Business for Good: Design Thinking and Human Centered Design

Written by Hadiya Al-Idrissi

October 28, 2019

Last week Project Manager Cynthia and I attended the first session of a free 3-part workshop hosted by Invest Ottawa at Bayview Yards, an interesting adaptive reuse project west of downtown Ottawa.

The session was an introduction to Design Thinking, Human Centered Design and business modelling; concepts popularized by IDEO in 2009 that laid out how and why human-centered design can impact the social sector. According to Tim Brown, President of IDEO:

“Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of the people, the possibilities of technology and the requirements for business success.”

Put simply, Human Centered Design is a way of thinking that values process over product. The process is constantly optimized through feedback and recognizable patterns that emerge when the process is consistently repeated.

One of the examples that was given of a well-designed process was to address the following questions in the following sequence:

  1. Why (demand)
  2. How
  3. What

For example, you are proposing a vacation to your significant other:

  1. Why? You are both hard-working people deserving of a break, you need a vacation.
  2. How? You will book some days off and purchase plane tickets etc.
  3. What? The outcome is an enjoyable vacation where you will feel re-energized.

If any of these questions were out of sequence, the whole process would not make logical sense.

Let’s look at how Human Centered Design applies to the work we do, in developing affordable housing. Although developing affordable housing is complex and arduous, it can also simplified in a process:

  1. Why? Housing is a human right, and a significant amount of people are in need of stable housing.
  2. How? Minimize project and operating costs.
  3. What? Diversified neighbourhoods, relief on the shelter system, attainable social good.


The Human Centered Design concept in practice includes the following steps: making observations, deriving themes from these observations, which in turn leads to insights that can be applied to design directions for the development of a prototype.

This process is constantly being tested through the different projects we have on the go here at Cahdco. Each project has its unique context, set of parameters to work within, and constraints. The more projects we do, the more observations we make, the more we optimize the delivery of projects. This is why there is so much value in the lessons learned we do at the end of every project, to derive themes and insights to strengthen our directions. Familiarity with the process also helps us to identify where inefficiencies lie through observation, whether they be at the hands of the champions (clients, organizations) or enablers (policy makers, lenders etc.), and allows us to advocate for them to be optimized. Each step in the development process should look at Human Centered Design to think logically through the steps so we can build more affordable housing, faster.

Hadiya Al-Idrissi

Development Project Coordinator

October 28, 2019