The Human-Centered Approach

By PrincetonTigerChallenge

By: Anam Vadgama
Team: Refugee Careers

“Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation”, says Tim Brown, the CEO of IDEO. But what exactly is a human-centered approach and how does it manifest itself? I discovered the answers over the summer at Tiger Challenge.

Hello beautiful people. My name is Anam. And I am fortunate to be spending an entire year working with a fabulous team at Tiger Challenge. Our challenge is to design an innovation that would help refugees find more fulfilling and stable careers. Yet, when we began, none of us in the team knew much about the lived experiences of refugees in the USA. We all had been exposed to rhetoric of course (and indeed, the media is brimming with rhetoric about refugees). But rhetoric often presents a liquidized pulp of dishonesty as truth. We also had assumptions about what we thought refugees might need. But our assumptions were after all, mere assumptions- (often misguided) notions that our (often uninformed) mind fancied. We had no evidence to back it up. And thus, we were clueless about the lived experiences of refugees, their hopes, their fears and their needs. We might have been really lost without the “human-centered approach” of design thinking.

I learnt very quickly that the human centered approach involves, at its very core, listening. We suspended all assumptions, and went into the communities where refugees lived. We listened to them. And indeed, nothing makes seemingly distant concepts, ideologies and ways of being more legible than listening. We listened to their stories and we were inspired. These interviews with refugees and other stakeholders formed the bulk of our data. And it is from these interviews that we gained an understanding of what refugees need (and not what we think refugees need).

I also learnt that the human centered approach requires sensitivity. And sensitivity is a skill that must be developed. Humans are after all beautiful, complex creatures and the human-centered approach embraces this complexity. In all our interviews, our team tried to be sensitive to the unique, complex backgrounds that refugees came from. All of us underwent sensitivity training. Refugees were individuals who had undergone some real trauma, and our experience at Tiger Challenge instilled in us a deep empathy for their situation. We also learnt to develop different communication styles with people from different cultures. I adopted a tone of strict professionalism and got straight to business with interviewees who were US nationals. In contrast, when I interviewed refugees, I spoke in a relaxed and friendly manner, engaging in significant trust building conversation before asking them the questions I had prepared.

I also discovered that the human-centered approach is immensely rewarding. I believe that the most important, valuable things in life exist in the collection of simple moments we share with fellow human beings: those simple moments that go unnoticed by the eyes of most people, such as sharing a coffee, a smile and some laughter. I have had plenty of such moments over the summer. I have made friends with so many individuals. We exchange cute letters and plan to visit each other. The human centered approach involves building connections: and human connections are after all, our emotional fuel.

I finally discovered, that the human centered approach is not merely an approach, but a mindset that is applicable to so many spheres of life. To listen, to be sensitive and to question our assumptions are all skills that can help me become a better friend, a better team player and a better person.