Design isn’t everything

There. I’ve said it. Design won’t solve all problems. The above is an image a designer and I worked out after months of talking to San Francisco service providers, their clients, and area representatives. It was created through a project for Bridge, an organization dedicated to bridging the very present gap between city residents and social services. Our goal was to set up a searchable online site of all the various services available to the currently homeless and make it accessible to all.

After interviews and user scenario studies, we arrived at a tablet concept. The service rep would work with the client to help negotiate the needed resources. Maybe print out a map or a guide, log the visit in the system, keep track of inventory. Bling. Bam. Shazaam. Amazingess.

But you know what? No matter how many iterations we made, or people we talked to, in the end we couldn’t build it. In fact there are some seven different sites that look very much like this one. All beautiful and well-kerned. But they don’t work, because of data.

Organizations are far too overburdened to properly log available resources. We talked to one group that was completely unaware that two blocks away was another organization that could help them out. The silver lining of all of our research was that among all the providers, all cited the usefulness of a small little group that posted charts of free resources quarterly.

calendar of food availability
Attempt to categorize the available free eats by time, using Illustrator

After months about hearing the praises sung of The Free Print Shop‘s pdfs, I reached out to them. I naively suggested I could design a different layout that would be more helpful for showing free eating times.

It was, in fact, not so helpful. Turns out too they must keep to a minimum two-page limit. In the end I felt amazed at how much they could convey with the space they had. In talking more with them about their restrictions, it became clear maybe what Bridge could do was build the site The Free Print Shop needed. Here was a group of dedicated people who would personally contact each and every organization every quarter to confirm availability. Their job was Herculean. What could we do to help? We met a few times and in a fit of inspiration, I designed a reworked layout of their site.

list of resources available

detail of service provider
Created using Photoshop as a 20% project at Google

I learned again you can move too fast.I thought we could get up a site in six months. Many students had reached out to them in the past with the same thought. “Here’s a nice semester project.” You could tell they had been burned by promises before. It was time to slow down. We asked them what they needed. A site was a nice end result, but the key first step was a new database for entering the data.

There was so much detail to work out on updating the database to a newer system that it’s since been more than a year and we’re still working through the best format for the entry of data. As a side project you have to fit in what you can. But each step feels good.

entry fields for service providers
An early wireframe of data entry created using Illustrator as a part of a 20% project at Google

Updating a database to a newer system is whole other can of design worms. It’s since been more than a year, and we’re still working through the best format for the entry of data. As a side project you have to fit in what you can. But each step feels good. Our engineer is posting the code on Github, with the hope that the framework can be re-purposed by other groups.

And still, even after all that, if we ever get there, the structure will still rely on data and diligent people to make it sing.