There is a growing understanding that people should not only be involved in informing behaviour change intervention design but should also be the co-architects of interventions. After all, much of the work we do is centred at the community level where key decisions that affect individual behaviours are being made.

Behavioural design and social and behaviour change (SBC) frameworks are increasingly being applied by NGOs. They offer excellent guidance on how to analyse complex development challenges and offer structure in approaching the issues. But there is growing understanding that we need to expand our toolbox and broaden the engagement of people in intervention design.

A recent publication by Empatika, Nutrition International and Save the Children International (2021) describes their work in using a method they call people-driven social and behaviour change: “People-driven SBC design is a process which builds on some fundamental principles, probably the most significant being that engaging people in their own behaviour change process builds their motivation and confidence to change.”

Another publication by Breakthrough ACTION (2020) looked at where human-centred design (HCD) approaches have been used effectively in family planning programme design. Some of the key insights include:

  • HCD helped create awareness and facilitate meaningful dialogue with policymakers and public-private partnership collaborators.
  • The HCD process provided a fresh perspective on drivers of specific behaviours.
  • Journey maps are a great tool for understanding and designing service delivery systems.
  • HCD allowed the project to better understand the challenges and opportunities providers face in delivering services.

In my practice, I’ve come to value the incorporation of HCD approaches into behavioural design and SBC processes in assisting my clients to think about the problems that they want to address. In many cases, HCD tools have helped me make behavioural design more accessible to beginners. I’ve also come to see that while behavioural design and SBC frameworks bring rigour and focus to addressing challenges, they are not very good at including the direct participation of the target audiences in understanding the challenges better or in intervention design. HCD techniques by contrast push us to include the people we are working for at all stages of the process, including intervention design.

So, how can we get better at being more people-driven in our project and intervention design? At each step of the behavioural design process, HCD has some great tools we can apply.

Definition phase

One of our challenges is the limited tools we use in data collection. Focus group discussions are great tools for offering insights on the aspects of the problem we should focus on. Surveys are great in helping us gather large amounts of data. While these two tools are the most used in SBC problem-definition stages, they do not offer sufficient insights on how decisions are made in the moment. An HCD data collection method that offers much better-quality understanding of lived experience is immersion. While immersion is time-consuming and difficult, it is worth the investment to understand complex problems that the people we are working for experience. We still face serious challenges in designing programmes that are not fully responsive to the needs of communities and individuals. It follows then that we need to immerse ourselves in their experience instead of relying on their recollection of events which will likely be incomplete.  If we absolutely do not have time for immersion, we should at least be using observation (either directly or through peers) to gain insights on what is going on.

Diagnosis phase

At this stage, we want to understand which factors/determinants are making people do certain things. As SBC professional, we are tempted to do this with other experts in a closed room once we collected some data. We are likely to gain valuable information in choosing the right theories to guide our intervention design when we involve people in walking us through their decision-making process. Here we can use simple exercises like card sorting and resource flows to gain better insights on barriers and on how decisions are being made, which in turn will make us much better equipped at identifying relevant theories and diagnosing the problem efficiently.

Design phase

Incorporating HCD principles in the intervention design stage will not only increase the likelihood of getting fresher ideas, but the ideas generated are likely to work in the communities because they are generated by the audience themselves. It will help us to pull-back from talking at people.  At this stage, an important role for us as behavioural designers and SBC professionals is to ensure that evidence-based tactics are used to address the barriers we identified. We can then use a large array of HCD tools to generate ideas for interventions aligned with the tactics we identified, including How Might We, storyboards, co-creation sessions , role play and most importantly prototyping. A key barrier that many NGOs face is the fear of testing something preliminary because it has not been vetted across the organisation and because a full array of staff has not been consulted. Moving towards a mindset of ‘the goal is to make something tangible that is good enough to get your idea across’ is a mindset that I believe could be transformative for many NGOs.

Testing phase

At the intervention testing stage, SBC practitioners can also learn a lot from HCD methods. One of my favourites is live prototyping, which is essentially piloting the intervention at a small scale for a period of time. Again, some of the challenges that NGOs will face at this stage is feeling that a complete baseline study or census needs to be done first, and again, a mindset of ‘this is good enough to test’ needs to come in play. An older, underutilised version of live prototyping is trials for improved practices (TIPS) which offers more detail on what live prototyping looks like in development settings.

In conclusion, HCD has so much to offer SBC practitioners and if HCD tools are used carefully and in conjunction with upholding the rigour and science behind SBC, we are likely to design more impactful projects.

Have you used HCD techniques in a recent SBC project? Share your insights with me here!


Breakthrough ACTION (2020). Leveraging Human-Centered Design for Family Planning: Lessons and considerations

Empatika, Nutrition International & Save the Children International (2021). Study Brief: People-Driven SBC Design in BISA Project Formative Research.

IDEO (2015). The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design.

Manoff Group (n.d.). Trials of Improved Practices (TIPS): Giving Participants a Voice in Programme Design