Design Solutions Can Improve Society

I just read an interesting article in Fast Company about a non-profit firm that’s using design to improve people’s lives. The article discusses how Participle created an environment for seniors called the Peckham Circle that combines technology like Webcams with a new social enviornment that engages seniors in a network of relationships. According to Hilary Cottam, founding director of Participle, “The secret of a happy old age is getting on top of the everyday and being networked. The circles can help.”

What’s interesting about Participle is that it’s not a group of social workers. It’s an interdisciplinary design team with anthropologists, economists, entrepreneurs, psychologists, social scientists, and a military-logistics expert. Here’s Cottam’s mission for the firm, which she calls a social business: “To crack the intractable social issues of our time.”

My take: I applaud Cottam. It’s great to see design being used to solve social issues. I looked for a definition of “design solutions” that captured this approach, but I couldn’t find any that I liked. Rather than continuing to hunt for a codified definition for “design solutions,” I created this one:

An approach for creating environments — including interactions, products, processes, communications, and aesthetics — that are tailored to meet the expressed and unexpressed needs of people who experience them.

Many of today’s institutions were designed based on assumptions that have become outdated or were never designed with end users in mind. So there are many opportunties for design solutions to dramatically improve areas like healthcare, education, elder care, banking, and public safety.

What can design solutions provide?

  • A focus on the true (end user) requirements
  • Innovative approaches that break existing paradigms
  • Efficient solutions that deal with real-world constraints

The bottom line: The world would be better off with more design solutions.

Wells Fargo Improves Communications With Ethnography

Robin Beers (VP of Customer Insights) and Helene Alunni-Botteri (Vice President, Strategic Planning) at Wells Fargo briefed me about a research project in which the bank used ethnographic techniques to examine its written communications. It was a pretty novel approach, so I published a research report about the effort. Here are some of the highlights of their project.

The objectives.Wells Fargo (like all large banks) sends a wide variety of communications, both online and offline, to their customers. Wells Fargo wanted to make sure that the collection of these communications were “customer friendly.” In particular, the bank wanted to see how customers responded to its “Writing With C-A-R-E” (Consistent, Approachable, Resepectful, and Empathetic) guidelines.

The study.The bank recruited 20 customers who matched their three target personas to comment on all of the communications (e.g., account service notification, marketing solicitations) they received from Wells Fargo and other organizations over a 30-day period. These customers called a toll-free number to share their immediate reaction about the documents and they also kept a scrapbook in which they wrote comments about each communication. The bank brought the most engaged customers together to debrief them in-person about their scrapbooks.

Lessons learned. Here are some of the insights that Wells Fargo took away from the research:

  • The bank’s communications were meeting the basic needs of customers, but were falling short on the humanistic dimensions of “approachable” and “empathetic.”
  • Customers wanted the bank to communicate like it knew them, similar to other communications they received from organizations like AARP.
  • Marketing messages, especially those with presumptive language like “Congratulations!” or “Good News,” were viewed quite negatively; customers used words like “ploy” and “scheme” to describe them.
  • The bank could mitigate negative reactions to bad news like a notice of insufficient funds if the communications provided relevant advice.
  • Many consumers view the bank’s Website as the primary visual reference point; noticing differences with layout, color, and other design elements in the communications.
  • To ensure that the results were actionable, key stakeholders were engaged throughout the process. The findings were “socialized” with 700+ content writers across Wells Fargo during 30+ workshops.

Thanks. Thank you Robin and Helene for sharing this information.

The bottom line: There’s no substitute for the customers’ point of view.