Practical “Design Thinking” Pointers for (Social) Entrepreneurs - David Schafran

Friday July 02, 2010,

5 min Read


This is a guest post by David Schafran. David has worked internationally across various verticals with a focus on early stage, socially focused business. After a year working in Chennai with Villgro and DesiCrew Solutions through a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship, he is currently based in San Francisco where he is consulting with social enterprise start-ups while working on developing his own with particular attention to health care innovation.The concept of “design thinking” has become yet another buzz word in the world of social entrepreneurship. Of the many evangelists of this sometimes ambiguous concept, IDEO, the global design firm, and Stanford’s D-School are two of the most recognizable leaders in defining and propagating design thinking.

IDEO has developed a Human-Centered Design toolkit for anyone, in particular development practitioners, to download off of their website and use in their respective industries. Embrace, the student start-up company that created a low-cost infant warmer based in Bangalore came out of Stanford’s “Design for Extreme Affordability” class.

And if you think this topic is limited to the flagship social entrepreneurship blogs like NextBillion and Social Edge (see here and here), think again; BusinessWeek ran an article on the same in October 2009. Design thinking is edging on mainstream, but what that means and how social entrepreneurs can use it is still being defined. In order for you to get a better idea of what design thinking really means and how it is used practically, I would like to briefly highlight some key characteristics of design thinking and the design process.

First and foremost, the idea that design is a way of thinking and not necessarily a technical expertise means that anyone, including would-be or established social entrepreneurs like yourselves, can leverage this mindset to create meaningful products and services that effectively address actual human needs. The principles of this mindset according to the D-School are the following: Radical collaboration, Human Centered, Mindful of Process, Bias towards Action, Culture of Prototyping, and Show don’t Tell. I’d like to delve a little deeper into how these principles are incorporated into the actual design process for you and your co-workers to use in real life.

To start off, the design process should be a group activity. Your team of like-minded collaborators should ideally be from various disciplines who leverage each other’s experience and expertise through rapid and free-flowing communication to then trigger well-informed action. Once a team is formed, the following design process is used as your guide, starting with engaging your target audience empathetically:

  1. Empathy. Engage your target audience as listeners in order to learn about who they are and what drives their actions. Leave all preconceptions and biases at home, and be open. Try to put yourself in their shoes and feel where they are coming from. This is what makes this process human centered. You may even find that there isn’t any addressable need by your team, but it’s best to discover this at the start! The idea of creating products and services for social impact is to help actual people with real needs that you can address, so pay close attention to them.
  2. Define the need that you will address. Be mindful of all that you perceived in the empathy step, and synthesize your perceptions into a clear need that you can address. Focus on what is your target audiences’ real need and real demand.
  3. Ideate. Brainstorm with your team and come up with one particular solution to the need after sketching multiple potential solutions.
  4. Prototype the chosen solution and quickly show your prototype to the end-user. Nothing good comes from developing prototypes and keeping it to yourself, so show, don’t tell!
  5. Test your prototype, paying close attention to how your end-user uses and reacts to your prototype.
  6. Iterate. Tweak the prototype according to your end-user’s feedback. This step really incorporates empathy, problem definition, ideation, prototyping, and testing all-in-one. Repeat the process as often as necessary. It is also worth noting that rapid prototyping is an important facet of D-School’s design process, and for good reason; it ends up you lower your overall risk considerably by prototyping, testing, and iterating early and often.

Remember that in order to bring an idea to market, and on top of that, to make significant social impact, you need to be mindful of more than just the creation of the product; the business model, which is the delivery mechanism that will get your product to the market and sustain your work has many important characteristics that you should be mindful of in the product design process. It would be quite expensive to go through several months or years of product development to only then realize your product is unmarketable; make sure that from Day 1 you are aware of all internal and external factors that will effect the successful commercialization of your product. Here are a few that Kevin Starr from Mulago Foundation has identified and I have added to as being of particular importance -- you can even make a checklist for the same:

User (Real Need. Real Demand. Cash Flows)


Buyer (who in low income environments is often a separate party, i.e. not the user)

Price Point




User Behavior

Emerging Technology

Competition (similar products or products that may already be fulfilling need)

History of other efforts


In the end, design thinking is all about being mindful. Mindful of the people you are collaborating with, mindful of your target audience, mindful of the system in which you are working, and mindful of action and not just being mindful for the sake of it! Design with care.

If you are interested in this design thinking for social entrepreneurship and/or point-of-care diagnostics and telemedicine innovations please don’t hesitate to email me at drschafran (at) gmail (dot) com.

    Share on