This is from 2012 | 5 minute read

Narrow Focus, Broad Applicability: How a focus on wicked problems can benefit everyone

I've noticed an interesting pattern in my students' work, and it's one that I wasn't expecting. Because of the process we're using—a process where we identify insights related to a wicked problem and use them as scaffolds for a new business—we're aiming design at problems that matter, which helps to serve an underserved population. That's by design. But what's unexpected is that each business that has been created has resonance for "regular people", too: in each case, students have developed solutions that support their target audience, but have a much broader appeal. The writings on Universal Design describe the same principle: by designing for those with special needs, your solutions will be usable by those with average needs, too. Oxo is the quintessential example: while the original handles were designed for those with arthritis, it turns out that peeling potatoes is uncomfortable for anyone, and so the narrow focus actually has broad resonance.

I'll explain how this is working at AC4D by way of three example companies we've launched or are in the process of launching.

Pocket Hotline creates a way for volunteers to support non-profits by answering calls to those who are in need of a direct, personal and human interaction. The main social goal is to empower a community to support at-risk individuals.

The Pocket Hotline idea was developed after the founders, Scott and Chap, observed a general state of anxiety and chaos occurring at a local homeless shelter. There was a need for more personal interactions between the staff and the homeless clients, but there was an obvious lack of human resources available and a disproportionate amount of clients to staff. Additionally, while the case managers could schedule meetings with the clients, these acted as "strategic" interactions—intended to plan for the future—rather than "tactical" interactions, which would be useful in the moment of a crisis or a question.

But it turns out that there's broader appeal for voice conversations and one on one interactions, and one of the most successful applications of the hotline has been in Ruby on Rails Software Development. Although the subject matter is drastically different, the main premise is the same: "I need to speak to a person that can help, right now."

Feast For Days creates a way for low-income families to cook in a communal setting, to eat home-cooked meals, and to increase their knowledge of the importance of healthy and natural ingredients.

Jonathan and Ben, the founders of Feast For Days, observed low-income families at food banks passing over healthy vegetables because they didn't understand how to prepare the food. During shop-alongs, they learned that many of the people they were trying to help had never learned to cook, and few actually had the required infrastructure to legitimately cook a meal. As a result, most turned to prepared meals or fast food, which are notoriously high in sodium and low in food value. There was a need for a low-stress way to gain access to home-cooked meals in order to introduce new behavior and norms around preparing meals from scratch.

The main social goal is to lower the economic and emotional barriers to healthy eating while introducing new knowledge and techniques. It turns out, those same emotional barriers exist in higher socio-economic contexts, too, and communal cooking has a large social appeal irrespective of demographics. While those in more affluent social contexts may have once learned how to cook from their parents, they find themselves too busy or without the emotional drive to prepare a home-cooked meal.

HourSchool creates a way for the homeless to act as teachers, earning money and gaining self-worth in the process. The main social goal is to establish a more democratized view of who can and cannot teach. By immersing themselves in the culture of homelessness, founders Ruby and Alex identified that many who are homeless have skills or knowledge that they can provide to other people, but lack the setting in which to begin teaching. Additionally, many of the homeless described feelings of self-worth when they taught things to other people and helped other people; it was, for many of them, the most empowering feeling they had experienced. HourSchool gives them a platform upon which to teach, and a way to experience this feeling of empowerment in a more regular and predictable way.

It turns out that there's a large appeal to teaching and learning in informal situations, as evidenced by the variety of subject matter offered via HourSchool; based on the breadth of topics on the site, it's unlikely that you'll be able to identify classes taught by the homeless. And, many of those who teach their first class describe the same feeling of personal empowerment and value that comes from helping someone: it's an extremely positive moment of growth.

In all three examples, students started by focusing on an at-risk population and targeting their solutions just for them. But because our focus is on a mix of psychology and emotion, rather than technology or utility, we find ourselves playing directly with the material of behavior. And it's starting to seem like we're all a lot more similar than we are different, at least when it comes to our influences and aspirations. There's a pattern here, although I don't really like implying that this is at all formulaic:

  1. Start with deep immersion in an at-risk population. By literally embedding yourself in the population, you begin to better realize the nuances, needs, and culture.
  2. Identify several insights. These insights are provocative statements of truth related to human behavior, and they act as core assumptions. This is the stuff of abductive reasoning: the inferences that create the initial design scaffolding.
  3. Build to support the target population, based on the core assumptions. Consider the unique emotional and incentive-based qualities of the population.
  4. Generalize the design language to support a broader audience. This might mean changing the literal words and images used, or it might have to do with the core product offering and feature-set.


I like that this works, mostly because it implies that the barriers of "us" and "them" are pretty artificial. We're all just people, and once you start poking at culture and behavior, you get to some pretty poetic places. These are based on big words like identity, community, self-worth, and meaning, and these big words are relevant for any population, irrespective of socioeconomic standing.

Originally posted on Fri, 27 Apr 2012

Want to read some more? Try Thoughts on Risk Diversification in Innovation.