How to Design for the Unknown by Alex Mamorsky

Alex Article

If one thing has become clear over the last several months, it is that there is a distinct need for change. Associate experience strategy director at Code and Theory, Alex Mamorsky, explains the need for a socially reactive design method.

Originally published in The Drum

In the digital world, the drastic and rapid shift in consumer needs and organizations’ general inability to adequately respond has exposed a fundamental issue: the way we create products and services isn’t working. Here’s what needs to happen.

In the design world, we are constantly evaluating and monitoring the needs of the masses with one goal – to develop a solution. When these solutions come to life as a digital service or product, organizations typically lock themselves into the known by following a creation framework that relies heavily on resources such as time and meticulous definition of a specific user base.

While these ‘classic’ methodologies were established to provide greater ongoing fluidity during product development, they have become, paradoxically, too rigid for the needs of the current environment.

As we move forward, these traditional solution development strategies are proving to be significantly less helpful in the unknown –– like when a business urgently finds itself needing to reach a new set of individuals, or even the same set of individuals who suddenly have an entirely new relationship with the world around them.

This shortcoming is magnified with the businesses that are endeavoring to develop solutions for those most at need during the pandemic. Even the “most successful” Covid-19 reaction efforts of digitally-focused services today –– like DoorDash’s “leave it outside for me” delivery option — are truly only beneficial to their typical, tech-savvy consumers. It is a solution that works under the assumption that a person knows about DoorDash as a service to begin with and that same person knows how to use the product. Although very well-intentioned, this response is only successful for micro-groups within society.

Assessing how the world has been upended over the last several months has brought to light the necessity to create more human-centric solutions that can push organizations, industries and society forward - all things that the world of digital design has a unique opportunity to change.

Reaching the consumer of the moment means adopting a new design framework, something I call socially reactive design. This methodology will allow brands and companies to react more swiftly and to create products and services that more effectively reach a broader audience.

At a foundational level, “social” is what you know, “reactive” is your application and plan, and “design” is the outcome. Let’s further define what this means in practice:

Social

Data and information gathered in this new framework are meant to account for the ever-changing world around us, and the broad array of perspectives and people that a brand or organization’s products and services could possibly touch. Unlike practices today where companies focus almost entirely and exclusively on a predetermined group of audience segments, the goal of socially cognizant research is to obtain a solid understanding of the people who may not be a typical target in addition to your power user set.

Reactive

This means being prepared to respond to sporadic or drastic changes in the environment in which both key and secondary audiences may be living. It requires a highly targeted examination of the triggers behind the sudden shifts in audience needs or problems. This allows brands and organizations to apply their understanding of a broader audience’s new needs and pain points to create more immediately effective solutions. Unlike practices today that prevent them from reacting quickly to a societal or social change, especially for large audiences, this new practice provides companies with a method to more immediately tailor their product or communications to be hyper-relevant to the moment and the people most affected by it.

Design

The final output of this thought construct aims to remove the existing limitations of what can be created in the digital space, which as it stands, focuses on users that will most quickly be able to pick up something new and use it. Delivering truly human-centric solutions means providing products and services to as many people as possible. The socially reactive design framework provides a platform in which these solutions can be generated through a necessarily empathetic lens.

Ultimately, implementing a socially reactive design framework into the working process pushes organizations to defy the current standard. It means looking at more groups as potential users, hearing varying perspectives, and being more authentically understanding of how people may interpret, access, and actually use your offering. It seeks to answer: “if this type of person were to use my product or service, how would or could they use it?”

There is no question that we are all hopeful of a brighter future, but if nothing else, we should move forward out of a period of hardship with growth. Growth in the way we approach product and service design has the potential to significantly and positively impact many people — not just discrete segments. Deploying a more socially reactive design method increases the opportunity to reach that many more people in a timely, valuable, and constructive way.

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