Empathy is the soul of design; just knowing a problem exists gives you a portion. Truly understanding of the problem gives you the balance needed for meaningful action.

Understanding itself is cultivated through research, thinking and analysis. This is true when building a tool or designing an experience. In microcosm, it’s even true when you fold a scrap of paper to place under a piece of wobbling furniture.

The following articles are examples of design with enough of both qualities to take ideas born in one culture and re-engineer them for another.

Information Technology without Software

Sometimes just the process of communicating is so complicated that even simple information gets lost because of incidental situations like a location or context. Even if the data is simple, it can get misinterpreted or lost all together if the channels that deliver and process it are hi-friction and prone to error.

In Information Technology without Software this information is life or death: a diagnoses for a medical condition. The information needs to be correct so that the response can be accurate. With the reporting of each diagnosis, the barriers to success are a mix of language incompatibilities, and lack of technical know-how.

Woman using the reporting wheel to report a diagnoses
Woman using the reporting wheel to report a diagnoses.

The solution solves the problem on multiple levels: it easy teach, it’s language agnostic, it’s accessible to those with low technical ability, and the bonus: built-in quality assurance.

‘What if we decouple the process of structuring the report from the channel through it was sent? If you ask someone to send a telegraph, he does not need to know Morse code. In the same way, we could allow health workers to create the report outside the constraints of the tool being used to transmit it.’

Building an Incubator with Car Parts

Sometimes design requires us to rework tools that already work so that they can do their job in another setting. In our hospitals, we use incubators without issue. If they break, a part is ordered, or a technician comes in to help, armed with the built-in knowledge to repair or service.

However, this requires an infrastructure that allows the right parts to be readily available and a foundation of knowledge in the case of a skilled technician. If these two support layers are removed then an incubator—or any complex machine—can go out of service forever.

Incubators we might see can be over $40,000 or more, not counting the skills and supplies needed to keep it in working order. In impoverished settings building an incubator with car parts is a way forward. They can be built for under $1,000, and fixed by local people with locally available parts, that is, local auto mechanics trained as medical technologists.

In the article, the approach is termed “organic resourcing”. It describes the technique of producing devices from materials that are locally abundant.

Incubators in use
Incubators in use.

In Conclusion

Both of these design solutions show an in-depth attention detail and context. They especially highlight how the thinking behind a design gets transferred to its final form, process or both. Designs are not done. Problems aren’t solved once and for all everywhere or from one point in time, forever forward. They must adapt with us and for us, wherever we are.