For my final project with Challenge Detroit, I worked with the Grandmont Rosedale Development Corporation (GRDC) and more specifically the Grand River Workplace (an initiative of GRDC). I was tasked with identifying better ways to communicate with local small businesses on the Grand River corridor.

Using the human-centered design approach, I began by interviewing the community stakeholders (aka. the small business owners we were trying to reach). I spent time in a coffee shop, barber shop, bookstore and spa. The owners of these businesses have a lot of differences, but also a few commonalities. These commonalities, or observations, revealed key insights which could serve as building blocks of what a well-designed strategy might look like:

Observation 1: Small business owners are busy and have unique schedules.
Insight 1: Putting together in-person meetings is complicated and perhaps not the best use of a business owner’s time. With varying schedules based on each type of business and their respective operating hours, availability does not necessarily overlap. Therefore, digital communication that can be accessed when the business owner is free is more convenient and helps them stay present in their business.

Observation 2: Business owners would like to communicate with each other more.
Insight 2: Perhaps the original question of how to better reach small business owners could be reframed to: How can small business owners better reach each other? By providing top-down communication from an organization, there is no room for feedback, or inter-business communication and collaboration. Therefore, providing an open-channel for communication among business owners would be useful to both the organization overseeing the channel as well as the small business owners using it.

Observation 3: Small business owners have their own ideas about initiatives and projects.
Insight 3: 
While gathering feedback from the small business owners, it became clear that they all had their own ideas for initiatives to drive traffic to their businesses and many of them overlapped. Equipped with a communication channel and empowered with the support of the development corporation, small business owners could design their own initiatives based on their needs and the needs of their peers. Therefore, creating a platform for initiative and programming development with the support of the organization would allow for more community feeling, the embracing of these initiatives, and collaboration and camaraderie among business owners.

It became clear that the role of an outside organization such as the GRDC or Grand River Workplace may not be to provide top-down communication, but rather facilitate communication among business owners. By allowing communication from all parties, the organization could provide a platform for internal initiative planning. Strategy from within is sure to address the true needs of the actors, rather than strategy from the outside which may make inaccurate or unfair assumptions, or project internal organizational truths or goals.

In response to this realization, we had a brainstorming session with a well-connected, local business owner as to how best reach all small business owners on the corridor. Due to varying levels of tech savvy, we decided that creating a text group would be the most accessible form of communication to all. We then circled back to the business owners  to gauge interest and gather feedback. Everyone we spoke with was excited for the new communication tool for their community.

This may seem like (and is) a very simple strategy. Efforts do not need to be complicated or revolutionary to be effective. All too often, the people you are trying to create and or design for already know what they need. That is why it is essential to design with an intended audience in the conversation from the beginning. This is the founding truth of human-centered design.