Nilima Achwal

SOCAP11 Preview: How to Design Empathy and Other Projects

Editor’s note: The following is one of several previews posts leading up to September’s SOCAP 11 Conference on Sept. 6-9 in San Francisco.

Since I will be attending SOCAP11 next week along with my NextBillion colleagues, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jocelyn Wyatt, the long-time leader of social innovation at IDEO, who recently became the co-lead and executive director of, the firm’s newly-launched non-profit organization started to address poverty-related challenges through design. She will be hosting Design Lab Office Hours at this year’s SOCAP.

NextBillion: How did the launch of come about?

Wyatt: As we grew IDEO’s social innovation practice, we realized there was a growing interest in how to scale impact. So, we decided to create a non-profit to address this market niche, with the aim to be accessible to non-profits and social enterprises that wanted to leverage design thinking in their organizations.

Our projects are both domestic and international, with a focus on poverty, including health, water and sanitation, agriculture, financial services, gender equity, and community development. We generally work with a partner for tw to four months, until they can launch a pilot test of a new product, service, or business model.

NextBillion: What is an exciting new project you’ve been working on, and how did inform your design work?

Wyatt: We recently had an urban sanitation project in Ghana called Ghanasan, which was a collaborative effort between us, Unilever, and Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP). This project involved looking at the system as a whole: So we collaboratively designed not only the toilet, but also its branding, distribution, and integration into the communities. In order to do this, there was a lot of on-the-ground learning involved with communities, sanitation entrepreneurs, experts, governments, and other NGOs. With that, together with our crowd-source platform OpenIDEO, we’ve been able to get a picture of the sanitation landscape in Ghana and worldwide to inform our work.

NextBillion: How do you see’s work evolving over the next five years?

Wyatt: That’s an open question-we’ve thought about it: do we make our organization larger? Deepen our network? Expand our geographic reach? Work with more partners? We’ve decided that we must try different approaches to identify what’s working-in a way, we have to prototype our own organization!

NextBillion: Give us a snapshot of your focus at SOCAP11.

Wyatt: Basically, my message is going to be about prototyping: it’s a useful tool for products, but its use isn’t limited to products. You can think about prototyping as an early version of what you’re looking to develop, whether that be a business, service, communication, or anything else. It’s just about breaking it down into pieces, creating rough versions, presenting it to customers, and then integrating their feedback into the prototype.

NextBillion: So, how would your prototyping process differ with something really intangible?

Wyatt: It’s the same process, except you have to make the intangible tangible. For example, we recently did a project where we were prototyping financial services and savings products in Kenya, and it involved a lot of role play, visualizations, and models to communicate our ideas to each other. If you can communicate using something visual or interactive, it gets much easier to conceptualize the intangible.

NextBillion: Do you see design work for social innovation spreading to different parts of the world, outside San Francisco?

Wyatt: Definitely. There are design schools focused on social innovation in different parts of India and Europe now, and the concept is spreading quickly.

NextBillion: Empathy is a big component of your design thinking methodology. Is empathy teachable, and how do you teach it?

Wyatt: I think empathy is both something that’s inside us and something that we can learn and develop. At the core, it’s about being a good observer. If you have the eyes of a designer, when you see or hear something, you are able to get behind what you’re seeing and hearing to understand the motivation, the context, and influencers. Also, you can only teach it if the learner truly wants to develop it in herself or himself. We have methods in the Human Centered Design toolkit (the “Hear” section) that talk about ways to uncover desires and motivations.

Thanks a lot, Jocelyn, and we look forward to seeing you at SOCAP11.

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