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Design for Social Change? Government and Charities Still Not Getting Design Thinking

We non-designers have gone on a bit of a journey over the last five years. When design was first proposed as a tool for social change, we were perplexed. We thought people were talking about making our flyers and websites prettier. Because of the idea that design was about 'posters and toasters', lots of public and social sector people often didn't know that they were 'designing' when they were drawing up plans for new projects, initiatives and services. The process was unclear and lacked decision-making tools. 

At the Young Foundation, I worked on the ‘Citizens' University’. The idea was that the wide distribution of useful skills like first aid and defusing conflict would create healthier and more resilient communities. With very generous startup funding, we commissioned a national survey about citizenship and adult learning, conducted lots of focus groups and interviewed a ton of experts. Plus, we hired the staff we needed to launch in three sites across the country. After all this, none of our analysis seemed to prompt new thinking about what the training would actually look like. It wasn't a great scenario: we'd spend lots of money, lots of time and had nothing to show for it.

By serendipity, I met a service designer who gently persuaded me that our approach to the project was all wrong. I took her on to guide us through a prototyping process. Our first prototype bombed. It adhered to the same dry pedagogy of most adult education classes. But then, the training sessions swiftly evolved into something more experiential and fun. It was extraordinary how the progress we made in a few weeks' prototyping blew everything we'd done so far out of the water.

While our prototyping moved us along considerably, we hadn't started with the rich insights that are crucial to finding and developing the right idea. It wasn't enough and, coupled with the distinct lack of a revenue model and a fair amount of team churn, the project never fulfilled people's expectations.

This example, and many others in my own career in social enterprise and charity, seem to suggest a pattern in how the public and voluntary sectors design projects. First, no one seeks human-level insight into the lives of the users, instead relying solely on quantitative data or subjective hunches. Second, prototyping methodologies used extensively in design are shunned in favour of ineffective market research and large, expensive pilots.

Recently, the sector has discovered a set of tools from the world of design like user-journey mapping and service blue prints thanks to IDEO's Human-Centred Design, the D-school and others. The tools have been picked up, and organisations like FutureGov, Participle and the Design Council have helped show us what can be achieved with design. But merely using these tools is not enough.

To get the most out of design, the social sector should move beyond the mindless use of design tools to embody the principles of design thinking – having empathy for the people you're trying to help, trying something with real users rather than thinking about it in an ivory tower, running tests, and iterating solutions.

In my current work I have seen how non-designers can run with these idea to great effect. Indie Shergill, a Fellow of Year Here, the postgraduate social innovation programme I run, was working in a care home in spring 2013. Through observation and semi-ethnographic interviews, he picked up insight that enabled him to develop new service ideas. 

He realised that many relatives were put off visiting their elderly mother or father at the care home because at times they felt threatened by the behaviour of residents. As with any institution where there are lots of mentally ill people, care homes can be scary places – with shouting, swearing and aggression commonplace. The negative experience for relatives meant that they attended less and, in turn, residents became more isolated.

To counteract this, Indie had an idea to create a safe space for visitors. He got permission to use a little-used smokers' room for a relative visit. The first prototype was a success and it was agreed that the care home would release some money to convert the smokers' room into a permanent visitors' room that was comfortable, safe and was flexible enough to be changed for families' different food and music taste. It's a small example but by listening to users and prototyping a new idea, Indie was able to change things for the better in a more tangible and efficient way than I ever did with the Citizens' University.

I suspect that we might see design tools like lifebuoys in the choppy waters of social innovation. But to build services and experiences that are genuinely disruptive, government and charity people should embrace the waves – that means fully embodying design principles in the search for better solutions to society's toughest challenges.