The sex trafficking problem in Atlanta might not sound like a typical design challenge for user experience designers to tackle, but for Robin Newman it was the perfect catalyst to launch Huge IMPACT.
Initiated by Robin, Huge IMPACT was a weeklong design sprint in which the creative agency came together with the community with the intention of using UX for good. After discussing various ideas, the team decided to focus on the growing sex trafficking epidemic in America. Atlanta is one of the areas in which this crime occurs most frequently in the country.
“We selected an issue that was very relevant and pressing in Atlanta, and is also a global issue,” said Robin. “It was important [that] we tackle something in our own backyard.”
The team brought together various partners to assist in the researching phase of the sprint, including experts from the FBI victim specialists, local law enforcement, and representatives from various organizations such as Youth Spark — an anti-trafficking leader in Atlanta. Arguably the most important person in the room was Keisha Head, a sex-trafficking survivor, turned survivor advocate, who shared her lived experience with the entire Huge Atlanta office, and kicked off the ideation. This was a critical part of the event — it ensured an educational component for employees and staff beyond just the working team.
The question: Can we spend a week producing an outcome that would be beneficial to all organizations involved?
The IMPACT team worked with the partners for an entire day to whittle down to a single challenge that they could focus on. What resulted, was Beam — an application that enables survivors to connect with other survivors, and obtain the resources they need to move forward in their lives.
“We decided to tackle the issue of how can we support survivors transition after having been trafficked,” Robin said. “How can we support them in this transition back into society, and help them with things like finding jobs, housing, services, and the emotional, psychological, and spiritual supports that they need? From what we have learned, it’s about a seven-year recovery, and there’s a big lack in helping people who come out of that life.”
The designs for the app are now available to the organizations, and the team is building on the lessons learned from this pilot program. The lessons of the experience continue to influence Robin’s work.
“For me personally, I want to do work that aligns with my values,” she said.
Making a case for using UX to make a difference at larger organizations and design agencies.
Prior to working at Huge, Robin spent time volunteering and working in places like India and Guatemala, while also being involved in nonprofit work in Toronto, Canada, where she is from, and New York City, where she completed her master’s in design for social innovation. She had considered other career paths, such as journalism and public health, but was compelled to apply for a 10-week intensive UX program offered at HUGE, while studying for her master’s. She was accepted and, soon after, hired by Huge, moving to Atlanta after graduation to accept a position there. When we chat by phone, Robin is calling from Huge’s New York office, where she is once again based.
The Huge IMPACT initiative showed Newman how larger organizations can take on design challenges to truly make a difference in a community, while also offering benefits to the business.
“What I think is incredible for something like this is it’s really meaningful to the participants and employees involved, but it also has other business implications. It has an incredible ability to showcase work that we don’t typically get to showcase, and it also allows us to experiment with differentiated products — and differentiate ourselves from the market, which I think is valuable for the business at large,” she said.
“This work that we’ve done on Beam has also fed into other sprints, or other work that we do with our clients. It’s about understanding that the business doesn’t have to be separate from social good, and how to communicate what the value of that is, and seeing it not just as a one-off event, but as something that can ripple through the culture and business as a whole in other areas.”
Start making an impact now — wherever you are.
Newman knows this is easier said than done.
“It can be hard to implement social impact programs in agencies/organizations where that is not core to their mission — but that is also why it is an area that is ripe with opportunity, and can have such a big impact if done right and responsibly. That is what drives me to continue what I do here,” she said.
But being successful in this requires a shift in thinking, and a belief that you have the power to start making positive changes right now.
“Any UXers looking to ‘do good’ by just volunteering or changing jobs miss the point. The question I would ask is, ‘how can I make change here?’ Because those are the places that really need the work. How do we encourage our clients to dig deeper, our workplace culture to be better, and our designs to be more responsible and to create a positive impact? Even small changes can be very powerful.”
To start, Robin recommends that UX designers consider implementing the following changes, if you’re not already:
Make your designs accessible. “Every day you have the choice to do small things. …One thing that I can say any UX designer can do, is to think about accessibility in their design, which, for any organization, is valuable.”
Recognize that “UX for good” doesn’t have to be separate from the work you do everyday. “It is infused in what we do, it is a lens through which we approach the world.”
Ask hard questions. “Are we thinking about the education purposes of this application? How can we improve it more? Are we really looking at how people are using it, and is actually adding value and making some positive impact, or are we just like making that to make it?”
Make a choice to have an impact. “No matter what you’re designing, you can call it social good or not social good. Every day, you have a choice to use design as a tool of communication. The responsibility of how we do that is in our own work, and how we decide.”
Look within. “I’ve developed a social impact meetup here, so we meet monthly, and essentially organize people across this network who are doing internal initiatives. I [also] started a Huge women’s group, here in my own office, to help bridge the gap with career development and growth here in our organization.”
Understand your values. “I think it comes back to really digging into what it is you value, and not compromising on that, and knowing that there is work out there that will support and needs the talents that UX designers have. There [are] so many incredible organizations or problems that are waiting to be solved by designers, UX designers, and technologists at large, and it’s more about, ‘what do you want to support, and how?’”
Impact as a form of advocacy.
At the end of the day, this is about the users. Using UX for impact and for good is about making the world a better place for your users through the services your designs provide, and that’s where the inspiration for impact should derive from.
“Our job is to constantly advocate for the people who are using our products. I think if we’re doing a really good job, we’re truly looking at what the people need, how are they using this, and how does this benefit and [add] value [to] their lives as a whole?” Robin said. “I think you have the opportunity in any organization to do that.”