Human-centered Design and Socio-behavioral Research: Scientific Rigor with a Dash of Savvy and Spice

Photograph of a group of women in a market, discussing health issues. Photo credit: Yakuba Yusuf/Project HOPE
Culture and community play an important role in creating products that fit into people’s lives with socio-behavioral research and human-centered design.
Photo credit: Yakuba Yusuf/Project HOPE
headshot of Elizabeth Russell

Elizabeth Russell, PhD, MSc, is a senior advisor for biomedical prevention technologies in the Research Division of the Office of HIV/AIDS. She provides technical assistance for pre-clinical and clinical research projects supported by USAID for new microbicide products.

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As anyone who has worked in public health knows, just because you build an intervention with the best of intentions, doesn’t mean intended recipients will come to use it. The U.S. Agency for International Development Microbicide Program and the Bureau for Global Health, through the Center for Accelerating Innovation and Impact, have joined other global health researchers by looking to the private sector to better tailor interventions for people at risk for poor health outcomes. One common private sector approach that has been building momentum in global health is human-centered design (HCD). HCD is a process long-used by businesses across industries in product/process development to design from the user’s perspective and create an easy-to-use, desirable solution.

But don’t traditional methods of public health research already put the end-user first? Many have asked, “How is this different?” This is exactly what we were wondering! Socio-behavioral research (SBR) has long included qualitative and quantitative methods aimed at understanding the lives of end-users and examining barriers and facilitators that get in the way of effectively using interventions. Among our own microbicide team, efforts to compare methods and applications between end-user focused SBR approaches and HCD had been challenging (whether due to too much specialized jargon or ineffective communication). So, we teamed up with the Initiative for Multipurpose Prevention Technologies (IMPT) to work with an SBR expert who has collaborated with designers using HCD methods over the past few years to respond to some of our most pressing questions. Dr. Elizabeth Tolley, of FHI360, developed a recent report that describes her perspective and experiences to date with both SBR and HCD.

What the report tells us is that there are many similarities between the methods used but also clear distinctions and benefits to each approach. At a high level, both aim to generate insights into the influence of culture, behavior, and family/partners/community on a health behavior. HCD often uses short, intense periods of time spent with potential users in their homes or communities, with lots of flexibility, to build empathy and understanding of their circumstances from an intentionally naïve perspective – meaning without a preconceived idea of what the research may find. SBR builds on previous research and knowledge to conduct structured interactions (guided by theoretical frameworks and specific protocols) that can be repeated and results combined across communities. SBR then goes on to develop an intervention that is tested through a scientific, rigorous design; while HCD conducts rapid prototyping of interventions that are built up through the process and does not include scientific evaluation. For more on the differences, the report outlines six characteristics in the methodology of each approach that Dr. Tolley identifies as key.

From this report and our experience in the Microbicide Program with HCD, including Projects EMOTION [PDF, 886KB] and Imbali, which both explored young women’s preferences and experiences with sexual health and HIV prevention products, we see a great opportunity in exploring what Dr. Tolley calls a “hybrid” approach. A hybrid approach would look at an overall research project or program being developed and identify the areas where the multiple cycles of prototype testing typical in HCD would be particularly useful (see the report for examples). But with this approach, the overall project would still build on the foundations of past research and the rigor of SBR methods to evaluate the final prototypes within the project or program and provide data to justify continued development and scale-up. Human-centered design offers new tools that, if applied cost-effectively in the right places, have the potential to increase the access to, and desire for, health interventions by adding some of the savvy and spice of the design and marketing world to global health.

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Last updated: February 28, 2018

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