Finding a Creative Solution to Poverty-related Challenges


Jocelyn Wyatt is executive director and co-lead of, a sister non-profit to the global design and innovation firm IDEO.

Knowledge@Wharton: For most of our readers, IDEO is a well-known brand. is probably also known. But just give us a brief overview of what is and what it does.

Jocelyn Wyatt: is a sister non-profit to the design and innovation firm IDEO. We focus on applying human-centered design to poverty-related challenges. Human-centered design is a creative, problem-solving approach where we start with deeply understanding people’s wants and needs, come up with creative solutions in order to serve those needs more effectively, prototype and test them, and refine them after getting feedback. Ultimately, we implement and scale up solutions that improve people’s lives. The type of work we do at include things like reproductive health for adolescent girls who live across sub-Saharan Africa, to tools for smallholder farmers, to financial opportunity solutions like mobile money products.

Knowledge@Wharton: You mentioned human-centered design for poverty-related challenges. What is human-centered design? What makes it a unique tool for poverty alleviation?

Wyatt: Human-centered design is a creative problem-solving approach. We do a lot of qualitative research, spending time with [the poor] in their own context, in their places of work, in their homes, working alongside them … to find out what it is that they want and need and are willing to pay for and what would really improve their lives. From there, we synthesize those learnings and identify different insights and opportunity areas. We brainstorm a whole range of creative solutions and develop some concepts, which we then create into prototypes to test out. We then implement and scale up both throughout a given geography and globally as well.

“For us, remaining centered on our mission of improving the lives of the poor has been critical.”

The way it improves lives is that the solutions we’re creating — instead of being things that are immediately discarded or not sustainable — are solutions that people actually use. They are typically market-based solutions that people are willing to pay for, solutions that people will come back to and tell their friends about, solutions that delight people and are beneficial to them, are affordable, and are the right product or service to meet their needs. So, we improve people’s lives by providing them access to clean toilets or clean drinking water, with more effective tools to farm their land, or give loans to one another or that sort of thing.

Knowledge@Wharton: Can you give us an example? Just walk us through what the problem issue was, how you approached it and then what the end solution was.

Wyatt: Recently, we’ve been working with Marie Stopes International (MSI) in Zambia and now in Kenya to tackle the challenge of reproductive health. We focus specifically on reproductive health for adolescent girls. Typically, reproductive health programs have focused on mothers and on birth-spacing and on women stopping having children once they have had the number they want to. Very little effort has been placed on working with adolescent, unmarried girls who are not yet ready to have their first child. We’ve been working with those adolescent girls to make sure that when they do have their first child, it’s really their choice as opposed to an accident that will cause them to drop out of school and [make] their family fall into a continued cycle of poverty.

Working with MSI, we designed a three-part solution. The first was a communications campaign, an outreach campaign. There was a brand called the Divine Divas. The Divas were girls that were bringing different forms of contraceptives — superheroes to the girls. The second piece was a peer-to-peer outreach program so that peers would be connecting with other girls and sharing with them what they knew about contraceptives and directing them to the clinics. The third level was the clinic experience itself. We designed everything from the look of the actual clinic — the physical building, the way that it was painted and set up, and the signs outside it. Our work included the ways that the nurses interacted with the girls, the business model in terms of how the contraceptives would be delivered and what the girls would be required to pay for and the follow-up.

We were designing many different touchpoints and a whole system related to reproductive health with the intended outcome of reducing instances of unplanned pregnancy.

Knowledge@Wharton: You have worked in other countries in Africa. Part of human-centered design is empathy, and your team is not full of Kenyans and Zambians. You have people from all over the world working on these projects. So talk to us a little bit about understanding and uncovering the context of these adolescent girls.

“One of our cultural values is optimism and always believing that there are solutions to these difficult challenges.”

Wyatt: Our team is trained in empathy, in doing qualitative research and in connecting with people regardless of how different their backgrounds are. Part of the techniques that people learn at is about how to connect, how to relate, how to ask questions to people to make them feel comfortable. The second thing we do is work with local partners. In this case, we were working with MSI’s teams in Zambia and Kenya who were Zambians and Kenyans. They had the experience, and we equipped them to do the design research as well. So they also are doing interviews, gaining insights, bringing that back to us, participating in the synthesis sessions and really acting as partners on our design team. Combining with local people who are from these cultural contexts allows us to gain that deep insight.

Knowledge@Wharton: Part of’s mission is to spread human-centered design throughout the social sector. What’s going on there?

Wyatt: has introduced a series of tools under the Design Kit umbrella. We have a web platform called Design Kit. We have now two courses that we offer in collaboration. +Acumen is more of an introduction to human-centered design for social innovation. The other is specifically a prototyping course. Then we have the field guide to human-centered design, which is actually a sort of how-to on human-centered design. This three-part collection of learning tools has now reached about 125,000 people around the world. We’re finding that there’s widespread awareness of human-centered design, and people are starting to practice it themselves.

Knowledge@Wharton: I’m curious to know more about your own leadership skills. You manage diverse teams and you’re also working in different contexts. What do you think are some key attributes that contribute to the success of

Wyatt: One of our cultural values is optimism and always believing that there are solutions to these difficult challenges. As a leader, I continue to practice being optimistic and positive. I believe in the strengths of our team members and the partner organizations with whom we’re working and, most importantly, in the communities that we’re working with. Curiosity is another piece, as we are working on a whole range of different sectors — from agriculture to water and sanitation, health, financial opportunity, employment and early childhood development.

What it requires is being able to jump in and learn about different challenges, different geographies and different sectors all of the time. Constantly being curious about the world and about learning and excited about diving into new topics is certainly another piece of that leadership.

Knowledge@Wharton: I’m curious to know more about the intersection of your work with the private sector.

Wyatt: We work with both non-profits and for-profits. I think that there’s a role for all of those different types of organizations. Working with the private sector has many rewards including the ability to quickly get to scale. That said, there are challenges in terms of getting things implemented and thinking about the lives of the poor. It’s often too easy to assume that serving the middle-class would be an easier way to get to profitability. For us, remaining centered in our mission of improving the lives of the poor has been critical.

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