What prevents design stickiness in the social sector
Design has emerged as a popular ingredient to the ever-evolving (and elusive) recipe for tackling complex social problems; so much so that socially-oriented design has transformed into an established industry of social design consultants, academics and social innovators. Demand for this kind of design, and learning about how to do it, is growing.
This expansion of design education to support government and civil society initiatives is marked by both new higher-learning programs for designers (e.g. graduate and doctorate degrees in innovation and public purpose, transition design and civic service design). and trainings (e.g. design thinking, human-centered design (HCD) and social innovation) for civil servants and activists. Despite this growth in design-upskilling opportunities, the public sector’s absorption of the practice remains shallow. We are in need of a massive reconstruction of how learning happens so that it sticks.
With more designers focused on social systems and more civil servants and activists embracing design, we would expect to see a unity that works and lasts. After all, there seems to be interest on all sides.
Closer inspection of this unification — despite the influx of design training opportunities — highlights that the level of meaningful, long-term use of design is low. The phenomenon of malabsorption is worth exploring.
Implications of malabsorption
Social innovation and design learning offers often come in the form of: formal masters degrees on the side of social systems professional work; online certificates; single day team training workshops or multi-day bootcamps; or commissioned projects that include a ‘capability building’ angle.
The ramifications of absorbing design in this way are many, and it raises concerns about how design is translating into practice. To give an extreme example, but also one that many have encountered: current social design practice results in understandings of it as ‘post-it’ notes and user personas. Even one level up from this, when the practice elevates intentionality in understandings of stakeholders, is still a reduction of the social innovation discipline to a few tools that limits the potential of design to help guide a multidisciplinary problem-solving process.
A successful translation of design learning into multidisciplinary design practice between civil servants, activists and social designers would yield certain mindsets and practices. Mindsets would be situation-centered, motivated by shifting power, embedded in robust understandings of ethics, systems focused, and sharp about collaboration. Practices would be participatory, collective, agency-oriented and grounded in a balance between process and outcomes.
While the currently-available exercises and engagements for design learning can be entertaining, informative, and thought provoking, we do not see enough of these engagements result in the critical changes necessary for shifting the systems’ practice. Specifically, we rarely see:
- Ongoing adoption of these practices in daily work;
- A spreading of these practices and mindsets across the organization;
- An absorption of these mindsets, skills to the degree that they influence decision-making;
- Individuals able to maintain consistency of these practices, or advance them in an ongoing way;
- Sustainable transitions from ‘business as usual’
Instead, what we see is an excitement, engagement, trial, drop-off cycle, where organizations increase their focus on defining problems and engaging with users, they look to design for answers (see visual below).
The answers the social sector finds through this kind of experience are typically through working with short-term consultants or training programs. While such experiences enable an understanding of basic design tools and an oversimplified design process, the process and tools introduced are often detached from context, power dynamics, ethics and the real complexities of governance systems. Such experiences may lead to different techniques or rhetoric, but it is not uncommon for design absorption to be minimal, superficial and offered at times not disconnected from what the organization or sector needs.
This should be concerning for those learning and teaching design, investing in or practicing design and those affected by its expansion in the public sectors. Importantly, this absorption cycle results in:
- A loss of potential for use of social innovation and participatory design practices at optimal levels, things that for example could re-distribute power or unlock citizen voice in decision-making.
- Expensive and time consuming investments with little return for communities and professional teams.
- Further disconnect between multidisciplinary learning and languages.
Examples of design malabsorption by sector
While this suboptimal learning experience is unnecessary, it continues to happen. In particular, three types of institutions — government innovation agencies, civic technology and service delivery NGOs and social innovation consultancies — absorb design at high rates but continue to struggle to reach and maintain ideal levels.
Design in government innovation agencies
While many government innovation labs launch with intentions of applying design for radical change, they’ve only managed to influence small pockets of the system. Innovation agencies are usually operating at the fringe of government so their operations are not prioritized as core public sector functions are. Additionally, innovation agencies, labs or teams have historically worked on new or different ‘side’ projects instead of amplifying existing and ongoing government efforts. Finally, many innovation agencies act as service providers, which means they do not take on internal institutional design issues; their mandate does not direct them to address the very thing that constrains their own design practice — the bureaucracy in which they work.
Government innovation agencies absorb design when tackling specific “trending” topics, for example ‘health and wellness’ or ‘housing’, but it can be limited to these topics. The maturation and continued application of service design for acute public problems is a step forward, but it has been slow and ad-hoc. Ultimately, this leaves us with a long road ahead for designers — inside and outside of government — to hone and harness their skills toward essential public processes.
Design in civic technology and service delivery non-governmental organizations
Technologists creating products for civic strengthening and improving public services are beginning to value user research and design skills as much as engineering. In the civic sector, technologists are trying to move from a ‘build it and they will come’ approach to a ‘let’s do user research’ one. They’ve also made strides forward in shifting from a tool-oriented perspective to a people-oriented one. A prominent example of this is the Code for America push for ‘delivery oriented government’.
The civic technology sector has also integrated design research, product design, and UX/UI talent into their teams. Some organizations are even hiring “design thinkers” or “human-centered designers” to think through the problems that their technology tools are addressing and to prototype ways of engaging users of these tools.
It is clear that civic technology tools such as those built for mapping humanitarian crises or pedagogy for teaching youth coding have changed the way we approach social problems, however, the sector remains flooded with shiny technology products devoid of strong connections to the social systems they intend to influence. It is unclear how design is absorbed to address this challenge. To date, we have not seen much evidence of civic technology organizations utilizing design to support core functions like strategy or research. This could critically raise and help to navigate fundamental questions, for example, of when (if at all) technology is useful in a social change process.
There is a similar phenomenon in non-governmental service delivery organizations where they develop internal human-centered design or service design teams to bring user experience to the forefront. Typically they operate within different process paradigms (i.e. influenced by business project management, partnership building or community engagement) and mental models (i.e. shaped by expectations of government failing to provide and communities demanding more) making full integration of design-led processes clunky and difficult. Two common scenarios are: great internal talent is limited in their ability to influence the teams around them, or the organization recruits mediocre talent due to difficulties in understanding the breadth and depth of possibilities that service designers can offer.
Design in Social Innovation Consultancies
Many social innovation consultancies boast multidisciplinary teams drawing from the axioms of social work, social science, policy-making, community development, etc. However, in practice most are built upon a design process framework for how they understand and respond to social problems, for example: Design Council’s double diamond, Nesta’s social innovation ‘bird’s eye view’, TACSI’s ‘knowns-unknowns bowtie’, and The Young Foundation’s sequence framework.
What most social innovation consultancies and organizations have in common is the use of an underpinning design-oriented mental model that moves from a space of understanding, to a space of testing assumptions through creating, to prototyping, trialing and testing, through to implementation and scaling. In this is a ‘bread and butter’ design pathway: a variety of designers can sit in any stage of ambiguity in this process and be confident that an informed solution will emerge on the other side.
Problematically, this is not the same axiom from which social workers or policy makers operate from. Often in social innovation consultancies, a design-based framework is an implicit leading mental model to which all other activities must conform or add into, creating steep and confusing learning journeys for practitioners from complementary disciplines.
The result is a tension in social innovation: designers are able to thrive in process, but have catching up to do in foundational subject-matter and contextual knowledge, other disciplines understand the social issue and context but feel lost in the ‘implicit’ process.
Conditions for success
In each of these sector-specific scenarios, shared critical components to absorbing design are missing. This leaves designers and design learners with unanswered questions and doubts that need to be addressed for learning to spread and stick.
1. What’s being shared
“This is interesting but I’m not sure how to do it in my role.”
Design learners receive content as ‘add-ons’ to their work. Specifically, design content is not deeply sector relevant, which requires learners to analyze and experiment for themselves. For instance, someone may learn prototyping theory but then is left on their own to understand how it works in a complex, bureaucratic, risk averse, policy-making context. These multiple, unguided leaps slow, and even stunt, absorption.
2. How it’s shared
“I’m excited about this and motivated to take it on, but I’ve not understood all of these concepts to the degree required for high quality implementation.”
Design is shared through learning experiences that provide immediate interest and satisfaction but are hard to maintain over a long term (e.g. workshops, bootcamps etc.), within a body of individuals who have not also heard that same information. Without ongoing reflection and support to implement the details of what has been learned, a big idea might stick (like the importance of talking to people with lived experience) but how to do that well might be lost.
3. Conditions for continuation
“I’m making efforts to bring these ideas into my work, but I’m faced with too many internal barriers and resistance to make traction.”
There are at least five key conditions to allow design to absorb into lateral or complementary contexts. We rarely see them in place before attempting to absorb design methods and mindsets.
- Ongoing access to design-relevant learning for when minor questions pop-up or course corrections are needed
- Critical mass of practitioners, or like-learners, within the organisation to share the language, mindsets and practice
- Permission and authority to include human-centered practices across the organization and throughout multiple dimensions of the work
- Ability to talk about these practices outside of the single organization
- Individual and group willingness to be vulnerable in the learning and trialing processes — genuine permission to make mistakes and learn from them.
Despite the malabsorption phenomenon, we have seen some bright spots, where each of these conditions were in place, and as a result, design was incorporated as a meaningful complementary practice.
- Family Safety Victoria is a government department in Victoria, Australia committed to keeping people safe from family violence. Over the past 2.5 years they have commissioned a series of participatory, co-design projects with Australian social innovation consultancies, which included shoulder-to-shoulder learning opportunities for their own staff. Additionally, they hired two expert co-designers to join their internal team and support the spread of human-centered design across their department. At executive, policy and practice levels they’ve emphasized the criticality of including lived-experience across decision-making and prioritizing customer experience as much as possible. They established a Victim Survivor Advisory Council and they default to multidisciplinary co-design (with decision-makers, practitioners, service users and content experts). This has resulted in some state firsts: systems mapping of the LGBTI family violence help that seek experience with LGBTI community members and cross sector staff, and co-designed experience for collecting and responding to client feedback in family violence services to inform practice improvement and client-centred policy-making.
- Wikimedia Foundation is a non-profit that provides infrastructure for free knowledge. The foundation hosts Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia created and edited by volunteers across the world. Four years ago, the foundation began heavily investing in design research to inform understandings of their global community and has since made it central to their design and product development, and communications. The organization grew design research capabilities through internal specialists and by working with external partners to learn about new readers and editors of Wikipedia. This effort increased awareness of the platform and helped to localize it to the unique conditions of the diverse contexts it reaches. The effort also tested cross-team work that has heightened levels of internal cooperation and strengthened multidisciplinary culture. Senior leadership champions the changes in mindset that this working style has brought with it — even when it slows product development, it’s viewed as invaluable to building the products and services that will effectively support the communities — access to information, open source, social justice and more — that are central to the Wikimedia cause.
From Rapid Mastery to Deep Layered Learning
To reach its potential, design for social systems requires a multi-stakeholder collaboration that: focuses on creating long term mindsets over detached ‘feel-good’ tools; discontinues promises of ‘quick mastery of design’; boosts capabilities on all sides that converge at the systems change level and allow for divergence in methods and roles; and engages with existing operational structures to make space and resources for the messiness that is design practice.
Most of all, negotiating design mindsets with other multidisciplinary axioms will depend on a deep understanding and comfort with design process, a humility and patience about determining when and how design is most useful, and a sincere and ongoing assessment of design value toward social systems change.