Ah, that ol'Designing For Debate

Throughout the year, various classmates and I have had discussions around imposing our own middle class values on other people through our designs.  First, this came up when deciding what our main project for this year would be.  If we were to work with those experiencing homelessness, would our perspective be one of rescuing/saving/helping the people we were working with?  Inherent in that view is a value judgment that my way of life is better, and in turn, it’s easy to think “I am better.”  Besides this debate, several times we have discussed designing abroad and the value and/or detriment of these design solutions.  Is it imperialistic?

While this debate is not new to the design community, it is also important to remember that this is not a new debate in general, and many, many people have weighed in with their opinions.  During my two years living in Ecuador, and the past semester trying to grasp what it’s like to experience homelessness, I’ve struggled to withhold judgment of people and situations that I don’t truly understand.   The best I can do is continually remind myself to try and see the world from other people’s perspective.  While this often comes from spending time with other people, it also frequently comes from tapping into historical perspectives and readings.

I ’d like to share two readings that have affected and shaped my own opinions on debate, and have allowed me to see doing good and poverty from a differently.

  1. To Hell with Good Intentions” by Ivan Illich.  Illich warns of volunteers in Mexico, but most interesting, I find his view of the American spirit.

  1. La Vida by Oscar Lewis.  Lewis was an anthropologist who studied families living in poverty in Mexico, Puerto Rico, and New York. He developed a controversial theory called “cultural poverty,” which he distinguishes from material poverty.  The theory sees the positive, rather than negative in in the value system of those living in poverty.  Below, you’ll find excerpts from the introduction to the book La Vida where he intensely studies one family living in poverty.

My hope is that these readings also help reframe how you, the reader, thinks about the “we are imposing our values” debate.

Excerpts from the introduction of La Vida:

The people in this book, like most of the other Puerto Rican slum dwellers I have studied, show a great zest for life, especially for sex, and a need for excitement, new experiences and adventures.  Theirs is an expressive style of life.  They value acting out more than thinking out, self-expression more than self-constraint, pleasure more than productivity, spending more than saving, personal loyalty more than impersonal justice.  They are fun-loving and enjoy parties, dancing and music. They cannot be alone; they have an almost insatiable need for sociability and interaction.  They are not apathetic, isolated, withdrawn or melancholy.  Compared with the low-income Mexicans I have studied, they seem less reserved, less depressive, less controlled and less stable.

The Rios family is closer to the expression of an unbridled id than any other people I have studied. They have an almost complete absence of internal conflict and of a sense of guilt.  They tend to accept themselves as they are, and do not indulge in soul-searching or introspection.  The leading characters in The Children of Sanchez seem mild, repressed and almost middle-class by comparison.

In writing about multi-problem families like the Rios family, social scientists often stress the instability, the lack of organization, lack of direction and lack of order.  Certainly there are many contradictory attitudes and inconsistencies expressed in these autobiographies.  Nevertheless, it seems to me that their behavior is clearly patterned and reasonably predictable.  Indeed, one is often struck by the inexorable repetitiousness and the iron entrenchment of their behavior patterns.

It has been my experience over many years that the psychiatrists, clinical psychologists and social workers who have read the autobiographies and psychological tests of the people I have studied, have often found more negative elements and pathology than I am willing to grant.  This has also been the case with the present volume.  Their findings may reflect some bias inherent in the test themselves, but perhaps more important, it seems to me, is the failure to see these people within the context of the culture of poverty…

In spite of the presence of considerable pathology, I am impressed by the strengths in this family.  I am impressed by their fortitude, vitality, resilience and ability to cope with problems which would paralyze many middle-class individuals.  It takes a great deal of staying power to live in their harsh and brutalizing environment.  They are a tough people, but they have their own sense of dignity and morality and they are capable of kindness, generosity and compassion.  They share food and clothing, help each other in misfortune, take in the homeless and cure the ill.  Money and material possessions, although important, do not motivate their major decisions.  Their deepest need is for love, and their life is a relentless search for it.

Unfortunately, because of their own negative self-images, the Rios family do not always present themselves in the best light.  Even in the recorded days, their particular style of communication and the crudeness of their language make them appear less attractive than they really are.  When Cruz screams at her three-year-old daughter, “I’ll pull your lungs through your mouth!”  and the child continues to disobey without apparent fear, it suggests that perhaps the child is quite secure in her mother’s love.  When Felicita sings a “dirty” song to her children instead of a traditional lullaby, the reader may be so disconcerted by the sexual imagery that he forgets the healthier aspects of the scene, children dancing and clapping happily to their mother’s music.  And if the children’s hurts go unattended, it is equally true that in the long run their mother’s lack of concern is not entirely inappropriate in an environment where toughness is necessary for survival.  Soledad may seem like a harsh, cruel, inconsistent mother by middle-class standards, but one should also note how much time, energy and attention she gives to her children and how hard she tries to live up to her own ideal of a good mother.  With much effort she has managed to provide them with a home, food and clothing, even with toys.  She has not abandoned them, nor permitted anyone to abuse them, and she is devoted to them when they are ill.

In the traditional view, anthropologists have said that culture provides human begins with a design for living, wit
h a ready-made set of solutions for human problems so that individuals don’t have to begin all over again each generation.  That is, the core of culture is its positive adaptive function.  I, too, have called attention to some of the adaptive mechanisms in the culture of poverty – for example, the low aspiration level helps to reduce frustration, the legitimization of short-range hedonism makes possible spontaneity and enjoyment.  However, on the whole it seems to me that it is a relatively thin culture.  There is a great deal of pathos, suffering and emptiness among those who live in the culture of poverty.  It does not provide much support of long-range satisfaction and its encouragement of mistrust tends to magnify helplessness and isolation.  Indeed, the poverty of culture is one of the crucial aspects of the culture of poverty.

The concept of the culture of poverty provides a high level of generalization which, hopefully, will unify and explain a number of phenomena viewed as distinctive characteristics of racial, national or regional groups.  For example, matrifocality, a high incidence of consensual unions and a high percentage of households headed by women, which have been thought to be distinctive of Caribbean family organization or of Negro family life in the U.S.A., turn out to be traits of the culture of poverty and are found among diverse peoples in many parts of the world and among peoples who have had no history of slavery.

The concept of a cross-societal subculture of poverty enables us to see that many of the problems we think of as distinctively our own or distinctively Negro problems (or that of any other special racial or ethnic group), also exist in countries where there are no distinct ethic minority groups.  This suggests that the elimination of physical poverty per se may not be enough to eliminate the culture of poverty which is a whole way of life.

“Throughout recorded history, in literature, in proverbs and in popular sayings, we find two opposite evaluations of the nature of the poor.  Some characterize the poor as blessed, virtuous, upright, serene, independent, honest, kind, and happy.  Others characterize them as evil, mean violent, sordid and criminal.  These contradictory and confusing evaluations are also reflected in the in-fighting that is going on in the current war against poverty.  Some stress the great potential of the poor for self-help, leadership and community organization, while others point to the sometimes irreversible, destructive effect of poverty upon individual character, and therefore emphasize the need for guidance and control to remain in the hands of the middle class, which presumably has better mental health.

These opposing views reflect a political power struggle between competing groups.  However, some of the confusion results from the failure to distinguish between poverty per se and the culture of poverty and the tendency to focus upon the individual personality rather than upon the group – that is, the family and the slum community.

As an anthropologist I have tried to understand poverty and its associated traits as a culture or, more accurately, as a subculture with its own structure and rationale, as a way of life which is passed down from generation to generation along family lines.  This view directs attention to the fact that the culture of poverty in modern nations is not only a matter of economic deprivation, of disorganization or of the absence of something.  It is also something positive and provides some rewards without which the poor could hardly carry on.

The culture of poverty is both an adaptation and a reaction of the poor to their marginal position in a class-stratified, highly individuated, capitalistic society.  It represents an effort to cope with feelings of hopelessness and despair, which develop from the rationalization of the improbability of achieving success in terms of the values and goals of the larger society.  Indeed, many of the traits of the culture of poverty can be viewed as attempts at local solutions for problems not met by existing institutions and agencies because the people are not eligible for them, cannot afford them, or are ignorant or suspicious of them.  For example, unable to obtain credit from banks, they are thrown upon their own resources and organize informal credit devices without interest.

The culture of poverty, however, is not only an adaptation to set a set of objective conditions of the larger society.  Once it comes into existence it tends to perpetuate itself from generation to generation because of its effect on the children.  By the time slum children are age six or seven they have usually absorbed the basic values and attitudes of their subculture and are not psychologically geared to take full advantage of changing conditions or increased opportunities which may occur in their lifetime.

People with a culture of poverty are aware of middle-class values, talk about them and even claim some of them as their own, but on the whole they do not live by them.  Thus it is important to distinguish between what they say and what they do.  For example, many will tell you that marriage by law, by the church, or by both, is the ideal form of marriage, but few will marry.  To men who have no steady jobs or other sources of income, who do not own property and have no wealth to pass on to their children, who are present-time oriented and who want to avoid the expense and legal difficulties involved in formal marriage and divorce, free unions or consensual marriage makes a lot of sense.  Women will often turn down offers of marriage because they feel it ties them down to men who are immature, punishing and generally unreliable.  Women feel that consensual union gives them a better break; it gives them some of the freedom and flexibility that men have.  By not giving the fathers of their children legal status as husbands, the women have a stronger claim on their children if they decide to leave their men.  It also gives women exclusive rights to a house or any other property they may own.

When we look at the culture of poverty on the local community level, we find poor housing conditions, crowding, gregariousness, but above all a minimum of organization beyond the level of the nuclear and extended family.  Occasionally there are informal, temporary groupings or voluntary associations within slums.  The existence of neighborhood gangs which cut across slum settlements represents a considerable advance beyond the zero point of the continuum that I have in mind.  Indeed, it is the low level of organization which gives the culture of poverty its marginal and anachronistic quality in our highly complex, specialized, organized society.  Most primitive peoples have achieved a higher level of socio-cultural organization than our modern urban slum dwellers.

On the level of the individual the major characteristics are a strong feeling of marginality, of helplessness, fo dependence and of inferiority.  I found this to be true of slum dwellers in Mexico City and San Juan among families who do not constitute a distinct ethic or racial group and who do not suffer from racial discrimination.

When the poor become class-conscious or active members of trade-union organizations or when they adopt an internationalistic outlook on the world they are no longer part of the culture of poverty, although they may still be desperately poor.  Any movement, be it religious, pacifist or revolutionary which organizes and gives hope to the poor and effectively promotes solidarity and a sense of identification with larger groups, destroys the psychological and social core of the culture of poverty.  In this connection, I suspect that the civil rights movement among the Negroes in the United States has done more to improve their self-image and self-respect than have their economic advances, although, without a doubt, the two are mutually reinforcing.

change and play

My project this quarter has been focussed on using play and community to build confidence and change behaviors. I have been looking at life-skills and youth aging out of foster care. The research we did last quarter changed my perspective on homelessness. I was unaware that women and children were the fastest growing population, many young women aging out of foster care.  I felt a need to try to DO SOMETHING…

At the moment this has taken the form of an online tool that incorporates concepts of “play” and community to encourage the youth to get involved. As a designer I feel immersed in play regularly, but I am not a game designer trained in the theories and mechanics applied in the industry. So, I have been trying to absorb as much as possible looking at other models and watching videos. Yesterday I watched the video at the beginning of this post and thought again about why I chose a “play” model for my project.

  • influence and status—Everyone needs to feel like a winner, which helps build confidence. The video spoke about this in the way I am hoping to implement it. The youth will have “bragging rights” as they complete tasks, but there is no failing. It is focussed on their accomplishments.
  • communal dynamic—It is easier to accomplish things with peer support. This is a model that many fitness programs have been successfully built upon. I am hoping to build upon this and connect the youth back to the community and caring adults.

These are some of the theories, but I think that “play” encourages people to take risks with less fear and without being as overwhelmed by expectations. It is that license to be silly or try something new.

How has “play” or community connections played a role in making changes in your life? What rewards have you created for yourself based on behavior? Would you take 20 minutes out of your day to log on and answer questions to help your community? Does your answer change if rewards are involved?

Design research themed links of the week

I’ve come across some cool Design Research stuff in my web-surfing of late.

    This is slightly unrelated, but a link I want to archive. From Ryan, a list of papers that “represent a summary of the past thirty years of service design literature: http://howardesign.com/exp/service/

    On-the-Fly Programming Lessons

    This is what programming looks like. I didn’t expect a lesson tonight, but it sort of just happened in the course of our project-planning conversation.

    As context, I know HTML/CSS. I tried learning PHP online last year but didn’t get very far. I tried to learn Flash last summer from a book but only got to chapter 2. A couple weeks ago, I started a Ruby on Rails tutorial online, and got as far as “Hello World” in the Terminal.

    What’s missing from the books and the online tutorials is that they all skip the context and the framing. I need a mental model of how this all works. And I need a teacher(s) who is willing to meet me where I am instead of me trying to catch up to where the book wants me to start. It also helps to work with real examples and something you’ re trying to actually build.

    For me, a mental model includes: what the file looks like and where it’s stored and how Rails plays together with HTML in the same file.

    As Ryan was walking me through his sketched mental model of how Model-Views-Controller theory works, I was able to sketch out my own model, and we were able to trade metaphors. Then Chap showed me some programming in real time on his laptop and flipped through the various screens he had open in response to some of my questions. Now, some of the puzzle pieces I had picked up trying to DIY are starting to make sense.

    So I’m going to try to take advantage of the people in our class who are already great at programming and learn some stuff. And it’s cool that we don’t have to sit through a typical class on programming when we will learn it through trial and error as we build our own stuff. Side-by-side programming is better than teacher-projector-group learning in this case.

    And in validation of the work Ruby and Alex are doing on their (as-of-yet-unnamed) peer teaching project idea, Ryan totally went from sleepy to chipper as he was “teaching.” He even gave me a pop quiz, made me tell the process back to him, and slightly annoyed me—which are all signs of a good teacher!

    P.S. (or maybe P.S.A.) Have you backed up lately? My back-up external harddrive failed last week, and now my laptop is acting up. Very funny…

    AC4D in Dell's Social Innovation Competition

    All of our students have entered the Dell Social Innovation Competition, an annual event that offers students a venue to present innovative ideas to solve social or environmental problems, anywhere in the world. You can view their entries below; please give them a vote if you like their work :)

    Nudge Us – Christina Tran & Ryan HubbardNudge Us is a service that encourages individuals to reach out to each other, thus strengthening communication within a community. Through text message prompts asking clients how they’re feeling, Nudge Us collects data on individual’s well-being and looks for patterns. Patterns of low or high moods trigger Nudge Us to send text messages to pre-identified contacts nudging them to get in touch with the client. As time progresses, clients will not only start to become more self-aware of their own moods, but also build good habits of reaching out to others when times get tough.

    Ebay for Benefits – Saranyan Vigraham & Kat DavisWe want to provide a platform, where low-income families can trade resources in kind. This platform would provide an opportunity for a low-income family to list resources that they want to trade like food stamps, baby formulas, diapers, etc in exchange of stuff that they need. Without necessarily having to illegally sell their benefits for money, this platform will encourage fair trade of goods.

    OneUp – Women and Homelessness – Kristine MuddOneUp is an online tool empowering youth to choose action plans and track their progress. This will help them build their confidence. OneUp is building on motivation and goal tracking programs that have proved successful in the health and fitness areas, but tailoring the concept to specifically address the needs of this population. It provides easy to execute action plans in relevant knowledge areas. OneUp will help the youth begin to recognize their achievements as it highlights achievements and steps as they are completed; providing rewards that can be displayed on social networks. OneUp offers the ability for the youth to invite peers from their social network as motivators for their specific action plans.

    Teach, Learn & Earn – Ruby Ku & Alex PappasThis project aims to tackle homelessness by focusing on people’s existing skills, shifting the emphasis from what they need to what they have to offer. We intend to provide a platform for these individuals to get paid to teach classes, such as sewing, painting, or bike maintenance. The infrastructure will include a website where they can easily post classes online and recruit students from the community, as well as implement a program to provide training and support. By doing so, we strive to create an environment that will fulfill their financial needs, changing their self perception, as well as the public perception of homelessness.

    Pocket Hotline – A Virtual Call Center for Social Programs – Scott Magee & Chap AmbroseWe’re building a platform that helps leverage remote volunteers, helps organizations externalize and redefine their processes, but more importantly directly connects the community to those in need. Pocket Hotline is a mobile app that routes calls from the front desk of social programs to the cell phones of remote volunteers.

    Think Make, not Think Meet

    "picture of the book impro"

    Think Make, acting instead of talking, isn’t new and isn’t limited to design.  Last night, I read this in Keith Johnstone’s Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre:

    “My bias against discussion is something I’ve learned to see as very English.  I’ve known political theatre groups in Europe which would readily cancel a rehearsal, but never a discussion.  My feeling is that the best argument may be a testimony to the skill of the presenter, rather than to the excellence of the solution advocated.  Also the bulk of discussion time is visibly taken up with the transactions of status which have nothing to do with the problem to be solved.  My attitude is like Edison’s, who found a solvent for rubber by putting bits of rubber in every solution he could think of, and beat all those scientists who were approaching the problem theoretically.”

    Think. Make. Go.

    Also, while reading Impro, I found myself asking: By studying a subject’s rules, guidelines, and best practices, do we become less creative?  For instance, in design, usability guidelines may help a product be used, but does it also prevent leaps in innovation and creative interfaces?  Johnstone talking about becoming a theatre director:

    “Obviously, I felt I ought to study my craft, but the more I understood how things ought to be done, the more boring my productions were.  Then as now, when I’m inspired, everything is fine, but when I try to get things right it’s a disaster.  In a way I was successful – I ended up as the Associate Director of the Theatre – but once again my talent had left me.

    When I considered the difference between myself, and other people, I thought of myself as a late developer.  Most people lost their talent at puberty.  I lost mine in my early twenties.  I began to think of children not as immature adults, but of adults as atrophied children.”

    What do you think?  Does this only apply to creativity, not craft?  Or art, not design?

    AC4D Students Win Big!

    Austin Center for Design students were honored with two big wins over the last few weeks.

    Ruby Ku and Alex Pappas won the Design Ignites Change Cycle 2 concept award for their Teach, Learn and Earn project that imagines a platform to empower homeless people by earning income through teaching. As they describe it, Teach, Learn and Earn aims to tackle homelessness in Austin by focusing on people’s existing skills, shifting the emphasis from what they need to what they have to offer. The current system makes people feel helpless, indirectly hurting their emotional abilities to get back on their feet. A new system is needed to give people experiencing homelessness an opportunity not only to receive help, but to help.

    Kat Davis and Ruby Ku were honored to receive first place in the IxDA’s Interaction Design Student Design Competition. They were tasked with rapidly designing a solution to the problem of “Use, not own.” Great interactions can connect people to create opportunities for experiences that outweigh the “joy” of ownership. How can we reduce our environmental footprint by sharing products or services? Kat and Ruby spent forty-eight hours working on their solution, blogging the process online, and were honored on-stage at the IxDA’s annual conference in Boulder.

    Congratulations Ruby, Alex, and Kat – great job!

    Tell us about your projects using design to tackle social problems

    Interaction design and wicked problems banner

    As you know, at the Austin Center for Design we’re focused on learning how to apply the tools and processes of interaction design to wicked social problems like homelessness, education, social isolation, or international development.

    Most of this blog is about our projects, but we’d love to hear about yours.  If you’ve worked on anything in this space, or just heard about a cool project, please comment on the post or tweet a link @ac4d or @ryanhubbard to tell us about it.

    Or, if you’re here with us in Boulder at the Interaction’11 conference, join us for a conversation over lunch on Saturday to share your work or tell us about a cool project that you heard about.  We’ll meet at one of the tables in the back of the main auditorium (Glenn Miller Ballroom) at 11:50.  Feel free to come by to share a story or just to get some inspiration from the great work that folks are doing.

    Second peer-led class, plus some think/make

    Sunday. We had our rescheduled boxing conditioning class by the Auditorium Shores. Beautiful weather, fun company, awesome tacos for lunch = great time. Until we all woke up sore this morning. Thank Phill for a great class – we shall do it again!

    Thinking and Making

    In last week’s studio class, we were pushed to think about ingredients and friction – essentially what makes something work and what stops it from working. Our learnings were captured here.

    In this week’s studio class, we were pushed to have a Point of View (POV) – essentially our opinion on how to solve a problem. Or in other words, things to do that will fulfill our Design Criteria. Here are some POVs 1.0:

    People are more likely to teach something when someone is interested and asked them to teach it.Our POV: Make your interest known publicly. Poke the person who you think can teach it.

    People are more likely to make time to do something if it’s with people they like hanging out with.Our POV: The person initiating the class must bring a friend. Class must start or end with some sort of social activity (lunch, bike ride, BBQ, etc)

    People are generally interested in doing stuff. But finding a time that works for everyone is hard.Our POV: Every person must pick 3 times that work. Teacher has the final vote of when class will be.

    It’s awkward to pay or rate the teacher when it’s your friend.Our POV: Students have to check-in to classes and pay for a cover charge (think when you go to a bar to watch your friend’s band play). Rating will come in the form of how often the class is being requested again.

    Our customer journey map:

    Our initial wireflow sketch:

    2 weeks ago, we said, “We believe people learn by teaching, so our mission is to provide people with a platform to teach.”

    Last week, we said, “We envision a world where everyone recognizes they have knowledge to share.”

    This week, we said, “We are building a website where it lets you post what you want to learn, and it figures out who in your network can teach it.”

    We’re all at the IxDA Conference in Boulder this week. We will be sharing our idea with people, getting feedback, and testing our POVs.

    So what are the things you’ve always wanted to learn? Post a tweet with “#Iwanttolearn”!

    Our first peer-led class, and some.

    Our goal: Last weeks goal was to hold our first peer-led class.  In essence, a prototype of the analog portion of our idea.  The place where people meet and share their knowledge.  This will then be book-ended with digital tools to help facilitate the class, aid in the continuation of the class, and encourage students to become teachers of their own classes.

    Co Creation:  Our first teacher, Phill, was interested in teaching a boxing conditioning class.   We sat down with Phill on Wednesday to talk about how he planned to run the class and to talk about ways of using our networks to get students.  He had a very good idea of how he wanted to teach the class, and broke down for us the different parts of the class and how he would use the hour.  We walked through the different aspects of the class, and had a great discussion about how to find, engage, and retain students.

    We then pushed out the details of the class via Twitter and FB, and called a few friends around town who we thought might be interested.   By the next day, Thursday, we had 5 committed students, and we thought we were ready to go.

    Then it snowed and we had to cancel the class.

    What we learned:

    1.  Scheduling was difficult.  Phill works nights as a cook, so he was only able to teach the class during the day.  Many of the people in our networks worked during the day, so they couldn’t attend the class.

    2.  We didn’t have a bad weather backup plan.  The weather in Austin is crazy, it was 75 last weekend, and snowing this Friday.  Our classes need to have backup plans and or clear communication to all involved what happens when the conditions for a class change.

    3.  It’s hard to get people to show up on their own if they don’t know someone there, and people are much more likely to show up with a friend.  How can we leverage that and encourage people to bring friends?

    Quick backup plan. What other classes could we hold with only a few hours notice?  Christina (@s0delightful) was nice enough to offer to teach a photography class on Friday night.  We met at her house around 8pm. There were 5 of us total, 2 people I’d never met before, but all people that Christina knew.   We ate some food, got to know each other, and then Christina started the class.  The class lasted an hour, and the time flew by.  We all had fun and learned some new things about photography.

    What we learned:

    1.  It was a very social event, starting off with some food and hanging out was a good way to begin.   Friends enjoy doing things together.  How do you continue to encourage social behavior before and after class?

    2.  Christina had a lot of props to use while teaching.  This was a great way to engage people, and to let us try different things for ourselves.   Would a takeaway have also enhanced the experience?

    3.  Teaching is a scary word.  After class when we asked the other students if they thought they could go and teach a class about something they knew, the reaction was – at first – very tentative.  After some more questioning, we realized that most of the apprehension was due to the perception of the word teach.  When we re-framed the question to be about sharing knowledge with a group of peers, suddenly everyone thought they had something to share.  What’s another way to frame “teaching”?

    4. Christina mentioned that photography wasn’t the first thing that came to mind when deciding what to teach, but she remembered that Ruby had asked her to show her some tips and tricks about photography a while back.  The fact that there was a need present made it easier to pick a subject.  How do we encourage people to share what they want to learn with their friends?

    As we move forward we will continue to prototype more and more classes.  We’ve rescheduled Phill’s boxing class for Sunday 02.06.11 at 11am.  Send me an e-mail alex.pappas@austincenterfordesign if you want to come get fit and learn how to throw a mean left hook… from this kid.