How to Design Community Solutions with Help From The Actual Community

June 26, 2019 | By

LC Johnson

Human centered design.

The first time I came across this phrase, it was in a professional development workshop that I initially signed up for because a cute guy from another department was teaching it. I didn’t learn much during the workshop, but I did get the cute guy’s number.

Sadly, it didn’t work out.

A few years later while attending a local TEDx event, one of the speakers defined human centered design as "planning and building things based on how people actually act, and not how we assume they'll act or wish they would act." He then put up a picture of a bench sitting near a paved walkway. Weaving around the bench was a trampled pathway of dead grass that was clearly used as often as the "planned path" as a walkway for pedestrians navigating the area.

 “This was not human centered design,” he asserted.

The third time I came across this phrase was during my training as a recently hired Local Forward Cities Director of Community Entrepreneurship in Franklin County, OH. It was early into day one when I realized that the Forward Cities process was very different than similar efforts I had been exposed to. Rather than coming in as the “experts,” we were taught that when we entered into our communities, we were facilitators – helping those entrepreneurs and small business owners who are directly affected by certain issues to voice their concerns and (with our help) begin to create and implement solutions.

Over the past five months, I have taken this approach in each meeting and community conversation I have held. However, as my community prepares to design and launch a series of pilot programs in our target neighborhoods, I was excited to attend the Minimum Viable Solutions workshop to get some additional learning around implementing community designed initiatives.

During the session, we were introduced to a hybrid human centered design and compression process. We were split into groups and given two problems that we had to quickly find solutions for: How do we provide greater job access to people in certain neighborhoods without cars; and How do we provide greater job access to people with prior criminal history.

Our first step was to brainstorm as many ideas as possible. No ideas were shot down. Ideas could be explained by not debated. Each idea went on a post it and each post it went on the white board. Next, each person was given three small stickers and one large sticker to “vote” one which ideas were most compelling. We could put all our stickers on one idea or spread them across several.

Much of this was a silent process. However, by the end of the activity, we had narrowed ideas down to two to three per issue.

To do this for real in a community would likely take much longer than the ninety minutes we were given for our workshop. However, during the session, I learned many valuable lessons, such as:

  • Silent activities can provide space for everyone to be “heard” without being overtaken by the loudest voices in the room
  • Allowing space for true brainstorming – where no idea is seen as “stupid” – really opens up room for creativity problem solving
  • A great way to get consensus is to vote using multiple, visible stickers rather than one silent or invisible vote

I was grateful for these reminders and am excited to take these learnings back to my own community!