Bringing design thinking to communication strategies

Posted on June 22, 2014 by - Strategy, User Experience

Design thinking for communication

It’s easy to create a plan. It’s harder to solve a problem. What most frameworks lack is room for design thinking. Photo from the Human-Centered Design Toolkit, Creative Commons


Strategic communication plans. Content strategies. Change management plans. Marketing plans.

There’s no shortage of frameworks and methodologies that promise to improve communication. If you’re a professional communicator, you’re no doubt aware of the strengths and weaknesses of various approaches. They streamline workflows, they reassure clients, and they produce standardized deliverables within predictable time frames. But they can also stifle creativity, lead to cookie-cutter solutions, and even fail to ask the right questions.

It’s easy to create a plan. It’s harder to solve a problem. What most frameworks lack is room for design thinking.

What is design thinking?

IDEO calls design thinking “a deeply human process that taps into abilities we all have but [that] get overlooked by more conventional problem-solving practices.” Instead of prescribing a sequence of repeatable steps, design thinking encourages people to take time at the beginning of a project to observe, listen, think, and learn, then test and refine prototypes until arriving at a better solution.

Are you trying to design a better subway car? Read about the history of public transit. Ride in subways, trains, streetcars, and buses. Talk to the drivers, the security guards, the kiosk attendants, and the customers. Learn about their problems and frustrations. Notice what they do to improve the ride. Visit other cities and use their transit systems. Take notes, draw sketches, and snap photos, if you can get away with it.

Photo by crol373, Creative Commons

Photo by crol373, Creative Commons


And then bring your observations back to the people in your multidisciplinary team, who hopefully have been doing their own research. Compare notes, stick your photos on the wall, share ideas. Ask yourself whether you understand the problem. Maybe the problem is bigger or smaller than you thought.

Discuss solutions, then build prototypes. Try them out. Modify them, combine them, take them apart and put them back together again. Once you develop a working model, try it out with real users. Watch what happens. Be prepared to make changes or even to start over from the beginning.

There’s no right or wrong way to do all of this, as long as you look at the problem from your users’ perspective and push yourself to question everything.

Communicators need design thinking, too

This open-ended approach to solving problems isn’t just for companies that design products and services. We can all use design thinking to transform our work, especially in roles that involve communication.

Professional communicators know that understanding their audience is essential. That’s why marketers conduct market research, why public relations teams begin with an environmental analysis, why content strategists so often recommend stakeholder interviews and content audits—despite refrains of “We already know what’s wrong” and “We already know what people think.”

Many communicators are also uniquely positioned to view an offering from the perspective of multiple people, including the users, the project managers, and the engineers. In our traditional role of “translating” an organization’s language into a message that resonates with customers, we already ask many of the hard questions that our clients have not yet considered.

But when communicators discover a fundamental flaw in the product, service, or process, how often are they allowed to help the organization make improvements or change course? That’s usually outside the scope of the contract or position. It’s “not their job” to call the project itself into question. Doing so could step on toes. It could create delays. It could make people feel uncomfortable.

So we use what we’ve learned about our stakeholders and target audiences to work around the problems the best we can. We design our websites and marketing campaigns and advocacy initiatives to avoid the pain points when possible. We develop messaging that emphasizes the strengths and downplays the weaknesses. If we see opportunities for piecemeal improvements, we quietly lobby for minor changes, although we know full well that we’re not solving the deeper problem—not really.

Imagine what we could do if we were all empowered to rethink the way that we work.

Case in point: The view from an international NGO

I work at an international organization that has an incredible mission: to help poor and vulnerable people around the world lift themselves out of poverty. I’ve seen firsthand how the compassion, experience, and ingenuity of dedicated people can help the poorest and most marginalized to recover from emergencies, access quality health care, and build a better future for their families.

But in order for programs to succeed, field staff often have to communicate with a dizzying array of stakeholders:

  • Community members
  • Health clinics, schools, and community groups
  • Religious and secular organizations
  • Government agencies
  • International partners
  • Colleagues in the field and at headquarters
  • Donors

When something goes wrong, it’s often due to a misunderstanding, large or small. Talk to any experienced field worker, and you’ll hear countless variations of the same story:

  • A simple miscommunication led to confusion or mistrust.
  • A critical false assumption steered a project in the wrong direction.
  • An important dot didn’t get connected, and the team worked twice as hard to repair the damage.

Lack of communication has often been identified as a major cause of project failure.
Paolo Mefalopulos, Development Communication Sourcebook 1

The traditional solution: Create a communication plan

Earlier this month, I attended Beth Robinson’s excellent presentation at HIPNet, the Health Information and Publications Network. Beth summarized the needs of field workers and offered sound advice for helping field staff to create a communication plan.

“We’re all communication professionals here,” she said as she introduced the components of a strategic communication plan. “We’re all familiar with this framework”:

  1. Conduct an environmental scan or situational analysis
  2. Determine communication objectives
  3. Identify specific audiences
  4. Develop messages
  5. Plan communication activities
  6. Ensure that you have adequate resources to support the plan
  7. Establish roles and timelines
  8. Set up monitoring and evaluation mechanisms for the communication plan

A hand went up. “I have a question about timing. When you’re working with people who aren’t communication professionals and they have other urgent responsibilities, how long does it take to walk them through the process?”

Beth replied that she usually goes to a country office to conduct an initial meeting and a needs assessment. She tries to get the key people in the same room so they can hash out the objectives and audiences. Then she discusses possible messages, activities, resources, roles, and timelines. The meeting takes about three hours at a minimum. After the meeting, she trades drafts of a plan via e-mail for remote critiques. Often she returns to the country office for about a week to help the team begin to implement the plan.

This is a resourceful approach that other international NGOs would do well to emulate. Those who work in relief and development might be interested in the Communication Toolbox, a publication that provides templates, facilitator’s notes, worksheets, tips, checklists, and additional guidance on how to design a communication plan. (Full disclosure: I served as the editor for this publication.)

But Beth was clear about the limitations of this approach. “Some of the problems that come up aren’t communication problems. They’re programming problems or management problems.”


A better (but harder) solution: Use design thinking to rethink the problem

Often, the communication, management, and programming problems that Beth mentioned could have been avoided, if the team had approached the project in a different way. Rather than designing and launching the project and then bringing in a consultant to develop a communication plan, the team could have used design thinking and participatory approaches to create a better project from the outset.

In that case, a communication adviser would have been part of the team, and the team would have spent much of its time in getting to know its stakeholders. The team would have fostered valuable two-way communication with participants from the very beginning, so staff members would need to rely less on one-way “push” communication as the project proceeded.

For guidance on how to facilitate this process, teams can use IDEO’s Human-Centered Design Toolkit, which was developed specifically for relief and development professionals. The toolkit “walks users through the human-centered design process and supports them in activities such as building listening skills, running workshops, and implementing ideas.”

When done well, two-way communication and participatory processes create a shared sense of ownership and commitment. The project might have evolved into quite a different initiative, but chances are that it would have been better as a result.

For many years we thought that any international development project would be greatly improved by building in a planned communication strategy. This is true up to a point. Lately, we have come to understand that we should be looking at it the other way around—it is in fact good development that breeds good communication.
Wendy Quarry and Ricardo Ramírez, Communication for Another Development 2

A strategic communication plan is better than nothing, but transformative change only occurs when we create the conditions that make change possible.


1. Paolo Mefalopulos, Development Communication Sourcebook: Broadening the Boundaries of Communication (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2008), xii.

2. Wendy Quarry and Ricardo Ramírez, Communication for Another Development: Listening before Telling (New York: Zed Books, 2009), 25.

Josh TongJosh Tong is a content strategist and content marketer in Washington, DC. He helps colleagues create powerful content through research, strategy, and implementation.

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Bringing Design Thinking to Communication Strategies by Josh Tong is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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