Feedback Labs July 15, 2016

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design process


The private sector benefits dramatically by participating in closed feedback loops. Increased involvement in end user design drives increases in innovation, rapid prototyping and higher quality products. This is a (logical) phenomenon that is most obviously observed in the tech sector. If a company doesn’t listen to their customer, they risk losing business. From co-design to co-creation, both parties invest time and energy to create a good product. In the end, it benefits everyone.

It would seem that the social sector, on balance, has not only failed to take seriously the cost of not listening to those they seek to help; they also seem to settle for a version of “co-creation” with their constituents that may be not only inefficient, but also problematic. Jess Rimington and Joanna Levitt Cea, visiting scholars at Stanford University’s Global Projects Center, have observed and lamented this trend over their collective twenty-plus years in executive positions in the nonprofit sector. Recently, Cea and Rimington facilitated a Feedback Labs LabStorm to get feedback on a set of  “ingredients” for shifting the social impact sector towards more robust co-creation. In presenting this list of ingredients, they are hoping to offer a flexible but comprehensive guide for program and process design that will  establish smart solutions, create lasting impact, and combat the structural inequalities that they see much of the current social impact world perpetuating.

Much user-centered design theory focuses on how the end user will interact with a product; and much of it pays well-intentioned homage to working extensively with the user to identify their needs as well as co-create a solution. Cea and Rimington challenge some of the foundational ideas of traditional user- or human-centered design by asking the designer (often an implementer or a funder) to take a step back and look at the history behind the practices that they have come to adopt.

Cea and Rimington posit that while many social impact programs claim co-creation, a significant portion are actually engaging in a consultation-as-usual approach that, when examined from a historical perspective, confront us with problematic aspects of the colonial tradition from which they arose. By referencing “colonialism”, Cea and Rimington draw attention to the fact that design processes still, for the most part, divide stakeholders into “decision makers” and “beneficiaries”. This may work without ethical complication in the for-profit sector, where consumers may express their will with their dollar. However, simply duplicating this division of stakeholders in the social sector presents a significant challenge, as it draws upon a fraught history of do-gooders imposing their will (and expertise) on those whom they may perceive to be too misfortunate/ill informed/ irresponsible/poor to make decisions for themselves.

Therefore, utilizing a user-centered design process that identifies a “user” as someone who needs a product or service made for them implicates the designer in perpetuating a form of structural injustice that must be combatted as a prerequisite to engaging in the work at hand. Cea and Rimington propose that a shift in mindset is needed for the process of program and product design in the social impact sector to begin to truly position these various stakeholders as co-creators.  

Cea and Rimington therefore frame the ingredients for a new design theory as “Decolonized Design”. During the LabStorm, they presented initial findings that point to 11 ingredients. Informed by the collaborative research they are leading at Stanford’s Global Projects Center, the ingredients are drawn not only from the realms of product design and tech startups, but also from recent and historical innovations in co-creation from our own sector—including by grassroots groups, social movements, and indigenous systems for decision-making and planning, and from organizing principles identified in new research in biomimicry. The ingredients reflect a core pattern of components that emerge consistently across these diverse disciplines, in terms of the conditions required for effective co-creation.

The current work-in-progress list of ingredients includes the following, which Cea and Rimington presented to the group as a prototype:

  • Decolonize the mindset: A colonial mindset that ignores, infantilizes and fears constituents still exists in the social sector. To engage in Decolonized Design, it is necessary to consciously counteract that colonial way of thinking. This requires a deep curiosity as to what the crowds (stakeholders) can uncover, and willingness to challenge our assumptions about whose voices (and when, and to what extent, and with what weight) should be a part of the process.
  • Unlearn expert bias: Recognizing preconceived notions of an “expert”, it is critical to challenge how expertise is sourced. Are traditional, long-standing, common, or otherwise “non-expert” forms of evidence being ignored?
  • Source your “why” and test assumptions: Prioritizing institutional/individual investment in problem solving, it is critical to test underlying assumptions of what is needed to achieve a desired outcome.
  • Establish multiple crowds: Creating a diverse crowd (group of stakeholders from all aspects of the problem), decentralizes power, increases the variety of roles within decision making, and keeps more people invested in the process.
  • Establish and maintain a fair deal: Even in the private sector, the crowdsourcing of ideas is not often motivated by money, but rather by a substantiated belief by participants that they will see a tangible benefit from their efforts. Maintaining a fair deal – wherein constituents value the time and insight they put into feedback because they know the outcome will be worthwhile and that the process feels fair – will make or break the success of projects.
  • Seek differentiation: Experts, however they are perceived, aren’t always the best at finding solutions. The more diverse perspectives on a project that exist, the better the outcome.
  • Co-define the problem: Involving all stakeholders, but especially constituents, in defining the problem is a foundational step in ensuring that they feel a collective commitment to the big picture.
  • Establish appropriate decision making: Having created a diverse crowd, it is essential to create leadership structures among all actors so that complex decisions can be made while maintaining the feeling of a “fair deal.” This also crucial to combating the perception that involving constituents more deeply in the process will create delays. This is empirically untrue, and having a set, fair, and periodically reviewed decision-making structure in place is critical to a smooth process.
  • Deconcentrate power: Beyond the ethical congruence that deconcentrating power has with decolonization, inclusion of diverse stakeholders results in greater ingenuity and resulting greater resilience of the final product.
  • Prototype early and often: Iterative and rapid feedback will value multiple crowds and keep stakeholders invested. Take a page (perhaps paragraph) from for-profit consumer testing, social impact products and programs should be strengthened through continuous, structured improvement processes.
  • Build your budget to get the idea right: Ensure that budgets are built to actually resource front-end processes to engage diverse actors in the system to “get the idea right”—before money is put into implementation.

The ingredients are still evolving as their research progresses.

Cea and Rimington received largely positive initial feedback from the LabStorm participants, which is outlined below. They also ask for you feedback as well!

LabStorm participants noted a few important aspects around the audience for this set of ingredients. Inherently, the social good sector is full of well-meaning egos. We have all entered this sector because of our intent to “do good”- and our belief that we are well positioned to do so. Therefore, when faced with a change in approach – even one that we agree with – we are forced to confront the feeling that we’ve done something wrong. The language of decolonization may seem confusing, and some saw it as a challenge to beginning a conversation.

And there are of course those in the social sector who are intentionally disregarding feedback or the historical context of their design processes not because they don’t know better, but because they are benefitting (via status or revenue) from the current power paradigm. Others, however, are simply complicit in the systemic injustices they’re trying to address without knowing any better. We cannot expect people to change overnight. But what, then, is the motivation to shift the way things have been done, deceivingly well, for so long?

Cea, Rimington, and others propose that we must first decide whose minds we are trying to change and then find ways to help them not only know differently, but experience differently.

So, what are the next steps for Decolonized Design? Some of their thoughts include:

  • defining the state of each ingredient and how it currently looks in practice
  • explaining why things are still being done the way they are
  • providing examples of successful endeavors that applied key ingredients
  • investigating what a process around these ingredients might look like, including for iterative application throughout planning, design, implementation and evaluation phases

Feedback Labs extends our appreciation to Unpack Impact for their willingness to engage in a LabStorm on their ideas at such an early stage. We look forward to continued learning with Jess and Joanna as they prototype the “key ingredients” for decolonized design at the Stanford University Global Projects Center. Follow their progress at and check back here for future LabStorms on this project.

LabStorms are collaborative brainstorm sessions designed to help an organization wrestle with a challenge related to feedback loops, with the goal of providing actionable suggestions. LabStorms are facilitated by FBL members and friends who have a prototype, project idea, or ongoing experiment on which they would like feedback. Here, we provide report-outs from LabStorms. If you would like to participate in an upcoming LabStorm (either in person or by videoconference), please drop Sarah at note at [email protected].

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