Using design to effect positive change

4 min read
Liz Cohen
  •  Oct 28, 2015
Link copied to clipboard

Whether you’re designing a product, new technology, app, or an entire business, the connection to the humans you’re impacting is paramount to what you put out into the world.

It’s easy to get so caught up in designing that you forget about the humans on the other end who will be engaging with what you create. The belief that you’re capable of making an impact, taking the time to assess the experience you’re designing for on an emotional level, and drawing connections that allow you to reframe a problem will drive a stronger connection between your output and the end user.

When you establish connection to your end user, you’re taking a huge step in creating work that has real potential to provoke positive behavior change.

“Your process is complex and detailed so your user’s experience is flawlessly simple.”

Twitter Logo

Utilize brain chemistry to guide your user’s experience

The human brain can release 4 feel-good chemicals in reaction to perceived positive experiences. I like to use DOSE to remember them:

  • Dopamine
  • Oxytocin
  • Serotonin
  • Endorphins

Understanding the basics of the brain’s chemical response to different experiences is a helpful first step in driving your design toward connecting to the end user.

The following is a basic rundown of our feel-good brain chemicals.

The brain releases dopamine during task-based interactions—it’s immediate and fleeting. Dopamine is the buzz of a text or a like on an Instagram post.

Oxytocin is the “love drug,” nicknamed so because it’s felt with trust, friendship, and connection. When you hug someone or feel part of a group, your brain reacts with oxytocin. And it’s delightful. (Check out Paul Zak’s TED talk for an enlightening take on oxytocin.)

Serotonin is feeling pride. It’s working toward a goal, and finding real, lasting value in your actions.

We feel endorphins during physical activity. They can mask pain, and they’re responsible for the “runner’s high.”

“When thinking about design, consider what parts of your brain are being affected.”

Twitter Logo

On the flip side, there’s cortisol, the brain chemical responsible for our fight or flight response. Cortisol is released in times of stress and when we feel disconnected or a lack of trust. Cortisol can protect us, but we become hostile when there’s too much of it.

When thinking about design, whether it’s your own or one you’re engaging with, consider what parts of your brain are being affected. What emotion does the experience evoke? Is the experience helping you solve a problem? Is it memorable?

I’m acutely aware of the addictive nature of a good dopamine hit and the long-term fuzzy feeling effects of oxytocin. The importance of empathy comes into play as we want to connect with our users and foster a sense of trust. When we design on the human level, connecting with the way our users think and interact, we can create meaningful experiences.

Let go of fear and take risks

Self-efficacy, as coined by Albert Bandura, is the belief that you can effect change and that you’re capable of more. Acting with self-efficacy is refusing to settle for mediocrity. It’s the ability to take risks and ignore the fears that inhibit creativity, the willingness to embrace failure and uncertainty, to speak your mind and to challenge the existing way things are done.

To impart real impact and ignite change, design with a sense of self-efficacy.Twitter Logo You must not only want to be an innovator, you must truly believe that you’re capable of innovating and making an impact.

Take a step back. Ask questions. Be proactive.

When presented with a design challenge, we often take off ideating on immediate solutions. So often we feel pressure from a deadline or instinctively run to our sketchbooks and laptops and try to solve, solve, solve. After all, what better dopamine hit than instantly coming up with a solution to the problem at hand?

Unfortunately, that’s not how you create innovative, impactful solutions. These types of solutions don’t come from the first attempt—there must be a process of research, testing, and digging deeper.

“To impart real impact and ignite change, design with a sense of self-efficacy.”

Twitter Logo

That said, before we work toward a solution to a problem, we must make sure we’re asking the right questions and solving the right problem. This requires taking a step back, shifting our perspective, defining our user, and looking through many lenses.

Let’s take Dr. Leyla Acaroglu’s TED talk, for example (and if you haven’t heard it, I highly recommend giving it a listen). Acaroglu, a product designer and sustainability strategist, speaks about wicked problems like food waste and energy consumption. We have a huge food waste problem in the US: 40% of food purchased goes uneaten. So we might try to solve this by figuring out ways to innovate on our process of breaking down waste or to find alternative solutions to landfills.

While those are valid solutions, they don’t get to the heart of the problem. How do we reduce the amount of unused groceries, not solve for the result of this massive amount of waste?

Acaroglu suggests a different solution: the refrigerator. A redesigned, smaller refrigerator would force us to purchase less groceries, thus forcing us to be more mindful about our purchases. This solution would push people to think about their purchases rather than mindlessly consuming. We’ve turned the solution from reactive to proactive.

Net positive design

Proactively solving problems brings us to net positive design. This is where I believe the power of design can be truly harnessed to make positive, radical change.

In Jeffrey Hollender’s article, “Net Positive: The Future of Sustainable Business,” he calls for a shift in our approach: “As individuals and organizations, we need a new vision of the future—a vision driven by what we want rather than what we want to avoid, what we aspire to rather than what we seek to prevent, what is good for “we” rather than “me.” We should base decisions on what will be best for tomorrow, not just today. This is the essence of what it means to be net positive.”

“If your design is net positive at its core, you’re on the right track.”

Twitter Logo

Acaroglu’s solution to our food waste issue doesn’t just reframe the problem—she’s also connecting with users on a deeper level. By solving the waste problem with a better designed, smaller refrigerator, Acaroglu’s solution impacts everyone who buys groceries. People start to ask questions and evaluate their actions.

We feel good when we’re making an impact and “saving the planet.” (Oh, hey seratonin!)

We feel good when we’re in it together and everyone’s making small changes for the greater good. (What’s up, oxytocin?)

Conversely, some people will be reluctant to make the change, insisting that bigger is better—or some other counter argument. There are a myriad of emotions at play here. Design is controversial, and that’s a good thingTwitter Logo—it means you’ve struck a chord with people. If your design is net positive at its core, you’re on the right track.

Etiquette is to humans as design is to technology

The power of design has infinite possibilities. By taking the time to understand the potential of your design, to believe that you have the ability to create change, and to attack a problem from a place of deep thought and insight, you’ll find more meaning in your work and you’ll create solutions that add value to your users.

No matter your audience, design is about taking something chaotic and complex and making it accessible to a userTwitter Logo—without them ever thinking about the complexity behind the scenes.

“Design is about taking something chaotic and complex and making it accessible to a user.”

Twitter Logo

This can be applied to all types of designs, as Kevin Simler of Melting Asphalt puts it in reference to UX design: “…if etiquette civilizes human beings, then the discipline of UX civilizes technology. Both solve the problem of taking a messy, complicated system, prone by its nature to ‘bad’ behavior, and coaxing it toward behaviors more suitable to social interaction. Both succeed by exposing intelligible, acceptable behaviors while, critically, hiding most of the others.”

The design process is messy, but the result must be so clean that it’s invisible. The beauty of our work is in its ability to be so seamless that it goes unnoticed, the same way that we don’t think about etiquette until someone has poor etiquette.

As you go on with your day designing brilliant experiences and products, keep all this in mind:

  • Dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, endorphins/cortisol
  • Design for humans. Always be thinking how a user will experience your design and what emotions you want your design to convey.
  • Design from a place of self-efficacy.Twitter Logo It all starts with believing you’re capable of creating greatness.
  • Ask questions and draw upon connections that will help you see the problem from different perspectives
  • Can you reframe the problem to create a solution that is proactive instead of reactive?
  • Your process is complex, messy, and detailed so that your user’s experience is flawlessly simple

Collaborate in real time on a digital whiteboard