Bernise Ang, Chief Alchemist at Zeroth Labs, spends her days looking across many disciplines in an attempt to tackle social challenges in an urban context. In this talk from #mtpcon Singapore, Bernise shared some stories from her work in social services to illustrate how product and design thinking can help to uncover opportunities, and the lessons her team learned along the way.
In a country well known for its wealth, many people aren’t aware that there is poverty in Singapore. The country’s mix of public housing, social assistance, and a very efficient police force means that homelessness and poverty is mostly invisible. Bernise and her team worked with the Family Service Centre in the low-income Bukit Ho Swee district to uncover how best to serve the community there.
The Bukit Ho Swee district was faced with many problems – substance abuse, loan sharking, high unemployment, and even primary school dropouts. With so many factors to consider, the brief provided to Bernise and her team effectively said: “We don’t know what the problem is.” The Family Service Centre wanted help to uncover where it might have an impact.
Working with local businesses, community organisations, social workers, local government agencies, and, of course, the residents at the heart of this research effort, Bernise and her team employed a variety of research methods to understand what was really going on in the district. Many stories came out, and Bernise shared two of them to illustrate the learnings the team gained about their process.
Quantitative Research: The “What”, not the “Why”
The team started with data analysis, using the data they could get from the Family Service Centre. They started with a hypothesis provided by social workers in the area: it doesn’t matter how much financial assistance you give to families in crisis, it is really income consistency that makes a difference. They used domestic violence rates because they believed domestic violence was more prevalent in families where there wasn’t consistent income.
So Bernise’s team ran the data, and found that full-time employment (and therefore, steady income) correlated with an inverse relationship with domestic violence. With this finding, she expected to see the same correlation play out as her team looked at other employment levels. If the hypothesis was true and full-time employment made domestic violence drop significantly, wouldn’t part-time employment at least make it drop some? But that wasn’t the case – the correlation only was present with full-time employment.
Questions > Petabytes. The quality of your questions is more important than the volume of your data.Bernise Ang
While her team didn’t get the answers they were hoping for from the data, the information opened up a new line of questions that they could explore further in their research. Her team learned that data can tell you what, but behaviour tells you why. You have to dig deeper into behaviour to get the answers you’re looking for.
Qualitative Research: Insights Through Ethnography
Bernise told the story of interviewing Sati, a single mother who was providing for her children and her mother on $800 a month. While she would like to feed her family healthy food, her kids loved frozen fish fingers. She would buy them on sale at the discount market in bulk and feed them to her family regularly. When they talked about this with her, she not only mentioned that healthy food was expensive as the team expected, but also that she “is taking care of so many things, if I can make the kids happy and quiet for a little while, I’m very happy”.
When they asked her if she would like to increase her finances, she immediately said that she couldn’t go get a job, because she had to keep an eye on her children. Protecting her children in what she perceived to be a dangerous place was more important than increasing her income, even at nutritional cost.
This illustrated that when designing solutions for the neighborhood, the Family Service Centre had to build for where people are, not where others thought they should be. And with so many factors affecting people with lower incomes, behavioural insights will be increasingly important in designing public services for citizens.
Making Sense of the Insights
Once the team had uncovered many insights, they used Design Thinking methods to uncover themes. They also looked at system dynamics to understand what might be affecting obvious issues. For example, you might see that parental involvement helps with higher educational attainment for kids, but the factors that affect parental involvement go far beyond the desire of the parents to be more involved. These extra factors are called “emergent properties.”
The team learned that system complexity means we have to allow for emergence, and emergence requires an environment that doesn’t snuff it. We have to spend time in the discomfort of things that didn’t work in order to uncover the real problems that can have huge effects across the system, and fix them in future iterations.
Finding Solutions: Frame the Question Right
With all of the insights, the team discovered five key areas that could have great impact in the district. But simply saying “we want to improve education” is not realistic. The team focused on asking the right questions to focus their solutions in the reality of the existing environment. They asked questions such as:
- How might we help kids build a strong educational foundation despite unstable home environments?
- How might we create sustainable income streams for people whose situations make it difficult for them to hold “regular full-time jobs”?
The team recognised that framing is key, particularly when tackling social challenges. The better the problem definition, the better the framing. And the more unknown the problem, the more important the problem definition is.
Bringing it all Together
With the research complete, Bernise’s team wanted to take a participatory approach to determining what solutions should be explored. Knowing the power dynamics in place between those who are “helping” and the community, they focused on finding ways to bring the residents into the process of ideating. They elevated the residents to the position of “expert” of their situation, involved them in hackathons where they could be the ones to say if an idea would work or not, and even had more residents participate than outsiders. Participation benefits from context, and the context brought by the residents provided for a diversity of thought that brought new solutions to light, and more importantly, made the residents feel included.
From there, the team ran a series of experiments, looking to validate potential solutions. Using experimental approaches can help us better navigate messiness as we build products for public good. With risk-averse institutions like governments, implementing small prototypes and experiments can help overcome the fear of change, and contain the risk that exists.
Beyond Product-Market Fit
While most of us are developing products that are looking for product-market fit, in social services, that is not the end goal. Bernise says her team was really looking for Process-Context Fit. Finding a process that invited participation from the people they were trying to help and using the context those people could provide allowed the team to develop solutions that were more effective than those the organisation would have designed on its own.