UIX Blog: At WMCAT, using social design to tackle global problems

A recent workshop at WMCAT highlights the tremendous good that social design can do, from Grand Rapids to around the world.

In order to sell a product, there must be a need. That need may be either perceived or real, but it's a problem that can only be solved by buying the product.

For as long as we've been around, this exchange has led inventors and manufacturers to success through innovation and an understanding of basic human tendencies. It's driven the Edisons, Carvers, and Jobses of the world to great success through capitalizing on meeting those needs first and with the strongest response.

But what if the design process, instead of capitalizing on a need, made the need obsolete? There is such a thing as putting yourself out of a job, and in social design that's not a bad thing. There are no wrong answers, only more refined solutions. You identify a problem area, imagine a solution, and through experimentation, try to find where these ideas overlap. Scaled to fit a large population, social design can be a tremendous force for good, and that's exactly why WMCAT has been facilitating forays into the field of design thinking as laid out by Stanford's d.school.


The recent Social Design Workshop held at WMCAT on July 28 brought together people from all over the state to collaborate on problem solving with this method. I was fortunate enough to be invited, and with my diverse group of corporate professionals, creatives, musicians, and non-profit leaders, we spent the day creating a product from concept to testing using social design.

Led by WMCAT Program Directors Kirk Eklund and Adam Weiler, and group leaders from Steelcase helping facilitate the process, we went through the five steps of the design thinking process: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test.


Walking a few blocks west of 230 Fulton, we interviewed several different people about a hypothetical trip to Yellowstone National Park for a WMCAT class. Enrollment had been lacking, and we were tasked with finding ways to increase it. The results of our questioning, we later found, would be meaningless but trends were already starting to emerge in the questions we asked and the ways we asked them. There was momentum, and it carried into other conversations that brought new problems to the surface. With our collected interviews, we gathered back at WMCAT for the next step.


Yellowstone was a lie, but we had found deeper issues in need of solving. Throughout the interview process, one of our cohort had found an individual with a light grasp, if any, on personal direction outside of his own family's. Personal habits, career aspirations, and even vacation plans were based on decisions already made by family members. We singled this personality out as our target demographic and were ready to address the issue of decision making and motivation in a product that would help someone define those terms on their own.


This is where the pace picks up. Brainstorming countless ideas to bring this individual to a point where he would be making decisions on his own, we must have gone through a full year of WMCAT's sticky note budget, but that's OK. That's the point. Every idea is entertained and shouted out loud. They all have a place on the wall. Some ideas may be less obvious, but they flow into others that form an effective solution to the defined problem.

As freely as the ideas were shared in the Ideate stage, prototyping translates those ideas into a tangible product. It's an essential step, as it can bring some major shortcomings to light. We were faced with the reality of our design thinking process so far, and what we had rendered wasn't exactly scalable. Our plan was basically to kidnap this individual and exile them to an "adventure camp" where he would learn to make decisions for himself through something like a ropes course, and terror.

When Weiler came by to role play the idea with us, the terror worked perfectly, and that was the problem. No one in their right mind would want or sign up for this.

But that's OK, too. In the prototyping stage, you aim to alter an idea to fit the largest population possible. Weiler brought up the story of OXO kitchen utensils, and how the prototype for the first OXO vegetable peeler was made by a man who wrapped tape around an old peeler's handle so his wife, who suffers from arthritis, could handle it.

That's design thinking at its finest, and we've covered other examples of it in UIX. 3D printed hands like those made by Aaron Brown and AxisLab are still making happier futures possible. The solar powered K Light, developed by the Koinonia Foundation is another example. These products are affordable, accessible, and easily understood.

So we softened our approach. Accosting the individual in an unmarked van was replaced with an augmented reality app. Adventure camp was replaced with an AI-powered job shadowing system controlled by the user. We put sticky notes on the front of some safety glasses and made a controller out of cardboard and foam. It was ready.



Back on the street, we approached a few more people and asked them to try out our new system. After a short interview where we determined their current job and satisfaction level, they would put on the makeshift hardware and we would role play a handful of other careers.

We weren't sure what to expect, but the day of design thinking had steered us in the right direction. Whether it was because the tangibility of our setup, the motivating hue of our pink sticky notes, the comforting squish of the foam buttons, or simply good acting, trying on our product was making a serious difference for people. Just by visualizing their ideal career, along with having the physical artifact of the controller, the people we talked to seemed actually closer to achieving their goals. There was no doubt about it. A woman even told us that after we went through an optometrist role play with her.

Social design is life changing, and that's the point.

What our group took from the Social Design Workshop are big, important ideas, and we hope they catch on. Social design solves real needs without barriers or limited access. It's human-centered design and that makes a good product.

Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. To see more UIX stories, you can check out the entire series here. Have thoughts or ideas about UIX? Contact UIX Grand Rapids Editor Matthew Russell at [email protected].

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