Live From PopTech: Designing for Impact

The second report from this year’s PopTech conference, American Reimagined, by its fellows program adviser Robert Fabricant.

The design process really kicked into high gear on day three–Kevin Starr of the Rainer Arnhold Fellows program and I teamed up for our presentation.

PopTech fellows

Members of the PopTech fellows program

No one is better than Kevin at getting social entrepreneurs to think clearly about their interventions. He set up some basic components of each fellow’s impact model, including the concise definition of their mission and, more importantly, impact measurement.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but I prefer to work backwards from impact, rather than forwards from mission in the social innovation design process. It really clears a lot of things up fast. If you know the specific impact that you are trying to achieve, the steps to get you there become very clear. And the organization that you need to drive those steps emerges quickly. With a group that has this kind of creativity and capacity it is all about focus.

I spent most of the five-hour work session focusing on understanding behavior (no surprise), particularly the creation of what Kevin refers to as a Behavior Chain. As you have probably guessed, I define social impact as the ability to drive lasting behavior within a community. And I’m always amazed when we’re able to get past all the aspirational language and break down a social initiative into a discreet set of behavioral building blocks (like getting rural health care workers to collect information with their mobile phones).

The fellows are an exceptionally accomplished bunch. Among them are some real veterans, such as Nigel Waller and Deb Levine. Yet this kind of simple analysis always reveals major gaps in understanding around the participants and behaviors that are central to their work. Here are some of the steps:

  1. Define a clear and simple impact statement (something measurable) like improving health indicators in resource limited settings (in the case of Diagnostics for All).
  2. Start working backwards. Entrepreneurs usually know the one thing that’s key to delivering an impact. In the case of Diagnostics for All, it is increased rates of testing in these settings.
  3. From there, you can back out the rest of the behaviors that need to happen to increase the number of people who are testing all the way up through the typical rural health system.
  4. Look at the incentives and conditions that are necessary to drive behavior at each link in the chain. Are they present?

It goes a lot deeper beyond that, but you get the idea. Common sense, right? But it requires a number of things:

  • You have to know whom you are trying to influence.
  • You must think not just about the target participants in your intervention (the families in these remote communities) but all the other participants, such as doctors or public health officials that are essential to delivering impact for the end user.

This last bit is crucial because the most essential, sustainable, and innovative part of your program may be in how you can deliver a change in behavior further upstream in the ecosystem. That can be very hard to do. But once you have figured out how to solve for incentives related to distribution (for example) or procurement you can use that platform to support many different interventions. This is how people like Paul Polak have driven value on such a large scale. Reaching the customer is usually 80% of the battle.

With a first pass at the Behavior Chain my goal was to show them how integrate design methods into their process to test and refine their chain. I provided some structured thinking tools to guide them through the process of testing their assumptions and adapting to changes in conditions. It was a great session, although I wish that I had much more time with each of the fellows.

beth kanter

PopTech fellow Beth Kanter

I was followed by the incredible Bath Kanter who took them through a deep analysis of social media strategies. She drew some nice parallels between my core message about the iterative nature of the design process and how you think through these strategies. You can check out more on her blog. It was an honor to collaborate with Kevin, Beth, and the other faculty members. And throughout the process we were assisted by the incomparable Peter Durand and his nimble graphic facilitation skills. What a treat!


[Photos by Erik Hersman]

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Read Robert Fabricant’s Design4Impact blog
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Robert Fabricant is a leader of frog’s health-care expert group, a
cross-disciplinary global team that works collectively to share best
practices and build frog’s health-care capabilities. An expert in
design for social innovation, Robert recently led Project Masiluleke,
an initiative that harnesses the power of mobile technology to combat
the world’s worst HIV and AIDS epidemic in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.

Robert is an adjunct professor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts
where he teaches a foundation course in Interaction Design. In 2009, he
joined the faculty of the School of Visual Arts in New York and is a
faculty member of the Pop!Tech Social Innovation Fellowship Program. A
regular speaker at conferences and events, Robert recently gave a
keynote speech at the 2009 IxDA Interaction Conference. He is a
frequent contributor to a wide variety of publications, including
I.D. Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and Wired.


About the author

Robert Fabricant has been working at the forefront of user-friendly design for more than 25 years for organizations like Microsoft and Frog. He is the cofounder of Dalberg Design, a unique practice focused on social impact with design teams in London, Mumbai, Nairobi, and New York, and a finalist for Fast Company’s World-Changing Company of the Year