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Is Human Centered Design for Consumers or Communities?

I attended a fascinating presentation this week from the great folks at social-impact startup Compost Connect about how they are using design thinking for social impact. It’s a highly resonant topic for me given the confluence of my own community based work and my CX strategy work.

First, Compost Connect is a useful idea addressing a huge problem, which I love. Second, their app-based solution reveals how easy it is to prefer technical, consumer-based solutions to non-technical, community-based solutions.

Sometimes we trust apps more than people. Maybe because they seem easier to control.

Tackling a Big Problem

The team at Compost Connect started with a big problem: 40% of the food in the US is wasted.

Next, they narrowed down to a partial solution to the big problem: wasted food can be composted, resulting in creating good soil and eliminating methane gas from food decomposition.

Then, they started doing research and identified existing networks of compost haulers that were already providing a service in picking up food waste and turning it into compost.

Finally, they decided to provide a technical solution (a mobile app for consumers and an operational/communication app for compost haulers) that enables the existing interchange of compost between these users in urban environments.

I think it is an interesting iterative journey, and I applaud what Compost Connect is doing.

Are Our “Solutions” Stuck?

The last step of the journey sticks with me. When tackling social problems, we design-thinkers too easily trend toward the type of technical, scalable, centralized “solutions” that are preferred in our work with corporations and organizations.

But here is the problem: corporate solutions almost always assume a consumeristic mindset. The whole point is to get people to engage in an activity that in some way generates revenue. An app for compost haulers providing fee-for-service food waste pick up for middle to upper class urban denizens who want to reduce their environmental impact fits this mold. The service embeds the solution within a consumer frame, where the “doing good” is only accessible to those who already have those substantial resources (and often use them wastefully).

But we aren’t required to assume technology enabled, consumeristic solutions when solving social problems.

What if we considered community solutions in addition to consumer ones? What if we valued one community garden that our design thinking helped enable to create a virtuous cycle of local produce, food waste, and communal composting as much as an app-based network? What if we took off the lens of scalable, digital solutions and looked hard for local, human solutions like this innovating “food pantry” service?

Community-Centered Design

It’s a choice to trust people more than technology; to design for communities instead of consumers.

I think it’s the right choice.

Compost Connect is looking for skilled UX folks who care about this issue to help them in their solution. If that’s you, please reach out to them. I hope they succeed and then some.

And then I hope they — or someone else — works with a community garden, local school, local park district, or other community organization to see what a solution might look like in a communal frame instead of a consumer one.

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