Purpose Driven Design Can Change The World

In his book The Design of Everyday Things, author Don Norman tells a story about a friend getting trapped in a doorway. You might ask, “How do you get trapped in a doorway?” It just opens and shuts, right? Well, this entrance was actually a row of six glass swinging doors, followed immediately by a second, identical row. It was designed to reduce airflow and maintain the temperature of the building inside.

But before his friend could get to the second row of doors, he got distracted and moved slightly to the side. When he came to the next door and pushed, nothing happened. So he tried to go back outside. Nothing happened there either. He tried the inside doors again. Nothing. And before long he panicked. It was only when some other people came along that he was able to get through the door.

Norman uses this story to help us look beyond the aesthetic beauty of the everyday things we interact with and consider what can happen when even simple things are not designed to be intuitive.

But I took a different lesson from that story: that design isn’t just about a single object – but how many different objects work together as part of a system and how that system impacts people’s lives.
It showed me how design can either open doorways for people … or close them.

I became a designer because I want to open doorways for people – and believe design driven by a sense of purpose can actually change the world.

Design Has Come a Long Way … But Not Far Enough

Of course, when most of us think of design, we think of something like that door – we think of designing for beauty and utility. Now, to be clear, I love that kind of design! For generations, we thought that was what designers did.

But design has come a long way. As technology has become more central to our lives, businesses look to designers like me to help create their websites, software, and mobile applications, making sure things would work well for the people using them.

As more and more people began making decisions around who to do business with based on the overall experience they had with an organization, practices like Human-Centered Design and Design Thinking emerged. Inviting the end-user into the design process itself, these were based on a radical idea: that if we understood the needs of people then we would be more effective in serving them.

But it was when I met “Jim”, a 65 year-old patient with congestive heart failure who shared with me how overwhelmed and confused he was regarding his recent diagnosis that I realized empathizing with people wasn’t enough. As struck as I was by his story, I was even more struck by the fact that improving a transactional interaction with his pharmacy was not going to far enough in terms of providing him with the resources and support he needed to get on a path to better health.

And when I began looking at the big, hairy systemic problems we have today—from health care costs on the rise as our lifestyle makes us sicker, to an unequal education system, to declining savings rates—I began to realize something else:

That no one organization, or piece of technology in isolation could fix these problems.

Purpose in the Marketplace
I believe purpose-driven organizations will win in the marketplace. Here’s why:

Millennials Are Wired for Purpose. They may get a bad rap as the “Selfie Generation,” but where past generations looked to bring home the bacon and “keep up with the Joneses,” Millennials are far more likely to ask questions like “Does this product or service make a positive difference in the world?” And, “Could my career focus help give my own life meaning?” As a result, they want their businesses to be focused on generating that impact, and mission-oriented organizations from USAA to Whole Foods are designing their businesses to create a place where customers, employees, and stakeholders can all take part in their mission.

All Businesses Have Purpose. Now that may sound pretty naïve. Most of us probably work for companies that have one purpose: to make money. But as author Roy Spence says, great companies have an authentic sense of purpose. They make “a definitive statement about the difference they’re trying to make in the world” — and feature workplaces with the “energy and vitality” to bring that purpose to life. John Mackey, the founder of the aforementioned Whole Foods and co-author of Conscious Capitalism, talks about shifting the narrative away from profit maximization and back to the idea that “the purpose of business is to improve our lives and to create value for all stakeholders.” In the future, more companies will orient themselves this way, not only because it is the right thing to do, because …

Purpose is Profitable. Really? Really. In a 10-year study of more than 50,000 businesses, Jim Stengel, the former CMO of Proctor and Gamble, found that businesses centered on the purpose of improving people's lives resonated more strongly with consumers. Not only that, but an investment a decade ago in the top 50 businesses in his study would have been 400 percent more profitable than an investment in the S&P 500 over that same time.

Designing for Impact: The Purpose-Driven Design Approach

At my company Mad*Pow, we’re focused on helping clients deliver both social impact and financial return – and we take a three-pronged approach to helping organizations understand and act with purpose:

1)   Clarify Purpose Beyond Profit. This is a question we need to keep asking until we get the right answer. The right purpose and outcome will emerge when we invite a broad group of stakeholders to become “students of the problem.” Clarity will come from a process not driven solely by the assumptions of one group in a vacuum but discovered and desired by the people across the entire network.

2)   Align and Collaborate. Collaboration is a bit of a buzzword these days, but done right, it’s a killer form of innovation. Modern innovation springs from brilliant and often surprising connections and not just some shiny new technology. We make those connections by tracing people's pathways through the ecosystem of interaction – and understanding what other companies and other industries they touch throughout their journey, as well as identifying their unmet needs.

3)   Design New Business Relationships, Services, and Technologies. From this work, we develop a set of principles that can shift a business’s focus and even change its culture. These principles will inform everything from how the organization will operate and the products and services it will create… to how employees will be treated and how causes and communities will be supported… to how social and business impact will be measured and what business models will lead to longevity.

But let’s get this out of the abstract. Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, nestled in New England, focuses on delivering health as opposed to just treating sickness. As their CEO puts it: they want to create a world where “healthcare takes place outside hospital walls, in the places where people live.”

This is an organization that already understood its purpose: to keep people like Jim healthy at home and out of the ER. And they understood that health isn’t only about our interactions with our doctor, our diet, or our stress levels – that how healthy we are is determined by how everything works together. The question was: how could they orient their service offering and business model to do that?

One solution they developed is called “Imagine Care.” While it involved a smartphone app and high tech things like Bluetooth biometric sensing devices, and algorithms to support evidence based care pathways, the focus of this effort wasn’t on the technology but rather the experience between the technologies. The idea was simple but important: Seamlessly connect patients with their care team and provide them what they need to feel empowered to care for themselves at home.

And it’s working. Not only is the program saving money for everyone involved, but people are no longer lost in the system. They are connected. And most important of all: they are getting healthier.

Cigna recently partnered with Samsung to do something similar: create a digital health coach pre-loaded on Samsung Galaxy devices that helps people set health goals, collects data from device sensors, and provides feedback and encouragement – similar to a human coach, but available ‪24/7.

Now, this is a single app. But instead of an insurance company and telecommunications giant focused solely on their individual business goals, Cigna and Samsung are driving toward a shared goal: bringing increased health awareness and behavior change to 500 million people worldwide. They are partners in purpose – part of a growing network of businesses advocating for wellness, and understanding their role in making it all possible.

The point is, when you reorient companies toward purpose, things change. New opportunities come to light.

From Design Thinking to Design Doing

Companies are already harnessing the power of design to create a better experience and imagine a better world. But if the challenges we face today tell us anything, it’s that we need to move past Design Thinking into Design Doing.

Could Purpose-Driven Design help the health industry collaborate with the food industry to deliver food with good nutritional value and help to change the Standard American Diet (or, as it is rightly known as today: “S.A.D.”)?

And what if we engaged patients and families in the waiting room so that they’re better prepared for the conversation with their doctor…instead of leaving them to fill out paperwork while their kids go stir crazy?
Could we nudge doctors to someday soon begin prescribing apps in addition to drugs—or perhaps in place of them—that develop healthier behaviors?

Or finance. Instead of just helping you check your balance or move money around, could we help banks use those transactions to help people understand and change their behaviors so that fewer people go into debt and more find their way out of it?

Or in our schools…could we fundamentally change the culture to empower teachers to design the learning experience that best meets the needs of their classrooms?

Because at the end of the day, we are all designers, with a role to play when it comes to opening doors for our children at school, for ourselves at work, for our loved ones in the hospital, and for the people and causes we care about.

We are all designing a better future. And with Purpose-Driven Design, more of us make a difference.


By: Amy Cueva

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