The one thing I took away

Last week was full of inspirations and reflections. We’ve heard and spoken with individuals that continue to shape our thinking around our approach, attitude, and actions. If there was one thing I took away from each person, here they are:

“You gotta get good at the banal so you know what to do when something meaningful comes along. Good opportunities don’t come into the room and announce themselves.” Mark Rolston

“If you expect business people to care about impact, you should learn to care about the bottom line too. And not many people care if you’re giving appropriately and effectively, but do it anyway.” – Jessica Shortall

“Humor is important if you’re doing the kind of work like fighting for human rights.” – Esra’a Al Shafei

“The term non-profit is a tax code – it should not define what you do nor who you are.” – Doug Ulman

“All my best conversations were when I made what I was doing very public. Instead of sitting there where you’re the only one drawing – go outside, make what you’re doing public, and let people participate. Design publicly.” – Alex Gilliam

“Humans will do a lot for stickers. You need to create a sense of accomplishment that’s not monetary.” – Suzi Sosa

“Scale and impact can only be achieved if you can make it repeatable. Knowing that it works is not enough, you need to know the ingredients that made it work.” – Justin Petro

Director Jon Kolko in Fast Company

Director Jon Kolko recently contributed a three-part series to Fast Company. The series explores the nature of design synthesis from a number of perspectives, and offers both tangible and conceptual advice on exposing the magic of design within a given organization. Explore the series here:

  1. How Do You Transform Good Research Into Great Innovations?
  2. Cultural Values That Will Make Your Office an Idea Factory
  3. When Trying to Invent, Being Objective Can Cripple Your Process

An update after some shifting and zooming from biased perspectives: our process, our finding, and our plan

Photo credit: by Alex Pappas, at Art From the Streets, on Jan 25 2011

When we were two weeks into our research on homelessness last quarter, it began to occur to us that the Maslow hierarchy might be in the wrong shape. Our hypothesis was that people need their emotional needs fulfilled at the same time as their physical needs, rather than after. That led to one of our major themes in the final research presentation: people don’t just need help, they need to help.

We hung onto that idea and kept exploring. Three months after our project kick-off, here’s where we are at:

We believe that when people are given an opportunity to share their knowledge and teach other people, they are actually helping themselves by gaining a stronger sense of self and increasing self-esteem. We don’t have data that is of statistical significance to support this view. However, it is a view that is built directly upon our personal stories, experiences, and world-views. We know to be conscious about the biased perspective and continue to seek feedback from various individuals in the design, business, and technology space. So far, everyone seems to share the same sentiment.

Our 5-hour working sessions typically involve constantly asking ourselves “what if” and “what would make it really fun“. For example, we talked about what ARCH would look like as a co-working space, where clients are encouraged to host sessions like at an unconference. We also think our belief holds true whether it’s for the homeless, retired professors, vulnerable teens, or stay-at-home moms. The continuous lens shifting has become our most powerful tool to cross chasms and connect ideas that are seemingly unrelated in order to formulate new design ideas.

We’ve also committed ourselves to making a physical artifact after every working session: “If it isn’t modeled, written, drawn, and otherwise solidified in an artifact, it never happened.” Concept mapping out our envisioned ecosystem and customer journey map helped us in clarifying what we want to do. More importantly though, it helped us in identifying what our Theory of Change is: When a person begins to see him/herself as a teacher rather than a student, we believe that’s when change happens.

We start building and testing this week. So one good thing to keep remembering: Trust the Process.

user vs. standards

The past couple of weeks we have been doing Think Aloud usability testing on the iphone applications that we built wireframes for last quarter. It was great to take the prototypes out and experience a range of reactions to both the application as well as the UI.

We were charged with documenting “critical issues”. In some cases this proved surprising….The iphone is intuitive and easy to use? Following standards make the applications easier to use?

  • Words matter.Tags are something most designers and developers are familiar with (standard), but only one case manager understood what that meant. Once I explained what Tags were they stated wow that would be really useful. In their words keywords so I can easily search through notes by topic.
  • Symbols can be confusing. The section where the case manager is able to add clients was modeled after the address book on the iphone. There is a plus button to “add” a new client. It was interesting to see that this was not intuitive to the case managers including those that were familiar with iphones. I thought I was following the “standard”, but I would much rather give the users what they were all looking for a “new client” button. I realize there are language issues and that the plus does not require translating, but this is why context is always important.

I am not sure what the answer is for user vs. standards, but feel testing is important to understand the decisions we are making as designers.

Project managers can we please build a little time in the schedule for testing?

Reflection Time

Does anyone watch our “Personal Growth Videos”? Our “Peaks of the Week”? Our reflection videos? The idea behind the videos is that learning requires reflection. This week, Ruby tried to redesign the format of the videos, and ask new questions because the videos were feeling staid.

You can’t force reflection, but it’s an interesting interaction design challenge to note how the structures of the new school you’re designing affect the way your students behave.

We’re all super busy balancing work and school, and when we get super busy, we tend to:

  • go into default modes of interacting with the world and the people in it.
  • go into crisis mode: reactive instead of proactive.
  • feel like there’s no time to think, so reflection becomes optional or bonus.

Why not iterate ways to get better reflection and feedback from the class? Why not iterate the ol’ personal growth video hormone?

Some food for thought, some unfiltered brainstormin’:

  • if a faculty member runs the videos, it automatically means we take it a little more seriously. plus they can call b.s. on any cop-out answers (to our annoyance.)
  • what if a different student were in charge each week, and also in charge of asking a different question?
  • instead of video, some kind of regularly-scheduled stand-up
  • some kind of regularly-scheduled “circle time” or “family meeting” that includes story sharing or reflection questions
  • visualization of the week / gamestorming activity that probes reflection
  • specific questions for the blog that probe or seed reflection
  • regular happy hour with faculty
  • public vs. private to the school vs. private individual reflection
  • filming video at the end of the week at the end of the long studio class = certain results and certain emotions
  • the perils of introspection vs. usability testing/talk-aloud method

Design constraints: easy, quick, consistent…does that lead to the kind of reflection that leads to learning?

Being Empathetically Correct

I was explaining our work with Frontsteps to a good friend of mine last night, and I used the phrase ‘people experiencing homelessness’ to describe the clients at Frontsteps.  Curious, he asked me if that was the politically correct term for homeless people.  I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but it felt like the phrase was important for a reason beyond being politically correct.

This morning it hit me: using ‘people experiencing homelessness’ is not about being politically correct, it’s about being empathetically correct.  We know that the language we use both reflects and shapes how we think about the people and world around us, and these two terms have very different implications.

The term ‘homeless people’ suggests a changed identity and lends a sense of permanence to the state.  This change in identity immediately puts them in the category of ‘other’ and makes it more difficult to empathize.

While more cumbersome, the term ‘people experiencing homelessness’ emphasizes that they’re going through a temporary situation.  I also like it because it stresses that they are people first and after all, people are people.

Posted from Ryan’s blog.

Feelings are Design Insights

While doing design research I try to listen to myself as much as I do everything else.

How do I feel about this situation? Anxious, awkward, excited, satisfied?

This week Scott and I did some quick and dirty testing by giving away McDonald’s gift cards to people panhandling along the road with signs. We then tracked their balance online to see if the cards were redeemed.

It was satisfying to give something away that you knew could not be misused. We were excited to constantly check to see if the cards had been used yet. A couple of times there was traffic behind us so we just had to hand out the card without any conversation, which felt very transactional and inhumane.

How can our final design incorporate those positive emotions and avoid the others?

Evaluating design solutions and the Perils of Introspection

So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.” – Ben Franklin

In the 1930’s a researcher named Norman Maier [1] conducted a curious psychological experiment.  He brought people into a room with two long ropes hanging from the ceiling, and instructed them find as many ways as possible to tie the ropes together.  The ropes were separated from each other by just enough distance that you couldn’t simply grab one and walk to the other, but the room also contained a variety of objects like a length of clothesline and a long pole. Most people quickly discovered that they could tie the clothesline to one rope and walk to the other, or that they could use the pole to reach out and draw one of the ropes to them.  Once they got through the obvious solutions, however, everyone was stumped.

After they had been confused for a while, Maier, who walked around the room throughout the experiment, would casually brush one of the ropes with his shoulder, causing it to sway.  Within a minute, most people would then solve the puzzle by tying something heavy to one rope and swinging it like a pendulum to get to the other.

The curious bit came when Maier asked them where they got the idea for the swinging.  Almost invariably, they would say something like “I just thought suddenly of a grandfather clock,” or “I remembered reading Tarzan as a child.”  Not one of them mentioned Maier brushing the rope with his shoulder, even though they had the idea immediately after it started to sway.

These people had no reason to lie and indeed had no clue that they were.  The idea came to them subconsciously and they honestly weren’t able to understand its origin.  The tricky part, though, seems to be that we are hardwired to make up (and believe) plausible reasons for our behavior, even when we don’t know the real answer. Psychologists have a name for this combination of our inability to articulate our internal motivations with the tendency to invent reasons. It’s called the Perils of Introspection.

So what does this have to do with evaluating design solutions?  Everything.

Every time a usability tester asks the user why they clicked the left button or a focus group facilitator asks a customer why they prefer red over blue, we have to be aware that the person quite likely doesn’t know and are almost certainly (though unintentionally) going to make something up.  Even worse, researchers Wilson and Lisle have shown that if you’re asked to explain a choice before you make it, you might end up picking the option that’s easier to explain, not the one you would have chosen in the real world.

There are numerous examples of successful products (like the Aeron Chair) that almost didn’t happen due to bad reviews resulting from the perils of introspection.  Malcolm Gladwell gives a good overview of the problem and some great examples in this talk from PopTech in 2004:

[vimeo 18064586]

So now that we know there’s a problem, what do we do?

The solution can be found in one of the most important things we know from design research, which is that you cannot just talk to people but also must watch them in action.  In research, we understand that what people say and what they do often don’t line up, and it’s in those inconsistencies that some of the most interesting insights are found.

So if apply this same understanding to evaluating designs, then the next time we have a great idea and start to pull together a roundtable focus group, we might think twice.  We might instead remember the Perils of Introspection and devise a way to sketch or prototype the idea and watch how people interact with it.

Your participants will give you much better data if you observe their interactions.  Just don’t ask them why.

[1] Story adapted from Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink.  Maier’s 1931 paper: Reasoning in Humans. II. The solution of a problem and it’s appearance in consciousness.

Posted from Ryan’s personal blog, Back of the Envelope and Big Ideas