Understanding Design

How Can We Maximize Impact?

Significant progress has been made in improving global health outcomes. Since 1990, preventable child deaths have declined by more than 50%, and maternal mortality has declined by nearly 50%. Despite this significant progress, we will not reach the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 if current rates of progress remain the same.

To amplify impact, global health practitioners should look to other approaches and methodologies that can be incorporated into their programming. Design is increasingly recognized as an approach that can improve uptake and adherence, strengthen strategy and implementation planning, introduce new capabilities and collaboration models, and boost buy-in and ownership across all levels of health systems. Design can also play a role in better understanding how to apply an equity lens to programming in order to target the most vulnerable populations.

Top-down view of 3 people looking at a Design persona page

Image courtesy of Sonder Design

To find out more how design can achieve better global health outcomes, improve processes, expand capabilities and collaboration, and increase equity, you can download our publication on the Value of Design.

The Need to Compromise

While design can amplify impact in global health programming, it is not a silver bullet or magic wand. To incorporate design into global health programming and vice versa, both designers and global health practitioners need to compromise on the methodologies that feel familiar to them. It is important for these compromises to be understood and discussed at the outset of a project to establish a dialogue and trust. Here are some reasons why compromise is necessary to achieve value:

1. Global health relies on a hypothesis-driven approach

In this approach evidence is generated to develop and refine interventions. Interventions are then studied further through additional data collection and analysis. The design process, however, adopts a flexible approach that allows for pivots, iterations, and rapid prototyping. While global health is outcome-driven, seeking solutions that are backed by rigorous data, design places an equal value on intuition and experimentation. However, following the design of interventions, an evidence base can be collected to measure, evaluate, and refine interventions. This is similar to the hypothesis-driven approach of global health programming.

2. Data collected by designers is complementary

During the initial stages of the design process, designers benefit by engaging with existing evidence before embarking on the design research phase. This helps in calibrating the breadth and depth of information to be collected during the research phase. When the existing evidence is scarce, design can adopt a more rigorous data collection process. Data collected by designers during such research exercises might be different in nature from what is typical in global health but can still be just as valuable an evidence base.

3. Unique constraints faced by both professions

Design typically starts by looking at the needs and behaviors of end users in a holistic, system-based manner. This can often mean that their insights intersect multiple sectors such as education, economic growth, and gender dynamics. While global health practitioners recognize and work toward the systemic nature of global health challenges, resources are often directed at specific vertical health challenges, such as HIV or malaria. The constraints that global health practitioners face need to be recognized by designers (and vice versa).

4. Uncertainty is part of the process

By its nature, the design process necessitates flexibility and uncertainty. Until its final stages, outcomes of the design process remain unknown given their reliance on divergence and convergence. To that end, designers and global health practitioners need to understand and discuss how to plan projects at the outset and should set up mechanisms that document the evolution of their thinking during a project.

Working together is possible

Many projects have successfully navigated these potential tension points. The resources available on this website were developed, in part, to address these potential challenges and bring together a community that draws from both design and global health experts.