Many public health innovations lack pathways to reach vulnerable customer bases, even with significant last-mile efforts. Polio vaccine teams, for example, often can’t reach the most physically and politically isolated communities harboring polio transmission.

So how can social innovators account for these challenges when rolling out health products like HIV self-test kits or self-administered injectable contraception? We recommend building on our previous model of combining design thinking and behavioral science to not only design services for the core user, but also identify and creatively address broader barriers and cultural norms that would otherwise block uptake among vulnerable groups.

Typical product diffusion starts with early adopters, slowly shifts to the broader population, and finally lands with more-vulnerable customers, as marketers learn more about them over time. For goods that drive significant social impact, we have a moral imperative to accelerate this process, and design thinking offers a practical way forward. Design thinking is a creative, empathetic innovation process that draws on ethnographic methods, and relies on rapid prototyping and real-world testing of potential solutions. The approach can help unpack ambiguous opportunity areas, revealing unmet needs among vulnerable customers that innovators might otherwise overlook.

In our own work to design “girl-friendly” drug shops, where young women can get sexual and reproductive health products and counsel, we interviewed and shadowed girls in their homes, communities, and during shopping trips to learn about their hopes, aspirations, and what’s holding them back—barriers they often won’t express with traditional research methods.

At the same time, through story-based interviews and observations with drug shop owners and employees, we learned about their motivations and business practices, and how they serve different customers. By empathizing with both groups’ lived experiences—the foundation of design thinking—we quickly identified which aspects of community health services should be adapted to fit within each population’s unique needs, and solicited their feedback on low-fidelity prototypes before investing in the final solution.

Read the full article about empathy and science to increase access to contraception by Aarthi Rao, Sandi McCoy, Jenny Liu, and Lauren Hunter at Stanford Social Innovation Review.