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.

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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.

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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.