Postulate: there exists an organization called StreetWise that provides employment opportunities to people with little to no skills who are homeless or at risk of being homeless. So why is the particular opportunity they provide selling a magazine? Why not cookies or coffee or something else?
I had always assumed the answer was some feel-good factor like raising awareness or providing a forum in which people from such a background could express themselves. But it turns out there are several immediate, practical reasons why StreetWise chose the magazine product. If StreetWise vendors sold virtually anything else, like food or products, they would need peddling licenses from the city. But the First Amendment protects the right of anyone to distribute publications in public spaces (even if they’re selling them). That helps to guarantee StreetWise’s promise that they can start any homeless person on the path to gainful employment within a single day — no waiting on any kind of bureaucracy.
As our UX designers discovered, the magazine offers advantages besides this clever legal workaround. Many StreetWise vendors are still working to develop the social skills they need to gain more permanent employment. As several of our designers observed, with most commercial transactions there are risks of conflicts with customers — someone who says their coffee was burnt or want to get a refund for some other reason. StreetWise’s simplicity gives those with few skills a chance to build the basics like confidence and punctuality with few additional risks.
There are many other inherent traits to the magazine, such as the fact that printed material is portable and can be sold at any time of day. But despite all these hidden advantages, the UX designers and the StreetWise team both understand that fewer and fewer people are reading and many of them are not doing so through print. The organization never wants the magazine to go away, but they also understand that they may need additional sources of revenue as well as new opportunities for the clients they serve. Still, it seems like the rationale for creating a print product in this case is radically different from the one behind the Chicago Tribune or Sun-Times. How can those specific advantages remain for whatever StreetWise becomes in the future? That may be the big question the UX team needs to answer this afternoon.