Lola De Coster
Design Management & Cultures
According to the Cambridge dictionary, the word "sustainable" means: ‘able to continue for a period of time’ and is often associated with the environment and ecological themes. Throughout my professional and personal experience during my DPS year, I have realized that sometimes while the ecological part is more and more being pushed forward in the industry the “social sustainability” is often overlooked, especially within design processes: There are countless examples of designs that were not socially viable and that had detrimental consequences. These examples are most striking for design for the public domain: bike-share programs that disrupt and clutter the city, harmful bench design to keep the homeless away, and on a larger scale sending second-hand clothing to help first world countries which undermines the local economy. In this blog post, I want to look at famous design processes and the different issues that may arise while using this design process, and the key role of empathy. This is both based on theory and my personal experience during this year.
Most of these unpredicted issues are a consequence of a lack of user knowledge and research. Design brands often put forward the user-centric approach but in practice, I have rarely witnessed this in the industry. I have found that during my DPS year most practitioners use these famous design frameworks thoroughly but when it comes down to implementing the user-research part things become a little more awkward. One aspect I have seen recurring on multiple occasions is that user insights would be asked once there is already a prototype made. In this case, there will be little to no room for users to give meaningful feedback. The basis of the new product came from user needs that were based on personas made of the designer’s assumptions and research. Asking for user feedback at the end of the design process as the Google Sprint famously dictates, allows rapid modifications that won't impact the whole project: a sprint is meant to last five days, and testing only happens on Friday. With the profit lens on this is a very productive way of working. But when looking through the purpose or socially responsible lens the user can only give feedback to what is given to him without having room to question the format and the motivations for the solution altogether. Users simply become motivators for design choices rather than the center of the process.
The IDEO's human-centered design kit elaborates on different methods for user research and in this case the user is involved at many stages of the design process. The Human-Centered Design approach is divided into three phases: Inspiration, Ideation, and Implementation. The inspiration phase, which is at the beginning of the design process, has the most methods that involve the target audience. IDEO does come to a step closer to a more inclusive design process, but the designer and his team remain the sole interpreter of the information, and here again, the user remains a tool to achieve the briefed design goals. Merely the fact that the first phase is called the "inspiration" phase, puts the designer on higher grounds than its targeted audience. The solution is dependent on whether the designer or team will feel ‘inspired’ or not so the user’s impact is relative to the designer. If equality and inclusivity are one of the targets of social sustainability, both approaches exclude the user from the design process and the user-designer relationship is not established on equal grounds.
While co-creation and participatory design are slowly emerging in the design discourse in practice there is still a lot of room for improvement. What makes it difficult is that design thinking is fluid and has no clear steps. These steps are especially hard to determine for public organizations that are often dealing with complex and wicked problems. Even if every problem needs a tailored process for coming to the solutions, there is a consensus that user research and involvement can only boost the effectiveness of the solution. Another crucial aspect that comes forward in every design process is empathy, or the ability to understand someone's feeling and imagine what it must be like to be in someone's shoes. Design thinking has always been linked with empathy when looking at the widely used and reinterpreted 5 stages of the design thinking process with its first stage being “emphasize” as it helps the designer’s solution come closer to its needs. And when we talk about human needs we are automatically connected to social sustainability (quality of life).
While I am strongly concerned and interested in the theories around socially responsible design, I have noticed in my professional experience during this DPS year that the amount in which the design process will be socially sustainable is highly dependent on the designer or manager that is willing to engage with the users or not. As a design manager I will most likely be looking at and hopefully leading design processes in the future. I, therefore, have felt a strong urge to improve my empathy and user research with well-known wicked problems such as racism and accessibility. Coming from a mostly white, abled-bodied, and privileged background I do not feel legitimate enough (yet) to be a practitioner that stands for anti-racism and inclusion. Until now, my knowledge has strictly been narrowed down to my studies and my professional experiences, which most of the time represent the social class I have navigated in most of my life. This continuous moral struggle has pushed me to promise myself to try to give myself the chance to emphasize and understand the groups of populations I am seeking to serve through my designs. I, therefore, decided to take the initiative to start volunteering for socially responsible organizations. Not to design, but simply to help and reduce my own biases. I am now helping out weekly in a house with mentally disabled people as well as going to activities to reduce the gap between immigrants and locals in my city. I also happen to be designing for a start-up in Kinshasa all through the same volunteering platform. Not what I first thought of doing when starting DPS but I do believe now this is an essential part of my curriculum as much as design thinking, the Design Sprint, and human-centered Design are.