalf of people, and with people.

How does human-centered design promote creative group problem solving? 

People are curious learners who adapt well to complex and changing environments. Design helps us see situations differently and figure out the right problem. As a creative process, it helps us work better together, elevating quiet voices, holding good tension, expanding the space for solutions and using evidence to guide decisions.

What does the creative process look like?

At Gobee Group, we use three phases or modes: understand, translate, and experiment. Other design groups will often use four, five, or seven. Even though different groups have different frameworks, they are really just variations on a theme. The approach is the same. We use a three-part framework to make it easier for non-designers to come along for the journey. Designers alone cannot solve the complex challenges that matter to society.

Let's talk about that important first step, understanding.

If we want to understand problems and situations, we have to see them from somebody else's perspective. In Reimagine Lab, the fellows established very early on that they needed to integrate the perspective of harm doers into the work. That’s a revolutionary approach to ending domestic violence. We could have started the planning process with assumptions about needs and problems, but actually engaging with people — talking to them, shadowing them, and learning from them — helped us better understand the real challenge in front of us.

What are some of the challenges to understanding and therefore, problem solving?

People are pretty good problem solvers. I have faith in our species to solve problems, but I don't always have faith in organizations to define problems the right way. That’s one challenge. Another challenge is that it’s not easy for us, as individuals, groups, or organizations to understand the perspectives of people we don't identify with, or even people that we don’t like — people whose values and experiences are very different from our own. That’s the real test of empathy and understanding — for which, I think there's value well beyond design in our modern, current society.

Can you describe the translate and experiment modes?

The translate mode is a messy experience that takes the questions, challenges, customer research, and turns insights into solutions. While in this mode, we challenge our starting assumptions and reframe our group thinking. And we ideate — we develop dozens of competing ideas in response to our central question. Translation is about bringing insights and solutions together.

Experimenting is really an opportunity to test, learn, and then re-create. Design gives us a way to start small, and learn, build, and grow over time, and have confidence that when we launch, we're going to be successful, because we've tested, validated, learned, and reshaped, along the way.

How do you form a team with the capacity to understand and solve extremely complicated problems?

Life experiences and identity are incredibly important. There's research that shows that too much alignment in teams, creates problems throughout the process. Having diversity and a lot of different kinds of diversity, yields better outcomes. You need some constructive conflict to do better. The group dynamic is not just an ingredient, it's the driving force of innovation. But, if you try to fill quotas, even with intersectional identities, you can't do it in California. Metrics is not the way to think about it. You need enough diversity of experience to spark meaningful discussion, and interaction, and reflection, and pause.

That reminds me of a study that found that diverse juries perform better and commit fewer errors. Can you talk about this interplay between diversity, problem solving and design?

For sure. When people talk about diversity in design, they’re often talking about a diversity in disciplines, which is important, but diversity in experience matters tremendously. Gender, race, culture, life experiences all matter because design is a powerful force and without diversity, we miss things. In some cases, we might not have enough creative conflict or the best information and, in the worst cases, it can lead to further inequity.

“When any large and identifiable segment of the community is excluded from jury service, the effect is to remove from the jury room qualities of human nature and varieties of human experience, the range of which is unknown and perhaps unknowable.”

-Justice Thurgood Marshall

What was it like to apply human-centered design to a complex social issue like domestic violence?

Domestic violence is huge, complex, pervasive. It cuts across generations and geographies. It happens in all communities and has been happening for a long time. That's a lot of people, communities, and different needs to design for. We relied on both the expertise of the Foundation and the expertise of the fellows that we identified, to really grapple with this complexity. The Foundation helped us see the challenge through a systems lens. The fellows had empathy and passion, lived experience and diversity, and they were leaders, so they came from a position of always trying to support others. Design provided them with a new support to develop a mosaic of solutions and innovations. We’ve got to keep at big social problems like domestic violence in different ways, and in different groups.

There really are so many drivers to domestic violence and we’re all affected in different ways, every person, every community, which is why different approaches like human-centered design and multisector collaboration are so necessary and welcome. Thank you, Jaspal, we appreciate your expertise and the great work you are doing in design and health equity. I hope that you can come back and share some reflections on your other innovative health projects.

Thank you, Amanda, I’d love to do that.

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