Where Good Intent Intersects with Design

In the world we live in, when a person’s attempt to fix a problem goes sideways we often hear the defense “well they had good intentions,” or “it was well-meaning.” However, in the case where a solution with good intentions goes off the rails, we aren’t satisfied because we don’t care to hear the reasons why things fail. We want a solution. We want things to work. As a result, good intentions get put on trial, and its value gets debated. Moreover, we end up with expressions and books with titles like “good intentions are not enough.”

Our class has been pondering the questions of “Are good intentions helpful? Or is it selfish altruism? Beneficial for the person we want to help or ourselves?” Moreover, these questions have the implications of should we let good intentions be the guide in the way we want to do good in the world.

Hi, I am Kim, born a chaos muppet and self-made order muppet. I naturally embrace chaos as a challenge to create an order from it. I want to share with you my philosophy on how embarrassing disorder and working towards creating order makes for a well rounded, thoughtful interaction designer. I want to use an example to walk you through the mind of a chaos muppet trying to create some order. Here are the steps I went through to unpack this topic of ‘what is this thing, good intention?’, and ‘what are its values.’

1. Breakdown and Sort the Conversation.

In the debate of ‘how good intention intersects with Design’, putting intent on trial is not fair, because we have not taken the time to understand its nature. So let’s begin by parsing out the facts from opinions.

  • Humans problems are made by humans and/or are a result of humans not playing well with what exists.
  • As long as humans are around, there will be problems.
  • Bandaid solutions are great for stopping the bleeding, the emergency at hand.
  • Complex things are made of smaller pieces that work together.
  • We don’t know what we don’t know.
  • We learn by trying or testing things out.
Opinions: (I’ve underlined what part makes the statement an opinion.)
  • Intentions aren’t good enough.
  • Design solutions only create more problems.
  • Wicked problems are hard or feel impossible to solve.

By doing this, we can start to understand which practical steps we can take next. Opinions are a flimsy foundation to build on because opinions and views are a verbal extension of our feelings.  It doesn’t make opinions and viewpoints less valuable, but it does make your foundation a moving target.

2. Find a pattern then ask the right questions.

We have been asking our self if good intentions ARE enough. Depending on whom you talk to and their experiences you will hear a mix of things. So, is the good intention behind a design solution sufficient for it to work? After all, when we see examples of design solutions with large scale impact and success, the founders and designers always talk about the intent of the project, take Spring Health Water’s project in India for example. They intended to create technology that is easy to use and maintain, create income for shop owners, jobs for those working for the company, and to supply clean, uncontaminated water to the masses at a super affordable price. The intention seems good, and the execution proved successful, yet today they are now struggling with getting adoption in rural areas. People’s intentions are not the only variable at play here.

The question “Are the good intentions behind a design solution enough for the solution to work?” begs the questions “Well, what is the goal?” Let’s say the goal is to have an impact (far-reaching, or profound), and sustainability (the solution should thrive, and not become relegated to the history pages of design as a field.)

In another example the effort to reduce alcoholism, we see plenty of efforts working at various scales. I’ve summarized these efforts and mapped it relative to its impact and sustainability. Here we see efforts to reduce alcoholism on working at various levels:

  • Small group  — ex. A family & friend intervention for a one person
  • Organization— ex. MADD (Mothers against drunk driving)
  • Nationally — ex. Prohibition, AMOD (A Measure of degree) which is an effort born out of numerous terrible stories we hear about college students and their drunken mistakes.
 Impact x Sustainability_01
The thing with these design solutions mapping is that it can change quickly, when any variable is changed or introduced.
Impact and sustainability can change with an introduction of any variable.
Impact and sustainability can change with the introduction of any variable.

If these solution’s outcomes can change so dramatically with a change in any variable, then this tells me that we are looking at the problem & solution relationship all wrong. We have been conditioned and taught that problems and solutions have a cause and effect relationship, but this is a narrow perspective. It assumes that one key variable is responsible for the solution’s success or failure. Instead, when dealing with problems that persist despite our intentions and attempts, we need to consider that the relationship of problem and solutions is one if systems, where all variables have the potential to influence on the outcome dramatically. This is true of many, if not all wicked problem.

So the question to ask when considering how Intentions intersect with Design, should be: “What is the role of intentions in design? Also, Why?”


3. Understanding Design Solutions In a System

Here I have three design solution’s trajectories of its impact on Behavioral Changes over Time.
Low impact, unsustainable design solutions are unresponsive to their environment AND individuals. While attempting to address problems may have some degree of behavioral change on a group of people, it will not move the needle of the behavior over time. This is because these types of solutions are not dynamic enough to respond to constant forces acting on the individuals such one’s health, financial strains, personal beliefs, events in the world, policies, and regulations.
High impact, less sustainable design solutions, are responsive to both people and the environment but fall short on the front of adapting to deeper & wider reaching variable such as cultural norms, natural disasters, a profound personal life event like death or having a baby. The nature of this solution is that it works until it doesn’t.
High impact and sustainable design solutions are ones that build on each other’s success. They are ones that respond to acting forces AND adapt quickly to continue moving the needle of behavioral change before deeper & wider reaching variable comes along to undo the previous design solutions success.


4. Answering the right questions.

“What is the role of intentions role in design? Also, Why?”. While design solutions exist in a complex system where their success is influenced by variables such as time, scale, people, environmental factors (health, culture, world events, and more), and so much more, intentions are best associated with the design solutions themselves.
Here is the breakdown of design solutions. If Design theory is the framework and engine that shapes and defines how a design idea navigates towards an end goal, and people are the ones driving the ideas, then intentions are best described as the fuel. Fuel has lots of potential energy and power. When applied to the proper system with proper equipment and constraints they work as a source of energy for the design to keep moving forward. In an open space without direction, they are highly explosive.
Intentions as fuel
Without cooperation, collaboration, direction, and focus, we are all bound to collide on and get nowhere productive.

Direction for design

On Options and Intentions

The value of something made is not what the thing is, but how well it adapts to the people using it, and how quickly can you and your team adapt the thing to changing time and environment. When it comes to opinions, I am less interested in take individual opinions to the boxing ring and go head to head with one another. Your opinions serve to orient your self in the world, help you sleep at night, and to make friends. Where intentions are just another flavor of an opinion. That’s all good and dandy, but it alone is self-serving. When someone tells me their opinion, my first question is, “GREAT! What are you going to do with it?” On the other side of this conversation, if I told you my thoughts and opinions, what are you going to do with it? If the answer is a sincere “nothing”, then we have effectively wasted our breath and time.
Opinions WITH facts, however, works great to provoke conversations that shape theories, idea, and understanding. This, in turn, helps shape your focus and strategy. This is more productive, but it still doesn’t get you a solution. Working as a designer, I am more interested in hearing opinions, informed by facts AND experiences, and quickly finding a way to incorporate it into a system that solves a complex problem, and how quickly can you and your team collaborate and move quickly and responsively.
I hold the opinion that all things in the world MUST have a balance to be sustainable and bearable, take life and death, winners and losers, pains and happiness, good and bad. That is beauty of the world, the balance. Moving forward, my plans are to take this opinion, and find a systematic way to find balance in extreme human conditions.

In Conclusion

So that my friend is how this chaos muppet has used her ordering skills to make some sense of the intersection of good intentions and Design. To sum up, there is no right way to build a thing, but there is an effective way to utilize the resources we have collaboratively to create a change in a general direction we all can agree on. In outlining a design solution, we first need to stay focused on what is the immediate goal we want to work on, a design idea, what resources best get us results, and how to proceed.