It Works!: 6 Design Tips For Your Culture


You don’t live in the same place. You don’t speak the same language. You aren’t of the same race. You don’t share the same history. You deal with an enormous disparity in income and assets. Yet, your team shares an enormous problem and spectacular opportunity. You can save lives.

The situation described above happened. I learned about it through a Segal Design Institute sponsored presentation by Will Harris from Design that Matters (DtM). Will discussed how a cross-cultural team, based in Boston and Vietnam, worked together to save babies in the developing world from death or brain damage from jaundice. Learn more about DtM and their result, Firefly, here.  They tell the story better than I can. It’s a story that should be retold.

The intent of Will’s presentation was to describe how design principles work across cultures.  It did.  But, like all thought-provoking discussions, it left me with different questions. Are obvious cultural differences an asset to design thinking?  When we know that we don’t share much in common, does it make us more open to learning about each other?  Conversely, does a shared culture get in the way of good design thinking?

Six of the design principles shared in the Firefly story are described below. These worked across cultures, but can they work within one?

Find a Local Partner

In the Firefly example, DtM needed a local organization to be its partner for practical and cultural reasons. Within cultures, I wonder how often the “they are just like us” assumption encourages the “go it alone” instinct. We think since we speak the same language, live in the same community, or work for the same people we must see the problems and solutions the same way. Good ideas aren’t encouraged early without fresh thinking. Resources and efforts are diluted when they could be combined. Could we increase impact if  “find a partner” was the first rule of design everywhere?

Identify the Problem

DtM and their partner, East Meets West, were clear about the problem. Over 9 million babies in the developing world, particularly in Asia, need treatment for jaundice ever year. Left untreated or under treated, these infants will die or suffer severe brain damage. The treatment for jaundice is known; the problem was both in the availability and access to the necessary equipment for therapy.

When was the last time your intracultural team framed the problem it was trying to solve? Did it matter enough to put effort against it? Were there many problems? Did everyone work on his or her favorite problem? A lack of alignment around what the problem is and why it matters always shows up. Invest the time to define the problem on the front end to avoid tears on the back-end.

Embrace the Culture

Understand the culture the way it is. Appreciate people, practices, identities and values the way they are, not how we wish them to be. Ironically, it can be easier to accept and appreciate cultures other than our own. Our culture is like our family; we think it’s the only odd one. We approach it with a list of improvement opportunities. Don’t. Good design starts with empathy. As a colleague of mine advises: “Love ‘em first.”

Watch and Learn

When was the last time you were a visitor in your own culture? Do you notice how people interact? What patterns do you notice? Who speaks? Who listens? Who decides? Ask about how things work. Look for contradictions between how things are supposed to happen and how they really happen. Dig deeper with questions like: How could someone new learn this? What have you seen others do?


Does your intracultural team have a shared point of view that expresses its collective learning? This could be as simple as four points: 1) This is the problem 2) These are the most important things we’ve learned 3) This is what we will do 4) This is what we won’t do. Agree before  you design, before you invest, before you plan.  Have everyone on the team give input into a single point of view that can explain the problem, the most important things to know about it, and your solution boundaries.

Fail Fast

After you coalesce on a common view, fire up your imaginations. Fail your way to success! Create user worksheets or pictures to describe as many solutions you can think of based upon your synthesis. Don’t hold back. Have users rate the designs. Toss the crazy ones they don’t accept. You can’t pick out the crazy ideas from the rest. Your users can.

DtM produced several solution options that met their criteria. Each of the designs could have worked. By giving the users multiple choices and a vote in the selection, they jumped started adoption. This point made me think of how much time teams I’ve been a part of spent on coming up with “the answer’ when the reality was there were several potential answers. We cheated our users by choosing for them. Their top choice might have stayed in our trash.

 Across the Globe and Close to Home 

Will Harris and DtM showed how innovation can be nurtured to span cultures. The bonus insight is the design practices that enable innovation to cross cultures also works within them.  In fact, these principles may be more important working within a culture to overcome biases and shared assumptions that limit innovation.

Have you applied lessons from cross-cultural experiences to work within your culture? What happened?

Thank you, Segal People, for this insight! Thank you, Will Harris, for an inspirational presentation. Design that Matters, indeed.

5 thoughts on “It Works!: 6 Design Tips For Your Culture

  1. This question is particularly thought provoking for me: When we know that we don’t share much in common, does it make us more open to learning about each other?

    Great story and post. Has me thinking…

    • It does make me wonder. As I listened to Will, I kept thinking “Why don’t we do this on intracultural collaboration?” My guess is that too many assumptions kill curiosity. What do you think?

      Thanks for reading and for the contribution, Jeff.

      • I wonder if it is more that we are simply forced into considering cultural differences when they are so obvious – language, social setting, global location etc. — vs. when we are dealing with people who we perceive as culturally similar.

        You are right, I think – too many assumptions kill curiosity is a root issue here. But I am just fascinated by how context can shake up our native assumption-ing. (Whoa…making up words now. My apologies to the English language).

        Here’s an example from my work in the digital world. I have seen this a couple of times. People from all over the globe who have no real connection with each other — other than an interest in a topic — can come together and jointly create some product (a document, video, etc.) that has real quality and thinking behind it. In one MOOC I was in, there was an assignment to produce a two-page white paper on a topic within I think 48 hours. The course divided people into teams of 50. And they worked on Google docs.

        Some stunning outcomes. Now, not all 50 actually worked on the document in the end. But there was incredible collaboration among people from different global settings who did not know each other. Much less drama than I see in group projects in class settings where people are co-located and know each other.

        So is it context, forcing us to step out a bit of our assumptions? Not sure. But your post added to my curiosity on that point.

      • Jeff, now it’s your turn to make me think. The perspective of context is interesting. How does motivation affect our curiosity? I assume that by the nature of MOOCs, participants are highly motivated. ( Not that your KM students are not!) It may be the essence of “requirement” burdens curiosity and subsequently design. I don’t have the answers, only lots of questions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s