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Category Archives: Theory

Towards Sustainable Well-Being

In his article, The Sharing Economy is a Lie, Richard Eskow criticizes Uber for being no better than an unregulated Taxi Company, and that the sentiment evoked by the “sharing” economy, which Uber claims to champion, is proven false by their focus on profit to the exclusion of protecting their riders or adequately compensating their drivers. While these may be valid critiques, in light of the other articles we studied as part of the Obligation section of our theory course, it seems he is missing a larger issue.

Enzio Manzini explains how designers have contributed to an unsustainable idea of well-being, and that in order to create sustainable solutions we must focus on Consistency with Fundamental Principles, Low energy and material intensity and high regenerative potential. The articles by Linder & Peters and Meierling, point out the constraints on policy making in terms of creating new instruments and iterating to improve their precision and efficacy.  Eskow focuses on the problems with Uber that stand in the way of the immediate well-being, problems that can be addressed with regulations, laws and taxation — existing policy instruments.

A more nuanced critique points out that by focusing on modifying laws and regulations to restrict Uber while becoming increasingly reliant on it for transit services, cities may promote short term well being.  For example, it may distract from investing in public transit, perpetuate a reliance on roads and and private vehicles or do nothing to question the economic structure where people who already work full time need to supplement their income by driving for Uber. These are the questions posed by Manzini’s criteria for sustainable solutions. Looking at design & policy making, it is clear that designers have more flexibility and fewer constraints when it comes to applying sustainability criteria and can do so earlier in the process — ideally before releasing a design into the world.  Although policy makers are more constrained overall, designers, voters and the policy makers should always look for ways to incorporate a longer-term vision of sustainability into the creation of policy as well.


The process from Innovation to Sustainable Well-Being as it typically occurs:


The ideal case with Global Constraints included in both the design and policy creation:FinalTheory-Diagram02



Notes on Readings

Richard Eskow

The sharing economy is a lie: Uber, Ayn Rand and the truth about tech and libertarians.


Eskow starts by describing a recent incident in Sydney, where Uber responded to what was believed to be a terrorist attack in the downtown area by raising its prices in order to, as Uber tweeted, “encourage more drivers to come online & pick up passengers in the area.” He continues that this demonstrate that Uber, celebrated as “disruptive” innovation, is in fact, disrupting safety regulations, fair wages for employees and other socially beneficial rules that traditional businesses, like the taxi industry, are forced to abide by.


Ezio Manzini

Design, ethics and sustainability: Guidelines for a transition phase.

Cumulus Working Papers.

In the last century, Designers have contributed to creating an ideal of well-being based on decreasing effort and thought required for daily tasks and continually increasing consumption. He proposes three criteria for judging design solutions: Consistency with the fundamental principles, low energy and material intensity and high regenerative potential. Using these principles, design solutions will empower users by increasing their agency and ability, rather than continuing to remove choice and promote dependency, thus creating a more sustainable well-being.

“co-producers of results”

“How to change direction: to change ideas about the user’s role and move from passive to active involvement; from the final user as part of the problem, to his/her possibility, capability and will to be part of the solution.”


Stephen H. Linder and B. Guy Peters

From Social Theory to Policy Design

Journal of Public Policy. 1984

Linder and Peter present a bleak view of current policy making: information is collected haphazardly and drawn on or ignored by caprice; results from one context are extrapolated out to unrelated contexts; and there is little understanding of how best to intervene in an “efficient and effective manner.” They suggest that trying to create a better overarching social theory to improve policy making is unrealistic given the increasing complexity of our interconnected world. Instead, they argue, policy can be improved by creating a better theory of policy making and policy analysis. Such a theory of policy design must address causation, evaluation and instrumentation.

“Thus, what may be needed as much as a theory of the post-industrial world is a theory or policy design which allows the policy analyst to deal with the complexity of the world in a mored intelligent and contingent fashion.”

Chris Urbina Meierling

The Construction of Complexity in Design and Public Policy Contexts.

The Design Research Society Conference: Design and Complexity. 2010.

Meierling looks at the complexity caused by a multiplicity of variables, our inability to determine chains of causations, and stakeholders with irreconcilable desires and concerns, in the disciplines of design and public policy, and the tools that have grown up in each culture for managing this complexity. These tools focus on four key areas: Context, Problem Definition, Value Orientation and Participation. Starting from this framework, Meierling hopes designers and policy makers can begin to explore interdisciplinary collaboration.


Jeff Patton | Lauren Segapeli | Samara Watkiss | Crystal Watson

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What is Design Fiction: Constraints, Technology & Culture

All of the articles we read for the “Technology-Strange and Familiar,” section of our theory class, address our ability to understand the role of technology in society. Specifically, each author looks at the way we are limited in our understanding of technology’s role either by being too close to see clearly or too far away. Similarly, each author’s position can be understood in terms of the relative import it gives to cultural vs. technical constraints for shaping the future role of technology. In this instance I am using culture to refer to the social, political and relational assumptions and constraints that shape civilization as distinct from the capabilities and limitations of our technology.

In the attached document I briefly summarize each reading and position them relative to each other in terms of being too close, or too far, to perceive the role of technology clearly, and focus on technical or cultural constraints.  On first blush it seems that Sterling is critiquing science fiction for being too far removed from our culture to provide insight into the role of technology. On closer analysis, his position is more closely aligned with Bell’s. Science fiction propagates, unexamined, cultural assumptions about technology, and therefore is actually too close to provide meaningful insight. Based on this understanding, I propose a definition of Design Fiction.

What is Design Fiction Diagram

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Defining Problems

The world is changing fast. There is a lot of pressure to innovate quickly, especially in terms of technology. However, technology-led innovation arguably does little to solve many of the problems facing humanity. While useful technologies are developed every day, much of technology is developed for the sake of the development of more technology–for added features that help products stay ahead of the market. Yet, there is another driver of innovation, which is human-centered design. This approach takes human needs as the impetus for innovation, ensuring that the solutions address existing needs and not unfocused technological progress. Either way, innovation begins first and foremost with how problems are defined.

In our Theory of Interaction Design and Social Entrepreneurship class, Laura Galos and I participated in a discussion around a series of articles focused on the subject of the uses of technology in innovation. Each has a perspective on innovative solutions, but also on the definition of the innovation problem. The readings were as follows:

Design Fiction, by author Bruce Sterling, introduces “design fiction” as a way to imagine and think about the future. Sterling is a science-fiction writer, speaker and professor at the European Graduate School in Switzerland.

Genevieve Bell, Mark Blythe and Phoebe Sengers wrote the article Making by Making Strange: Defamiliarization and the Design of Domestic Technologies. In this text, the authors describe defamiliarization as a strategy for exposing new opportunities by reframing our understanding of the intent and purpose behind things that already exist. Bell is a cultural anthropologist at Intel Labs where she leads a team of researchers. Mark Blythe is a research fellow at the University of York and Phoebe Sengers leads the Culturally Embedded Computing group at Cornell University.

In People Are People, But Technology is Not Technology, authors Gary Marsden, Andrew Maunder and Munier Parker underscore the importance of designing by understanding what a human needs technology to do, rather than working backwards from technological capabilities to address a human need—which may turn out not to be a need at all.

Ray Kurzweil, author of The Law of Accelerating Returns presents an argument that the relationship between the pace of technological change and human progress as it relates to the future is largely misunderstood. He says, “When people think of a future period, they intuitively assume that the current rate of progress will continue for future periods. However, careful consideration of the pace of technology shows that the rate of progress is not constant, but it is human nature to adapt to the changing pace…”. Kurzweil is the Director of Engineering at Google.

In each of these readings, problems are the basis of innovation. Problems may be defined as the need for technological progress, or they may be defined in ways that describe human needs first and foremost. We believe that the latter is a more useful viewpoint which empowers designers to solve for human needs above technological progress for it’s own sake.

Technology-Led Problem-Solving

Where “progress” is the goal, problems are defined as technological issues. Additional features and capabilities are seen as the solution to problems, and so the process with which to solve these problems becomes a feedback loop: from demand (whether from corporate, marketing, or pressures to outdo the competition) to creation, spurring new demand. In this context, technology takes the lead, resulting in rapid short-term changes that prevents designers from learning and iterating throughout the problem-solving process. This often manifests in feature-heavy innovations that are not centered around the humans who will use the product. Kurzweil illustrates the dystopian end-result of technology-led change. Technology is changing at an exponential rate, and will soon exceed our realm of understanding. He says, “As exponential growth continues to accelerate…it will appear to explode into infinity, at least from the limited and linear perspective of contemporary humans. The progress will ultimately become so fast that it will rupture our ability to follow it. It will literally get out of control. The illusion that we have our hand “on the plug, “ will be dispelled.”

tech for blog

What happens when designers lead change, not technology?

When benefit to human users is the goal, problems are defined differently. The authors of the texts we have read in class put forth several techniques for problem-finding and problem-defining that help keep human needs, rather than technological progress, at the center of innovation. Human needs are complex, and require a more robust framework around problem definition to ensure focus and useful outcomes. The following are three techniques the authors put forth to find and define problems:

Sterling: Introduce constraints

Sterling draws parallels between science-fiction and design as beneficiaries of more clearly defined constraints. It’s the recognition and acknowledgement of where boundaries lie that allow writers and designers alike to push past them and imagine new future states for their craft. He says, “These two inherently forward-looking schools of thought and action do seem blinkered somehow–not unimaginative, but unable to imagine effectively. A bigger picture, the new century’s grander narrative, its synthesis, is eluding them.” As it relates to problem definition, constraints focus a problem enough to allow designers to work in a small enough “box” to make an impact on a given need, or course-correct as necessary to find the boundaries of a problem worth solving.

Bell, Blythe and Sengers: Defamiliarize and reframe

By defamiliarizing, Bell, Blythe and Sengers teach us to disassociate from our existing understanding and reframing with new meaning to arrive at new and innovative opportunities. They describe this as an act of “analyzing a kitchen sink in terms of its cultural or social significance…by questioning the assumptions inherent in the design of everyday objects that HCI [human-computer interaction] has always opened up design spaces, pointing towards better and more innovative designs.” Defamiliarization allows designers to acknowledge the assumptions they come to a problem with. Focus on assumptions allows designers to avoid them or challenge them as they define the problem they will solve.

Marsden, Maunder & Parker: Contextualize culture

When problem definition begins first with the technology that could be used, designers introduce risks associated by omitting contextual understanding of the user and their environment. However, from the perspective of these authors, this means that constraints in technology don’t necessarily need to be understood by the end-user, but by those the individuals within a community that can use their understanding to imagine alternative solutions. They say, …”we realize that, within most communities, there are people with a vision for how technology can best be used within their context.” Defining problems that take into account the needs of individuals and community in their context leads to solutions that are relevant and impact real human needs in culturally-appropriate ways.


Human-Led Problem-Solving

Ultimately, designers are certainly equipped to solve describable problems, but they are even more well-suited to solve and lead problems that are ambiguous and difficult to define. Being able to iteratively introduce constraints, defamiliarize and reframe and contextualize culture allows designers to parse through complexity and solve problems that arrive at innovations useful for people. The goal of design from beginning to end is human-centered, long-term change. When design takes the lead on innovation, the problem-solving process invites the application of technology for the sake of humanity, not just technology for the sake of demonstrating speed to change. In order to truly have a positive impact on society people in society, ideas must be born of empathy and human understanding before they take they are shaped by the application of technology.

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Design Ethic: Connecting Intent, Method & Result

All of the authors we read for the section of our theory course entitled “power” agree that design is powerful social force. They vary however in how they view design, whether it is simply a collection of methods that can be applied regardless of intent, as Martin suggests, or it is fundamentally defined by its intent as Kolko argues.  As is often the case, I argued vehemently, that design is defined by its methods, in the process of arriving at the conclusion that design is, at its core, about the intention to humanize, support and empower. Unfortunately, that does not mean that the methods of design are not very powerful in service of less noble intentions. For this reason it is crucial to develop a way to connect intention and method, which borrowing from Kolko, I am calling an “ethic”.

In the attached document, I briefly summarize each article and diagram the author’s position with respect to the intent, method and result. Additionally, I present a diagram which synthesizes the various arguments and puts forward my own interpretation of how to align the intentions, methods and results of my design practice.

Intent, Method & Result

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The Role of Design

Design is a set of tools and a process. Like all tools and processes, it can be used in the service of good or bad intentions. It can also be powerful, and so requires people to make decisions about where it is appropriate to apply design process or design thinking, and in what manner.

In our AC4D theory class, Laura Galos and I participated in a discussion about 4 readings this week around the subject of “power.” Pelle Ehn, Professor of Interaction Design at Malmo University who wrote Designing for Democracy at Work, describes this as “the degree of strength in the workers’ collective com[ing] from the ‘we-feeling’ created by shared experiences. The basis for this ‘we-feeling’ is physical nearness at the workplace – which makes interaction possible.”

In Innovation and Entrepreneurship: Schumpeter Revisited, John Hagedoorn from the Maastricht Economic Research Institute on Innovation and Technology writes about the influence Joseph Schumpeter, an economist and political scientist, had on the role entrepreneurs have in innovation. Hagedoorn quotes Schumpeter on the entrepreneurs’ loss of power by saying, “He pictures the diminishing importance of the entrepreneur who loses his/her function as the agent who changes existing routines. Economic development gradually becomes ‘depersonalized’ and ‘automatized’. Consequently, innovation is being reduced to routine.”

We also read Design Thinking and How It Will Change Management Education, co-authored by Roger Martin, former Dean of the Rotman School of Management and David Dunne, Adjunct Professor of Marketing. In this reading, Martin and Dunne make the claim that “the idea of applying design approaches to management is new and, as yet, largely underdeveloped,” but critical for the future professional power of MBA graduates. Finally, a short paper, Manipulation, by our teacher Jon Kolko, describes how the power wielded by designers can be put into check by involving the participation of others. He says, “participatory design places a heavy check on manipulation by including the people who will use or live with the design in the process of its creation.”

Each paper referred to design at a level of scale, whether it is the practice of adding design thinking broadly to MBA programs (as in the case of Martin and Dunne) or creating methods through with laborers could arrange and control their working conditions in Sweden (as in the case of Ehn). In each case, the role of a designer fits within a nebula of other roles in an organization, including management, labor, and in some cases users.

Traditional Work

Hagerdoorn, in speaking of Schumpeter’s theories, sets up a view of the traditional work organization, a top-down hierarchy with decisions flowing from management at the top to labor at the bottom. He positions the “entrepreneur” figure, a sort of proto-designer, as part-labor (but “creative labor” which is of a “higher order”), part force-of-disruption that upends market equilibrium and drives market evolution—at least temporarily. Eventually, as “innovation” becomes the norm, the designer/entrepreneur is absorbed into the management-labor balance. Generally speaking, work organization took on a simple structure:

IDSE402_Traditional for Blog

Schumpeter may be right. As “innovation” becomes the norm, designers are absorbed within the management-labor arrangement, in which case they cannot effect larger changes that really are innovative, and have less influence over whether the output of their work is beneficial or harmful. So the question is, where is the designer most effective in an organization?

Design Work

Based on the perspectives represented by each reading, we came up with this diagram to illustrate the position of the designer within an organization.

IDSE402_New for Blog


The writings of Martin and Dunne inform the left portion of the diagram. Martin believes that design thinking should become a part of any MBA training. The outcome of this may be that management also functions as the design team in an organization. However, Martin and Dunne leave out an important part of the designer’s role, which is listening to, understanding, and empathizing with users. Therefore, while designers have a reciprocal relationship with management, they must be separate and accessible to other groups of people who the designed product or service will impact. We have re-named “management” as “operations and strategy” to reflect this 2-way relationship, in which the designers are not “managed” but are partners in the organization.


Sometimes, “users” are laborers, who traditionally are positioned in opposition to management. In the reading by Pelle Ehn, designers explored the concept of democratizing the workplace. In a conscious decision to empathize with the laborers, rather than management, they established the idea that while designers must establish two-way connection with labor, they must also be outside of it. By being outside of labor, they are free to reject the “harmony view of organizations” that management puts forth to keep management in control, and conduct their research in the interest of the “emancipation” of labor.


“Users” not participating directly in a particular management-labor dichotomy are the people who use the products and services that are the result of an organization’s production. In Manipulation, Kolko writes that “design is supportive,” and “frequently serves people who cannot serve themselves.” Because designers cannot avoid inserting their bias into their designs, they can at least put checks on themselves and on other powers within an organization by engaging in participatory design, where the people who use the end products have a say in the creation and direction of the product. Therefore, designers also need to establish a two-way relationship with the people who will live with their output.

Designers as Interpreters:

In conclusion, the role of the designer within an organization must be that of a translator between each piece of an organization. They must understand and “speak” enough of the language of the thinking (strategy and operations), making (labor), and participation (users) to be able to integrate and meaningfully represent the disparate interests of each part of the organization to the other in a way that makes sense to all in order to use their influence to ensure the output of “good” products and services into the world.


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Impact is Personal

When it comes down to it, there is a problem with our current culture of development. We have the best intentions to create change and drive impact but the culture of scale, numbers and metrics and immediacy get in the way of actually succeeding at this. While I agree that it’s really difficult to continue to get funding for projects that don’t have a concrete method of showing progress, or any guarantee of success, I believe that there needs to be a cultural shift of expectations. Expectations that are built around honoring the personal, local nuances of the individual communities we are trying to help.

Impact through Behavior Change

To help set the stage, I want to talk about how Jon Kolko describes experience in his article, Our Misguided Focus on Brand and User Experience A pursuit of a “total user experience” has derailed the creative pursuits of the Fortune 500.

“An experience cannot be built for someone. Fundamentally, one has an experience, and that is experience is always unique.”

It’s very personal. As designers, we can design the scaffold around the experience but the actual experience is completely out of our control. So essentially, the affect of what we put into the world is fairly unpredictable. Which can be kind of scary.

It’s important to note that even though the outcome is out of our control, this does not relinquish us from responsibility. While Kolko’s article gives a nod to large scale, his emphasis is on the importance of recognizing the role we play in shaping human behavior, from the individual and how that scales to an entire culture, organically. What we put into the world has an impact. Whether the thing is adopted or rejected, people adapt and therefore culture changes.

If we take a moment to think about how personal an experience is for an individual, and that individual is connected to a community of people who have their own personal understandings of the world, we can begin to see the intricacies that make up a culture, and even more importantly the intricacies that any kind of impact will need to consider.

Impact through Iteration

In Michael Hobbes’ article, Stop Trying to Save the World: Big ideas are destroying international development, he begins the discussion of how we handle aid development is broken. He has a couple of different examples of how we have developed this pattern of one-size fits all– Where one type of aid works in one community so let’s scale it and put it in all the communities that need aid. It’s almost like a commoditization of aid.

Nothing is one size fits all– you have to test it, test it again, then test it again. This is not sexy by mainstream standards. This is where our culture of impact is broken. There’s a viral component to sexy which breeds scale. It’s easy for the masses to wrap their head around a solution that is simple and has the story of big impact. It’s much more difficult to be counter culture and to paint the picture of how change really happens– over time, is dependent on so many factors that are complex and interconnected, and we don’t know if it’s going to work, but we sure as hell are going to try. (Which is sexy.) This is where our culture of impact needs to change.

What happens after deployment is just as important as what happens in the design thinking phase. If we connect Kolko’s article to Hobbes’, one thing becomes very clear: We must execute with intention and build in space for reflection and iteration. We should respect the bigger system that is in play here and be humbled by the absolute fact that there is no way we will get it spot on, and that we will have to take our time and work at it.

Impact through Emergence

In Annel Karnani’s paper, Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: A Mirage completely refutes Prahalad’s stance that by expanding economic reach to the untapped market of the poor, not only can businesses thrive, but including the poor in market strategies might help “end economic isolation”.

Karnani emphasizes that the real fortune at the bottom of the pyramid is allowing growth to come from within, that the place for outside markets is to create producers out of the poor rather than simple consumers. Allowing the space for the emergence of local change and progress. Which could be about helping meet basic, fundamental needs, or working with local governments to make change as a way of empowerment from within rather than impact from without. And yes, this would take some time, this wouldn’t be fast, and it would be local and personal.

All three to some degree or another argue that no solution can be one size fits all, we must understand that experience and therefore impact is personal, and we cannot control outcomes. Because of this, when we put something into the world, the follow up is just as important as the design phase. We must create the feedback loop.

The impact we have may not have a red bow tied around it. We need to take time to understand the real problem and not allow ourselves to get caught up in the story of scale or profit. If we acknowledge that impact is personal, we can begin to create change that scales in a way that is sustainable and truly lasting.

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Re-Prioritizing Scale to Achieve Cultural Impact in Design

In our Theory of Interaction Design and Social Entrepreneurship class, the first set of readings we were presented with are three viewpoints on how having the best of intentions to help can still lead to the introduction of consequences into the world that don’t leave people better off as we had hoped. With this being our fourth and final quarter as students at Austin Center for Design, understanding the influence we have on people and society as a whole is an important reality for us as designers to grasp.

Michael Hobbes, author of Stop Trying to Save the World uses the example of PlayPump International. This organization came up with the idea of PlayPumps, which are merry-go-rounds hooked up to a water pump that would “harness the energy of children to provide fresh water to sub-Saharan African villages. While the potential impact was extremely compelling to donors and the media earning PlayPumps significant financial support, an unintended consequence of the design made the pumps installed reliant on child labor.

Jon Kolko, author of Our Misguided Focus on Brand and User Experience addresses how marketing and design efforts have emphasized gaining control instead of encouraging behavioral change. The intent to build a relationship with customers is overshadowed by the draw of “gain[ing] efficiencies by producing…exactly as perscribed, in mass.” In applying this mindset to the design of user experiences, we prevent people from being able to “participate and contribute in a meaningful way.”

Finally, Aneel Karnani, author of Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: A Mirage makes a case for reducing the costs of the goods sold to them or making these individuals producers of the goods themselves in order to affecting the people living in poverty in a positive way. Otherwise, he says, “The only real way to alleviate poverty is to raise the real income of the poor.”

In other words, these three authors present points of views with the metric of success along a spectrum.


Success over time begins first with Hobbes and the novelty that comes with having an idea that attracts a following. He says that it is “a narrative we’re all familiar with by now. Exciting new development idea, huge impact in one location, influx of donor dollars, quick expansion, failure.” From here, the expectation for continued success is to scale the idea up to more people in more locations as quickly and as cost-effectively as possible. In order to garner public and financial support, the viability of a socially impactful idea is met with the pressures to scale. Only then is your idea recognized for its potential to drive behavior change. “PlayPump International…seemed to have thought of everything. The whole package cost just $7,000 to install in each village and could provide water for up to 2,500 people.” They were not addressing behavior change specifically, but were evaluating the idea’s ability to scale from a quantitative perspective. For designers, Kolko addresses this by saying that “Every design decision…contributes to the behavior of the masses, and helps define the culture of our society.” If success continues to occur over time, going down this path, we would expect the output of scaling an idea and driving behavior change to achieve cultural impact. This is where the breakdown occurs. Karnani’s point made here summarizes this breakdown: “Markets of the rural poor are often geographically and culturally fragmented; this combined with weak infrastructure makes it hard to exploit scale economies.”

Should we re-prioritize the notion of scale as the determinant of success over time?

Effective social impact is attached to the perception that an idea must ultimately achieve massive scale in order for it to be determined viable as a success. In other words, the challenge is changing the perception that success is directly proportionate to one’s ability to increase the number of people an idea touches. If we can begin to understand that cultural impact is affected over time by ongoing user testing and feedback followed by iteration, the concept of scale becomes an output of driving behavioral change. As a result, success is achieved by driving cultural impact over time.


What is the value of having user input in a design solution before you determine how an idea will be scaled?

When the novelty that surrounds the potential for making a difference quickly wears off, you might be left with something no one wants to use. You have now invested time and resources into something that you thought would make things better, but actually do not work at all. Re-prioritizing where the scaling of an idea should take place over time allows designers to more effectively shape culture through their work by focusing first on and foremost on behavior change by getting things in front of users, incorporating feedback (or not) and iterating.

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Can a Solution Retain its Effectiveness when Scaled?

This week in our Theory of Interaction Design and Social Entrepreneurship class we looked at three different readings.  One by AC4D founder Jon Kolko called “Our Misguided Focus on Brand,” another by Michael Hobbes called “Stop Trying to Save the World” and the last reading by Aneel Karnani called “Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: A Mirage.”

Each of the readings this week focused primarily on the shortcomings of popular approaches to scaling businesses and international development solutions.  For most people, these shortcomings aren’t surprising.  Just because a solution works for one group of people, does not mean that it will necessarily work for everyone.  To solve problems on a large scale is difficult for this very reason and there are myriad examples of organizations attempting to solve problems in this way only to fail — and in some cases cause more harm than good.

Below is the typical “hockey-curve” of business growth.  It is a common belief that a successful business will have growth that looks similar to this.  You start with a good idea, prove your concept, and then money pours in for you rapidly grow your business in such a way that you end up “owning” your market segment.


As all of our authors point out, this is not the best way to retain effectiveness.  If we map effectiveness against the growth curve, most solutions start off very effective for a small group of people, but as time goes by and the growth frenzy starts effectiveness sharply falls off.


So what we are left with is a chasm between effectiveness and scale.  This is a problem.  In an ideal world, solutions to the world’s problems would retain effectiveness even at scale.  We see this kind of ideal state in scientific solutions, like cures for diseases; the Polio vaccine remained effective at the same time it was scaled to eradicate the disease.

I’m calling this chasm, the “Opportunity Zone” and each of our authors presents a different way to deal with it to increase impact without losing effectiveness (or creating more harm than good).


Kolko’s article “Our Misguided Focus on Brand” discusses how a focus on brand and “owning” a market segment or “owning” an experience misses the mark.  He argues that this attempt at ownership amounts to trying to control the consumer and control will never work. Each consumer (er, person) has a unique experience and attempting to provide them with a one-size-fits all experience is impossible.  Instead, our experiences should be designed to be conversational, providing a give-and-take framework that treats people as the nuanced beings they are.  I believe thinking about problems in this way does a lot to bridge the gap between effectiveness and scale — it also seems a lot easier said than done — but nobody said it was supposed to be easy.


In Hobbes article “Stop Trying to Save the World” he presents a number of examples of international development projects that failed or caused more harm than good.  As I stated earlier, he chalks this up to the reality that what amounts to a solution for one group of people does not necessarily amount to a solution for every group of people.  Instead of hurriedly scaling every solution we come across, he suggests that we continually test each roll-out of the solution– before, after and constantly — to make sure it remains effective.

Below is Hobbes’ solution graphed in terms of effectiveness and scale.  His solution while logically sound, would be inordinately expensive, would slow any hopes of large-scale impact, and does not bridge the gap between effectiveness and scale.  While he argues against quick, large-scale impact as a goal– whether we like it or not these are the projects that attract attention and funding, and so I believe it makes more sense to figure out ways to minimize negative impact, increase probability of success and not fight the appeal of scale.


Karnani, in our final reading “Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: A Mirage” argues against the notion presented by CK Prahalad that there is a fortune to be made for large Multinational Corporations by selling to the poor.  He provides a thorough refutation of Prahalad’s arguments, and argues instead of focusing on selling to the poor we should look at them as producers and focus on increasing the real income of people by reducing prices of goods sold to them (by giving them the option to purchase lower-quality goods that they need) and by facilitating the growth of labor intensive (low-skill) enterprises.

The problem with this solution is that by inserting methods of production into a culture, there will certainly be unintended consequences.  Moreover, in order for production as a solution to make sense monetarily, it will have to produce goods at a lower price than they can be currently be purchased and as Karnani argues himself, there are many logistical issues that keep that from being a possibility.



Thoughts? Comments? See below.

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Products in the Wild

At AC4D, our class has started the quarter with readings by Michael Hobbes, writer for the New Republic, Aneel Karnani, Professor at the Ross School of Business at University of Michigan, and our teacher, Jon Kolko. We discussed the readings as a class with a focus on “intentions.” The texts point to a variety of actors with various intentions. Hobbes illuminates problems that arise in international development when it is the intent of NGOs to scale solutions they’ve designed for particular locales. Karnani takes the “Bottom of the Pyramid” concept (and specifically, CK Prahalad, a visible proponent of BOP) to task over the intent to declare multinational corporations the optimal actors for lifting the poor out of poverty by treating them as consumers. And Kolko argues that marketers’ and designers’ intent to “own” a space or a consumer through prescriptive brand messaging and creation of a definitive experience is misguided.

Intention implies an end-goal. To get an idea from conception to scale (an endpoint recognized, if not necessarily approved of, by these three authors), the actor requires a degree of control. But how much control does a designer have on their product once it’s released into the world and other peoples’ hands? I have analyzed the readings by Hobbes, Karnani, and Kolko on two axes; the first represents to what degree a designer or creator can determine use of their products (including products, services, and systems) once they are used by others, and the second is on the authors’ belief in the benefit or harm of bringing a product to scale.


The Harm of Scale 

The subtitle of the article by Michael Hobbes reads, “Big ideas are destroying international development.” The key word here is “big.” Hobbes uses PlayPump, a water pump/children’s play-wheel created by PlayPump International (NGO), to demonstrate his view that products brought to scale without testing it in each place (village by village, in this case) do not provide benefit and often actively harm populaces who receive these solutions. PlayPump, designed in South Africa to harness the kinetic energy of children at play to draw water for villages, launched to great acclaim and support from celebrities and investors. Not long after grants were put to work, several news organizations reported on broken pumps, the small amount of water that could be harnessed by “play,” and scenes of adult women working the pumps as manual labor. Hobbes blames the tedium of his point as the reason the drive to scale continues, claiming that “no one will ever be invited to explain that in a TED talk.” Implied in his argument is the idea that a designer simply cannot control the outcome of her work when it’s being used in the world. If the idea hasn’t been tested in a particular locale, the amount of harm it may cause should outweigh the drive to scale.

A Middle Ground

Aneel Karnani, like Hobbes, takes some issue with the drive to scale. The BOP proposition claims that multi-national corporations can make money by selling products to poor consumers. Karnani takes apart some of the financials that back up the BOP assertion, claiming that the BOP market is much smaller than proponents state. He highlights some factors that make selling to the poor at scale problematic: “the poor are often geographically dispersed […] and culturally heterogeneous. This dispersion of the rural poor increases distribution and marketing costs and makes it difficult to exploit economies of scale. Weak infrastructure […] further increases the cost of doing business. Another factor leading to high costs is the small size of each transaction.” In particular, the examples of dispersion, cultural differences, and spotty infrastructure indicate that Karnani believes the creators of products do not have control over the fate of their products once they are released. Because of these obstacles, they may never even be used. He backs up his claim with numerous examples of companies who tried to sell to the poor at scale and failed, or veered into a different market than intended. Annapurna salt, for instance, found some success not in selling to the poor, as intended, but in “surprise niche markets such as college students living in hostels.” Even “selling” microcredit to the poor do not scale in Karnani’s argument, as he claims successful entrepreneurship as an outcome is limited to exceptional “heart-warming anecdotes,” but not the rule. However, the author points out a companies that successfully sold at scale, but not multi-national scale. Nirma, a detergent in India that compromises quality for affordability, was created by Karsanbhai Patel in his kitchen, and successfully took over the market formerly dominated by a product from Hindustan Lever Limited. This suggests that Karnani might support scale to a point, though not to the extent of multi-national scale.

Scale as A Method for Building Culture

Jon Kolko writes that designers can, and should, “encourage behavioral change and explicitly [shape] culture in a lasting and positive way.” The caveat here is his qualifier, “if there is a future for designers and marketers in big business.” Kolko is specifically writing about products at scale. Creating a product is “an implicit way of extending a designer’s reach,” and the product, with its implicit viewpoint, is a building block of culture. Therefore, as shapers of culture, bringing design solutions to scale is a beneficial thing. Designers then must be cognizant of what they put into the world, as culture-building in this manner is their “responsibility.” Yet, in an effort to make a case against what he sees as a traditional mind-set in marketing and user experience, Kolko points out that interaction between a person and a designed artifact is like a “conversation,” and that “people (pardon, the consumers) [need] to actually participate and contribute in a meaningful way” to the products they come into contact with. In sum, his argument about control over designs produced at scale seems to be that designers do not have all of the control, although they assume all of the responsibility for their work in the world. Unlike the other authors, Kolko does not specifically reference design ideas being brought to scale across cultures, rather than within a culture, so his viewpoint about scaling may not take into account the scope the of the other two texts.

My opinion comes back to intention. The graph indicates that for those who believe that creators of a product can tend to it even after it’s been used by others then it is beneficial to scale. For those who believe the use of a product cannot be predicted once it’s left the creator’s hands, the potential harm of scaling outweighs the good. Though I do not believe a designer has control over their product once it’s in the hands of people who use it, I do think the intention behind the product matters. PlayPumps may not have worked, but its creators put effort into making the world better, and that matters. Attempting to bring a solution that has worked for some to scale matters, even if it fails, so long as we can learn from the failure.

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Co-creation and Service Blueprints

The experience a person has with a product or service has always been important, but as the five star customer experience has increasingly become the norm, a “good experience” just doesn’t cut it anymore. “Exceptional” and “terrible” are memorable, leaving “good” to fall by the wayside.

In order to deliver such a memorable interaction, the consolidation of all touch points of a service must be established. But how do you do this in a way that is innovative in providing value to your customer and your organization?

This is something that Mary Jo Bitner explores in her paper “Service Blueprinting: A Practical Technique for Service Innovation.” Bitner explains that there is an immense lack of innovation in the designing of services as compared to the constant innovation of tangible, stand alone products.

All businesses are services at some level, and more attention needs to be paid to the designing and crafting of the service in order for a business to differentiate itself from the competition. Bitner offers up one method for such innovation: Service Blueprinting.

“…service blueprinting can facilitate the detailed refinement of a single step in the customer process as well as the creation of a comprehensive, visual overview of an entire service process.”

You can think of service blueprinting as a participatory design exercise where the stakeholders (executives, employees and customers) get together and analyze the current state of a service and collaboratively design the ideal state. Together, they visually model all the components of the service process. With all perspectives accounted for, service blueprinting can be a powerful tool for insight and innovation.

As a cross sectional view of the entire system, it forces people to stand up, look around and reframe their understanding of the effect they are having on each other as well as the system as a whole.

I can see how this is a powerful participatory design tool. It’s a form of problem modeling by dynamically reframing the problem through multiple perspectives. While the final blueprint is important in laying out the vision for the service, the co-creation makes it so any changes made to the existing service are more willingly adopted.

Bitner explains that once designed, the blueprint acts as a constant collaboration tool that can be referenced and iterated on as the service evolves and the company grows. This left me wanting to know more. How can it be properly iterated upon without collaboration and feedback? The blueprints form a vision for the company– Once implemented, how is the vision carried on through new employees?

I imagine there needs to be a continuous co-creation process.

I question the power of the form of the blueprints following the co-creation and implementation. I’m not sure if delivered as is, they would resonate with new employees who did not help create them. It would seem that if you have total buy-in from employees who were a part of the creative process, then your best bet of getting new adoption is by example. This provides an opportunity to transfer the value of the blueprint to another form of delivery.

The blueprint could take the form of a series of learning experiences. Possibly, on-boarding for new employees could involve being a customer for a day as well as working in adjacent departments. This would encourage a shared perspective and possibly continue the co-creation process.

The power of service blueprinting lies in the collaborative experience that allows for a shared understanding and visualization of current breakdowns and opportunities for change. It works because those who will be most affected are fully involved in the process. I’m curious how this method could be applied to larger constructs such as education and city planning.

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