Developmental Design and Human Services

The ever-changing landscape

One of the principal challenges for program evaluators and researchers is overcoming design limitations imposed by programs that fail to account for time and development. What might it look like if we took this path and what does it mean to engage in developmental design?

If you are like me, climate change scares you. I live in Canada, so in some ways (particularly these cold winter days), the thought of having the season be a little warmer has some appeal. But complex systems don’t work quite that way as there are intense costs projected with the privilege of having more days of the year wearing a light jacket or shorts than an overcoat or parka. What makes climate change an interesting example from the perspective of service programming, design and evaluation is that it provides a look at a real-world way to conceive of development over concepts like improvement and takes change in a whole new direction.

Humans are rather paradoxical creatures in that we are both attuned to moving forward (consider the design of the body: everything is oriented to one direction) and a perfect example of a developmental system.

A developmental system is one that evolves and adapts to changing inputs and transforms itself over time as more information is added to it (i.e., it is a complex adaptive system). From a programming standpoint, it means things don’t “get better” or “improve” per se — those are value judgements places by us — but rather, they build adaptive capacity.

Concepts like developmental evaluation, introduced and discussed in this space before, are ways to respond to this from an evaluation standpoint. DE provides a method of feedback generation that can enable programs to adapt and evolve by using the principles of complexity science with program evaluation methods to create a platform to detect and monitor emergent conditions and support innovation. And while there are some questions to ask of a program to see if it is suited to a developmental evaluation, we often forget to ask whether the program was designed to develop in the first place. What if we placed that at the centre of our discussion and started with development in mind?

My previous post looked at designing for time and space, but designing for development takes this one step further. Social media and technology-delivered program spaces provide an example of an environment where development is most obvious. Facebook was designed to expand and evolve, although one might challenge how well they’ve really developed. If you consider how effective, long-lasting software and services survive, they develop over time. In some cases, this development was designed into the process. Many open source software platforms are designed with this in mind — the Firefox browser and even Google’s Chrome are examples of tools that were built to be developed on. The originators designed  the basic foundation with the idea that they would evolve into something else.

This doesn’t happen very often with human services. There are few programs that are designed with development in mind. When it is acknowledged that things will change, it is done so reluctantly. Program in this context refers to any organized effort to change behaviour and produce products for human need. In public health, the further irony is that programs aimed at changing behaviour — whether it is supporting healthy eating, smoking cessation, mental health promotion or others — are often designed with rigid controls built in. We develop manuals, create ‘best practice guidelines’, amass evidence and create toolkits that can be applied to any circumstance, without attention to context or adaptation.

Indeed, when you relax these controls, many get concerned.

Having conducted a few social media trainings and presentations over the years, the most consistent question I am asked by those in public health is: how do I control the message. The answer is: you don’t. This can lead to questions about evaluation, which gets into problems of research design and trusting the findings, because research typically applies rigid controls for quality assurance.

With social media, what can be done is to use a process of developmental design by engaging with the audience/client/public in an authentic manner with the explicit thought that the program that launches today will not be the one that people engage with in a year, or a month or sooner. Support this evolution through developmental evaluation (which I would include as a part of the developmental design process) and you’ll have a feedback mechanism that encourages shifts over time.

Developmental design takes into account the complexity of the environment in which a product or service takes place and enlists a continued process of engagement with stakeholders over time — a true relationship (which is why social media can serve as a good example). Rather than take a static design brief, a living design brief would be used and constantly revisited and tweaked over time. Paying attention to changes in the brief over time would also enable program developers to detect weak signals that could precede large shifts in behaviour and potentially support strategic foresight and planning. Developmental design, as I’ve conceived of here, is attuned to complexity and innovation in human systems and designs for it and adapts with it, rather than assuming the opposite.

Applying developmental design may get us past the inevitable square-peg-round-hole problem that many evaluators, program planners and policy makers find themselves in as they seek to get greater value from their programs and demand more return on their investments. Evaluation and research is sought as the means to do it and with programs designed for evolution from the start, perhaps we won’t be surprised when the metaphorical ice sheets start to fall apart (as seen above) and see it as a developmental step to a new reality.

** Photo Nature Antarctica 17 by Christian Revival Network used under Creative Commons Licence.

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