A 5by5 Conversation with Jess Leifer, Vice President of ideas42 about bringing the human-centered approach to consulting
Interview by Thomas Brandenburg and Twisha Shah-Brandenburg
“…we have learned that behavioral science is an excellent tool, but cannot be applied to solve every problem. So it is critical to effectively scope and assess problems early on, and to understand the nature of the problem before you apply behavioral insights to design solutions!” —Jess Leifer
What are ways in which you / your company hold your customers to a “right” ethical standard, esp. when business and consumer values may feel in conflict?
ideas42 is a non-profit organization with a clear mission: to use the power of behavioral science to design scalable solutions to some of society’s most difficult problems. We exclusively focus on social impact projects, where we know our work can contribute to a better future. For example, in education, we’re working to help more students graduate from college. In criminal justice, we’re working to reduce recidivism and gun violence. In health, we are helping people prevent diabetes and build healthier habits. And in consumer finance, we’re helping people save more for retirement. We are selective in what types of projects we take on and, before initiating a project, we consider what kind of impact we may have.
But even within social impact projects, we have multiple “customers,” sometimes with conflicting priorities. Of all the potential “customers” – foundations who fund us, non-profits and businesses who provide services to those in need, and community members themselves — we put community members first. They’re who we care most about. In fact, we see our role as specifically placing their needs and perspectives front and center so we can design solutions that really work for them.
What would you like to see happen in the future at the intersection of design and behavioral economics?
I’m excited about data, and the role big data will continue to play at the intersection of design and behavioral science. Currently, the majority of behavioral scientists use static datasets to measure key outcomes (e.g. high school graduation rates) and assess how various factors impact them. This type of analysis is valuable; it sheds light on the magnitude of the problem and what factors we should investigate to unpack it. However, as bigger, richer, and more dynamic datasets become more widely available, and more behavioral scientists develop skills in using and analyzing them, the field will be able to design smarter solutions, including ones that tailor interventions to different behavioral responses in real-time. This is and will continue to be a big development in the field.
What are some failures that you have had while incorporating a human-centered problem-solving approach? What could be learned from those?
In some projects, we discover that structural barriers – e.g. affordability, awareness, accessibility, or availability – as opposed to behavioral barriers – like those related to human perception, the decision-making context, or the social environment – are the primary problem drivers. In these cases, we don’t expect to see the same level of impact using behaviorally-informed approaches as in our other work.
From these experiences, we have learned that behavioral science is an excellent tool, but cannot be applied to solve every problem. So it is critical to effectively scope and assess problems early on, and to understand the nature of the problem before you apply behavioral insights to design solutions!
What advice do you have for a young professional entering the field?
This is a great question. Three pieces of advice:
First, read a lot. Smart people release many excellent books, articles, and other publications about human behavior, data, and design every day. Reading is a great way to stay up on what is happening in the field. If you’re interested in behavioral science, I recommend checking out the Behavioral Scientist (http://behavioralscientist.org/). It has great and digestible content on new applications and insights from the field.
Second, practice listening and being open to new perspectives. A good behavioral scientist can hear and understand the end-user perspective, and effectively integrate it into a holistic understanding of the problem. Frequently this also requires challenging your own assumptions, so it is important to be open!
Finally, think about applying behavioral science in your own life. Investigate your own decisions and behaviors and examine the features of your environment that lead to them. Can you adjust any of these features to help you do more of what you want and less of what you don’t? Practicing behavioral science in your personal life is a great first step in developing skills to practicing out in the rest of the world.
Interested in this topic? Register to be part of a larger community at the Design Intersections conference in Chicago May 24-25, 2018.