Good Design Starts with the Right Problem

I recently attended a workshop on the Stanford's design innovation methodology given by Jeremy Utley, and he shared an excellent story about defining the right problem before designing the solution. Paraphrasing and simplifying: a project brief called for less-expensive infant incubators (about $2k) for use in Nepalese hospitals, where normal incubators (about $20k) were too costly to purchase and maintain. It sounded like a straightforward, well-defined project - until the team went to Nepal and noticed that there were no babies in the hospital. They learned that most babies were actually born in rural areas because parents couldn't make the long trip to a faraway hospital - and so the problem was redefined. Instead of "a low-cost incubator for hospitals," the real need was to "keep infants warm in rural areas" - in a way that's easy, portable, and works without electricity.  The result of the effort became the Embrace Infant Warmer, a $25 sleeping-bag-like pouch that uses a phase-change material ("rechargeable" in boiling water) to keep a constant temperature. It's a fantastic example of how assumptions should always be questioned as a first step in design - it can mean the difference between merely giving the client what they ask for, versus truly giving  users what they need!

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