Birthday cakes and design process learnings

Last week, I baked a birthday cake for my daughter. I enjoy cooking but I haven’t really tried my hand a lot at baking. So I picked up the easiest sounding recipe for a chocolate cake. Why chocolate? Because every five year old loves chocolate. Actually, make that between five and fifty, to take into account the grown-ups who would have been in attendance.

Simple though the recipe was, it was a decadent one. Gooey chocolate fudge cake with chocolate buttercream icing. I even doubled the amount of cocoa for a deeper flavour.

There were some accidents but the cake turned out alright in the end. To make it look celebratory, I shaved some white chocolate on top. Finally, some unicorn sprinkles – my daughter loves unicorns and was thrilled to lend a helping hand with them. Considering it was the first time I had made a cake from scratch, it wasn’t that bad. Not the best looking one, but not bad.

But that was only till the time my daughter hadn’t tasted it. While everyone else was enjoying and praising the cake, especially all the grownups, my daughter quietly pushed her plate towards me after the first bite. She didn’t like it. It was too chocolatey for her.

I made the mistake that is probably the most common in the design process – thinking that I know what the client wants, but instead it is something that I and others like me want. It gets worse when I look at it from the perspective of the social innovation design process. I acted like the person in power who makes decisions based on what he wants. The kind of person that we tell ourselves and others not to behave like when designing a social intervention.

There are so many cases where despite the best intentions, the design of a social program gets it wrong simply because it failed to understand what was really needed. Because the research was designed based on a preconceived notion of what was wanted. And most often, it came from a position of power.

My daughter didn’t make any complaints. The fact that she didn’t like the cake’s taste didn’t dampen her excitement for the day in any way either. May not be the case next year.

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