Category Archives: Design

Design for Social Impact + Systems + Co-Design

I’m taking a break from design consultancy work to focus on my art and writing for awhile. Maybe a long while. But as they say: you can take the girl outta design, but you can’t take the design outta the girl.

I thought this would be a good opportunity to capture my current thoughts around design for social impact, as my hypotheses are always evolving through learned experiences and depending on the latest book/mental model/framework/kool-aid-du-jour that I’m currently excited about. Hopefully, over time, this thinking is getting more nuanced and more attuned to the realities of our complex world.

One thing I know for sure — there are also more and better questions over time!

I fully acknowledge that this blogpost is rambly and long. It is not “the simplicity on the other side of complexity”, where I have synthesized enough to communicate the complexity in a compelling manner. But this is partly for my personal archives, and if you’re a process geek and willing to wade a little in the weeds with me, I am happy to elaborate on any of these points in discussion — as a way to keep pushing the conversation forward.

The past few years

I have had the great pleasure of being able to work at Daylight Design on some amazing design for social impact projects, and a couple of them have made it into the “real world” via prototypes and pilots. One of the projects was even working with teachers, which was a dream of mine coming out of grad school. One of my projects was CSR for a multinational corp. A few projects circled the theme of social and emotional learning (SEL) for young children. Over the past half-year, I have been working on projects which gave me a crash course in systems thinking and another crash course in measurement and evaluation (building off cursory knowledge from a previous M&E internship with Livelyhoods).

I think one of Daylight’s secrets and one of the reasons they are able to do effective social impact work is that they have longterm trusted relationships with some of their non-profit and foundation clients, who are willing to experiment in partnership with new ways of approaching challenges and projects.

My current working hypotheses

My current working thesis is that the interventions, opportunity areas, and ideas generated through the human-centered design process (while still based in human needs and insights)…

1) would be much more compelling if they intersected with an identified leverage point(s) for change within a system, which requires a good solid understanding of the system (the foundation of which could also be gleaned during deep-listening, ethnographic research and continue to evolve over time).

2) would be more effective if the initial systems mapping and understanding is done in collaboration with community members and other stakeholders, who then—through the process—have an understanding of “I am part of this system” and “this is important” and “oh shit, this is also my responsibility to work toward changing.” (The process is the product, the process of working together and understanding the system together is a necessary ingredient in changing systems. Also I believe that co-design efficiently+effectively overturns unhealthy transactional relationships and toxic power dynamics and old ways of doing things.)

3) would be more effective in the long-term if teams could treat the ideas generated as hypotheses (putting the theory back in theory of change, heyo!), which they would then prototype in an agile (?) way/environment with the community because you have to put pilots/prototypes out into the system in order to see how the system will react/change/pushback/etc. We have to probe the system with “gentle action” (Andrew Zolli) in order to change the system.

4) would more realistically be able to shift the system if there are multi-prong approaches, so recognizing that individual [design or otherwise] interventions exist alongside other approaches. If a ‘portfolio’ of things are targeted toward affecting the same leverage point and the same desired goal for change, then individual things have more potential for actually working. (I guess even if some of us end up working on targeted interventions because goodness knows we need teams on the ground actually doing stuff, how do we keep an eye on our partners, what else is going on, how to work in concert with each other…how do we keep a systems view on things?)

Thinking about this set of things within a consultancy framework or within an academic year or within a fellowship’s timeline is difficult. #3 in particular is really hard because “near term” timelines for systems stuff is like 1-3 years. Although, I guess if it’s a narrower, smaller, more contained (community? geographically bound?) system, it might be possible to see some change or effects in a system in a 6 months-1 year time period?

The tricky thing is a mindset shift from planning + problem solving >>> to adapting and responding to the system. My previous feelings and writing around “we should work in our own backyards” and “we shouldn’t parachute in to save anybody” are about this topic. My more nuanced view is that the reason you need longterm commitment and engagement is because to be a systemic practitioner, you need to 1) recognize your role in the system, 2) have some responsibility in acting on the system and responding to the the changes in the system, and 3) systemic change takes time. Also 4) there’s something woo-woo yet also very powerful about the fact that a lot of systems thinking books (even the densest, most academic ones) end with the idea that “to change the system, you have to change yourself.” (So chew on that! For instance, how does one go about decolonizing one’s life and relationships…?)

I think a true mindset shift to working as [design or other] practitioners within systems would change how we talk and think about: deliverables at the end of projects, the “end of projects”, the goal of the end of a residency or fellowship year, the pitches (“this will change the world! this solves it all!”) to get funding to launch prototypes into the world. (We should be funding teams to work on specific problems and their ‘north star’ impact goals, not funding the solutions — which should change if they are truly working within a system and responding to its needs.)(At the very least, we should be funding teams to test their prototypes, and expect follow-up conversations and funding that allows for failures, “so what did you learn?”, and pivots.)

For ‘design for social impact’ initiatives/programs within academia, this is tricky because of competing, parallel goals: training and getting students ready for a job market vs. impact on a system. For the program to survive, the former is paramount, and the secondary is merely bonus. The meta-question here would be to map a system and see how the short-term engagements of academic programs, fellowship years, and consultants affect the system dynamics and relationships of a particular community. Do all of these small things add up to some good in the world, do the benefits outweigh the harm, and are the shortterm consequences worth the outcome of having more people trained to think systemically and designerly? Is the training of people a good leverage point for overall impact? (Maybe so!)

I would probably sit back and also argue that we need to change the education/life system in which students feel pressured to treat their schooling as a step toward “getting a high-paying job in xyz.” But that’s a whole nother wicked problem, and admittedly I’m a curmudgeon who is still trying to figure out whether it’s better to work within or outside of systems.

Also, the perpetual question in all of these discussions is: Who’s paying for this work? How is it being funded? (I would probably sit back and argue that we need to change the…etc.)

Links and Resources

If you’re on this journey, too, I’d love to hear what you’re reading, or which thought leaders are influencing your point of view these days. Here are some of my starting points for diving into systems thinking, from a designer’s point of view:

Hugh Dubberly on Designers and Systems

Books on Systems + understanding Leverage Points

The most accessible I’ve read is Donella Meadows book Thinking in Systems. Part 3 in the book is all about leverage points and opportunity areas.

Systems Thinking for Social Change by David Stroh is more academic, but the second part is helpful because it talks more specifically and more practically about applying systems to social change initiatives.

A friend recommended ecologist Joanna Macy’s books; they are next on my reading list.

Additional Things to look up: 

  • Love this article from about the relationships and friendships at the heart of design research. The process is the product, the dharma is the path, the relationships are the change.
  • Kumu as a tool for systems mapping
  • Keep an eye on the ways The Omidyar Group is using systems thinking in their practices and in their strategic grantmaking. They are working with Rob Ricigliano on tools that will eventually also be available to the public. I think they are doing really exciting work in integrating systems thinking and design thinking into their work; plus, they’re working with Daylight on some of the projects, so there will also be a human-centered lens as a filter to some of it.
  • Danny Burns and participatory systems mapping
  •  A short overview of some different systems thinkers‘ philosophies

  • Zaid Hassan’s talk on complexity and need for Social Labs (social, experimental, systemic)

Other Social-Lab-y Stuff I was recommended to look into:

  • Dalberg Design (led by former frogs Robert Fabricant and Ravi Chhatpar)
  • Stanford ChangeLabs (led by Banny Banerjee. design + behavioral economics + systems thinking)

Thinking out loud: the role of individual agency in system change

During an icebreaker last year, each of us was asked to bring in a photo or object that represented why we work in the social impact field. I brought in  a picture of water ripples because I believe in the ripple effect of empowering individuals. Another person talked about seeds, and I was reminded of that day recently when we were speaking with an NGO whose tagline is:

If you are given a fruit, you can enjoy it only once;
If you are given a seed, you can benefit from it your whole life.

This NGO’s staff are inspired by the women they work with when they see that their personal empowerment becomes seeds for change in their families and in their communities. I’ve always been drawn to strength-based work that focuses on capacity building and fueling change in individuals as the seeds for larger social impact. That’s why I believe in education as a way to tackle the root causes of many of our social issues. That’s why I quit design to pursue teaching in ’09. As a teacher, I wanted to spark the individual agency within our next generation of changemakers. Or rather, I don’t believe our world has any chance of solving some of our current problems if our next generation doesn’t have the critical thinking skills, passion, and agency to make great strides forward.

I’m lucky to be able to continue working on social impact projects across different sectors. Each project brings new perspectives and evolves my point of view on social change. Through recent introductions and rabbit-holing, I found this “Ideas Unbound” interview with Ruth Shapiro that has some great quotes. For instance, this is a good encapsulation of the difference between scale and systemic change:

“There is a difference between scale and systemic change. Scale, you’re delivering x number more of water tablets or mosquito nets, and you’re scaling your endeavor that way. Systemic change is going to the root of the problem. In most parts of the world, you can’t create systemic change without partnering with government, and that piece has [until recently] been left out of the conversation. But you have to really work with government. You have to work with school districts or you have to work with ministries of health. You have to get at systemic change, which is much more powerful than just scaling. Scaling is good; systemic change is better.

“The other point I wanted to make is I make a point at the end of the book that I think this field has significantly been influenced by Silicon Valley…a lot of the money for the field is coming from this area. And these are people who’ve made a lot of money because they’ve scaled something like Facebook or eBay or a computer like Hewlett & Packard. I quote a social entrepreneur in the book, Eric Weaver, who has the largest micro finance organizations in California for social change. He says, ‘One of the problems is people are looking for the killer app for social change, and it doesn’t work that way. Yes, you can have a killer app that’s a great game. but you can’t have a killer app around infant mortality. There’s no one right answer. It’s a complex issue with a complex set of solutions and numerous players and organizations and agencies involved. So to think you’re going to find this one panacea or killer app is I think naïve. There’s still this tendency to think what is it, what is it, this one idea is going to change everything.”

(There is no killer app; there’s only silver buckshot.)(And incidentally, system change is why I left traditional teaching to come back to the world of design in 2010.)

Even though Ruth Shapiro’s book, The Real Problem Solvers: Social Entrepreneurs in America, and this podcast are a few years old now, the changes she mentions around media and personal empowerment are still young and still need incubation in so many parts of the world.

“When I graduated college, I went into the Peace Corps and went to the Philippines, which is a predominantly Catholic country. Here was this New Yorker…all of 22 years old…I thought I knew all the answers. And I ran up into this attitude — they call it their bahala na — which means this is as God wills it, there’s really nothing I can do about these circumstances. And I found it so frustrating. I see an extraordinary sea change in that — that personal empowerment, that notion that in fact I have some control over my own destiny. I think it’s because…it’s phones, it’s internet. People are starting to say: I don’t have to live with this situation, this status quo any longer. I can make a change. To Bill [Drayton]’s point, to Ashoka’s point of ‘everyone’s a change maker.’ That’s happening. They may not all become social entrepreneurs, but this notion of personal empowerment is a huge sea change.”

 We were in the field doing some research interviews this past week, and one of the frustrating things was that a lot of the women we talked to have accepted their current circumstances as the way things are. That have no sense of agency right now.

And in some ways, I get it — the system is so big, and you are just one individual. It would be folly to try to fight the system right now. That would take a ton of courage, resources you don’t have, and an enthusiastic inexplicable compulsion to being a rebel and a troublemaker…because rebel is also often synonymous with outcast and loner.

There’s also an interesting cultural tension at play. I wonder about the role of individual agency in societies that value collective duty. In the podcast, they talk about how American it is to tackle social issues or our own personal problems vs. relying on government or someone else to take care of it.

“In the US, people are always creating organizations. Someone who suffers through a certain tragedy will create an organization so others don’t have to suffer the same kind of tragedy. It’s a very American thing…I think that technology is fundamentally changing the way people are feeling empowerment in society. And when you feel empowered, that’s how you create change. Americans, we’ve never relied on government…That sense of personal empowerment, that’s changing throughout the world and how people are thinking about their mobility and their personal circumstances.”

The question of collective collaboration in the social impact field is a question many are asking right now—to reduce redundancy, to amplify impact, to tackle system problems with system solutions. I wonder about the negative unintentional consequences of American culture’s hyper-focus on the individual, on “bettering one’s situation”, on elevating the individual entrepreneur over the bridgemakers trying to work within the system. (I’m not saying it’s wrong; I’m just asking if there might be more than one way.)*

The women we talked to this week have all been able to persevere with grace in the face of emotionally difficult situations. Part of their survival arsenal in doing this is to accept the facts of their life as they are and to deal with their current circumstances as best they can. They still dream, but they are also grounded in reality. Acceptance of what is, is also a key part in the practice of Buddhism and meditation.** Whining and resisting and fighting are not productive. Focusing on the negatives just makes you feel helpless.

Actually, the goal of any capacity-building work is to counter that helplessness, to seed that empowerment, to spark in someone that sense of individual agency. But there are limits to individual agency. Individual dreams cannot be activated within an ecosystem that lacks opportunities—or within an ecosystem that actively discourages individual mobility. Maybe we are setting individuals up for failure if we encourage their agency in a vaccuum, before a ‘tipping point’ has occurred, or before we’ve simultaneously and collectively bolstered the ecosystems that make individual agency truly effective. I’m starting to think that it’s irresponsible to help black kids dream without also simultaneously addressing the current realities of race in the United States.***

Yes, it’s true: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; Teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

But, what if he also needs a boat to get to the fish? Or what if he lives in a landlocked country with no access to fish? Or what if the sea where he is supposed to be fishing is polluted and overfished and undernourished? Or maybe most importantly of all: what if he never wanted that fish in the first place?

I’m coming to see that I’ve been using capacity-building/personal empowerment/individual agency as MY own silver bullet for tackling social change. And obviously, of course, there is no silver bullet. There’s so much more nuance. There’s so much more complexity. It’s a ‘both-and’ situation of empowering individuals AND working on (breaking/remaking/creating anew) the systems we live within.

Yet I’ll still place most of my bets on this idea of personal empowerment. It’s where my hope lies. While my perspective is evolving and growing more complex, my personal contribution to this field of social impact will likely always anchor in sparking individual seeds for change.

Because of Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s most astounding fact of all:****


*Related and thought-provoking: The power of design education and design in general in helping people realize that “everything is made up” and therefore have the agency to change things. Juxtaposed and dancing alongside: “Why I’m not a maker” and why makers are not the only ones changing things.

**There’s a lot more nuance to this idea of “accepting your current reality”–obviously, there are also boundaries and psychological health and the difference between repression vs. acceptance, the difference between acceptance and giving up, to dig into…but they feel tangential to the main point of this blogpost.

***Another perspective on the Humans of New York fundraiser; how to be a good ally; and Deliberate Discourse Dinners as just one way to start engaging with race in a safe space.

****H/T Christina V. Pentz, aerospace engineer.

UXers past and present

Just watched a 2012 UX Week talk by Toi Valentine on the differences between the previous generation of UX designers (self-taught, all coming from different fields because there was no such thing as UX: explorers, definers, thinkers, evangelists) and the current generation (graduates of UX-specific programs, makers, prototypers, more worried about application of UX vs. “what is UX?”)

Definitely a tension I felt even back in 2011 at the Interaction Conference in Boulder — we were graduate students at AC4D: new to UX, young, and impatient with all the theoretical meta-conversations about how the field should define and position itself. We were craving more concrete, action-oriented talks about how to apply these skills to the problems we cared about.

The two points that Toi raises which I’ve been thinking about recently:

1) What do you lose when everyone in UX is trained in UX from the get-go? Cross-disciplinary, well-rounded, unicorn…these are all buzzwords for an intangible quality that we’re all naturally drawn to: interestingness. When you hear the bios of the most interesting people, their backgrounds are rarely a straight, linear path from point A to point B.* While of course there is tremendous value in having deep expertise and experience in SOMEthing, the ability to connect seemingly-disparate dots, ask crazy questions, and retain outsider perspective in field X because you’ve also been in field Y is key to not drinking the Kool-Aid.

2) How do we keep questioning and evolving our methods and approaches? I’m totally guilty of wanting to pre-define and over-codify our processes.** Of the two types of learners: those who jump in feet first to figure out how to play the game as they go and those who read the instructions while observing someone else try it out first to assess the risks before rolling up her sleeves…I’m definitely more in the latter camp.*** While having trusted processes can be extremely freeing, it can also lead down a dangerous path of complacency. On the one hand, relying on codified processes gives our teams the freedom, common language, and safe spaces in which to play, so that we can tackle more complex problems and take bigger risks in our work. If you’ve ever tried to get anything done while also defining the process at the same time (essentially parallel processing the what and the how), you know how much mindspace and time it takes up.

All that said, the danger is (again) in drinking the Kool-Aid. In consultancy-land, we should leave room for trying new processes and learning from project-to-project as we’re scoping future projects. (This is on my mind lately, as we experiment with lean UX and agile in more traditional settings.) Even more importantly, at the intersection of design + social impact, there are a TON of assumptions about the repercussions and impacts of applying our “tried-and-true” design methods to arenas that require as much thoughtfulness and long-term investment as they also require rapid experimentation and risk-taking for the sake of innovation.

SO…no conclusions today. Just curiosities about how differently the new generation of UX designers think having grown up with certain tech and never having had to evangelize the value of UX — they definitely bring new things to the table and push the envelope in different ways. I’ll also continue thinking personally about how to ward against the echo chamber of bubbles and confirmation biases and overly-curated social media streams. I want to keep setting the stage for divergent thinking by injecting surprise into my input channels and by immersing myself in other fields, skillsets, and areas of expertise.


* Ironically, when you’re young and in the midst of jumping from point D to point P back to point K with no rhyme or reason, you feel a lot of angst and anxiety about failing…but it’s okay young ones, it’s okay me-of-the-past: you’ll appreciate your quilt of experiences in the long run.

**  This makes me hesitate to package things into Toolkits, especially prematurely, but for some reason, the Universe keeps giving me those kinds of projects. Maybe to give me space for reflection on this question specifically.

*** Shhhh, don’t tell anyone. Designers especially tend to judge if you’re uncomfortable with uncertainty…although “liking process” and “being comfortable with uncertainty” are not incompatible.

GovJam LA: Rocking the Public Sector in 48 Hours

Next week from June 4-6, GovJam LA will convene at the Hub LA for a 48-Hour collaborative service jam event. We’ll be bringing together gov folks, designers, and engaged citizens to re-imagine the way public services are delivered in Los Angeles.

The 48-hour Global Gov Jam takes the playful energy of the Global Service Jam and applies it to prototyping new services related to healthcare, education, public transportation, and other civic issues. For people working in the public sector, we’ll introduce you to design process and methodologies. For creatives and designers, we’ll introduce you to new ways of collaborating within the public sector. No design experience is necessary to join the Jam; in fact, we’re capping the number of designers who can participate, so we can ensure a diverse mix of Jammers with a mix of skills and view points.

Jamming offers a high-energy, massively diverse environment which focuses firmly on doing, not talking. By moving through a common innovation process, participants move away from well-trodden paths, building on each other’s ideas to take practical, constructive steps towards novel solutions.

From my experience co-organizing Service Jam LA in March, I saw two secret ingredients to a successful Jam. One is a bias toward doing, not talking. The end goal for all the teams is a working prototype of a new service. Participants will be given all the necessary tools and supplies to make their ideas real—to get their thoughts down on paper and to create prototypes instead of talking in endless circles. Prototyping allows for more effective collaboration and quicker progression of the design process.

The second secret ingredient is fun. While each Jam location is different, you’ll often find costumes, dance parties, and props at many of them. GovJam LA will be no exception. The global Service Jam community encourages playing seriously: We’ll be keeping things light to encourage innovation and creativity, but our Jam will be highly productive as well with Jammers working intensely toward concrete results. Though I knew about the Jam’s spirit of fun, it wasn’t until I experienced it fully during the 48 hours of the Service Jam that I appreciated how much the FUN enhances the spreading of new ideas and the learning of new methods.

The concrete results produced by Jammers might be in the form of new initiatives or platforms, new policies, and new public services. Teams will show how their services work by building working “prototypes,” which might be a video, a website or app, a service journey, a business model, etc. Less tangible but equally (if not more!) valuable results will be in forming relationships with people from diverse backgrounds and getting hands-on experience with new working methods. Jammers may even find that breaking out of their daily routines and being creative in a new environment gives them a fresh solution to a challenges they’ve been stuck on!

Global Gov Jam originated in Canberra, Australia as a way to encourage public sector professionals to “purposefully design public policy in a human centred way.” This year, the GovJams are spreading worldwide in over 30 cities.

Register today for GovJam LA (or for a Jam in your city) to join us as we re-imagine how public services are delivered…in 48 hours. We can’t wait to Jam with you!

SXSWedu presentation: “Designing for Peer Learning”

Christina Tran presenting at SXSWedu

This March, I presented a “Future15” talk at SXSWedu on Designing for Peer Learning. The “Future15” format is four shorter talks within the same hour around a loose theme. My talk was grouped under the theme “Social and Mobile Learning” along with Meredith Swallow’s Participatory Action Research in the Classroom and Abhi Vijayakar’s Collaborative Learning Through Social Games.

I knew I was going to use HourSchool’s work with Green Doors as a case study for the talk, but I debated for a long time about whether to focus more on our design process or more on guiding principles for peer-learning. I wanted the info I presented to be as tangible, useful, and inspirational as possible, so I ended up focusing the talk on the lessons we had learned about peer education and tips for how to foster more peer-learning in all types of settings. I’m happy that I got to tell a lot of stories that encapsulate many of HourSchool’s core beliefs.

Audio and slides of the talk below. Hear other SXSWedu speakers here.

I’ll write more about my takeaways and experiences at the conference at a later date.

Connecting: A Film about Interaction Design

This film is a good intro to what interaction design is and some new things happening in the field’s near future. “Without humans, it’s not very interesting.”

I particularly like the analogy one person offers around the 15:00 mark that this new layer of connectivity is very much like the Cambrian explosion when cells began to organize thru chemical signals into larger organisms and exhibit collaborative behavior.

We have behaviors as a collective, a colony, a race. And we’ll start to act more as a collaborative as our signals are enhanced and made visible. It’s larger than our individual selves.

Jonathan Harris’s Creative Mornings Talk

A few of you know that Jonathan Harris is one of my professional crushes. I’ve known him for his projects like We Feel Fine and Whale Hunt, and I received his daily photos and stories in my inbox the year+ he was working on Today. I admired his ability to craft data and code to tell stories and craft experiences. At IdeaMensch, Shivani Siroya talked about the fact that one is only able to “connect the dots” of one’s life in hindsight, and Harris uses his Creative Mornings talk to do just that: to reflect on the big ideas (Paint, Data, Life, Me, Tools) that have driven his work along the way, the promises they promised, and the shortcomings they cost.

Now I better understand his trajectory.
And why the vulnerability of physical art led him to data,
whose superficiality led him to chasing intense life experiences,
whose limited scale and depth led him to recording his internal life,
whose constant documentation hindered actually living,
which refocused him on building tools–software that engineers our lives & habits & cultures, that change our behavior, that exaggerate our urges, that give us our new normals.

His new company, Cowbird, has been designed to counteract the trends he’s been seeing in the way tech has shaped our lives:

He also talks about the need for people working in tech to start thinking about ethics because software are our testing grounds before the technological interventions start merging with our bodies.

Is your company Healing (solving a problem, fulfilling a need, marketplaces connecting people to other people) or Dealing (attention economies, convincing people to spend a lot of time here, using people and their info as currency)?

And in the most refreshing way, he wraps up his talk with a story about turning Cowbird into a company–being on the treadmill, being in Silicon Valley, surrounded by people who were all starting their own companies, raising rounds of money…and then pausing, reflecting, realizing this isn’t what he wanted to do, that it wasn’t what was right for Cowbird, and stepping off that path. Cowbird will remain small, they didn’t take the seed rounds, they will figure out how to make some money in the near future without ads, and they will let it grow organically. Allowing this project to teach him and lead him and evolve him as a person–just as he has always done.