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Digital Products for Real American Problems

In my last post I connected a failure to understand the principles of user-centered design and the stunning outcome of the 2016 election. I thought that there were some real lessons to learn, best summarized by the following (please forgive me for quoting myself):

Ask users what they want, watch what they DO, and be brutally honest about what you find.

I am convinced that this is more than a conceptual lesson. There are real-world product opportunities that can benefit marginalized Americans and we haven’t even scratched the surface.

A slew of new apps including Flippable and Countable are connecting people with politics – and this is incredibly important. I recently got involved with The Arena, a terrific organization incubating some of these innovations. But there remain issues of everyday life that technology could do a better job addressing. Perhaps with more attention to problems like joblessness and education (instead of ride sharing and in-home blowouts) the technology community could fundamentally change people’s lives, and in turn, their politics.

Some thought starters…

  • Coal miners have skills, and some of those skills might be applicable to other, more robust labor markets. Products that match skills with available work in local geographies could have a real impact. Think Taskrabbit targeted to communities that have been disrupted by innovation and international trade.

 

  • Even with a more efficient labor market, some folks simply don’t have the skills to fill new jobs. And for a variety of reasons including cost, convenience and age, they aren’t likely to return to school. Here we can look to unlikely places for inspiration. In Africa, where infrastructure and travel are often challenged, valuable data, education and even full training programs are being delivered to remote locations via smartphone and even SMS. All sorts of field technicians and sales reps can be trained and kept current with this new generation of tech products.

 

  • The increasing homogenization of American counties is preventing Americans of different beliefs and backgrounds from even speaking with each other. Bill Bishop has called this trend the “big sort.” Again, we should look for inspiration in places with which we don’t normally compare our political climate. Programs that bring Israeli and Palestinian youth together have had success starting a dialogue and building lasting human connections. We need to bring red and blue America together, and technology will have a role to play. I for one would love a dating-style app that I could use when traveling outside New York to find people with whom I disagree who might be willing to engage in constructive dialogue over coffee or a drink.

 

Many of these products won’t make money.

 

That’s why we need a new wave of social enterprise and philanthropy to direct the energy of our vibrant tech community towards the most uncomfortable user feedback from the November round of testing.