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Looking Over the Horizon at USAID Through Human-Centered Design

By Steve Gale

With the SARS-CoV2 pandemic upending just about everything these days, easily and quickly finding what you need online and having it promptly delivered to your apartment, house or office is more important than ever. When one of those shiny grey Amazon trucks arrives, you won’t find Michael Bobick, 2016-18 Science & Technology Policy Fellow (STPF), at the wheel. But it took a team of human-centered design problem solvers for your package to arrive – a skill Bobick honed as an STPF fellow on the Futures Team in the U.S. Global Development Lab at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). 

Human-centered design starts with obtaining an in-depth understanding of who will eventually use or benefit from your product, service, system, or innovation. This passion to ground the process deeply in the user’s perspective is meant to ensure that the product truly meets the user’s needs, not simply those of the developer, sponsor, grantor or aid funder. In an ideal setting, the end user is involved from the very start of any problem-focused endeavor and made a part of the entire process. Bobick embraced these human centered design principles during his role in scenario planning. This is a tool which USAID deploys to help its field Missions envision not just one possible development future, but several plausible ones. His human-centered approach made those he engaged with vital members of USAID’s scenario planning teams.  

Bobick was part of USAID’s Futures Team from 2016 to 2018, where he co-led a number of field-focused scenario planning efforts in Europe (Ukraine), the Balkans (Albania and Kosovo), and the Caribbean (Haiti) to help USAID Missions in those countries plan intentionally for uncertain futures, just like the ones we are experiencing today.  

As part of the human-centered scenario planning process, Bobick led an irreplaceable series of external meetings with country-based citizens outside USAID’s normal channels, including the individuals that would eventually inherit the futures he was articulating. He knew how vital it was to better understand possible evolving futures from “their own perspective.” In addition, his approach helped reinforce USAID’s longer-term goal to encourage aid recipient countries to chart their own “Journey to Self-Reliance” (J2SR). Under J2SR, USAID is reorienting its strategies, partnership models, and program practices to achieve greater development outcomes and is also working towards a time when U.S. foreign assistance is no longer needed.   

Over his two years as a policy fellow, Michael worked closely with me as his STPF mentor. Together, we refined a process and consultative approach that helps USAID Missions identify country-specific “drivers of change” (including government transparency, job creation, health care delivery, corruption, governance, and education) that will have the greatest future development impacts.  

Based on early field successes, more than 20 additional Agency overseas missions have undertaken scenario planning exercises. This tool is now also being used to examine the implications of the SARS-CoV2 pandemic. (Learn about scenario planning in the age of COVID-19 at: (https://www.newsecuritybeat.org/2020/06/covid-19-reignites-interest-scenario-planning-development-last/.) 

It’s easy to see how helping USAID field staff, country-based aid implementers and recipients, and development partners look “over the horizon” can lead to a career in user research at Amazon where Bobick is now a user researcher and where “envisioning future possibilities” is a key ingredient for success. His real-world USAID experience, combined with extensive pre-fellowship expertise in anthropology and international field research, allowed him to refine a suite of qualitative and quantitative methods to observe and analyze human experience in highly complex settings by always beginning and ending with people in mind.  

About the Author. Steve Gale serves as an STPF mentor and is a research psychologist who pioneered scenario planning for development at USAID. He learned much about the science of scenario planning from his previous work at the National Intelligence Council (NIC) and the National Security Council (NSC) where he served as Director for Afghanistan under Dr. Condoleezza Rice.  

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