Why human-centred design doesn’t work in Asia… and how to tailor it so it does

Agency Design Singapore
8 min readFeb 23, 2023

Human-centred design can absolutely work in Asia. However, because companies and organisations in the region tend to be more hierarchical — and use more command and control structures and processes — there are unique challenges that need to be overcome to get organisations ready to achieve successful outcomes.

It should be said that hierarchical organisations don’t only occur in Asia, and that not all organisations in Asia are of this type. There are hierarchical, command/control organisations all over the world, and there are flat, highly collaborative organisations in Asia. In the latter organisation type, people tend to have more autonomy, making it easier to embark on work that unlocks change and innovation with insight. The guidance we provide here works not just for hierarchical organisations in Asia, but wherever they might occur.

The big principle underlying the way we work is to tailor our approach to make the most of the unique dynamics of the organisation that we’re partnering with. To do this, we identify the elements that might get in the way of creating impact, and then intentionally and openly discuss these with key stakeholders. The objective of these discussions is to understand stakeholders’ true appetite for change and impact, and — if sufficient appetite exists — to work with them to nullify the organisational challenges, or even make them work for us (rather than against us).

Broadly, Agency intentionally engage in two upfront activities to ensure success in the work that we undertake with Asian organisations. First, we prime the organisation with a realistic vision of the scale and scope of both the outcome and requirements of human-centred design work. This is done to help senior stakeholders fully appreciate what it takes to get the work to market. And then, we carefully and intentionally invest time to engage the key areas of the organisation (sometimes the entire organisation!) to accept, encourage and even be genuinely excited about doing the work.

These early engagements are necessary because the road of human-centred design can be long and uncertain. It takes a considerable amount of organisational will and commitment to support iterative rounds of discovery, prototyping and experimentation that can feel uncertain and amorphous, especially in the early stages. This is especially challenging in hierarchical organisations that are used to a high level of certainty (even if that certainty is illusory!). Only through effective early priming and engagement can we hope to guide these types of organisations through uncertainty to highly resolved solutions that both stand a high chance of success and that open up new horizons for growth.

Priming the Organisation

In hierarchical organisations, rank-and-file staff are used to having their agendas and responsibilities set tightly for them by their managers, going all the way up to the top of the organisation. Because of this, success tends to be defined as fulfilling that agenda, rather than thinking more broadly about what the organisation needs or what underlying problems it needs to solve.

At Agency, we set out to have every piece of work we do with our clients go to market. We want our success to be measured by the impact that we have on our clients and — through them — their customers, their consumers and society at large. To achieve this, it’s critical to have alignment on objectives and parameters, all the way up to the top of the organisations we partner with.

At the start of every engagement, we insist on re-visiting the brief with the most senior leaders who have stakes in the success of our partnership. In our conversations with senior leadership, first on the agenda is getting a really clear and aligned measure of what success looks like. Because briefs tend to flow down hierarchical organisations with reducing amounts of context attached, we’ve found that what senior leadership envision as success is very different from what immediate decision-makers envision. In many cases, once we’ve spoken to the senior leader, we’ve had to re-articulate the design challenge, and re-design the brief.

A few years ago, Agency partnered with a Singapore-based insurance firm. Their original brief was to help them bring disruptive new insurance products to market as quickly as possible.

We began by engaging senior stakeholders in a visioning exercise to determine what success looks like for the company. This exercise revealed that there were three different visions of success that were held by different parties in the company: (1) as per the original brief, a set of revolutionary new products, delivered quickly to market; (2) the ability to quickly deliver new product features to market on an ongoing basis; and (3) insight that drives a complete reinterpretation of the insurance business, which will lead to an overhaul of their product portfolio.

We helped the senior stakeholders envision where each of these views of success would take the company, across multiple time horizons. On the basis of this, we then helped them articulate a shared vision of success, and understand what this would mean for each of them and for their teams.

Based on this shared vision, we reconsidered our model of engagement with the company, focusing on capability building rather than just the delivery of new products.

Along with a shared view of success, it is also imperative to align tightly with senior leaders on the role they need to play in the initiative — both in general, and at key stages. We invest time and effort in exciting senior leadership around the potential of what we can do together, and then use this excitement to convince them to participate actively and positively at key junctions of the project.

And then, we activate and encourage senior leaders to bring together every department of the organisation that has a stake in the success of the work. It is far from easy, but absolutely necessary, in order to prevent hierarchical and political blockers from emerging later on. Fortunately, in hierarchical organisations, interactions with more junior levels of management get progressively easier when we can leverage the enthusiastic endorsement of higher levels of leadership!

Priming the Working Team

It’s important to remember that we’re asking working teams to work in a radically different way than they’re used to. Oftentimes, we’re even asking them to work in a radically different way in one part of their working day compared to every other part of it. This is why it’s critical to the success of human-centred design efforts to properly prepare the working team.

The first priority here is to make sure that we have the right team. In our experience, conversations with leadership across departments give us a good sense of which groups — and even which individuals — have the skills and/or passion to help the working team succeed.

While it’s often assumed that high-performers or high-potentials are the best candidates for business-critical working teams, we’ve found that this is not always the case. High-performers also tend to have very little capacity, as they are given many projects to work on. To make sure we have the right participants, Agency run an intentional workshop that helps us — and the organisation — identify the people who have the right mix of capability, interest and availability to work with us towards a successful outcome.

Once the working team is formed, we take stock of the diversity in the team. This isn’t just a question of demographic diversity — which is important! — but diversity in experience, expertise and discipline as well. Where the necessary skills or perspectives aren’t available in the organisation, we engage external subject matter experts (SMEs) to join the team, either on an ongoing basis or just for specific sprints or activities.

In many organisations in Asia, it’s important to give the team overt permission from senior leadership to work differently. We specifically engage the senior leaders that we’ve brought on side to help make this clear. Especially where we’ve found senior leaders who are passionate about the effort, we make sure that this passion is transferred to the working team at the start of the work, and then at key junctures as we go.

Alongside permission (and passion), we also find it useful to articulate the parameters on this permission. In hierarchical organisations, people can be used to tight parameters; in the spirit of making the organisation work for us rather than against us, we’re never afraid to be specific about the box that we want our working team to think their way out of. We balance this out by helping everyone see that the broader the parameters set, the more novel the inputs and — ultimately — the more disruptive and effective the solutions.

The final part of priming the working team is practice. Often, there’s an assumption made that working teams can dive right into seemingly “natural” activities like making ideas real through prototypes and having conversations with people to refine one’s thinking. In hierarchical organisations, these instincts will have been overwritten quite a bit, so it’s important to resurface them. Before getting into the meat of the work, we warm the working team up with practice tasks that let them succeed early, give them confidence in their abilities, and bond them as a team. We do this as many times as needed to get our team raring to go.

In a recent engagement with a healthcare company, Agency established early on that both patients and caregivers want greater clarity early on what treatment will cost. Culturally, however, the working team were hesitant to talk to people directly about money.

To give them the confidence they needed to have these necessary conversations with patients and caregivers, we first focused on small and relatively unimportant aspects of billing in our prototyping and interviews. Having had a positive experience in experimenting with these elements of their business — and succeeding in getting to solutions that they were proud of — the team became more and more confident.

In the end, the team’s newfound trust in the process empowered them to have direct and important conversations with patients and caregivers about money and cost of treatment.

Making human-centred design work every time

We think of the process we’ve described here as a Frame stage to our engagements with the clients. The objective is to create a clear and unified understanding across the organisation of the ultimate impact sought, and the resources needed to deliver that impact.

While this work can feel challenging, in Agency’s experience, it is absolutely essential for a successful and impactful outcome. At the same time, this Frame stage creates a greater level of insight into the organisation, creating many more opportunities for successful collaboration for both the business and the design teams.

We would love to hear from you as well: What has been challenging in your efforts to practise human-centred design in Asia? And what has worked for you in terms of tailoring human-centred design for this region? Let us know!

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