Amazon Design Director,
Masuma Henry on Design for Change

To make a change as a designer, Masuma Henry believes that you need to shift your focus from the user to the system.

Masuma’s expertise is driving changes for complex, global systems. She has advised the humanitarian organization Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the non-profit organization the Mastercard Foundation. As a Design Director at Amazon, Masuma leads teams whose work impacts millions of customers globally.

Design for Change is about Empowering the Weak

What are your thoughts on designing for change?

“I like to think about design for change as design for systems.Systems contain multiple problems to be solved that are interconnected in ways you can’t begin to understand until you start. When you think about design on a systems level versus an individual user’s level, you start to understand that individuals and institutions together, make a system.”

“Design then becomes about asking yourself ‘who holds power in the system?’ When you do that, you quickly realize that the person you thought you were designing for, is not the person you should be designing for.”

“One of my favorite examples of this comes from microloans — the practice of issuing small loans to individuals, from other individuals. The problem to be solved with the inception of this idea was about the unbanked poor: How might we get poor, often rural, people access to loans to start businesses? They typically don’t have formal identification and face massive financial instability making repayment difficult.

Skipping many decades ahead, the design problem shifted to focus on female entrepreneurs, after recognizing that poor females were the most underserved in this context. They held the least power to change their financial situation but had the ability to have the largest systemic impact. If they were empowered, they would invest in their children, and together this investment could change an entire generation.”

“The recognition to design for the person in an inequitable power situation allows us to move towards becoming system designers.”

That’s an exciting perspective. Can you take us back to where it all started?

“I think it has to do with the fact that my parents are refugees. As a result of that, I grew up with a perspective on life that nothing is permanent. Your home and belongings aren’t permanent, and anything can be taken from you at any time.

Though this perspective is sometimes challenging, it also shaped my interest in designing for change. Seeing my parents and community be positive change-makers while being thrown into a completely new system of country, people, and culture, helped me understand that I can also be a change-maker, wherever I am or end up.”

Designing for People of Color

“One demographic shift we see in America is that people of color, will become the majority of the next generation, for the first time ever. As the population changes, designers have to think about how we make sure our products reflect shifts like these.”

As a Design Director, how do you make sure that Amazon’s products reflect this development?

“So in my division, we’re teaching executives to experience Amazon from a customer perspective. When we do this design exercise from the perspective of a young person of color they experience Amazon differently. For example, they might see images which don’t represent them. They might discover that there isn’t a wide range of products available that satisfy their needs.

Tracking these insights allows us to do the hundreds of ’next steps’ that it takes to make a wide-scale change, from the tactical like filing product bugs to the strategic like partnering with allowing customers to choose the images that represent them.”

“When a company with as many users as Amazon makes change like this, it enforces the notion that inclusion and representation of everyone is important. That message is spread to millions of people.”

Everyone is Creative

What else do you think that designers can learn from Amazon?

“I think that in the design community, we still tend to be protective of our ideas and especially the notion that ‘we are the creatives.’ In that way, we talk about creativity as if it’s a unique talent for only a few of us.

In Amazon, we stay open towards ideas coming from everywhere within the organisation and there are processes that enable this such as the well-known press release papers and the working backwards mindset.

What we can embrace from this approach, as designers, is to let go of the ego and realize that everyone is creative. Our jobs are not to come up with great ideas- our job is to socialize our processes and tools that enable everyone to come up with the best ideas.”

Design is the Future

What are your thoughts on how the role of the designer will be changing in the future?

“It’s a fantastic time to be a designer. Not only do the world’s most influential organisations have designers, but those designers are often getting a voice in making big decisions. It wasn’t this way even 10 years ago.”

“It’s also a good time to be a designer because the world is debating issues that we can and should contribute to: the ethics of designing for information, the automation of human work, bias that is perpetuated through machine learning, etc.

The designer of the future is going to have to think about these issues and how they impact UX, in addition to all of the design considerations we already make. The designer of the future understands that UX can’t be separated from the societal impacts it has.”

If you want to continue the conversation on designing for change with Masuma and us, join us at Design Matters 18 in Copenhagen!

Design Matters is a 2-day digital design conference in Copenhagen, bringing together design practitioners from all over the world. 
We explore new movements in digital design and feed you with inspiring talks, workshops, and conversations about digital design — now and in the future!