• Designing outside your comfort zone

    “Trust the process!” That’s what we tell ourselves because as designers we often rely on tried and tested tools, methods and standards to help us arrive at a solution that should work. There is good reason why we learned these things in design school –they help us work efficiently, they minimize risk and they help us consider the world views of and design for people other than ourselves.

    All too often though, many of us find ourselves designing things for people whose situations bare some pretty strong similarities to our own. We design things that require people to have the latest smartphone, a fancy new wearable, a bank account or credit rating, or simply some disposable income in order to gain access to what we create. And our design community becomes more and more homogenized as gaining access requires a costly design degree and parents willing to let their child pursue a career that may be seen as less lucrative than something in the STEM realm.

    So what happens when you are faced with a design challenge so completely outside your frame of reference that you don’t know where to get a foothold? Well first, take a breath, then read on and I’ll share with you some lessons I’ve learned on a recent project that should help you. They certainly helped me!

    First, a bit of context:

    GLIDE is an organization focused on alleviating the suffering and breaking the cycle of poverty and marginalization in San Francisco. They are most widely known for their meal services, yet they have a myriad of services that many of their clients do not realize are available, including healthcare, housing, childcare, crisis management, violence intervention and education services. Together with GLIDE we designed, piloted, and helped launch a physical storefront, GLIDE GOODS, to familiarize clients with the breadth of services and increase the reach of these services while getting much needed clothing, personal hygiene, and sexual health items into the hands of people who need them, free of charge.

    So as this project was getting underway, I was thinking to myself that I’ve lived a pretty comfortable life. I’ve never had to make the choice between feeding myself or putting a roof over my head. I’ve never had to battle with an addiction or mental illness. When I told my parents I’m gay, they didn’t throw me out of our home or disown me. I’ve never felt invisible to society. And I’ve never had to make any changes to my lifestyle in any major way in order to find and keep a place to live.

    So you might be asking yourself what right, or qualification does this guy have to dream up solutions to other people’s problems? People with whom he has nothing in common.

    Let me tell you, I was asking myself the exact same things.

    Through the course of the Glide GOODS project, though, I learned a few things that helped me–and I think could help others–design outside their comfort zones. They may sound like best practices for just being a good designer, and they are. But they bear repeating so that we can all feel a bit more empowered to break outside the confines of what we normally do on a daily basis and challenge ourselves to design for people with whom we don’t feel we have much in common.

    Do the things that make you uncomfortable.


    Spoiler alert: in order to design outside your comfort zone, you’re going to have to get out of your comfort zone. Familiarity can actually breed comfort!

    Maybe you’re a bit of an introvert and the thought of striking up a conversation with strangers frightens you. Maybe there’s a topic that you’re uncomfortable discussing with others. Maybe there’s a part of your city that you avoid walking through after dark. Maybe you’re afraid that you’ll be seen as self-serving or that you’ll get in the way of the people you’re ostensibly trying to help.

    I felt every single one of those things when we began our discovery work with GLIDE. On our first few visits to their center in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, I felt like an intruder, or at the very least an outsider. I walked quickly from the metro station to their front door, and once inside I felt like I was constantly getting in the way (I probably was, I’m quite lanky).

    Conducting research interviews is nothing new to me. Yet, at first the thought of intercepting some clients on their way out the door, or soliciting interview participants from the sidewalks of the Tenderloin made me extremely anxious. Thankfully, my team member Gabi is quite outgoing and took the initiative with gusto. After my first couple of conversations with clients I was already at ease. The stories people shared were humbling and the candor with which they spoke was so refreshing. Usually it’s the researcher’s job to put the participant at ease, but the men I spoke to did just that for me.

    Joining the outreach team to hand out harm reduction kits (specialized supplies intended for injection drug and crack users to lower the risk of infection when they use) one night in the Tenderloin was another “fake it till you make it” moment for me. I went in not knowing what to expect, or what I might see. Within minutes, though, all of that melted away. Bill and Jorge from Glide’s outreach team had such a confidence, and a genuine rapport with the clients we interacted with on the street, and the respect that people had for them magically applied to me by osmosis (it helped to be wearing a GLIDE outreach hoodie, which felt like my armor that night). They moved quickly, but treated everyone with respect and dignity, and people were appreciative of the help they were doling out. By the end of the night, my hang-ups about walking around that neighborhood at night, and talking to people in some pretty desperate circumstances had pretty much disappeared.

    Designing outside your comfort zone can also mean being comfortable with getting other people out of their comfort zone. Working with the team at GLIDE, we helped them change how they normally work–getting people from all levels involved in decision making, having them service storm with us to act out new concepts, and taking people down from the upper floors (where senior staff at the organization tend to have their offices) and onto the ground floor to be face-to-face with clients.

    By the end of our project with GLIDE, we felt like we were part of the GLIDE family. The security team knew us and didn’t stop us to ask what we were doing there any more. The staff, and even some of the clients greeted us with smiles and waves when we ran into them. And the TL (that’s what people in the know call the Tenderloin) is no longer a place I avoid or fear.

    Some of this comfort developed naturally and simply by virtue of spending more time with people and in a place that we so often overlook in this city, but in a much bigger way it’s a testament to the people that we had the good fortune of working with.

    Don’t be afraid to throw out the rule book.

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    Best practices and protocols are great for approaching problems in a proven and consistent way, but it’s important to acknowledge when something just doesn’t feel right for the context you’re designing within. Familiar approaches can become a security blanket of sorts which can actually work against you when you’re in unfamiliar territory.

    When we were approaching the design problems in our work with GLIDE, it became clear that our research approach couldn’t be business as usual. We wanted to understand the context and needs of GLIDE’s clients, and normally that would mean conducting generative research, with a protocol, a set of activities, a discussion guide, and spending 60 to 90 minutes with each person we wanted to interview.

    We knew it would be totally inappropriate, let alone unfeasible in this context to get in the way of the clients’ right to the resources and services they were coming to GLIDE to access.

    So, going against everything I knew in my head about conducting a valid research study, we went with our gut feeling and threw out the research rule book. Instead, we held 10-15 minute chats with clients whom we approached as they were finishing lunch, waiting for their appointment with their case manager, or after they had picked up their hygiene kit from the walk-in center.

    We didn’t have a formalized protocol to read from. Instead, we put together a list of questions ahead of time that we kept in mind and could draw from to spark conversation.

    We didn’t take notes or record anything in our sessions, so that it felt as non-clinical as possible (many of GLIDE’s clients have had negative experiences with correctional and clinical institutions in the past). Instead, we quickly jotted down notes at the end of our session when our participants had left (remembering what you talked about in a 15-minute session is much easier than a 90-minute one).

    In the end we met about a dozen people in the course of an afternoon with whom we built practical empathy while hearing stories of struggle, loss, triumph, fear, despair, and optimism. And it wasn’t just our team who benefited from these sessions–several of our participants told us that just having someone to tell their story to was a therapeutic experience.

    If we had conducted a more traditional research study with all of the formalities and protocol, I doubt we would have heard that from people.

    Of course, none of these conversations would have been possible without some very helpful GLIDE staff, who connected us with their clients and helped send people our way. Which brings me to my next tip…

    You can’t win on your own, so find your champions early.

    Being in unfamiliar territory can feel paralyzing. But one of the first steps is identifying who your guides are and what they can teach you. The beauty of design is that you don’t have to come in with all the answers–nor do you necessarily have to end up with all of them,–you just have to know how to ask the right questions and how to get others to help point your team in the right direction.

    Thankfully, we had the pleasure of working with an incredibly caring and motivated team of people at GLIDE. It’s rare to come across an organization who lives their mission so honestly. From the very start, it was clear that every decision they make is centered around what will bring the most benefit to their clients. Having an ally like Ken, our project sponsor at GLIDE, within the organization was also invaluable. He was able to connect us with the people we needed to meet at just the right time, and helped us establish all of our essential relationships within GLIDE. He worked tirelessly to navigate the politics of the organization to help figure out resources and logistics so we could actually launch the pilot we designed. Nothing would have happened on this project without Ken.

    When we started our discovery work with GLIDE it quickly became apparent that the organization was full of people with deep knowledge–sometimes firsthand–of what it’s like to live on the street and what people’s priorities are when it comes to getting help.

    By building relationships with these experts early, we were able to build trust with our partners which gained us invaluable access to clients and front-line staff. Perhaps the most effective discovery I’ve ever done as a designer was spending a couple of hours one night shadowing Bill, Jorge, and Anna from GLIDE’s outreach team, handing out harm reduction kits in the Tenderloin. Seeing how they interacted with clients had an immeasurable impact on our service pilot, particularly the client interaction principles we later developed.

    Building bridges early also helps when you need to ask for help later. When you’re working quickly to get something off the ground, it helps to have people say yes to your crazy requests, or at the very least know the people who can get others to say yes. Before our service pilot was able to become a reality, we were able to switch the location to a more desirable and accessible spot, hand out a wider variety of products, and have the opportunity to operate alongside other teams all because of the relationships our project sponsor Ken and our core team had fostered early on.

    Do your homework… But don’t agonize over getting it right the first time.


    Design is nothing without a healthy dose of rigor, and designing in an unfamiliar space should be no different. But I’ve learned that it’s better to create a lightweight prototype that people can react to and then iterate from there, rather than spending days, weeks, or months trying to get every detail right before it ever sees the light of day.

    Aside from our discovery and research phases, and our close working relationship with the staff at GLIDE, which were huge learning opportunities, we knew it would be foolish to try and build out a full-fledged service, launch it cold, and then hope it hits the mark.

    This is why building a service pilot was crucial for us. We took everything we had learned, co-created some service concepts with our core team at GLIDE, refined those into a narrative that felt right and then built a lightweight service to test our hypotheses. We built in ways to gather feedback and capture opportunities to improve the service before it was fully rolled out.

    Even something as simple as asking clients for feedback on the products we offered was hugely informative. We quickly learned that the lotion we were handing out was the same kind that is given to prison inmates (a huge faux-pas given the negative connotations around correctional institutions I mentioned earlier), and that the combs we had ordered were useless to our African American clients. Knowing this allowed us to make more informed inventory choices before launching the service.

    We also learned that it was incredibly important that the products we offer match the visual menus we created that depict what’s available. After having her heart set on a bright pink Colgate toothbrush, a client was quite upset to see that all we had were those flimsy white toothbrushes you find in hotel room vanities.

    Someone who wasn’t deeply familiar with the contexts of GLIDE’s clients might react callously to that, thinking that people who are in need should be grateful for anything they get for free. But one of our design principles for this service was rooted in having seen first-hand the power that being given a choice can have for people who so often have to make do with whatever they can.

    Finally, piloting the service rather than launching cold allowed us to play around with different times of day, staffing models, and service flow patterns to make the service feel right before any of it was formalized.

    I’ve already felt the impact of the work we did with GLIDE on my own design practice at Adaptive Path and in my personal life as well. I find myself more empowered to take risks and lead my team into the unknown and to change course and bend (or throw out) the rules when the situation calls for it. I’ve gained a new perspective on a situation that I think all residents of San Francisco (and many other cities for that matter) could have a little more empathy for.

    So yes, trust the process. Until you can’t. Then dig deep into what you believe your values as a designer are and seek to understand who you’re designing for. That, and the ability to build a team of champions and experts you can rely on will guide your way.

    Now please, get out there and design outside your comfort zone!


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