Interview with Alberta Soranzo

This post is part of a larger project on Designing Opportunity. Check out my earlier blog post for an overview of the topic.

Interview with Alberta (Downloadable MP3)

Below you will find a reflection from my interview with Alberta Soranzo in London.

Making the Work Non-Profits Do Appealing and Functional

Soranzo opened our discussion by addressing the topic of working in a for-profit versus non-profit setting. Like most, she painted somewhat of a dichotomy between for-profit and non-profit work, in terms of pace and personal fulfillment. Her hypothesis was that her non-profit work is often less challenging but more emotionally fulfilling, whereas for-profit work is invigorating but can feel less fulfilling long term. Soranzo’s assertions, which are by no means uncommon, lead me to contemplate and research efforts around how to make the work that non-profits do more appealing and functional. As there are a number of organizations and people working on this topic currently, I have pulled out a few themes:

  • Pair qualitative and quantitative data for increased impact. For years now, analytics has been a topic that dominates conversations in ad agencies and large corporations alike. Following the advent of qualitative research, designers have also realized analytics are needed to improve design. In his talk at the 2015 IA Summit, Is Design Metrically Opposed, Jared Spool spoke about how designers must leverage qualitative and quantitative research to give context to, and solve, complex issues. The concept of pairing the two to create meaningful design is evidenced by a non-profit startup called GiveDirectly. Using research around the impact of cash transfers, grad students from Harvard and MIT, created GiveDirectly, whose website boasts, “We aim to reshape international giving. We’re backed by GiveWell, and – most importantly – rigorous evidence.”
  • Make Non-Profit gigs more compelling. In his Ted Talk “The Way We Think About Charity Is Dead Wrong,” Dan Pallotta addresses, among other things, the need to make positions at non-profits more competitive. Similarly, the failure of has given rise to developers and designers willingly going to work for the government. Mikey Dickerson heads up the United States Digital Service (USDS). He originally left Google to assist with and made a second debut after returning to Google and feeling unsatisfied by the work. The team’s selling point is the morality and a sense of service that comes with the type of work USDS does. Non-profits might not be able to offer as competitive of salaries or benefits so instead they should focus on the opportunity to improve operations or even to work a short stint to improve the world.
  • You gain skills in consulting that you wouldn’t get in house, just as you learn things in a for-profit setting that you wouldn’t glean from a non-profit settingAs is suggested by Dickerson and Soranzo’s resumes, leveraging skills from both worlds (non/profit) helps designers to excel in both places. According to Soranzo, “every little detour gives us something we can capitalize on. It’s okay, these are all piece in a puzzle that are going to go towards doing really good work.”

How to Be Moral in For-Profit

Additionally, morality in design, according to Soranzo, can be much more of a spectrum than non-profit and for-profit. “Non-profit” alone does not represent good and for-profit evil. She reminded me that ensuring you work to make the world a better place via your career is a marathon not a sprint.

So what if you decide to work in a for-profit setting, are there better places to work than others? Soranzo, while acknowledging that the ability to chose can be a luxury, argues yes. First, she recommends defining and adhering to a set of principles. If you can, take on clients or work for companies with morals. A company that empowers their team members to speak up when they’re uncomfortable with a client or a client’s practice, is a company you want to work for and it often starts with leaders from the company. As a leader, one way to progress design as a moral discipline is to create an environment where humans and revenue are equally accounted for. In my first User Experience (UX) job, our manager, Jennifer Bohmbach, lived and breathed this philosophy. Our relationship with her was built on her trust in our work and us, which in turn meant we had trust in her. When questions of integrity arose, she was not only a confidant, but a person you could trust to fight for you. It’s quite a pairing. At Tobias and Tobias, where Soranzo works, it is clear transparency is a core principle, starting with the executive team.

What obligations do we have as designers in bettering the world?

I became interested in the idea of designing equal opportunity before I knew User Experience was a thing. UX is a fundamentally human centered practice, which inherently seemed to necessitate the improvement of human existence. When I asked Soranzo, an admittedly leading question, “does design have more of or an equal obligation to improving the world than other professions?” she began by saying that humans, all humans, have a “Leave No Trace (LNT)” like requirement. Essentially our actions should, at a minimum, not impact the world negatively. She then went on to say that as designers, “we’re practicing the art of influence and persuasion. We know how to make people do things or not” and with that comes a tremendous duty.

One example relevant to her work is how to improve lives via financial institutions. Soranzo acknowledged that socioeconomic status is sort of happenstance as far as what you’re born into, which makes equity in wealth management all the more important. She has seen wealth management startups lead by example by helping people from all financial backgrounds manage their money better. For instance, she is working with a customer whose product is a modeling tool that will come to market in South Africa next year. The tool will help people save and invest in a similar fashion to microfinance.

Principles of Designing with Morals

Regardless of where you work, as a designer Soranzo believes there are some fundamentals to moral design.

  • Often designers are asked to make things easier via design. “Easier doesn’t mean frictionless,” says Soranzo. You can use moments of “difficulty” in design to stress the importance of something. So one way to be moral with design is to know when to bring a user’s attention to what they’re doing so they aren’t signing up for a million things they don’t want.
  • Research. Whether you’re an Agile aficionado or a Lean Design lover, the value of iteration, testing, and research is rampant in the content you’re digesting. Fundamentally, the concept of research is meant to ensure relevance for end-users. Soranzo cited an example where research ran counter to initial intuition about design but ultimately improved adoption. California’s WIC program, while exploring how to better reach a low-income population in need of food stamps, discovered a mobile approach would have a stronger reach for individuals who could not always afford multiple devices beyond a smartphone. The project was a success in no small part due to the emphasis and adherence to research.
  • Cultural Relativism. There is a concept popular in international development that borrows from principles of anthropology: aid should come from a person who is a partner to a community. In UX, the concept of partner works with end users in the same way. There is a difficult balance between being consultative and simply trying to understand or collaborate which can be incredibly difficult to achieve.
  • Don’t be wasteful or cruel with design. With great power, comes great responsibility. As designers, we need to be conscious of a balance between function, beauty, and humanism. Visually appealing design, simply for the sake of design,can be wasteful or consumeristic at the expense of money or talent that could be used elsewhere. As a bit of an aside, Soranzo gave an example from The Guardian of a journalist who reviews quirky, borderline useless kitchen gadgets. She also gave a hopeful counter to London’s inhumane design of spikes which prevent homelessness in public spaces – a guerrilla group that puts large foam pads over the government imposed spikes.

Ultimately, my greatest takeaway from chatting with Soranzo was the importance of being cognizant about which skills you’re honing to create change now and in the future.

Thank you again to Alberta Soranzo for being such an open and active leader in the community!