Adapting a Product Mindset to Social Change

November 2, 2022


Alex McIntosh, an Associate Strategy Director in the Sydney office, reflects on how three fundamentals of building digital products can be applied to designing impactful social impact campaigns. 


I made the jump from working in a product design agency 3.5 years ago to come and work at Purpose. My day-to-day changed from building websites and apps to trying to influence social change. In my previous roles in product strategy, a principle I stuck to was ‘make it tangible, quickly.’ The aim was to get a prototype in front of the end users as quickly as possible, to validate or dismiss the idea in order to move forward, and build a product people wanted and would pay for.

I enjoyed going into a project not knowing what concepts would resonate, but knew there was a tried-and-tested methodology to work out what to build. I had to re-think my default setting of how to put things out in the world when I started at Purpose.  This changed from: ‘User, I am going to build A product/service that solves your problem’ to ‘Society, I am going to try ANYTHING [e.g. run a campaign/design a program/advocate to government/publish research/trial media stunts etc.] to shift the dial a little bit on a complex social/environmental problem.’ 

Ambiguity was exciting when the solution to a problem was constructed within the limits of a digital product/service. However, when we think about social change, it can be accelerated by any number (or combination) of different approaches- really only limited by the imagination. And having no grounding in the factors that would make one approach more likely to succeed than another was quite overwhelming. But I’ve come to see there are a number learnings from product design which can be adapted to the social impact space: 

Your product users are now impacted communities, funders, policy makers etc. Get to know them. 

Running user research to gain insights into users and their needs is key to designing products and services that work for them. In the social impact space this is no different. However, ‘user’ groups expand to a wider range of audiences – from impacted communities to policy makers, volunteers to funders. 

To develop a compelling proposition, we need to understand each of their pain points and potential motives for engaging with a social impact initiative. It’s a little like designing a multi-sided marketplace (like Etsy), where value needs to be delivered to buyers and sellers for it to be a sustainable model. For a social impact initiative to be successful, it needs to deliver value to the communities we’re trying to serve, the donors providing funding, and the influencers we’re trying to persuade to champion our cause. 

Prototyping and testing doesn’t stop at products. Policies, programs, campaigns and impact models can also be tested. 

Getting concepts in front of users early and often is critical to designing a product that meets their needs. But prototyping isn’t limited to digital interfaces. Since joining Purpose, I’ve been involved in prototyping and testing a COVID-19 disinformation policy with public health officers, to a sustainability program with office-based businesses who want to reduce their carbon emissions. 

When it comes to social change, I’ve found it’s often a case of being a little more creative in what we put in front of an audience. This means considering the medium we think the audience group would most likely interface with our initiative, and creating a realistic and appropriate scenario to facilitate this. 

As an example, if we were to test what propositions might drive employees to participate in workplace climate action, one method might be canvassing outside their workplace while another might be to recruit a supporter to gauge interest in their office Slack channel. We could design prototypes to test both.

Social change is typically slow. But designing rapid feedback cycles to understand our impact is critical.

Despite regular testing, when you’re ready to launch a digital product you’re never 100% sure how it is going to land with users. But as soon as it’s live, you suddenly have access to real-time data telling you who is using it and what they’re gravitating towards. It’s a dopamine hit. And this allows you to optimise till your heart’s content. 

When we think about social change, the impact we’re typically trying to achieve is systemic long-term change. And we typically don’t have access to a bunch of live data feeds on a dashboard tracking the impact we’re having in the world. That change might still be a long way away. But we still need confidence we’re on the right pathway, so we can rethink our strategy if we’re not. 

Proxy indicators allow us to understand the impact of specific interventions in shifting the dial. While an advocacy campaign around a specific policy might not see it adopted by the government, maybe it was debated in parliament? Did any politicians agree to speak in support of it? Was it picked up by the media? Were we able to get influential organisations to endorse the policy? Did any politicians sign up to our mailing list? By better understanding our impact, we can make decisions about which activities to stop and which to scale.

Alex Mclntosh Associate Strategy Director
Choose Both: A Digital Guide
for Equity & Evidence