Sarah Soule: How Design Thinking Can Help Social Entrepreneurs

A Stanford scholar discusses a collaborative, human-centered approach to solving some of the world’s most pressing problems.

October 30, 2013


Three women near a baby wrapped in an Embrace warmer

Six years ago, a team of students at Stanford University used a problem-solving method called design thinking to develop a simple, portable device — a sort of sleeping bag for newborns — that so far has helped 22,000 low-birth-weight babies around the world stay warm.

The Embrace Baby Warmer, which includes a phase-change material that maintains its temperature for six hours after heating, is an amazing innovation. Had it not been for a crucial shift in the way the students were thinking, the warmer might never have existed. Their story is highlighted in Creative Confidence, the new book by IDEO founder and Stanford d.school creator David Kelley and his brother Tom Kelley, IDEO partner, about unleashing creativity.

Rahul Panicker, Jane Chen, Linus Liang and Naganand Murty had been building a low-cost incubator for their class project. But fieldwork in Nepal, where they had a chance to speak with families, showed them that incubators wouldn’t do any good. Low-birth-weight babies often develop fatal hypothermia in homes, many of which lack electricity. The students turned to a different goal, which they wrote on a whiteboard in their workspace at the Stanford d.school: How might we create a baby-warming device that helps parents in remote villages give their dying infants a chance to survive?

The students approached this challenge from the perspective of design thinking, a concept popular in the corporate world for the past decade or more to develop products — think Apple’s iPod and Herman Miller’s Aeron chair — that is now also being used in the world of social innovation.

What is design thinking? It’s a method of problem solving that is fundamentally different from other ways of meeting challenges because it is human-centered. The Stanford students made a crucial shift by focusing not on their own needs but on those of the people who would be using the solution.

Here’s an example of the way design thinking might work to improve nutrition and alleviate hunger among the most needy people in the United States. The methodology begins with an explicit attempt to deeply understand the person or people for whom we are designing a solution. Design thinkers start with a “designer” — an executive, an entrepreneur, or any team member — observing, interviewing, and engaging with people who might feasibly use the solution. So, we might begin by sending teams to work in food pantries and soup kitchens, where we can readily observe the way these services are used, and the way users make choices about what they eat and what they take home. We would pay close attention not only to the things they say and do, but also to their emotions and body language.

Design thinking involves an explicit attempt to engage with both typical and atypical users, so we develop a deeper understanding of how our solution will touch many types of users. Depending on the location of a food pantry and the organization running it, the typical user may be a homeless man in his mid-40s. But we would want to talk to and observe the behavior of atypical users, such as single mothers, elderly widowers, or employed fathers, to keep their needs in mind, as well.

The methodology also involves generating a great number of possible solutions. Ideally, our team of designers, with different backgrounds and training, has developed a deep understanding of the users and the problem. This team collectively brainstorms to generate many solutions. Some might seem impossible; we put them on the table, anyway.

The ambitious goal is to produce a solution that captures the hearts and minds of everyone on the team and the users of the solution.

Design thinking stresses the need to rapidly prototype the solution so that the designers can get feedback as quickly as possible.
Sarah Soule, professor of organizational behavior

Design thinking also stresses the need to rapidly prototype the solution so that the designers can get feedback as quickly as possible. In the case of the food pantry, perhaps we notice how many people seem ashamed or embarrassed about being in need. We might use this observation to design a program in which users volunteer at the food pantry; the program would allow them access to the food, while preserving their sense of dignity. We would speedily try the program at the pantry.

Finally, design thinking requires testing of the prototype. Once we have received some quick feedback on our program, we would brainstorm again so that we can refine the prototype, or develop an entirely new one, and then seek more feedback. All along the way, we willingly throw our notions out the window and readjust our thinking again and again if our first ideas prove weak.

Design thinking can be a particularly valuable tool for social entrepreneurs. Sometimes, our passion is wasted on ideas that, for reasons that may never be entirely clear to any of us, wither away. The obstacles to adoption may be too high, the end user may not fully understand the solution, or the problem may have been wrongly framed in the first place. Design thinking offers a way to discover the right problem and a way to overcome the obstacles to adoption before the solution is final.

Solutions, whether they are products, services, processes or teams, that have come about through design thinking are more likely to be adopted quickly, because they have been created with the end users in mind. When it comes to social problems, time is of the essence. Take the case of the baby warmers: 20 million low-birth-weight babies are born every year; 450 die every hour.

Design thinking is not easy. It requires constant creativity and the willingness to adapt on the fly. Even people who have been practicing design thinking for years need the rigor of the process.

The human-centered focus, and the rigor and creativity required to maintain that focus over the entire course of the work, sets design thinking apart from other methods of problem solving. In the hands of social entrepreneurs, design thinking offers a better chance to solve the world’s most pressing problems.

Sarah A. Soule is the Morgridge Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business. She is a member of the board of advisors to the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (the Stanford d.school) Fellowship program and this spring will direct the Executive Program in Social Entrepreneurship, which will have a substantial design thinking component.

For media inquiries, visit the Newsroom.

Explore More