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Unlimited Potential is a Salford-based social enterprise dedicated to encouraging people to lead healthier and happier lives. It has successfully launched a number of local services, including ‘Health Trainers’ and ‘Smoke-Free Spaces’.
In 2012, Unlimited Potential set out to tackle problem drinking - a major problem in Salford, which has the highest rate of alcohol-related hospital admissions in England. Its proposed service was a first: a for-profit local retail outlet selling alcohol in a way that would reduce harmful drinking.
The idea was to engage problem drinkers – those exceeding recommended weekly consumption guidelines, but not yet classified ‘alcoholic’ – buying alcohol at the facility through a series of additional services and activities designed to address three of the main triggers contributing to problem drinking: loneliness, boredom and social isolation.
Unlimited Potential hoped that this approach would enable it to tackle some of the root causes of problem drinking before the problem became severe and that this, in turn, would help reduce demands on statutory support services and their local budgets.
“We like to focus on social innovation – exploring ways of tackling social problems which are different from the norm – and had an idea for a new way of tackling problem drinking,” Unlimited Potential’s founder Chris Dabbs explained. “But first we needed to understand how the design process worked and how it could be used to most effectively address local users’ needs.”
What we did
It quickly became clear that Unlimited Potential needed an approach to research that would enable it to understand users’ needs in greater depth and allow it to test ideas through prototyping.Ré Dubhthaigh, Design Associate
Design Council assigned experienced Design Associate Ré Dubhthaigh to work with Unlimited Potential to introduce the team to the design process, refine and develop the idea. Dubhthaigh’s first step was to lead Dabbs and his team through a structured process involving two workshops.
The first introduced Unlimited Potential to service design approaches and brainstorming techniques. The second focused on identifying potential users, understanding their needs and exploring what services and activities the facility could provide to engage them and, ultimately, change problem behaviour. All ideas generated were then collated and assessed.
“It quickly became clear that Unlimited Potential needed an approach to research that would enable it to understand users’ needs in greater depth and allow it to test ideas through prototyping,” Dubhthaigh explained.
A decision was taken to work with a design agency to develop a concept for the problem drinking facility with a name, look and feel that could be piloted on a small scale to test long-term sustainability. With Dubhthaigh’s help, Dabbs encapsulated the project’s requirements in a design brief.
Dubhthaigh then introduced the team to design agencies with relevant experience and expertise. Three were invited to present their credentials and in early 2013, Glasgow-based service design specialist Snook was appointed to develop the project.
“The project was as much about building their service design capacity in-house – introducing them to new tools, methodologies and techniques – as it was delivering the components for a prototype,” Snook creative director Andy Young explained.
“Our brief was to undertake further research and engagement with potential users to develop the concept then a prototype of the service that could be piloted. The approach was underpinned by our philosophy of co-design – working closely with end users to evolve ideas jointly.”
The designers worked closely with the Unlimited Potential team to explore through different research techniques local attitudes to alcohol, spending on leisure activities and resources in one particular local area – Eccles.
After considering many options, the team then came up with the idea of a Brew Club – a drop-in facility for single men in the area who lived alone. The Brew Club concept comprised a step-by-step programme of activities designed to span a number of weeks, to be undertaken by six to ten local men at a time.
Snook then developed a portfolio of components required to run a pilot Brew Club to demonstrate the concept. These included a process handbook which broke down step-by-step activities, resources and touch points Brew Club would need - including tools to create, record and measure the service’s impact on its users.
“In a short space of time, Snook worked with an internal team to engage residents, develop new capabilities and prototype a potential solution,” said Dubhthaigh. “Partnerships like this exemplify how design can meaningfully play a role in social innovation in the UK, making the abstract real and embedding social change in everyday activity.”
With work on the prototype now complete, Unlimited Potential plans to pilot Brew Club in spring 2015.
In the past we planned services but I’m not sure we designed them – a distinction we have learned.Chris Dabbs, founder of Unlimited Potential
Dabbs believes Design Council support benefited Unlimited Potential in a variety of ways. “As a social enterprise committed to social innovation, association with a recognised brand gave us credibility among local service providers,” he said.
“Furthermore, it drew in additional support from other organisations working to address the problem we were trying to tackle. And the process itself helped us think about the problems we set out to tackle and the possible solutions we hope to deliver in a completely different way.”
An important lesson was the value of prototyping. “A key insight for us was that you don’t have to write a big plan with lots of spreadsheets then wait six months before doing anything,” he added.
“The design process is an active learning style of doing things that allows you to quickly get out on the street and develop and test ideas with end users – an approach that fits neatly with our organisational culture and aims. This ‘start small, test quickly’ approach means no idea is a failure, even if it doesn’t work.”
Unlimited Potential also benefited from developing new tools and learning new processes which it has since applied to other projects, including the creation of a support service for the elderly to be delivered through local supermarkets.
“Often the word ‘design’ is thought of in reference only to gadgets and gizmos. But it is a way of working that is equally relevant to processes and prototypes as it is all about building something according to users’ needs,” Dabbs observed. “In the past we planned services but I’m not sure we designed them – a distinction we have learned.”