UX Design is essential to social impact — and you should know why

As I sat down the chair, I heard the clock strike three. Around the dark wooden table, the team and I were drowning in guilt over the shallowness of our mistake. We couldn’t believe we had just lost vital months of work. It was even worse when, looking back in time, I remembered one of the first things I was told when I started working with social impact. Everything we do has to be built on the needs and wishes of our target audience. And yet, even though that advice is widely known, people still don’t take into consideration users’ perspectives in their daily work routine.

Just like we hadn’t taken three years ago.

After all, why does it matter?

If you've ever worked with social impact initiatives in developing countries, there are certain things I’m sure you already know.

First, resources are always scarce, and wasting them is not something you can usually afford. There actually are situations in which teams have no resources other than their own goodwill, and the need to improvise promptly arises. Whether it is money, time, or even qualified people, optimizing the usage of the resources you have is essential since the beginning.

Second, most of our initial perspectives are usually wrong. Unless some of the team members are also part of the target audience, that tends to be a rule. No matter how much data we collect or how many articles we read: when fieldwork is done and target-audience members are consulted, the problem we think that has to be solved changes.

There is also the fact that the conditions in which we work are, oftentimes, volatile. Working with socially vulnerable groups requires constant adaptation, especially because they have several concerns that demand a great amount of time and energy. Their hopes may often be low, as well as their expectations and patience with us. If we take too long to show we are capable of creating value to them, they won't keep waiting for us, and that's not because they are mean; they have to take care of the food they need for their next meal, for example, or issues that are equally urgent and more important than a bunch of people asking questions around.

This means that getting things right from the beginning is essential for most social impact initiatives to thrive — and not doing so may earn you a one-way ticket to the rollercoaster of failure. To understand, from the earliest moment possible, what kind of value we must create for our target audience makes all the difference when working with social impact. And that's when UX Design comes into play.

UX… what?

In a nutshell, UX Design stands for "user experience design". That is, to understand your solution from the users' perspective and adapt it in order to address all of their needs. In competitive environments, such as the app-making world, which is where the expression comes from, crafting the best experience makes you distinguish yourself from others and thrive. That would already be a great incentive by itself for you to consider UX in your next projects, but there is more to it.

In volatile environments, such as the one in which social entrepreneurship takes place, a great user experience can make your target audience decide whether you are worth their time and thus continue to help you while you develop your solution. And, in addition, the process of designing your solution based on users’ perspectives has advantages by itself, as it increases your understanding of the problem and your chances of creating something truly relevant and game-changing in the long term. Last but not least, is the fact that, by using UX Design to craft your idea, your target audience is more likely to feel that part of the solutions was created by them. And this, as a consequence, brings to them a feeling of ownership and opens up the possibility of users scaling your solutions to others in need by themselves.

How to apply UX Design to a project?

Even though UX Design has a huge list of tools one could use and methods one could follow, there are three main aspects of it that I suggest you incorporate in the first place: to focus on your users' needs, to draw a roadmap of your solution with your team, and to prototype the solution and collect feedback.

Focusing on the users' needs sounds like something everyone knows they should do, but for some reason, that is not what happens in real life. Actually, most people think they have a clear perspective of what a user's need is, but that perspective is (surprise!) often wrong. As a consequence, the entire solution is built upon an idea that is not accurate, which in turn can lead to a tremendous failure over time. There are great articles describing this kind of bias.

Understanding your users and their needs requires time and effort, but there are tools that can help. Interviews, for example, can provide powerful insight into their life stories, and empathy maps are great for capturing their perspective over matters. Tools such as these can help a team understand which aspects are crucial for a solution to please the target audience and which ones are not. In the app-making world, that’s how teams decide which features to prioritize across the first versions of an app. In the social entrepreneurship world, that’s useful to understand which aspects of the solution must be shown first to generate social value and convince the target audience you are going in the right direction.

On the other hand, drawing a roadmap of the solution with your team is not exactly an obvious idea, as we tend to think that everyone is always on the same page. Often, however, that is not the case, and members may visualize the same solution in different ways (especially if it hasn't been built yet).

I once worked on a social initiative whose purpose was to turn students from public high schools located in poor regions into young local leaders who drove social transformation in their communities. Even though we all had in mind the same final picture, our ideas on how to get there were completely different. We all knew we would organize activities during classes for them to participate in, but how such activities should be? Would they be competing against each other or cooperating as a whole? Would we inspire their activities into traditional subjects they already had at school (thus helping them academically too) or in challenges they faced in their communities (thus helping them realize they are an essential part of the transformation)?

Clearly defining a roadmap to detail the solution will keep you safe from misunderstandings and guarantee everyone is thinking the exact same thing. This may save you valuable resources, and also drive your team's focus in the same direction. With team alignment comes productivity and, oftentimes, innovation.

Prototyping comes last on the list, but it's extremely important. Whether you are designing a product or a service, giving your users a chance to feel it first hand and ask for their feedback is a guarantee that you are crafting a solution that makes sense for them. It may also give you insights into aspects that must be changed in order to address your audience's needs more properly.

The importance of prototyping became clear to me when, in 2018, I was working on a project to assess recycling cooperatives in Northeast Brazil. Around 400,000 Brazilians have recycling as their main economic activity, but 60% of them work in conditions of low or extremely low efficiency. Long story short, our goal was to help them implement Production Engineering processes, which would enhance their efficiency — thus increasing the amount of material they recycled and, as a consequence, their income too. For months we worked to understand where the bottlenecks were and how we could tackle them, and planned several ways of teaching the workers all that could be done. A couple of weeks before the first class, however, I found out that most of the workers didn’t know how to read or write — and everything we had planned for them depended on written language. Had we only done one simple prototype of a class or of the material we were about to give them, this would have become clear, and we wouldn’t have wasted months of work.

A couple of real examples

There is no doubt that, in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to its knees. However, for public school students in Brazil, the damage caused by the pandemic was even worse. When lockdowns came, classes had to be suspended across the nation. Private schools, which are already known for offering better education, provided online support for their students, which continued studying from their homes. On the other hand, public schools had no way of doing the same — and the government announced that national exams would not be postponed.

To help public school students, several initiatives were created across the country, and I had the chance of observing one of them up close. Their idea was simple: most students have books at home from which they can learn, but no support to answer their doubts during the learning process. Those unanswered questions, over time, get them stuck. By connecting these students to mentors through WhatsApp, such questions can be answered, and students are able to keep their learning going.

The idea was rolled out, and at the beginning, everything worked well. A network of volunteer mentors was created, and students had support at virtually any time of the day. More than 250 students signed up for the program during the first week, but only a small portion of them was actually asking questions to the mentors, and with time, this portion of active students only decreased. The team in charge, unfortunately, did not consider the UX of their program during the endless meetings in which they tried to figure out the problem. It took them months before they approached the students for the first time to ask them more about their needs, and no prototypes were tested with small groups of students before changing the program as a whole. As a consequence, only a bunch of students stuck with the program until the end, and the initiative was discontinued because of its lack of success.

On the other hand…

The pandemic also gave birth to several successful impact initiatives, such as project Kairós, led by the USP São Carlos Enactus team. This story begins in 2019 when, after a market research, the team realized that many residents in the city of São Carlos wanted to buy organic products, but didn't use to because such products were usually expensive and hard to find.

As of a tremendous coincidence, there was a community of urban farmers right next to the city whose problem was the exact opposite: they had organic products and could sell them for cheap, but didn't have effective ways of reaching customers (until that point, they used to sell their products in a small fair at the local university), and it was clear that the profit they made was not enough.

That's when the Enactus team got into action. Their challenge was to help the farmers solve the logistical obstacles needed for their products to reach customers in town. The way they did it, however, is what matters the most here: they created a prototype of the delivery service and, along with the farmers, tested it on a weekly basis. At the end of every week, results were analyzed, insights were documented, and improvements were made. As the UX principles propose, the team had a deep understanding of the needs they had to address and, with the small and careful tests that were deployed, they were able to acquire powerful knowledge on how to craft the right solution.

A few months went by. Farmers kept selling, and the Enactus team focused on providing them knowledge in business management. In March 2020, however, the pandemic triggered lockdowns all of a sudden, and the farmers realized they had to find a way to adapt urgently.

That's when the UX mindset proved valuable again. Using the insights and the expertise they had gained during the prototyping process, the farmers and the Enactus team modified the business model they had previously built just enough to make it work (and meet their customers' needs) under the new circumstances.

Long story short, the farmers were so successful that, after some time, they partnered up and created a pesticide-free-food delivery company, Capão das Antas Agricultura, which is their source of income nowadays. Compared to the period before project Kairós, the farmer's income increased thirteenfold. Considering that the farmers didn't even own the land where they lived, that income increase was extremely meaningful to them.

In short…

Crafting impact initiatives is a constant work of understanding the needs of the target audience and validating small pieces of the solution with them. Not doing so may cause huge wastes of resources and time, and teams often don't realize it before it's too late. By making UX principles part of the team's creative process, the chances of achieving success — such as Kairos — tremendously increase.

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Felipe Bandeira

Felipe Bandeira

Social impact, Swift development and writing: that's what I do. Sometimes in English, sometimes in PTBR. Also lactose intolerant.