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Social Innovation in IT

I relied on my existing professional network to locate my interviewees. Through my alumni connections I managed to gather the attention of John, a graduate from my alma mater, who at the time of this study ran an independent leadership service business for IT professionals. I have learned about John’s business in a 2016 conference for technical communicators where he gave a presentation on the use of data visualization in user research. To create a baseline for this study, I began all my interviews by asking the practitioners to describe their understanding of design thinking and its relation to their respective scopes of work. John considered design thinking to be a relatively new buzzword in the IT world although the focus on design as a social approach to solutions building has been the core of effective IT businesses.

“Design is about the overall infrastructure. It goes beyond the user interface into the entire chain of an application,” John said, emphasizing the notion that design promotes a wholesome thinking, rather than just focusing on aesthetics or appearances. John also highlighted the importance of usability testing and user experience studies in improving the design of any product. He identified these research skills to be the main contributions of technical communicators to their companies.

John noticed that content creation is only a small part of a technical communicator’s job today; a majority of their work involves crafting and improving the design of the content—again, not just the visual presentation but the placement, customization, and fitting of the content in the overall scheme of the solution.

For John, technical communicators are well suited to wear the hat of a social innovator in their workplace. As liaisons to IT, engineering, and design teams, John believed that technical communicators occupy an important role that can facilitate real change. “Technical communicators have the ability to synthesize needs and feedback,” John stated, and that ability is crucial in making sure products are user-centered and socially responsible.

Social Innovation in Medical Design

Outside of IT and computer technology development, one of the fields that have shown growth in hiring technical communicators is medicine. This can be observed through the sprouting of medical device agencies and the resulting surge in the need for UX designers and researchers. This industry is also flourishing thanks to the advancement in prototyping technologies, which afford lower design and development costs than conventional manufacturing processes. My second interviewee, Martin, was a technical communicator in medical software design. From him I learned about what it takes to actualize social innovation from an organizational standpoint.

Martin revealed that his company was a late adopter in the medical field in terms of user-centered design. Their prior design approach gave emphasis to usability testing but the designers later realized they needed to involve users from the start of the design process. To do so, Martin’s company needed to revamp their design team structures. Using Agile project management methodology' with a commitment to UX design principles, Martin’s company revised the “waterfall” design practice into Agile teams. Unlike the sequential design process in the waterfall model, each team now consists of four to seven software designers and UX researchers who work together in each phase of the design process. “This allows teams to design their products iteratively,” Martin said.

Martin saw empathy as the core of social innovation. Since their primary products were made for doctors, Martin said design thinking kept teams focused on a “by physicians, for physicians” mindset when designing products. Although not everyone on the team has a medical background, this mindset helped cultivate empathy in the design teams and enforced the practice of user engagement in every step of the design process. Since social innovation is about focusing on the living conditions of the user, Martin expressed, there has been an “accessibility push” in his company with a formal committee that assess all product designs and that was responsible for heightening awareness in emerging accessibility' issues. Because design thinking is grounded in user-centered design, Martin believed that “design thinking certainly has staying power.”

Social Innovation in Technical Documentation

Having spoken with practitioners in fields that were not traditionally considered as the primary career outlook for technical communication, I encountered Kristin, who identified herself a “through-and-through” technical writer at a multinational company that produces instrumentation software. Kristin worked in a writers’ team that was responsible for creating documentations for multiple audiences, including developers, manufacturers, and end users. For Kristin, design thinking is equivalent to UX design. “Writers are user-centered designers!” Kristin proclaimed. While she considered the main job of a technical documentation writer to be generating and modifying textual content, Kristin saw design to be an integral part of that process.

Ultimately, the documentations that technical writers create would ship with the product and populate for users when they initiate the product, Kristin explained. The key to a great user experience is for writers to foster a designer mindset, where they concern themselves with user needs. “Design is to reduce frustrations,” she put it simply. However, due to the size of her company and highly compartmentalized teams, Kristin revealed that products are tested by separate research teams and she did not always have access to the findings. This created challenges for writers who wanted to know the trends and behaviors in users. “Some products would have more focus on user experience design, but sometimes designers work behind closed doors,” thus making it difficult for writers to understand the contexts of use, user needs, and customer experience of the product, Kristin said.

When asked about her view on social innovation, Kristin said that initiatives need to come from higher administration in a large company. Even though modern technical communicators may want to engage social issues and be stronger user advocates through their work, Kristin said writers may not always have a say in design directions if the company culture does not enable open sharing of user information. For Kristin, social innovation should be “an organizational priority,” and not just at the individual level. For now, she reported that technical writers on her team mainly focus on complying with legal requirements in their documentation, rather than ethical issues that needed attention as well.

Social Innovation in Academic UX Services

Mv final informants were two UX experts working in an academic setting. In addition to supporting research and pedagogical projects, these practitioners also provided full-package usability testing services to clients at a cost. I chose to gauge the perspectives from these practitioners in a setting that is considerably different from the previous interviews because I wanted to know if there was a distinction in how design thinking and social innovation were conceptualized in an environment that can be influenced by academic thinking. I interviewed the two practitioners together. Both Kevin and Annie held the UX analyst title in the university usability services center. Kevin worked full time running the center while Annie only worked half time as she was completing a PhD at the university.

Kevin and Annie shared an understanding of design thinking in which they called the “logic model” of design thinking. Unlike inductive and deductive ways of problem solving, Kevin considered design thinking to be “abductive” reasoning. “That means understanding the effects or end results without necessarily knowing the causes, which are malleable,” Kevin said. According to him, this model of thinking is common in UX decision making. Annie added that it is important to not reduce design thinking to radical empathy. Design thinking is in itself a tool that gets things done. Kevin also saw design thinking as an analysis tool, not just a design methodology. “Design thinking helps us identify what’s at the core of a problem,” Kevin stated.

From her work at the center, Annie has also realized that design thinking cannot be contained as a single event, but rather “more on-the-fly” in her words. Design thinking is a habit of mind for practitioners to always remember to put the holistic experience of the user in the everyday context of use. Kevin pointed out this mindset achieves best results when it is also shared with clients or collaborators. In cases where the power relations between the multiple stakeholders are intricate—such as when a product serves university administrators, instructors, and students—UX designers should advocate for students as they have the least autonomy in the design process. While Annie and Kevin didn’t consider their work to be social innovation, their advocacy priorities aligned with the user advocacy concerns in social innovation.

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