Empathetic Configuration

Post authored by Samuel Mbuthia, Tech Lead. Above, Medic teammates visited Siaya County, Kenya earlier this year (from left – Michael Korir, Jane Katanu, Sara Hollis, Mercy Amulele and Samuel Mbuthia). 

In the health sector, human-centered design involves a combination of empathy and community participation to optimize service delivery. At Medic, human-centered design is the core of our work, significantly gaining more traction over the past two years since I joined the team as a Project Tech Lead. These principles are reflected in every new feature of Medic’s products.

Human-centered design begins and ends with designers, right? After all it is not human-centered configuration! Designers visit project sites, shadowing end users as they perform their work – exhibiting empathy to best understand the users’ needs and design workflows to be translated on our app. To a Project Tech Lead, the Designer is the person who passes you the baton. The Project Tech Lead takes the design output and configures the tool to the specifications laid out by the designers. While this may sound like a simple hand-off, in reality, this process involves hours (sometimes days) of discussions around feasibility, walls covered with sticky notes, and whiteboards full of complex sketches – with the designers’ often wishing us project tech leads could simply read their minds. For Medic tools to be effective in the hands of community health workers (CHWs), there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work to be done.

Medic’s designers are constantly pushing the boundaries of what is possible – at times there’s a tension between what they want, and what is technologically feasible. As Tech Leads it feels as though it is up to us to keep them grounded and realistic, and to clean up the whiteboards covered with their sketches! The arising questions becomes; What happens when the designer’s empathy is limited by the confines of their technical skills? The same thing that happens when the Tech Lead’s technical skill are limited by the confines of their ability to fully understand the context in which the tools are being used.

Jane Katanu (Medic Mobile Senior Service Designer) discussing Ministry of Health reporting tools and dashboards with Community Health Assistants. The design reports sometimes leave out context that would help Project Tech Leads empathize with users. 

This was demonstrated to me clearly when I went for my first design visit in Siaya County, Kenya with my colleagues Jane Katanu, the project’s Designer and Sam Kang’a, the Senior Project Manager.  I did not know what to expect – I was not 100% sure of what my role was in joining in on the visit. After all, I had completed my part of the project, successfully configuring the prototype that Jane and Sam required for their demos and presentations. Up until this point, in my two years as a project tech lead at Medic Mobile, my tasks so far had been focused on transforming design output into configuration.

At first, I found that immersing myself into the design process felt new and uncomfortable, although this feeling passed quickly. Watching Jane ask Community Health Volunteers (CHVs) pertinent questions, and then dig deeper with every response they gave, opened my eyes. Hearing first-hand the challenges that CHVs and Community Health Assistants (CHAs) faced daily changed my understanding of my own role as a technical person.

Observing a project from a different angle. My focus would shift to things like how many other applications were installed on the device and how strong the network signal was. 

Tech Lead’s minds are wired for challenges. At the core of my role, I welcome the challenge of configuring workflows imagined by designers. Tech Leads come in handy when it comes to translating user needs into technical terms, that sometimes the Designer may not have the words for. However, the immersion into situations on the ground puts everything in perspective. Users don’t just want the configurations with best-looking code or the fewest bugs, they want tools configured to meet their needs.

Close collaboration between Designers and Tech Leads is a crucial component of human-centered design for mobile applications and more so, critical to configuration. Human-centered design doesn’t end with designers, it is integrated in to the entire process of building our tools. In fact, maybe we should start referring to it as human-centered design and configuration?

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