Human-Centered Design And Behavioral Science: Chris Larkin

“I guess what we’re talking about is a need for systems change ultimately or systems-level thinking and change. And I think human-centered design has classically been focused around, well, let’s start with the user, let’s really look at what is going on with them, their desire, and then understand what could be feasible or viable as a solution. I think as we look at these bigger complex problems with quite a large degree of change, that’s going to involve a lot of stakeholders as needed. I think there’s a really interesting space for human-centered design in that leveraging frameworks from maybe more academic type system thinking as well.”

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In today’s episode of The Decision Corner, we are joined by Chris Larkin, the senior director of impact at At IDEO, Chris works with design teams to integrate systems thinking, social and behavior change frameworks, and measurement in the creative design process. She has a long track record of impact in social and international development. She has worked at companies such as Girl Effect and BBC Media Action to pursue creative and effective strategies to engineer behavioral change. 

Chris holds an MSc in Occupational and Organisational Psychology and a Bachelor’s in Applied Psychology. She has worked extensively in East Africa and has lived in Dublin, London, Yangon, and New York. 

In this episode, we discuss: 

  • Human-centered design: what it is, where it is applied, and who benefits from its implementation
  • Mental strategies for organizational behavior
  • The surprising ways that design experience manifests itself in a team context
  • The factors holding people back from achieving goals like financial stability
  • Process vs product
  • IDEO’s successful work in reproductive health

Key Quotes

The methods and mindsets of human-centered design

“I usually describe human-centered design as an approach that is made up of methods and mindsets. You often see human-centered design described as, well, as a set of phases, so there are phases of understanding a problem, where you’re getting into research and inspiration, where you’re developing a solution, which takes in generating ideas and brainstorming, that little Post-it note type brainstorm sessions that a lot of people associate as well with human-centered design. A lot of that from the generative phase, being your called ideation and within that this prototyping, which is testing things, going out in rough and ready ways at the beginning to test and learn, and then from that solution development process, getting into this phase of really making something that’s tangible, that’s implementable.”

Convergence and Divergence as mental strategies

“So divergence is kind of, as the word suggests, a moment where you allow yourself freedom to think and look really broadly to imagine and to open up many possibilities. So when you’re early on in a design process, you want, particularly in research, as you want to look widely at a problem, you want to go, that’s interesting over there, let’s kind of explore. You want to start deciding there’s many different users. We’re going to talk to it. Let’s have the space to do that. As you get into your research, you’re working with your findings. You will naturally in your analysis and synthesis start to converge because you’re saying, okay, here are the key things that we need to be thinking about. These are the most interesting kinds of findings from the field. Here’s you converging in a sense on the barriers that need to be addressed.”

Systematic evidence reviews

“Here’s how other people have thought about this problem. Here are the frameworks that you could be kind of leveraging right now to help you kind of organize what is this map that you need to start exploring around? And I encourage teams to work with socio-ecological models kind of as a default early on, cause it’s a kind of a nice catch-all model to start saying, okay, well, if we have a user, they are sitting within a society and a community that’s influencing them. And there are services and infrastructures that are all affecting, maybe not the service we’re trying to design for, but other services and things that matter in their lives.”

The perpetual trap of financial literacy

“There’s a bit of a chicken and egg in that situation where if I don’t have an income coming in and I don’t have control over my finances, it’s quite hard for me to even be looking for these digital financial products, but in the same way, having these digital financial services and making the access to my money and the ways of saving easier will actually lead to some of this economic empowerment.”


Brooke: Hello everyone, and welcome to the podcast of The Decision Lab, a socially conscious applied research firm that uses behavioral science to improve outcomes for all of society. My name is Brooke Struck, research director at TDL, and I’ll be your host for the discussion. My guest today is Chris Larkin, Senior Director of Impact at In today’s episode, we’ll be talking about combining human-centered design with behavioral science, and figuring out how to be creative, as well as structured. Chris, thanks for joining us.

Chris: Hi, Brooke. Nice to be here.

Brooke: Tell us everything we’ve ever needed to know about human-centered design, but were afraid to ask.

Chris: I guess it’s probably a good place to start with a few key concepts in terms of what human-centered design is. I usually describe human-centered design as an approach that is made up of methods and mindsets. You often see human-centered design described as, well, as a set of phases. So there are phases of understanding a problem, where you’re getting into research and inspiration, phases where you’re developing a solution, which takes in generating ideas and brainstorming, that little Post-it note type brainstorm sessions that a lot of people associate with human-centered design. That is a generative phase, also called ideation, and within that is prototyping, which is testing things, going out in rough and ready ways at the beginning to test and learn. And then from that solution development process, getting into the final phase of really making something that’s tangible, that’s implementable.

Chris: I guess in some ways you might call this big-D design, as the craft piece, the production, the building, and making comes in. It’s happening right through the process and through prototyping, but particularly as you get to that other end. Many design projects, depending on what you’re leveraging human-centered design for, will go beyond that concept and solution creation mode to actually setting up the team to launch and run something, and increasingly beyond that to continue to optimize as something runs and, hopefully, starts to create impact and create change in the world. Those are your phases, and within that, you have methods and mindsets. The methods are, I would say, like pretty well known right now, design research, ways of going out, doing deep qualitative work, often ethnographic approaches, really trying to connect with users and understand what it is that they need. Like what are the entry points, what creates value for the user, and trying to understand a problem from their perspective. As I mentioned with prototyping, a lot of the methods there are around quick and rapid testing, always trying to make things tangible. So you’re asking questions about something that someone’s looking at or touching, you’re making it as real as possible so as to make those answers as grounded as possible in what they would actually do, as opposed to having someone thinking in the abstract. 

Chris: There are many, many methods within that, but I think what’s really important around all of this is the mindset. So, some of the mindsets in particular that will always be bringing into the work is an optimism that there is a solution there; a mindset around there is no bad idea; and creating that openness as well, so that people can come with early or scrappy ideas. There may be something there or there may be not, but either way, we’re going to learn and be inspired. And really importantly is that we’re always iterating, you’re never really out of the phase where you stop learning, you stop finding new meaning. This idea that there’s always a tweak that can be made. There’s always a way to build on something that you’ve already started to develop.

Chris: And then across that, actually a really important feature as well is around this idea of it not being a linear process. So, it’s not a process where you define objectives, and then you go into your research, you develop a direction forward and you build a thing. Actually, those kinds of phases are more circular. So, you may loop back into a phase of understanding the problem and your user, right at the point where you’re starting to actually launch or take some solutions out, you’re starting to learn new things. It’s about being able to go back in and feed that back in and rev and be okay with an early failure that then gets you to somewhere stronger. And so, those cycles happen in loops that get a little bit tighter as you go along. Obviously you don’t want to go back to the beginning when you’re at the end, but you are leaving that space open to continue that kind of learning cycle.

Brooke: Within this idea of creativity and openness seems to be a really central concept, and that has, to my ears anyway, some notes of reactivity and responsiveness, really leaving yourself open to see what you discover that’s out there, not putting blinders on and saying, “Well, there are only certain types of solutions that I’m looking for in this kind of thing.” It’s really this openness and responsiveness to be able to react to what you find. So, any structure or pre-given form seems like it would be some type of limitation on that creativity or openness, but of course, structure and pre-given form think only of the experimental method and the knowledge base that comes with something like behavioral science, those are hallmarks of knowledge and experience and expertise. So, how do we get the best of both worlds? How do we enjoy the benefits of this openness and creativity, responsiveness to new possibilities, all while continuing to enjoy the benefits of knowledge and experience about what has worked, what’s already been tried, what’s a dead end? How do we square that circle?

Chris: In design, as applied to social impact particularly around social and behavior change challenges, that is really important actually now in how designers practice. Talking about the beginning of the design process is a good place to start. That can classically be a moment of ambiguity, you’re taking on a new design challenge and the team is thinking, well, how broad or narrow is this challenge really? We’re going to be moving into a phase of research out in the field with users and like how broad is that user group or the stakeholders and others that we need to be looking at, or how deep do we need to be going, where is the starting point?

Chris: And so I think timed in the right way, there’s a huge value there, from systematic evidence reviews to be able to say, well, at that point, maybe you’re not looking at like very discrete behaviors, but you are looking at here’s the landscape of what’s been done. Here’s how other people have thought about this problem. Here are the frameworks that you could be kind of leveraging right now to help you kind of organize. What is this map that you need to start exploring around? And I encourage teams to work with socio-ecological models kind of as a default early on, because it’s a nice catch-all model to start saying, “okay, well, if we have a user, they are sitting within a society and a community that’s influencing them, and there are services and infrastructures that are affecting them – maybe not the service we’re trying to design for, but other services and things that matter in their lives.

Chris: When you’re in that very divergent early phase and you kind of need to start converging a little bit quite quickly to progress, that’s a great place to be having a conversation and having some kind of interplay between some of the methods and approaches of the behavioral sciences, the classic kind of social science approaches might use.

Brooke: You talked about a number of different activities. You also brought up these concepts of convergence and divergence. So maybe first of all, explain what you mean by convergence and divergence. And then if you could walk us through an example from your work and maybe especially help us to enjoy and appreciate that pivot point moment where you went from the convergence to the divergence period to the convergence period, how did you recognize the signals to know that you were ready to tip? What kinds of things were you doing in one period that you then shifted into doing something different then second, just walk us through that, please.

Chris: So divergence is kind of, as the word suggests, a moment where you allow yourself freedom to think and look really broadly, to imagine, and to open up many possibilities. When you’re early on in a design process, particularly during research, you want to look widely at a problem, you want to go, “That’s interesting over there, let’s explore. There’s many different users we’re going to talk to, let’s have the space to do that.” As you’re working with your research findings you will naturally, in your analysis and synthesis, start to converge because you’re saying, “Okay, here are the key things that we need to be thinking about. These are the most interesting findings from the field”. Here you’re converging in a sense on the barriers that need to be addressed.”

Chris: And then you will, again, at that point go well, okay. We’ve converged around what we think are the most important things to be designing for, maybe a set of levers that we think are important, let’s say four or five of those. But now we’re going to diverge again – we’re going to get really broad on the types of opportunities or the types of concepts that might solve this. And so in that early ideation phase to get to some early prototypes, you may diverge and kind of blow out to 20 different ideas – again this is saying there’s no wrong idea at that point, the aim is to think and kind of give you a way to learn. By going broad and diverging, again, you open up that space, so you’re not narrowing too quickly on one change pathway or one solution or design direction, as we might say. At that point, you’re really allowing that space, and it’s when you come back in from that early prototyping, it’s like, okay, well, we’re going to converge again at this point. Like, how are we kind of dropping some of these ideas, taking something from one idea that worked a little bit, but the rest didn’t.

Chris: So it’s this kind of flux of convergence-divergence that continues right the way through the design process until you eventually narrow on the solution that you want to take forward. And even within that, you will continue to tighten and refine later. And that’s where a lot of those, the mindsets come in as well, like knowing when you’re in that mode and saying, okay, we’ve diverged enough, this is the moment we need to converge. And so skilled designers will find that moment, and recognize where they’re ready to do that and make that switch.

Brooke: That kind of an intuitive thing, that’s like the secret sauce of being a good designer is having a strong intuition. That’s really key to pivot.

Chris: I guess, and that comes with practice. There’s a program that we’re doing at the moment called women and money, and that’s funded by the Gates foundation. That is looking at women’s economic empowerment. So originally the brief of this work was focused on digital financial services. How can we increase the uptake of digital financial services? So, mobile money, mobile based banking, kind of financial services amongst women who are typically underserved and underrepresented in that market, in that customer base. And so as we got into that work, we kind of recognized that for women to need financial services in the first place, they actually need a level of economic empowerment.

Chris: There’s a bit of a chicken and egg in that situation where if I don’t have an income coming in and I don’t have control over my finances, it’s quite hard for me to even be looking for these digital financial products. But in the same way, having these digital financial services and making the access to my money and the ways of saving easier will actually lead to some of this economic empowerment.

Chris: So, that’s something that the design team discovered very early on through research, across six countries. And so when we started to bring gender experts into that work with us, they were bringing a lot of the evidence-based frameworks, what is known and learned kind of in the academic space and in all of the evaluations that have been done on programming, and also bringing like a really strong gender equity lens into the work. And so the literature review they were able to do for us really helped to inform a theory of change. So, where we were looking broadly, it’s like, well, how do you get organization on all of these findings? What might be this trajectory and where do we situate what we want to attend to?

Chris: And within that as well, that work informed the frameworks that we were going to use for developing concepts later in our ideation phase. So they were actually in some sense saying if you want to be really gender transformative, you need to be tackling a lot more than just the individual woman’s experience with the service. You need to really be thinking about everything that’s going on around her, in her household and her community. Who’s supporting her, what else is happening out there? And so in a way, these frameworks were in one way, forcing us to converge and drop some solutions that would not be gender sensitive or transformative, but actually be negative, or reinforce problematic norms for example. 

Chris: And in another way, it was pushing us further to be more creative in solutions that had legs, that had got real promise, because we were saying, “well, how can we make this more transformative? What’s an element of the solution we could add that would tackle that support from the household in a better way?” So it’s kind of working with those frameworks and the research regenerating and the design process altogether can actually create more of that openness sometimes and push you along.

Brooke: From an institutional perspective, that sounds incredibly liberating. I can think of a number of friends of mine who work in large bureaucratic organizations who would hear that and say, “Oh my gosh, that sounds so amazing.” This is creativity, this openness it’s often very liberating. All of a sudden certain types of experience or knowledge get validated as legitimate inputs, where they might not have been before. I didn’t hear you mention once, in all of the stuff you were saying, how impressive the title was that the person who had an idea, and that can be challenging to bring into an organization, that kind of mentality, that kind of culture. And I think that in some instances, or in some respects, external organizations, design shops who come in for a specific project often get afforded a certain degree to, or a certain kind of liberty to maneuver and do their work that they’ve been brought in to do that is seldom accorded to the people who actually exist internally within those structures.

Brooke: And one of the things that you mentioned quite early on in our discussion is that more and more there’s this focus not just on kind of getting to the prototype and testing it out and saying, okay, well, here’s kind of a candidate V-one solution, but also trying to leave the client to the institution, the organization in a position to continue owning that and to continue refining and optimizing the thing that you have built for them as a V-one, even after you leave. So what happens when the designers leave? What does it take for a product to survive past V-one into this long tail of success? Maybe, especially if I can push you on this point, how do we approach those institutional culture barriers that might be more challenging, not on the methods of design piece, as on the mindsets of design piece that you articulated early on.

Chris: That’s a really interesting moment in a design project: what does that handoff look like? And I think design engagements come in many shapes and sizes, so sometimes there is a model where it’s been a shorter, more discreet kind of partnership. And then we are actually handing off a solution package. So there is a playbook, here’s how you implement etc. And sometimes that relationship is going to go for a longer period. We know we’re going to be coming back to work on optimization sprint a little bit later, so that aspect can play a role in it as well. I would say that overall, no matter what the relationship is like, a collaborative design process should leave, ideally leave a partner as the owner and experts of their solution because that’s ultimately their solution at the end of the day and knowing how to troubleshoot and when to iterate further.

Chris: And there are a few aspects to that, one is around, what does that collaboration look like? Is it possible for the team, the implementing team to be side by side with the design team, as they’re doing research and doing the prototyping, and kind of coming to these solutions and making some of the finer decisions, so they really understand what’s going on and they’ve been at the table in making those decisions. And a lot of that’s around really skillful partner management, and it’s about the time and resources that you’ve got available on both sides. It requires a slightly longer design project to really make that space for that really meaningful collaboration. And it’s also a demand on the implementing partner side because people have got to be made available from everything that they’re doing and their day to day work.

Chris: All of the other stuff that they’ve got to keep programs that are already running out there to spend time with this. So there’s definitely a… I would say like a relationship and a setup feature to that. I think in terms of the mindsets, I guess this comes down to values in a way it’s looking again at, like, where knowledge lies and really respecting where that knowledge lies. So people who’ve been implementing programs, the frontline for a long time have an inherent knowledge and intuition about what will work as well. And so that is, both early on in a design process and also at that moment, so important to be part of how decisions are made and how things are set up again.

Brooke: Do you have some examples of it going well, an example of where it just became a massive tire fire is also sometimes illustrative to understand, do you understand the dynamics of what determines success versus failure?

Chris: Yeah, I would say in the work that we’ve done in the reproductive health space, we’ve tended to go back more and do some of these optimization sprints, and that is definitely where it works really well, partly because you’ve built a really deep relationship with your partner. And so each other’s ways of working and characters and you’re able to get there a little bit more quickly and also, I think with a partner who’s maybe engaged in a few design sprints, like a level of design fluency starts to be built. So people start to talk the same language. A lot of those barriers have been taken away. You’re actually able to run much faster together.

Chris: And I would say in those optimization sprints with health work, what’s really happening there as well as we may have been out of the picture for a little while, but the partner has continued learning. They’re going out doing rapid feedback with their partners or with their users rather. They have been kind of looking at that learning internally, and they’re already starting to come up with ideas and then maybe they’ve adopted already this prototyping mindset as well, where they’re like, Oh, we’ll actually try something on the fly a few weeks ago before you guys even started to kind of come back into the project with us. And here’s some ideas. So this is something that I buy, that learning’s been generated and is a real partnership. You don’t have a design team having to go in and maybe start from scratch with data gathering.

Brooke: We’re living through an interesting moment in human history right now. I remember having one conversation about contact tracing applications. The person that I was talking to was saying, well, they’re never going to work because adoption is just going to take so long unless they’re mandated by governments and in liberal democracies governments are going to be reticent to do that. He said, I mean, even look at TikTok, it took them months and months to get to millions of users. And we’re saying these contact tracing applications needed to be adopted by millions and millions of people overnight, if they’re going to be effective. And then lo and behold, like Australia launches their application, millions and millions of people do download it nearly overnight. And I think that was an illustration of, kind of, black swan times that we’re living in where some of the stuff that we, some of the thoughts that we had, some of the expertise and experience that we had from before is no longer relevant.

Brooke: Sometimes new rules apply, other times actually that expertise still is relevant, in some respects, the world still behaves just the way that it used to. The challenge of course is figuring out what’s going to happen in the situation that you care about, whether this is one of the ones that still behaves the way it’s supposed to, so to speak, or if this is an ecosystem that’s now behaving very differently. In that context, we’re seeing a shift around the value placed on expertise, not just kind of the quantitative value of its valuable X, now it’s slightly less valuable, but the instances in which we look to experts, and I think that this might be an interesting frontier where we’re going to see new stuff as well at the kind of meeting point between convergence and divergence that we need to relearn some of our pivots because the world is changing a little faster now than it used to and the relevance of expertise is evolving.

Brooke: Maybe around the mindsets piece is a place that we can focus. I would say in lots of governments and large organizations, there has been a very strong reliance on expertise for a long time. Our institutional muscles are very conditioned to rely on expertise. Now we’re getting into a situation where if we rely too strongly on established knowledge, rather than taking a more iterative exploratory approach, we can run into big problems. The world of human-centered design has been coping with that challenge for a long time, trying to create healthy ecosystems, to pivot back and forth from divergence and convergence. Through that experience, is there a lesson that we can extract from the world of human-centered design about how these larger organizations and governments, etc., can do better now that they’re in a situation where they probably need to be more rapid and iterative and prototyping and testing oriented than they traditionally have been?

Chris: Two things in that sparked ideas for me. I guess what we’re talking about is a need for systems change, ultimately, or systems level thinking and change. And I think human centered design has classically been focused around, well, “let’s start with the user, let’s really look at what is going on with them, their desires, and then understand what could be feasible or viable as a solution”. I think as we look at these bigger, complex problems – where quite a large degree of change that’s going to involve a lot of stakeholders is needed – I think there’s a really interesting space for human-centered design in that, leveraging frameworks from maybe more academic type system thinking as well.

Chris: So for example, Donella Meadows approach, and I don’t know if I’m using the language of Donella Meadows exactly here, but this idea of, you know, systems are made up of networks, and relationships of people, and different stakeholders with different power. You have certain structures that are dictating where resources flow, and who has access to what, and setting the rules of the game. And then you have these mindsets that exist within the players in the system and like out in society at large. I think there’s a lot in terms of understanding systems and where some of your leverage points might be. In a way if you apply a human-centered design approach to that, to understand that problem, you do have ways of tapping into, ‘What are these mindsets? What are these structures like? What is actually happening here? What am I using as leverage points within how all of this interplay is happening?’. And start to look at the places where beacon projects that can have ripple effects might be able to take place, or new innovative ways of trying something that just may spark another part of that system to adopt something and make movement.

Chris: So I think there is something interesting in understanding the macro and then being able to, in that bigger system or complex space, get to a kind of design space that can kind of tackle something on a slightly smaller, more micro level, but to maybe create some ripples and just seed disruption. Now, that’s a bit abstract right now because we haven’t done it, but we can see where there is a space for it.

Chris: And I think as you say about what is known, you do have in a lot of these spaces, whether it’s a health problem or an economic problem, you have experts with 20 to 30 years of experience. And one of the things that we have heard back around our human-centered design approach is that sometimes in the work we’re in a room and maybe what we’re uncovering is not like groundbreaking new insights around the problem, but the reconceptualization of that, and maybe the reframe and refocus can actually be really helpful to help people reengage and starting looking at their problem that they’ve been tackling for a long time in a new way, and bring in some more of that optimism about what could be done and kind of start to turn some of that stuff on its head and retry things as well.

Brooke: Whose problem gets to be the problem, I mean, there are two facets to that. One is whose problem gets to be the problem that we converge around solving in the COVID-19 instance, looking back at the contact tracing, just because it’s something I’ve been thinking and talking about for a while. What’s the problem that a contact tracing application is looking to solve, is the problem that public health authorities don’t know who to phone to tell them to go on quarantine, or is the problem that individual citizens don’t know how to behave safely and need a bit of guidance on what’s appropriate in different situations, so that’s a very clear instance where there’s a political thing it’s like whose action do you think is really going to have an effect in managing this problem that we’re dealing with.

Brooke: That’s one aspect of the sort of small, political, the other aspect is whose voices get to be heard in the divergent space when you’re coming up with ideas about how to kind of situate that problem. You mentioned the socio-ecological model who gets to define the ecology in which this problem is situated, who gets to put ideas out there that get taken seriously in terms of getting to the prototyping stage and whose expertise whose knowledge will be, will be sought, will be considered, will be taken seriously around what has worked in the past and what counts genuinely as knowledge or has evidence versus anecdote, which we just dismissed because it’s not evidential, right? It’s not robust.

Brooke: All of those kinds of small-p political questions seem like they’re just simmering underneath the surface and ready to boil over. Especially when we’re talking about these really, really big macro problems that are across society and health pandemics that spill over the boundaries of just what’s a health issue. It’s a general societal crisis that touches everything with all of the discussions of diversity and equity and inclusion that are going on right now. I feel like this is a topic we need to be kind of foregrounding a bit more.

Chris: I think there’s definitely space for designers to be saying, here is a challenge to be solved, but how is that informed? 

Chris: And so ideally, and increasingly I think you’re saying that design has got to be bringing in people with lived experience. Lived experience, being both expertise of trying to deliver against something, as well as being someone who’s affected kind of on the ground by a thing that you’re trying to solve and bringing that in, in a really meaningful way. So there is probably more of a co-design element rather than treating someone as a research participant. You’re bringing them into your synthesis process as well to help them make meaning, help them interpret what is coming out of that from their perspective, especially if maybe you’re a little bit more outside of the culture or the context. And that’s something, a number of projects that we’ve started to do that like really, really kind of right into the way that the process will work, whether you call those people co-designers or community researchers or whatever else it is, that is kind of a null point. 

Chris: I think it’s still challenging to do a design process like that, like right the way through. It demands a lot of time from people, it demands a very different kind of structure of project, to have a bigger group of people kind of working right the way through.

Brooke: I’m glad to see that there’s kind of a fuzzy frontier of, well, these are important things. And we’re thinking about them actively. We don’t know what the answer is yet. We’re working on it. We’re trying to figure it out. Eventually we’re confident that we’ll get there, but we’re not there yet. I think that really shows the maturity of a field, and if I may say, of a practitioner to be able to just comfortably acknowledge those things and not feel the need to do the window dressing, it’s like, don’t worry, it’s all figured out like completely air tight. No problem.

Chris: We definitely don’t have it figured out yet how to do this in a really, really great way. This is a learning process and this is where design is iterating on itself actually, as we go. 

Brooke: I think you just said it. So usually I try to kind of sum up the discussion or wrap it with a key question. For somebody who’s listening on the other end of the line, who’s just entirely convinced by everything that you’ve been talking about. What can they do starting Monday morning to kind of start chipping away at this practically. So, let’s imagine two different people, and I’ll ask you each of their questions in turn. So for a senior level manager or a senior executive in an organization, who’s saying, okay, cool, “I want to try out more stuff around human centered design. And I want to try to square the circle of figuring out this relationship between creativity and expertise.” What can they do starting Monday morning to just kind of give it a little test drive and see how it goes?

Chris: I think we’ve definitely seen that when we work with a partner over time on repeat engagements, it’s kind of like learning how to work together, learning about that problem, and as I say, developing enough design fluency to understand what you’re going to get, what to expect and how to meaningfully bring your team into the process. So there’s something about opening up that space to be able to start with something.

Brooke: One of the ideas that you mentioned earlier, that really kind of stuck with me around this is this idea that you can’t just like leave it to the vendor the way that sometimes organizations interact with each other, one of the indicators of kind of feasibility or future success that you might look to is my organization in a position where I think we’d be ready to deeply engage with this vendor and collaborate in the process and participate along with them to start to build design fluency, or is my organizational culture more one where like, there’s going to be an internal project manager who’s kind of the point of contact. And they’re going to create a lot of distance between internal teams and the vendor side for a designer or a design team that really wants to make a push on the social justice front, where is the concrete opportunity for action for them to go to their partner and say, I know that you brought us in with kind of this framing of the problem, but I think that there are important potential framings of the problem that aren’t in the air of discussion.

Brooke: And so I want to challenge you on the way that the problem has initially been framed. There are other voices I think would be really valuable to have at this table. How does a designer go about navigating those potentially choppy waters?

Chris: A lot of that starts like right at the outset as the potential for the design engagement or the relationship is even being discussed and explored, and so a great scope of work will hopefully have grappled with a little bit of that at the beginning, or opened up the space to say the problem may be emergent, the solution may be emergent. So let’s recognize that. And I think a lot of people who are seeking design are interested to bring design into the way that they’re developing an approach and so already may be excited about that.

So, I think starting with that space of recognizing “let’s hold that space for emergence”. And then I think once the design team is in there, a lot of that is hopefully then happening through the research process, through that kind of inspiration phase, be it talking to experts or looking at analogous inspiration and other places, or talking to users directly. Again, if a partner, the implementing teams are able to be really involved in that and really be able to, particularly in the kind of the synthesis moment as we start to narrow and say, well, these seem to be the key insights because often that is where the reframe is going to come from.

It’s not at the outset saying, let’s look at this in a completely different way. It’s usually through that process of research and synthesis that you will get to actually “we’ve uncovered something that maybe tips this slightly on its head. What do we think about this? What about this?” Taking this as one of the levers that we think we want to explore further and work on. 

Brooke: Well, thank you very much. I think that that is a good place to wrap up our conversation today. Is there any kind of last word or summative insight that I can open a space for you to share with us for we log off?

Chris: Yeah, one of my thoughts around coming back to how you bring the evidence and structure piece together with design and creativity, like something I’ve been really interested in, in my time at, and I’ve really tried to support is how do you hold have value for all of those different types of disciplines, and know when to leverage the right one in the right time, and not trying to shoehorn a creative process into a tightly structured kind of evidence driven piece, but more fluidly kind of move between them. And I do think so much of it comes down to people being willing to kind of break and merge their processes. I think having someone who has a little bit of fluency or understanding of both worlds, whether it’s a small bit on each side or it’s someone in the middle that’s able to kind of help people navigate and translate and just that kind of trust and respect of what those different disciplines and approaches are bringing.

Chris: I think that, I mean, it’s kind of similar to what great partnership looks like, but when you have that, it can make that journey so much smoother and the speed at which you can work together and kind of know when you’re passing the baton and one person is taking the reigns and kind of running with something is, yeah… the whole thing can be a lot easier. So I would say we’re learning a lot of that as we work with different types of disciplines and different experts and people coming in from other fields, like more deeply embedding them in the design process, and us embedding in theirs as well.

Brooke: If you’d like to learn more about applied behavioral insights, you can find plenty of materials on our website, There, you’ll also be able to find our newsletter, which features the latest and greatest developments in the field, including these podcasts, as well as great public content about biases, interventions and our project work.

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