“Wicked problems” are those messy issues that are  “more complex than we fully grasp, and open to multiple interpretations based on one’s point of view.” Poverty, obesity, or adequate health care are all perfect examples of wicked problems.

Over the course of history, great design has embraced and thrived in this wicked complexity and has helped create products and services that have contributed to solving some of these “wicked problems”—take for instance the invention and global spread of the polio vaccine. But as the world faces massive and widening disparities, we are challenged to go beyond designs that simply improve the lives of people who use them. We are called, instead, to make change for societies as a whole. To design for social change.

Wicked problems can easily swallow our collective ambition with their magnitude. Historically, they have been tackled through systems thinking approaches by policy makers, economists, and civic organizations. And this approach of laws, government initiatives, and global nonprofits has worked for some of the massive social changes in our recent past, such as equal voting rights or the near-eradication of polio. The outcome of this approach is a sweeping wide change, initiated from “above.” Effective for huge movements, the success of this approach often is undermined by slow adoption or cultural inappropriateness.

That is where human-centered design (HCD) comes in. We have seen a recent focus on approaching the same challenges through the lens of the individual’s experience. HCD ensures that the solutions take into account the motivations, needs, and values of the impacted individuals. Recognizing its merit, large social change organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the World Bank have publicly championed HCD as a key contributor to improve the state of the world.

But social change requires as much system redesign and changes in individual behavior as it requires transformative change in cultural and societal norms. And that is where the interplay of the systems approach and the human-centered design approach comes in. Yet, while we have developed exhaustive frameworks for how each of the approaches works, we are nascent in our understanding of how they must complement each other to tackle wicked problems.

As designers, who desire to contribute to social change, we have to recognize this interplay between systems and humans. To put it simply, every time individuals act, they contribute to the running of the system, in which they exist with their neighbors. For instance, in this country, our democratic system of government is meaningless unless we are able to act in democratic ways that signal democracy: the freedom to vote, purchase, and speak as we choose.

A key to designing social change is a deep understanding of how the design of experiences must drive individual actions, which, when performed by many individuals, drives wide-scale, societal change. For instance, when one family from a poor and rural environment takes the action to send their daughter to school, and a hundred families do the same, the outcome is often fewer child marriages, lower birthrate, increased access to credit, and many other factors that contribute to a more equitable society, or social change for the better.

To design effective experiences that achieve positive social change, we need design principles that integrate the systems and HCD approach:

Agency is a belief in one’s capacity to influence their own thoughts and behavior, no matter how small. It is the belief of a parent that they are able to make the decision of whether to send their daughter to school or not. As designers, we have to ask ourselves: Are we providing users, especially those who are underserved, or marginalized in society, a sense of agency that is appropriate within the context in which they live?

HCD tenets such as the need to start with empathy-building, and tools such as user needs assessments, provide a starting place to understand the individual, or the parents’ current situation of agency. Systems thinking tools like social network analysis help us describe the actors in the parents’ network, characterize their relationships, and understand whether interactions between key people stand in the way of providing agency.

Designing for access means designing experiences that utilize the tools and services readily accessible within one’s day-to-day life. Access means making it easy for a user to do something, because few barriers stand in the way. Both HCD and systems thinking provide methods to understand what’s available and what opportunities exists to increase access. Similarly, systems thinking can uncover how issues of access are interrelated. We might uncover that in a typical month, parents can’t predict whether they will have enough to pay for school fees. What contributes to this financial instability includes a lack of access to credit, due to a lack of safe lending institutions, which don’t offer service to people in rural environments because they don’t have formal identifications, and therefore repayment tracking is hard to ensure.

Lastly, no experience can achieve social change unless individuals can take action easily. Designing for action means understanding how humans behave and leveraging findings in behavioral economics and psychology, to steer the individual toward the desired behavior. Systems thinking tools like change matrices help designers narrow down the change we are trying to affect, while HCD tenets around prototyping allow us to ensure that once solutions are put into the marker, users can and will take action easily toward that change.

Whether you are designing a campaign, a service, or a product, when applied successfully, these principles can result in a significant social change—just take a look at Black Lives Matter, HealthPartners, and MicroEnsure. Integrated into their solutions, intentionally or not, are the design principles of agency, access, and action.

[Photo: Flickr user Jim Killock]

Black Lives Matter 
Wicked problem: Racial prejudice
Type of design: Campaign

Black Lives Matter, a national organization with chapters in cities across the U.S., seeks to “(re)build the Black liberation movement.” It began in 2012, as a reaction to George Zimmerman’s acquittal for killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin and has become a strong voice in the struggle against institutionalized racism. In this context, we refer to it as a campaign that strives to impact social change.

The campaign has been successful in raising an issue and encouraging discourse on a topic that has long been taboo within American culture and media. From bringing nationwide attention to issues of police reform into the presidential spotlight with conversations with Hillary Clinton, the creation of more than 31 chapters across the entire U.S., and to widespread Twitter conversations between hundreds of thousands of followers, there is no doubt that the movement has become a flashpoint of American awareness. This success can be attributed not just to the obvious accessibility of the movement, which is fueled in large part by online participation, but also because of the agency and action integrated within BLM as a campaign.

By leveraging the ubiquitous smartphones we have in our pockets, BLM is a movement that galvanizes those protesting in person with an online community of those participating online. Participants have recorded incidents in real time and thrown their collective force behind stories that need to be seen, shaping national media attention. This online activity, in turn, reinforces and supports the traditional protest actions taking place around the country.

BLM avoids mere “clicktivism” by promoting the belief that taking control of the content and stories of injustice that are captured and shared can be a catalyst for change. The point of participating in BLM discourse online is not to simply add a hashtag or click “like,” but to change the narrative of the media, by becoming the media. BLM is not merely accessible online, but as a campaign promotes agency and action by providing both real and online protest spaces for participants to choose how to take action and to demonstrate their care and concern for black lives.

Other campaigns of today’s politically charged spotlight could benefit from greater awareness and traction if principles of agency, access, and action were applied. Imagine if working mothers and fathers, both low and mid-income, had the agency to demand paid family leave? Imagine if they could access stats and stories that demonstrate the injustice, and the impacts to our children, with the click of a button? What kind of action could we all take to make politicians unable to drown out our collective voice?

Wicked problem: Massive financial risk
Type of design: Product

MicroEnsure is a product that provides reasonably priced and easy-to-use insurance products to people in the economically developing world. There, 5 billion people live on about $5 a day, with incredible risk. People live close to the edge, where illness or accidents easily send them tumbling back into poverty.

In Kenya, for example, MicroEnsure works with local insurance companies, such the Pan Africa Life Insurance LTD and the mobile carrier Airtel, to provide free insurance products, including life insurance, coverage for accidents, and hospitalization. Benefits, such as reimbursements on hospital stays, can be increased based on how much airtime, or mobile minutes, individuals use. The design of MicroEnsure’s service gives its users a sense of agency by bundling the service with airtime, a product that is familiar and people have been confidently using for years. Bundling insurance with airtime perpetuates the belief that “if I’m able to buy airtime, I can probably get insurance too.”

By partnering with local insurance companies and the mobile carriers, MicroEnsure is able to provide free, minimal insurance even to those who have never had or considered it before. And by using the mobile phone kiosks as the access point for insurance services, such as claims payment, MicroEnsure has made insurance services accessible, fitting into the places and routines that its users already partake in. Lastly, MicroEnsure has made taking action easy. Even in disaster situations like hurricanes, insurance representatives go out to the affected areas and are available to take claims. This boon in customer service is especially relevant to underserved audiences: MicroEnsure recognized that figuring where and how to get insurance claims is a necessary product requirement for their customers, who often live with massive financial instability.

The success of MicroEnsure is evident in its numbers; 43 million registered customers in parts of Africa and Asia, with almost 20 million new customers in 2016 alone. But the individual stories of positive health impact are more impressive. When Hassan, a Nigerian business owner living on less than $4 dollars a day, injured his hand, his insurance was able to cut half the cost of his treatment.

Wicked problem: Childhood obesity
Type of design: Service

Minnesota-based HealthPartners is a not-for-profit health care provider that serves approximately 1.5 million members. They have been intentionally addressing the issue of childhood obesity for more than 10 years. One of their programs, PowerUp Kids, is a six-week challenge that provides information to administrators in 26 schools to help them encourage over 10,000 students to make better decisions about their own health. The program has had over 90% participation.

The program is designed to provide agency for both administrators and students by allowing them to choose ideas of how to better their own health rather than prescribing a solution that may not be relevant or interesting for a particular school culture. Ideas that admins and students have come up with include: substituting ways to celebrate birthdays with fun activities instead of unhealthy treats, letting kids eat breakfast in the classroom at the start of the school day, and scheduling recess before lunch so kids can work up an appetite.
Recognizing that school is the hub of life for many families, by rolling out this program in schools where children go everyday, HP has designed an experience that is accessible for children and their role models.

The principle of action is also well-integrated into the design of the service, as the program integrates behaviors into activities that students are already participating in such as recess, or celebration, providing administrators and students easy ways to take action.

Both MicroEnsure and HealthPartners’s PowerUP Kids demonstrate how we can apply the three principles in ways that are relevant for the culture in which their customer lives. Imagine if health providers here in the U.S. thought about designing for agency, access, and action for those that are underserved—single mothers, low-income, new immigrants, seniors, and more. How would typical health services such as vaccinations and cold and flu visits be set up for better access with longer hours or free transport? How would we encourage a sense of agency by making getting medical treatment as familiar as going grocery shopping? What opportunities exist to create more micro actions to care for one’s health? The possibilities open up when thinking about design with this framework.

As designers and other experts with unique lenses on the world join forces to tackle the wicked problems we face, it’s easiest to default to creating apps expecting that technology adoption can save the world, an idea sometimes referred to as Silicon Valley solutionism. To avoid solutionism, and truly work toward social change, we need to recognize the complexity of ourselves as individuals, and how our actions together create culture and society. The interplay of systems and human-centered thinking offers the right tools to understand the context and issues from both a societal and user perspective, allowing us to identify outcomes we are striving to change. The principles of agency, access, and action offer a new framework to design for the complexity of these wicked problems, for the inequities between the under- and well-served and the cultural context in which they live. It is only with a new mind-set that we can truly design for social change.