Innovation & Design

A Rethink to Rescue Relief Efforts


Hurricane Katrina reminded me that, too often, well-meaning government agencies suffer from a blind spot that limits their ability to serve us -- their customers. So many government agencies seem to be where corporations were 50 or more years ago: They hire designers to produce buildings or posters, rather than to study the complex problems at the core of the agency's mission and to envision human-centered solutions.

But can government programs and functions be "designed" like cars, mobile phones, or cruise ships?

CUSTOMERS VS. VICTIMS. Yes. Consider the U.S. Postal Service. Not so many years ago, it was seen as inefficient and noncompetitive, doomed by e-mail and FedEx. Recognizing the impending threat, it employed design researchers and designers to help it better understand the competitive landscape and rethink the customer experience.

The designers leveraged popular feelings about the post office as a reliable and familiar place and about stamps as fun, interesting, and attractive objects (with new models coming out all the time). But they also made post offices more useful and convenient by providing packaging, wrapping, and shipping supplies and by selling stamps from ATMs. And, of course, the Postal Service offered its new services at a lower cost than its for-profit competitors.

While FEMA isn't trying to attract customers or increase revenues, it is trying to deliver more of its services to more people. You might still object to the USPS comparison, saying that FEMA doesn't have "customers," it has "victims" to care for.

DISASTER DEFINITIONS. But considering people as victims may be part of the problem. Victims have no choice, but customers can always say no. And as we saw, some of the so-called victims of Katrina did say no. A planner scratches his head at such refusal. But a designer sees that the disaster response needs to be rethought to take the user into consideration.

A disaster like Katrina requires more than technical and logistical solutions. Economic, social, and psychological elements should be considered as well. A well-developed design strategy would reflect all of those dimensions. It would draw on the knowledge of social scientists, anthropologists, engineers, human-factors experts, and other members of a typical design team to offer more holistic and effective solutions.

If Design Continuum were asked to help improve New Orleans's disaster planning, for instance, we might begin by dissecting the physical, psychological, logistical, and economic dimensions of a natural disaster. We would interview people of different socioeconomic, racial, and cultural groups to learn how they would define "disaster." We would talk to the experts, as we certainly are not.

FROM UNDERSTANDING TO STRATEGY. Among many other things, we would try to understand one of the most troubling issues of disaster planning: Why do some people insist on staying put when it's obviously time to flee? Because there are probably many answers to the question, we'd begin by identifying what we call "user archetypes" -- individuals who represent the common behavior and beliefs of a group such as inner-city poor, senior citizens, those who grew up in New Orleans, or those who recently arrived. By talking to and observing these individuals, we would gain insights into how they perceive things like safety and danger.

Understanding what's holding these different people back can inform a strategy to encourage them to evacuate and/or to help those who refuse. If, for example, they are worried about their homes being robbed, could they be assured that patrols will watch their neighborhood during the evacuation? It others are concerned about not receiving critical mail, could the Postal Service redirect it to the shelter?

If people are unwilling to leave someone behind -- say, an elderly parent in a nursing home -- could they be assured that hospitals and nursing homes will have special supplies of food, water, electrical power, and so on, all well above the flood level? If they're just plain stubborn, could they be provided with individual survival kits, as the passengers on a cruise ship are? As designers of commercial products and services well know, one-size solutions are generally a poor fit for many people.

REACH OUT. These examples may not, in fact, be good ideas at all, but they illustrate how a deep understanding of people can shed light on both the nuances of a problem and the possible opportunities to solve it. For instance, recall that decades of antismoking campaigns have shown that scare tactics are less effective than positive messages in changing behavior. Could a campaign to make people familiar with emergency procedures -- and nurture confidence in them -- overcome social and psychological barriers if it were based on hope and even celebration rather than on fear?

Last Sunday, the first post-Katrina jazz funeral made its way through New Orleans. Could this deeply embedded and much-loved New Orleans tradition be leveraged? Could music encourage people to leave their homes in an emergency, with every hope of a joyous musical return -- the tradition after a jazz funeral? This may sound like a stretch, and perhaps it is, but there are historical precedents of music being used in similar ways.

I offer these as examples of how consumer or user insights that, at first, may seem to be irrelevant or even inappropriate can lead to more effective solutions to complex problems. Designers do this for their corporate clients all the time. Other organizations, such as those involved in emergency planning and disaster relief, rarely ask anything of us at all, and we make far too little effort to get their attention. Yet the designer's human-centered approach can be a valuable and instructive one.

When the next Katrina hits, will there be calls for "a designer in the house" to step forward? Will anyone ask?

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