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A New UI for Social Change

October 6, 2014

The last two or three years, we've been living in a period of technology some refer to as the "App Bubble". Every week, tens of thousands of smartphone apps are created and our use of technology are ever more defined by them. But hidden behind a multitude of these applications is the process behind designing them: how the programmers decide which buttons go where, what colors are used when, and exactly what to animate from here to there. This process of designing a piece of software is called, in tech jargon, the "UI" design, or the user interface design. It's called the UI because it's how the user interacts with the technology underlying the application.

Good app developers will often come up with unique and innovative ways in which the user may interact with information on the screen. Rather than just a vertically scrolling list, some apps display items like pages in a book. Rather than pushing a "refresh" button to re-load a set of data, many apps use the "pull to refresh" gesture. Some of these user interface ideas are just for the sake of being different or saving space for other buttons and data, but many of these changes often enhance the experience of using programs. The creators behind these innovative apps consider those at the other end of the screen -- the users -- carefully when designing how things should work. Along this line of thinking, Google, one of the largest software developers in the world, has a famous motto: "Focus on the user and all else will follow." In other words, they put a great emphasis not only on the technology and powerful reserve of data they have, but equally on the experiences of how people obtain and use their information. I think their approach, that the experience and method of interaction matters, is a powerful one. And for that reason, I think our government and nonprofits can benefit greatly from a new, innovative "UI" for social change.

Source: Chris Rand, found in Wikimedia Commons, distributed under the CC BY-SA 4.0 License

The status quo of the way our society pursues social change is stale. Boring nonprofits use their traditional methods (for the most part) to raise financial or political support, then they put those power of money and politics behind the causes at hand. The benefactors and those who want to see social change happen have a limited number of monotonous ways they can interact with the government and with these NGO's to see that their contributions come to fruition in the form of change that matter. If one decides to contribute to a cause, the experience of finding an NGO they are willing to support and making a monetary or time contribution to such an organization is a very grey, monotonous, and uninteresting process. The same can be said for government initiatives for a cause, in fields such as teen smoking and public education. For some ancient, deprecated reason, our culture seems to be under the impression that not-for-profits and governments should try to achieve their goals of selling products of intangible value by sticking to a stern, serious brand image, not advertising effectively,* keeping their spendings as low as possible, and not daring to grow economically to the scales of their for-profit counterparts. In this picture, the focus is on the cause, and only on the cause. Nobody in the government and these NGO's seem to care if people find the images of these organizations boring, because all of their focus is always on how much money they've generated so far. But here's the thing: if Apple focused so much on how many iPhones they've sold that they neglected to think twice about their trademark retail stores, the customer experience, or their brand's relationships with the customers, I highly doubt there would be a lot of iPhones on the streets today as there are.

We need to get rid of the old idea that helping those in need is a necessarily serious, monotonous process. The not-for-profits and those behind government initiatives need to begin considering themselves from the perspective of the customers. To those up in the D.C. telling teens to stop smoking: good job on noticing that your target market is not reading newspapers, but online, on social media. But alas, no one re-tweets or reads a tweet that reads "x percent of teens who think they'll quit after a year don't. Find out more here". Don't just put content where the people are and expect it to get noticed. Engage with people and interact with them. Craft an enjoyable experience around the process of noticing a cause and supporting it.

A timely and excellent example was the recent fundraising viral marketing campaign, the Ice Bucket Challenge. The way they approached how people donated to them wasn't anything like the tradition. It encouraged people to do more than just pay the organization. It made them get involved in the idea of spreading awareness, and it put a new twist on the stale idea of donating to medical research. Something that was so uninteresting -- donating to medical research -- suddenly became engaging events. In a word, it changed how people interacted with the notion of charity. And today, that's what we need more than anything, for everyone to find new ways for people to interact with causes of value. We need a new UI for social change.


*Because, obviously, people who advertise and market their products are automatically evil evil monsters.