Design4ImpactRSS Feed

Creativity and the business of social innovation.

Design for Impulse

I strongly believe that interaction design is central to solving the major issues facing our society today (this is probably no surprise coming from an Interaction Designer). Large scale challenges like the environment and healthcare can only be addressed if we can positively influence personal behavior on a large scale in a sustainable way. Our work on Project Masiluleke, for example, is focused on motivating young men in South Africa to test earlier for HIV, before they are symptomatic. According to a recent article in the NYTimes a new  mathematical model developed by the WHO suggests that the AIDS virus could be virtually eliminated if people tested earlier (before they have symptoms) and are immediately put on ARV's: "Whether this could work in practice is problematic. It is not clear how one could persuade people who are not feeling sick to get tested every year."

Behavior change is at the core of good interaction design, particularly when you design for social impact (this has also been referred to as 'Decision Architecture'). If I was starting an Interaction Design program (like Liz Danzico at SVA) or taking one over (like David Malouf at SCAD) the one academic subject I would be sure to cover is Behavioral Economics. Here is a nice quote from a different article on the topic which, incidently, is having a growing influence within the Obama administration:

"Behavioral economics sprang up about three decades ago as a radical critique of the standard assumption that human beings behaved in economically rational ways. The behaviorialists, as they’'re known, pointed out that this assumption was ridiculous."

Interaction designers have known for some time that people dont behave rationally when they interact with products and services and one another. This was the huge failure of the taskflow-driven design model that dominated software UX for so long. But policy makers are still catching up and could use a lot of help from the interaction design community. I attended a recent Social Innovation conference at NYU that was focused on designing for impact and brought this issue front and center. The discussion helped to clarify a very useful distinction for me:

1. Outputs: the specific products & services that you will be distributing.

2. Outcomes: the immediate changes in user behavior that result from interacting with these products and services.

3. Impacts: the value / overall effect of this behavior in addressing your goals.

I have been thinking about this distinction a lot lately. Here is an example I came across in a recent New Yorker article on teen pregnancy among evangelicals that neatly illustrates the distinction:

1. Evangelicals have invested heavily in the abstinence pledge movement, organizing big rallies featuring Christian pop stars and laser light shows, and purity balls, where girls in frothy dresses exchange rings with their fathers, who vow to help them remain virgins until the day they marry.

2. Nationwide, according to a 2001 estimate, some two and a half million teens have taken a pledge to remain celibate until marriage.

3. On average, white evangelical Protestants make their “sexual début” shortly after turning sixteen, earlier than almost every other religious group in the country. Even more interesting:

"if too many teens pledge, the effort basically collapses. Pledgers apparently gather strength from the sense that they are an embattled minority; once their numbers exceed thirty per cent, and proclaimed chastity becomes the norm, that special identity is lost. With such a fragile formula, it’s hard to imagine how educators can ever get it right: once the self-proclaimed virgin clique hits the thirty-one-per-cent mark, suddenly it’s Sodom and Gomorrah."

Outputs, Outcomes and Impacts are VERY different things and clients often confuse the three. As an Interaction Designer you better know the difference.

As frog's Vice President of Creative, Robert Fabricant leads efforts to expand the impact of design into new markets and industries. An expert in design for social innovation, Robert is lead partner in Project Masiluleke, an initiative that harnesses the power of mobile technology to combat HIV and AIDS in South Africa. He is an adjunct professor at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and is on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts in New York.