Introducing Design With: A Reboot Podcast Series

Last year, we hosted four incredible interviews with folks driving radical collaborations across the globe. Our world has transformed so much in the time since, but the wisdom of these great leaders sustains. Take a listen.

We are actively engaged in the dialogue and debates of our space: on issues of social justice, global development, and democratic innovation, and on the ethics and methodological evolution of design, mediation, and co-creation practice. More of our writing can be found at Medium.

The Messy Art of Saving the World: Social Accountability in Nigeria

This is the final post in Reboot co-founder Panthea Lee’s seven-part series on design in international development for design blog Core77.

Communications technology provides government with the tools to be more transparent and accountable to its citizens. But just as giving someone a hammer doesn’t make them a carpenter, there’s more to the accountability equation. Achieving accountability requires creating a successful relationship between people—those in the government and those on the outside. An accountability system, then, is a two-way street: not only is the government responsive to citizen needs, but citizens must also be able to effectively communicate their grievances to the government.

Nigeria is a country that is oil-rich but accountability-poor. This is partially due to a lack of connective infrastructure, such as roads (only about 10 to 15 percent of Nigerian roads are paved), Internet access (only available to 11 percent of the country), and electricity (most of the country only has access to a few hours’ worth a day), upon which service delivery and social accountability systems rely. This lack of infrastructure doesn’t just hinder people’s daily lives and opportunities. It also prevents them from being able to demand better services, and over time, it undermines their confidence that they have power to make demands at all. For a social accountability framework to be successful, then, it must account for and overcome these deficiencies.Read more

Kate Krontiris & Zack Brisson on Radio Berkman

Zack Brisson and Kate Krontiris, co-authors of Reboot’s recent publication for the World Bank, Tunisia: From Revolutions to Institutions, recently appeared on an episode of Radio Berkman, produced by Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. Zack and Kate discussed Reboot’s work in Tunisia, and how technology is transforming both Tunisia and civil society the world over. Listen to the podcast here.

Sarah Fathallah at Stanford Design Experience

For those on the Stanford campus on Thursday, June 7, be sure to catch Reboot’s Sarah Fathallah at the Stanford Design EXPErience. Sarah, a former teaching assistant for Stanford’s Design Innovation class, will be at this unique showcase of student work, combining design research, design practice, engineering, and manufacturing. Click here to find out more.

Zack Brisson at World Summit on Information Society Forum

On May 16, Reboot Co-Founder and Principal Zack Brisson will be a featured presenter at the World Summit on Information Society Forum in Geneva. As part of a World Bank panel, Zack will present Reboot’s work on how ICTs are changing post-revolution Tunisia. Check out a live webcast of the presentation (from 10:15am-noon EST) here.

Mollie Ruskin Presents at Wanted Design Fair

On Sunday, May 20, Creative Lead Mollie Ruskin will be presenting at the Wanted Design Fair on Reboot’s work with Safe Horizon and desigNYC to improve outreach to human trafficking survivors. RSVP for the presentation here.

Testing Assumptions: More Closely Approximating the Truth

A reminder from the field: Always test assumptions.

Recently, alongside a colleague from the Global Health Project at the MIT Sloan School of Management, I have been trying to determine how LifeSpring, a maternal health hospital in Hyderabad, India, might utilize mobile technology to gather data about its outreach efforts.

In the past few years, many mobile-based solutions have been developed to support health workers in low-resource contexts. (Some are better than others.) Many at LifeSpring, including outreach workers themselves, agree that the hospital could benefit from digitally collecting information about its clients. These records could help assess the effectiveness of outreach efforts by capturing indicators such as the number of women who visit for prenatal care, a key goal of communications campaigns.Read more

Panthea Lee in Core77

Core77 posted Panthea Lee’s sixth entry in her series The Messy Art of Saving the World, on how we uncovered surprising, hidden challenges facing Sudanese teachers, and found new ways to support them. Read more here.

Panthea Lee Captains Jury for Core77 Design Awards

Reboot Co-Founder and Principal Panthea Lee will be captaining the jury in the Service Design category for the 2012 Core77 Design Awards. Read an interview with Panthea about the awards here.

Zack Brisson at NYU's Revolutions, People Politics & Change

On Friday, April 13th, Reboot Principal Zack Brisson will join experts, practitioners and students to present our recent publication on post-revolutionary social change in the MENA region. RSVP for the event or find out more details here.

Tunisia: From Revolutions to Institutions, Reboot

Tunisia: From Revolutions to Institutions

Reboot is proud to announce the release of “Tunisia: From Revolutions to Institutions”. Commissioned by infoDev, a global technology and innovation program in the World Bank Group, and generously supported by UKaid as part of a series analyzing the role of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in post-conflict contexts, this report presents a unique on-the-ground perspective of life in post-revolutionary Tunisia, illuminating how technology is being used to enable better governance, stimulate economic development, and support social cohesion.

Tunisians today are wrestling with how to wield the power of their increased connectivity to build a society that is more responsive to the needs of citizens and more capable of addressing the economic, political, and technological complexities of the modern world. The opportunities and setbacks faced by the new government as it seeks to provide the health care, economic development, justice processes, and other services demanded by its people will tell us much about the future of governance in a world that grows more complex every day.Read more

Zack Brisson at ICTD 2012

Reboot principal Zack Brisson will be presenting in two sessions at ICTD 2012. On March 15, Zack will be presenting Reboot’s findings on the role of ICTs in Tunisia with colleagues from the World Bank, and co-hosting a session with Grameen Foundation on user-centered design in ICTD projects. Find out more about the conference here.

Reboot at MIT Center for Future Civic Media

Reboot will be speaking at MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media on March 22 on the role of technology and design in international development. Event details will be updated closer to the date.

Tackling Human Trafficking

Here at Reboot, we’re honoured to be partnering with Safe Horizon, a preeminent service agency for trafficked persons* in New York City. Over the coming months, we’ll be working with Safe Horizon to design and deliver materials about their support services to trafficking survivors — and developing tools to measure their impact.

Victims of trafficking are often hard to reach — which is why we’ve been called in to help identify key opportunities for impact. We will be building upon a strong history and existing body of work. The anti-trafficking community, in the US and globally, has been highly creative in its efforts to support these isolated populations.Read more

Calling for Service Design Entries for the Core77 Design Awards

Reboot is thrilled to be participating in the second annual Core77 Design Awards, a progressive, industry-leading initiative that celebrates excellence across a broad spectrum of design. From its website:

Recognizing excellence in all areas of design enterprise, the Core77 Design Awards celebrates the richness of the design profession and its practitioners. For our second year, we present 17 categories of entry, providing designers, researchers and writers a unique opportunity to communicate the intent, rigor and passion behind their efforts. From client work to self-initiated projects, entrepreneurial to pro-bono engagements, we embrace a wide diversity of enterprise: commercial, cultural, social, environmental and discursive.

I’m honoured to be serving as the jury captain for the Service Design category, and along with an exceptional jury — made up of thought leaders and industry pros in the field — we’ll be evaluating exceptional service design work from around the world.

My co-jurors are:

As visitors to our website well know, Reboot champions the principles and practices of service design in our work the world over — you’ve probably seen us write or speak on the topic in the past. Thus, we are so glad to be taking part in a program that’s so relevant to our own mission and projects, and we’re looking forward to seeing many examples of outstanding service design.

Core77 has been serving a worldwide audience of design practitioners, firms, students, and educators for over 16 years. Its awards program responds to the changing terrain of design, social media, and environmental stewardship, in part by employing progressive categories like social impact, educational initiatives, and speculative — with the jury for the latter headed by none other than Bruce Sterling himself. Core77 is accepting entries of design work, research, or writing from the year 2011 in 17 categories. The deadline to enter is April 10 and both professionals and students are encouraged to apply.

Both Reboot and the service design jury is excited to see what our community has been up to over the past year, and how others have been thinking about and working on systems and processes that better serve people. Many of Reboot’s recent projects have focused on how governments and institutions can utilize new technologies to more effectively connect with and serve their constituencies. Thus, we’re keen to see — and to learn from! — all the other talented practitioners out there tackling similar challenges.

More about the 2012 Core77 Design Awards are here. Details about entering the competitions are here, and the deadline to apply is April 10. Best of luck!

Design Research: What Is It and Why Do It?

Design research is foundational to creating products, services, and systems that respond to human needs. In the public and international development sectors, understanding and meeting human needs are critical for improved livelihoods and better governance.

Yet despite its utility, design research is largely overlooked by many institutions important to an effective society. This oversight is unsurprising—the definition, purpose, and role of design research is not well understood. But in collecting the critical data they need to run their programs, these institutions do engage in ‘design research’. The information they gather, however, is often purely functional—‘just good enough’. But a lack of deliberation and formalization in process limits the value of research, and thus the utility of collected data.

I’ve been privileged to learn the art and science of design research from some of the best in the game. Time and again, I’ve seen what can happen both when design research is overlooked and when it is thoughtfully applied. So, to advance the conversation, I wanted to lay out some basic principles, approaches, and tools of design research so public institutions can better understand how it serves their work.

What is Design Research?

reboot design research visual notes

By ‘design research’, I mean research specifically undertaken to support the strategic design and development of products, services, and programs. Sometimes confused with market research, the practices differ in a few key ways.

Market research identifies and acts upon optimal market and consumer leverage points to achieve success. Its definition of success is not absolute, though metrics are often financial. Design research, on the other hand, is founded in the belief that we already know the optimal market and consumer leverage points: human needs. Unearthing and satisfying those needs is thus the surest measure of success. Through this process, we earn people’s respect and loyalty.

Both market and design research are necessary in developing effective solutions. I’ve drafted the following table to help clarify their complementary yet differing approaches and their roles as part of a larger strategy:


In design research, the methods and data collected differ from those emphasized in market or academic research. Ethnographic approaches to participant interaction clarifies complex human needs, behaviours, and perspectives. Field immersions unearth contextual and environmental factors that shape user experience. Rigorous, old-fashioned desk research and expert consultation support the fieldwork.But let’s be clear: good design research doesn’t end with good data. The contextual study (sometimes called ‘field study’, though I personally dislike the usage of ‘field’ in these contexts) is just the beginning. Once we have the data — often thousands upon thousands of photos, and dozens or even hundreds of interviews– the real work begins. The next steps include:

  • Process the data into useful formats. This includes filtering the data for relevancy; anonymizing outputs for participant privacy; tagging all artifacts with metadata; and categorizing data using taxonomies that support future needs and opportunities.
  • Make sense of the data. Using processes collectively known as ‘synthesis’, we prioritize, evaluate, and make connections between all collected data points. This often involves exercises to map the data in meaningful ways. Tools include: visualizations of the stakeholder ecosystems, diagrams of user experiences, detailed personas that give dimensionality and depth to those we are designing for, and affinity maps to draw relationships between data points. These outputs help us decipher the information and identify the most critical for the task at hand.
  • Distill data into insights. The tools above produce insights that inform the problem-solving process. Insights may include revelations on why people currently do the things they do and hypotheses on how their experiences can be improved. I’ll be writing more on this process in an upcoming post.
  • Test insights against existing knowledge. How do the generated insights map against broader social and industry patterns? How to they map against institutional strengths and capacities? How do they measure against known best-practices? Are they suitable for both institutions and the people they serve?
  • Translate insights into actionable formats. The data must be easily accessible to all stakeholders who may need it, and immediately useful to the design process. In this stage, we extrapolate initial design concepts to work on — our ‘best-guess’ attempt at how to solve the problem based on all the information we have gathered and processed.

Design Research in Action: Improving Emergency Relief Distribution in Pakistan

After a natural disaster, rural communities are often twice disadvantaged. Not only are physical infrastructure of rural areas more vulnerable to damage, but there is often a lack of financial infrastructure for delivering emergency relief funds directly to those that need them most. Creative solutions are needed to better connect disaster victims to sources of relief funding.

After the 2010 Indus River floods in Pakistan, UBL, a large financial institution, distributed over 2.3 million prepaid debit cards to Pakistani households that had lost their homes. While this was an innovative first step, UBL realized that there was substantial room for improvement. Among a population unaccustomed to banking, the intervention faced critical execution challenges. For example, flood victims that did not how to use ATM machines, which dispensed relief funds from the prepaid card, were forced to pay up to 20 percent of their allocated aid to opportunistic officials.

In 2011, Reboot was brought in to evaluate and improve UBL’s emergency relief distribution and mobile banking systems, to ensure that aid quickly reached those most in need. Nearly the entire Pakistani population—89 percent—lacks access to any financial service. Any project addressing the “unbanked”, then, must acknowledge and embrace the immense diversity of this population.

In order to understand Pakistan’s unbanked, our team conducted field research in towns and cities across Southern Punjab, speaking to nearly 300 individuals in the contexts where they live and work. Our team analyzed these interviews to gain a complete understanding of the population’s habits and attitudes toward financial services, and developed a series of user archetypes that highlighted common themes and behaviour patterns that a branchless banking service must cater to.

A branchless banking system utilizes local, third-party retailers, known as agents, as the primary sales and customer service representatives. We interviewed, ‘ghost-shopped’ with, and shadowed agents across the region to uncover habits and pain points to target for improvement. Finally, our team embedded with employees and executives at UBL, in order to understand their visions, capacities, and constraints in developing a better branchless banking network.

Among other results, we discovered that UBL’s network of human agents, the primary delivery channel for its mobile banking services and the only channel accessible by the poor, was not optimized. These independent retailers acting as the bank’s cash-in and cash-out points were often the sole human touchpoint between customers and the bank, yet they were not seen as a marketing tool by the bank. As the first point of contact for poor and often illiterate customers, they were in a strong position to explain the security that banking services could bring to their lives. UBL applied our insights to create a new team of specialists for providing agents with increased coaching and support.

By illustrating how branchless banking services can be designed for low-income users, we helped turn a commendable but unsustainable corporate social responsibility initiative into a long-term business growth area that was better able to meet the needs of the marginalized. The result? Banking became more relevant and accessible to Pakistan’s poor, and millions of people transformed from helpless victims reliant on aid to economically empowered customers with a stake in their futures.

Design Research for Public Service

Design research is a vote against hunch-based reasoning. It prevents the need for endless testing, and provides a basis for evidence-based decision-making. Today’s leading private sector organizations are wielding it with great success. They are developing products and services that improve the lives of their customers and, as a result, building loyalty for their products and brands. Procter & Gamble, for one, has employed design research for years as part of a larger commitment to integrating design methods in their organizational strategy. This has yielded many market successes. Intel is another example of using design research to develop products that meet needs users have yet to even articulate to themselves.

We must bring the same value to the public sector. Driven by different considerations than private corporations, the fruits of design research have, to some extent, remained unclaimed among institutions that serve the common good. Our hope is that more formalized methods for gathering, using, and processing information — both new and existing — will help public institutions better serve their constituencies and communities.

(Images: Peter Durand of AlphaChimp Studios, created during the PopTech Social Innovation Fellowship Program 2010.)

Zack Brisson Joins Social Entrepreneurship Panel

On Friday, Reboot principal and co-founder Zack Brisson joined representatives from UNICEF, Accion, Planet Finance, and the Pershing Foundation for a panel on Social Finance and Social Entrepreneurship at the Columbia Business School – Harvard Business School Social Entrepreneurship in International Development Day. Find out more about the two schools’ programs here and here.

Welcome to Jeremy Canfield, Patrick Ainslie & Sarah Fathallah

We are thrilled to announce three new additions to the Reboot team. Jeremy Canfield, a talented systems designer and Code for America alumnus, joins us as a Service Designer. Patrick Ainslie, a rockstar film and television producer who we first worked with in China, now joins us full-time in the New York studio as our Production Manager. Finally, Sarah Fathallah comes to Reboot HQ all the way from Morocco as our inaugural Strategy & Design Fellow. Welcome aboard!

The Future Starts Now: Designing the 2020 US Census

Photo ©2010 Quinn Dombrowski (Flickr: quinn.anya). Used under a Creative Commons License (BY SA-2.0)

As a lover of history, I always find myself drawing parallels between today’s headlines and consequential events or figures of the past. So when someone asked me why the Census mattered, I immediately thought of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, and a passage that recounted LBJ’s first years in the United States Congress. A snippet:

“When, in 1937… Johnson became their Congressman, Hill Country farmers were still plowing their fields with mules because they could not afford tractors. Because they had no electricity, they were still doing every chore by hand, while trying to scratch a living from soil from which the fertility had been drained decades before. They were still watching their wives made stooped and old before their time by a life of terrible drudgery, a life that seemed, as one Hill Country woman put it, ‘out of the Middle Ages.’ Four years later, the people of the Hill Country were living in the twentieth century. Lyndon Johnson had brought them there.”

Legislative horse-trading aside, this passage speaks to the dramatic changes that the New Deal brought to families and communities across the country, and helps us grasp the incredible impact that government can make on the lives of citizens through policies, services, and investments. Government doesn’t have a monopoly on social impact, but it certainly has significant market share.Read more

Panthea Lee & Zack Brisson Featured in Journal of Service Design

Reboot c-founders Zack Brisson and Panthea Lee have been published in the latest issue of the Journal of Service Design. Their article is titled Designing Human Rights: A Service-Driven Approach to Social Progress. Purchase a copy of the issue here.

A Call For Visionaries

Photo ©Gurbir Grewal. Used with permission.

Everyone who works to improve social conditions – from a UN official in Geneva, to an aid worker in Pakistan, to the mayor of Pittsburgh – is desperate for solutions. But a lack of solutions should not be confused with a lack of effort. While multi-billion dollar expenditures, high-profile conferences, and bold promises continue to increase every year, poverty, illness, and illiteracy continue to choke the dreams of people and societies around the globe.

I work and meet with folks every day who are on the front lines of the battle against these wicked problems. We see the sobering reality that throwing money and pledges at complex problems will not work. We see the need for institutions to better understand the people they are trying to serve. We see the need to radically rethink the design of policies, programs, and investments.

In short, we see the need for change.

What I realize more and more each day is that there is a critical mass of individuals in this generation – and beyond, for that matter – who are ready to get to work.Read more