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How to Design for Social Impact: 4 Tips for Complex Challenges

“How do we make sure that we are designing for a feeling of empowerment, inclusion, community, love, or beauty in these tough contexts?”
—Jocelyn Wyatt, Chief Executive Officer of IDEO.org

In our latest Creative Confidence Series chat, Jocelyn Wyatt, Chief Executive Officer of IDEO.org, and Dean of IDEO U Suzanne Gibbs Howard discussed the unique challenges of designing for the social sector and how to apply advanced design thinking principles to manage multiple stakeholders and solve for complex issues.


When Jocelyn Wyatt co-founded IDEO.org, she had a lot to prove. She believed in the potential that design thinking held for achieving social impact, but there was skepticism over whether that approach would work for high-stakes challenges in communities that really need change. “It sounded like this fancy private sector thing, or that we were designing things that were out of reach for people living in low-income communities in the U.S. or around the world,” she says.

Over the years, Jocelyn and her team have created a framework for taking on big challenges in the social sector, in spite of complex webs of stakeholders, big limitations, long timelines, and limited funding. They’ve also proved the value of design thinking in the social sector by tracking the outcomes of their projects, from increasing birth control use among women in Africa to tracking health in refugee communities. Here are her best tips for successfully taking on tough social challenges.

1. Drill down and define outcomes

The folks at IDEO.org embrace the theory of change—a framework to get agreement on goals and pathways to create trust that the design team will find the best solution. The team starts with a clear articulation of common outcomes or goals. Then, they ask who the stakeholders are, and what pathways they might use to get to those goals (and which are out of bounds). “That allows us to get to a much more refined design brief with some constraints that we didn’t previously understand, and from there we can go off and really begin that research,” Jocelyn says. It also leaves the team with something to reference if others start questioning the approach, and sets the stage for experimentation because everyone is aligned on goals.

In a project with the Mercy Corps, IDEO.org worked with Syrians at a refugee camp in Jordan to improve reproductive health for young women. To get a hold on the challenge, the team worked backward to determine which outcomes were necessary to accomplish their goal, and which stakeholders would be most relevant. To create the biggest possible impact, they decided to focus on teaching 10-15-year-olds about puberty. “In order for them to feel more ownership and connection to their bodies and understand reproduction later, we needed to start with menstruation,” Jocelyn says. But they also needed to figure out how to reach them. Through mothers, friends, sisters? The team prototyped a session where mothers—the presumed best pathway to communicate with the girls—joined them for lessons on puberty. Quickly, though, the team discovered that some mothers had misconceptions about it. So they looked elsewhere. “We found that older sisters were great educators and that we could train the older sisters to deliver this and teach these lessons through reading a story book.” The team ended up writing an engaging short novel that explained the process of puberty. Mothers could read and approve it, and sisters could share it to learn about their bodies. Because the team started the prototyping process with agreement on the end outcome, the shift in their approach was more easily embraced by all stakeholders.

2. Catalyze stakeholders with storytelling

When you have data, both challenges and solutions can be easy to illustrate. But when you don’t have it, how do you represent the needs you’re solving for, or what, exactly, your solution will look like? In a project focused on creating a digital tool to help lower-income Americans improve their financial health, the IDEO.org team came up with the idea of a chatbot that could encourage people to make better financial decisions. But some team members and stakeholders had preconceptions that chatbots might come off as too automated or insincere. So one designer put together the story of a user named Janice and what her daily interactions with the chatbot looked like as she worked to manage her finances. “With a very simple story of an individual’s experience with this chatbot, Roo, the whole team was able to align around what it was we were working towards, and we were also able to get our partners really excited about what that would look like,” Jocelyn says. What started out as a technical solution evolved into a character that could celebrate when people made good financial choices. Project stakeholders went from thinking of the chatbot as a sterile experience to a friendly and engaging one.

3. Find moments of joy and get unstuck through co-design

Even when you’re working in constrained environments, it’s really important to design for delight, Jocelyn says. It can be easy to get overwhelmed with the complexity and enormity of some challenges and get stuck revisiting the same old ideas. Here is where it’s also important to engage the local community to get better insights and design together. In a project in Uganda, IDEO.org was working to design a tool to measure whether refugees were satisfied or dissatisfied with the water in their camps. They set up tablets at water stands and waited for people to sign in and report how they felt, but the response rates were really low. To find inspiration for a new approach, they refocused on the human element of the project and trained refugees to engage with their community members and elicit feedback. They created a brand—Kuja Kuja—with a tagline: “The shortest distance between two people is a smile.” By adding friendly community ambassadors to the process, they were able to move beyond a tech solution, bring in more joy, and gather more feedback.

4. Use iterative prototyping as a learning tool

When the IDEO.org team took on the challenge of increasing contraception use among Ethiopian women, they narrowed their target group to rural women between 15 and 19. Because most of that population is married, the first question to ask was whether to reach out to women, or to women and their husbands. With a small prototype, they quickly found that they had much more engagement when they reached out to couples, so they designed something that would appeal to both partners. Instead of focusing on health, they pivoted to financial planning to frame the costs associated with a new child. “How do we make this a really clear equation for people?” Jocelyn says. The population they were working with didn’t deal much with currency, so the team needed to translate to something more relatable. By showing costs as bags of grain or goats, “people really got it.”

To get to that point, the team did a ton of low-stakes prototyping with small numbers of people; the goal wasn’t to create something successful with each experiment, but to find out what would work and what wouldn’t. “We knew we needed to design a super simple solution that a community health worker could deliver,” Jocelyn says. “If not, it wasn’t going to go forward.” Those small experiments allowed the team to refine their way to something really useful: a set of flip charts that served as a visual training program. With that tool, community health workers could go out and walk couples through the costs of a child, and how contraception might help them plan for their future.

This project was a long one—18 months elapsed between kick off and the refined pilot—but the team was testing easy, live prototypes within 10 or 12 weeks. To keep the momentum going, they provided their partners with scorecards for the prototypes and used their input to constantly iterated new versions. And the refinement continues. Recently, the team was able to train 600 community workers to deliver contraception education to 100,000 people.

Prototyping solutions for social change can be a long process, especially when you’re working to create a program that is scaled up through the government and reaching hundreds of thousands of people. Iterative prototyping allows you to build on insights and learn as you go. Jocelyn thinks of this process as “that stepped increase from really early prototype to live prototype to pilot to ultimate implementation at scale.”

The social sector presents many challenges that stretch the muscles of seasoned designers to find beautiful, functional solutions. Keep these tips in mind as you’re working to solve a complex challenge or push through barriers to creativity and innovation.


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