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Visual Mapping as a Powerful Tool for Social Design

Rafael Smith, a designer at IDEO.org, mapping group decision-making processes with an organization in Southern India. | Danny Alexander, IDEO.org
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The role of designers in society is changing. More and more, designers are being tasked to make an impact on the world around them by applying their skills to better society. “LEAP Dialogues: Career Pathways in Design for Social Innovation” published by Designmatters at ArtCenter College of Design explores this emergent field of design for social innovation, its key issues and the future of the field. The following series are excerpts from the publication.

In design research, understanding how people think is far more useful than simply what they think. When working in foreign cultures, this can be incredibly challenging. Without sharing the same cultural, religious and linguistic backgrounds, it’s critical to spend extra time understanding how and why people make decisions. In these circumstances, I often use visual mapping — a simple but powerful research tool.

A farmer and his wife showing us how they move money among their accounts, assets and loans. | Danny Alexander, IDEO.org
A farmer and his wife showing us how they move money among their accounts, assets and loans. | Danny Alexander, IDEO.org

While in rural Kenya recently, my team and I wanted to understand how farmers made financial decisions to inform the design of a new savings account. How did they decide which account to put their money in? And why did they sometimes skip the bank and buy chickens? And what was the piggy bank in the living room for? No matter how, and how much, we asked, there were no straightforward answers. People’s financial lives are complex, it turned out.

To get a better understanding, we laid out a handful of index cards and drew symbols on each: bank accounts, an envelope under the mattress, a loan to a friend, etc. We drew arrows on other cards and made some fake money with remaining ones. Then we began mapping.

We asked about the farmers’ income: When was your last harvest? How much did you make? And where did you put the money? We moved the money cards between accounts and assets as they spoke, and continued asking questions. Where do you get the money if you need to visit the doctor? If someone asks for a loan, where does it come from? What’s the last source of money you’re willing to tap? By acting out these scenarios, and moving the flash cards around on the table, we were able to map how these farmers made decisions. By making it visual and tangible it was easier for them to explain and physically demonstrate complex concepts, and by using the cards we were able to make changes on the fly.

We learned a tremendous amount, most notably the importance of social capital. Farmers would prefer to invest money in a loan to a distant friend—even though it might be risky—than have it be “dead money” in a bank. It gave them credibility and was more productive for their community, not to mention that it would make it much easier for them to borrow money in return in the future. More important than this individual learning, though, is that we now had a richer understanding of the factors that influenced all of their other financial decisions, making it much easier to design an appropriate solution for their needs.

It’s helpful if you begin the visualization yourself — there’s nothing scarier than a blank canvas — but otherwise visual mapping can be an engaging method to add depth to any interview. I’ve used it in a number of contexts: I’ve mapped group decision-making processes in organizations in India to understand hidden power dynamics, and visualized difficult decisions related to sexual health in Zambia. In both cases, and many others, it’s been an incredible tool to break through taboo topics and uncover answers people couldn’t otherwise articulate.

Ultimately, this is what design thinking is all about. If people knew exactly what they wanted and why, we wouldn’t have much work to do. Methods like visual mapping are critical for understanding how people truly think, which in turn helps us design what they really want.

A team from IDEO.org maps financial decisions with a farmer in rural Kenya. |  Danny Alexander, IDEO.org
A team from IDEO.org maps financial decisions with a farmer in rural Kenya. | Danny Alexander, IDEO.org
A young woman in Kenya demonstrates how she handles her finances using fake bills and flashcards. | Danny Alexander, IDEO.org
A young woman in Kenya demonstrates how she handles her finances using fake bills and flashcards. | Danny Alexander, IDEO.org

Top Image: Rafael Smith, a designer at IDEO.org, mapping group decision-making processes with an organization in Southern India. | Danny Alexander, IDEO.org

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