Talk 11: Evidence Based Programme Design: Report and Reflections

The short hand definition of design as a ‘problem-solving’ activity is increasingly inadequate. Indeed the definition of ‘problems’ and ‘solutions’ has been challenged by designers and researchers since the early nineties (Buchanan, 1992). More recently, the aim of establishing a more expansive view of design has taken on greater pertinency in the field of social innovation and service design and for those working in public policy, where the processes and methods by which design can intervene can vary considerably. The context of international development, the theme of this social design talk, provides a useful case study in illustrating the limits of the problem solving idea. Entering into this environment with confidence about what the problems are, never mind what the solutions might be, is a challenging proposition.

Moreover, although it might be increasingly accepted that design methods are applicable to public policy, it can sometimes be challenging to decide which tools are most usefully applied, and where. The literature on social design methods is wide and varied, and the concept of trial and error a defining principle. Uncertainty, a major strength of the social design methods approach, might appear to be a risky entry point into sites of conflict.

It was therefore refreshing and invigorating to hear from two speakers who spoke clearly and in a grounded way about their experiences of using design methods in this context.

Speaking from over 15 years of experience in working in security affairs through his work at Policy Lab and at UNDIR, Derek Miller began by setting out the cultural issues underpinning the projects through which he has developed his evidence based design approach. Establishing the shared cultural space between individuals and communities, as well the cultural logic embedded in language is a key step, he stated. For instance, the term ‘protection’ made more sense to people in Ghana than the word ‘security’. Similarly, the relationships between child and parent are very different in Nepal and Ghana.


Although these observations might seem like fairly obviously considerations in a development programme, Miller argued that the designer’s approach to uncovering these issues is unique. “It is very difficult to provide answers to people who do not ask questions… You can talk at them, but not to them”, Miller stated. Brokering a dialogue between people is therefore integral. As he put it, debate is design. Egos aside, he argued that designers are good at humbling themselves before questions. In other words, the natural uncertainty from which designers work, is an advantage in this context. Miller rather eloquently described the process of using design as a bridge into policy, as a ‘pull system’, whereby institutions cannot move between A and B without asking questions.

The evidence-based programme design tool Miller and his team has been working with rests on the idea of ‘evidence as something other than a base’. He illustrated this by asking the audience to consider a crime scene (a fitting example, given his own best-selling foray into crime lit). What is the evidence in the room? The books on the shelf-the lighting-the knife- these are all facts that can be gathered together to build a theory that has ‘explanatory force’. You are not proving the fact to be absolutely true, but proving that it is not false. In the case of Somalia, Miller argued that this approach had been key in talking through a process of falsification, through conversation and debate.

This Framework Document describing in detail this approach is available here . He outlined some characteristics are as follows:

·        What is the goal: be strategic. This can’t be method driven. Maybe the method is a stupid idea- the goal is an end state that will change a state of being in the world. This must foreground all approaches.

·        Understand all perspectives- what does being re-integrated look like? This will vary according to gender, for instance.

·        Using standard design tools- knowledge-maps, post-it notes, visual tools-  ‘create a design space’ where ‘we create imperatives for asking the kind of questions bringing knowledge into action’.

·         Falsify all the facts and try to figure out what is wrong with the idea.

·        Look at local indicators to identify and measure impact.

Most of all, he argued, the evidence-based approach must have deliverable outcomes, facilitated through the adoption strategy. This, he suggested, separates his approach from that of service design, which often design prototypes that may not be accepted in full, but will contribute in some sense to a shift in outlook. By contrast, ‘If we as a policy design institute have not done anything that can be used and will produce results, we haven’t actually done anything of value’, he stated.

Zaid Hassan responded to this by opening up a bigger picture, with some thoughtful statements about the broader cultures within which these design approaches are situated in practice. While in general Hassan complimented Miller’s view, stating that there are ‘no predictable patterns’, he also provided some useful examples that pointed towards the practical obstacles that divide ‘two cultures’ of response in the field:

  1. Current dominant approach, which involves a plan, with a defined time limit, followed by assessment, after which a new plan is implemented. This is the approach favoured by current governments, inherited from the Soviet Union, and has dominated the Climate Change agenda, he said.
  2. The designerly approach, characterised by trial and error, prototyping, improving to find a model that works.


Hassan posited the two as very distinct approaches that do not overlap. The idea of pursuing a spectrum of plans and responses to a problem might be the outcome of a social lab approach, but would be outright rejected by the planning culture. In this sense, he put Miller’s discussions about the importance of establishing ‘design spaces’ in a broader context.

He also made the important point, which recurred throughout the talk, that ‘the idea of a known problem is a misnomer’. For instance, while the Danish government is funding education programmes to address the problem of landmines in Yemen,  people there are baffled about why there is no snake bite programme, which claims the lives of more children by a staggering degree. Thus, the process and methods used are absolutely key, not in ‘solving the problem’, but in identifying what it is in the first place.

Adam Drazin, who chaired the talk, asked about the challenge of balancing long-term design approaches with institutions that motivate themselves through more short-term strategic steps. Miller used the metaphor of Russian dolls, whereby there is a general directive and smaller pieces of the project which fit in.

Another question came from a designer in the audience who wanted to know about how Miller planned to ‘scale up’ the model he had been building. He replied by stating the importance of ‘getting right’ what they already had done and reflecting properly on what had actually been achieved. Leading on from this, Lucy Kimble, who co-organises the event, suggested that amplification through the concept of ‘positive deviance’, was another successful approach being pursued in parallel.

It was inspiring to hear design methods being described as a confidence building exercise in this way. The risk-seeking, rather than risk-averse premise that underlies many design methods emerged from the talk as one of the most important ways in which design can achieve real social impact.

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One Response to Talk 11: Evidence Based Programme Design: Report and Reflections

  1. Pingback: Design for social innovation | trying2find

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