As the international development sector becomes increasingly interested in applying design thinking (DT) to intractable development problems, those same development actors are asking for the existing evidence on if and how the use of DT and its application result in better international development programming. With that in mind, this project set out to gather and analyze the existing evidence base against four value propositions: if and how DT approaches for development make programs more adaptive and collaborative, and supports relevant and catalytic program outcomes; as well as highlighting other outcomes that DT approaches might generate; and creating a set of learning products to help USAID practitioners apply DT in their work.

CollaborateUp conducted an extensive literature review, sourcing more than 100 resources from peer reviewed and gray literature, reviewing 60+ articles to assess the value propositions of DT, and to gauge the strength of evidence behind DT in development. CollaborateUp also interviewed 15 targeted individuals from design firms, development implementers, donors, thought leaders in DT and USAID to contribute to the analysis of evidence but to also gather case studies, perceptions and experiences with the application of DT. Through website and database searches, through the existing literature, through our own experience and through the key informant interviews, CollaborateUp also collected information on more than 75 cases applying DT in the international development space. We analyzed all documents, interviews and case studies to compile a succinct and comprehensive look at the state of DT applied to international development.

The results culminated in a series of learning products. These were co-defined by USAID and CollaborateUp after we conducted an institutional learning ethnography of USAID users to inform the format and methodology of the key deliverables. Findings confirmed what many in development suspected, despite ample application in the private sector, growing interest and use in development, and consensus among key informants of the value of DT, there is a dearth of scientific evidence to show its effectiveness or impact on program outcomes. One recent evaluation conducted in the public health space is the first of its kind that we found. This outlier did show effectiveness of DT and also demonstrated evidence that DT provided more collaborative and relevant solutions than similar approaches in the same space. Findings also concluded that a major barrier to the evidence base is the lack of common terminology and definitions for DT and related terms such as human centered design. CollaborateUp delivered: 

  • A comprehensive literature review
  • A presentation to build understanding and capacity around the components and steps of DT, its use in development, a summary of the evidence base, and recommendations to address gaps and barriers to applying DT in development
  • A metrics framework and DT checklist to help programs consider key metrics to measure the impact of DT and to benchmark quality implementation of DT
  • A case study library detailing more than 75 cases from around the world

CollaborateUp presented two in-person knowledge sharing sessions to USAID staff to summarize results and provide recommendations on the way forward.