Can design thinking be used for social good? It might be the perfect tool.

By Jenny Wu

When a company wants to drive revenue through compelling digital experiences, they’ll often use design thinking — a philosophy that centers the needs of the user. Talking to users to uncover and solve their problems is a best-practice way to build products that people will consume.

But what if you’re working toward something that’s harder to measure than dollars? For example, can design thinking help drive social change?

I would say yes. In fact, I think that’s when design thinking can really shine.

For example, today is Global Accessibility Awareness Day. A core priority of Understood is to set new standards for digital accessibility for people with learning and thinking differences like ADHD and dyslexia. And we’re not just looking at accessibility standards — we’re combining them with usability, too, so our products and experiences can be understandable, informative, usable, and accessible for everyone.

Design thinking helps us to innovate when it comes to accessibility. Rather than starting with compliance and working backwards, we look at the experience from the user’s perspective to uncover new pain points. By asking ourselves what will work best for users with learning and thinking differences, we can build products that work better for everyone.

Design thinking is relevant to Understood’s mission in another important way: It can help us fight stigma. At Understood, we aim to remove the stigma that impacts people with learning and thinking differences like dyslexia and ADHD.

It’s no small task. For example, new data shows that during remote learning, nearly three-quarters (72 percent) of parents have become more aware of their children’s learning challenges. And a recent survey showed that fewer than 28 percent of parents who noticed potential symptoms in their children were seeking guidance from a health care provider. Sadly, this isn’t too surprising. We know that nearly 80 percent of parents believe that any child can do well in school if they only try hard enough. Stigma could play a role in parents not wanting to seek help.

But design thinking can help us find ways to shift those attitudes and ultimately change people’s behavior. At its core, design thinking is about behavior change. To create behavior change, you start with empathy. You need to understand what motivates people to act a certain way, and what questions to ask to uncover their problems. You need to make it possible for them to take action.

Building on user insights, Understood developed the Take N.O.T.E. tool to help families spot signs of learning and thinking differences and give them the resources to take action. Design thinking helped us mold the product to the lived experience of families. With input from our users, we built a tool that speaks to families who are earlier on the journey to understanding their children’s learning and thinking differences. The tool takes them through a four-step process to build knowledge and shift attitudes and behaviors.

Creating a more accessible and inclusive world for people with learning and thinking differences may seem like a huge goal — and it is. But design thinking, with accessibility and usability top of mind, is an excellent tool to help us get there. By showing empathy for our users, we’re learning how to create a more accessible world and fight stigma so everyone can thrive.

Today, we’ve shared our full commitment to accessibility and usability. Visit Understood.org for more.

Jenny Wu leads the product management, design, and user research functions for Understood. She brings a user-centric and entrepreneurial perspective after a decade of building innovative consumer products.

Shaping the World for Difference