Designing a Gateway For Change: The Meaning of UX For Good

by Sheena Lyonnais

posted on 09-21-2017

When we think of user experience design, often our thoughts turn to a digital interface and the way a user navigates it. According to Jason Ulaszek, founder of international design agency Inzovu and co-founder of non-profit UX For Good, user experience design is about so much more than this.

At its core, he said, UX design must be more broadly defined to serve as the gateway for change. It requires a complete shift in thinking.

“UX to me is a mindset. It is a philosophy, a way of thinking, acting, behaving, and doing. I think many times UX is labeled as this thing we can do with a digital product or a website and that’s quite unfortunate. I think it’s much broader than that and there are a number of different types, backgrounds, and disciplines that help enable it. It’s the mindset really that is quite important to me,” Ulaszek said.

But what does this actually look like, and how can designers embrace a UX for good approach when it comes to their own work?

The 3 Philosophies of Using UX For Good

In a previous piece, Designing for Action, Not Reaction: UX for Good and The Kigali Genocide Memorial, Ulaszek talked in detail about one such example where he and a team worked with the Kigali Genocide Memorial to use UX design and design thinking to make the memorial more impactful.

“To me, the conversation around meaning, value, and impact is an important one,” Ulaszek said in our follow-up call. “To run and operate an organization and attack problems with our capabilities as a designer, it’s important that we do no harm, we do good, we have fun in the process, and we think about the sustainability of our ideas and the impact that they have out in the world.”

It’s an approach that is rooted in three personal philosophies that form the foundation of his work at Inzovu, a word that means “elephant” in Kinyarwanda, the official language of Rwanda.

1. Understand the Scope of Your Skill

“When we work with organizations it’s important that we understand that we’re using our skill, our craft as designers, across a number of different types of disciplines,” he said. “It’s not always just digital. We are being asked to help use those [skills] to make an impact, make a difference.”

2. Make Your Work Sustainable

“We need to understand and help organizations that we work with and ensure that they get the skills, the abilities, the capacity building, and the maturity that is required to take some of these ideas that we help bring to life and run with them,” Ulaszek said.

By taking a sustainable approach to a design, the organizations you work with are equipped to continue with their mission. To build them a beautiful website and then leave them out to dry is, in essence, a harmful approach that violates the intention of using UX for good.

“A sustainable and ‘do no harm’ approach to organizations by helping them really in the transformative aspects of things is an important piece there.”

3. Change Happens at a Product and Personal Level

“The third philosophical point is really about our teams having fun and recognizing that the opportunities that we have should be seen as a platform, as an opportunity to grow and develop perspective, but grow and develop ourselves as well,” Ulaszek said.

Using UX for Good Does Not Necessarily Mean Having to Work For Free, But it Does Mean Defining Your Mission

There is often a misconception that the work Ulaszek does is either pro-bono or specifically related to using design to fix social problems. While much of Ulaszek’s work is for non-profit organizations, he also works with companies of all sizes and in various capacities. Sometimes he gets paid for the work, sometimes he doesn’t, but together they create a larger ecosystem of what UX for social good looks like to him and they inform his overall mission both professionally and personally.

He referenced an article he recently read that discussed entrepreneur and author Seth Godin’s perspective on missions. In the article, Godin gives writer Jeff Goins some real talk. When Godin asks Goins why he started his business, Goins said that he wanted to “spread ideas that change culture.”

“That’s your mission,” Godin told him, “not a business goal. Don’t expect to always get paid for your mission.”

These words resonated with Ulaszek.

“It really struck me because, in the things that you do, you need to be more mission-oriented using design to have a positive social impact,” Ulaszek said. “You have to look at your mission and start to align the way you operate your organization.”

UX for social good starts from the top down. This means considering everything from how you manage your business’s cost model to how you engage with clients, customers, employees and everyone in between. You must consider the intrinsic components of your organization, the work you do and how you run it. This will start to inform the structure of how you operate and can give you a better idea of how to channel this to make enough money to pay your bills and potentially earn profit.

“As designers, we have to think about the bigger picture which is the passion, the energy, the fulfillment and the dollars and cents that cross at all the things you do, not just at one thing solely,” he said.

It’s about flipping your mission on its head and saying this is what I’m passionate about and here’s how all these things combined enable me to do the work I want to do and inspire the change I want to see in the world.

Turning Interfaces Into Intentions: How to Start Thinking About Using UX For Good

Like many designers, when Ulaszek was starting out his work was largely about honing the craft and thinking about interfaces and user experiences in terms of a digital thing.

Now, however, he sees his work as an enabler or tool that helps a user or an organization do something at some point in their overall journey. Now, it’s not just an interface, it’s something that empowers organizations to accept donations, connect with people, or engage in meaningful ways.

It’s something that comes with experience and takes time to develop.

“For those folks just starting out, try to think more broadly about the impact and the journey not just of the constitutes, the customers or whomever you’re designing for, but also the journey for the organization,” Ulaszek said.

Ulaszek often gets emails from designers at all stages of their careers looking to enter the social impact space because they either want their work to have more meaning and value, or they’re tired of feeling like they’re just making their company more money.

“Here’s the thing,” Ulaszek said, “you have to define what is meaningful to you. Everybody is a little different.”

Baking Your “Meaningful Pie”

He describes this process as figuring out the ingredients to your “meaningful pie,” a recipe that will continually change over time as you move forward in your mission.

“Maybe it’s helping serve on a board, maybe it’s helping support or coach or mentor, at first, so you can satisfy a part of that. As it evolves and shifts, your needs with change,” Ulaszek said.

“I think that it’s also a matter of how you define scale and impact,” he said. “Scale financially, scale to the number of people who use your product, scale in what: the ideas that are shared? The impact the thing has had? How do you start to define those things? It’s not just a dollar amount or a number of eyeballs that have seen a thing; sometimes it’s a new type of metric. To me, it’s about understanding your own definition of meaning, scale, and impact.”

User experience design can be a powerful enabler of social and organizational change, but the secret to success is to shift your thinking of what UX is and define what “meaningful” means to you.

Topics: Creative Inspiration & Trends, Design