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As digital technologies play a growing role in healthcare, human-centered design is gaining traction among global health practitioners and funders. Amid recent concern that this trend offers little more than buzzwords, our paper aims to clarify how human-centered design may be of value to research and practice that concern global health equity. To this end, we develop three contributions. First, for practitioners and for researchers who are new to the design field, we contextualize how designerly practice differs from status quo approaches to research and innovation in global health. In particular, we emphasize a hands-on approach to formative research and iterative methods that reframe the relationship between design and implementation. Second we survey the substantial variety that exists within the design community, consider the related notions of design thinking and user-centered design, and emphasize that human-centered design is an umbrella term. While there is no definitive agreement about what the ‘human’ part means, it often implies stakeholder participation or co-design, supporting or augmenting human skills, and attention to human values, human dignity or humanitarian concerns. Taken together, these priorities make human-centered design distinctive, and they also make it highly relevant to health equity. Finally, we examine the practical relevance of human-centered design by reflecting on our own experiences with over seventy digital health initiatives in settings of poverty. Based on this combination of literature review and reflection on ongoing action research efforts, we describe human-centered design as a flexible yet disciplined approach to innovation that puts people first, by prioritizing their needs and concrete activities in the design of complex systems. In this view human-centered design is not limited to building technologies or solving purely technical problems, so much as it is a way of making sense of complex human challenges and imagining a better world for and with people.
Note: This pre-print has been submitted for peer review.
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