Reflections from Q3

It’s a shame we didn’t do POW reflection videos the last week of Q3, because a lot of things clicked, and I learned a lot during that last week. What you get is a long thoughtful blogpost instead.

Design Research is integral to the Design Process

In my last post, I wrote about our cycles of research/synthesis/design as we worked on Nudge. The stages in the design process were definitely not clear-cut, nor were they scheduled. They flowed one into another, as they should, and they were often overlapping.

This past quarter helped me clarify my belief that design research should be an integral part of the design process. It can’t be segregated to the beginnings and ends of a project with a neat hand-off—or the possibility of facing the chopping block if the team doesn’t have enough time or money. Earlier in the quarter I had lunch with a local designer who didn’t believe design researcher should be its own role. He believed the “design researcher” runs the risk of becoming lazy about not having an opinion about the research findings because they can just hand the findings off to the “designers” who then have to deal with them. When the roles are segregated, I would also argue that the designer also runs the risk of not feeling responsible or empowered to do additional fieldwork on their own during the course of a project—especially when they need those gut checks, and especially if we are to keep people at the core of our designs.

Going Deep

I think continued research/synthesis/prototype cycles are more apt to happen naturally if you are working over a period of time within one specific social issue that you feel passionate about. You will continue to learn more, talk to more people, and have experiences within the relevant field, and the insights you’ll accumulate from following your curiosity will continually inform your design work.

It reminds me of our discussions about social impact during Q1, when we read Emily Pilloton’s take on going local and going deep to have any meaningful social impact.

After two years of tackling design projects for measurable social impact, the one piece of advice I would give to other designers who seek to apply their creative skills toward activism and community engagement is to sit still and focus on one thing.

I mean this not in a cubicle context (”sit at your desk and return emails”), but rather as it pertains to approaching huge, high-stakes design for social-impact projects and enterprises. To sit still and focus on one thing means to commit to a place, to live and work there, and to apply your skills (your “one thing”) to that community’s benefit.

This idea of deep engagement makes me question the consultancy model of design—where you come into something, work for a predefined amount of time, and then leave. It’s what rubs me the wrong way about the recent surge in design “competitions” that call for submissions from creative citizens to solve problems that are remote to people’s lives—physically and emotionally. If you are going to be tackling maternal health in Africa, I may be able to contribute my ideas from Austin, but I am lacking 1) context, 2) skin in the game, and 3) responsibility in the follow-through to what happens to those ideas. It feels more productive to me to either engage a curated group of people (including designers) who have an invested interest in the issue or to co-design with the mothers in Africa themselves.

Commitment to the consequences is important when we’re tackling social issues where our solutions will have real impact (positive and negative). There is a role for the designer, but we must be willing at some point to throw ourselves into an issue space for an extended period of time and to partner with real experts and actual stakeholders. Commitment to anything is difficult in my 20’s when I don’t want to plan beyond next week, but I think it is a step I must take if I want my work to have social impact.

The Role of Technology

I recently read a revealing article by Kentaro Toyama questioning technology’s role in solving social issues. Technology is an amplifier of human intent and capacity. If we don’t nurture human capacity in any specific region, rushing in with technology (best case) doesn’t stick or (worst case) does more harm than good.

Academic observers have deconstructed telecenters and other ICT4D projects, enumerating the many reasons why the initiatives fail: ICT4D enthusiasts don’t design context-appropriate technology, adhere to socio-cultural norms, account for poor electrical supply, build relationships with local governments, invite the participation of the community, provide services that meet local needs, consider bad transportation infrastructure, think through a viable financial model, provide incentives for all stakeholders, and so on. These criticisms are each valid as far as they go, and ICT4D interventionists sometimes focus narrowly on addressing them. But this laundry list of foibles ultimately provides no insight into the deeper reasons why ICT4D projects rarely fulfill their promise, even as their cousins in the developed world thrive in the form of netbooks, BlackBerrys, and Facebook.

…In every one of our projects, a technology’s effects were wholly dependent on the intention and capacity of the people handling it…In our most successful ICT4D projects, the partner organizations did the hard work of real development, and our role was simply to assist, and strengthen, their efforts with technology.

If I were to summarize everything I learned through research in ICT4D, it would be this: technology—no matter how well designed—is only a magnifier of human intent and capacity. It is not a substitute. If you have a foundation of competent, well-intentioned people, then the appropriate technology can amplify their capacity and lead to amazing achievements. But, in circumstances with negative human intent, as in the case of corrupt government bureaucrats, or minimal capacity, as in the case of people who have been denied a basic education, no amount of technology will turn things around.

For me, the amazing potential of design is when our ethnographic research unearths opportunity areas where people have the intentions and capability yet aren’t following through with actions. To find areas where human capacity exists and build on it. A prime example is environmental sustainability: we all know we shouldn’t be driving or buying that bottle of water or using yet another plastic bag…but how many of us live actively green lifestyles? I believe that design and technology can bridge that gap.

Thus, the search for ‘elegant’ solutions

One of my ultimate goals for my designs is elegance. After I present a design solution, it would be awesome if the feedback was “why hasn’t anyone already done that?” I realized this after I watched Ruby’s and Kat’s participation in the student design competition at Interactions 11 conference. Through their research they found that hotels in Boulder were already housing people when shelters overflowed during the cold winter (and off-season) months for a discounted rate. Their proposed solution was a website that would make those booking connections easier between shelters and hotels. An additional public display and text donation system helped draw in awareness and participation from the citizens of Boulder, most of whom probably don’t know this is going on in their own city.

Actually, before they presented SafeBed, part of me thought they might not win because the end product of a website to connect the shelters and hotels seemed so obvious, that it might not be perceived as that innovative. (Of course, they did win!)

Edward de Bono of the “six thinking hats” system puts it best when he laments that:

…every valuable, creative idea will always be logical in hindsight. If an idea were not logical in hindsight, then we would never be able to appreciate the value of the idea.

When design works well, the solutions merge seamlessly into our lives, and we stop thinking about their inventiveness (possibly controversial nature) at the time. But we can only arrive at elegant solutions that will integrate into people’s lives if we have empathy for how people behave and a sense of what they’ll be willing to adapt.

It seems pretty simple to arrive at elegant design solutions: use design research to discover existing behavior and intentions that can be amplified by design and technology, and then design! Simple yet difficult. Yet exciting.

Reluctant innovators

The idea of a reluctant innovator has been stuck in my head since I read this blog post on kiwanja (via Erik Hersman’s tweets). These are “people who found themselves in the midst of a problem they felt compelled to solve.” They became innovators, and eventually entrepreneurs—and reluctantly. They weren’t looking for problems to solve; the problems found them.

I think one of the strengths of AC4D’s program is that we have all come together around this social issue of homelessness, and we’ve been able to learn together, share together, and bring our own points of view into the design process. At the same time, I don’t have a good sense of where people’s hearts really lie. I’m sure there are specific social issues nagging at each of us, problems that we want to tackle after school.

I’ve been able to pretty easily put the two social issues I feel most strongly about—living sustainably and improving public education—onto my professional back burners. (And no, I’m not going to combine them for the sake of combining them.) Haven’t really thought through personally or professionally what it means to apply a design methodology and entrepreneurship model to tackling either of the two. Partly because I’m scared to leave the consultancy model of design that I know and love. Good time to start thinking!