October 21, 2021 Whitney van Schyndel

Bringing the ‘Human’ Back to Design

Co-authored by: Liana Khanaghyan, Marlou Rijk, & Thomas Schuurmans

We create development solutions to influence people’s lives positively. Sometimes, however, our pre-existing assumptions can shape how we design our solutions. When a business model is not centered around its target group’s core interests and aspirations, social impact risks loom large: the systems and services we come up with might not work for our beneficiaries or only work for a select few. Therefore, immersing ourselves in the people’s lived experiences for whom we create the solutions becomes indispensable for making a meaningful change. So, how can we truly understand the human perspective in our design process? And how can we ensure that what looks good on paper is also practical?

This article will highlight how CFYE helped the implementing partners in Nigeria develop human-centered business designs. We will especially dive deep into the learnings of one of our partners in the agriculture industry.

What is human-centered design?

Human-centered design is a creative approach to developing products and services that empathize and stimulate the people involved, putting their desires and needs at the heart of the design (Giacomin, 2015). HCD initiates new, purpose-built solutions by observing people in their natural environments to understand what they see, think, and feel. It also allows us to get more insights into the users’ beliefs and values by directly engaging them in designing the project. This means that users are involved at every stage of the design process: from scoping the problems, defining opportunities, generating ideas, to building prototypes and testing them out (Proportion, n.d.). It shifts the design mentality from viewing our end-users as passive players to active agents who co-develop solutions to solve their problems.

However, what makes HCD a distinct and successful practice goes beyond merely observing people’s needs and behaviour. Applying a human-centered design framework empowers us to identify needs and pain points that usually transcend what the users initially realized. HCD leads to solutions that are physically, perceptually, and emotionally intuitive (Giacomin, 2015).

HCD research pilot in Nigeria

CFYE partnered with Proportion Global to help CFYE’s implementing partners (IP) in Nigeria apply a human-centered approach to their business designs. The coaching encouraged our partners to develop a solid research plan, upgrade their business model, and identify learning opportunities for the future of their businesses.

One of the IPs we coached on HCD is Novus Agro, which assists smallholder farmers with access to credit and markets and helps them extend their reach. Novus Agro plans to create 1200 jobs (80% women) through their GrainPoints project – an initiative that facilitates the easy transaction between farmers and consumers through utilizing the power of technology. They created an application that equips farmers with the necessary knowledge and resources for successful farming and trade. On top of this, the company is hiring many youths as GrainPoint managers and training them to help farmers grow their businesses. The GrainPoint managers that Novus Agro strives to recruit are youth from rural communities.

Novus Agro’s business model was based on some key assumptions: the recruited young women would want to work as GrainPoint managers in rural communities, newly onboarded managers are motivated to acquire digital skills, the digital app prototype is intuitive for GrainPoint, and farmers are highly interested in the GrainPoint services. To validate these assumptions, Proportion empowered Novus Agro to design and implement their own HCD research. The team of Novus Agro organized various focus group discussions and visited GrainPoint outlets for interviews.

How HCD can create more successful businesses

Conducting this research exposed the fragility of preliminary assumptions in our partner’s business strategy. The findings made it clear that the needs and desires of young people in rural communities were not aligned with Novus Agro’s initial expectations. For instance, many rural youths had difficulties understanding the icons that were used in the mobile application. What’s more, they lacked digital and financial skills, which further obstructed them from seamlessly engaging with the GrainPoint application.

These findings pointed to a clear conclusion: a more user-friendly design was necessary for Novus Agro to realize its business ambitions. This meant, for example, designing the app and the job application processes with the skills and abilities of the applicants in mind. An inclusive way to accomplish this would assume co-developing and testing the application with the agents themselves as well as training them to become more tech-savvy. The insights gathered during this research also helped Novus Agro establish a more accurate profile of their ideal GrainPoint employee: youth residing in rural communities, having enough education to handle a mobile device, and having easy access to farmers, GrainPoints, and road networks.

Secondly, the team learned that the farmers are currently not utilizing 100% of their land as they can’t afford to purchase enough inputs. The managers were unaware that Novus Agro already has an offering for farmers that prefinances their inputs as long as they sell their produce via GrainPoint. The outlet managers expressed that this could eliminate many financial hurdles for the farmers.

The team concluded that all outlet managers would need to be sensitized and trained on this offering to provide the farmers with sufficient and accurate information. Secondly, more research would be required among off-takers to better understand the volumes they are interested in.

HCD for meaningful impact

The misalignment between the initial hypotheses of our implementing partners and the needs of their target groups was present in varying degrees in most of the business designs we researched in Nigeria.

Injecting the human perspective into their designs inspired our partners to shape more operational and custom strategies and fully empathize with their beneficiaries’ experiences. Our close collaboration has also opened new insights into the needs of our partners. This helps CFYE finetune the technical assistance (TA) programs and create guidance that meets the unique requirements of our implementing partners.

Our HCD pilot in Nigeria demonstrated that centering development programs around human interests not only serves our agents better but also creates viable business solutions paving the way to both long-term business profitability and significant social impact. After the successful pilot in Nigeria, CFYE strives to coach more partners in different focus countries in human-centered design.


Giacomin, J. (2014). What Is Human Centred Design? The Design Journal, 17(4), 606–623. https://doi.org/10.2752/175630614×14056185480186

Methodology. (2021, July 7). Proportion Global. https://proportion.global/methodology/