Social Change: How can designers participate in building a better world?

Design, Event, Opinion

This year I was lucky enough to be sent to the Interaction 17 Conference in New York, by RMA.

What struck me during the event was the strong theme of social responsibility that ran through many of the talks. The conference has moved on from “How can I change the world?” to  “How do designers participate in building a better world?” This is all about looking at existing problems, and starting small or from the grassroots level and building up from there.

While this blog post isn’t an in-depth review of all the presentations, I have focused on summarising the three presentations that resounded most strongly with me and the way I approach working as a designer.

Challenging the commerce status quo

The opening keynote by Chelsea Mauldon titled “Design for power” was all about addressing inequalities in design, when employers or clients wield more power than the users you’re designing for. She poses the question:

“How can we as designers in that equation exercise our own agency and power to
create more social and ethical considerations for our users?”

What I found invigorating about Mauldon’s keynote was the notion of challenging the commerce status quo. Though this is something that can be tricky to negotiate in an agency and client environment, Chelsea asserts that we can still try to incorporate ethical obligations and leanings despite the context we work in. For designers working in commercial contexts, she outlined some ways in which we can exercise or take back a bit of power in the work we do:

  • Ask yourself: “When I take this work on, can I serve my users well?”
  • Be obedient to user needs and requirements – “Designers are conduits, with professional skills to channel users’ wants” – Mauldon
  • Raise your hand when authorities undermine others
  • Refuse to carry out work troubling the conscience
  • Seek out work dedicated to empowering others – sometimes this may mean moving on from a particular work context if necessary.

Critiquing human-centred design

Another talk I particularly enjoyed was the “Critique of human centred design (HCD)” by design strategist and research consultant, Thomas Wendt.

Playing devil’s advocate at a design conference is always refreshing, and in this talk Wendt calls HCD’s flaws into question. He posits that one such problematic theme that HCD seems to propagate is the idea of oversimplification.

Oversimplification? As HCD practitioners, we tend to see problems as things that need fixing, and are able to be fixed holistically, rather than identifying them as complex and systemic issues that sometimes may not have a clean fix at all. e.g. Problem + HCD = Solution.

An example of the manifestation of oversimplification is the Amazon Dash button, a Wi-Fi-connected device that reorders a product with the press of a button. Each Dash Button is paired with a product, which is selected during the setup process.

Amazon Dash
Source: CNBC

For the user, it’s simple, they have a problem – “I’ve run out of detergent”. The solution? Let me order it by pressing a button — the product gets delivered to my door, I now have detergent again.

But Wendt questions the consequences of such a contraption – does it take into account the wider context within which it operates? For example, what does it to do to our budgeting and finances if we have this power to order at a simple tap as and when we need? And what about all the additional waste this object generates?

Here, we as designers have determined that speed and convenience for the consumer is key, and our consumers makes decisions based on the choices we present them.  But what about the consequences of these choices? Should we be thinking about them and how we regulate them?

Questioning manufacturers’ regulations

Another example Wendt puts forward, where innovation is not always inherently good – is Foxconn, Apple’s iPhone manufacturing plant in China, where they have installed suicide nets.

Source: Thomas Wendt presentation, Interaction17

The company is infamous for its workers committing suicide due to overwork, stress and pressure of deliverables and KPIs for manufacturing the iPhones. But rather than addressing their employees’ morale in the workplace, or improving working conditions they installed suicide nets in and around the building to prevent more deaths.

In this example, we should ask ourselves – should creators and manufacturers of a product as successful as the iPhone be responsible for regulating its effects in addition to simply reaping the fruits of its commercial success?

Designing for social change

From being made aware of our moral obligations as designers, to being the proponents and engineers of social change, Masuma Henry’s talk on “Designing for social change” put forward a framework for designers looking to solve the problems facing the world. For Henry, it’s all about playing well within the system and making small incremental changes. According to Masuma, designing social change is about:

“The design of experiences that drive individual actions, which in turn when performed
by many individuals, drives wide-scale societal change.”

She uses the examples of the Black Lives Matter and Women’s Marches as a prime example of social movements that gained ground, and as case studies for her framework based on the 3As – Agency, Access and Action.

The Women's March on Washington
Source: Common Dreams

Henry posits that the 3As are the basis on which effective social movements are formed:


In order to design effective social change, your users must first believe they have Agency. What is agency? “The belief in one’s capacity to influence their own thoughts or behaviour, no matter how small. e.g. a parent feeling that they’re capable of making the decision to send their daughter to school or not. Designers can use tools such as user needs assessments and social network assessments to access what gives users’ agency and to try to understand the current situation of the individual.


Designing for access means utilising the tools and services which are readily accessible in the individual’s everyday life. This means fewer obstacles and easier adoption.


NO experience can achieve social change if action cannot be taken easily. Technology is not the answer, but it can be an accelerant for action.

“Designing for action means understanding how humans behave and leveraging findings in behavioral economics and psychology, to steer the individual toward the desired behavior.” – Henry

Can designers really build a better world?

A learning I took away from the conference, that will always stick with me, is that it is our responsibility to use the skills we have as UX designers to understand and express the needs of users. At times, that will mean challenging businesses and business leaders, or questioning the status quo. It isn’t easy – there have been many times when I have been genuinely torn between doing what the client wants and doing what is right for users.

Going with your gut and using facts to justify the eventual position you take tends to be the best solution –  find the angle that resonates most strongly with you and use user testing, analytics and best practices to build your case. At the end of the day, the measure of success I use is “Did I try my utmost best to do what is right for those that matter?” If it’s a comfortable yes, then I can sleep easy at night.

At some point in our career, we should also use the skills we have to support the issues we believe in. You can’t affect everything, so focus your energies on where your passion lies. Work on side or pro-bono projects that benefit society when possible. RMA regularly runs Lab projects, which help people who would otherwise not benefit from our skill sets, such as the Kids Sleep Dr app for the Evelina London Children’s Sleep Medicine Clinic.

If we can keep the needs and requirements of our users at the core of the work we do, and make small incremental changes then I believe that over time we can use design to build a better world.


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