When was the last time you volunteered? What did you do – prepare food for your local food kitchen? Hammer nails at Habitat for Humanity? What if you could make use of your design and/or technology skills to improve the lives of the poor?
There has never been a better time than now. It has only been in the past couple of years that technology has become cheap and ubiquitous enough to finally trickle down to the developing world. Because of all the investment in technology over the past several decades, the poor are able to bypass the early, expensive devices (home PCs, PDAs, cell phones, laptops, tablets) and go straight to the smartphone. More accurately, the poor were forced to bypass these devices because of their high cost, but the net result, which has only come about recently, is that in many places more people have smartphones than indoor plumbing.
We could argue the merits of solving the indoor plumbing problem or any of the other immediate physical needs of the poor, which are unquestionably pressing issues, but my bet is you don’t know what to do about these problems, but you do know how to improve the user experience of software. I would also venture to guess that you don’t think of your job as “saving the world”.
Can we actually improve sanitation facilities through UX design, you ask? Well, Ideo.org is trying to do just that. Ideo.org is a non-profit spin-off of the design-consulting firm Ideo, focused solely on social innovation. While most companies are not creating their own non-profits, many corporations are beginning to see the benefit of employer-supported volunteering. According to a Deloitte 2008 survey, 91% of Fortune 500 companies believe that contributing business skills or expertise to a nonprofit in a volunteer capacity can further develop an employeeʼs business skills, and 56% say they encourage this kind of volunteering. This may be driven by another trend in social awareness – a Junior Achievement 2009 survey says that about 62% of 18-26-year-olds prefer to work for companies that provide “skills-based” volunteer opportunities so they can hone leadership and technical skills they can then use at work.
Recognizing the growing need for skilled volunteers and increasing desire of tech employees to contribute, SocialCoding4Good was born. (Despite the name bias towards coding, they are actually looking for all software-based skills including UX design.) SocialCoding4Good is designed to match the skills of volunteers with the needs of non-profits. Other organizations (such as VolunteerMatch) offer many volunteer opportunities, but they are not specifically skills-based and they don’t match you to an opportunity, it is more self-serve. If you still want to sort food at your local food bank, by all means, do it!
Are you excited and ready to volunteer your UX design skills? First, find out if your company offers paid time for volunteering. Many tech companies like Google, VMware, and Salesforce offer several days a year of paid time and/or longer-term “fellowships” for employees to volunteer. Self-employed or your company doesn’t offer paid volunteering? Don’t let that stop you! Go directly to the SocialCoding4Good.org website to learn about technical opportunities.
My Volunteer Project
I learned about SocialCoding4Good when my employer (VMware) offered a 3-month working sabbatical. I chose to work with a non-profit called Mifos redesigning the UX for their open-source microfinance software. I learned to use several new tools and traveled to India and Kenya to research the use of Mifos in the field, where I rediscovered the importance of user validation. Many users of non-profit software are not as tech-savvy as we may be accustomed to. From this research I redesigned the user experience keeping in mind that users preferred incremental changes to a massive design overhaul.
I enjoyed the project so much that I have continued to volunteer my own time with Mifos to enhance and polish the design and see it through to implementation. And I’m so excited about UX design volunteering that I’m here promoting it to you.
Go forth and volunteer!