UX London: Social Entrepreneurship

by Luke Wroblewski April 17, 2012

In his The next step for design: Social Entrepreneurship presentation at Web à Québec Jon Kolko outlined the opportunity for designers to tackle important social issues by abandoning traditional job structures and creating their own companies that harness the power of design.

We’ve made It

  • We’re in the middle of an enormous professional shift as designers. Companies now believe design is integral to the success of their products. Today design is at the heart of innovation and as a result important to business. This gives designers a “seat at the table”.
  • This is great for designers.
  • Earlier design was associated with making things beautiful and later streamlined. During this period design was a big deal to designers. Today it's a big deal to a lot of other people.

Don’t look behind the curtain

  • We’re really good at doing design but we’re quite bad at picking what to design. We spend a lot of time making wood grain textures look wonderful and designing even more social networks.
  • These “selection” problems are not always our fault. It’s often not the job of designers to determine what companies do. Designers also have to deal with organizational consensus issues, bill-ability, etc.
  • Our industry collectively says we need to “suck it up”. We need to consider business goals as much as customer goals.
  • But even big capitalists know that organizations should exist to enable positive change for people.
  • We need to get out of the organizational machine in order to work on problems worth solving.

A way forward

  • In your lifetime, you will have seen the cost of mass-produced technology go from very expensive (thousands of dollars) to zero. Free laptops, WiFi, etc.
  • This changes the conversation about what you can work on. A lot of the infrastructure you need is freely available.
  • There are many funds and venture firms that can help you out financially.
  • Don’t be afraid of the big organizations. Nest (a start-up of 6 people making a thermostat) is being sued by Honeywell (a company with 2 billion in revenue) because they are scared. Tiny companies are disrupting giant companies all the time.

Problems worth solving

  • We feel, we observed, we believe: these word describe insights. Insights come to us in a flash that enables us to put things together that we didn’t think to combine.
  • Insights come from having an opinion. To have an opinion, you need a point of view. The insight comes from within you.
  • A well-structured problem can be tested, identified, and solved. Computers can solve these problems for us. They are not worth our time.
  • An ill-structured problem can’t be easily identified, or solved in a sequence. Most of designers work on these types of problems.
  • Wicked problems have no definitive formulation, no criteria on which to determine “solving”. They are typically social and humanitarian problems. These problems are worth your time and hard work.

Social entrepreneurship

  • Corporate or consultancy? The third choice: start your own company and use technology and freely available resources to get it going.
  • You need a process that focuses on ethnography, synthesis, and prototyping. As a designer, you already know how to do all this.
  • Ethnography requires you to leave the studio and go talk to other people. This allows you to find problems worth solving. The goal of ethnography is to gain empathy to understand problems.
  • Synthesis is bringing things together to make sense of them. You need to use abductive logic to look at places where there may be an answer. You can make sense of things through story-telling, the use of language, and a series of self/group activities.
  • Design is a process for humanizing technology. You can aim that process wherever you want.
  • Leave the organizational machine behind. Realize the disruptive power of design. Give yourself permission to start your own company and tackle problems worth solving.