Teach Me | A Thousand First IMpressions

Our human interaction design research project has me thinking a whole bunch about the antics of cats. On top of cats, I’m thinking about our studio teacher showing us how to freak the hell out of people. Which, because that’s the way this kind of thinking goes, me straight back to cats.

Any time I’ve adopted a cat – hell, any time I’ve met a cat, there’s been a whole break-in period where I’m more or less waiting for it to come online. I want a pet, but instead find myself contending with some daft feline Houdini. They vexingly extrude themselves behind bookshelves, hide in refrigerator coils, lurk under couches, drag bellies on floors and careen around batting shyly at plants. Cats orient. They seem determined to know precisely where they are. They take all the time they need to arrive.

It seems to me that humans could learn a fair amount from this. And by humans here, I really mean one aspiring designer named Chuck. Recently, discussions in all three of our AC4D classes have been peppered with the idea that people are able to monitor their surroundings and human interactions through employing a bevy of instincts and second-tier senses (not the big five, but important regardless). Which is how we ended up in studio class with our teacher lurking behind Callie’s back for a while. He was proving something we all know, but don’t often consider: we have uncanny abilities that allow us to make sense of our worlds. If somebody is standing behind us, staring at the rear end of our scalp, it doesn’t take us long to feel them there. We know things we can’t possibly know, and that’s part of what makes us so richly human.

Position Diagram Two

This week we were asked to position our own design values between the design “For” and design “With” theories.

On one end of the spectrum, designing only “for” would be standing at 100’ distance and creating an object or service to directly solve a single observed need. The other side would be only designing “with” a group. The designer would essentially become a member of the group, and enlarge the scope of the project to attempt to solve every problem. The resultant design won’t effectively solve any problems well and become cumbersome and useless.

To illustrate this point, Le Dantec’s focus of designing for the homeless requires a combination of designing “for” and designing “with.”  Purely designing “for” the homeless may solve a perceived problem at a high lever without multiple iterations. Observing that a homeless person lives on the street, could lead to the designer using a new technology to create a lightweight yet warm blanket. Useful yes, but it does not address the factors that led to the person living on the street in the first place. On the other hand, designing only “with” the homeless is related to the classic Henry Ford quote: “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have said “a faster horse” Periodically removing the designer from the “public” is very important to keep the designer’s perspective at the most effective region. I feel that designing at an “arm’s reach” is appropriate to create insightful designs with the most impact.

When tools get in the way

previously wrote about the importance of learning to use tools to communicate our ideas. Inability to use a piece of software shouldn’t be the limiting factor in pursuing a good idea.

In the intervening weeks, I’ve thrown myself into experimenting with technology that helps me be productive and communicate ideas.

I’ve spent more hours than I can count poking around Illustrator and Photoshop to replicate images of fruit and iPhone apps and storyboards.

I’ve recorded videos using iMovie, drafted numerous documents and presentations using Pages and Keynote, and created digital sketches using my Adonit Jot and the Paper app on my iPad. I’ve captured and converted hours of video and audio footage from research projects. I’ve implemented the Action Method system across all my electronic devices to track my ever-expanding task list. I’ve Skyped in a classmate from 2,000 miles away to participate in class even when he couldn’t be physically present.

I’ve figured out an entirely new paperless workflow using iAnnotate to read and take notes on the articles, chapters, and white papers for classes.

I’ve enjoyed experimenting with a lot of technological tools–familiar and new–to help me get through this quarter.

But this week, as my classmates and I sketched people and digital interfaces and gave another round of presentations, I’ve been embracing analog methods again. The tactile stuff of markers and dry-erase boards and paper and sticky notes reminded me of something important:

Sometimes the tools just get in the way.

Because the idea needs to come first. Technology can support articulating an idea and bringing it to fruition. Hardware and software can be great ways to produce artifacts. But they can also serve as a serious distraction and focus our attention on the wrong things.

When I’m working on a project in Photoshop, it’s easy to zoom in on one portion of the screen and literally move pixels around. I can refine the details for hours, and completely forget what idea or value I’m trying to communicate more broadly.

So my challenge to myself this week has been to put pen to paper and sketch through concepts before I start digitizing them. I can draw something out in a minute or less and iterate several versions in roughly the same amount of time it takes to start up my computer and open Illustrator or Keynote.

Better yet, I think the physical interaction with an idea makes me more likely to refine and improve it. And it’s also way more satisfying to crumple up a piece of paper and thro it across the room than dragging a file to the trash.

Design Research Methodologies – A Position Diagram

The task this week was to illustrate our stance on design research methodologies- particularly whether designers should be designing alongside their end users through co-creative work or designing for their end users through more removed design processes. I distilled our readings  (see footnotes in diagram for supporting quotes) down into the following charge for designers.

I believe designers should be doing their best to design with their users as much as possible as it can lead to valuable insights and open up previously unseen innovation space. Rather than simply designing for the user, from the comfortable confines of one’s studio or office, a designer should design with and innovate for. “Innovate for” charges the designer to utilize insights gleaned from research and participatory design processes, and then draw on their specialized knowledge to offer innovative, functional solutions for the end users. This position is displayed further below.

The original readings (2A- 2C) are here.


The overload strategy and killing ideas

One of the strategies behind the curriculum at AC4D is to assign more work than is probably accomplishable at any given time. As a class, we’ve discussed what we learn from this. Several theories were floated, and most were confirmed by faculty.

1) Overload makes sure that there are no gaps in creating, delivering, and generally processing information being taught to us. This creates momentum whose inertia needs to carry us through our quarterly breaks and beyond the end of the program. The ultimate goal being that we get used to this level of activity such that it becomes difficult not to be creating or synthesizing most of the time.

Let me know if you're feeling overworked.

2) While we do need to be thoughtful and intentful in our work, the nature of our work provides plenty of opportunities to get stuck, staring at a blank sheet of paper wondering where to start. Or inversely, overprocessing too many ideas without creating necessary artifacts to show how we got from point A to point B. In the avalanche of work, we must at a certain point get out of our own heads and commit to paper (or whiteboard or the digital tool du jour).

3) In addition to learning to manage time better, we become better prioritizers, deciding what is most important to accomplish each week, what “falls to the floor,” and what still gets done, but at lesser quality and fidelity than we prefer.

4) There is special value in the work we decide to get done, but wherein we sacrifice quality. When we do lackluster work, we are guaranteed to get that feedback in critique or in a gradesheet. Sometimes, we know exactly what that feedback will be. In this case, our excuse of lack of time does not matter; the result is all that matters. Other times, the criticism we get is over unexpected areas, and we learn that, if we are going to cut corners for the sake of shipping, we need to repriortize which details to focus on, and which to skip. Either way, each time we learn to become less attached to our ideas and our work. And this is a critical point: I’ve watched many startups become fixated on one idea, and when they refuse to let go of it, they fail.

Just this week, I took the time on a project I was struggling with to get feedback from several peers and faculty. One faculty member said that the idea was obvious, and that if I was going to continue with it, I’d have to dig deeper. I’m not sure I agreed with the obivousness of it, given other’s reactions, but I did understand the need for continued refinement. But it just wouldn’t gel no matter where I took it.

So I killed that idea. It was hard and a little scary, as I had put a lot of effort into it, and I had no idea what I would do instead with a rapidly approaching deadline. But the writing was on the wall: I couldn’t make it work. I started over. And even though the idea was gone, I now had a few more techniques for bringing together disparate ideas, diagramming them, and generating new work from scratch. It was a little bit easier than the previous effort, it took less time, and most importantly, I was left with a concept that did hold together, made sense, and had more depth to it.

Like many things, getting good at something requires doing it again and again: killing an idea and starting over is no exception. Given the pace of AC4D, I expect plenty of chances to practice!

The Art of Sketching

This past week for Studio class our jobs were to get accustomed to the use of sketching in design by practicing the art of sketching itself.  Once again I was starting from scratch but I really enjoyed the process.   I started the week off with joining a life drawing meetup group here in Austin.   I walked into a rapid 30 sec pose sequence where the drawing model would switch angles and poses every 30 seconds.  This concept was really hard for me to grasp.  You mean I am supposed to try to draw her in that short period of time.  What I realized with a lot of the process we are learning is to get everything in your head down on paper as fast as you can.

So we repeated that in yesterdays studio class.  Speed, Speed, and Practice.    The day started of frustrating but as I got the hang of it my sketches took new form, new shape, and actually started to look like the objects or people I was trying to sketch.  Here is a sample below of the process and the sketches that came out of yesterday’s class.


Position Diagram #2 The Role of Ethnography.

Ethnography is piece of the market research puzzle.   It is used to gather data in order to understand human behavior.   The context is to observe people in their natural environment with a curious and open mind,  and document the process.    Ethnography is one piece of the design research model, it’s importance is still being argued today.   Through my presentation in Designing for vs Designing with I attempted to argue that ethnography is an underutilized part of market research for companies today and by investing more time, resources, and energy into the design research process including ethnography this would greatly benefit their bottom line and the communities that surround the business.   I decided to use rough paper with hand drawn symbols and charts to make my point. 

To show my argument I brought ideas from the readings of Jodi Forlizzi.  She developed the theory of Product Ecology, that there are many different parts of the product ecosystem.  The framework includes how products evoke social behavior; choosing appropriate research methods to discover product use; flexible, design-centered research planning and opportunity seeking.

“Product Ecology framework, in detail:  Each product has its own ecology, resulting in subjective and individual experience in using the same product.  The factors in the Product Ecology are dynamic, and interconnected in several ways. Changes in product use cause changes in other factors of the Product Ecology. The Product Ecology can be delimited by a group of people in close proximity, or a group that is spread out over a great distance. ”  If you skip parts of this ecology, you will have a poor foundation and the house will fall down.To conclude the argument, I believe as companies take more into account product ecology and focus more on People, Profit, and Planet, the entire ecosystem in which we all live in will be much more sustainable and better off.

Screen Shot 2012-09-23 at 9.31.46 AM


Designing With Vs. Designing For

Designing With Vs. Designing For:

I find that I am pretty quick to make a decision on how I view topics. While considering my position on the idea of designing with vs. designing for, I knew fairly early on that I was a big fan of designing with the client. The idea of being able to discuss potential problems that would arise in the process of creating an object really spoke to me. I feel like there is a huge breakdown in communication between client and designer and many designers are just designing for. Only looking at small facets of everyday problems that exist. Designing after single field work visits only produces such a small amount of information that there is no way you could capture the whole of necessities that the end user will desire. With a constant conversation between the designer and the end user, you are able to create custom solutions to problems that arise in the process of designing.  You are able to consider the entire product ecology instead of just a small insight into the end users needs.


Design, Society, and the Public Sector – Position Diagrams Part 2

Hi All,

The following drawings characterize my thoughts on the second set of readings we completed for Dr./Prof/Mr. Kolko’s class.  For the list of the readings 2A-2C, navigate here.

Our first charge was to show the role of ethnography within design.  In Interaction Design Research and Synthesis, we are currently conducting contextual inquiry and in short order will be facilitating three participatory design sessions.  These sessions give context to this position diagram.

Our second charge was to argue a position on designing with vs. designing for.

Position Diagram #2: Designing Locally and for the Long Haul

When innovation is happening in your own backyard, you have a stronger and more long-term investment in the stakes of change. When we talk about designing for change, this is a key concept that must be taken with us – especially into projects specific to a place or community. If we as designers take the route of inserting ourselves and our ideas and our teams into a community in which we do not reside, understand or have investment in, it’s near impossible to make a change beyond one that is surface level, aesthetic, and fleeting.

On the other hand, when the designer lives in or spends a significant enough amount of time with the community to be considered ‘one of them’, the level of customization and at-the-root-focused design that can occur is considerable. In our IDSE 102 class, we just read a myriad of designers’ perspective on this very notion.

Emily Pilloton’s “Depth over Breadth: Designing For Impact Locally, and For the Long Haul” effectively describes what I see as the distilled truth amongst these articles. A key term within this definition is that of ‘co-creation’, a term that Liz Sanders talks about in her article: “A Social Vision for Value Co-Creation in Design.” It is the agreement between designer / client, designer / community, business / customer or within communities to create something together: a creation process sans pre-determined end. This idea of co-creation demands some relatively mature level of co-investment in order to happen this answer, according to Pilloton, is geographic proximity.

When geographic proximity, co-investment, and empathy are at play is when social change can occur and stick. Something else happens too. Good design is multiplied. Pilloton says: “by extending the scope of design solutions to their secondary and tertiary beneficiaries, we are likely to have a larger, stronger, and even exponential impact”.

For many years I witnessed this first hand as a Georgia native living and working and trying to affect political change on the Oregon coast. The gut response of a community member in the area in which this change would take hold was inevitably: “where are you from and why does your opinion matter”. Similarly, the first thing out of people’s mouths when giving testimony was their name, where they live, and how many years they have lived there. It was IMPOSSIBLE to speak up and feel ownership over my words. For many many months, I would sheepishly deliver talking points and then return to my seat without making eye contact in fear of scowling glances (which were there, I assure you). In fact, the reason I had a job was to convince these fisherman that the ocean is a state-owned natural resource and is meant to be stewarded in the public trust. This is a true fact, but can you see the eyes rolling now? It was terrible. The only reason I got away with it was due to our director’s having grown up in a rural Oregon environment and the fact that every statement out of her mouth started with that exact point. She owned it for our team. We borrowed her geographic proximity thus relevance.

Designing for positive change and impact is an inherently subjective process and our first and largest obstacle will be to obtain public buy in by those it affects. Even if we get in and out without that buy in, there is no guarantee (and, in fact, scientific evidence against in most cases), that this user group will adapt whatever innovation landed in their backyard.

“I am entirely convinced that our greatest successes have and will come from work that is local, deeply entrenched, long-term, and in our own backyard” -Pilloton

I agree.