Gordon Adomdza

3Qs with Professor Gordon Adomdza

by Esther Chou

With five field stud­ies under his belt, Pro­fes­sor Gor­don Adomdza is now a sea­soned vet­eran in lead­ing stu­dents abroad to research and develop tools for the base of the pyra­mid (BOP). In the recent decade, design­ers have been using the human cen­tered design (HCD) process at the BOP as a new tool to solve old prob­lems. Prod­ucts such as the hippo roller, the effi­cient wash­ing machine, and the rocket stove were all devel­oped uti­liz­ing the design think­ing process for the BOP.

While social inno­va­tion and design think­ing cur­ricu­lum is not new, Adomdza’s method­ol­ogy to teach stu­dents the process in part­ner­ship with actual com­mu­ni­ties and real-life ben­e­fi­cia­ries is unortho­dox, prac­ti­cal, and enrich­ing for both stu­dents and the com­mu­ni­ties they serve. The Social Enter­prise Insti­tute sat down with Adomdza to dis­cuss his moti­va­tion for teach­ing design think­ing to busi­ness stu­dents, his advice for stu­dents start­ing a career in this space, and of course, what he would be doing if he was not teach­ing under­grads at Northeastern.

1. What is human cen­tered design and what moti­vates you to teach it?

A good way to describe design think­ing is to con­trast it with some­thing else. In the thir­ties, when researchers asked, “Where do inno­v­a­tive ideas come from?”, the answer was that it came from deep pock­ets, like Bell labs or com­pa­nies that had money to invest in Research and Devel­op­ment (R&D). In the six­ties, we started see­ing the impact of soci­etal trends on inno­va­tion. The argu­ment was that these trends moti­vated peo­ple to come up with new ideas to sat­isfy or meet mar­ket demand. Today, those two approaches are not enough. Design­ers will tell you that the world doesn’t dish out puz­zles any­more, but it actu­ally pro­vides us with mys­ter­ies to solve. Mys­ter­ies are prob­lems that we’re famil­iar with, but we just don’t under­stand. Con­ven­tional wis­dom says that it’s really dif­fi­cult to solve mys­ter­ies with ana­lyt­ics, because you either don’t under­stand the prob­lem or you don’t know what the prob­lem really is. So it’s dif­fi­cult to use  tra­di­tional, ana­lyt­i­cal ways of gath­er­ing infor­ma­tion to extract solu­tions based on the infor­ma­tion because the infor­ma­tion will typ­i­cally be incom­plete. That is where the design think­ing approach comes in.

Design think­ing allows  empa­thy, exper­i­men­ta­tion, and intu­ition, which com­bined with ana­lyt­i­cal think­ing, can help us solve mys­ter­ies. I think that the prob­lems fac­ing the poor are some of those mys­ter­ies that design think­ing can help to solve. We’re famil­iar with poverty, income inequal­ity, social injus­tice, dis­crim­i­na­tion but they are also prob­lems that we don’t fully under­stand; there is no mag­i­cal data­base of answers because if there was, these prob­lems would be solved by now. When work­ing with a poor com­mu­nity, we start by try­ing to under­stand the con­text of the indi­vid­u­als in the com­mu­nity. We study human behav­ior within that con­text, for exam­ple — What do they care about? What are their val­ues? What are their aspi­ra­tions? By doing this, we can start to under­stand the mys­ter­ies a lit­tle bit in order to lead us to a poten­tial solu­tion that can have a really big social impact. Rely­ing on empa­thy, exper­i­men­ta­tion, and intu­ition allows us to col­lect infor­ma­tion from mul­ti­ple sources and mul­ti­ple angles in a way that we can­not do with tra­di­tional research methods.

What moti­vates me to teach design think­ing is the mys­ter­ies we are dealt. Like any curi­ous per­son, if you don’t under­stand some­thing, it really eats at you, and you keep going at it until you under­stand it. What is inter­est­ing about the class is because we use the design think­ing approach, that enables us to take this wide 100 foot sys­tems view to prob­lems, we can study the same prob­lem a hun­dred times and find some­thing inter­est­ing every time. As a pro­fes­sor, it’s reward­ing to know that irre­spec­tive of the num­ber of times you attack one prob­lem, there is always a poten­tial sur­prise at the end of each attempt that solves one piece of the mystery.

2. What take­aways or advice do you have for stu­dents inter­ested in get­ting expe­ri­ence in the sector?

David Kel­ley at Stanford’s D School described the designer mind­set as T-shaped think­ing — that is, ana­lyt­i­cal think­ing on the ver­ti­cal leg and intu­itive, expe­ri­en­tial, and empa­thetic think­ing on the T . I think the ques­tion is how can stu­dents show off their T-shaped think­ing abil­i­ties to poten­tial recruiters? For stu­dents who major in stud­ies where abstract think­ing is encour­aged, such as archi­tec­ture, engi­neer­ing, art, it’s a lot eas­ier for them because they are nor­mally pushed to develop port­fo­lios of their work. These port­fo­lios do a good job in show­ing their abil­ity to be T-shaped thinkers. But if you take human­i­ties or busi­ness stu­dents who nor­mally only write papers or develop busi­ness plans or cre­ate pre­sen­ta­tions, they are nor­mally good at show­ing their ana­lyt­i­cal think­ing skills and not the full T. I would encour­age busi­ness stu­dents and those in the human­i­ties to cre­ate port­fo­lios of their reports of projects they’ve com­pleted using visu­als, info­graph­ics, and mod­els to show their work as if they were prepar­ing for an exhi­bi­tion of their busi­ness career as a stu­dent. If stu­dents are able to do this, they can have instant con­nec­tion to peo­ple from orga­ni­za­tions that do this kind of work, such as design con­sult­ing firms like IDEO and  Con­tin­uum Inno­va­tion. Stu­dents also need to gen­er­ally get really inter­ested in prob­lems because the key to unlock­ing mys­ter­ies is not rush­ing to pro­vide solu­tions, but gain­ing a deeper under­stand­ing of prob­lems. If a stu­dent can show a recruiter that he or she cares enough about a prob­lem, his or her chances are much brighter.

3. What would you be doing if you weren’t teaching?

I would be try­ing to win  The Dakar Rally.


For more infor­ma­tion on how you can learn about design think­ing, enroll in a few courses offered by the D’Amore-McKim School of busi­ness such as Inno­va­tion! or Busi­ness Model Design for Social Impact. Also check out the fol­low­ing orga­ni­za­tions for addi­tional resources on HCD: IDEO, Design that Mat­ters, and Design for the Other 90.