How to design for social impact

Kaio Freitas, 13 Mai 2018

Like in any other profession, the life of a designer is (or should be) about fixing problems. Many (the vast majority) are solving market problems. However, the number of people who are relying on design to find the tools and the skills needed to solve the problems of humanity is steadily growing. It’s design being used in social impact projects.

Before we start to dwell on the application of design itself, we should remember what social impact projects are, in which the results are not measured by profit or by market potential, rather by behavior changes that can benefit individuals or entire communities.

Okay, but what actually changes when one uses design for social impact? Even though the philosophy, methodologies and tools are virtually the same, there are at least four points that make this approach to design, when used in social impact projects, different from the marketing approach that we are used to.

1  —  Design for Everyone

Focusing or prioritizing groups of specific users can be counterproductive.

In a commercial context, focusing your product on a specific niche can be the key to success. The trolley is a classic example of something that was designed to meet the needs of a small group of people: flight attendants. Of course, after a while, many people realized that they had the very same problems and the product became a success, but it only had a highly-segmented audience in the beginning, when it was conceived.

When we're designing with the intent to prompt some kind of social outcome, we don’t have the luxury to restrict our projects to a niche. A public service, for instance, has to serve all citizens, so if that solution is only focused on a specific share of people, we may end up interfering in the project’s original purpose, creating advantages for those who need our creation the least.

2  —  Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes

Developing empathy requires humility and sensitivity.

Historically, social impact projects have been known to pay little attention to what people really want, what motivates them and what challenges they face. That’s where design steps in!! Methodologies such as Human-Centered Design, for instance, are crucial to understanding the people involved in the project.

If you’re looking to create something disruptive, then include in the process those who will have to cope with that disruption on a daily basis. Keep this in mind, the goal of a designer is to help people help themselves, not creating things for them. Rely on design for social impact is an opportunity to work WITH people and not FOR people.

Designers must also know the difference and the limits between walking a mile in someone else’s shoes and feel pity for that person. Even though it may seem a blatant difference, many times the temptation of wanting to be the solution to the problem is just something big.

Designers are not heroes. We will not save the world with our own abilities. Always make it clear for your team that they need to create solutions that bring independence and autonomy for the community.

3  —  Focus on behavior change

Getting social results implies psychological motivations that are much deeper than to change someone’s consumption habits.

To make someone consume a product or service, especially in today’s consumer society, seldom involve deep motivations. A good example is to look at the advertisements around, most of them work as “entertainment”, leading people to feel a superficial and momentary state of pleasure and satisfaction, enough to trigger the consumer interest.

Now imagine that you are working to solve the following challenge: “How can we, based on mobile technology, improve access to health?". Market-wise speaking, perhaps developing and encouraging people to download an app can be deemed a case of success. Nevertheless, you should keep in mind that we don’t want to promote consumption, but a behavior change. Well before you make the app available, in this case, we need to identify the motivations, fears, desires and wishes to make sure that our product is just a tool to support this change.

4  —  Error tolerance is low

Making mistakes or focusing on false assumptions can be lethal.

Companies like Apple can “make mistakes”. An iPhone recall, for instance, can even annoy some customers, but Apple’s brand and value are so strong that they can topple that situation almost unscathed.

Now, when you think about social impact projects, people are not that acquainted with it. Imagine a system failure of a major welfare program like Bolsa Família, or a bug in the app you use to fill your income tax return. Can you imagine the turmoil that would take place in social media? That happens because people have a lower tolerance when they are dealing with public and social projects. A tolerance that is much lower than when they are struggling with a phone or car problem.

That’s why design is so important as an experimentation and validation process. We always need to take grab our chances and find a way to know if they are true. We don’t have that many chances to make an error. Generating an inappropriate and/or ineffective solution may fully compromise the trust that people had in you during the project’s earlier stages, which in many cases is difficult to get back.