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Using human-centred design at DFID

Luisa Ernst, Programme Manager for Amplify
Department for International Development, UK

Aid agencies are finding it increasingly difficult to cope with the complexities and uncertainties of global development challenges. We operate in an environment where we don’t have the blueprint for success. While we’re clear about the overall goal we want to achieve, we often don’t know the best path to get there.


Gathering insights and understanding users’ needs as perceived by local stakeholders is crucial for identifying new, innovative ways to reach this end goal – but in reality, we all too often still rely on our predefined assumptions of the scope of the problem and the desired solutions. Getting those ideas off the page and out into the real world as quickly as possible is equally important so that we can test and learn from the way people respond and react to them.


In those contexts, human-centred design (HCD) principles can be a powerful tool to achieve a more nimble, user-centred and ultimately effective solution for the poorest of the poor. DFID’s Amplify Innovation Challenge Fund is one of the interventions DFID supports to put this thinking into action. It is a series of eight open challenges focusing on sourcing early stage ideas, especially from small community-based organisations, to address a range of development challenges for which we don’t know what works.

Amplify: experimenting with HCD programming

Amplify embraces HCD by focusing on:

  1. Understanding beneficiaries’ needs in their contexts;
  2. Engaging users in the process of designing a solution; and
  3. Rapid prototyping and validating what works.


The first step of the Amplify journey is to conduct research with different types of users and organisations to inform the challenge design, based on people’s real-life behaviours, attitudes and needs.


Following these insights, a so-called “design challenge” is identified during which contributors are invited to develop different prototypes of their ideas. Prototypes incorporate the minimum set of features necessary to get early validation from users that the idea makes sense. Contributors then test, improve and refine these prototypes with the participation of the people that they are designed for and iterate on the solution based on user feedback in order to test what is and what isn’t working.


This process of designing, testing, and improving solutions is cyclical – it typically continues even after the start of the programme or “launch” of a product, service, or business model, so that it is continuously improved based on the input from more and more users.

HCD in development programmes

Through Amplify, DFID has been able to test whether and how HCD can be used to address persistent development challenges. HCD has proven valuable for tackling complex challenges where we can’t even pin down the precise problem, let alone the solution. In those cases the focus on working closely with users and designing prototypes has helped DFID to ensure we’re delivering something which will genuinely help the beneficiaries.


Amplify funded an organisation which works with bio-gas fuelled milk chillers. Chilling technology has the potential to help dairy farmers who lose large quantities of milk because they can’t keep it cool overnight. While the technology exists, stimulating demand, finding the right price point, and figuring out the best way to market the technology so that it is appropriate, accessible and affordable is a more complex challenge.



This is where HCD, with its close work with users and emphasis on flexibility and experimentation, comes in. The Amplify milk chiller project focused on understanding farmers’ aspirations for their homes, designing a chiller that would be desirable and usable, and figuring out how to make the price point right for low-income farmers.

HCD for disability inclusion

Globally, one billion people – or 15% of the total population – are living with a disability. Disability and poverty are highly correlated – whilst many developing countries have made progress in lifting people out of poverty, the condition of the majority of people with disabilities hasn’t improved.


In order to support innovative solutions that improve the situation of people with disabilities and to increase DFID’s understanding around that topic, our latest Amplify Challenge asks, ‘How might we reduce stigma and increase opportunities for people with disabilities?’


Disability inclusion is a sector that demonstrates clear opportunities for HCD thinking. While evidence shows that people with disabilities are often overlooked in mainstreaming development programmes, there’s little knowledge on what works to foster their inclusion. To obtain a better understanding of how to design effective solutions, it’s crucial to gather insights into beneficiaries’ needs, engage people with disabilities in the process of designing new solutions and rapidly test and iterate these ideas before bringing to scale.


It also supports the core principle of disability-inclusive development – “Nothing About Us Without Us!”. No policy should be decided and programme designed without the full and direct participation of members of the group(s) affected by the intervention.



In partnership with, we’re inviting six organisations to embark on the 18-month Amplify journey. In addition to grants of around $100,000 each, they’ll receive user-friendly and accessible technical support to improve services and products. The winners are:


  1. Special Hope Network: an approach to early identification  of intellectual disabilities in children through immunisation visits (Zambia)
  2. D-Rev: improved, rugged prosthetic for young adults (TBD – options include Burma, Kenya, Nepal, Bangladesh)
  3. SignHealth: a youth peer-led sex education for the deaf (Uganda)
  4. Kupenda: activating community leaders to protect children with disabilities (Kenya & Tanzania)
  5. Handicap International: a global toolbox for inclusive workplace adaptations (TBD – options include Kenya, Nepal, Afghanistan, Bangladesh)
  6. UNABU: an inclusion scorecard providing safe spaces for women with disabilities (Rwanda)


The next Amplify challenge will be on sexual and reproductive health and rights for girls and women affected by conflict and crisis. Watch this space for the official launch on August 21st.


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