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How to design products for social impact

According to a Cone Communications Millennial CSR Study, "More than nine-in-10 Millennials would switch brands to one associated with a cause."

Folks today are more likely to pay extra for products that are tied to a positive social impact and have a greater desire to make a positive change in the world. Read on to find out what it means to design a product for social impact, and how you can get started.

What exactly is "social impact"?

The definition of "social impact" is not immediately clear. Companies often misuse this phrase to garner goodwill from the public.

To help define social impact, we look to the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice. The Center's founder, Peter Frumkin, defines social impact as "any effort to solve complex social problems and create public value in the process." It's also said that social impact is using entrepreneurial thinking "to address systemic social issues and disparities" (Allen).

With the advent of more sophisticated technology, startup founders are more easily able to build tools to drive social impact at scale: from personal finances to education to healthcare. Examples include:

  • Upsolve, a free tool to help low-income Americans file for bankruptcy
  • Career Village, a community where students can get personalized career advice
  • Seratis, a way for patients, healthcare professionals, and caregivers to communicate more painlessly

To help us better understand how to design a product for social impact, we spoke with Divya Dhar, M.D., the founder of Seratis. Divya built Seratis to solve a personal problem she encountered in hospitals as a doctor. She's now a product manager on Google Maps growing their hyperlocal ride sharing and delivery verticals.

1. Understand the problem and the users

The first step in designing a product for social impact is to start with a broad societal problem and then narrow in on a specific pain point. You may have big dreams of solving the issue of world hunger, but the more specific you get, the easier it will be to start. The specific pain point to tackle will come from a deep understanding of your user.

With Seratis, Divya wanted to solve a problem in the healthcare space. She personally worked in a hospital where she witnessed healthcare professionals rely on bygone technologies like landlines, fax machines, and even pagers. These made even the simplest tasks difficult to accomplish, as care teams found themselves disconnected from one another.

To get a full view, she needed a range of perspectives. Divya spoke with nearly 100 different hospital staff and patients. It's important to be empathetic in this process. Be an active listener and ask engaging questions. This will also help your users feel involved in the process of designing the product. Eventually, your early users may be your best advocates when you do release your work.

It is important to note that there may be many different users and stakeholders involved in the problem. Sometimes, the buyer of the product is not even the same as the user. In the case of Seratis, doctors, nurses, and patients are the users of the product. However, it is the hospital administrative staff who are the buyers of the product. They have the purchasing power.

It was in the Seratis team's best interest to become familiar with not only the doctors' and nurses' pain points but also those of the hospital administrative staff. The team needed to show value in multiple ways to multiple people. On the one hand, doctors and nurses wanted to know that this product will be useful in helping patients. On the other hand, the hospital staff wanted to know how Seratis will help improve the bottom line and other business metrics.

2. Brainstorm and build an MVP

After understanding the problem space and the people affected by the problem, it is important to build a minimum viable product (MVP). The MVP is an early version of the product that you can use to validate you're going in the right direction.

To maximize your product's potential for social impact, there are specific design variables to consider. The decisions you make about the MVP will ultimately depend on your social impact goal:

  • Is your goal to reduce CO2 emissions? Make sure your product components and packaging are environmentally sustainable.
  • Solving water supply shortages in 3rd world countries? Usability and durability will be much more important than the product's actual appearance.
  • Trying to get more medical supplies to areas in need? Focus on cutting the cost of your product so it is more accessible.

Divya got her start with brainstorming at a hackathon where she described the problem to some engineers. The engineers got excited about the problem and together, they did some deep dives and considered different solutions and alternatives.

One methodology that helped the team when they were brainstorming solutions was using the design thinking diverge-and-converge methodology. Here, team members first independently worked to produce individual ideas. They explored every aspect of the problem. They went wide and diverged in many directions. Some paths led to a dead-end, and that was ok!

Then, the team came together and converged. They discussed the results to identify patterns, found new perspectives, and built alignment. This methodology helps to prevent groupthink or any biases in collective brainstorming sessions.

After converging on a solution, the team built a prototype. Serendipitously, one of the judges at the hackathon was the chief innovation officer for a university hospital. He was particularly keen on this idea of helping different folks within a hospital system communicate more efficiently. This allowed the team to write a business proposal and present the idea to the university hospital. The university hospital decided to then give them the green light to build a pilot.

3. Keep the team motivated

While you're in the development phase, it is important to keep the team motivated. Understand that people get excited and are driven by different reasons. Divya personally encountered two types of people as she worked on Seratis.

First, there were those who wanted to work in healthcare for personal reasons. Perhaps they had seen a close friend or family experience the pains of communicating in a hospital as a patient.

Second, she met those who care about solving hard problems. These folks are intrigued by challenges and like to aggressively tackle any goals they set. Understanding what drives different team members will help you keep everyone motivated on the goal and task. The team will make or break the product.

4. Measure impact

To ensure the product is truly making an impact, it's important to set quantifiable goals. Have a north star metric that the team chases, with supporting metrics to ensure you're going in the right direction.

With Seratis, the team was mainly interested in the number of patients they were able to help. This includes the number of patients on the Seratis platform and how many hospital staff and healthcare professionals were helping these patients. Other metrics include time efficiency and re-hospitalization rates (if hospitals do not get care coordination right, they are likely to see patients get re-hospitalized).

It's critical to set good metrics that show how close you are to achieving your mission. Eventually, as you reach out to investors to raise funds or other companies to form partnerships, they will also be interested in your metrics and your team's progress.

Final tip: Develop user relationships

When designing a product for social impact, it helps to form a relationship with your users. As a startup founder, it will be easiest to go after the lowest common denominator, or someone that is universally included in different groups of stakeholders.

WIth Seratis, this would be individual doctors and nurses. Instead of trying to work with the largest hospitals, it would be best to first get buy-in from individual healthcare professionals. They will give the most genuine feedback and be able to make quicker decisions. Working with these individuals also helps to shrink the sales cycle as you will encounter less bureaucracy.

Iterate, and gradually tackle smaller clinics and regional hospitals, before approaching larger hospitals. While starting on the consumer side will not give you massive scale, you will be able to shrink the sales cycle as you will encounter less bureaucracy. You can then later sell to enterprises like large hospital systems.

As you continue to design and build your product for social impact, it's also important to network with those in your space. Form partnerships. Make friends. As a starting point, Divya is happy to connect with others working to build products for social impact.

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