I've heard it put that HCD vs. research is a "false dichotomy"

As I was searching for some additional resources on HCD research for AYSRH programming, I couldn’t believe what I stumbled upon! After the very initial “HCD Exchange” convening in 2018 (before the community of practice, before everything!), the then-Project Director of A360, Manya Dotson, wrote a reflection piece on the summit. It covers the four main points that she walked away either considering or appreciating from the few days spent together with other pioneers in HCD+AYSRH field. The second point that she made was all about “HCD vs. Research is a false dichotomy” really struck the nail on the head for me on something that I’ve been pondering since the end of the workshop last week.

Almost immediately after the workshop, a colleague of mine was sharing her thoughts on the limitations of HCD research replacing qualitative and quantitative research. This is a really important point, and something that I think we should be communicating more clearly about.

When we talk about the value that HCD can bring, it’s very rarely to say that HCD should replace other methods of doing AYSRH work. When we talk about the value of HCD, it’s typically to answer questions that we are hearing from the field of practice or directly from our community members. We never want to approach any context as either HCD or bust, and are not saying that HCD is a silver bullet to solve all of the challenges that the world of AYSRH programming has. What we believe is that HCD can provide some very compelling, valuable and effective approaches, mindsets, and methodologies to improve the outcomes of AYSRH programs and the experience of the youth and adolescents they engage.

It’s not always straight-forward. This is why we co-created the first learning agenda which outlines four learning areas that needed deeper exploration, and sense-making. This is also why the original HCD Exchange summit garnered so much interest from practitioners and funders alike that we launched the HCDExchange Community of Practice. There is so much left to discuss, explore, and learn together.

Manya covered her thoughts on this particular topic so beautifully. I’d like to share some of the more poignant lines, but also encourage people to read the whole piece because it does a great job of outlining the tensions between HCD and global health! Here are few points that stood out to me:

“…A360 continually grapples with how it can best navigate some of the beautiful tension between researchers and designers to communicate HCD’s value-add while we build program data and results. HCD Exchange reinforced that presuming HCD and “insight gathering” is meant as an alternative to traditional qualitative research misses the point, and may be a false and destructive dichotomy.

“Qualitative and mixed methods research are critical tools in understanding not only whether interventions are effective, but in how and why they are. Importantly, though, HCD is not attempting to replace or even moonlight as qualitative research. Its value lies elsewhere– in the opportunity it opens to us, to ensure youth-centered, youth-resonant programming in our design processes.

"…HCD eliminates the gap between young people, health care providers and implementers. HCD invites youth and provider voices into the intervention decision process, and allows implementers to experientially process and understand known evidence in a way that makes it more actionable … But generating a new evidence-base is not the value-add of HCD (though, it can definitely discover new things and contribute new understanding). It is in the human- and youth-centeredness. Which, incidentally, has value for more than just young people.

It’s definitely worth exploring more. I think we’ll work on a piece where we get a designer and a researcher to talk about the gaps and opportunities in their approaches, and how they can be used in a complementary way. In the meantime, I’d love to hear what other folks might have to say on this topic!


Thanks so much for these thoughts, Liz! I occasionally sense a tension between “camp HCD” and “camp research”. I agree with Manya Dotson’s reflection that this is a false dichotomy. Research is comprised of many different approaches, and HCD may be one of those approaches. On the other hand, I also have some overall concerns about using the words “design” and “research” interchangeably. Rigorous research has stringent accountability mechanisms built into it, such as the requirement to go through an IRB process, obtain informed consent from participants, enable replicability, de-identify individuals, report specific information about the sample/methods, ensure transparency about limitations and potential bias, etc. Those working in HCD are developing accountability mechanisms that are appropriate for the processes and intent of HCD. However, as yet, these mechanisms, standards, and guidelines are not as stringent as those required in scientific research. I therefore feel strongly that we should not use “HCD” and “research” interchangeably. I worry that the distinction between HCD and scientific research will be compromised if we suggest that the processes and standards are the same.

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Hi Kate,

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts! I think it’s really important that we hear all different perspectives when it comes to these topics. HCD research and scientific research are different things, and it’s important to make that distinction and to also value them for what each bring to the table when it comes to AYSRH programming.

One of the most important things that we can do through the HCDExchange is create spaces where people from all sides of the research spectrum can have productive discourse. I do agree with your point about not using the terms HCD and research interchangeably, and we’ll make sure that when we talk about research, we articulate clearly when we mean scientific research and when we mean HCD research methods. HCD is a problem-solving approach, and therefore research methods are a part of that. Similarly, like you said Kate, research is comprised of many different approaches and that can include design-led approaches. It’s important to be specific, but also to view these two approaches as not juxtaposed either, which I think we both agree on and what that original piece was touching on as a false dichotomy!

One of the things that I’ve heard several designers mention (and maybe someone like @Rimjhim can chime in here), is that there are many excellent practices from the scientific research world that HCD research can also learn and benefit from. All of those rigorous accountability mechanisms that you mentioned are important for the quality of the research and findings. I’m curious to know how those might be adapted for HCD research!