When to Use—and Measure—Social Design

For technical challenges, those that can be solved in a lab or with a group of experts, social design is not necessary. Building a car is an example of a technical challenge. Even complicated challenges, like sending a rocket into outer space, can be solved with traditional technical and engineering approaches. However, when the success or failure depends on human agency and social structures, social design is not only relevant, but necessary. Our major challenges, like poverty, climate change, food insecurity, poor health status in low resource settings, and social justice are complex problems. No individual or single group can solve them, and they cannot be understood from any single perspective. This is where social design can best contribute.

It’s important to note that for many challenges, the decision of whether to use traditional methods of problem solving or social design is not a binary one. Within a large complex issue, many technical problems need to be solved, and likewise, most technical challenges, regardless of how complicated, are rarely devoid of human agency or interactions in their success.

The process of social design fosters collaboration among people with diverse perspectives and experience. It provides new frameworks for seeing and understanding issues at a systems level, and those new frameworks inspire new thinking and solutions. Social design is an inclusive means of creating solutions that acknowledges and tries to address social and political components. Because of its prototyping process, or “making to learn”, it de-risks interventions by collaborating with users to make them more relevant and accessible long before they are introduced.

Technical vs Complex Problems

Technical Problem

Complex Problem

Knowing When You’re Ready

Integrating a social design approach can sound like simple common sense, but the shifts in mindset can be disorienting for a large or heavily structured organization. Below is a list of questions which, if the answer is yes to most of them, indicate your organization’s readiness to take on social design.

Are you willing to postpone knowing what the solution is until you work with the people experiencing it?

Are you willing to put aside your status as an expert who already knows your target audience?

Are you prepared for the discovery process to uncover a different problem than the one you thought you were working on?

Are you prepared to acknowledge that you don’t have the ability or permission to solve this issue?

If you are a funder, are you willing to fund experiments and wait for results without needing to know what the entire plan looks like in advance?

Are you willing to extend evaluation beyond the time when most interventions are considered complete in order to evaluate longer term capacity building?