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Human-Centered Design as an Approach for Place-Based Innovation in Public Health: A Case Study from Oakland, California



This case study provides a high-level overview of the human-centered design (HCD) or “design thinking” process and its relevance to public health.


The Best Babies Zone (BBZ) initiative is a multi-year project aimed at reducing inequities in infant mortality rates. In 2012, BBZ launched pilot programs in three US cities: Cincinnati, Ohio; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Oakland, California. The Alameda County Public Health Department (ACPHD), the lead for the Oakland BBZ site, identified HCD as a promising approach for addressing the social and economic conditions that are important drivers of health inequities. HCD is a process for creating innovative products, services, and strategies that prioritizes the needs of the intended population. ACPHD partnered with the Gobee Group (a social innovation design consultancy) to develop the Design Sprint. The Design Sprint was a 12-week pilot in which 14 professionals from nine organizations used the HCD process to develop concepts for stimulating a vibrant local economy in the Oakland Best Babies Zone.


Thirty- to sixty-minute semi-structured interviews were conducted with all 14 individuals involved in the Design Sprint. With the exception of one interview, the interviews were audio-recorded, transcribed, and inductively coded to identify themes.


Our experience suggests that HCD can: enhance community engagement; expedite the timeframe for challenge identification, program design, and implementation; and create innovative programs that address complex challenges.

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  1. Innovation is the creation of new ideas or novel applications of existing ideas that add value.

  2. There are many ways to represent the HCD process. HCD is a fluid process that is most effective when it is adapted to suit different contexts. It is not a standardized static process, in which the same sequence of steps and methods are applied in all contexts.


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The Best Babies Zone (BBZ) initiative is led by University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health. BBZ Oakland is a project of the Building Blocks for Health Equity unit of the Alameda County Public Health Department (ACPHD), and has received funding from the California Wellness Foundation, the California Endowment, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. ACPHD facilitated the Design Sprint with technical assistance in human-centered design from the Gobee Group (Gobee). We gratefully acknowledge the contribution of the Design Sprint participants, Castlemont community members, and partner organizations (East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation, East Bay Sustainable Business Alliance, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, Gobee Group, Mandela MarketPlace, Social Services Agency of Alameda County, Y&H Soda Foundation, Youth UpRising), and staff and partners who are implementing the Castlemont Community Market. We also appreciate Cheri Pies, Kiko Malin, Jessica Luginbuhl, Rachel Berkowitz, Mariela Uribe, Jonathan Fuchs, and Kellie Teeter for their thoughtful and constructive review.

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Correspondence to Jessica Vechakul.

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Vechakul, J., Shrimali, B.P. & Sandhu, J.S. Human-Centered Design as an Approach for Place-Based Innovation in Public Health: A Case Study from Oakland, California. Matern Child Health J 19, 2552–2559 (2015).

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  • Human-centered design
  • Place-based innovation
  • Social determinants of health