Productivity and poverty: How can design thinking improve both?

Companies like Apple improve their products for everybody by paying attention to the needs of the few. What might we all learn from serving the poor?

I was sat on the London underground a few weeks ago, and saw the advertisement above. At one level, it pleased me: it’s good to see our industry delivering communications products that meet the needs of paying customers. On the other hand, it also made me feel rather sad.

For at the same time, I was battling to ensure a destitute and ill friend (whom I have written about before) actually had electricity credit for a broadband line to be installed (that is paid for by a generous reader). Given she’s had no welfare benefits for a year — the dysfunctional system having absolutely failed to deliver her entitlements — sitting in the dark without power is not uncommon for her.

It made me painfully aware of how our society is adept at solving commerce-related productivity problems, but relatively poor at dealing with social welfare ones. Companies like Apple famously hone their general design skills through the win-win of building accessibility features. It started me thinking whether a company like Vonage might improve its productivity offering by learning from serving those in poverty.

Here is what came to mind from observing my friend’s life. How might solving her problems provide inspiration for new products and services, ones that help everybody to be blissfully productive and beautifully safe?

“Hypervoice letters” for business process

“Technology this, technology that, it’s all poppycock! At heart, Government will always revolve around paper. It burns quicker.” — Sir Humphrey Appleby in the classic sitcom Yes, Minister.

Last autumn she got a spinal infection that required an operation. She spent a week in a coma, nearly died, and is still struggling with numbness and mobility issues. Naturally, when added to other long-term mental health problems, that makes you immediately “fit for work” in the British system.

She shared with me the rejection letter she got, covered in highlighter pen and annotated with the factual errors (like wrong dates) and process mistakes (they aren’t in compliance with their own rules or the law on disability access).

The inhumane approach is to force someone who is sick, poor and technically unequipped to engage with formal letter writing. The humane one is to work with how people actually discuss a letter when sat together, as she did for me. This inspired me to think up “hypervoice letters”.

Why can’t she grab a phone, and literally talk through the letter, pointing the camera to the content she wishes to comment on? Those comments would then be attached to that visual media content. A bit of machine learning could also take that video and identify where in the original (semantic) text she was pointing with her finger.

We’ve got people adapting to deal with the symbols, rather than the symbols adapting to deal with the people! It’s all backwards, locked into a paradigm of the 20th century typewriter, not the modern AI era. In the enterprise, we force everything into email and textual activity streams, when sociable humans are visual and talkative. How can you bridge the Slacks and Yammers to the world of voice and formal communications?

Assured toll-free video

My friend is agoraphobic and suffers severe social anxiety. She had a bad childhood, and it went downhill from there. It’s very hard for her to engage with people in authority, as her trust has often been broken. I’ve reached out to her MP, but attending a meeting with the MP isn’t a realistic proposition when you’ve literally no money to get there, no social support (so are terrified of the whole experience), and are fainting from lack of food.

As a society, we have some people “go binge” with data, whilst other starve (literally and metaphorically). Shouldn’t everyone in our society be able to attend a video meeting with their GP or MP via broadband, regardless of their means? It has been said there’s no market for such assured and toll-free services. You might think differently if you were in my friend’s shoes!

We understand on other transport systems that the needs of the vulnerable are paramount:

How come we have national broadband policies that don’t cater for the needs of all? We understand that buses need ramps and space for wheelchairs, with free or discounted travel. Why don’t we have this for broadband?

The implications for the enterprise are fairly obvious. If you are Vonage, you have legions of users working from home and other venues. How can you deliver them assured UC and voice services without having to pay a fortune for dedicated lines, or a semi-fortune for SD-WAN? Solve the problem for the poor, and you solve it for everyone!

The “digital distress signal”

The purpose of life isn’t productivity, it is wellbeing and flourishing. Anyone in pain and who is suffering isn’t on the right track. But if we have no visibility of this, how can we work together to resolve it?

I got this text message from her today… (Marvin is her dog.)

We know you dial 999 (or 911, or 112, etc…) when you feel “no safety”. What do you do to communicate other basic lacks at the bottom of the Maslow pyramid? How do we build systems for wellbeing, that alert the community and welfare agencies that there’s an exception condition that needs handling?

Our communications systems deal brilliantly with logical outcomes, but poorly with feeling and ethics. We have tools like sentiment and mood analysis in call centres, but again that locates everything in the commercial, not the social. Someone in persistent hunger suggests we have a signalling problem, not a lack of food in the world.

In our communities, we know there are vulnerable people. Many live in sheltered housing, and have a “red cord” to pull when they need assistance. What we’re lacking is the “red cord” for those who live in the middle state: not fully able to look after themselves, but not in need of full care as dependents.

In the enterprise, managers are largely blind to the “mood map” of their workforce. Employee surveys give coarse feedback months after it was needed. Do workers also need some kind of “digital distress signal”, which would (with appropriate consent and control) allow those in pain and suffering to register this?

Could the enterprise become more inclusive in its workforce by adopting and adapting ideas to cater for those living with impairments? Who knows, it might even raise productivity! But I’ll settle for basic safety and wellbeing for now.

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