31 posts categorized "Social Innovation"

"Making Models: R&D in the Social Sector" in frog's Design Mind


This week, I published an excerpt from my dialogue with Renuka Kher from the new book LEAP Dialogues: Career Pathways for Design in Social Innovation in frog’s Design Mind magazine. You can read the excerpt here.

I’ve collaborated with Renuka on multiple initiatives between Tipping Point Community and global design and strategy firm frog, including T Lab. T Lab is a six-month long program that brings together nine Problem Solvers to design and test new solutions to help with pressing social issues in the Bay Area, such as access to child care, availability of early education, and support for people recently released from prison.

In this excerpt from our dialogue, we answer questions such as:

  • What should R&D should look like for nonprofits or nongovernmental organizations seeking to create new social services?
  • How should funders approach the notion of “risk” when investing in social impact work?
  • What skills should designers have to successfully participate in social impact work?
  • What kind of time commitment should a designer make when working with a nonprofit client or a community group?

The book is beautifully edited, designed, and printed—you can learn more about it here and get it on Amazon.com.

Designing for Positive Behaviors and Habits

At sunset, the lingering light painted a neon red line above rolling hills. As I drove north on Highway 101 at 70 miles per hour, the landscape scrolled in parallax, the road receding into night. Up ahead, I could see a white car moving much slower than the speed limit, drifting from the righthand lane into mine. In moments, I would either be passing this car, or it would be crashing into me.

So what did I do? I honked right before I was about to pass. And as I motored past, I quickly glanced over my shoulder to see why this driver was behaving so erratically. The driver’s face was illuminated by the blue-bright glow of her phone in her left hand.

What would possess someone to take this safety risk? Think about how you first learned to drive a car. Maybe you sat in a classroom, listened to lectures, took tests and read manuals. Then you sat inside a car with an instructor, and you stop-start-stopped your way through the obstacle course/parking lot. If you took driver’s ed in school like I did, you may have had a practice car with dual controls, and the teacher would brake for you if you were about to take out yet another orange cone. With the right nudges and active guidance over time, you were able make your way through the obstacle course, drive a few miles in white-knuckled terror on the freeway and maybe even parallel park.

Now flash forward a few years. You’re late to work, so you grab your mug from the coffee maker and run to the garage. Tossing back a big gulp, you back out while pulling on your safety belt, managing the steering wheel with your left leg without thinking while you’re trying to Bluetooth sync your phone to the car stereo so you can listen to a podcast. What was once a hard fought-skill had become an autonomous behavior, which was now layered on top of many other behaviors, often in direct conflict with each other.

Human beings are pattern-making machines. From our first moments in this world until we die, we manifest particular actions in reaction to some form of stimulus or trigger. Sometimes this happens with conscious intent, but much of the time it isn’t.

As interaction designers creating software that can be used at any time in any place, we’re seeing that our products are more tightly wedded to people’s daily behavior than we might have anticipated. Through what we design, we aren’t just creating new capabilities and capacities for people to achieve what they want to accomplish. We are also encouraging new, unintentional habits and patterns of behavior that can have long-term, sustained effects. And few of us have had the formal training to do this in a responsible way.

It’s only the past few years that dialogue about this topic has become common across the product and service design community. Just off the top of my head, I’m thinking of B.J. Fogg at Stanford for his critical research into behavior design and for his instruction of multiple generations of product designers on how to approach this topic and Stephen Anderson for his cataloguing and evangelism of the use of persuasive design techniques. Then we’ve got Chris Nodder’s work showing us the “evil” persuasive techniques that companies use and the work of Nir Eyal, who boiled down all of the above plus many other resources into a digestible book and practice-focused model.

There are many more books, articles, videos, and research in the wild about habit formation, persuasive design and so forth. Some are good, and many of them are great. These people have been researching this topic for a very long time, and there’s a lot to gain from their effort.

In my work as a product and service designer, I’ve had a chance to try out the different methods and techniques that they propose. What I’ve found is that while they have helped my teams think through the mechanics of individual interactions as part of a product, there aren’t a lot of good tools that help with big-picture thinking about what constitutes positive behavior change, and how to collaborate with your users in responsible ways to design appropriate solutions.

In the above talk from HOW Interactive Design Conference, I answered two questions I’ve heard over the past few years from many designers:

  • How can I work as an interactive designer creating products and services that make people’s lives better?
  • Where should I start if I want to make a product for positive good?

In the talk, I shared a three-step process that I developed to stand up the first iteration of a product or service that’s intended to encourage positive behaviors and habit formation. In the coming months, I'll delve more deeply into the details of the above process. Here's a high-level summary of each phase.


1. Defining the promise of your product

When working with a client, it can be easy to use different techniques to encourage habit or behavior formation, without being able to qualify exactly why that habit or behavior is desired by a person and beneficial for them in the long term. People use products and services because they want to accomplish a certain goal for particular motivations that may not be clear you as a designer. Many of the goals people want to accomplish—losing weight, saving money, stopping addiction, and so forth—require multiple habits be put in place and sustained not for a day, or a month, but a lifetime to achieve a desired systemic effect.

At the start of the design process, you want to clarify what type of net benefit a person is looking to achieve from your solution, and how that solution relates to larger societal issues. This net benefit, which is the promise of your product or service, is your hypothesis for how people may value its use as part of their everyday lives.


2. Generating a behavioral vocabulary

When I’m moving through the first iteration of a product or a feature that’s focused on behavior change, I ask my team to determine the vocabulary at play. We identify what people are doing (specific verbs), the objects within the interactive system being acted on or changed (specific nouns), and how those actions add up over time to create or reinforce a particular behavior. These behavioral “chunks” are the building blocks of your product or service. This can be part of your immersion as a team before you do formal research and design.


3. Testing behavioral routines that encourage positive habit formation

Once you’ve established the baseline vocabulary for your potential product or service, it can be tempting to just create and ship something big to get feedback for an entire routine or a systematic set of behaviors. “We want to help people lose weight, so let’s make an app where you get a push notification whenever you’re about to eat a meal to make sure you eat less, then you take a photo of what you’re going to eat, then you write after the meal how much you ate, so that way you end up eating less, and then…”

This is dangerous thinking for any designer. You have to curb this impulse and start by designing for the smallest units of behavior possible, the tiniest habit that could potentially changed, and then see how that change may impact a person’s overall behavior (with their permission, of course). As an example: When designing a solution to help people better save and spend their money, my team spent time interviewing people with different spending and savings behaviors. The first part of each interview was for us to understand their existing savings and spending patterns, and the motivations regarding why they were able or unable to meet their personal goals around saving money. Then, based on the stories they shared with us about when they had struggled to save money, we provided potential solutions to gauge if the vocabulary of the solution fit their needs. If it didn’t, we collaborated with the person to revise the hypothetical solution based on what they thought would be best for them for discrete situations.

“Small wins are a steady application of a small advantage,” says Charles Duhigg, author of The Power Of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life And Business. Once you have enough feedback to gauge initial fit for a solution, you can put that increment of the product to a test. I like to start with solutions at the lowest fidelity possible. Instead of creating a software prototype, we might write out instructions for a person to follow on a sheet of paper, then have them snap a photo and send it to us. Or we might manually send a text message or an email to prompt a certain action instead of doing it through an automated service. Once you see how long a habit takes to form, you can think about how to sustain them and whether they can become long-term behaviors. You may also discover that how people use your solution inspires a different, more effective way to form a habit. This helps you better refocus and improve your product or service solution and build it out.


Building New Habits and Behaviors into How We Work

We are heading towards a new destination as designers, collaborating with many disciplines to create the future of almost any digital or physical device we can imagine. And unlike when I was learning to drive my car, there’s little habit-related support for me for me with all of these new and constantly changing products. My teacher can’t remotely stop me from texting during an important meeting and there’s no guidebook to remind me to shut off Facebook in the middle of dinner. Much of the effort is on us, both as the creators and users of interactive products, to integrate new habits and behaviors into how we work, asking the right questions that respect others and what they want to achieve. It’s my hope that a process like this will help make that possible.

An early version of this essay appeared on HOW Design.

Upcoming Talks and Workshops: CCA, Kansas City Design Week, SxSW, and HOW

Here's a list of some upcoming talks I'll be doing around the U.S, on the heels of being on podcasts with Ash Thorp (The Collective) and Jason Fruy (My Creative Copilot). Hope to see you at one of them!

Friday, February 21st, 2014
"Design Is Hacking How We Learn"
California College of the Arts
San Francisco Campus
1111 Eighth Street
San Francisco, CA 94107-2247
7 PM in Timken Hall, reception at 6:30 PM
Free and open to the public

This is a new iteration of a talk that I started giving this past year. The abstract: The next big disruption in lifelong learning will be by design. We are innately trained and poised to have a global impact on how other people can survive and thrive, whether they are designers or not. In this talk, I'll point out opportunities for designers to participate in this disruption, sharing tools such as frog's Collective Action Toolkit, which has made the skills designers use more accessible and available for people worldwide. This is part of the Interaction Design faculty lecture series.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014
"Envisioning the Balance: The Dynamic Role of Design in Entrepreneurship"
Kansas City Design Week
Think Big Partners 6th floor event space
1800 Baltimore Ave
Kansas City, MO 64108
5:30-8 PM
$10 admission in advance, $15 on site, limited to 75 attendees

In this talk, I'll explore the expanding role of design in entrepreneurship, looking at emerging principles we can use to drive sustainable innovation, growth and beneficial cultural change within our startups, companies, nonprofits—or even within a group where no business may yet exist. Through this entertaining talk and Q&A, I'll uncover how different tools used by designers allows entrepreneurs to create valuable new products, services and business models with their customers and communities. And, most importantly, I’ll examine the proper place and role of design in the lifecycle of your ventures, finding the right balance between design and other critical activities that lead to successful businesses in the long term. (You mean just design isn't enough? Yep.)

Monday, March 10, 2014
Workshop: "Expansion Through Ecosystems" with Diego Depetris, Patrick Kalaher, and Steve Selzer
South by Southwest Interactive Conference
AT&T Conference Center
Classroom 102
1900 University Ave
9:30 AM-1:30 PM
Advance registration and workshop signup required, attendance limited to 40

Ecosystems are critical when exploring new market opportunities, or seeking to expand or diversify an existing market. Value in an ecosystem is created not only by driving adoption for your products and services, but by driving demand and “coopetition” from the entire ecosystem. When parties in an ecosystem collaborate to expand the entire pie rather than just their slice, growth occurs faster and everyone benefits as a result. Ecosystem strategy helps you determine the options available to your business to make this growth happen. In the future, the ecosystems that you participate in become your business. Few companies will successfully operate in isolation. If you don’t actively identify and plan for opportunities to shape that ecosystem, often in collaboration with others, you may fall behind. This collaborative 4-hour workshop will simulate the ever-changing nature of ecosystems as you work with others to stay viable in the marketplace.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014
Workshop: "Off the Page, Into the Wild: Designing for the Internet of Things"
HOW Design Live
Hynes Convention Center
900 Boylston Street
Boston, MA 02115
10:15 AM to 12:30 PM
Additional fee required for this workshop

Attend this session for a set of quick and dirty storytelling and prototyping methods for cross-screen and cross-device interactive design. Drawing from influences as varied as reality TV, automatic writing, artificial intelligence, and improv, I'll show you how to work individually and with multidisciplinary teams to: target unique user needs and tasks with a story-first approach; rapidly ideate around those needs and tasks using unique methods that range from text and photo prompts to prototyping with your phone's camera; capture, evaluate, and iterate on provisional artifacts and scenarios; understand when to shift from low-fidelity prototypes to full-on technology simulations and prototypes. This workshop draws from David's experience in teaching storytelling in user-experience design at California College of the Arts and in his ongoing work in exploratory research and design with cross-disciplinary teams at frog. You’ll go home with a cheat sheet of storytelling methods and examples you can bring directly into your studio practice.

Thursday, May 15, 2014
"Creating Creative Superteams"
HOW Design Live
Hynes Convention Center
900 Boylston Street
Boston, MA 02115
4:30–5:30 PM
Presented as part of the HOW In-House Management Conference

You know when a team just clicks. Designers complete each other's sentences. Group brainstorms yield breakthrough ideas. Team members want critique frequently, and relish the feedback. Everyone feels invested in where your projects are headed. However, if you lead or work on a creative team, you may have experienced the opposite, from team members struggling to remain engaged in brainstorming sessions, or fighting for their interests in what's meant to be fruitful critique. In this session, you’ll find out how you can encourage and empower creative teams, helping to improve their communication and collaboration skills along the way. The tools you’ll learn from this session will help you: Lead brainstorming sessions that teams love to participate in; identify which team structures lead to maximum creativity and project ownership; expand your critique vocabulary, with five unique strategies to help your team open up when sharing work in progress; understand what conversational cues can lead to constructive dialogue, rather than creating competition; empower your team members to build off each other's skills and perspectives.

How Are You Using the Collective Action Toolkit?

Students at SCAD take part in Knowledge Fest activity

The SCAD graduate students split up into teams and gathered around their copies of the Collective Action Toolkit (CAT), considering their homework assignment for their next class period. Their task: To pilot the first activity they would use with local high school students as their first introduction to working together in a group. In two days, they’d have to do a dry run with their classmates. As they looked over the toolkit’s action map, they began to where they should they begin? By having a “Knowledge Fest” or a “Skill Share?” By helping their group identify a goal right away, or by having fun and getting to know each other?

The CAT has been out for almost two months, and situations such as the above are happening more and more. The toolkit is being deployed far more broadly than expected, such as in our new Chinese language edition. People are finding new uses for it, from local education to entrepreneurship in global organizations. And frog has embarked on our first educational pilot, working with SCAD’s Design for Sustainability program.

How did this happen? And in what ways can you use the CAT that you may not have considered?

Read more on frog's design mind blog: ("How Are You Using the Collective Action Toolkit?")

Read about my involvement with the SCAD + CAT educational pilot on the Design Ethos blog ("frog + SCAD Design for Sustainability pilot frog’s new Community Action Toolkit").

Introducing the frog Collective Action Toolkit

the frog Collective Action Toolkit

Today, frog released the Collective Action Toolkit (CAT). The CAT is a package of resources and activities that enable groups of people anywhere to organize, build trust, and collaboratively create solutions for problems impacting their community. I was part of the team that helped create the CAT—you can read about my involvement in an article posted today in FastCoDesign.

frog developed the CAT to help groups of people create positive change in their communities. Inspired by frog's collaboration with Girl Effect and the Nike Foundation (which I participated in) the toolkit provides a dynamic framework that integrates knowledge and action to solve challenges. Designed to harness the benefits of group action and the power of open sharing, the activities in the toolkit draw on each participant’s strengths and perspectives as the group works to accomplish a common goal.

While intended for use by leaders in local communities, the CAT draws from both frog's social innovation work and their expertise in encouraging grassroots innovation within startups and large-scale organizations. It can be used as an accelerant for group problem solving, whether by local community groups, schools, nonprofits, corporations, and so forth.

Here's a presentation I gave about the CAT at The Feast Conference in New York City in October to a group of social innovators:

You can use the CAT with a group within your organization or your community to: 

Solve problems: No matter what size of problem you’re looking to solve, the activities in the CAT can help your group investigate and generate solutions for community problems. For example: you might be motivated to help people around you get access to healthier food, reduce how many people are becoming sick because of an infectious disease, construct a new building, or start a small business.

Build new skills: Gain important life skills with you group and understand how to best put them to use. For example: critical thinking, listening to others, asking better questions, generating ideas, active collaboration, creating better stories, and inspiring and sustaining collective action.

Gain knowledge: By pooling what you know and who you know, you can better support each other in your group and beyond. For example: with your group, you can gain perspective on a community problem or need, as well as reach out to more people that could support those solutions.

In the coming weeks, I'll be sharing more about the Collective Action Toolkit on my blog on frogdesign.com and here on ChangeOrder—how it came about, as well as upcoming pilots that we'll be conducting with organizations and educational institutions such as Savannah College of Art and Design's Design for Sustainability program

Until then, you can download it free by visiting http://www.frogdesign.com/collective-action-toolkit.

Where the Roads Become Rivers

Street, Dhaka

The rules of the road? There are no rules. Riding in a fast-moving car, the freeway is a fat, pulsing vein, and we are but one blood cell swirling through the body called Dhaka.

Oncoming traffic doesn't matter, since we can swerve into whatever lane is free to get there a few seconds faster. Right of way isn't important, because we cut off everyone else indiscriminately—three lanes of road packed five to six vehicles across at any moment with rickshaws, mopeds, cars, buses, compressed natural gas (CNG) taxis.

The man who was helping me find my way around joked that when traffic lights are green, you slow down. When they're yellow, you start to speed up. When they turn red, you drive as fast as you can.


Stuck in Traffic, Dhaka

Sounds of the road: constant staccato horns warning of impending crashes in a language only locals can understand; strains of late afternoon prayer floating from mosques and prayer rooms; constant pinging of rickshaw bells; intense revving of engines when brief stretches of open road present themselves; painful shrieks of car bumpers on speed bumps that materialize from out of nowhere.

The air is thick with exhaust, oil fumes, plumes of dirt. When I blow my nose, the tissue is stained black.


Market on Saturday, Dhaka

If you live in Bangladesh and want robust health services, quality food, access to clean water, careers for those who have gone to university, greater possibilities for entrepreneurship, better schools for your children, you go to Dhaka.

But with the lure of all the benefits the megacity may provide, the costs of gas, food, transportation, and housing are rising on an exponential basis, further deflating the taka, the country's currency. The district around the city proper of Dhaka has seen unparalleled growth over the past decade, doubling its population to over 16 million residents—most moving into the district from rural communities.


On the Road, Dhamrai, Bangladesh

Peering into other cars, I see haphazard crates of chickens and rabbits strutting in straw; families of eight squeezed into a car designed for five; piles of narrow gas tanks in battered two-seaters; businessmen in striped suits behind chipped, tinted windows; military men in green-purple camouflage with rifles lazily pointed towards the sky; an entire backseat piled with mounds of bananas, jackfruit, oranges, and coconut.

But it's the buses that take most of my attention. Their sides look like flayed skin from a running child who tripped and fell on the asphalt. Blue birds painted above a landscape are gouged off. Names of transit companies are ripped away. Bright white, cyan, mustard, and cinnamon hues: fresh coats of paint mask the bruises, but don't make them go away. Men on the roadside wave their hands, they pull up and part with a few hundred taka. The buses fill up until men hang outside open doors, out of open windows, and finally, clamber to the top rather than miss a ride.

The people on the buses look at me as intently as I look at them.


Sorting Trash, Dhaka

Just as there are no rules of the road, there is little clarity around the boundaries that sustain Dhaka. Much as a flooded river may reach its fingers into any embankment that sustains its flow, the city's efficiencies are eroding in ways that defy their design.

My Dhaka friends tell me this means that if there were any form of major disaster, such as an earthquake or a cyclone, the impact on the city would be catastrophic—and not just because of population density. It has to do with what people have designed to survive, rather than what might satisfy long-term plans.

An example from a CTO of a small software company in Dhaka: "Imagine that a textiles factory employs 3,000 people. When they build the factory, the owners don't install a fire exit. There is no one who can force them to do it. An earthquake strikes the city, the building is damaged, and no one can get out."

He lets this hang in the air, with all of its implications.


Girl Wiping Car Window, Dhaka

Children squeeze between the gaps between vehicles, selling the daily news, slices of carrots and cucumber in thin plastic bags, maps, and books. A man with no hands places his arms against our driver's side, peering inside to look at us. Women with hollow-boned faces tap on windows, some holding babies swaddled in their arms: something to eat?

An eight-year-old girl wipes down the windows and headlights of our car with a dirty cloth. "That girl loves what she's doing," a Dhaka resident says from the seat next to me.

"I don't think that's the precise word for it," I say. "Love." Perhaps she does this out of love, I think. The resident considers my words, says the girl likely cleans cars to bring money back to her family, to eat and have a place to sleep on the one day she doesn't have school… if she is able to attend.

The driver gives her 50 taka before the traffic unfurls. She darts to the median strip.


Overpass Under Construction, Dhaka

Dhaka is pocketed with ongoing construction: bypasses, overpasses, buildings, living domiciles, a university campus. Everywhere you look, you see the soon-to-be complete. The gaps are always visible in the city's infrastructure, from transit to banking to telecommunications, and the entrepreneurial are finding ways to fill them.

New services for wiring money to local post offices and bKash (mobile money services) are helping businesses and families better share their money without bank accounts. The availability of WiMax networks around the city provides people access to high-speed Internet without the need for physical wiring.

But on an individual level, the users of these services have to work the systems in order to make the best use of them. Cell phone users have adapted to uneven network coverage by purchasing multiple pay-per-use phones for competing networks. Business automation suffers due to the constant heat, humidity, and lengthy rainy seasons, which destroys technology. Perhaps destroys is not the exact word. Eat might be better. During the monsoon season, consume might even be more appropriate.


Aarong, Dhaka

Dhaka's exponential growth is reflected in the the fierce celebration of Bangla culture both within and outside the city: in its language, poetry, dance, song, clothing, and crafts. Some businesses are built around curating this cultural output, such as Aarong, a chain of stores started by BRAC that brings together high-quality crafts, textiles, clothing, and other goods sourced from villages in Bangladesh. There is value that Aarong creates that could be replicated across other cultural industries, even though the richness of Bangladesh culture outside of Dhaka is what makes such a business model possible.

And a question lingered in my mind afterward for which I couldn't find an answer: How many people living outside Dhaka would be capable of shopping there?


Ekushey Book Fair, Dhaka

My last afternoon in Dhaka, I visit Ekushey Book Fair. It consumes multiple city blocks, runs the entire month of February, and looked to be attended by what I estimated at 50,000 people that single day. How often do you see such a throng rallying around the consumption of any literature, let alone literature only written in Bangla?

Leaving the bookfair, I talk with the software CTO. He asks me: "What was the most powerful observation you've had about Dhaka?"

"Why do you care about what I think about this city?" I say. "I didn't grow up here. I'm not from this culture. Wouldn't someone who's grown up here know it best?"

"You have to be an outsider to have an opinion about Dhaka," he says. "Many of us also moved to Dhaka—we aren't from here. And so much has changed in the past few years, that it's good to see the city through fresh eyes."

I think for a minute. "How small one can feel, in the midst of a city that is so large. Unlike any other city I've been in, you can't wrap your mind around it. And yet, at the same time, you have so much room to create your own path."

"I agree with that," the CTO says. Then he pauses, looks out the window. "But then again, you have to see rural Bangladesh to really understand Dhaka."


Roadway at Dusk, Dhaka

I keep returning to the behavior of a river when I think of my time in Dhaka. It has an ability to cleanse, to sustain, to transmit, and to display unwavering tenacity when dammed away.

I was only able to go a few hours outside Dhaka for a single day, and not far enough to fully escape the influence of the city. But even in those few hours, I was immediately struck by the sun shimmering off lush fields of irrigated rice and corn, expanses of water, the scale and space of the city inverted. All roads in Bangladesh may lead to Dhaka, but not the rivers.

Within inefficient systems are always the seeds of their long-term survival. You just have to grapple with the chaos long enough to sense where they will emerge. With patience, you can see what new channels the river will cut into the landscape, and perhaps follow them. Or, what is often more likely: see if you can divert some of that flow without disrupting the source. And when the monsoons come, you hold on to survive. The cycle continues. Within that optimism is a strength that can't be easily diminished.

I think this is why so many people see such promise in Dhaka's expansion. Standing alone on a dusty road, surrounded by millions of people, I return to the word promise in the same way that my mind returns to the river: the promise of a brighter future, the promise of what might happen tomorrow. Promise is a positive word, swollen with hope the way that the outer district of Dhaka is being flooded with people darting between cars, walking from home to work or school, doing their best in the sweeping current of the history of their rivers—and their country—to put back together what has been broken.

People Don't Pay Much for Umbrellas

Take It Anywhere Raincloud

Working in New York City more than a decade ago, I was always charmed by how the cost of umbrellas would magically increase during a downpour. Those umbrellas never lasted. They just worked until you reached where you needed to go.

Riding the subway, watching people struggle with their half-broken umbrellas—aren't all umbrellas half-broken?—was an object lesson for me in the value of selective innovation. There's a reason GORE-TEX jackets cost so flipping much: a guarantee of staying 100% dry is almost impossible to deliver. This is a valuable problem, with a valued solution for products that last.

But there are so many short-term solutions, it's almost overwhelming. Mr. Wikipedia says that there are four people at the patent office employed to sift through patent proposals for umbrella-related inventions, and a fellow at Totes was quoted saying that "it’s difficult to come up with an umbrella idea that hasn’t already been done."

That's some market for innovation for the problem of "staying dry." It's a valuable problem that people keep solving over and over again, seeking new niches to monetize.

Now, let's think about web pages. Proper placement of where the search box should go, and how it should behave: pennies or millions, depending on the scale of traffic flowing through a web property. The impact of poorly considered design decisions can be like accidentally nicking an artery while shaving. At times, this is the value we provide to our clients, often in the context of seemingly small yet critical decisions in creating an existing product. But such decisions map back to a much larger context, grounded in customer and business considerations. People will always be searching for content on web pages. Do they need an umbrella or something more durable?

Back away from solving small problems at key points in each of your projects and consider: How valuable is the larger-scale problem I'm trying to solve? With regard to human need? From a business standpoint? Where do I need umbrellas, and where do I need to invent something that will durably last? That can't be easily copied?

This kind of thinking is useful when clients come in crowing about their new umbrella idea, when really they need a waterproof jacket. When discussing a potential new project, ask your client about what problem(s) they're trying to solve. Then, ask them how that problem came about. Usually, that points to a much larger, more valuable problem—where the rain is currently pouring. Gauge the value of the largest problems you can help your client solve, then consider the effort (and decisions) that will be necessary in your current project to move you towards influencing them. It takes more effort to make that waterproof jacket, but it'll last them longer and retain its value better.

How does that change your conversation with the client? Is that a problem they're willing to let you discuss openly? Look at it from a few different angles or higher-order perspectives? Change the nature of what kinds of projects you'd like to retain?

Once you start seeing what you do as a designer in this way, you'll have greater clarity regarding exactly what kind of value you're providing as a designer. Solve valuable problems, charge your customer what the market will reasonably bear. And remember that people won't pay much for umbrellas. At any price point, they always vanish into the closet.

Now, please excuse me... this was one of the few sunny days we've had in Seattle all year, and I'm going to go get my yearly Vitamin D allotment.

This post was inspired by recent discussions with David Conrad, studio director of Design Commission and the co-presenter with me for an AIGA Seattle Design Business for Breakfast next week about how to structure a design studio for success.

Overcoming the Complexity of World Problems

Everything Else

Late at night, the supermarket has an otherworldly glow. The food sits silent, expectant. Absent of people, large pyramids of gala apples shine under fluorescent lighting, while a pimply 18-year-old sweeps the floor with a giant push broom. It could be an Edward Hopper painting, except for how the push broom creates fat lines of dirt that the employee coaxes into a dustpan and dumps into a trash can. At this hour there is no one except me, holding a half-pound of bulk organic granola (pumpkin flax) and a container of plain yogurt, trying to imagine exactly how much food rests within these four walls. Twenty thousand items? Forty thousand? Perhaps enough to feed a neighborhood of Seattle for a month, if parsed out piece by piece.

This is one of those moments that makes you feel both fortunate to live in a place where such resources are so plentiful, and also humble in the face of what is an incredible problem for most others in this world. We find it so hard to expend energy influencing world problems like hunger, poverty, and infectious diseases such as HIV. We can't easily visualize, in our minds or through a double-spread infographic, how much nutritive food is required for the billions of people in this world. Where would a designer first focus to increase its availability? In the abstract, it can feel absurd to try to quantify the impact of our individual actions in a hyper-connected world. We provide rice to the starving child thousands of miles away, unaware of how the rice is grown, where it is grown, the details of its distribution, and the extended industries that have sprung up to facilitate (or obstruct) its influence on the overall problem at hand.

I think that backing away from taking any sort of action against a world problem is a peculiar kind of intellectual fallacy—both as people donating our time towards important causes and as designers attempting to influence a world problem for the better. To make my case, I'm going to play with some mathematical concepts, but I warn you that I am no scientist in the traditional sense and merely a dilettante when it comes to numbers. I don't think I'm treading any new ground here, but at least the path around the lake has a little less overbrush.

Continue reading "Overcoming the Complexity of World Problems" »

Bingo for Social Innovation

Bingo for Social Innovation

I am trying to use fewer adverbs in my everyday speech, but it's proving truly difficult.

I have a tendency to use many variants of these vacuous filler words. They billow in the midst of my conversational flow like empty barges floating in the ever-active sea of otherwise coherent thoughts—painfully flavoring what I say without really saying much at all.

Perhaps if I had to deposit a dollar in an "adverb jar" for every time an adverb slipped into an email, text message, or blog post, I would dissuade my language center from allowing the disgraceful -ly to attach itself to adjectives struggling to break free of my Visual Thesaurus-like thoughtstream.

(An aside: I fear by the time I'm done writing this post, I will be penniless, wallowing in an alley, having been bludgeoned to death by an angry soul wielding an unabridged Webster's dictionary. Thankfully, the red cover of the book will hide the blood spatter.)

This anti-adverbial tirade was brought to you by a recent IDSA event in Seattle entitled, "2010 Design Debate: Can Design Save the World?" There weren't a ton of adverbs that evening, but the entire talk had me ruminating on the language that we use to define and solve problems in the world of social innovation.

Continue reading "Bingo for Social Innovation" »

Slides from "Designing the Design Problem"

Thanks for everyone who came out (virtually) to see my presentation yesterday at Creativity Oklahoma's online conference on applied creativity in art and design. Scott Belsky did a great job of describing the philosophies behind Behance and the research about how people make ideas happen that became the foundation of his bestselling new book.

While Scott was talking about fulfilling creative projects, I took a different tack and provided methods that frog uses to marry our innate skills in creative problem solving with the evolving practice of "problem making" to better serve both clients and users in crafting compelling products, services, and experiences. As a case study, I shared research data and insights that had been part of frog's initiative to encourage HIV testing in South Africa, Project Masiluleke.

This 20-minute presentation was carved out of a longer work I'm putting together regarding the specific kinds of activities that make up what's called "multi-vector research," which is the secret weapon for any design team that is trying to tackle a complex and systemic business problem or world problem and discern what exactly should be designed to influence it for the better.

From Observation to Vision: The Promise of Human-Future Interaction

The Watermarks Project [watermarksproject.org] is a public art project that explores the generally accepted prediction of the sea levels rising, due to climate change.

I've started a blog on frog design's Design Mind website called Intangible, focused on sustainability and service design. Whenever possible, I'll be cross-posting articles from that blog on ChangeOrder.

Imagining a sustainable future is like observing a series of waves crashing upon a shore, imperceptibly eroding the sand away.

It isn't clear whether we're at high or low tide, so we can't be sure how far to stand from the water. We try to judge, in the far distance, if there are large waves that may get our feet wet, or even worse, pull us out in the undertow. There are a fearless few out surfing the breakers, but most people are content to rest on their towels, sun themselves, and read a book or two. There is no clear understanding of how our actions on the shore will change the quality of the water, or what lives beneath the surface. Our influence on the known world is intangible.

Continue reading "From Observation to Vision: The Promise of Human-Future Interaction" »

Review of "Design Is the Problem" in The Designer's Review of Books

Design Is the Problem cover

“Would you like a paper or plastic bag for your groceries?”

Seems like a simple question, doesn’t it? Paper should be a better choice, because it will biodegrade. Plastic will go on forever in landfills and choke our oceans.

Well, my answer isn’t very well informed. There are major trade-offs in the consumption, production (and related pollution), and recycling opportunities for every seemingly simple decision that we make throughout our lives, both as consumers and as designers.

And this is the crux of Nathan Shedroff’s useful book, Design Is the Problem: The Future of Design Must be Sustainable. Within its pages sits a fully realized schema of the minutia that working designers and students need to internalize in order to start making more educated decisions regarding the sustainability of their client and personal projects. Being mindful about sustainability—both in the products and services we design, and in the decisions we make as consumers and creators in an ever-evolving economy—can be an astoundingly complex and time-consuming undertaking.

Continue reading at The Designer's Review of Books.

The New Decade of Design Thanking

Design Thanking

This will be the new decade of design thanking.

Not thinking. Thanking.

After hearing John Thackara speak last year, it really sunk in for me that design as a thankful or generous gesture—without any measure of expected reward or large-scale impact—is the huge gaping weakness within our profession. Taking small-scale actions on a day-to-day basis requires a kind of personal behavioral change that is very hard to sustain without some kind of feedback loop (or paycheck). We get lost in the work and not in the people that make it meaningful.

At the same time, I've struggled with the term "design thinking" as an end-all, cure-all to the world's ills—mainly because it can obscure the effort to convert thought into action, and action into profound, wholesale effect. We could spend lifetimes piling up all of the time spent thinking without giving voice to our thoughts.


Continue reading "The New Decade of Design Thanking" »

You Had Me at Hello

Will Food for Work

On a daily basis, I am bombarded by hello.

Outside my office, there are solicitors associated with a wide variety of nonprofits—Greenpeace, the Red Cross, Save the Children, and other organizations that are licensed by the city of Seattle to ask for charity support.

Some of these men and women are direct employees of said nonprofits, while others are hired by third-party firms to stand on street corners with three-ring binders emblazoned with representative logo and/or matching jacket and cap. In both cases, they are paid in an admixture of time-based salary and percentage commissions for money earned over the course of each day's work.

Life as a solicitor on the street is purely a numbers game. Having worked in the sales-hardened worlds of direct marketing, I can tell you that the average response rate for a direct-to-sale solicitation is 0.5%—meaning that you can talk to an average of 200 people via a printed sheet of paper and receive back one response in return. When dealing with emails or advertisements, the throughput can drop even lower, to mere tenths of a percent. And when dealing with telemarketing, the likelihood that you'll even be able to get a warm body on a land line to answer the phone is slim.

To see the amount of sustained effort it would require to engage an everyday person with a nonprofit solicitor, I sat outside during a busy lunch day and watched the solicitors working in the field.

Continue reading "You Had Me at Hello" »

The Long Ow: Fulfilling on the Promise of Human-Centered Design

The Long Ow: Fulfilling on the promise of human-centered design

I spent time over the past three months with IDEO's Human-Centered Design (HCD) toolkit, which is derived from the daily practices used within their firm as well as by design practitioners around the globe. In answering a recent survey they'd sent out to solicit input for a future edition, I couldn't help but observe that the chart below seemed to be missing a few crucial points in the realm of innovation fulfillment. I'm dubbing the chunk I added to IDEO's chart "The Long Ow." The original chart:


My thinking here is meant to extend the empathy we solicit through observation and design—and which makes human-centered design possible—and extend it fully through the process of producing the desired change. We are very good at thinking in deliverables, within process boxes, but the ideal process for HCD is more like a heartbeat. Being a designer can feel painful, but the real pain begins when the planning becomes reality, and the tangled mess of sticky complexity that our clients are struggling with begins to unravel in finite degrees through brute-force effort. We can only ease that pain slightly, and help them bear it as they aim to create a meaningful impact.

Whether you're aiding a governmental task force, a local homeless shelter, an ailing nonprofit, or a corporate client wanting to lessen their negative influence on the world at large, working to effect major positive change across thousands of people—maybe even millions of souls—takes a level of sustained effort that is often buried, implicit, in the root of any design concept. And from researcher to artifact-maker to those people who are tasked through their communities and corporations to effect positive change, it's critical to surface those heavy physical investments and inevitable compromises that are part of any implementation of a human-centered innovation. (Read: Looking to fulfill systemic change, along with the behavioral impacts that cascade down through communities and into people's lives in ways that can't even be comprehended as part of any design exercise.)

We often gloss over is the army it takes—both figuratively and literally—to effect considered change beyond the design process. If we're working within a social context, we also need to be prepared if we have the latitude, culturally, to advise and/or join that army in helping to support the necessary artifacts, observe the progress of systemic change, help to troubleshoot the inevitable compromises that will adjust or dilute your overall understanding of the observed problem(s), and consider how the cycle can begin anew with fresh observations to iterate the initial foray you've attempted.

In the world of commerce, this kind of dialogue is often considered under the umbrella of change management, business transformation, and other domains littered with MBAs. In the nonprofit sector, as well as with initiatives spearheaded by various governmental departments and/or NGOs, these discussions are also often considered outside the range of the humble designer. But as we begin to expend more energy in rejiggering systems and services as opposed to focusing on aesthetics, we will bleed over into these spaces currently occupied by the McKinseys and the USAIDs of the world. And hopefully they will want to solicit our help in a partnership to make our concepts real.

Sustainability on the Compost Pile


Two caterpillars, three baby slugs, and a spider. That's what I discovered when I was washing my broccoli from the farmer's market.

I'm a big proponent for supporting my local farms. But for a city slicker like myself, raised in the suburbs and weaned on sparkling clean Costco-sized produce, the brand experience I'm having with eating local produce is taking me straight back to nature—and in a way that makes me a little queasy.

Until about four years ago, my process of eating fruits and vegetables had been managed by large factories bent on quality assurance and pallet-perfect stacks of nectarines. As a result, the inherent waste in the activity was disguised from moi, the consumer.

Now, a little bit of the factory is me. And really, that's how it should be. If I was a farmer born in the 1860s, things would be a hell of a lot harder in this regard: I would be growing these fresh strawberries, weeding them, watering them, killing any major pests or bugs, crouching down on my knees to pluck their sweet fruit off the bushes—thereby dirtying my knees.

A whole world of physical labor has now been replaced by reading "1 pint 4–" off a chalkboard, peeling cash out of my wallet, carrying the carton home, turning out the berries into a colander, and picking out of the bunch the five or six berries consumed by rot or sporting a happy little worm. Really, I need to get over my squeamish stomach (and my allergy to spider bites... whenever I find a spider in my produce, I'm apt to throw him into the compost bin instead of carrying the poor arachnid outside, where he's likely to get chomped instantly by the birds that live around our apartment.)

Just as the process of buying a bag with three pristine red peppers plays into our notions of packaged food perfection—and disguises the waste inherent in the plant-to-store manufacturing process—what in our genetic makeup causes us to reach for the unblemished fruit instead of the peach sporting a black eye?

The problem, really, is our notion of short-term value overtaking the impact of our long-term actions. And this is made manifest through our notion of waste.

Continue reading "Sustainability on the Compost Pile" »

What Are You Waiting For?

Getting Real

The next big client isn't knocking on your door. You are.

I haven't seen many companies barging around, waving fat wads of cash to create the next big whatever. That is, not without major strings attached. Until the next wave of savvy clients arrive, you should consider using the power of design to make something better. Anything, really. Use your powers to design something useful for you, and by extension, the world.

Continue reading "What Are You Waiting For?" »

EcoTagging: Does Your Sweater Have a Baacode?

Baacode Icebreaker.com

Almost six months ago, I blogged about the EcoTag, a thought experiment in making sustainability factors transparent for clothing purchases. Companies such as Timberland and Patagonia have been working to provide this level of sustainability information online and on clothes labels. And now another company has joined their ranks: they show you the source of their wool right down to the sheep farm.

Check out Icebreaker, a New Zealand company that spins locally-sourced merino wool into technical outerwear. They've developed what they call the "Baacode," which is a unique number associated with each piece of clothing they sell. You go onto their Web site and enter the code to see the exact farm where the wool came from, who runs it, etc. The company also provides information on their general guidelines for manufacturing ethics and animal welfare.

This is definitely a step in the right direction. While they don't reveal the carbon cost of their distribution from New Zealand to France to Germany to Shanghai and then out to retailers, it's great to see a clothing company showing in detail the impact of each phase of their product manufacture.

The only red flag in my mind, while reviewing their site, was how they couched their manufacturing ethics. More specifically, they encourage good working conditions, 3 meals a day, free lodging if necessary, but with regards to pay, they only mandate minimum wage for their workers. Their products are premium and affordable -- a rare combination -- so an incremental increase in the cost of their product lines in return for paying premium wages in the actual manufacturing process would be a worthwhile tradeoff.

Also, the videos are a little too slick. Why not just have a Web cam showing factory conditions in real time? Oh, wait... PR wouldn't like that...

The Pitfalls of Marketing Social Responsibility, Part 4 of 4

See Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of this series.

Based on the pitfalls shared in the past three posts, I think there's a few very simple guidelines that companies can follow to minimize the amount of perceived hypocrisy your social responsibility marketing can have on your brand.

1) Don't spend money on marketing social responsibility. Spend it on being socially responsible and being humble about how far you need to travel in your quest to lessen your impact on society.

This could be translated as, "Put your money where you mouth is, marketer." If you're spending millions of dollars on a corporate campaign to say how great you are, you're wasting money actually being great and signaling to your customers that there's a perception issue that needs to be shifted. There are better ways to evangelize your behavior than this.

Take a page out of the Patagonia playbook. Sure, they spent money on a nice Web site to highlight the true cost of creating and shipping one of their items to you. But they do something practically no one else does: they show you the good and the painful truth, and acknowledge they need to do better. How rare is that?

2) Use public relations and internal communications with your employees to broadcast social responsibility from your employees out, through their social networks and community activism. Forget the full-page ads.

Spreading the word through your employees is more valuable than any marketing will ever be, because it is spread by humans in conversation instead of one-way broadcast media. For topics as slippery as social responsibility, which always have their ounce of hypocrisy, these topics require a conversation to discuss all the nuances of what you're trying to accomplish. Give your employees the data and the support that they need to have a conversation, then step back and don't try to control the conversation. Let them speak their minds, for good and for bad.

3) Don't expect your customers to spend more for social responsibility as part of your marketing push. Unless your product is game-changing.

Going green, for some companies out there, may be seen as a smart business decision and also as a reason to charge more for their products. Your customers shouldn't have to bear the burden for how you change how your company operates and markets their services. If you amortize the costs of social responsibility into your current portfolio and let your customers know that they're getting a greener product for less cash, they'll find more perceived value in your offering and be more likely to participate.


Truly, it doesn't get any more complicated than this: Don't spend money to say you're changing how you do business to save the world. Just go out and save the world, and people will talk about it. Ignore the "greenvertising" race that's going on in the ad world, as companies jockey for position as the nicest, kindest, happiest little car manufacturer or producer of clothes. More action, fewer full-bleed ads!

The Pitfalls of Marketing Social Responsibility, Part 3 of 4

Chevrolet Tree Hugger

Read Part 1 and Part 2.

This post talks about the following rule:

3) Don't pretend to be what you're not. This is the worst hypocrisy.

Anyone remember Pallotta TeamWorks?

It was an experiment in for-profit charitable giving, run by a charismatic, cultish CEO. This Los Angeles-based company produced a roster of events such as the Avon 3-Day Walk for Breast Cancer, the AIDSRide, and many others. Their well-honed marketing and PR machine created an appearance of a vibrant, tight-knit community of people across America that would take part in hardcore athletic activities to raise funding for hot-button medical initiatives that needed research breakthroughs. Their events were well-attended, well-run, and chock full of people who really felt they were making a difference.

I was one of them. I participated in the 2001 Avon 3-Day Walk in Washington, D.C., raising with my wife over $2,000. And at first, the event was a blast. I met a ton of amazing people and really pushed the limits of what I thought was possible for me to physically accomplish.

During the second day of the event, as we lounged in pain around the camp and chowed down on a lackluster spaghetti and tomato sauce, Dan Pallotta gave a speech about what his company wanted to accomplish as a whole. He painted a bold vision of us making a real impact in breast cancer research, complete with jingoistic music swelling up in the background to punctuate his responses. He showed us an events roster for the upcoming year, encapsulated in a gigantic brochure (probably 24" by 12", full color, dozens of pages) that would be mailed to us after the event. He hoped that we would take part in more Pallotta events and keep the flame for their foray into making the impossible possible.

As a marketing professional that had spent the past four years working with nonprofit clients such as American Diabetes Association, I knew that something was very, very wrong. Such a brochure would cost at least $8 to produce and mail -- a move that smacked of complete fiscal irresponsibility. Barring low participation in an event, the highest fraction of every dollar donated should go directly to the associated charity. Where was all this money coming from?

When I returned home from the event, I immediately found a groundswell of citizens and journalists on the Internet that were savaging Pallotta's for-profit basis and event performance. Pallotta's bold experiment was shaped around a mission that put the participant's transcendence of their physical limits (an epic bike ride, a 60-mile walk) before the actual results of those actions for the associated charities. In the AIDSRides, as an example, only 21 cents of every dollar raised went to charity.

When confronted with these numbers, the companies that had hired Pallotta to produce their charitable events immediately fired him. As a result, the company imploded and laid off all 250 of its employees.

If Pallotta TeamWorks was a non-profit enterprise and had carried traditional non-profit values, they might have operated on a shoestring and shown real results. Their core values were at cross-purposes with the core values of what charitable giving should be: a selfless sacrifice for a just reward. Their core audience of hardcore exercise do-gooders saw straight through their marketing hype and personal empowerment doublespeak into their lack of sacrifice.

This leads to the only corollary of the third law:

No matter where your company exists, it is a world citizen. Behave like one by giving back thoughtfully and not being voraciously greedy.

Pallotta created their own little world and ignored the big picture. People think about companies and brands like they think about people. They have a face and a voice and a history. Yes, they still need to bring in revenue. Just make sure you do so in a way that is mindful of your impact on the community and the context in which you create your gains, and be prepared to give some of it away in exchange for greater respect.

It sounds so easy in theory. But in practice, this is where almost every company falters. No matter how many contests you hold to encourage green citizenship or how much money you invest in promoting your investment in social responsibility, people will only ask why it took so long for you to get started. This leads me to my final corollary:

It's best to invest in social responsibility without promoting it. Unless you can create a legacy.

Unless you're Patagonia or TerraPass or any of a list of companies that have centered their entire business practice and brand strategy around sustainability, consider making incremental change without viewing each action as a marketing opportunity. Wait until there's a holistic story to tell that doesn't smack of opportunism.

Here's a good example. Within a period of months, Tully's Coffee switched their espresso to organic/Fair Trade, brought composting into all their stores, changed the engineering of their materials to make them compostable, and began bringing local/organic baked goods to support their coffees. By creating a legacy with their business choices across the board, they changed their stance in the market and even made Starbucks look a little weak in the knees. At least, until Starbucks fought back. What I find really interesting is that Tully's never heavily promoted the switch on their Web site... And didn't want to acknowledge the articles floating around regarding how Fair Trade is actually retarding the process of bringing better coffee on the global market?

Yet again, every step forward for social responsibility is on a slippery slope. I applaud companies like Tully's that are looking to renovate their business model, realizing that it's one of the only ways towards true sustainability and being responsible for their actions on society at large.

In my last post in this series, I'll talk about ways to approach spending money on marketing social responsibility, if you must...