Georgie Carter l Palladium - Jun 26 2023
Design Thinking as a Tool for Transforming Information Systems: A Case Study in Colombia

Nearly 3 million Colombians are served by the Colombia Family Welfare Institute (ICBF), the state entity that provides care especially to those children and adolescents who need protection services. With so many refugees and internally displaced people, combined with many areas of highly remote terrain, these services are often provided under complex circumstances, and ICBF has faced challenges with their information systems designed for case management and decision making. As a result, access to reliable data by front-line child-protection workers is critical.

USAID’s Data for Impact (D4I) project, whose work in Colombia is led by Palladium, is working with the front-line child protection workers in the ICBF to improve the Sistema de Información Missional (SIM), a complex information system that collects a vast amount of data and is used by most of ICBF’s programs, including those for child protection.

In the past, child protection staff had expressed frustrations with the system being too cumbersome to use, the amount of time needed to enter data, and the unavailability of data. “Front-line staff relayed that, despite the significant time they invested in SIM, the data they often needed for case management and for reports were only available on paper forms,” Allison Connolly, Senior Technical Advisor for Information Systems at Palladium reflects on a recent visit Colombia.

For the team, “design thinking”, with its adaptable framework and emphasis on understanding users' needs, proved to be the ideal approach for addressing the challenges faced by front-line child protection workers using SIM. Design thinking has tremendous potential to improve products, services, and processes that impact the lives of people in the settings where Palladium works.

Its principals originated in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that design thinking was brought into the mainstream by the design firm IDEO. Tim Brown, a visionary in the field, defined it as “…a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”

In Colombia, the team used the design thinking framework and initiated extensive research, utilising qualitative methods such as key-informant interviews, focus groups, and mixed-method surveys involving front-line child protection workers and other stakeholders. This comprehensive research unveiled the shortcomings of SIM for child protection workers and highlighted priority areas for improvement.

By conducting on-site visits to local child protection offices, Palladium validated their understanding of how front-line staff collected, accessed, and reported data using a combination of paper, Excel, and SIM. Along with customer-journey mapping, this allowed Palladium staff to gain deep understanding of how SIM was used.

This knowledge was then translated into interactive mockups to confirm a shared understanding of the desired changes in SIM. “These activities leveraged participants' experience and ideas and allowed Palladium to propose comprehensive system redesigns that met users' needs,” Andrea Navarrete, D4I Project Manager in Colombia explains.

Design Thinking at Work

After ICBF develops the software changes in SIM according to the finalised mockups and the technical requirements provided by Palladium, users will test the software to ensure that it includes the changes requested to radically improve data collection, navigation, and functionality for child protection workers.

But design thinking's versatility extends far beyond technology development or product design. Palladium's engagement with local child protection offices in Colombia revealed the need for improved spatial organisation and flow. Sensing the sensitivity of their work, the team recognised the necessity for physical separation between children participating in confidential interviews and their accompanying family members.

Applying design thinking principles, ICBF could involve all stakeholders, including child and adult clients, child protection workers, and partner organisations, to provide valuable input on space utilisation and visitation policies. Through ideation, prototyping, pilot testing, and refinement, existing physical space and office practices could be optimised to better accommodate diverse needs.

The examples from Colombia demonstrate the power of design thinking as a versatile methodology for addressing multifaceted challenges and fostering innovation in collaboration with end-users. Design thinking is a first step in the transformation of information systems and the improvement of social welfare systems.

D4I is a consortium led by the Carolina Population Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in partnership with Palladium, ICF, JSI, and Tulane University. Funding for the activity was provided by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). D4I supports countries to generate and use high-quality data to improve their programs, policies, and–ultimately–health and child protection outcomes. D4I also strengthens the technical and organizational capacity of country partners to collect, analyze, and use data to support their sustainable development. For more, read 'Education for Moldova's Refugee Children' or contact