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I never knew the power of human-centered design until I learned its lessons personally. Back in high school before I was a student at Penn, I thought I had the idea for the next great education tool: a kind of Flickr to help high school writers get word out about their writing. And after creating CafeMocha.org, my platform seemed to be receiving significant traffic.   But something was wrong: a large number of people were leaving as soon as they came to my website.

What was wrong? Was the website too hard to navigate? Was I just not marketing enough? Why weren’t people posting stories? I was completely stumped until Friday November 14th when I participated in the SAP + NetImpact Impactathon in downtown Philadelphia. Upon arriving, a facilitator placed me on a diverse team with MBAs and business students (keep in mind I am a first year undergrad engineering student) and explained that we would be ideating on how to help low-income students in New York City and Philadelphia have a better educational foundation for future success.

The first step in the human-centered design process (the basis of the competition) was inspiration and empathy. We walked to the large windows and literally started painting the wall with Post-it notes, each citing individual problems we could focus on. Between 20 minutes and 5 team members, we quickly generated 40 problems.

But were they really problems? The next step was to interview the users, or experts who knew the students affected by the challenge. These experts came from SAP’s local CSR partnerships, and they offered deeper insight into the challenge. These interviews allowed us to narrow our field of view onto the problems that our users actually recognized as problems.

While working on these problems, I had a sudden epiphany:  I was marketing my website to the wrong target audience. That’s why people weren’t coming. I hadn’t analyzed my market well enough. A problem that I thought was a problem wasn’t really a problem at all. I immediately realized the great power of human-centered design – both for solving social issues and products like my own

With that came the solution phase. My team went back to the window, and started ideating as many solutions as possible (some completely absurd ones); indeed, in this phase, it didn’t matter whether we could implement the solutions or not. One of the MBAs even proposed putting a school in a boat that travels around the world to teach students about international culture. No ideas were “bad.”

The prototyping session began and ended once again with Post-its; in this phase, we actually set out to ask whether the solutions we proposed were actually feasible. Could we combine any ideas?

Using this extensive process, we were able to create “Achieve for Me”: An SAP-based system that rewards students’ achievement of goals with travel abroad; while achieving these goals, students would develop communication skills, perform realistic scientific research, present their life-story in weekly TED-like-seminars, and perhaps even start their own entrepreneurial venture. Investment banking and consulting companies could even mold our concept to train their employees very easily.

The moral? There is absolutely no way my team could have come up with this simple, in-depth, and yet feasible solution to a social challenge without using human centered design. There is no way I could have gained the insight into re-structuring my website without going through the process. And there is no way that I could have gained such a deep understanding of new product development without NetImpact + SAP’s Impactathon. I’m looking forward to applying these lessons learned over the next year!

About the Author:

Rajat Bhageria (@RajatBhageria) is the Founder and CEO of CafeMocha.org, the author of What High School Didn’t teach Me, and the co-founder of ThirdEye Google Glass Image Recognition Software. Find him at RajatBhageria.com

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