The start of an OpenUp methodology for tying organisational strategy to design across both products and programmes.
How you make things matters. A few years ago, I did a Stanford D-School Design Workshop with our friends at MySociety. Having a template for innovation was exciting - but at that stage of my career innovation was still a fun idea - rather than what I did (which was ‘advancing rights’). My failure in creativity at that point is one I have seen across the development sector. Design and innovation are in fact much the job of social change - if they weren’t, the world would be a more just and inclusive one.
As OpenUp’s experience has advanced, it has become clear that the tools we are adopting from the private sector are useful, but insufficient for helping facilitate the positive social change we want. This is the first Working Paper in a series we will be developing to encapsulate some of our learnings, and strategies, for trying to adjust design and innovation processes in a way that is productive and useful. OpenUp is an organisation that subscribes to agile development principles. Additionally, we try and user-centred design - all while motivated to create positive social change for citizens. And while we live in a world where content is king, we think method is the kingmaker. And whilst we of course acknowledge there is a rich body of academic work in relation to design processes, what we are hoping to explore is a way of thinking about design processes that is fundamentally implementable.
We understand citizens broadly. We use the term citizen, as a nod to our civic technology origins. However, a more accurate definition would be rights-bearing persons in South Africa. We do not, for example, exclude from either our theory of change, or activities, immigrant residents in the country.
OpenUp have conceptualised four “conundrums” in our experience, which have forced us to challenge how we conceptualise both our methodologies, but also what constitutes “OpenUp work” - and how we might apply design strategies:
The Perverse Product
What if OpenUp were to design a Parliamentary engagement tool with a 97% user approval rate that is used to spam Committee hearings with submissions that result in the Committee ignoring feedback en masse? In this kind of scenario, the centering of user feedback leads to an incongruous result from the kind of positive social change impact embedded in our theory of change. Whilst part of the challenge may be the delineation of users, there is a seemingly more existential challenge too.
The Client Conundrum
What if OpenUp developed a tool for Municipalities that collects citizen feedback, commissioned and approved by a Municipality partner, which we know trashes inputs or is simply not read? This is in part an implementation challenge - we hope that our project implementation approach, focused on collaborative development, would mean that such a result would never arise. Yet it does also seem to be a question of what guides decision-making in our design process - clients, users, or impact?
What if OpenUp developed a tool with a 97% user approval for engaging ward councilors that is used to crowd-source foreign-owned shops under the auspices of a local development initiative? Given the xenophobic practices in relation to foreign-owned businesses in the country, our appreciation of risk must be incorporated into our understanding of impact.
Product Over Process
What if funders commission OpenUp to develop a tool we realise can be met by training only, and we would not then need to maintain any technology? Of course, traditionally funding should be provided for a proposed project - and ideally funders would be susceptible to us specifying the proposed solution. Broadly though, techno-centrism comes with a lot of longer-term risks and challenges too - not least of all sustainability. Whilst this is in part a call on civic technologists to think of themselves as primarily problem solvers, rather than technologists, it does also bring into question the room for local knowledge and local content in problem-solving. The question then becomes whether we can use (or adapt) design principles developed specifically for the design of a product to rather speak to a broader challenge - and solution-making - context?
We might consider OpenUp's theory of change, which essentially centres the creation or improvement processes between government and citizens, and increasing access to information and data, as key means to improving outcomes for people. Underlying this is an appreciation that the problems we are targeting with such a theory are largely social (as in societal wide rather than sourced in social dynamics) and a very real appreciation that the source of social problems are inherently complex.
We might consider OpenUp's theory of change, which essentially centres the creation or improvement processes between government and citizens, and increasing access to information and data, as key means to improving outcomes for people.
The design community definitely seeks to try and address social challenges, but what kind of design principles and methods might contribute to addressing some of the challenges OpenUp experiences? Whilst certainly the conundrums posed above also need to be met by our approaches to project implementation quite directly, this Working Paper is seeking to try and unpack the more methodological implications in the context of design processes.
Thinking About Design
User-centred design (UCD) is a collection of processes which focus on putting users at the center of product design and development. A loose timeline, based on desktop research in the area, could be described thus:
- 1970 - User-centred design (UCD) centres the individual in design choices of commercial products.
- 1989 - Human-centred design (HCD) centres the ‘human’ and the ‘social’ in design choices.
- 2019 - Impact-centred design (ICD) centres the actual impact in the design over the user (broader stakeholders).
- 2022 - Hum-Im design sees OpenUp exploring the balance necessary to achieve better outcomes for our people.
It would seem that HCD is an adaptation which seeks to move design processes from a profit context to a social context, whilst still centering the person that will use the product (or service) as the key determinant for design decisions. Human-centredness can be seen as a principle, with design-thinking being the method used for achieving outcomes (and both are increasingly being applied to try and tackle social problems). Further to the timeline above, design-thinking and processes are of course the subject of significant research and complexity. The work of Bijl. et al. provides some more detailed time progressions set against the different components they suggest being core to design processes:
There is certainly work being done to advance HCD in a manner that it might more directly address some of the challenges our experience have raised:
“[T]hese [adapted] methods are not about responding to needs, but include a more strategic exploration of what could provide meaningful value for stakeholders”. - van der Bijl-Brouwer and Dorst.
Whilst HCD is being adapted, ICD abandons the language more centrally. At its simplest, ICD is considered to stem design processes directly from impact statements. An example of a framework for this has been posited as:
So, whereas under UCD product experience is the main framework for design and decision-making, under ICD impact is ultimately the decider, which considers experience and interaction.
Yet these adaptations (in both HCD and ICD) are still very individually focused. Another solution posed to address this is the concept of community-centred design, as demonstrated in the work of Verghis. Essentially, it seeks to centre community needs, and thus can be contrasted to UCD and HCD. However, it essentially described as a more antiquated approach for failing to facilitate more participation in the design process:
A Move Toward a Method
Even with interesting developments in the HCD and ICD fields as we see above, there are still some aspects of social understanding that we want to forefront. A challenge with an over-emphasis of the individual in a context of social change as impact, is it too readily presumes total agency in an individual for adjusting behaviour, or utilising tools, for creating change. There are of course structural impediments to taking actions - and those structural impediments can only be understood if we take more of a community focus on the ‘agent’ as ‘user’.
So, we are looking to expand both who is the user, as well as trying to consider both user imperatives alongside impact imperatives for design. A simplified diagram of that can look like:
Centring impact is so vital for us, because our goal is not to simply scale a product or even just create a product. It is to create a certain kind of social impact, which products (and interventions) can foster - but needs to also accommodate an appreciation for unintended consequences, and structural influences like political transition or community economic constraints.
Whilst we hope to bring significantly more definition to the space, problematising in the way we have so far has already helped us understand the key ways we think working to a combination on design priorities might be actioned:
- Helping us to define our products and projects goals;
- Assisting us to establish criteria for a) design pivots, b) project pivots and c) cull points;
- Establishing the measures for success of a project, product or other intervention (which means not just establishing opinions, but also incorporating other forms of measure);
- Helping design the implementation of activities alongside the establishment of risk; and
- Impacting our communication strategies in relation to a project, product or other intervention.
As part of our “Fail Fast” culture, OpenUp are continuously open to establish points at which activities can be culled to ensure better impacts in the long-term.
What We Have Done
While we are developing toolkits (for instance, potentially adjusting persona templates and similar) and strategies for actioning these ideas in the way described above, we have already taken several steps to drive these things forward.
Task for the result you want
OpenUp realise trying to action the correlations between the ideas requires a significant amount of information on context. This requires research - and thus, researchers. OpenUp has been expanding the research capacity we have, across not just content - but in relation to data and usability as well.
Keep knowledge as a product
The more learning informs our activities, the more OpenUp has acknowledged that knowledge itself is in fact one of the product areas we have to action. Our Knowledge Works is the new activity arm which coalesces content research; Monitoring, Evaluation, Research and Learning (MERL) research; and usability and user-centred research. Previously, research was a component of project activities, and not an activity area in and of itself.
Interdisciplinary innovation means meetings (of minds)
We are not techno-centric - and there are a variety of complexities, which require a variety of skills for designing innovations for social change. In practice, this means fostering an organisational culture of listening and sharing, which also means fostering a culture of (well-constructed) participative meeting attendance. Meetings should not be envisioned as an activity that stops you doing your work (unless they are badly designed or unnecessary), but rather as a mechanism for achieving your work collaboratively. This also allows us to bring our Knowledge Work across activities.
The Big Picture and the Future
In closing, it is important to highlight that OpenUp does not believe these are small thoughts just about project implementation. We see some Big Picture impacts. As policy narratives on privacy and AI have developed, there are increasingly calls for “privacy by design” and “equality by design” solutions, as attempts to align policy solutions with technical implementation. Yet, much of this policy conversation has failed to practically consider how standard technology design processes for commercial gain would practically incorporate these forms of concern into design decision-making. Allowing practitioners to critically engage with design processes (innovating the method of innovation itself) we believe is a critical step forward in this area.