How WESST Uses Human-Centered Design to Tackle Microbusiness Problems

By Julianna Silva | August 6, 2015

What a privilege it is to work with creative, confident and committed partners in the pursuit of finding solutions to issues that can stymie entrepreneurial growth and success. Participating in the Microbusiness Solutions Learning Cluster is my first experience engaging in an innovation process informed by consumer insights research and human-centered design practices.

At the same time I began this work with CFED, I supported an IDEO KickStarter campaign to help publish The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design. As a supporter, I received my own copy of this visually-guided workbook with step-by-step methods and case studies demonstrating how to develop solutions to “big problems” using this client-focused process. The Field Guide has been an incredibly valuable reference throughout the innovation process.

As part of the Learning Cluster, I have participated in three Design Site Visits, one at WESST in Albuquerque, New Mexico, one at Northern Initiatives in Marquette, Michigan and the other at CAMBA in Brooklyn, New York. These site visits mark key benchmarks—like discovery and design—that are vital to the process of developing solutions to financial capability issues that many entrepreneurs face on a day-to-day basis.

The WESST site visit was the first of the three, and WESST staff had already done a significant amount of work to this point to inform our understanding of the problem by interviewing our clients. The Design Site Visit was intended to synthesize all of our interview findings and begin generating solutions.

It was tremendously helpful to have the expert guidance of CFED’s Sr. Program Manager for Entrepreneurship, Lauren Williams, and Associate Director of Applied Research, Pamela Chan and to have the Field Guide available to remind me of the necessary attitudes and approach to embrace for human-centered design. Getting the methods right is important—from creating themes from our interview findings, extracting insights about our customers’ needs and brainstorming ideas to creating prototypes. We have facilitators to guide us through each of those activities, but entering into those activities with the right attitude and mindset is just as critical and a little more difficult, especially for first-timers. What struck me at the WESST Design Site Visit was how “big” this process felt and, honestly, I wondered how we would possibly be able to complete our goals for the two-day working session! On day one of our two day visit, I was feeling a little overwhelmed.

Happily, at the outset of that first day, I referred to my Field Guide and reminded the team of the recommended mindsets to keep us centered:

  • Creative confidence
  • Make it
  • Learn from failure
  • Empathy
  • Embrace ambiguity
  • Optimism
  • Iterate, iterate, iterate

The most helpful mindset that kept us moving forward was “embrace ambiguity.” As we swam in a sea of sticky notes trying to create order from seeming chaos, one of us would remind the group to embrace the ambiguity and keep pushing forward. Just speaking the reminder out loud allowed a bit of the tension to release. And guess what: we reached breakthroughs on day two that ultimately led us to the next step in the plan to prototype a solution. I can already hear us in the next phase uttering the mindset: iterate, iterate, iterate.

Editor’s Note: This blog post is part of a series focused on the Microbusiness Solutions Learning Cluster, a year-long engagement during which CFED will work closely with WESST, CAMBA and Northern Initiatives to understand a unique design challenge, create an intervention or programmatic tweak to address it and then pilot that intervention to assess its impact. During the Design Site Visits referenced in this post, CFED helped each organization synthesize their client interviews, brainstorm solutions and rapidly prototype those solutions. For more on Design Site Visits, check out our Design Site Visit summary.

About the Author


Julianna Silva

Julianna Silva is the Managing Director of the WESST Enterprise Center. Julianna is a native New Mexican with a Bachelor’s of Business Administration from UNM Anderson School of Management. She has over 15 years of experience mentoring women entrepreneurs, artists and non-profit organizations. Julianna works with her clients to develop and implement business plans, accounting systems and marketing strategies. A business owner herself, her passion and expertise are focused on teaching core business concepts to microbusiness owners, including understanding financials, building cash flow and break-even models and learning and implementing accounting systems.

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