Prioritize their problems over your solution

As designers, we tend to get wrapped up in our own little worlds. Forgetting that design is problem-solving, we only seem interested in sophisticated tactics or cool solutions.

Last year I was invited to take part in an event called UX for Good. The concept was that we could save the world by applying user-centric methodologies to solve problems like homelessness and urban violence. I know a bit grandiose, but I think there is a kernel of truth there.

I was in a group with people from Ceasefire, an organization that uses a public health model to reduce violence in high-crime neighborhoods. Their model is very successful at the local level because their people know who’s who and what is going on. More importantly, they’ve seen first hand what works and what doesn’t.

The group split up into teams to come up with ways to help Ceasefire indirectly so they don’t need to change their own tactics and focus.

One thing that works well is when there is a safe haven, a neighborhood place where kids can get away. It works because Ceasefire staffers negotiate with gangs to ensure they’re off limits. So our task was to come up with ways to increase the number of safe havens.

First, we assumed these safe havens need to be compelling to attract kids. One idea was to create a place where they could express themselves with activities like creative writing, street art etc. It was like a little cultural center. Our contact (or stakeholder) just nodded. He seemed indifferent. So I asked him what kinds of things he’d have. He said, “hot water, video games, and a TV.”

It was so mundane, that it literally turned off a couple of my teammates. But it dawned on me then and there. The problem with safe havens isn’t that they’re boring. It’s that there aren’t enough of them. The discussion really wasn’t going anywhere with our stakeholder until we started exploring ways to make safe havens easy to replicate.

As designers, we need to spend less time trying to impress with technique and more with outcomes.