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Kirk Eklund, Manager of Social Enterprise, West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology Kirk Eklund, Manager of Social Enterprise, West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology Courtesy Photo

Q&A: Kirk Eklund, Manager of Social Enterprise, West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology

BY Sunday, July 24, 2016 02:46pm

Businesses and nonprofits all around Grand Rapids are turning to Kirk Eklund and the West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology (WMCAT) for new solutions to age-old problems. Eklund doesn’t have all the answers himself, however. Instead, he helps businesses approach the challenge from a different angle with human-centered design. Using empathy, experimentation and storytelling, the solutions can often be found in the people you’re designing for, Eklund says. He spoke with MiBiz about how the philosophy informs his approach to problem solving.

What exactly is human-centered design? 

Human-centered design is a shakeup of the way things have been done traditionally. It assumes that the information needed to solve a problem isn’t located internally in the staff. Instead, it’s best to go out and better understand the people you’re working with and designing for, and then respond to that. It’s a tool or path to follow for solving problems in a way that’s interesting and sustainable. Where do the best ideas come from? Do we just sit at a table and come up with it or do we need to better understand those who are most directly affected by that struggle or challenge?

Is human-centered design used differently between for-profit businesses and nonprofits?

I think this is something people get hung up on a little bit — trying to figure out what you use it for. Once we specifically say that it’s for designing products or creating programming, that starts to limit what it actually is. 

That’s fair, but how do organizations use human-centered design? 

In a lot of ways, it’s more of a mindset and a way of interacting with all challenges that come up.For-profits and nonprofits are both going to run into similar problems, because we’re both trying to run an organization and navigate the ecosystem that we find ourselves in. The challenges might look different, but at the end of the day, human-centered design is really just a way of navigating those challenges. I don’t like to put it in too much of a box.

Tracking the effectiveness of human-centered design seems difficult. Is there a key to getting funders on board?

The proof is in the actual solutions. Sometimes the solutions are different than what you’d expect, and I think that’s where some of the rub comes in. But eventually funders understand that this isn’t some designy thing that’s out of reach. In the long term, it’s more sustainable. It’s less waste, tension and difficulties for both staff and clients. The clients are experiencing the solution in a way that puts them first instead of putting the design or system first.

Can you give an example of one of those solutions?

I was meeting with the lead designer at GE, and they were redesigning the experience for kids to go in for MRIs. They had to sedate and knock kids out because the kids were so scared of going into that large, loud, donut-shaped thing. There was all this fear and it was this traumatic experience. A group of intelligent people, probably with doctorates, sat around a table and said, ‘Well, if we sedate them, that solves the problem.’ And it does! But it doesn’t solve it with the user first. 

What was the solution they came to using human-centered design? 

(They) sat down with kids and had conversations. After that, they started theming the MRI machines, like with a camping theme, for example. The kids are in a room that makes it feel like they’re out in the woods and the machine is a tent, and there’s this game where they have to stay still. The number of kids they’ve had to sedate has dropped down to almost nothing. There’s so much opportunity around us as we ask the question: How can businesses and organizations around us respond to actual needs and not just perceived needs or requirements?

How can human-centered design be used for fundraising?

With fundraising, what you’re hoping for is partners, people that believe in what you do and want to partner with that, not just throw money at you. Maybe for the last 10 years you’ve been throwing a dance party as your fundraiser, but you’re not actually connecting with some people that you want to be. … Sit them down and ask them stories: ‘Tell me a time when you felt really connected to a cause. What made you feel that way?’ Then try some events out. Maybe there’s a way that you can better value their humanity and not just use something you read in a book on fundraising. 

What does the concept of ‘pushing for rejection’ mean to you?

Well, there’s actually two layers to that. One is that most people have a fear of approaching other people for empathy work, to go interview or ask questions. So with our teens, we gamified it and said that whichever team got the most rejections would get a prize. It’s trying to embolden them and normalizing that rejection. It’s also wanting people to reject our prototypes. If I come up with an idea, I go around and show people and they all say it’s great, I’m not able to have that critical feedback.

It’s wanting to hear honest critiques and not just praise, right? 

If all you’re hearing is affirmation, you’re not actually sure what you can trust. People can very easily make up positive input, but they’re not going to make up the rejection.

How does that help create better solutions? 

By pushing for rejection and coming up with ideas that push the envelope, in a way it’s support to help know that we’re getting an idea that’s different than what we could’ve gotten just sitting in a boardroom. If no one’s rejecting you, you’re not coming up with an interesting idea.

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