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Next Time Think Human Centered Design

At this year’s Fall Conference in Seattle, we’re holding 14 separate breakouts on a range of topics from storytelling to program/communications collaboration to using data effectively. The post below is the second in our ongoing series highlighting the topics these breakouts will cover.

During the session titled, Bedsider: Sharing is Caring, Jenn Maer, storyteller, IDEO; Bob Morehouse, chief executive officer, Vermilion Design+Interactive; and Lawrence Swiader, senior director, digital media, The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy will discuss a unique program created to re-frame the conversation about birth control education. Bedsider’s “big hairy audacious” goal is to create new messages and methodologies to bring about a 20 percent reduction in unplanned pregnancies among single women under 30 by 2020. In Seattle, presenters also will discuss how local partners are successfully implementing a version of Bedsider in Colorado, called Beforeplay, which uses website, billboards, TV spots and social media.

In the Q/A that follows, Lawrence Swiader talks about how a concept called human centered design helped in the development of Bedsider’s communications strategy.

Q. What is “human centered design?” How is it different from other forms of design?

A. Human centered design is exactly what it says it is–design from the perspective of the audience you are trying to address. It is an approach that has a lot of overlap with instructional design and social marketing. All three approaches begin with the real needs of the human being for whom we are trying to solve a problem. Instructional design focuses on a learning need, social marketing focuses on betterment of society, and human centered design is often used for a commercial product or a service.

Q. Why was human centered design so important to the concepts behind Bedsider?

A. A big problem we found when doing the original research for the Bedsider program is that sex isn’t rational, but campaigns for safer sex and better birth control use had been attacking the issue with squeaky clean, very de-sexualized logic. Sex isn’t medical. Sex is emotional. It’s carnal. It’s intense. It’s funny. Yet none of these things were reflected in the tone of the material that was out there—and our target audience, millennials, was ignoring it all. We quickly realized we needed to create design solutions that matched the subject matter, and we needed to adopt a tone that wouldn’t be so easy to dismiss. And we realized that our product wasn’t birth control; it was a better lifestyle and better sex, with birth control.

With the great assistance of our partners at IDEO, we employed human-centered design to get at the right tone. To step into the lives of the young women in our Bedsider audience we did intense, in-home interviews. And we came away with a number of insights that guided the design and development of Bedsider.

Q. Can you tell us more about the insights that guided the design of Bedsider? 

A. One insight is that sex education comes at the wrong time and in the wrong context if it happens at all. In the U.S., many young people receive sex education at 12 or 13-years-old. And the message is often wait until you are married or are an adult and then, magically, you should know everything about sex. And people don’t. So the guiding question became how might we design information about birth control with a tone and delivery mechanism that was relevant?

Another insight is that when it comes to getting it on, your brain turns off. And that’s the fun part. We don’t actually want to mess with that because we all crave to lose ourselves in passion. But that’s not so good when it comes to protecting yourself. Brianna, whom we’d recruited specifically because she was so hyper-vigilant and adamant about birth control told us a story about going to Mexico on a vacation, getting drunk, and having unprotected sex. In that drunken moment, she just wanted to get busy. The human-centered design approach revealed how alcohol plays a huge role as a competitor to the behavior we are trying to champion. It’s just a fact that people love to get drunk and get it on!

To get our messaging right we had to look hard at the way saying “I was drunk” is an excuse for a lot of irresponsible behavior. It can be difficult to really examine a fact like this, because it is really easy to pass judgment on it until you get honest with yourself and feel empathy for the people you’re designing for. But once a person feels that empathy, there starts to be a space to create the human centered design communications solutions with which the audience can identify.

Q. The idea of making design “human centered” sounds like an obvious choice. What makes it so notable in this case?

A. To really get to know your audience you need to spend more time than you might think is necessary. It’s relatively easy to do focus groups or rely on other stand-ins for the intended audience you hope to reach, but it’s more difficult to actually spend time really getting to know the needs and behaviors of your audience. There are some things you can’t learn sitting in some sterile white room observing people through two-way mirrors. Human centered design takes a lot more time.

Q. Can you say more about the challenges of implementing human centered design? Is there sometimes a gap between what stakeholders want and what the audience needs?

A. During a recent presentation I did on Bedsider someone involved in reducing teenage drunk driving deaths asked whether I thought human centered design would be applicable to their work. My answer was a resounding yes. However, I said that she would need to be prepared for backlash. The human centered design process often results in solutions that show more empathy than you might expect for the target audience’s needs and feelings. That means that instead of a campaign that castigates people for driving drunk, you develop messages that encourage teens to make healthy choices.

Because of what we learned from our research, Bedsider’s approach is to be straight-forward in how we talk about sex. The 18- to 29-year-olds to whom we are speaking love it. But to parents, it can be off-putting. But they’re not our audiences. Our audiences are people whom we’re trying to stop from engaging in behavior that leads to unplanned pregnancies.


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