Design-Driven Evaluation and System Change

Our designs drive systems change as much as anything and feedback drives good design. Feedback comes from evaluation so it makes sense that the two should work together. This is a version of a post I recently contributed to the American Evaluation Association’s AEA365 blog.

Developmental Evaluation is a specific approach to strategic learning suited for innovation. Design is about the creation of products, services, systems, and policies that seek to improve situations and add value to people’s lives. System change is all about creating better systems to generate and sustain value.

Design-driven evaluation is an approach that connects these ideas together.

What is Design-Driven Evaluation?

Design-driven evaluation isn’t a technique or method but a means of strategic learning and development that connects the practice of design with utilization-focused approaches such as developmental evaluation. I recently contributed an article outlining this approach in an issue of New Directions for Evaluation. The special issue was focused on evaluation and complexity – two areas where design brings much value.

My interest in design-driven evaluation (DDE) came about from being in situations where my clients had all the data and feedback they wanted from evaluations, yet didn’t know how to use it to adapt and evolve their programs. Evaluations aren’t much value if people don’t know how to apply the knowledge gained to their programs. This is especially true for developmental evaluation where the knowledge from the evaluation is meant to be the lifeblood of innovation and adaptation.

My clients often found their evaluation data was disconnected from the design process even though it was that very data that was needed to guide the development of the program.

Design and evaluation are symbionts in the service of innovation. They are Han Solo and Chewbacca, Thelma and Louise, or peanut butter and chocolate. Maybe anything and chocolate.

Design is about creating something to fill a need or want and incorporating what we know and learn into what we make. We design all the time (even if we don’t realize it). A DDE approach connects design with evaluation. For those programs focused on innovation, doing a utilization-focused, systems-focused, or developmental evaluation without incorporating design an incomplete experience.

A design-driven evaluation approach embeds data and synthesis with learning, program design, and adaptation together as a package. This is an important distinction. A DDE is both an innovation service and a product. It’s not applied after the fact or in stages but is an embedded part of a program’s development throughout its life cycle with evaluation providing a means of feedback. It blends evaluative thinking with design thinking and enlists data to help imagine and reimagine a program’s needs, value, and impact and how it can best serve people and operate within systems.

Using Design-Driven Evaluation

Design is for everyone. The skills of design can be learned and many of them build upon familiar experiences we had as children making things in our bedrooms, kitchen tables, and schoolyards.

The first step is to cultivate a mindset for design. Open yourself to new ways of seeing things, framing problems, and making things.

Next, connect to that part of you as a child that liked to explore, tried things, didn’t care (or even knew) whether they would succeed or not. Kids are amazing innovators for that reason. We can be like that again. Start practicing.

Good design creates products and services that are enjoyed, resilient, and make a positive impact on people and the planet. Who doesn’t want that? The tools and techniques are easy to learn once you have this mindset.

System Change By Design

Systems change comes by seeing systems, finding leveraging points, defining boundaries, and engaging people and actors across the system. Evaluation, particularly in complex systems, is a means to provide guidance and a means of serving as a barometer. Without good design, it’s difficult to see what a system changes into.

Without evaluation, it’s very likely that the original design won’t work because complex systems are dynamic. It’s much like that inscription on the bridge above quoted from Heraclitus:

The River I Step in is Not the River I Stand In

Systems change requires dynamic, flexible models of design and feedback that supports it. Design-driven approaches to evaluation are well-suited to support this work.

Resources for Supporting Design-Driven Evaluation

  • Habit Design: One of the best ways to start is to apply design thinking to your habits and practices. These simple steps can help you build your design awareness.
  • Storyboards: A practice borrowed from filmmaking is a useful way to envision how people use a program and where you might apply new insight and evaluation to make it better.
  • Supporting Systems Transformation Through Design-Driven Evaluation A New Directions in Evaluation article published in 2021 goes into detail into what DDE is and illustrates how it’s been used.
  • Chapter 12 (Design) in the remarkable book Visionary Evaluation is another great resource for showing design-driven approaches in action.

Photo by kyler trautner on Unsplash

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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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