It’s not uncommon to see statements like “making the world a better place, one experience at a time” in a UX practitioner’s bio. These are lofty claims, but when your job centers around creating products and services that make people happier and more productive, it’s easy to see how this kind of thinking creeps in.

Our work is important. We might not be saving the world from the perils of global warming, but we are shaping the way people live, work, and play at a time when technology and design have a massive impact on the nature of human existence. There are, however, instances where the work being done by experience design practitioners can have a much more powerful and evident impact, something we explored through the international Design for Experience awards.

CaringBridge, winner of the Experience that Makes a Difference category, is a nonprofit organization that offers free, protected websites designed to help connect patients to their loved ones during any kind of health journey. Founded in 1997 by Sona Mehring and headquartered in Eagan, Minn., CaringBridge currently has 60 employees and more than 2,000 volunteers, with the vast majority of funding coming in donations from those who have used the product.

“CaringBridge provides the opportunity for a much deeper, more intimate level of communication, connecting people through the healing power of words,” says Product Manager Chris Lamb. “When you start a CaringBridge website, the sole focus is the health event that person is experiencing. Personal data is protected and never sold, and there is no outside advertising, allowing the focus to be on healing.”

@CaringBridge provides the opportunity for a much deeper, more intimate level of communication

Lamb points to the prime tenet of experience design—understanding underlying problems and attempting to solve them in simple and intuitive ways—as a key component to the success of CaringBridge, noting that the principle takes on more weight due to the seriousness of the problems their users are facing.

“We know that if we do not understand the true nature of the problems our users are facing and deliver simple solutions to those problems, we risk making an already trying time even more difficult,” Lamb says. “Great user experience design does far more then help shape and improve our projects, it is the driving factor in how we ensure the work we do really helps the people who need CaringBridge.”

In a video that was eventually shared by the Huffington Post, The Today Show, CNN, and Beyoncé, Deborah—an OB/GYN, mother of two, and CaringBridge user—leads a dance party with her medical team before undergoing a double mastectomy.

The team uses uses techniques like comforting color schemes, minimalist design strategies, and smooth navigation patterns to create a very useable product for users who have bigger concerns weighing down on them. They’ve also created products like Support Planner, which helps families and friends to coordinate tasks like delivering meals, babysitting, and providing transportation to doctor appointments.

“CaringBridge connects people to their community of support in a time of need, and while the majority of people do use CaringBridge for health related reasons, our experience is set up to be fully inclusive,” Lamb says. “Anyone who needs care and support from their loved ones during a life or health event is welcome to use CaringBridge. Think of a 15 -year-old who is struggling with coming out? Think of a 20-something struggling with addiction? Think of a family going through an international adoption? Think of a military family with a loved one serving abroad? These people also need–and want–care.”

Anyone who has ever faced a major illness or dealt with one in their family knows that the costs associated with healthcare can be staggeringly high. Budgeting for these kinds of major events in life can be overwhelming and having foundational knowledge about how to make the most of your finances is a boon.

“Generally speaking, people don't like having to talk about personal finance because it is a hard topic that often leads to anxiety and stress,” says Gabrielle Williams, the creator of Budgie, a finalist in the Experience that Makes a Difference category. “At the surface, budgeting may not seem that powerful, but if you look at the connections between personal financial difficulties and stress levels and physical health, the benefit of mastering a seemingly simple skill becomes very evident. Healthy personal finances result in less stress, less worry, less distraction, and improved quality of life.”

A student project, Budgie is an attempt to help college students in particular gain better financial literacy and give them tools to take responsibility for their monetary choices. Williams says that the broader impact of a system like Budgie would depend on the advocacy of individuals who experience it first hand.

“In this way, the change it affects would be much bigger than the individual because individuals give advice to their friends, teach their children, grow into managerial roles in companies, and fill governmental roles around the world. And individuals who are comfortable, knowledgeable, and experienced with making financial decisions and understanding their implications will be better equipped for these roles, ultimately benefiting society as a whole.”

Initially conceived as a physical product, the design changed direction when Williams realized that an intangible experience might better address her goals.

“It became clear throughout the design process that the experience would only be successful if it was easy to access, driven by context, and provided an a clean structure and logic for grouping the user's financial and lifestyle information. The in-browser tool, for example, was one result of context-driven design. When a user is shopping online and reaches a decision point, Budgie disrupts their flow just enough to encourage reflection. It asks them if they realize how the purchase will affect their budget, while providing relevant information about the current budget they have set up, and showing a projection of how the purchase will affect that current budget if they follow through with it.”

"Experience design is all about fostering meaningful connections between the user and the world they live in," Williams says. “There are many ways to define a successful experience, but if someone steps away from an experience and it was memorable in a positive way or enabled them achieve a goal in some capacity, it's safe to say it improved their life.”


You can make a donation or volunteer time to CaringBridge here. Check out all of the applicants in the Experience that Makes a Difference category here. Image of patient and caregiver courtesy shutterstock.

The 2014 DfE awards are now accepting applications. If you’ve been a part of creating an experience that makes a difference, apply today! If you know of any products or services that deserve DfE recognition, make a recommendation now!