Innovating User-Centered Design for Social Good

Published 9/22/15
Markets For Good
Image via MIT News

UCD was born out of the private sector, and many in the social sector are starting to wonder if the methodology just isn’t right for the complex global challenges staring us down. But: I know that UCD can revolutionize development work. The problem is in how we apply it. -Panthea Lee

The interventions needed to address urban development in the coming years will require a social sector mindset that puts user-centered design (UCD) first. Emerging technology and practice will facilitate this leap.

Panthea Lee, founder and principal of the social impact firm Reboot, is confident that UCD can revolutionize work in the social sector, but not as-is. The process, she says, must begin with redefining the term itself, and she has a point. In this context “user-centered” is a misnomer; in focusing solely on the user (what she and others call a “vestige of commercial applications”) the end product amounts to little more than an object.

In commodifying the human body and spirit, we’ve reached the end of the usefulness of the object as we know it, entering a period of innovation that will serve material less, while regarding information and utility as the value-basis for time and social relations.

We already see a growing movement against “the new materialism”—what I think of as a gradual encroachment of commercial mechanization, automata and digital practice on the corporeal experience, going so far as to metaphorically (in some cases literally) redefine memory, family and legacy. (I first wrote about this after the Twitter fail of 2009.)

Meanwhile, Lee is right to suggest that addressing the world’s intractable problems will require innovative design interventions that involve all sectors—public, private and social—as well as ordinary citizens. Not only would these innovations consider nuances across the various social groups they intend to serve, but actors from all sectors would share a central role in their planning and implementation.

Lee compares designing a mouse (a process that has only to consider an end-user with two hands) with designing health services for low-income people—a more complex process which must consider the roles of health care providers, local governments and community leaders and others, not to mention the needs of the end-users, in this case the people themselves.

While the sharing economy represents a phase shift in social awareness, the Internet of Things represents a global infrastructure that will coalesce actors from every sector across a vast and changing landscape of all-seeing serviceability meant to enhance our shared life and work experience (see my project that contributes to this new reality). Perhaps most importantly, this always-already connected experience will exploit “shared states” rather than “shared objects,” a more sustainable substance paradigm that will shift discursive desire and practice further toward transparency and accountability.

In this context, it’s clear how an entire piece of the innovation puzzle can go missing with blind traditionalism pulling the reins; “no need to reinvent the wheel” does little good when reinforcing wooden theory-driven practice that’s all but rotted through. “Innovation” has come to reflect a prescriptive approach to betterment, a far cry from experimentation and controlled chaos.

The end picture then is nondescript (at least for now). Who are we serving? How do we reach a working solution before the resources run out? We need the whole picture (in this case the process) to know which pieces to put where. So then, how to lose the misnomer—this artifact buried deep in everyday thought and practice?

Reboot came up with the term “multi-stage problem-solving,” a semantic solution Lee admits is less than catchy. Even the acronym falls flat. MSPS sounds too much like USPS to espouse a vision of twenty-first century innovation (“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night…”). Preoccupied with (explicit and implicit) messages myself, I can see how this working definition misses the mark, what with all these buzzwords nipping at our heels. We need a better name for this approach to enter the collective consciousness. For more on Reboot’s plan, read Panthea Lee’s article for SSIR, where she touches on the attractiveness of solutions, the importance of understanding context, and of using design as a tool for development.

To be a global development team player, the social sector will have to find a way to move user-centered design away from the product context and toward a new model which solves for social good.

About the image: In 2012 HMS researchers measuring the growth rates of cells found that mammalian cells divide not when they reach a critical size, but when their growth rate hits a specific threshold. As one grad researcher said, “It’s easier for cells to measure their growth rate, because they can do that by measuring how fast something in the cell is produced or degraded, whereas measuring size precisely is hard for cells” [source]. How might this biological principle apply to urban development?