Where Design & Social Justice Intersect

This week in my visual design course, we're diving into user experience -- a field of study that comes quite naturally to me, I've discovered. (It turns out designing a website landing page is not so different from designing a reader-friendly annual report!)

We were assigned a fascinating article, "Design as Participation." It begins with an anecdote about Modernist architect Mies Van der Rohe:

"Mies understood that the geometry of his building would be perfect until people got involved. Once people moved in, they would be putting ornamental things along the window sills, they would be hanging all different kinds of curtains, and it would destroy the geometry. So there are no window sills; there is no place for you to put plants on the window."

In brief, Mies Van der Rohe was the very opposite of a human-centered designer.

Of course, things are different today. In 1986, Don Norman invented the term "user-centered design," defined as engagement with the needs, desires and shortcomings of the user. This approach has become "instinctive and mandatory" in the design of any website, app or service.

But at some point, some participants were no longer valued. Uber, Amazon, TaskRabbit -- these services provide incredible ease and efficiency to their users. But what about the humans delivering the services? Shouldn't we consider their needs and desires, too?

I'm learning that the various projects and passions I've pursued -- global development, digital marketing, visual design, user experience -- share a few things in common. Empathy. Measurability. Problem solving. An understanding of systems.

And slowly, my career is coming into focus. At the intersection of design, communication and social enterprise -- and with empathy for all participants, regardless of which side of the app they sit.

Human-Centered Design for Leaders & Problem-Solvers

Click here to read the first post in my series on expanding my education through MOOCs.

In Hyderabad, India, a team of foreign engineers spent many months developing a clean water delivery system that was healthy, safe, and largely affordable. Yet many households did not use the service -- and continued to risk water-borne illnesses -- because the engineers were oblivious to a simple fact of life in Hyderabad: The service's mandatory water jugs could not be carried comfortably on the hip or head, as most local women preferred.

This was one of a dozen compelling case studies in IDEO's Design Kit: The Course for Human-Centered Design. The course introduced how a human-centered approach to design (sometimes referred to as "design thinking") can be used to develop innovative and sustainable solutions for poverty reduction. Human-centered design is iterative, collaborative, measurable, empathetic, and focuses on the real needs of the target population -- rather than their needs as imagined by foreign consultants.

While taking this course, I also read Work Rules!: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead by Laszlo Bock. As Senior Vice President of People Operations, Bock develops creative approaches for improving life at Google -- determining financial incentives for top performers, reducing food waste in cafeterias, and standardizing hiring interviews, for example. Each approach is piloted in small teams or offices, and the results are thoroughly measured through interviews with employees and applicable data. Many approaches fail, sometimes spectacularly, but those with the greatest impact on employee happiness and productivity are implemented throughout Google.

IDEO and Bock share a fundamentally similar outlook on leading and problem-solving, and after completing the course and book, I feel energized to approach my professional development with new insights. Here are a few:

  • Don't assume you know the solution. Design, test, measure, and repeat.
  • Expanding on that thought, I once believed that strong leaders were born with the right answers, and they could conjure up an innovative solution simply by brainstorming hard enough. Instead, strong leaders ask smart questions, are receptive to feedback, experiment (or in Silicon Valley's preferred terminology -- fail), and bounce back from mistakes with resilience and grace.
  • Creative people are highly observant. Creativity comes from noticing relationships between seemingly disparate topics, and from applying novel approaches to existing areas. For this reason, creativity often emerges from multidisciplinary people, such as a web designer with an understanding of social psychology.
  • Look to the margins -- a top-selling employee, or a family with healthy children despite living in extreme poverty -- to find the variables that determine positive outcomes.
  • To gain creative confidence, you must stop self-editing. (This is a tough one for me!) Everyone has terrible ideas, but if you remain silent out of fear of failing, you will never grow.

Next up, I'm taking the Digital Analytics for Marketing Professionals course on Coursera. I'm also looking forward to a user experience course from UC San Diego, and will continue to explore the world of information-communication technology for disaster response.