The Synaptic Leap Into Better Policy

‘The team undertook a highly immersive inspiration phase, visiting low-income communities in California, New York, and Pennsylvania to conduct interviews with parents and to observe existing programs aimed at improving child development outcomes. These parents didn’t feel fully equipped to engage with their children, because their own parents didn’t engage with them. One of the most successful programs the team witnessed during their research was one in which nurses went into people’s homes for several hours each week simply to play with the children in front of the parents. By modelling play, they were able to affect behaviour change and shift the parent-child dynamic.’


Stockholm might be home to more billion dollar tech unicorns than anywhere else in Europe, but – as the FT’s Madhumita Murgia discovered last month – the lo-fi approach of its biggest export can still teach us a thing or two about people-focused design.


‘Even while pursuing high-tech companies,’, Murgia writes, ‘I end up spending much of my time in discussion with Marcus Engman, a bearded, dimpled man responsible for Ikea designs.’ Engman, controlling all 40,000 products Ikea sells around the world, lives by one rule: “The only way to understand is to observe,”’ – ‘[t]o create the objects people place in their most intimate spaces, he’s spent days in customers’ homes, observing their “bathroom habits”’.


Though still many decades behind the private sector, these ‘bathroom habits’ are increasingly being harnessed to solve society’s most entrenched problems. At the vanguard of this movement is the mission-led non-profit branch of the design firm known for their relentlessly human centred design. ‘designs products, services, and experiences to improve the lives of people in poor and vulnerable communities’. Its success in this ambitious task lies in the knowledge that flawed design – across products, services and policy – is most often a failure of empathy. As observes, ‘designers often find themselves working on behalf of communities that are quite different from them. That’s why Immersion, and the empathy it so often creates, is so critical to the human-centered design process.’ By immersing themselves deeply with the people they’re designing for, two critical things occur: ‘you arrive at unexpected answers’ – and, critically, ‘you’ll form solutions they’ll embrace’.


One example of their work is Vroom; an online parental tool to help low income parents improve early childhood development. Work by organisations like the Early Intervention Foundation shows us that much educational achievement depends on rich interactions with caregivers in the first five years of a child’s life – ‘the most active period for brain development’, in which ‘children’s brains form new connections at a rate of 700 synapses per second’. Yet cycles of poor parenting are hard to break; the most disadvantaged families, without strong parental role models of play and teaching, suffer the most – entrenching long term inequalities. The final result, developed collegiately through extensive interviews with parents, child development experts, and pediatricians around the country, was a large-scale messaging campaign that reminded parents to take advantage of teaching opportunities ‘whether sitting in the laundromat or shopping at the supermarket’ and, two years later, Vroom: the online parental resource.


Human centred design is now cascading into government: Denmark’s Innovation Unit, MindLab, has embraced it in its effort to bridge what MindLab chief Jesper Christiansen has described as ‘the disconnect between what is requested by the Citizenry and what the public service system has to offer’. Human centred design, Christiansen argues, ‘seeks to reconnect the citizen with the state’.


Learn more about’s work to improve reproductive health with Marie Stopes International for young girls in Zambia. And access their Design Toolkit for human-centred design here.