How Might We Integrate Measurement into the Realm of Social Impact Design?

Art Heart Pearl Street

Designers have all the best intentions when creating a product, space, or experience. When beginning a new project or initiative, I intend to dedicate my utmost time, energy, ideas, and input to get the best positive outcome. I’m sure you do too. But how do we know when we’ve done a good job? How do we know when we’ve achieved the positive experience or change that we set out to make?

Economic validation is one key component of measurement: buying, sharing, and using is a tried and true method to measure success. But what about a deeper impact–changing behaviors, improving a community, or changing a person’s life? How do we demonstrate these changes?

As seen in Design for an Empathic World, defining your purpose and understanding your why is the first step, which can then inform your aim or mission with each initiative you undertake. Once you have a clear mission, then you can prepare for what to measure as success.


Working collaboratively alongside so many people has showed me that designers across the board have been testing many ways to measure the effects of their work—and that this is a challenge we’re all trying to figure out. Take non-profit product development company D-Rev as one case. With the ReMotion Knee, they have measured not only how many amputees have been fit with the knee (5,122) but also how many people are still using it (79%), how many knees have not broken (95%), and how many people are satisfied (86%). Imagine if architects provided statistics on a how many people used a specific building or space, how it continues to perform, and how many people are satisfied with the building or space–that information would be invaluable to designers, clients and the public.

Determining these measurements for the first time can be a tricky exercise. At a recent course on “Measuring Social Impact” led by Economic Change’s Heather Black, I learned a simple and actionable 10-step framework that can be applied to any type of organization, including design and architecture.

To get you started, here are 4 essential areas to define and set up for measuring impact (from Appendix A in Guide to Measuring Social Impact”) along with examples from D-Rev.


1. Aim (or Mission)

The Aim of your organization is to communicate what your organization does. It is an explanation of your vision and the overall change that you want to achieve towards tackling the ‘cause’.

Example: D-Rev is a non-profit product development company that designs and delivers products to people living on less than $4 a day.

2. Objectives (Actions)

The Objectives of your organization detail how your organization will achieve your Aim. Your objectives are a list of activities you plan to deliver to tackle the problems associated with the defined cause.

Examples from D-Rev:

  • Identify high impact opportunities that can increase incomes or improve the health of 1 million+ people living on less than $4 per day.
  • Design products to meet customer needs, incorporating manufacturing, distribution, and servicing.
  • Deliver to users by integrating the product into the market to maximize sustained impact.
  • Scale up appropriately for maximum global impact and measure impact to determine that the product is reaching the people and places who need it.

3. Outputs (the Numbers)

Outputs quantify the scale of the objectives that you plan to deliver. Each year you should look to set target outputs, and measure actual outputs on a real time basis.

Examples from D-Rev:

5,122 amputees fit with the ReMotion Knee
79% are still using the ReMotion Knee
95% of knees did not break
16,431 babies treated with Brilliance
13,882 babies treated who would not otherwise have received effective treatment
337 newborn deaths and disabilities averted

4. Outcomes (the Change)

Outcomes describe the impact and/or change in a situation as a result of the activity or intervention. The outcomes demonstrate how the organization is achieving its aim(s).

  • soft – attributes, skill, knowledge development
  • hard – action oriented as a result of soft outcomes
  • short term – measure immediately at the end of the intervention
  • medium term – measure after a short period after intervention (3-6 months)
  • long term – measure after a longer period after intervention completed (1 year or longer)

See D-Rev’s Annual Reports

In order to know whether or not our designs are working, it’s important for us to measure and evaluate. While we don’t have standards of measurement for all design disciplines, it’s an opportunity ripe for experimentation, testing, and refinement. Knowing that you want to test and measure, and clearly stating your aim and objectives before starting your project can help you stay on track.

Ultimately this comes down to a designer’s responsibility to want to know these outcomes and effects, and the truth can be hard to swallow. However with the titles of “social impact”, “public interest”, and “human-centered” designers, the proof is in the outcomes and what we deem these to be.

Are you working on measuring the impact of your projects and organization? What are your favorite methods, frameworks or examples? I’d love to hear about how you’re integrating measurement into social impact design.

Image sources: Animal New YorkD-Rev; Katie Crepeau, author

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2 Responses to How Might We Integrate Measurement into the Realm of Social Impact Design?

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