Citizen Centered: Designing technology solutions for democracy at NDI


It’s amazing what humanity can do with the right tools. If you’ve ever looked up the work of Marshall McLuhan, he talks about how even the basic things we create change our outlook on life, politics and society. He’s also often attributed to having said, "We shape our tools and, thereafter our tools shape us…". The light bulb, for example, changed what time of day we can commune with each other.  

I have been developing and designing software for close to twenty years. Since joining NDI, I’ve been thinking about the tools we build and how those tools, in turn, shape the lives of beneficiaries around the world. Human-centered design is the process of designing technology with and around the humans who use it. This process is analogous to building a bridge to connect two worlds. Just like civil engineers, practitioners of human-centered design at NDI must connect technology to the needs of citizens.

“We shape our tools and, thereafter our tools shape us…”  — John Culkin (1967)

Human-centered design for democracy is citizen-centered design

Human-centered design, by definition, is a framework that considers human perspectives throughout the design process. We, at NDI, have been using the term “citizen-centered design” to give a nod to the unique concerns of activists, politicians and political parties who are dedicated to making their governments more responsive, transparent and accountable. At the beginning of this year, NDI took a citizen-centered design approach to DemTools, the suite of tools we shape to see how technology could help our global partners achieve greater impact.

Design thinking means that – as a technology team – we empathize with our partners and ideate on solutions, and then validate those ideas with citizens around the world through testing, learning and iteration. For NDI’s partners, this means they will have access to tools that are useful for their social-change mission without having to invest heavily in maintaining, supporting and deploying software. Here are some highlights of how NDI’s technology team has applied human-centered design to drive our innovation, guide our thinking, and understand and support our partners.

What we've been up to: citizen-centered initiatives

It’s been a busy year. When I joined NDI, we spent a considerable amount of time to better understand our product portfolio, our market and users needs through foundational research, surveys and getting closer to partners on the ground. We can’t improve a product line if we don’t monitor and measure how the tools are being used, and understand what problems need to be fixed and for whom.

We tempered this qualitative analysis with behavioral metrics and analysis. The feedback we received led us to reset so that we could understand how to shape DemTools to reflect the specific needs of our users. By getting close to those who rely on these tools, we are able to focus on the problem areas that result in the biggest impact for them.

Next, we started problem mapping to identify product areas we needed to improve. Problem mapping is a process that takes our assumptions and learnings from foundational research and visualizes key pain points to address and define what a possible solution could look like.

Deciding and prototyping

The tools we shape don't have to rely on technological solutions alone. So what does human-centered design look like for programs?

Programs should serve as the “empathy engine” for the solutions we shape. Empathic program design is not necessarily new in the international development space. Program teams have specialized country expertise and are required to understand the contextual environment for a given society to shepherd possible solutions to meet the needs of partners. NDI’s technology team also makes sure that its assumptions are grounded in reality by sending program consultants into the field. 

We don’t have to start from scratch to build an effective citizen-centered design process. Building on the pieces that are already in place, NDI is working to design actionable and measurable processes that translate learnings into improved products that solve real-world problems.

"If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you've launched too late."  —  Reid Hoffman

After exploring the problem from all angles, we then brainstorm possible solutions taking inferences from qualitative and quantitative information. Some of these solutions turn into “minimum viable products,” which are the simplest solutions that we can operationalize to validate the assumptions from our learnings. Of course, we will not always get it right and so we either pivot or persevere. In other words, we either go a different direction or make a decision to keep investing in refining the solution through additional research.

Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, said, "If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you've launched too late." This philosophy resonates with human-centered design: real-world validation and iteration – continuously refining and improving a product – beats waiting to launch until the solution is presumed perfect.

End-user validation is the most exciting part of a human-centered approach. It is the phase where we get these solutions into the hands of the users that we aim to serve. In March 2018, we did just that through a three-day process called a design sprint – a method popularized by Google Ventures to get answers to a critical need identified by Guatemalan youth. Our challenge was to figure out how to empower youth in Guatemala, 3000 miles away from Washington, D.C., with the tools needed to foster debate skills towards their goals as future politicians. I will share more about how these “beta-testers” validated what became our DemGames product in a future post.

So, what does the process to human-centered design actually look like?

Over the course of three days, we worked with a half-dozen design sprint participants (facilitator, experts, key leaders, UX designer, a user researcher, a product manager and an Engineer) to create an impactful gaming platform intended to compliment assessment tools around civic and voter education principles for youth, focusing on scalability and fun.

DemGames Debates Game for Participants of a Youth Participation Bootcamp in Guatemala

Our Guatemalan partners have since gone through two research and product validation exercises. This citizen-centered process enabled us to learn quickly and fail fast. The final product reduced cost, time and rework all while resulting in a solution that truly meets their needs.

DemGames Debates Game extension for Intelligent Voice based learning

More about how Guatemala youth validated what became our DemGames product will be detailed in a future post.

“...and thereafter, our tools shape us”

Human centered design helps you build a deep empathy for the person on the other side of the interface. You conduct a lot of research to understand the users needs and based on that data you start to prioritize different ideas as a working prototype for your user to validate. You review, refine and iterate each stage of the product until you believe it will consistently achieve its purpose. As the media scholar John Culkin said in 1967, “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.”

If you are interested in adopting any of these approaches to your program or are looking to partner with us, please reach out to us.

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