Capturing System Effects

Your product or service gets launched into a busy marketplace (system): How do you know what comes from all that effort? It might be bananas.

Change and transformation are easy to suggest, hard to demonstrate.

Product and service designers promise change and claim to deliver it with their creations. Whether this claim is true or not depends of whether there is any form of evaluation (study) of the service or product in use. Certainly, measures like attendance, sales, participation, and the like are suggestive of some kind of effect, but what do they really mean?

Effects are outputs — the ‘things’ that come from your action; your product, service, or policy put into use. While much focus is put on outcomes and impact, it’s effects that are the most salient result of what we do because we generate them with every action we take.

Two Takes on Effect Detection

The typical perspective on innovation (doing something new that has value) is that we anticipate effects in advance and design our program to achieve or amplify those effects in practice. Here, we seek to study the product or service in use and capture what happens along the way.

This is where establishing a Theory of Change is useful. A Theory of Change is “a comprehensive description and illustration of how and why a desired change is expected to happen in a particular context.” This model connects our ideas about how change is to happen with what we know about what we’re doing (evidence, theory, experience) to explain why an action should generate effects (and eventually outcomes).

This is the most common way to approach innovation. We see a problem or opportunity, develop something to address that problem or take advantage of the opportunity, we put it out into the world and then see what happens.

It’s also quite possible to design something innovative and have no idea what the effect is going to be ahead of time and simply use its deployment in the world as a means to gather information about what people want or do with the product once out in the world.

That Effect is Bananas

A great example of this is: the $150,000 banana (or Comedian as it is properly titled).

While Comedian is a contemporary art project centred on an everyday banana stuck to a wall with duct tape that premiered at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2019, the effects generated by the project are still being experienced and may continue for years to come. While it is ordinary in nearly every way, the effects of this work are extraordinary.

To study the effects, we can look at a variety of things that have come from that single piece of art including:

  • Media mentions (number, type, content, length of coverage, and range of sources) ;
  • New derivative works arising from Comedian;
  • Effects on the price(s) of similar art works or the entire contemporary art market;
  • Future attendance, prices, policy changes, marketing, and coverage of Art Basel Miami Beach (and related art fairs);
  • Changes in perceptions of bananas and duct tape, including effects on sales and promotions;
  • Interest in contemporary art;
  • Coverage of contemporary art through the media (social, standard or otherwise);
  • Shifts in attitudes, behaviour and activity of the artist and his contemporaries;
  • Interest in art, legal issues, marketing and promotion, fruit, media and more connected to engagements and products tied to Comedian.

These are just some examples.

Effect detection includes the number, size, type, intensity, persistence, network connections, and qualitative aspects of what happens because Comedian was put into the world.

These effects can be direct, indirect, positive or not, and also include lags and delays. To illustrate, consider the potential reception to another work featuring a piece of food stuck to a wall at a future art event might be. Comedian might be the start of a trend or a one-off.

Proof-of-concept

Another, less absurd, example of this kind of innovation is the social intervention called Think You Can Shrink: a web series using a reality TV game format to provide awareness about how to talk to men about health issues. The project, developed and produced by psychiatrist and educator Dr. Thomas Ungar, was created as a proof-of-concept to see whether or not it was possible and feasible to create something that was accessible, private, evidence-informed, and engaging that could capture men’s attention and provide valuable health resources to them.

What’s important to note about the idea of approaching the innovation as a proof-of-concept is that the effects were unknown at the outset. Dr. Ungar (who also serves as the host of the series) thought the format might work, but didn’t know whether men would like it, whether it would change opinions, whether anyone would watch it, or even whether it could be made in the first place.

The resulting proof-of-concept study provided evidence to suggest that the program did produce many positive effects and, as expected, some were surprising. While the audience was made up of men, women were among the most enthusiastic supporters (it helped them talk to men about health matters). Health professionals liked the show because it provided them with something to refer to patients and to use in their teaching.

It also provided an example of how an accomplished and otherwise serious health professional like Dr. Tom Ungar could create an evidence-based resource that was interesting, playful, and direct-to-consumer (without any health professional mediation).

Casting the Net

To capture effects of an intervention operating in a complex, open system you need to ‘use a wide-angled lens’ on the situation. Consider the following:

  • Look at networks of connections. What are the things that your product or service touches? This includes people, objects, and technologies. The more connected those things are and are to other things, the more potential there is for effects to spread.
  • Apply a design-thinking lens: ask what could happen, not what might happen? This subtle shift means expanding our ideas to imagine the silly, the grandiose, the banal, and even the seemingly impossible possible effects. By going far beyond what we consider reasonable, we can walk back to what is possible. The Butterfly, Stamped method is one way to generate some of these visions.
  • Focus on ecosystems. Ecosystem-oriented thinking recognizes that everything has a place and is dependent upon and influencing many other things within that system. By adopting this perspective, we can anticipate that something like a reality game show about men talking about their problems or a banana on a wall will effect something — even if that effect is small or insignificant (or giant and meaningful).
  • Data is everywhere. Don’t get hung up on methods. Quantitative, qualitative, observational and anecdotal evidence all count. It’s reliability and validity is what you need to question and consider. Not every effect points to an outcome, just as not every outcome contributes to overall impact. The impact of things like Comedian are unclear right now, the outcomes are emergent (e.g., income generated from sales to date), but the effects are many and can be captured the moment that the ‘thing’ you’re creating goes into the world.

So stick that banana up and see what happens: the effects are everywhere.

Note: Wow, this sounds amazing — but can I do this? Sure you can. If you need help, contact me and we can explore how this examination of effects by combining design and evaluation together can help you see what kind of influence you have on the world around you.

Photo by Lotte Löhr on Unsplash

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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