Design For Social Impact: 3 Best Practices for Lasting Innovation

Two design researchers share a few ‘lessons learned’ for building financial products and services that bring real value to the underserved and the excluded.

February 02, 2016

As design strategists, we’re loath to admit that our industry’s contributions often generate initial buzz and excitement but quickly lose relevance or fall flat. Design research has a short shelf life in part because markets and people change quickly (in fact, we seek to change them). However, we face an even greater challenge in supporting companies to institutionalize the customer-centric processes that underpin continuous iteration and innovation. These processes, and the products and services they support, rarely live on once engagements with design firms wrap up.

So, when the MasterCard Center provided us with funding to conduct the ethnographic, user-centered research behind Mobilizing Banking for Indonesia’s Poor, our metric of success wasn’t a published report or even a product launch. Rather, our objective was to change the conversation and get stakeholders thinking about how mobile financial services (MFS) could improve the day-to-day lives of ordinary Indonesians. To achieve this, we anchored our research and design in the needs of end-users, while also directly addressing the interests of banks, mobile network operators, and regulators.

We worked closely with shop-owners, market vendors, taxi drivers, teachers, farmers, and people from all walks of life to understand how they managed their finances and what could be done to improve both their experiences and the outcomes they achieve. Drawing on behavioral insights we gained through in-depth interviews, financial diaries, and co-design workshops, as well as the extensive usability tests and customer experience audits we made of existing MFS deployments, we uncovered major shortcomings with current market offerings in Indonesia. We worked with participants in our study as well as key stakeholders in banking, telecommunications, and government to build, test, and iterate mobile wallet prototypes that made sense in the context of peoples’ daily financial lives, while also providing a compelling business opportunity for service providers.

Prototyping_Slipi_Jakarta (1)

Mori, Zimmer (not pictured), and a research assistant prototyping “Me2Me” with a small shop owner in Slipi, Jakarta. Me2Me is a mobile cash flow management concept that allows users to push small payments to self-defined savings buckets within their mobile wallet and set the rules for future withdrawals.

At Dalberg Design Impact Group (DIG), we’ve built on the lessons we learned during the MasterCard Center project. Over the past year, our team at DIG has completed over twenty projects, from helping a VC-funded startup prototype a new retail health offering in West Africa that targets low-income customers to testing incentive models to supporting small-scale fishers as they transition to sustainable practices. The jury is still out to whether our efforts will measurably impact people’s lives. However, over the course of these projects, we’ve learned some lessons on how to engage stakeholders throughout the design process to create products and services that not only launch and scale, but also continue to evolve well after our engagement wraps up.

We’ve distilled these essential lessons into three best practices that can help ensure your insights lead to meaningful and lasting change.

1. Approach all key stakeholders with a human-centric lens (not just end-users!)

Ultimately, people drive innovation and innovation is an iterative process. Taking the time to carefully analyze and understand the organizational and personal needs of all stakeholders responsible for ensuring the success of a product or service will put you in the best position you to build their design capacity and guarantee the innovation process lives on. Better yet, if possible, identify and engage an executive champion with a demonstrated commitment to user-centered design and fosters an organizational structure that encourages iterative learning and rapid refinement.

2. Deeply engage key stakeholders throughout the entire research and design process

Doing so ensures that innovative products and services are commercially viable, fosters a deeper understanding of the customer or beneficiary, and increases the likelihood that essential customer insights endure once the project ends. Additionally, involving key stakeholders in all phases of user research and design develops design-thinking capacity within the organizations you’re engaging, which is fundamental to continued iteration and innovation. On a recent project, our best insights emerged from an Indonesian central banker who joined us for a few days of prototyping in a small crab fishing village in Central Java.

While conducting research for Mobilizing Banking for Indonesia’s Poor, we engaged banks, MNOs, and regulators before we even began our user research in order to better understand their interests and blind spots. We closely consulted with them throughout the research to fill in the blanks and synthesize our findings, and we brought key people from each group together for a design lab in Jakarta to generate prototypes of mobile wallet concepts that enable consumers to manage future expenses by tying their wallets to specific and self-defined payment needs. Through subsequent user testing and refinement of the prototype, we realized that a product that helps consumers pay recurring as well as unexpected expenses might just be the key to successfully integrating MFS into people’s daily financial lives and delivering real value.

3. Keep the focus on impact

Over the past few years, the design community has been awarded opportunities to prove that we can make meaningful contributions to development. To demonstrate the value of our approach, particularly in a resource-constrained industry such as international development, we must be biased towards measurable impact. Designers often are satisfied with developing products and services that are launched and deployed. While we’re no different—we’re delighted that DIG currently has three projects in pilot stage—our metric for success is lasting change in people’s lives.

When building a cash-transfer subsidy program designed to incentivize small-scale fishers to transition to sustainability, we developed feedback mechanisms to generate data on how the program impacts fisher livelihoods as well as fish stocks. Measuring these indicators will help us iterate and improve the subsidy program in real time, giving us a much better chance of positively impacting fishers’ lives and the ecosystem. Not only that, our commitment to rigorous evaluation, as well as the stand-alone value of data, helped align a diverse set of stakeholders in support of a pilot of the program. Monitoring and evaluation shouldn’t be a quarterly process for shareholder or donor reports; it is fundamental to continuous learning, rapid iteration, and successful innovation.

In short: apply a human-centric lens to all key stakeholders, engage potential champions (and skeptics) early and often to create alignment and buy-in, and define success as positively impacting lives.

Michael Mori and Trevor Zimmer led research into the financial lives of low-income Indonesians as MasterCard Fellows at The Fletcher School’s Institute for Business in the Global Context, with funding from The MasterCard Center for Inclusive Growth. The research was recently published in MIT’s Innovations journal.  They currently work for Dalberg Design Impact Group at Dalberg Global Development Advisors.

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