Golden opportunities for design lie in social-impact projects
June 12, 2015 Editor 0
Download the free report “Designing for Social Impact,” by Gretchen Anderson. Editor’s note: this is an excerpt from the report.
During the 2000 United States presidential election, product designers and developers discovered an uncomfortable truth about our nation. American democracy, long held up as a beacon for others to follow, was susceptible to “user error.” As the stories of hanging chads, bad ballot layouts, and unclear instructions unfolded, it became clear that the election process contained quite a few bugs from an end-user perspective. Dana Chisnell, the creator of Field Guides for voting, was inspired to fix such problems the best she knew how — by applying user-entered design practices. Until the 2000 presidential election, she pointed out, a “usable” ballot was one that was readable by the machines that count them. But the “hanging chad” phenomenon brought to everyone’s attention the role that user error (or rather, terrible design) can play in affecting outcomes and a nation at large. This is but one example of how the design of simple things has an impact far beyond its immediate surroundings. It’s part of a clear case that more comprehensive: thoughtful design can have more predictable, measurable effects on our world at large.
More and more, designers of all stripes seek projects and organizations that have a mission to serve the greater good at their core. Partly, it stems from an innate desire to use our skills to their highest potential. It also reflects broader trends in design and tools that make it possible for us to tackle problems that we observe in society, measure their root causes, and more quickly and efficiently test what works to create positive change. The inherent “usability” issues within the systems that surround social impact objectives are becoming more evident. Design increasingly has the ability to run programs at scale that address more systemic issues that arise from a lack of infrastructure or overly complicated regulation.
This golden opportunity for design in the social space is already gaining momentum. The ability to scale offered by digital technology is a part of what makes many social-impact projects finally make sense. They can reach many people, more effectively, more measurably. The pressures of globalization in a connected world also fuel the drive toward social-impact–focused work, along with the visibility of how old ways of handling social problems have failed. The technology space has embraced approaches that make social-impact projects manageable and measurable. Designers who are deeply curious to learn about what is effective at scale can find very fertile ground in governmental, philanthropic, and health care domains.
Let’s look at how designing for social impact differs from more commercial work, and share some lessons from the field about what works and that for which we should be alert.
What is social impact?
Let’s begin by describing the territory of social-impact projects more clearly.
Social-impact projects are those with outcomes measured not through a lens of profits and market adoption, but through changes in behavior that ultimately benefit an individual or a community as a whole. What sets most social-impact projects apart from more traditional consumer work is the rigor with which they must be measured for effectiveness, not just “delight.”
We are in a territory where the idea of “usability” (if it is a consideration at all) has often meant creating things that are “functional” within a very narrow set of criteria that focus on compliance with a set of regulations or requirements. That compliance is most often taken to mean legal compliance; that is, in ballots that present candidates names in the proper order, or compliance with regulations such as those created by the FDA about how medical devices are measured and deemed effective and safe. Regulation and compliance are certainly critical to ensuring that systems work, but they seem to represent the lowest rung on a hierarchy of needs that must also include desired use, trusted advice, and more.
As we seek to move beyond usability as our goal, it’s important to clarify the relationship between systems and those they serve. We can view social-impact work as the answer to a series of questions about the nature of the systems involved in the problem space. Designers should consider the following questions when conceiving projects:
- Is the system fair? Does it have a clear, accessible process for governing and adjudicating inequities?
- Can it be transformed? Is there sufficient tolerance for change in the organization? Or, can you act as a translator or interface between the system and the target audience?
- If not, can it be side-stepped or supplanted with a new service?
The answers to these questions will help you understand where to focus and how to align with those involved. Whether you work within the system or outside of it is a key decision to make early on. By being intentional about the relationship between your product or service, the social impact you seek, and the systems that surround it, you will have a higher chance of succeeding, in spite of — or because of — forces you don’t control.
Measurability, and the ability to live with data as an inconsistent map also come with the territory. Measurement of outcomes of design work is critical. Small changes in behavior drive big changes in behavior in unpredictable ways, as the work of behavioral economists such as Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler has shown. In their book Nudge, Sunstein and Thaler show how something as simple as the default setting for how retirement planning is handled can have a radical effect on the rate of savings. They imagine a scenario in which employers enroll employees in a 401(k) plan by default, and they must take action to opt out of the system. If our society values caring for everyone, and we have no way to guarantee social security at a governmental level, changing this default is a simple way to better achieve that outcome.
Without profits and other indicators of success, the bottom line rules all. Social-impact projects have a “double bottom line” that must also consider the effects on people as part of a successful outcome.
This report looks at social-impact initiatives across three categories: civic engagement projects, nonprofit advocacy, and health care.
Although most social-impact projects attract and serve a global audience, the experience and research that I bring to bear on this report has been focused in the United States. When working globally, there will undoubtedly be different challenges and pressures, but the lessons shared here will hopefully resonate with practitioners from many backgrounds.
Civic engagement encompasses those efforts to motivate a community to take part in actions that affect public institutions. It represents an emergent field for design with the creation of new initiatives such as the Presidential Innovation Fellowship or CodeforAmerica.org, for which design and development talent is being specifically cultivated to serve civic purposes. In terms of outcomes, civic engagement spans a large range of issues, but will tend to be measured by its ability to reach many people. For example, we can measure voter turnout efforts by the number of people who show up to vote, regardless of who wins. Helping people take advantage of welfare benefits might additionally be measured by the impact on the quality of life for those who take advantage of them. This type of civic action focuses on changing the system from within by removing friction for citizens who use and benefit from the system.
Designers should take the time to understand how the sustainability of their work is foreseen.
Another type of civic action focuses on large-scale mobilization of people toward changing the system, and participation itself is considered a goal. The idea of participation as a benefit in and of itself is echoed by Jose Arenas, a community organizer in the San Francisco Bay Area, who shared a perspective on why social work matters: “Engaging in action in the public sphere helps us live more fully. Even if you lose. Participating is a path to self-realization and progress in itself.”
The second type of social-impact projects are those supported by nonprofits to advocate from both within and outside the system. Not-for-profit groups can span many types of design challenges, but typically they operate in realms where public or private funding does not exist or lacks sufficient returns for investors. Education in the United States is one area where there are private interests endeavoring to support or change a system that is not seen as an appropriate or viable market for profits. Such ventures are typically driven by the personal desires of the individuals or organizations that finance them. They will be measured by their ability to deliver specific outcomes such as an increase in parents demanding high-quality schools in their communities or a reduction in school suspensions for high school students.
Third, health care and medical product development — although often done in a for-profit model — still share many characteristics with civic and philanthropic endeavors. The outcomes cannot be measured solely in commercial terms of profit or units sold. No person or insurer will pay for medical interventions that don’t cure what ails us, no matter how attractively they are packaged. Because health care payment is not a strictly consumer market, most of the drive for designers is toward reducing costs over adding value to increase prices. Measuring success here will include both cost management and the efficacy of the intervention.
This is not to say that funding models are the prime driver of how design for social impact is framed or conducted, but it is important as a designer to understand different funding models and how they might affect the constraints and ambitions of a project. Just as design needs to grapple with business models in the commercial sector, designers should take the time to understand how the sustainability of their work is foreseen and how it does or does not align with the desired outcomes for the chosen audience.
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