‘Design thinking’ offers new approach to tackling childhood obesity

By Diane Carman

For organizations and individuals working to address the epidemic of childhood obesity, the biggest challenge is to make it fun. Or at the very least to avoid making it humiliating, frustrating, boring, and punitive.

“We need to bring back creativity. Creativity is crucial to solving the obesity crisis,” said Chris Waugh, director and co-founder of the design innovation consultancy IDEO. Waugh spoke Friday at an event called Symposium Unplugged, sponsored by the Colorado Health Foundation.

Waugh presented 10 steps to designing effective approaches to solving problems and offered vivid examples of how they have been employed in everything from economic development in Iceland to Nike’s effort to market athletic clothes to non-athletes.

When it comes to childhood obesity, Waugh said so much of the message is negative, it makes people feel overwhelmed and hopeless. Much of that information – about the scope of the problem, the long-term impacts of obesity on a person’s well-being, the societal costs – is valuable because it creates widespread awareness of the challenge.

But the problem with that dire message is that it doesn’t lead to a solution.

“Design thinking is starting with people first and not worrying about whether the solution is feasible,” he said. “It’s meeting people where they are and inspiring them.”

In the case of obesity, the challenge is to make healthy living more interesting and to create new healthy social norms in organizations, families and communities.

Step one: Empathy sets the stage. When it comes to childhood obesity, Waugh said, that means finding the kid’s point of view. This involves listening to people across a broad spectrum of cultures and experiences.

“The extremes amplify the middle,” he said.

Step two: Identify the barriers to success. In working with chef Jamie Oliver of the Food Revolution, Waugh said they found many children couldn’t identify common vegetables because they’d never seen them before and most knew little about cooking because they rarely saw it in their homes.

A variety of approaches were taken, including offering cooking classes. Waugh said they found that men would eagerly participate if the classes were pitched as a means for the men to become more appealing – and sexy – on the dating scene.

“We never said the word ‘healthy’ even though they were taught to cook healthy foods,” he explained. …

Step three: Make the little things interesting. A project to get workers at one company to cook at home more often provided a good example.

The company asked employees who liked to cook to spend time during their lunch hours prepping ingredients for dinners for their fellow employees who didn’t know how to cook. The ingredients and instructions for completing the dishes were placed in bags for the employees to take home at the end of the day.

Then employees were invited to post pictures of their families eating the meals or helping prepare them. The photos that emerged were touching images of children interacting with their parents, cooking together and enjoying the results.

Step four: Find and support the bright spots. With a problem as complex and entrenched as obesity, he said, it’s important to focus on innovative efforts. He cited a “walking school bus” activity at one elementary school in which adults accompanied children who walked to school along the bus route with pupils joining them at each stop along the way.

Step five: Learn from analogous situations. The skill for managing money, for example, is similar to that needed to manage a diet. Our impulse is to spend what we have immediately and not think about the future, Waugh said, just like our urge to eat a platter of brownies without thinking about the consequences. Many lessons in teaching healthy eating can be found in program for teaching good money management.

Step six: Start scrappy. Waugh suggests that people focus narrowly on a piece of the problem and “really nail” the approach to a solution before applying it broadly.

Step seven: Change the decision. If food labels identified servings by how many miles it would take to walk them off instead of by calorie counts, Waugh said it might change people’s minds about what they eat.

Step eight: Don’t lead with health. As with the example of the men who showed up for cooking classes because they wanted to be more attractive to women, Waugh said there are many different ways to present things in a more appealing light, such as calling activity “play” instead of exercise, describing fresh fruit as delicious and special instead of merely nutritious, and presenting cooking at home as fun family time instead of drudgery.

Step nine: Meet people where they are. For this one Waugh showed an iPhone app aimed at young children that delivers positive messages through popular “Sesame Street” characters. The 99-cent Elmo app already has received 53 million calls, he said.

Step 10: Find the moments that matter. In each community, the challenges are different. Whether the problem is junk food in school lunches, lack of access to fresh foods in a neighborhood or unsafe streets, targeting solutions in meaningful ways that really help is critical.

Waugh called the concept “behavioral economic thinking.” The goal is to “create tangible experiences that inspire healthy behavior.”

It’s not about trying to change attitudes, he said. “Doing becomes believing.”




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