I spend a lot of time reading critiques: of our consumption-fuelled lifestyles, of ever more digitally dependent lives, of foreign aid, of the media, of data privacy, etc. I am the quintessential critic in the room, my knee-gut reaction is to find the flaws and argue.
Being a cynic makes for a tough road as a social designer—a profession marked by empathy and optimism—yet I did indeed choose this career because of the promise of change. My optimism can be found in our opportunity to thoughtfully adjust the way we consume and the way we adapt to climate change.
While there is a lot to critique, a thoughtful design practice is a difficult beast to get right. Reading and critique will only get me so far. I recognize that I also have to learn simply by doing—getting my hands dirty with a project and allowing myself to be swept along with those moments of inspiration and excitement. And I will fail along the way.
I have to get out into the asteroid field and find my own path.
Asteroids by Sanja Kusturica
This is what led me to team up with a close friend and design confidante, Arunima Singh, to put together something for the UNICEF Wearables for Good Challenge. We were both motivated by the Challenge’s mission to tackle health and education issues for women and children and hungering for a side project to keep honing our skills in social design. It seemed like a particularly nice opportunity since Arunima could handle any field work in India.
Design competitions are, of course, one of the many things about which I read critiques. “Designers designing for designers, not actually solving problems” is a common theme. One of my favorites is Timothy Prestero’s talk “Designing for Outcomes” where he proposes that, instead of designing for awards, we should study systems to find those (maybe less glamorous) areas to design for real impact.
The UNICEF Challenge is less an award and more of a process: it seems well thought out with coaching for finalists to refine their submissions, and the two winners supported to prototype their wearables in the field. I also deeply respect all of organisations involved: UNICEF, Frog, and ARM. It has been great to see that the finalists included multidisciplinary teams, many of whom had already been prototyping their concept in the field for a while. I look forward to following how things develop.
As for Arunima’s and my concept, Grasp — it wasn’t selected as a finalist, but it was still a learning experience for me. From a logistics standpoint, I learned a lot about side projects: how to schedule, plan and execute with a partner in another time-zone and continent, how to balance side projects with my 9-5 design job (and everything else in life), and how grateful I am for my boyfriend who let me take over his apartment with our prototyping and kept me happily fed on those late nights.
The most important learning, however, was about how to involve the community. Arunima conducted some insightful interviews and school visits in the initial research phase, but—as so often happens—we ran out of time to really prototype with the community. In the absence of time, we rapidly designed a concept based on our findings and built some early prototypes in the process. And as a design process, it was fun. We shared reflections about the research and scenarios. We discussed exciting articles about student motivation and how brains learn. We tinkered with electronics. We made a rough video and shared it with our colleagues and friends. And then we submitted.
One question in the submission form particularly stuck with me:
How does your concept meet the UNICEF Innovation design principle to
Do No Harm?
Of course. This question perfectly summarizes my critical feelings about design. So often we design something that we think solves a problem, only to create new problems that sometimes make things worse. Concepts can create problems through the actual design (such as weakening data privacy, or increasing demand for conflict minerals) or they can support harmful myths (such as promoting a specific social design that actually doesn’t have its intended impact). I had no way to answer this question. All I could was write that we had no guarantee that our concept wouldn’t cause harm and that “our intention is to collaborate closely with students, teachers, and parents in the existing educational ecosystem to observe and learn from our prototyping and to be mindful of the material and energy impacts of the product”.
In pitching our concept, we had no way to actually talk about real impact, neither positive or harmful. We never returned to the students, teachers, and parents for whom we were designing. We couldn’t point to co-creation sessions that had sparked the idea, giving ownership to the community and facilitating a process to unlock their own ideas. We couldn’t point to data from prototyping trials, showing how our concept actually improved learning outcomes (and that it could continue to do so after the novelty of the product wore off). There were even some really simple, analog ideas that we could have tested long before we jumped into a tech ‘nearable’. We had rushed from good design research headfirst into a product, all for the sake of a competition.
In an ideal world, we would have had the time to iterate and continue our research before designing a concept. This is not rocket science. This is something that was beaten into Arunima and I time and time again at CIID and is widely accepted as best practice. Yet, in the time- and budget-constrained reality of a side project, we didn’t get there. And we comforted ourselves that if our idea really had merit, then we would have a chance to take the prototyping further. Maybe we should have had the humility to step aside and say we found this interesting area, here’s a few possible directions we’d like to explore, but we’re nowhere near a ‘concept’.
This summer I also read an interesting quote in a magazine for CIID’s summer course on social design: “design for social impact is also about the designer’s responsibility to take action in regard to evaluating the outcome of their solution”. In reflecting over this quote, particularly as it relates to the UNICEF Challenge, I thought that as social designers maybe we need to start incorporating data as part of our concepts. I think we actually risk more harm by simply throwing concepts out there without this layer of information. Of course there is still incredible value in sparking inspiration, but in many ways this inspiration is simply a higher fidelity napkin sketch. If we want to promote a full concept, and certainly if we want to honor concepts in competitions, maybe its time we start requiring a level of testing and data. Yes its a nice idea, does it work? The trick is knowing when is the right time to start this level of testing. Early in the prototyping phase? After a few co-creation sessions? Months into the process? How do we structure competitions around this time- and resource-heavy process? What is the appropriate level of data? These are questions I would like to start exploring.
I also came across the idea of data and testing in Kentaro Toyama’s incredible book Geek Heresy (hands-down the best book I’ve read this summer and possibly in the past few years). In it, Toyama discusses the technique of randomized controlled trials (RCTs). Adapted from clinical trials, this methodology measures concepts against a baseline control group. Is there a way to integrate these practices earlier in the concept development? Maybe this misses the point. Maybe our notions of ‘concept development’ should be expanded and always include significant time in the field.
I am still not convinced of wearables’ role in international development. In many ways, I think the UNICEF Challenge forced this technological constraint and I would ultimately prefer a tech-agnostic challenge. But mostly, I retain a healthy critique of design competitions. They do create some awareness around socially responsible design, but I still worry that they promote half-baked concepts. I would love to see a competition that awards designers for their proposal of process and then supports them to follow that process for an extended period of time. The UNICEF Challenge is doing a good job of discussing process as much as concept, but I wonder if we can go even one step further. I guess it’s also a balance—was the Challenge for established projects that need a little more help, or was it for new ventures?
Regardless of my critique, the Challenge was still great motivation for me to keep exploring my own social design process. I will be better prepared to ensure deep community involvement in my next side project, and I will also start experimenting with layers of impact data.
At the end of the day, I am facing a growing realisation that powerful social design takes time, effort, and sweat. Toyama rightly states there’s“little glitter” in this work. Though I suppose, in the right light, sweat can glitter.