5 Tips for Do Gooder Designers

This month in my hometown of Chicago I’m giving an encore of my WebVisions Portland talk, Activism ✕ Technology. After the original presentation, many conference attendees reached out expressing their interest in supporting activist movements through technical assistance, i.e. design and development. This post offers some practical advice for how creative people can get involved in authentic, empathic ways—illustrated by a story of my own well-meaning (and misguided) intentions.

Ten years ago, I got really excited to start a midnight youth running club modeled after urban collectives like London’s Run Dem Crew and NYC Bridgerunners. As a marathoner and Latino living in Chicago’s Puerto Rican neighborhood of Humboldt Park, I thought I was just the guy to do it. I organized the club’s structure, mapped out various street courses and even started working on a brand identity and manifesto.

I was so caught up in the director’s dismissal of my ‘concept’, I couldn’t appreciate his redirection of my efforts or recognize my own myopic view of ‘helping’.

I reached out to the local alternative high school and pitched their physical education director on my idea. Cutting my overzealous presentation short, he told me if I really wanted to make a difference and get to know his students, I should volunteer to help coach his P.E. class.

“Wait. What?!” I thought to myself. “This is a great use of my skills, it’s in my own neighborhood and I am willing to do it for FREE. I don’t want to coach phys ed—I want to help the kids!”

I was so caught up in the director’s dismissal of my “concept”, I couldn’t appreciate his redirection of my efforts or recognize my own myopic view of “helping.” The director knew exactly what this constituency of young men needed because he spent years gaining their trust, establishing meaningful connections and creating powerful learning experiences for them. Looking back it’s no surprise he wasn’t interested in my athletic abilities or youth running club idea.

It took 3 weeks of me volunteering at the high school gym to realize this mismatch of my passion and skills and the complexity of these young men at the intersection of culture, identity, gentrification, gang violence and lack of opportunity—not to mention the very real drama of just being teenagers!

While this situation didn’t involve technology, it’s a clear example of trying to apply talents and solutions without considering the end user first. Looking back, I knew very little about ethnography, observational research, participatory design or user testing—practical methods I now apply to make certain I’m designing and building the right thing for (and with) end users.

So how can designers and developers take action and support social movements? The short answer is to volunteer as a volunteer, first—not as a designer or developer. Fight the inclination to immediately create value and apply your design education, coding abilities, passion for technology and any preconceptions of what you think people might need. In the early days of your involvement, all those things can get in the way of your learning, understanding and empathy-building for the true need states of that nonprofit, foundation or activist group.

Here are 5 simple tips to avoid a volunteer fail:

  1. Identify the movement that matters to you most. Find your local chapter and volunteer to help—without worrying about leveraging your design or development abilities.
  2. Start from a place of service, not skills. Don’t be offended or bummed out if in the beginning you’re asked to help with what feels like basic tasks—trust (and fit) takes time.
  3. Treat your volunteer hours as observational user research. You’re not the expert, you’re not there to “fix” anything. You’re there to bear witness and be helpful.
  4. Look out for unexpressed needs. Workarounds, cheat sheets and cloogy solutions are often indicators of processes (outreach, research, funding, training, service delivery) that you might be able to help improve with design or technology.
  5. Read The Unexotic Underclass by C.Z. Nnaemeka.

Casey Gerald, the co-founder and CEO of MBAs Across America, suggests the thing we need more than anything right now is proximity. And he’s exactly right. It’s very hard to solve the big socio-political challenges we face without having proximity to the people most affected by those challenges. As creators and innovators we’re paid to design the future—but none of our concepts, platforms, apps, devices, systems and social networks will make a difference if we have not truly come in contact with humanity, so that the needs of those on the frontlines have become, at least in part, our own.

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