Thanks to HCD principles I did not design an amazing, but unethical product solution for begging.

Targeting homelessness as a social issue for my teams IDEO Design Kit challenge was always going to be educational and insightful. I have learnt as much about human side of HCD in the past days, as I have about homelessness. I have no experience of homelessness nor understanding of the complexities of it, beyond what the media tell me. I've since learnt of the blinkers put on the lens of homelessness by the media.

Framing the design challenge

For those unfamiliar with HCD and the the IDEO course, it all begins with framing a challenge. To do that you need first try and summarise what is the problem you are trying to solve. For my team, the problem we wanted to look at was homelessness in Melbourne. We started by initially searching for basic related terms on Google, which introduced us to some compelling facts about the number of homeless in Australia, and more specifically the city we are in, Melbourne.

So our early assumption could be summarised as such; for the homeless people we see begging for money in Melbourne, their day would be improved by increasing cash or product donations. An analogy would be we saw this as a market place — you have people who need something (Segment A — homeless begging), and people who are willing to give something (Segment B — donors.). We also assumed there was a barrier that stopped more people giving to the homeless.

We then broke down our problem into the 2 segments, with a ton of assumption thrown in.

Segment A — Homeless People

  • that homeless people can’t tell there story clear enough to encourage donations.
  • that homeless people can’t distribute there story clear enough to encourage donations.
  • that homeless people can’t raise enough cash, or raise enough awarness of products needs, for basic daily living.
  • that there is a delay between donations being given and received, due to the need of charity collection and distribution.

Segment B — Donors

  • that general public feel awkward giving cash or products to homeless people.
  • that general public hold stigma that homeless people waste cash given to them.
  • that general public don’t know what product to donate.

Through some iteration we then refined our design challenge statement as;

“How might we increase quality of life for a single day for homeless people in Melbourne.”

Researching Segment B — Donors

Through user interviews many of the assumptions were proven or adjusted, and the outputs of talking to people who do and do not donate to homeless people begging could be summarised as:

  • Most people feel awkward making eye contact with people begging.
  • Most people felt money donated would be used for drugs or alcohol in the first instance.
  • Some people did not like holding up the foot traffic on the street in order to donate.
  • Some people did worried about loose change rolling around the pavement when dropped into a hat.
  • Some people did not feel safe stopping to donate.
  • Some people would rather give a product than cash (such as food).

I then put together a quick customer journey map, that illustrated the thoughts and feelings or Segment B as they approach, and the went past a homeless beggar.

The Ah-ha moment

“Ah-ha! We've solved it! Technology is the answer” we thought. How? Well, our solution was this:

  • Give “Segment A — Homeless people” a Bluetooth beacon each.. These are small, cheap, quite durable, not worth much if stolen, and batteries last a year at a time.
  • Give “Segment B — Donors an app”. The app will detect when the donor has walked past a homeless person with a Bluetooth beacon, and trigger a notification to open the app. As the user continues down the footpath the can read a story about that homeless person, and choose to donate any amount, if they wish.
  • As donations are made during the day the homeless person would receive a text message, and each night donations for that homeless person would be totalled and transferred to the bank account of the homeless person.
  • The homeless person then know how much money they will be starting tomorrow with, and therefore we have “increased the quality of life for a single day for a homeless person in Melbourne”.

Sounds great doesn’t it? In our naivety we thought so, but remember, at this point we still have not interviewed any of Segment A — Homeless people.

The ot-oh moment

With our confidence we then commenced interviewing 2 ex-homeless people, (Segment A) both had spent many years without a home.

The open interviews taught us something truly insightful. Here are just a few interpreted verbatim comments from my 5 pages of notes:

  • You see for every one person you see in Melbourne begging, there are at least another 5 who are homeless, who are not begging.
  • Many of the homeless title those who are begging as “professional beggars”, and do not like the fact that in the media, these people represent homelessness as a whole.
  • For the homeless who do not beg, they do not feel they should have to drop down to the level of begging in order for their fellow man, and society to help them.

That last point was our ot-oh moment! Oh fuck!

Should we only be helping people who are begging for our help? Is that what we've come to?
Will we only now help those who drop to the level of begging?
Should a homeless person who has never begged for money, be stripped of their last piece of dignity before we are willing to help them?

For me I’d never appreciated this angle before, and I felt disgraced that our solution was only a solution for those who are willing to beg for help. I immediately drew a line through the solution path (beacons+app) we was going down, because:

  • The solution would mean more homeless need to become beggars in order to to benefit from the solution.
  • We are actively denying help for those who refuse to beg for it.

It was there and then that our solution was killed, and quite rightly so.

The power of the user interview

What can be learnt from this is that we need to always interview the full breadth of users before assuming solutions.

From my use interview notes we also captured at least 50 other problems that provided opportunities to for design thinking to solve.

Over the following 24 hours I’ve digested all these notes, and we’ve now pivoted our solution thinking to one that we believe still delivers on the design challenges, and that is entirely driven by the user interviews with the homeless, and if you click the “follow” button below, I’ll let you know what that is in a week or so – once we’ve validated it with our users.

UPDATE October 2016: The follow on story for this article is now available below:

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