The following is a conversation between Lee-Sean Huang, Co-founder and Creative Director of Foossa, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
…our point of view is that the people who are stakeholders who are using the services and products that surround us should have some say in the way that they’re designed, because they’re often experts of their own context, experts of their own communities. And these services can be more robust and work better for people if they have a say in designing them.
Denver: I was over at the Measured Summit recently, where they were addressing the impact of human-centered design on healthcare, and I connected with Lee-Sean Huang, who is the Co-founder and Creative Director of a company called Foossa. And he has been good enough to join us on the phone this evening for a few minutes. Lee-Sean, tell us about Foossa and what you do.
Lee-Sean: Hi, Denver! Thanks for having me. So Foossa is a community-centered design and strategy practice. We are based here in New York City, and we work with diverse communities to work together and to design the future. We primarily work in a field called service design. So if you think about how our world today is not just based on physical products, it’s based on services that deliver value. Just like a DVD or Blu-ray might be a product, but your Netflix or your Hulu is a service that still delivers you your content. We’re looking at the services that surround us in the world. These days primarily, we’re working on public services although we also work with startups and with corporate clients as well.
But our point of view is that the people who are stakeholders who are using the services and products that surround us should have some say in the way that they’re designed, because they’re often experts of their own context, experts of their own communities. And these services can be more robust and work better for people if they have a say in designing them.
Denver: Exactly. Well, one of the things you do is you use design to build community-based participation that will ultimately become movements or networks for good. Tell us about how you go about that, Lee-Sean, and give us an example of one, if you would.
Lee-Sean: Sure! So, I have a hybrid background in both design and activism. Prior to starting Foossa, I was part of a design practice at a consultancy called Purpose, which was also working to build social movements. It was a creative agency that was started by social activists, and then I also worked as an in-house designer in several nonprofits before that.
So part of what we do through design to build participation is one thing we call “the ladder of participation,” so thinking about how somebody goes and becomes a more robust member in something. So if you think about an online community, the first thing might be looking at a piece of content on social media like a tweet, a Facebook post. The next level of commitment or of engagement could be liking that thing, could be commenting on that thing or even following you. And then from there, you could think about things that are higher barrier to do like joining your e-mail list, maybe even making that transition from online engagement to something offline like going to an event. So we use this as a planning tool, this ladder of engagement, to figure out ways that people kind of grow in a community through a sequence of calls to action.
Another design technique we do is designing things that are not so perfect, that are unfinished. I mention design and people often think about design or designer to mean something that has a lot of artifice, that has a lot of polish to it. [It becomes] designer jeans or designer-interior design. But a lot of what we do, even though we work in the tech space, starts out very low-fi. It just involves doing paper sketches with people in a workshop so that people who don’t have a design background, who don’t have a tech background can participate in the design of what an app might look like, what one site might look like. And so that designing for imperfection is a way of inviting people in to participate in the process. And so that requires designers to be more like hosts and facilitators rather than these distant experts with our hipster glasses.
Denver: Exactly! Interesting. Well, give us an example of one that you’ve done for social good.
Lee-Sean: One of our recent projects is called Design for Financial Empowerment, and it’s in collaboration with the Parsons School of Design and the New York City government and various nonprofit partners and funders. We are working on a city project where New York City actually offers free financial counseling for anybody who lives and works in the city. You call 311 and you book an appointment. You meet in person with a financial counselor and you can discuss anything from how to open up a bank account if you’re a new immigrant to things like “I’m an entrepreneur and I’m trying to pay down my debt and get out of debt.” So it’s a variety of different people. And they have found in the data prior to us working on this project that there’s a direct correlation between retention and outcomes. So the more sessions you go to your counselor, the more you work with your counselor, the more likely you are to meet your own financial goal, whether it’s getting that mortgage or paying down your debt or whatever that is.
But in a lot of cases, people who are in financial trouble also have other things in life. They may have families, kids, other commitments and so they don’t always come back to their appointments. So we had been working with the clients and the counselors as well as administrators in the city to co-design ways to increase retention. And that’s basically around this idea of how do you create a community and also how do you provide wayfinding. So what the community did, even though financial topics are often very personal, how do we create this feeling that people aren’t alone. It’s not just this one-on-one relationship between a client and a counselor, but that they’re part of this larger community of people who are trying to work on their financial situation, their financial empowerment.
And then on the other hand, we’ve also been working on wayfinding across different media, too. We’ve designed a couple of different interventions that have now been prototyped and are being tested around the city. Some of them are fairly low-fi but necessary. Like we design what we call a journey map, and it’s essentially a little fold-out card like you get or a subway card that helps show the journey towards financial empowerment. And it sets an expectation like having at least three appointments to begin with, to see how many appointments you might need and helps explain this process a little bit more. And we both have been experimenting with more high-tech interventions as well, like interactive videos that could be sent to clients before their first appointment, and a video, sort of mini-documentaries of other clients and their counselors, to give just sort of some emotional baseline to what it’s like to work on this financial counseling and to be inspired by other people’s stories as well.
Denver: Great. Finally, let me ask you about the Awesome Foundation where you are a founding trustee. What is their mission and how do they operate?
Lee-Sean: Well, the Awesome Foundation was started by some friends of mine, and they invited me to start the New York chapter with them. And basically what we do is we forward the cause of Awesome in the universe, or at least in the New York chapter in the New York tri-state area. And so we give out $1,000 micro-grant every month, no strings attached, to Awesome projects. And so it’s everything from–our very first grant was a guy who runs a nonprofit called BioBus and he was building this laser beam microscope thing and he was taking it around to schools around the city to show kids microorganisms, and you could shoot these lasers at the microorganisms. It wouldn’t hurt them, but it would hold them in place.
There’s another grant we gave to a guy who started a new ritual called “Nametag Day.” And the idea is that one weekend in the summer, they pass out nametags on the streets in New York and also now in San Francisco and a couple of other cities around the world, and it just encourages people to talk to strangers and introduce themselves. So it changes the social dynamics of things.
So a lot of these projects are kind of fun or kind of community-oriented, and it’s all our own money, actually. So we each contribute $100 per trustee every month. And then we have a database where we collect these applications. And then we just decide through voting and consensus building who we give the money to and then we send them a check. So anybody can apply at awesomefoundation.org.
Denver: That’s right. And all these projects are awesome! Well, thanks for being with us, Lee-Sean. If people want to learn more about Foossa and the work you do, your website is?
Lee-Sean: It’s foossa.com. Thank you so much for having me, Denver!
Denver: Great! Well, it was my pleasure.
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