Validating a Hypothesis: Grocery List Optimizer

My team and I have decided on an idea for our final project, which is to create a grocery list optimizer (the name is still a work in progress). The mobile app will look for money saving opportunities within someone’s grocery list as well as making healthier recommendations. Moving forward with this idea we need to validate that we are building the right thing.

I had the urge to want to jump to creating the product now that’s it has become more of a concrete idea, but this is idealistic thinking. For all we know our idea may make sense theoretically, but in the real world we could possibly be missing the mark. This is why we will be conducting a pilot for the next 4-5 weeks. The point of the pilot is to validate our idea through a simplified version using manual tactics rather than creating the mobile application. In the end, it could manifest into something completely different than a mobile application.

The first week we are employing a strategy of testing our idea in person while our participants shop to capture as much feedback as possible. There are also small nuances we may not be thinking about that we will be able to observe to better our product. Although I’m excited to start getting people’s opinion, my mind was jumping into simulating the idea as close as possible for “accurate” results. This landed our group into focusing on the wrong thing, which I may have been facilitating a bit. There are many grocery store apps on the App Store, most of very poor quality. As we continued researching what currently exists we learned that HEB has their own app with many of the features we have planned on incorporating. I saw two things happened because of this.

  1. Momentum in our creation seemed to slow because “someone else is already doing something similar”.
  2. It limited our mind as to what was possible and began to slightly feel defeated.



Because of the similarities, my mind was wanting to try to leverage the already existing system to help us conduct our pilot. I was excited to test using something that was so close to our idea because I felt then we could really focus on the details that separates us apart from them. The point I was missing is that the purpose of our pilot is to not simulate our system, but simulate the core value our system is providing.

The advantages we are providing over the HEB application, and many others in the grocery store is that:

  1. We are being more proactive about money saving opportunities.
  2. We aren’t limited to working with any singular grocery store chain.
  3. Most importantly, we are helping people eat healthier in an incremental manner
How it works

During our pilot, we have some primary assumptions that we are looking to confirm our hypothesis and whether or not our idea should manifest into another form. After all, we could design an award winning mobile application, but if the application doesn’t meet people where they are at it will ultimately fail. The assumptions we are testing include:

  • People use grocery lists, and if not, they will use one
  • People will choose a healthier option if prompted
  • People will choose a lower price over a brand they like
  • People are willing to leave brands and items they’re used to
  • People generally want to eat healthier
  • People will eat new items they purchase
  • People will be more likely to buy a new item if they get the new item before they get the original item

To quickly kick start our pilot and start gathering data we reached out to our friend and family network and asked people to send us pictures of their pantries and fridges. The purpose of this is to further understand the variety of food people keep at home, as well as starting to identify opportunities where we can begin making recommendations. One realization this made me think of is that by looking at individual items it could possibly feel healthier than what the end meal is being created. But this doesn’t exactly tell us what is being created when items are combined. This should be a consideration moving forward.




After spending a week testing our idea out in person we want to back further out to see if we can have the same affect without being there in person. We acknowledge that by conducting our test it in person we are introducing a bias that wouldn’t normally be there if they were shopping by themselves.  So it’s important to learn from this first week then run the rest of the pilot as remote as possible. Our goal is a minimum of 15 tests, ideally we would work a number of people for multiple weeks to learn how they shopping habits might evolve, even if in a relatively short period of time. Just because someone eats healthier one week, doesn’t mean they’ll continue down that path.

There are so many small nuances in using coupons and trying to save money while grocery shopping, this might have started to distract a little from our primary goal: helping people adopt a healthier diet with small gradual changes. The money saving techniques are how we plan on providing more value to the user to have more inclination to use our service, but we can’t let that turn us away from our primary goal.

Lastly, a very important detail we are addressing is the fact that we aren’t subject matter experts within the food space. As we started fleshing out the pilot and were forced to start making recommendations on real lists, we learned when fact checking the recommendations that were coming to mind that they weren’t as healthy as we originally thought. This is where it’s vital for us to bring in nutritionists and/or dietitians into our pilot. We have a meeting scheduled with a dietitian this week to help us navigate recommendations within our pilot. When our product becomes a reality we will work even closer with a dietitian, if not hire one, to ensure the quality of our product is where it needs to be to make healthy food recommendations.

There are even more questions that are derived when trying to build an idea than when creating an idea. I am excited to receive feedback from our pilot and mature our idea into something that will help people adopt a healthier diet. If you’d like more detail of our plan you may read our pilot plan deck.

Finding direction through nebulousness & complexity

Health, in bite sized increments

The building of a socially focused service

Identifying problems is easy. The world is full of whistleblowers and I, admittedly, used to be one. Diving into the messiness and coming out with something valuable is difficult. Holding true to the principles a solution needs to ascribe to in order to wholeheartedly build services built on the empathy cultivated with the population you are trying to serve  is theoretically arduous. It is “easy” to build a generally good idea. Building one that subdues complexity is not. Of course, these are the problems worth solving, and the ones the world’s creatives need to diligently focus on. Our current global climate is ripe with these challenges. What an opportune time to be exiting a high caliber design school with a problem solving methodology on the tool belt. Opportunities are everywhere, but let’s focus on the one my team (Sally Hall, Conner Drew) and I have been parsing through for the last ~20 weeks.

The inspiration for the design of this service came from experiences in the field doing research with mothers on food stamps who have diabetes. This acute focus helped surround our thinking with the most drastic and relevant needs that exist in regards to diet change. The service we are building meets the needs of this acute population, however, the principles embedded in its inner workings support a much wider population: anyone that has a motivation or need to make a diet change. Therefore, in launching this service we plan to start with guidance that will assist anyone in their path towards health and, in the near future, plan to utilize subject matter experts like dieticians and nutritionists to make our offering for those with monetary constraints and dietary diseases as robust and tailored to the individual as possible. We want to truly provide tools for the problem we set out to explore.


How it works

The service operates on 2 main threads. Saving money and gradually eating healthier.

Screen Shot 2017-03-20 at 4.50.16 PM

We set out to assist low-income populations eat a healthier diet by unseating the common belief that eating healthier is more expensive. This noble outset is potent, yet it proved difficult to find ways to hook people’s interest. This is where money saving comes in. Everyone wants to save money, i’m willing to make that sweeping generalization. Therefore leveraging money saving techniques like comparing product prices across and within stores, finding deals and coupons was our hook. A trojan horse service if you will.

The money saving techniques we analyze are techniques that anyone can use but when considering how difficult it is to manage all aspects of life inherent in the human experience, something as trivial as clipping coupons or looking at the price of bananas, milk and bread at Walmart, HEB and Fiestas to find the cheapest price just feels extraneous and ridiculous. However, when considering there are ~$14 billion in food related coupon savings annually dispersed and ~$3.4 billion in redeemed coupons that leaves a lot of room for savings. This is why we want to house all of these possibilities in one experience and take the pressure off of the individual. To be clear, my aim is not to present this in a way that sounds like we will be the next billion dollar startup. The amount of work at our backs is trivial compared to the amount in front of us between our current standings and our north star design. Numbers are simply stated to express opportunity.w:o GLO V2

w: GLO V2

Money saving aside there is the healthier component. We, as a nation, generally know that we are in a public health crisis so I will not spend an exorbitant amount of time on this topic. Dietary disease is at the crux of the health of our people. The way that “the system” responds to these problems is anything but proactive. Blatantly, we tell people they have a disease that could kill them and provide them with minimal resources that preach drastic change all at once. This kind of care is not actionable and, based on our research, people diagnosed largely fall back into their routines and habits. The point I want to highlight is the drastic change that is encouraged. These ideas for change are not realistic. There is a reason we teach kids addition first in school, not calculus. Then add subtraction, multiplication, division and so forth. People need a foundation for knowledge and knowledge gradually builds with more experience and more input from the world. Our service mimics this truth about how people learn. Incremental steps for gradual change. We plan to meet the users of our service right where they are in their eating habits and start by saving them money to gain trust. Gradually, as trust builds, we will invite our users in the direction of health with small steps. Changing white bread for wheat. After wheat feels comfortable maybe add some seeds. This kind of guidance will provide stability. This stability is essential for the cognitive load on people trying to make change. Especially change with something as personal and ongoing as food requires patience. This sensitive guidance is our most essential component.

Why the way it works is important


The nuances touched on in the previous paragraph hold merit because of the time we spent in people’s homes, talking to them about food, looking through their kitchens with them, hearing their trials and tribulations, successes and prides. Developing empathy. We spoke with 18 people spending ~90 minutes with each of them. Marination in their words, finding patterns and anomalies across behaviors and perspectives informs design in a way that affords a “standing the problems shoes” approach. This ethnographic approach allowed us to largely drop our own world views and gain a wide angle view of food. These people have lived with me for the past 20 weeks. When I make decisions or come to new insights I reference their perspectives, their circumstances. It is pretty astounding what immersion in a problem feels like. I feel responsible for bettering this situation.

The gestalt around our service of incremental change was founded from experiencing people in the field that had had success in making a dietary change. These positive deviants had experienced change in a way that allowed them to build knowledge and change in behavior slowly. These were the only examples of change that stuck long term. For this reason we promise to provide value in the form of a gradual path of change towards a healthy diet.

Moving forward

The next phases of development require mayhem management and an astute focus on subtle behaviors. Food is so damn complicated. A different perspective everywhere you look. The majority of these perspectives are trying to share or enroll others in their ideology. This becomes paramount when it is backed by companies and money attempting to spread influence in the name of their products.

We have run one pilot test so far. During this initial experiment we gathered somebodies grocery list, found all relevant coupons and price reductions as well as healthy options we wanted to suggest and dove in. We got to H-E-B early and gathered all of the items we wanted to suggest. When our participant showed up we let her run the show. We followed her through the store in observation. All of our pre-thinking and planning got thrown out the window about 10 minutes in. There is such nuance in how people place value on food and in trying to make healthier suggestions that are very similar to what she already was planning to buy was much more difficult than it had seemed in the idealized picture I had in my mind.

The first difficulty surfaced quickly. The list she provided us was much too broad.

 Monicas list

With this lack of specificity we were very ineffective in providing options that were similar. She had written “bread”. Think about how many different kinds of bread there are. Now think about why you like your favorite kinds. Is it even possible to offer a suggestion that will be accepted with enjoyment when you consider all of these nuances that play into preference? This is an essential question that I have been wrestling with.


A quick short story from the field:

We get in the bread aisle and she picks up a relatively healthy bread. Our criteria for providing choices was to give 3 options: any product with relevant coupons, the cheapest applicable option, and a slightly healthier option that was similar in type and price (with an aim for cheaper). She picks up a whole wheat seed bread. The cheapest option in the store is wonder bread. That criteria for offering swap options goes out the window. Im looking at the nutrition labels of similar breads while my research partner Sally asks the pilot participant questions about her choice. She tells us she likes that bread because of the texture. I think “Well, we’re fucked then.” She values this bread choice because of texture. That means to provide a similar product I would need to put them all in my mouth. I decide not to try to offer her the bread i’m holding that contains 1 less gram of sugar than her choice and put it back. This example illustrates well the mayhem of the food space and leaves me with a hardset realization that, for this service to be successful we need to intimately understand our customers.

Taking intangibility into a form that is meaningful and consumable is the highest priority at this point in the process.


Difficulties of managing mayhem

In attempt to capture all of the relevant information from the pilot I crafted a spreadsheet that would house all of the items on her list as well as all of the swaps for healthier and cheaper items that we wanted to make.

Screen Shot 2017-03-26 at 8.55.25 AM

This mental run through of the process I was expecting seemed viable. There is room in the above spreadsheet for all relevant information. When we got in the store with the participant reality proved much different.

pre-plan list

This obviously proved to be the wrong way to capture the results. The refinement of this capturing process was informative.

organized list

This refinement of the capturing process tells me, at this stage, it needs to be much more qualitative for the learning we are immersed in. To truly learn how our customers think it needs to allow for quotes and the capture of nuance.

Assumptions and how to test them

Our current hypothesis for why this idea will work rides on a few assumptions. Primarily believing that:

  1. People use grocery lists, and if not, they will use one
  2. People will choose a healthier option if prompted
  3. People will choose a lower price over a brand they like
  4. People are willing to leave brands and items they’re used to
  5. People generally want to eat healthier
  6. People will eat new items they purchase
  7. People will be more likely to buy a new item if they get the new item before they get the original item

As we move forward in our creation and refinement process we plan to map out our trajectory moving from operating in very close quarters with our participant’s experience to gradually removing ourselves from the in-store experience as we learn how to manage this complexity.


Northstar possibilities

As we are in the weeds trying to learn about initial needs and subtle nuances we also have our eye set on the future. In the future we would like to gradually create a trusted relationship with our customers. We want them to be able to count on our advice. We see ourselves as having the potential to be an essential component of many shoppers grocery store experience. It is exciting thinking about the arduous path towards this grandiose future. Now let me get off the computer and jump back in the weeds.

GLO CJ Map - Linear


Pilot Plan Presentation v1

Figuring out how to promote a healthy diet, one grocery item at a time

My team and I are developing a service to help someone gradually adopt a healthier diet. First, we will find the cheapest way to buy a shopper’s grocery list, and then, we will gradually suggest healthier substitutions or additions.

Testing our service

To refine the idea, we will recruit shoppers to test our service over the next several weeks. During our first week of the pilot, we plan to follow each participant through the store to learn as much as possible about their shopping habits, decision making, and meal planning.


As the original idea took the form of a mobile app, this exercise will help release our minds from the design of “the screen” and help us focus on the value delivered. Even if the final manifestation is an app, interacting with the participant in-person will allow us to discover the ideal “conversation” to help the shopper receive the maximum benefit.

One drawback of this technique is that our presence may make shoppers more likely to choose the swap offered. Additionally, we will provide $5 HEB gift cards to thank shoppers for their time, which may make shoppers feel obliged to take our recommendations. Results may therefore be skewed. It will be important to lessen our physical presence as quickly as possible in subsequent weeks.


We will target people who go grocery shopping on a regular basis and need help adopting a healthier diet. This means that our recruitment efforts will span across socio-economic status. To quickly screen, we will ask potential participants to send photos of their refrigerator, freezer, and pantry, for a quick assessment of the kinds of food they bring home. 

part0-1 part0-2

If you think about health on a spectrum, from burgers to salad, we’re looking to help people who buy more food towards the burger end of the spectrum.


As we aim for gradual change, we hope to recruit at least 5 participants who will test with us multiple times over the next month. This duration will help us project whether or not our tactics and suggestions will make a positive difference in the long run.


Given our effort to help shoppers save money, we began to look into coupons. After a bit of research, we realized that we must be careful to ensure that we’re actually using coupons to benefit the customer, and not the corporation.


According to Rice University professor, Utpal Dholakia Ph.D, the pitfalls of coupons boil down to four main factors:

  • Regular coupon users pay less attention to the actual price and often end up paying more money.
  • Regular coupon users buy things they don’t need.
  • Regular coupon users buy more than they need.
  • Regular coupon users spend beyond their budget.


Indeed, when we ran the pilot for the first time, our shopper considered taking advantage of the “2 for $6” yogurt sale, but then realized that she could not finish all 8 yogurts before their expiration date.

When we suggest sales, coupons, or lower prices, we must make sure that we’re not distracting our shoppers from a more responsible choice. 

Subject Matter Experts & Nutrition

We know that there are as many different opinions about health & nutrition as there are people in the world. It seems there’s always a new study about why this food may be good for you and that food bad.

Given the complexity of nutrition as a science, we will engage Nutritionists throughout the process to 1) make healthy swap recommendations and 2) frame why one food may be healthier than the other.

When running through our very first test, we saw just how much we needed this expertise. This was particularly clear than on the bread aisle — so many different choices! Moreover, even if we find the “healthiest” bread, our recommendations must also fit the shopper’s taste preference as well as budget.


The Paradox of Choice: Fighting the power of brands & familiarity

The grocery store can be an overwhelming place, which is no wonder why we’ve met so many people who buy the same thing over and over again.

Have you ever actually looked at all the options down the cereal aisle?


There are 12 different kinds of Cheerios, alone: Cheerios, Honey Nut Cheerios, Very Berry Cheerios, Multigrain Cheerios, Apple Cinnamon Cheerios, Honey Nut Cheerios Medley Crunch, Chocolate Cheerios, Fruity Cheerios, Cheerios Protein, Frosted Cheerios, Cheerios + Ancient Grains (?), and Pumpkin Spice Cheerios (so you can be in the holiday spirit, all year long).

Because of the incredible volume and variety of grocery inventory, it’s understandable that a customer’s brand loyalty would be hard to break — why spend time analyzing a sea of options, when your current choice is sufficient? Observations like these also prompt questions like:

  1. Rather than trying to influence a shopper’s cereal choice, would it be better to focus our efforts on change that might occur on an aisle with fewer choices, leaving the shopper with more mental space to consider other options?
  2. Or, if we endeavor to tackle the cereal aisle, would it be best to introduce a new, healthier item before the shopper enters the grocery store, before she becomes too distracted by all the other choices?

The more I learn about grocery shopping, the more I learn about the marketing strategies and business behind it. For example, I had no idea that stores rent out shelving space, and that, depending on the shelf, companies will pay more or less; the most expensive shelving is “the bull’s eye” zone (usually the 2nd and 3rd shelves), as it’s in the customer’s eye line.

In order to help our shoppers, we will have to compete with powerful marketing techniques, and help our customers look above and below for cheaper, and healthier options. A benefit of our service is offering 1-2 healthy alternatives per the shopper’s original, unhealthy choice — still giving the shopper a choice, but not so many that lead to overwhelm.

Capturing Feedback & Results

To capture feedback and results, we will document the shopper’s entire journey through the grocery store via photos, highlighting different decision points.


We will also note the shopper’s path through the store, presenting what other items they might naturally see or pass, and therefore be more open to try in the future.

Lastly, as the shopper goes through the entire process, we will check and update the following assumptions:

  1. People use grocery lists, and if not, they will use one
  2. People will choose a healthier option if prompted
  3. People will choose a lower price over a brand they like
  4. People are willing to leave brands and items they’re used to
  5. People generally want to eat healthier
  6. People will eat new items they purchase
  7. People will be more likely to buy a new item if they get the new item before they get the original item

Measuring Success

To measure success, we will note the following:

  1. How many of the healthy alternatives the shopper accepted and why.
  2. If we were able to save the shopper money, and if so, how much.
  3. If the shopper would like to use our service again.

Other reflections

Keeping our eyes on the prize: Given the fact that coupons, price comparisons, and sales are so immensely complicated, we’ve found ourselves focusing more on how we can help someone save money, than eat healthily. In order to make an impact, we must keep coming back to our core value — helping someone gradually adopt a healthier diet.

Impulse Buys: One question we’ve asked ourselves is how we plan for impulse buys. When surrounded by so many options, it’s only natural for shoppers to pick up items not originally intended. In that instance, how does our service push the healthiest, cheapest option?

Convenience vs. Stick: If we go ahead and pull the healthiest/cheapest grocery items, we believe the shopper will be more likely to adopt those items. On the other hand, giving the shopper a choice, prompting slightly more reflection and initiative, may make the healthier habit more “sticky.”

Grocery Pilot Plan Presentation v1x

Grocery List Optimizer – Turning on the engine

Sally Hall|Conner Drew|Elijah Parker

Project Backdrop

Dietary disease is at an all-time high — 27 million Americans have diabetes and 30 million Americans have heart disease. These are leading causes of death in America. This is an interesting contrast when considering the fact that the demand for health and healthy eating is, simultaneously, the highest it has ever been. The gap that exists between those 2 truths has a lot of niches to fill.


Articulating the Problem

The gaps and inefficiencies that exist in the current landscape sound simple to the ear but are exponentially confusing when trying to encapsulate them, in inverse, as solutions in a product. First of all, the food space is saturated with products, information, branding and marketing efforts that create a lot of mental work for customers to be able to ces out what is true and what they should do. This often comes down to people’s world view and generational influence because there are no definitively clear answers from trustable sources.

The next huge influencer is money. Healthy food is seen as being more expensive than less healthy options. This high cost of healthy food partnered with the high cost of services that offer dietary support adds to the monetary difficulty of adopting a healthy diet and lifestyle. Clinics that serve low-income populations or government health care providers and systems are overloaded with clients and are inherently inefficient in thoroughly responding to clients needs. There are products and services out there that try to address this need. There are a gamut of diet plans and “lose weight fast programs” as well as shopping lists and nutrition trackers, however, these all require high levels of behavior change all at one time which is like a sprint and not realistic when considering long term change.

Lastly, there are a multitude of ways to save money on food: coupons, sales etc. These offerings are presented in a disorganized fashion, without consistency which makes them hard to depend on. The need for products and services that guide users towards health inside of a framework that understands their current context and prioritizes price and savings requires a level of choreography in planning and trust in company intention that does not currently exist in the digital market and that is what we set out to do.

Gaps and inefficiencies in the current market:

Screen Shot 2017-03-20 at 4.22.32 PM


Our product

We are building a mobile application. This application ties a thread through eliminating scientific jargon about the food space, meeting users where they are in the context of their food routines, and navigating progression with a gradual approach on the path to a healthy diet.

Value Promise:

We promise to provide a path of change towards a healthier diet


How it works

Screen Shot 2017-03-20 at 4.50.16 PM


Our product’s intention

The inspiration for this products design came from experiences in the field doing research with mothers on food stamps who have diabetes. This acute focus helped surround our thinking with the most drastic and relevant needs that exist in regards to diet change. The product we have built meets the needs of this acute population, however, the principles embedded in its inner workings support a much wider population; anyone that has a motivation or need to make a diet change. Therefore, in launching this product we plan to start with guidance that will assist anyone in their path towards health and, in the near future, plan to utilize subject matter experts like dieticians and nutritionists to make our offering for those with monetary constraints and dietary diseases as robust and tailored to the individual as possible. We want to truly provide tools for the problem we set out to explore.


Business structure

We are setting up to start a company with Benefit Corporation status. Being a B-corp is aligned with our mission as a business because at the core of our model is social impact, helping low-income individuals to adopt a healthier diet. This core value drives the engine and we want to be held accountable to that initiative staying consistently at the forefront. This status will also help us establish trust in our users. They will know our intentions are purely in support. Based on the service we’re providing, we need to have a consistent revenue stream to support our growth efforts and build out towards our north star design.

Here is our slide deck and written business plan:

GLO Business Plan Deck

GLO Written Business Plan


Simple Beginnings

As students at AC4D, Kelsey and I were tasked with finding a social problem with the theme of sustainability. We were both passionate about the sustainability of affordable housing in Austin, TX. During our research into the space, we found that “affordable” housing in Austin still is not all that affordable. The price range for these units and homes are still only available to people who have income above $45,000. There are so many people who make less than this in the city, so many people who struggle to afford rent and need help or face living on the street. So we went to speak with those individuals specifically. At ARCH and around downtown Austin, we spoke with individuals about their experiences with homelessness and what it is like to try to get off of the street. We found that people do not always want to be off of the street, we saw how rapid rehousing services and permanent supportive housing services help the people who are most vulnerable. But we also saw how many people are left behind. How many people are lost by the system and do not qualify for these housing initiatives. We wondered: are there programs for these individuals? Do they have any options? They felt like they were standing still; like there was no where for them to go but down until they were where the system would pick them up again.

We found services who would work with nearly all of our research participants. We wondered: How can we connect these individuals to the support they need?

Enter Quarters, a web-based experience for connecting individuals with housing services near them. Using a responsive and dynamic dialogue system, we find what these people need to apply for housing programs, guide them through the processes, and connect them with the organization to apply.

Our Promise

We promise to connect individuals experiencing homelessness to stable housing. Using Quarters, individuals will be able to connect with housing programs catering to their needs and their situation. Quarters will also help individuals keep track of their applications, contact the organizations for their progress towards housing, and assist in getting documents required for some applications. The people who we are focusing on need structure, but do not receive any. Quarters is filling a gap left by the system and current case management, helping individuals who are in need and receive little help from the state as the system is now.

Our Business Structure

Current cost of an individual on the street is nebulous. Figures range from just above $14,000 to upwards of $30,000. One cost estimate stays the same: $10,000 to house, and give case management to, the chronically homeless of the country.
Quarter would help to reduce the cost of individuals to the state, regardless of case management. They would find housing faster, reducing their costs to emergency organizations and charities for homeless individuals. We hope to expand Quarter to include free legal, job, and financial organizations these people need as well. These additions will also help stabilize our target population’s lives beyond housing, keeping them housed, off of the street, and living for themselves.

To cover costs, we would use local, state, and federal funds appropriated for use in non-profits helping individuals experiencing homelessness. There are many funds available for people in this space, as well as a consistent public spotlight on the problem. Any lack of funding would need to be made up from donors. Whether corporate or private, donations will help cover overhead. Monetizing Quarters seems predatory; as our population is already marginalized. Funding for our endeavors would need to be appropriated from public monies or private funding. Our in-progress business plan can be found here.

The Best of Outcomes > The Best of Intentions

Designers have great power to shape the future of humanity, and with that, as Stan Lee would say, comes great responsibility. Therefore, at AC4D, we focus on using design to make a positive social impact. But how do we know if the change we wish to inspire will have the desired effect? Or worse, how do we know it won’t bring negative consequences?

The truth is, even with the best of intentions, we can’t know how our design will affect society until it’s released in reality. At that point, intentions become irrelevant, and outcomes are the only significant measure.

The Best of Intentions: One-Size Fits All

As Michael Hobbes writes in his article “Stop Trying to Save the World,” many well-meaning aid efforts have followed the trend of “exciting new idea, huge impact in one location, influx of donor dollars, quick expansion, failure.”

As a case in point, consider the clean drinking water project, Playpumps. It was an inspired idea — a water system that used the energy created by children playing to operate a water pump. People need water, children need to play, it seemed like a perfect combination. Although initially lauded for its innovation, it was quickly criticized for being too expensive, less effective than traditional hand-pumps, and reliant on child labor.


According to Hobbes, “Many of the villages hadn’t even been asked if they wanted a PlayPump, they just got one, sometimes replacing the handpumps they already had. In one community, adults were paying children to operate the pump.”

Nevertheless, this idea should not be discounted altogether — in some villages, under the right circumstances, they were helpful, and are still installed as a “niche solution” on playgrounds and at schools in poor rural areas.

The real issue was not that Playpumps was a poor idea, but that it was poorly executed.There was little collaboration or research with the people the organization sought to serve, and the implementation was “one-size-fits-all” — based on the fact that since it was an effective solution for some, it could be applied to everyone.

The Worst(?) of Intentions: Corporate Social Responsibility & Cause Marketing

Corporate Social Responsibility
Advocacy is now rivaling sex as Corporate America’s main selling strategy. For example, in response to the Drumpf administration’s travel ban, Airbnb offered free housing to anyone denied entry and Starbucks pledged to hire 10,000 refugees. Seeing this primarily as a marketing tactic, Alex Holder writes that “it’s difficult to separate the fact that while these brands are showcasing pedigree social responsibility, ultimately they’re helping refugees because it sells milky lattes and cheap holiday accommodation.”

In another related example, Lyft donated $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union after Uber continued to pick up passengers from the JFK Airport amidst a taxi driver strike against the travel ban. Soon after, Lyft bested Uber in the App store for the first time.

While there may be ulterior motives to these corporate actions, the question is… does it matter? Free housing, jobs, million dollar donations… indeed, there is a clear benefit to the companies in terms of public favor and increased revenue, but would we rather do without these grand gestures?

Perhaps it would be stronger ethically for companies to contribute socially, but to do so quietly. But, if not for Lyft’s public donation, Uber may not have pledged to provide legal support and establish a $3 million legal defense fund for threatened drivers.

Cause Marketing
Product(RED) is an organization that recruits companies like the Gap and Apple to participate in cause marketing, donating a portion of product sales to the fight against AIDS. While Product(RED)’s intentions seem pure, some believe that corporate partners only use the charitable association to sell more goods.


Apple donates a portion of its red Beats headphone proceeds to Product(RED). is particularly critical of Product(RED). It rallies people to reject the “ti(red) notion that shopping is a reasonable response to human suffering” and to donate directly to the Global Fund, without consuming.

Yes, we all need to Yes, we’re destroying the environment. Yes, we’re screwed and the rich are moving to Mars… and, if Product(Red) can capitalize on a deeply ingrained behavior, and raise $465 million to help prevent HIV… can we really fault them for it? I’ll make a deal — if they can eradicate consumer culture, I will switch my position and insist that Bono find another way to save the world.

While it’s clear companies have something to gain from their social impact initiatives, their investments and corresponding promotions unquestionably benefit society.

The Worst of Internet: the Rise of Fake News

According to author Mark Manson, the early creators of the internet had good intentions.

“They worked for decades toward a vision of seamlessly networking the world’s people and information. They saw greater empathy and understanding across nations, ethnicities, and lifestyles. They dreamed of a unified and connected global movement with a single shared interest for peace and prosperity.”

Oops. Especially with the rise of fake news, and Facebook’s almost impenetrable echo chambers, we seemed to have missed the mark. 


But then I realize that the internet is a reflection of our society — “echo chambers” have always existed. We love to surround ourselves with like people, it makes us feel safe, secure, and validated. “Fake news” has always been there — the rewriting of history books, or (less severe), those “FW: FW: FW: Obama…” emails from your grandparents — the only difference is it can now travel exponentially faster through the veins of social media.

The good news is that now these very tribal tendencies of pushing out or dismissing the “other,” over perceived differences, are now out in the open. The public outcry against echo chambers and fake news is a call to get curious about the other, to learn about their hopes, their fears, their dreams, and perhaps find some common ground.

In a way, this is a signal for a new iteration of the internet. Designer Jon Kolko says that both the good and the bad are designers’ fault and their ongoing responsibility. I also argue that, as consumers, we have a responsibility to think critically about how we interact with a particular product or service. So, while the initial intentions of the internet did not become what 80s and 90s technologists dreamed it would be, designers and its consumers have a responsibility to create a new version, and keep moving towards the greater vision of peace and understanding.


Sometimes impure motivations can still bring great benefit, and other times, good intentions can bring about the worst of consequences. As designers, the best we can do is diligently research the problem we’re trying to solve, project all the possible implications of our proposed solution, and continue to iterate as the design interacts with the world.

Other Explorations

To explore the complexities of social impact, I created a simple board game that follows the development of a non-profit organization working to increase access to education among low-income individuals in Managua, Nicaragua.

The game requires, at minimum, two teams of two, wherein each team takes turns pulling out cards from the deck. Depending on the outcome of the card, the team would move closer or further away from the finish.

Profound Pursuit board

Research 1

Research 2

Execution 1 Execution 2 Funding 1 Funding 2  Sketch 1 Sketch 2 Sketch 3 & Echo Chamber


The Outcome, Regardless of Intention

As designers, everything we do from the type of problems we work on solving to making the choice of using a radio button or a check box stems from intention. Without intention, choices are made blindly causing an arbitrary execution. I believe intentions are important within design, but where the conversation becomes a bit muddy is when we began considering the outcome of our intentions. There are examples where, despite the best intentions, the outcome is less than ideal, and vice versa. This leads me to ask the question, “how important is intention when the outcome is what creates impact?”


One space where this question applies is when developing for the emerging world. Most people are familiar that there is a good amount of effort in assisting developing countries who are less fortunate than our own. There was an effort to provide clean water to people who did not have easy access. Michael Hobbes explains, “It seemed like such a good idea: A merry-go-round hooked up to a water pump. In rural sub-Saharan Africa, where children are plentiful but clean water is scarce, the PlayPump harnessed one to provide the other.” In theory this is a fantastic idea, except when the outcome is examined. After implementing the PlayPumps, Frontline returned to see the impact that had been created. They, “Discovered pumps rusting, billboards unsold, women stooping to turn the wheel in pairs. Many of the villages hadn’t even been asked if they wanted a PlayPump, they just got one, sometimes replacing the hand pumps they already had.”


The biggest opportunity in this example would have been to reach out to the recipients of the PlayPumps and learned how this effort would have been received. If the community wanted this or if they would even use it. It would have been discovered that this solution may not have been the best solution to the situation at hand, or even a solution at all.


There is another example where working with the developing world was in fact successful. New Story was able to build 151 houses in Haiti which ended up housing 1,200 people where as the Red Cross changed course after only building six houses even though they had raised half a billion dollars for the cause. The Red Cross, “struggled to attract residents because,’ the areas they planned on building were, ‘too far from basic needs like work and food.” The cofounder of New Story, Alexandria Lafci, explains, “This is what participatory design is so crucial and is something we incorporate into all of our communities. We ask families for their input about the location, the style of home, broader community needs, etc.” The findings led New Story to deciding to build their community only about 10 minutes away from their jobs and support networks. Because of this, the community was in a position to adopt the housing because it fit into what was important into their own personal life, unlike the PlayPump example. They are expanding to launch similar efforts in El Salvador and Bolivia, but the models will be slightly different because each location affords unique needs. Participatory design will be used once again to accommodate the small amount of income that exists (unlike the population in Haiti) and will implement a pay it forward model to invest in future communities. Once again, tailored to the specific needs of the population New Story is designing for.


A mix of these two efforts include the example of New York’s High Line project. Robert Hammond had the idea of “turning a disused elevated railway on Manhattan’s West Side into a high-design ‘linear park’. He thought it would attract maybe 300,000 visitors a year.” The problem lies in that, “he and his co-founder Joshua David didn’t really think about what the High Line could do to the neighborhood, apart from adding a little extra breathing room.” The project was successful in the sense that it drew new business and condos, as well as the expectation that it will generate $1 billion to the city over the next 20 years. Where the project was unsuccessful is that the park didn’t appeal to the direct neighborhood it was originally intended for. On either side of the park were local housing projects, which consisted primarily of people of color. The traffic the park ended up drawing were predominately white and mostly tourists. Reactions to the park consisted of feelings that local residents, “didn’t feel it was built for them; they didn’t see people who looked like them using it, and they didn’t like the park’s mulch-heavy programming.”


During the project locals were asked questions similar to which colors they liked, not necessarily what specifically they would like from the park itself. Because of this Hammond admits that, “ultimately, we failed.” Where they story begins to change is when you look at what happened next. This self proclaimed failure led Hammond creating the High Line Network, which is a coalition of designers and planners building adaptive reuse parks in the High Line mold. The entire purpose of the network is to further examine how to improve neglected neighborhoods, without pushing away they very people they intend to serve. A component of this organization is conducting listening sessions to hear feedback about his project, which started a number of new initiatives including paid-job trainings and further development on the two housing projects previously mentioned. These efforts are due to participatory design, which leads to a more successful execution of intention.


Another frame within this conversation is that of corporate philanthropy. One side of this conversation tends to lean towards a negative view that corporations are only incorporating philanthropy into their business model in order to sell more goods, regardless of the outcome. For example, the PRODUCT (RED) campaign is a campaign founded by Gap that has asked companies to create a red version of their product and donate a percentage of the proceeds towards the HIV/AIDS effort in Africa. One could argue that this effort feels ingenuous due to the fact companies are pushing commoditization as an effort for social impact. They see the effort as saying, “if you buy this product, then you’ll save lives.” In fact their slogan is quite literally “buy (RED), save lives.” On one hand I completely agree and there is something unsettling about this effort that doesn’t seem to fit the effort.


With that being said, despite some room for improvement in transparency, the organization has raised $465 million dollars and claims to have impacted over 90 million lives. It has allowed doctors to spend more time on their research and slow down HIV transmission. This is where intention becomes tricky. I can see the intention of this effort coming from a place of genuine interest in causing an impact, but I can also potentially see the motivating factor being that to drive higher profits via a philanthropic effort. This is a detail we may never fully know, but one fact remains: the amount of money raised to increase resources for a social cause. If this is the outcome with either intention driving the effort, then how much does it truly matter? An opportunity was identified to raise a significant amount of money for a good cause and was acted upon. Yes, I would love to believe that the effort was genuinely altruistic, but if you were the one directly benefiting PRODUCT (RED), does it change the outcome of the benefit?


Initial intentions in design can be come from a variety of motivating factors, but I would argue that the outcome is what is most important. Action can come from a place of good intention yet have negative outcomes, while it can also come from a place of poor intentions and have positive outcomes. Regardless, the outcome is what we are left with whether that be further conversation, fundraising, or housing for people in need. Ideally, we should consider the outcome while we are designing in order to optimize our intentions.

The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions

As we began to read the series of articles entitled “With the best intentions”, I found myself questioning not the motivations of the different projects and products, but where the designer’s responsibility lies. When is a designer no longer responsible for the products they create? Within this post I examine two articles’ arguments about designer’s responsibility, then finally come to my own conclusion.

For the purposes of understand where responsibility ends, I’ve created a small chart which illustrates four phases: Research, Design, Development and Real World. Each of these phases are executed in any project or product. Below is the chart:




The piece by Michael Hobbes, made it seem as though the effects of a product are out of the designers hands. Hobbes states  “when you improve something, you change it in ways you couldn’t have expected”. He sees the effects of a product as unpredictable and thus not the responsibility of the designers. It almost seems like he expects these unforeseen changes to happen whenever a designer improves a product. He is rightly supported in this concept that after implementation unforeseen effects of a product begin to develop. He and five other authors that we read, wrote about other products and their unpredicted consequences. Below are the products these other authors used as well as where the breakdowns happened, and what unexpected changes have been the negative effect of the product:


“Fortune at the bottom of the pyramid: A Mirage”, Aneel Karnani

Product: Microcredits

The Breakdown: “Microcredit does not alleviate (income) poverty, but rather reduces vulnerability by smoothing consumption. A few studies have even found that microcredit has worsened poverty; poor households simply become poorer through the additional burden of debt.”

Where it occurred: “The vast majority of microcredit clients are caught in subsistence activities with no prospect of competitive advantage. The self-employed poor usually have no specialized skills and often practice multiple occupations…With low skills, little capital and no scale economies, these businesses operate in an area with low entry barriers and too much competition; they have low productivity and lead to meager earnings that cannot lift their owners out of poverty.”

The change that they couldn’t have expected: Founders of microcredit programs never expected that their recipients would not have the skills to create a more niche service or product. There was a grandiose illusion that all recipients of a microcredit would be innovative business machines. In reality not all individuals living in poverty can lift themselves out through entrepreneurial practices.


“The High Line’s Next Balancing Act”, Laura Bliss

Product: High Line Park

The Breakdown: “We wanted to do it for the neighborhood…ultimately we failed.”

Where it occurred: Residents of the High Line community said they don’t use the park because of three things, “They didn’t feel like it was built for them; they didn’t see people who looked like them using it; and they didn’t like the park’s mulch-heavy programming.”

The change that they couldn’t have expected:  The designers never expected that their park (which did include community input meetings before opening) would have not been enough to encourage the community to participate. The design team thought their efforts would have been enough for the community to feel welcome, but they ultimately fell short. The drastic gentrification their park contributed to was also an unpredicted change caused by their designs. Ultimately, the project’s effects didn’t make the community feel welcomed and pushed many members out.


“Sex doesn’t sell anymore, activism does. And don’t the big brands know it.” Alex Holder

The Product: Large corporations are “allocating their marketing budget to good causes”.

The Breakdown: Corporations are donating with the expectation of a return on their investment.

Where it occurred: Companies expect these returns both in the customer base as well as in “favors”. When corporations donate to organizations, they expect their customers to choose them in the future because the company practices “good business”. When corporations donate in a political capacity, they expect that the candidate or political organization will keep the company’s best interest at heart.

The change that they couldn’t have expected: Corporations didn’t and don’t expect their customer to see through their thinly veiled acts of generosity, as actual acts of compensation and marketing, but individuals are beginning to see them just as that. Customer know these acts of “generosity” as acts of compensates. As companies implement ethically and morally wrong practice within their businesses, they use their corporate social responsibility initiatives to compensate for their destruction of both society and the environment.


“Everything is Fucked and I’m Pretty Sure It’s the Internet’s Fault”, Mark Manson

Product: The Internet

The breakdown: “The internet… makes it profitable to breed distrust”

Where it occurred: “The internet… was not designed to give people the information they need. It gives people the information they want.”

The change that they couldn’t have expected: Creators of the internet could not have anticipated that their invention would be used by individuals not to enlighten themselves, but to comfort themselves. Manson argues that the internet by supplying everyone with all the information of the world didn’t lead to heightened intelligence levels, but rather distrust of information due to the overwhelming saturation of availability. This then leads to individuals only seeking out echo chambers for news and information about the world around them, which creates comfort.


“Save Africa: The commodification of (Product) Red campaign” Cindy N. Phu

Product: (Product) Red Campaign

The Breakdown: The Product (Red) campaign hasn’t “Saved Africa” contrary to its catch phrase.

Where it occurred: The AIDS/HIV epidemic is an ongoing battle in both places the Global Fund is active and inactive.

The change that they couldn’t have expected: The periphery effects of the Product (Red) campaign has lead to “many nonprofit organizations dedicated to the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa have not been able to receive grants or funding through donations…because of the misconception that Africa is saved.” The organization which created the campaign did not anticipate that the campaign would actually inhibit other humanitarian aid efforts in fighting against the same issues.


In each of these examples, there always seems to be some unforeseen consequence of the product that was overlooked, forgotten or unanticipated, which then have dire or sever consequences. Hobbes would believe these unforeseen consequences as part of life. He would not place the failure or consequences of these products on the designers. Below is the chart with Hobbes’ idea of responsibility marked in the phases of design.




A product’s unforeseen effects or changes on an ecosystem to Jon Kolko’s standards’ are the responsibility of the designers themselves. Kolko writes that “we are responsible for both the positive and negative repercussions of our design decisions, and these decisions have monumental repercussions”. With this concept, Jon would argue that the fact the High Line doesn’t connect with the community it’s built within is a fault of the designers themselves. He would argue, the fact that nonprofits working with HIV/AIDS victims within Africa cannot receive the aid they need, is in fact the responsibility of those who decided that the donations should be generated through a well strategized ad campaign. Finally he would argue that the perpetuated poverty of those individuals who now carry the additional burden of credit debt, lies on the shoulders of those organizations who structured the service. Like Hobbes, below is a chart illustrating what phase of the design process Kolko believe designers are responsible for.


Kolko is right that the consequences of a product are the responsibility of the designer. Though the question then become, how do designers predict the outcome their products will have on the world? Especially if it’s changing the world in “ways you couldn’t image”?

Prediction is impossible, but how a designer reacts to the consequences of their product is changeable. Designers have a responsibility to not only the products the develop, but also to observe and counter the negative effects their products have on a community. Instead of viewing a designer’s responsibility as the repercussion of the product, the designer is also responsible for continuing to iterate and listen to the people it has affected. In the chart below this phase of continued responsibility is called “Continue”. There are two tools all designers should use to help themselves take on the responsibility of countering these unforeseen consequences: Ethnographic research and iteration.


In order to counter the unpredictable side effects, a designer must first know what these effects are and how their design is perpetuating them. They can implement ethnographic research to do just that. This is a research method synonymous with just “listening to customers” (Hempel). The method involves in-person interviews executed at the place where the work is being done. The full effect of this method then allows for designers to gain a more empathetic understanding of the user’s needs when they go back to designing. For our slew of failed products, ethnographic research can be used to understand what happened with the product and where it fell short on serving the needs of the users. An excellent example of this is from the High Line, which has begun conducting interviews with members of the community, asking questions about how they can better serve them now.

The second tool a designer can use is iteration. This is the a process in which the repetition of a sequence of operations is taken to move towards the desired result. In design, this practice is highly emphasized. Not only is iteration encouraged in final products, but within every phase of design. To apply this concept to the failed products, we should see multiple version of the products each moving in a direction that would minimise the problems of the previous iteration.

Once designers implement ethnographic research and iteration on the negative consequences of their product, they can build better products. These designers are now equipped to find out how those most negatively impacted by the products feel and why and then design products that better address those issues. This additional step of continuing contact, feedback and iteration on a product is the real responsibility of the designers.

We cannot create things, let them manifest, then leave them behind. We have a responsibility to those who are left unsatisfied to find out what happens and figure out how to prevent that from happening to anyone else.

In design, learning is omnipresent

Hands Brains, Zoom & Scope.

These are the primary tools.
There will always be someone who disagrees with how we use our tools.

Sometimes success. Sometimes failure.
No rights. No wrongs.


What does social impact mean?

            Social impact is inherently a problem of definition. Everything has an impact. Slavery did. As well as Adolf Hitler, Rosa Parks, Thomas Edison, Amelia Heirhart, Henry Ford, and Ruth Handler, the maker of Barbie. All of these people have influenced the way that we operate, think, and discern good and bad. “Doing good” has spread rampantly across pop culture and throughout the millennial generation. If something is slapped with a label of social impact it is generally revered as an honorable initiative. But what does it really mean? There are no metrics for it. There is no guide book for it (however, there are many), there is no framework to say you have completed your social impact initiative. There is such nuance when it comes to social change, much of which is implicit in our personal experiences as people. So how do we measure effectiveness? How do we know when we are done? These are essential questions that I seek to explore throughout this post with a lens of no right and no wrong. As an emerging designer interested in social impact (and for all designers really) these are questions that are at the crux of all of our decisions. What is being created by this design?  

A Paul Polak quote appeared on Social Impact Design’s Twitter account in February of 2017 that read:

“90% of the worlds designers spend all their time addressing the problems of the richest 10% – before I die, I want to turn that silly ratio on its head.”

 A noble statement that represents a sentiment that many millennials (and an increasing number of the population in general) would rejoice to hear. However, Dan Saffer, another renowned designer, rebuttled;

“Shaming people for working on products for the 10% is counter-productive. Probably what they’re working on will eventually affect everyone.”

 So, what do we do with these opposing viewpoints from 2 respected thought leaders in the design world? After all, a reported 1,800 children die globally every day due to water sanitation issues (Unicef, 2013). This seems like a problem we should be solving. A counter to that is the fact that we are seeing the beginning of a solar panel adoption across developing countries.

A solar panel on a roof in Bangladesh:

Screen Shot 2017-03-16 at 5.23.34 PM

I am not a solar panel expert but the invention was, undoubtedly, incepted in a well-funded research institution somewhere. How do we quantify or qualify which problem is more important? Saving the lives of children or harnessing the power of the sun to power our inventions that have the potential to solve other problems (like water sanitation)? The difficult part is that we are human. And there is an innate desire to fix a problem when we see other humans hurting. When you temporally zoom out, however, there is merit in passion and intent. The team that invented solar panels would have, most likely, been unfit for the job of solving water sanitation problems. All we can do is take the next most obvious step, the wisdom that informs this fateful step is ingrained in our experience. At an ethereal level, intention is all we really have. Execution follows intention and that is of course where everything gets exceedingly messy as well as the place that strategies for success are honed. If we take the second quote from Saffer as valid the choice is still not easy, the question then becomes ‘how do we bring our beneficial inventions to a global scale across race, culture, geographic location etc.?’ A tall, complicated order that is a design problem in and of itself.

I would like to offer a definition for Social Impact:

The act of seeing a social problem, absorbing the context of the social problem and implementing ideas that are steps in the direction of eliminating anywhere from one element to the entirety of the problem. 

Where does this leave us? It seems to be that to actualize social impact we need to have thought through our solution using a methodology called Theory of Change which is a mapping practice to associate how your decisions and designs will have impact over time.


What does it mean to “solve” problems?

Everything that gets made is trying to solve a problem.

Screen Shot 2017-03-16 at 5.25.55 PMScreen Shot 2017-03-16 at 5.34.37 PM Screen Shot 2017-03-16 at 5.26.46 PMScreen Shot 2017-03-16 at 5.58.44 PM

Think about it. You can’t bring anything to market unless it benefits a circumstance or streamlines a process whether that is implicitly or explicitly. Yet, as we see in the market, there are varying degrees of effectiveness. The questions that need to be rigorously explored are things like; How thoroughly have you defined the problem? Do you know it inside out? Upside down? Have you cultivated empathy with the people that are experiencing the problem you are “solving”? Where are you assuming and where are you truly aware? We all have grandiose ideas of what the world “could be” like according to our world view which has been crafted by every experience we have ever had. To put our individual grandiose ideas into perspective, we each are approximately 0.000000013513514% of the perspectives in the world. How do we integrate that into the increasing complexity and grueling reality of circumstance? An article titled “Stop trying to save the world” explores this issue beautifully. Michael Hobbes discusses multiple examples of international “social impact” developments. He outlines a project called PlayPump which utilizes a familiar playground structure to pump water out of the ground. Amazing idea!

“PlayPumps were going to harness the energy of children to provide fresh water to sub-Saharan African villages.”(Hobbes, 2014)

Screen Shot 2017-03-16 at 6.01.52 PM

“…to provide fresh water to sub-Saharan African villages. They didn’t.”(Hobbes, 2014)

Screen Shot 2017-03-16 at 6.03.54 PM

 I say this is beautiful not because it proves my point, which it does, but because it is such a widely-used example of how international development initiatives can veer away from the intention. It was ineffective in its intent, but as a design community and broader network, we are learning from the assumptions that PlayPump made. It makes us think critically and strategically about similar ‘great’ ideas. It was a novel idea that addressed a very relevant problem, yet, because there was no immersion in the problem, critical thought about the longevity of the project, or strategies for integration into the existing culture, their solution did not have lasting impact. This brings up the humanness factor again. This time talking about the outcome of acting on the desire to help people that are hurting, Akhila Kolisetty calls it “the desire to feel warm and fuzzy inside” which she is correlating with the desire to do good. Her full statement which appeared on Richard Andersons Blog post “Reflections on Gratitude” reads:

“We cannot donate or volunteer just to feel good about ourselves. Social justice will only come if we … give up any desire to feel warm and fuzzy inside…”

 This brings up a few provocative perspectives to look at the social impact space through. First I want to compliment her statement by talking about business plan and social impact competitions. In the article “Rethinking business plans” by Michael Gordon and Daniela Papi-Thornton they discuss the nature of short format competitive creation for social impact.

“Social business plan competitions typically honor the first trend while overlooking the second. There is an opportunity to rethink these contests and use them to help students identify a range of ways to create social value, beyond just starting a business. Most importantly, these contests need to foster genuine understanding of problems before asking students to design solutions.”

This segment illustrates the surface level to which these competitions commonly dive. When I say surface level I mean they have not considered the layers of complexity and integration past initial impact, they are in a competitive environment which advocates for speed at the expense of detail, and they commonly have close to no true understanding of the gestalt of the problem let alone the nuances that will overthrow or prove a “solution”. This approach to thinking about social impact and innovation makes us feel “warm and fuzzy” but takes no true steps towards actionable understanding.

Does social justice require selfless altruism? I don’t know if that question is answerable. Though my sense says that if we continue to take a masturbatory approach to social impact it will become an increasingly diluted topic that is hard to find value in speaking about. We have the potential of destroying the verbiage that represents beautiful endeavors and intentions across the globe. To build a solid foundation from which healthy products and services grow that invokes thrival and prosperity is a slog of epically rewarding proportions. What really creates foundation? (Product) Red is a revolutionary initiative that leverages consumer habits partnered with the human desire to do good and “feel warm and fuzzy”. It skims the top off of the profits of other companies with the (Product) Red brand on it. This money gets donated to HIV and AIDS relief. Abstractly, let’s think about how it does this. There is no visceral contact with the population (Product) Red is supporting. The money gets donated to not-for-profit organizations that are the “facilitators of impact”. Now we get into the confusing conversation of resource allocation and sustainability. What happens if (Product) Red goes under? Do the communities that it was indirectly serving get their support cut off? Now we are in the complexity of responsibility. In the last paragraph, we have layered multiple pieces of the “equation” for effective social impact on top of each other. This illustrates the magnitude of rigorous thought that it takes to hone a project that will work in congruency with the intention behind it. They are called problems because they are hard to solve. Not just hard to solve, but hard to even get your mind around the multiplicity of factors that affect any one piece of subject matter. Yet, (Product) Red is generating large amounts of funding for these social impact organizations which would not be generated if we were not leveraging the desire to do “good” and “feel warm and fuzzy”.

Let’s enjoy an abstract metaphor:

If you know your horse is thirsty, and you lead him to water. Even if he is truly thirsty, that’s potentially not the problem that needs solving first. He’s tired and stressed from riding so long. He doesn’t even think of water as the problem. All he can do is romanticize about the time when he gets to stop riding.

This begs the question, are we solving the right problem? The Highline “linear park” in New York City represents an interesting example of this. This project turned an elevated railway on Manhattan’s West Side into a high design “linear park”. In an article titled “The Highline’s Next Balancing Act” written by Laura Bliss, she quotes Robert Hammond, the creator of the park;

“Instead of asking what the design should look like, I wish we’d asked, ‘What can we do for you?’ People have bigger problems than design.”

Monetarily the park is a wild success beyond all projections, however Bliss explores Hammond’s reasoning for the above statement;

“Locals aren’t the ones overloading the park, nor are locals all benefiting from its economic windfall.”

“anyone who’s ever strolled among the High Line’s native plants and cold-brew vendors knows its foot traffic is, as a recent City University of New York study found, “overwhelmingly white.” And most visitors are tourists, not locals.” (Bliss, 2017)

We cannot know precisely what the outcomes of our designs will evoke, however, setting out with no definitive social intention, which Hammond admits, means that anything you come to is the “right answer”.

“During the High Line’s planning stages, Hammond and David set up offices inside a local community agency in order to make themselves accessible to public housing tenants, and solicit their opinions on design. But the questions they asked at their “input meetings” were essentially binary: Blue paint, or green paint? Stairs on the left or the right? They rarely got to the heart of what really mattered.” (Bliss, 2017)

Participatory design and co-creation should be respected. The sentiment behind it is potent because it effectively removes assumption (at least that is the intention) and the way that Hammond and David used it is a disrespect to the power it can hold and their outcome proves the difference. However, how much co-creation or user participation is too much?


Putting matters in the hands, brains and context of the people

           People need to make decisions for themselves. I think most people would agree with this statement. Of course, I will offer a counter. Drastic examples prove points more explicitly, so, imagine a heroin addict who is eating little and injecting a lot. Should this person be making decisions for themselves or do they need assistance and guidance in figuring out what they truly need? Aneel Karnani discusses a similar notion in “Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: A Mirage”;

“Hammond and Prahalad (2004) cite the example of a poor sweeper woman who expressed pride in being able to use a fashion product, Fair & Lovely, a skin cream marketed by Unilever. “She has a choice and feels empowered.””

This Fair & Lovely whitening cream, marketed to low-income populations in India, is directly reacting to the desires of the user. There is a pop culture of lighter skin being more beautiful. This is the interesting difference between reactive design and responsive design. But, whats missing? Karnani goes on;

“Indian society, like many others, unfortunately suffers from racist and sexist prejudices. This leads many women to use skin lightening products, sometimes with negative health side-effects (Browne, 2004). Hammond and Prahalad (2004) argue that the poor woman “has a choice and feels empowered because of an affordable consumer product formulated for her needs.” This is no empowerment! At best, it is an illusion; at worst, it serves to entrench her disempowerment.”

This design problem requires empathy. An empathetic perspective would inform response rather than reaction. If you read into the nuance of this issue it is an issue of feeling. The women that use the Fair and Lovely product feel like they should have whiter skin because of the projections from the world. Of course, the reactive, money minded approach is to give them what they’re asking for. A responsive solution may hold principles of self confidence in character, willingness to explore why light skin is valued, a motivation to spend money on things that truly develop them as people etc. So continues the conundrum of good design and solid intention. I am reminded of a piece by John Dewey titled “The Need of a Theory of Experience”;

“Does this form of growth create conditions for further growth, or does it set up conditions that shut out the person who has grown in this particular direction from the occasions, stimuli, and opportunities for continuing growth in new directions?”

I will allow you to ponder and will say that a design only has true social impact if the outcome being aimed at is intentional and intentionally open ended, providing a foundation for further growth, freedom and interpretation.


Design is constantly clashing with duality

           We live in a dualistic world. It seems there will always be someone who disagrees with your choices and perspective. This is the reason for critique, to see what other ways your creations can be viewed that your singular perspective couldn’t dream up. There will always be a critical voice and always be an advocate. We need all of it to make a robust, well rounded design. Design what the world needs and see if it works. Either it is a successful product or service or it was a successful learning opportunity. Let’s prioritize learning over shaming. Shame perpetuates competition, which is inherently a cultivator of messiness.

Sprinkled throughout this piece of exploration I discuss the power of pure intention, the merit that social impact has regardless of its success, and the fact that learning is constant and every failed attempt teaches so many other people how to think about the given situation next time. WE need to start using our observing mind to step back and see that we are all shooting at similar targets. When someone writes an article that is in controversy to a previous writing, they are interested in the same thing and are learning from their analysis of the “failure”. Therefore, is failure a true failure? “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Sometimes this simple quote spans across generations. Revolutions are short lived. Evolution doesn’t stop.

“I want to make sure other people don’t make the mistakes we did, and learn how to deal with these issues,” says Hammond. “We certainly don’t have all the answers.”

Testing the hypothesis

In class, during the presentation of this material, I sent out a GoogleForm to my classmates and professor with a set of questions associated with the examples of products, services and initiatives that were outlined and discussed in the articles we read over the past week and a half.

The questions were structured to explore perspectives on the organizations intention, design decisions and how much we learned from analyzing the examples:

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This idea came from a desire to tangibly test my synthesis about the variance in the perspectives of designers. Our perspectives are a make up of every experience we have ever had so the set of values placed on design decisions and levels of intention will differ. My hypothesis was that this would be true, and also we can all agree that these examples of “failure” or “success” can be ubiquitously learned from.

As a class, we explored many products, services and initiatives. I purposefully pulled out a diverse set of these ideas. Diverse in the variance of pure intentions and design decisions.

The 5 that were tested:

  • PlayPump – A water pump that operates like the familiar playground turnstile. (sub-Saharan Africa)
  • Fair and Lovely – Skin whitening cream marketed to low-income populations.(India)
  • Highline “Linear Park” – Revamping a raised railway in West Manhattan. (New York City)
  • Lyft – The decision to donate $1m to the American Civil Liberties union after Trump’s immigration ban. (USA)
  • New Story Charity – Leveraging local laborers, resources and networks to fund and build houses as post disaster relief. (Haiti)

The answers to the first 2 questions regarding design decisions and purity of intention were relatively strewn across the board.

The answer to the last question about learning, in every case, was either a 4 or 5 with one exception of a 3. Primarily 5’s.

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WE are a design community. Im starting to feel like I have merit to be able to say “we”. We really need to learn to make it a definitive WE. Lets learn from each other and be able to own our shortcomings so that others can throughly learn from our mistakes.



Intending to Do Good – Corporate Donation and Public Opinion


Intention is an interesting concept philosophically. The question is I seek to answer is this: Does having an intention other than just charity matter if the outcome produces a social good? My immediate reaction was, yes this does in fact matter. For our intention shades everything going into a project or initiative, and things selfishly intended are not as beneficial as they could be. What then is to be said about an action with unintended consequences? There are many examples of products or services being created due to a latent need found purely by accident, or technologies arising from another research project. Michael Hobbes uses PlayPump International, a company who made water pumps powered by children playing, as an example of good intentions but a failed execution. They raised a huge amount of money, and instituted their idea in many towns. Unfortunately, though well intended, the pumps created issues. In some towns, locals were paying children to play with the pump to get water. Others show women pushing the pump around to get their water. Obviously the company did not intend for this consequence, but does their intention matter since these things did happen? Not for some people. Critique of this idea as well as others with similar unforeseen outcomes is high, and in hindsight, there are obvious mechanisms to used for evaluation to prevent such outcomes. But they wanted to do good. They set out to do good.


Which brings around the point of the authors in this post. Themed as “With the Best Intentions,” these authors all focus on different pieces of the nonprofit sector, highlighting this that work and things that do not. Mark Manson in his article Everything Is Fucked and I’m Pretty Sure It’s the Internet’s Fault, he explores the intentions of the internet. He said “There was a near-utopian level of optimism during this time. Technologists envisioned a highly-educated global population that would tap into the infinite wisdom available at their fingertips.” This is not the internet we see today. What our internet looks like is Kim Kardashian, Donald Trump, and cat pictures. The internet has done a lot of good, too. It allows the instantaneous sharing of information, and it allows us to reach people on a grand scale. Manson argues however, the internet does the opposite. The internet allows us to find our tribes and seek comfort, Manson says “The internet in the end was not designed to give people the information they need. It gives people the information they want.” This is a problem. It allows people (including myself) to retreat to the safety and comfort of an echo chamber instead of having a continued and diverse conversation. When we look at charities online, there are horror stories and success stories abound with many organizations. Scathing reviews exist for almost anything now, and it’s difficult to figure out what is true and what is not.


My contention here is that intention, when considering charitable donation, does not matter, to a point. Basically, if an entity (company or private individual) wants to fund charitable organizations, this should not be looked down on. This is my opinion, and seek to support it further. Take for instance the product(RED) campaign. This is huge, and to this point, has raised $465 million dollars for charities. A criticism of this charity during for some time was the limitation of their effects. During its inception, the Global Fund was only targeting a few countries in Africa, but now it has expanded affect to over 100 countries, and also gives money to support local initiatives. Their goal is to end the AIDS epidemic in the world by providing treatment, prevention and education. The major criticism of this organization centered around its income source, using consumerism to bolster charitable donation. Some even said it was stealing donations away from other organizations with similar missions, whilst failing to provide relief on the scale necessary. Since such critique, it seems as if they have expanded, according to their site, to a much wider reach than in 2010, but an important consideration remains—their funding source is still the same. Another point to make is this: there is no precedent for corporations making donations, save donations of profits directly to organizations. By extending this to consumerism it is a bit questionable, but ultimately, they do not have to do anything. This argument is weak, but still true. Previous to this, what percentage of sales went to charity? Marginal in comparison I’m sure.


Controversial? Most definitely. But, is use of this revenue channel bad or good? It’s hard to say, but this is unfortunately why intention becomes a large part of this distinction. You can frame the idea in a few ways. For instance, RED was created because GAP and Bono were hoping to provide social good through a new revenue stream. It’s certainly logical in hindsight; allowing consumers to choose a specific product bearing the logo and color of product(RED) and a portion of the proceeds go to charity. That’s great; it makes charitable donation available wherever these items are sold. On the flip-side, the enrolled companies are using this as a veiled publicity stunt to further their image with the public. They use this good intention to make themselves look better than other companies with prospects of gaining an edge on the competition. Because after all, the world runs on emotions–the things causing people to donate to charities in the first place. We know companies are aware of the weight of these actions.


The intentions of this movement are good, at least in part. The product(RED) campaign has raised money for the Global Fund. No one is disputing this. They have delivered on their promise of products with their brand giving profits to charity. They have also allowed private companies to increase profits by marketing with product(RED). The intention seems to be selfish in nature, and it can be a struggle to see what good may come out of this. What if instead, the real effect, though some years removed, is a precedent of charitable donation from for-profit companies and corporations.


In Alex Holder’s Sex Doesn’t Sell Anymore, Activism Does article, he describes companies like Lyft using charitable donation to a public cause to outstrip the user base of their direct competitor: Uber. Uber responds in kind by making a donation larger to cover their loss of consumer base and to cleanse their public image. Holder quotes Will Fowler as saying “Brands are allowing people to pat themselves on the back without them personally having to sacrifice anything.” The defining piece of charity is not self-sacrifice, it is the voluntary help. So, is the move to donate to charity for an overall profit for the company, and an overall net good, a bad thing?


My opinion is no. At the Austin Center for Design, the faculty teach and believe in the idea of a “social” business. A self sustaining profitable business also producing a net social good from its interactions and/or product offerings. Muhammad Yunus describes social businesses as connecting to both the selfishness of humans as well as their selflessness simultaneously. The goal of the business is to grow and scale, maintain a profitable margin, while also providing a social good or service to address a specific social problem. Seemingly, this is what product(RED) is by definition. Their model is taking profit made from product sales or credit card transactions and distributing the money made to their non profit organization of choice. It’s a simple value proposition, and to this point, it has been succeeding. Scaling and growing a customer base as well as increasing donation and the ability to make change for The Global Fund.


If we think about the other businesses who fuel product(RED), their primary goal is profit, but they also have a social good packaged in as well in offering the choice to donate by buying certain products. Whether the intention is to publicize their efforts, or gather a larger customer base, the question remains–is it not still a social good? When first considering this, it seemed to be a less than well intended campaign, but as I read Jon Kolko’s Design Strategy, Product Management, Education and Writing, I found myself conflicted. He states “[The future for designers] …lies instead in encouraging behavioral change and explicitly shaping culture in a positive and lasting way.” The intention of product(RED) could be a beginning step in the right direction for all business. As with Uber and Lyft competing with donations, other companies have joined the repertoire of donors. Amazon with their Smile campaign, alongside many others. Charity is possible alongside consumerism; in fact it works pretty well. Now, all told, none of these organizations are in the top 100 of largest recipients of donations, but the amount of money they are raising is certainly not trivial. The product(RED) campaign has enabled the Global Fund to fund local charities all over the world to address the issues at the ground level by the people in the communities. This model could be a tipping factor for other businesses ensuring their profitability and wealth is used in part to fund social initiatives around the world.


If implemented properly, models like these, percentage of purchase, a percentage of profits overall, etc, would create a large sum of money for charities. It would also be a reminder that everything you buy has a portion going to charity. There are obvious potential downfalls. The number of normal donations could fall dramatically. If people are getting their warm and fuzzy feelings from normal purchasing, why would they donate directly to the cause? Arguably, knowing everything included donation might be a catalyst to make people more charitable overall, and be more mindful of what we are buying and where our money is going. Behavior change is difficult, but much easier when prevalent. If you give people the tools and the precedent, they will adopt in kind from the scaffold built around them.


There is a lot of criticism for Amazon’s smile movement, similar to how Phu argues disqualifies product(RED) as a truly beneficial initiative. My question to her focuses on the final sentence of the article, which sounds like a call to action, “Ultimately it means that individuals need to start taking personal agency to advocate for social change and look into the how their consumption may impact others.” If these campaigns allow people to see how their consumption can impact others, why not start there? Why not have consumers push for the increased donation of corporations and for profit companies? Why not make this an accepted and necessary practice? If the expectation is that all companies will partake, then it may gain traction and proliferate. 2015 was the most generous year from the United States, with around 373 billion dollars raised for charities. The highest portion given was from individuals, at 264.5 billion, and corporate giving placed last at a mere 18.45 billion, even though their profits are far higher than the net profit of the individuals in this country. The money and capability is there, but the expectation or, better yet, requirement is not.


The next question is: how do we decide who gets the money? Money is great, but when it’s thrown into the wrong programs, the effect, dollar for dollar, diminishes. The intention of charitable donations is to make a difference in the lives of whomever the organization targets. Their execution defines how successful their endeavors are, and the hope is as much money donated as possible goes to the end recipient of the aid. We analyze intentions and the potential executions and invest that way. Unfortunately, the results are not always as projected. From small organizations just starting out, to large organizations who have been doing aid work forever, there are diverse ways of implementing solutions to the community at large. Some organizations like the PlayPump story start out successful in a single small community, scale up operation due to public support, and fail in other markets because the context and need is different.



In Michael Hobbes’s articles Stop Trying to Save the World, he gives us a concise understanding of his view when he says “What I want to talk shit on is the paradigm of the Big Idea—that once we identify the correct one, we can simply unfurl it on the entire developing world like a picnic blanket.” Here, Hobbes is calling out organizations for not testing their solutions, by hoping their method will apply to everyone everywhere. Unfortunately organizations do not always take into consideration the human component of the systems they are trying to impact. They believe, our method will work for everyone because it works for us. The push needs to be funding companies who show the ability to adapt to the level of diversity existent in human cultures. Not only does this take practice, testing, and consistent reflection, but it also may take organizations being smaller or paying more rigorous attention to outcomes.


New story community pictured above.

For this reason, organizations like New Story, who builds housing currently in seven cities in Central and South America, are wildly successful. New Story makes connections on the ground where they plan to take effect, and work with the local governments and organizations to build in the best locations and build the most effective forms of housing. Not only do they help the communities they go to by giving them shelter and building homes, but they also hire local workers which also bolsters local economies. Adele Peters tells us how New Story built 151 homes in Haiti with a much smaller budget than the six home producing initiative made by the Red Cross costing $500 million. This story highlights what is wrong with the nonprofit industry: there is not enough communication. Whether it is organization to organization, or organization to community, the channels of what will work and what is not working are broken. When you consider the transparency of New Story’s practices compared to most other nonprofits, you see a stark contrast between the moving parts and money understanding from an organization like New Story versus Red Cross. The effectivity and efficiency of the smaller organization is huge in comparison because they are able to dive deep to see what matters instead of using established business channels to solve a new problem. The highlight here is that a larger organization takes time to adapt to a new situation and can afford to fail. But what cost does their failure bring? In this case, there is an obvious net negative as funds were not appropriately used for housing and furthermore, did not make a dent in the problem of 60,000 displaced individuals. Currently, the Global Fund, the recipient of the funds from product(RED) does just that. Not only do they fund their own projects, but deliver funds to other local organizations to extend their reach to as many areas as possible. They are changing with the criticism they receive, and are making sure their solutions are applicable to as many people as possible. They are moving in the right direction.



If efficacy starts to deteriorate within organizations, why not push for smaller models or for a model more akin to what the Global Fund does? Or give money directly to the small nonprofits like New Story. Their models of empowering local groups and local people to do the work they need within constraints they understand is more effective than throwing money at a situation and hoping for the best. Jessi Hempel explains this well in The [Human] Codebreakers when she explains how Jan Chipchase and Serota undertake research projects. She says that Chipchase “believes the problem lies in their intent: Instead of entering new markets with an open mind, they approach with a strategy in place, then look for the people who prove their theories right.” In the nonprofit world, these strategies, even when considering providing for the most basic needs, can lead to failures like PlayPumps or the Red Cross housing initiative in Haiti. I’m not discounting the efficacy of these ideas, either. The Red Cross does many things well, and it is an incredibly important organization. However, failures give us the chance to learn and grow, and hopefully these situations provide their leadership with a learning experience on how to approach projects in the future.


The need for charity is real, and companies are approaching this from a variety of ways. From using increased prices on consumer goods for a cause, or taking a small portion of an ATM or transaction fee, to nonprofits being funded by the people of a country, product(RED) is trying to help. This was the intention, and it was well executed, and has raised a decent amount of money. Their charity is doing great work. GAP’s intention was to sell products that would help this effort, but also profit. Their intention was fulfilled on both ends, and the question was: Does it matter if there is a profitable intention? No. Not really. The consensus seems to be it would be better if it were just a donation, but they are increasing money delivered to a cause. The next question we sought to answer is: who should get this money? The answer to that is much more straightforward: the people who can recognize where it’s needed. Not a building corporation here, or a developer from another country. Hire the most local people and find people who understand the true needs, not only of the people and their culture, but also those who have fluency in the local regulations and laws. Simply put, we need to be taking all of the money we can from anyone who is willing to give it. If we can trick other companies to do the same and contribute by having charitable contributions be publicized, let’s do it. After all, they are the smallest contributors to charities in the United States, making up only 4% of the donations from the US. They have the power to do more, to donate more, to make a difference in countless lives, and they should be. They should do it by fueling efforts to understand the culture and by uplifting the local people instead of applying a generic solution to every area and hoping it sticks. We need to treat people like people and seek to understand them. Use our skepticism and our ability to ask why to truly understand. This is how we will make a change for the better in the world, this is the behavior change we need. Ask why and seek to truly understand.