A greater push for inclusion of evaluation data to make decisions and support innovation is not generating value if there is little usefulness of the evaluations in the first place. A design-driven approach to evaluation is the means to transform utilization into both present and future utility.
I admit to being puzzled the first time I heard the term utilization-focused evaluation. What good is an evaluation if it isn’t utilized I thought? Why do an evaluation in the first place if not to have it inform some decisions, even if just to assess how past decisions turned out? Experience has taught me that this happens more often than I ever imagined and evaluation can be simply an exercise in ‘faux’ accountability; a checking off of a box to say that something was done.
U-FE is an approach to evaluation, not a method. Its central focus is engaging the intended users in the development of the evaluation and ensuring that users are involved in decision-making about the evaluation as it moves forward. It is based on the idea (and research) that an evaluation is far more likely to be used if grounded in the expressed desires of the users and if those users are involved in the evaluation process throughout.
This approach generates a participatory activity chain that can be adapted for different purposes as we’ve seen in different forms of evaluation approaches and methods such as developmental evaluation, contribution analysis, and principles-focused approaches to evaluation.
Design is the craft, production, and thinking associated with creating products, services, systems, or policies that have a purpose. In service of this purpose, designers will explore multiple issues associated with the ‘user’ and the ‘use’ of something — what are the needs, wants, and uses of similar products. Good designers go beyond simply asking for these things, but measuring, observing, and conducting design research ahead of the actual creation of something and not just take things at face value. They also attempt to see things beyond what is right in front of them to possible uses, strategies, and futures.
Design work is both an approach to a problem (a thinking & perceptual difference) and a set of techniques, tools, and strategies.
Utilization can run into problems when we take the present as examples of the future. Steve Jobs didn’t ask users for ‘1000 songs in their pockets‘ nor was Henry Ford told he needed to invent the automobile over giving people faster horses (even if the oft-quoted line about this was a lie). The impact of their work was being able to see possibilities and orchestrate what was needed to make these possibilities real.
Utilization of evaluation is about making what is fit better for use by taking into consideration the user’s perspective. A design-driven evaluation looks beyond this to what could be. It also considers how what we create today shapes what decisions and norms come tomorrow.
Designing for Humans
Among the false statements attributed to Henry Ford about people wanting faster cars is a more universal false statement said by innovators and students alike: “I love learning.” Many humans love the idea of learning or the promise of learning, but I would argue that very few love learning with a sense of absoluteness that the phrase above conveys. Much of our learning comes from painful, frustrating, prolonged experiences and is sometimes boring, covert, and confusing. It might be delayed in how it manifests itself with its true effects not felt long after the ‘lesson’ is taught. Learning is, however, useful.
A design-driven approach seeks to work with human qualities to design for them. For example, a utilization-focused evaluation approach might yield a process that involves regular gatherings to discuss an evaluation or reports that use a particular language, style, and layout to convey the findings. These are what the users, in this case, are asking for and what they see as making evaluation findings appealing and thus, have built into the process.
Except, what if the regular gatherings don’t involve the right people, are difficult to set up and thus ignored, or when those people show up they are distracted with other things to do (because this process adds another layer of activity into a schedule that is already full)? What if the reports that are generated are beautiful, but then sit on a shelf because the organization doesn’t have a track record of actually drawing on reports to inform decisions despite wanting such a beautiful report? (We see this with so many organizations that claim to be ‘evidence-based’ yet use evidence haphazardly, arbitrarily, or don’t actually have the time to review the evidence).
What we will get is that things have been created with the best intentions for use, but are not based on the actual behaviour of those involved. Asking this and designing for it is not just an approach, it’s a way of doing an evaluation.
Building Design into Evaluation
There are a couple of approaches to introducing design for evaluation. The first is to develop certain design skills — such as design thinking and applied creativity. This work is being done as part of the Design Loft Experience workshop held at the annual American Evaluation Association conference. The second is more substantive and that is about incorporating design methods into the evaluation process from the start.
Design thinking has become popular as a means of expressing aspects of design in ways that have been taken up by evaluators. Design thinking is often characterized by a playful approach to generating new ideas and then prototyping those ideas to find the best fit. Lego, play dough, markers, and sticky notes (as shown above) are some of the tools of the trade. Design thinking can be a powerful way to expand perspectives and generate something new.
Specific techniques, such as those taught at the AEA Design Loft, can provide valuable ways to re-imagine what an evaluation could look like and support design thinking. However, as I’ve written here, there is a lot of hype, over-selling, and general bullshit being sprouted in this realm so proceed with some caution. Evaluation can help design thinking just as much as design thinking can help evaluation.
What Design-Driven Evaluation Looks Like
A design-driven evaluation takes as its premise a few key things:
- Holistic. Design-driven evaluation is a holistic approach to evaluation and extends the thinking about utility to everything from the consultation process, engagement strategy, instrumentation, dissemination, and discussions on use. Good design isn’t applied only to one part of the evaluation, but the entire thing from process to products to presentations.
- Systems thinking. It also utilizes systems thinking in that it expands the conversation of evaluation use beyond the immediate stakeholders involved in consideration of other potential users and their positions within the system of influence of the program. Thus, a design-driven evaluation might ask: who else might use or benefit from this evaluation? How do they see the world? What would use mean to them?
- Outcome and process oriented. Design-driven evaluations are directed toward an outcome (although that may be altered along the way if used in a developmental manner), but designers are agnostic to the route to the outcome. An evaluation must contain integrity in its methods, but it must also be open for adaptation as needed to ensure that the design is optimal for use. Attending to the process of design and implementation of the evaluation is an important part of this kind of evaluation.
- Aesthetics matter. This is not about making things pretty, but it is about making things attractive. This means creating evaluations that are not ignored. This isn’t about gimmicks, tricks, or misrepresenting data, it’s considering what will draw and hold attention from the outset in form and function. One of the best ways is to create a meaningful engagement strategy for participants from the outset and involving people in the process in ways that fit with their preferences, availability, skill set, and desires rather than as tokens or simply as ‘role players.’ It’s about being creative about generating products that fit with what people actually use not just what they want or think a good evaluation is. This might mean doing a short video or producing a series of blog posts rather than writing a report. Kylie Hutchinson has a great book on innovative reporting for evaluation that can expand your thinking about how to do this.
- Inform Evaluation with Research. Research is not just meant to support the evaluation, but to guide the evaluation itself. Design research is about looking at what environments, markets, and contexts a product or service is entering. Design-driven evaluation means doing research on the evaluation itself, not just for the evaluation.
- Future-focused. Design-driven evaluation draws data from social trends and drivers associated with the problem, situation, and organization involved in the evaluation to not only design an evaluation that can work today but one that anticipates use needs and situations to come. Most of what constitutes use for evaluation will happen in the future, not today. By designing the entire process with that in mind, the evaluation can be set up to be used in a future context. Methods of strategic foresight can support this aspect of design research and help strategically plan for how to manage possible challenges and opportunities ahead.
Design-driven evaluation also works well with principles-focused evaluation. Good design is often grounded in key principles that drive its work. One of the most salient of these is accessibility — making what we do accessible to those who can benefit from it. This extends us to consider what it means to create things that are physically accessible to those with visual, hearing, or cognitive impairments (or, when doing things in physical spaces, making them available for those who have mobility issues).
Accessibility is also about making information understandable (avoiding unnecessary jargon (using the appropriate language for each audience), using plain language when possible, accounting for literacy levels. It’s also about designing systems of use — for inclusiveness. This means going beyond doing things like creating an executive summary for a busy CEO when that over-simplifies certain findings to designing in space within that leaders’ schedule and work environment to make the time to engage with the material in the manner that makes sense for them. This might be a different format of a document, a podcast, a short interactive video, or even a walking meeting presentation.
There are also many principles of graphic design and presentation that can be drawn on (that will be expanded on in future posts). Principles for service design, presentations, and interactive use are all available and widely discussed. What a design-driven evaluation does is consider what these might be and build them into the process. While design-driven evaluation is not necessarily a principles-focused one, they can be and are very close.
This is the first in a series of posts that will be forthcoming on design-driven evaluation. It’s a starting point and far from the end. By taking into account how we create not only our programs but their evaluation from the perspective of a designer we can change the way we think about what utilization means for evaluation and think even more about its overall experience.