Advancing Women’s Health Policy with Human-Centered Design

robyn russell learner story

Robyn's using design thinking to make a greater impact on women’s health in Washington D.C. 





Tell us what you do and what your work typically entails. 

I’m currently the East Coast Regional Director at Unite Us, a technology company that connects those in need with health and social services to improve health and well-being outcomes and allow health and social service providers to track outcomes. I previously served as the Director of Programs & Innovation for the UN Foundation, focused on strengthening U.S. leadership on international sexual and reproductive health and rights. I live in Washington DC, where the maternal death rates are one of the highest in the US. The problems are complex and tied to social and cultural issues, as well as financial challenges. I’m always thinking about how to work within larger systems to improve outcomes: how do we design policies and programs to make people’s lives better?


How did you discover IDEO U and why did you choose it?

I read about how human-centered design is helping in the public policy sector, and I wanted to learn how to design local and national programs. I had known IDEO was doing great work, and I loved IDEO U’s hands-on approach, encouraging me to go out into the world and meet people. I also liked that the courses were designed in manageable portions, so I could complete them in my free time.


What were you hoping to change or achieve?

I’ve been in public policy for years, but I felt frustrated by the siloed ways we were working. With data suggesting continued poor reproductive and maternal health for women, I was seeking a new, unconventional approach to address this long-standing health care issue. It was important for me to help others understand why we all need to work together to solve problems for women in need.


How did IDEO U help you better serve the community you were working with?

My goal was to address health disparities for low-income Black women living in DC. The maternal mortality rate for Black women is three times that of white women in the United States, regardless of education or income level. The courses provided me with tools and steps to help gain a deeper, more personal understanding of the needs of the community I was serving. I was encouraged to go to the women’s homes and immerse myself in their lives, which is not how policymakers usually approach problems.

I volunteered and then began consulting with a local organization called the DC Primary Care Association (DCPCA). My colleagues and I went into the community and worked with health clinics, health workers, and a center for women experiencing homelessness. We spent time in women’s homes, went with them to healthcare appointments, and learned firsthand about the challenges they faced—financially, logistically, and legally. This experience gave me an entirely different perspective on their lives, and a desire to continue to design alongside the communities I want to serve.

I also learned how to translate my ideas into action. We used the powerful insights shared by the women we met to brainstorm solutions and create quick prototypes for women-centered care. These included ideas like a simple text-based service where women in need could ask any kind of healthcare question, or leverage social media to allow women to use their own peer circles to share recommendations for trusted health providers. I quickly discovered that the best ideas came from the women I was designing for. One woman, for example, suggested advertising maternal health services in the pregnancy test section of a drug store, which I would not have thought of on my own.

At the end of this design process, I wrote a report called Human-Centered Solutions to Improve Reproductive and Maternal Health Outcomes in Washington, D.C., sharing my findings and calling for connections across diverse care providers, funders, and even transportation and housing resources.


“I truly believe there’s a huge untapped opportunity to apply human-centered design in public policy and the health care space. Your courses helped me leap over the siloed ways we typically tackle challenges and go straight to what people truly need.”


How did you feel applying your design thinking learnings to your work?

Honestly, I was hesitant to share something so different from the usual results in public policy, but I knew something had to change. The human-centered design approach I learned helped me create strong recommendations and a concrete, affordable roadmap for action—which gave me and my colleagues more confidence to share my report with key stakeholders around the women’s health system.


What were the outcomes of your report?

The news about the report spread, and within weeks it was highlighted in The Washington Post. As a result, the local DC government invited me and my colleagues at DCPCA to present the findings at a maternal health meeting, where stakeholders and decision-makers gathered with the government to discuss concrete, collective action that could be taken to improve the lives of Black women.

Shortly after the presentation, several funders approached us about funding the recommendations in the report. We were able to partner with one of those funders, the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, to create an Equity Action Lab where we continued to work with women with lived experience and frontline providers to test several of the innovations from the report. DCPCA is continuing the work and may seek funding to scale some of the tested interventions.


How has the certificate changed the way you view yourself?

I started to view myself differently as a leader. Instead of trying to have everything buttoned up and perfect, I started feeling more comfortable just learning through conversations and collaborations, sharing unfinished ideas with others and pulling in their feedback. I realized it was okay to share stories of work even before the work is finished, and I learned the power of good storytelling to move people to action in a way data never can.

The courses gave me permission to lead in different ways than ever before. I took completely different leadership tactics by working directly with (not just for) the people impacted. It paid off, because I was invited into more and more critical conversations. So, most importantly, my belief in listening to those most impacted and letting them lead has grown, which will ultimately drive better outcomes and more sustainable impact.






Foundations in Design Thinking Certificate
Two 5-week cohort courses / Self-paced courses

Gain a practical understanding of the design thinking approach through our Foundations in Design Thinking Certificate. Earn the certificate by completing the Insights for Innovation and From Ideas to Action courses.

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Insights for Innovation
5-week cohort course

Develop empathy for your customers and surface insights for creating products and services they want and need.

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Storytelling for Influence
5-week cohort course

Prototype your story, craft a compelling narrative, and sculpt it into something beautiful that will inspire others to follow your lead.

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