The Challenge of Designing Products for Social Impact "Product people - Product managers, product designers, UX designers, UX researchers, Business analysts, developers, makers & entrepreneurs 31 May 2016 True Measuring Impact, Non-Profit, Organisational Interfaces, Product Design, Mind the Product Mind the Product Ltd 673 Kate Tarling talks about design products for social impact at ProductTank London Product Management 2.692
· 3 minute read

The Challenge of Designing Products for Social Impact

Kate Tarling is a very experienced user researcher and product designer with a wealth of experience with running user-centred design programmes and activities. Recently Kate has worked as a Product Designer for Peek a social enterprise creating easy to use eye care tools for every clinic and health care worker. In this talk from ProductTank London, she talks about the challenges of design and delivering product in an international non-profit  – providing aid and support to communities who need it, at scale, while at the same time ensuring that what they produce is used as intended, isn’t undermining the local economy or any work the local government is doing.

Building Products is Easy. Making an Impact is hard

39 million people are blind in the world, 80% of those from low income countries, and the majority due to reasons that we can easily & cheaply treat in the UK. The team at Peek realised that sending out expensive, fragile, cumbersome optometry kit, which required constant power supplies and highly specialise training, wasn’t going to be very effective in places like rural Africa. However, lots of people in those areas have access to mobile phones, which presents an opportunity to make diagnosis affordable and accessible.

Given the scale of Peek’s goals, and the need to work across a large number of organisations, they’ve worked to shift away from “approval”-based decision-making (e.g. where a decision has to go up the bureaucratic tree to be approved), to devolved decision-making in the product team based on demonstrable user needs. The onus is then on the product team to demonstrate and back up their decision-making process. What’s critical in all this is remembering that they’re designing things for people who are not them (more so than in more typical product design).

Research and Measurement

Given how removed the product team is from their users, and the huge variety of contexts in which their products will be used, user research is absolutely essential. Partly to demonstrate that Peek is comparable with other diagnosis options, but also to find the local barriers to effective diagnosis and treatment. Do people realise that they have a problem? How can you convince the people around patients that they need to take action (release them from chores / school long enough to get treatment)? How compatible are the testing requirements with the environments people are living and working in?

Once you’re making progress in understanding the real-world requirements and constraints for a product that will be used in challenging field conditions, the next question is “how do you know if you’re making an impact?” Obviously, measuring that is tricky enough, but defining “impact” is a hurdle in itself. Simplistically, you might measure “number of devices produced”, “number of tests performed”… essentially vanity metrics. For Peek, meaningful social impact is the degree to which they are able to change people’s lives for the better – and that means something like “years of life improved”, for example. It’s hard to measure, but it’s what matters to the team, and the organisation!


In Kate’s words, “being non-profit should be the best way to make great products“, as it removes the pressure of profit as a primary goal, allowing the team to focus on building great product and making an impact. Of course, this depends on the kind of product you’re developing, but the key ideas that flow from that are powerful:

  • Devolving product decisions down the team, driven by real, verifiable user needs.
  • Recognising that you are designing for people who are not you.
  • Establishing metrics and measures that are genuinely aligned with the goals of your company and your product, and then work out how to measure them.

If you want to know how effective this approach is, the Peek team took an optometry diagnosis process that needed $150k & 15 people, and have made it possible to perform with 1 person, on a bike, with a smartphone. If you don’t already know what impact you’re hoping your products will make, it’s clearly worth spending some time on!

Comments 1

We see many innovations everyday but a study says that 99% of them fails. Major reason for the failure is that the innovation is useless to the world and thus was not required. Yes, as this article says, you must design a product that has social impact, otherwise you are going to make a blunder out of it. There are some young entrepreneurs that made most out of their innovations. Read about 5 of Today’s Most Inspiring Young IT Products Entrepreneurs & Their Creations

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