News and blog posts from our students and faculty

Monthly Archives: October 2012

Subtle Progress

For our IDSE201 Rapid Ideation class, we’ve been tasked with really noticing digital user interface elements in fine-grained detail and discuss why it works—or doesn’t.

To the left is an icon in iTunes (if it’s not animated, click the image to open it in a new window). If you subscribe to iTunes Match, each time iTunes opens, it connects to Apple’s servers in order to synchronize your music collection. Naturally, when you start iTunes, you probably want to listen to music immediately rather than wait for this to complete, so iTunes connects in the background. But it’s still useful to know that the connection is being made. Normally, as an iTunes Match subscriber, you’ll see a white cloud just the right of the “Music” text. When the connection is being made and music is synchronized, the cloud changes from white to an animated set of diagonal lines to give you a visual indicator that something is occurring in the background. When synchronization completes, the icon restores to solid white (or may contain other icons inside the cloud to indicate error states).

To the right is a detailed blow up of the cloud icon when it’s in progress. One of the nice touches is that the diagonal progress lines appear in the background as if the cloud were a cutout revealing inner workings of a device. This reinforces the idea that the operation occurring is in the background and a maintenance operation. Again, it’s not important, but may be useful. It’s this level of attention to detail that gives a product polish. It’s unfortunate, though, that the icon jumps a few pixels to the left when restoring to the white cloud, and a few pixels to the right when it shows the in progress state.

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Reflections on IDSE101

The following is the group reflection of Eric Boggs, Melissa Chapman, and Dave Gottlieb.


The semester has come and gone.  The fire hose of information is on the rack for one week. This moment of relative dryness is a moment of reflection.

The fact is, we have all changed.  We are thinking and acting like designers.  Not emotional with a penchant for black.  Visual thinkers.  Problem finders.  Thick observers.  Sketchers.  Synthesizers.  Not great at all of these things yet.  But conscious of them, and unable to turn them off.

Here are our three key takeaways from the semester.

Just show up.

Stop sending emails and making phone calls.  Do barge in.  Don’t rest on your laurels and stress.

Before showing up at a few middle schools to inquire about the possibility of doing research there, we had sent various emails and made phone calls to the point of a dead end.  Our research timeline was short, and we had begun to panic about how to make connections.  The solution was to go.  It was to stop sitting on our computer chairs and complaining that people don’t answer emails.  It was to hit the pavement.  A couple of reasons this is easier.  One, people can’t ignore you if you’re right in front of them, unlike an email, that can be immediately dismissed.  Also, these facilitators can more easily judge that all you mean is well.  Seeing smiling faces, and hearing well spoken students, seems to make all the difference.

There are times when you’re not supposed to just show up.  Particularly when doing research with children in schools.  With that being said, you live and you learn.  We are all students.  By the way, the sites, sounds, and smells of school lunches are much the same as you remember.

You must do design research to learn design research.

We could not just have read books on contextual inquiry, participatory interviews, or modeling to learn how to do these things.  They are learned experientially.  Successful contextual inquiry and participatory interviews require a combination of deep observation and an active, questioning mind.  They require us to ask “why?” repetitively but in slightly different ways.  To know when and how to do so takes time and repeated effort.

Fortunately, we recorded video of our inquiries so that we could learn from them.  Watching our experiences again, we learned about our body language and mindless interjections.  We learned about where we should have interjected or questioned but did not.

We also learned that while methods are taught distinctly, that the opportunity to intermingle methods can be particularly useful.  For example, while in a home, we did not ask the mother to “show us” how she completed morning lunch preparation activities because we were at the time conducting participatory research.  The context of the research should be used effectively.

To affinity and beyond!

One of the most salient techniques that we learned was affinity diagramming.  Affinity diagramming is invaluable because it creates a highly visual way to create and then organize a lot of seemingly disparate information.  Imagine lots of sticky notes covering a wall.  Then imagine pushing them around to group within “like” categories, and creating synthesis statements that indicate how.  We used this process throughout the quarter, from initial research question focus to an input for the final concept model.

We can’t keep much information in our head at one time.  Most folks know this inherently but don’t do anything about it.  Before IDSE 101 our group had never tried to conduct such a sense making activity.  Yes, we had brainstormed before, but not in this way, and had never spent the time to organize that data.  Affinity diagramming gave us the structure to make this a collaborative process, and to see the connections that may be missing between schools, parents, and students.

Lastly, we needed to spend time with the affinity data to draw out our insights.  We generated many pages of research, through contextual inquiry and participatory interviews that needed to go into a final affinity diagram.  Just like a good book, data can spark different thoughts over time.   Where we initially had said “we are done” was like the first time through; enough to understand the story and relationships, but not enough to draw deep meaning from it.

Next Steps

We are so thankful for this semester.  While IDSE 101 has come and gone, the techniques and personal lessons learned will drive our research in the second quarter.  If we hadn’t just shown up, we would have never been in place to meet the great folks we did at AISD.  For better or worse, we would be studying a completely different topic on UT campus.  If we didn’t do contextual inquiries or participatory interviews, we wouldn’t have the tools to draw out hidden meaning or understand tacit decision making.  If we didn’t use affinity diagrams, our group would not even have formed and later rallied around nutrition in schools.

Bring on the fire hose.

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Position Diagram No. 4 – The difficulties of solving complex problems

In the past two weeks at the Austin Center for Design, we’ve been exploring the difficulties designers face when attempting to solve complex problems. My position on this topic is expressed below in a triptych of diagrams. They refer to the following readings: ”Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases” by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman; “The Structure of Ill-Structured Problems” by Herbert A. Simon; “The Shape of Problems” by Philip N. Johnson-Laird; and “Evolution of the Mind: A Case for Design Literacy” by Chris Pacione. If you’re unfamiliar with these readings, they’re hosted on the Austin Center for Design’s curriculum page here.







If you’re interested in learning more, I recommend diving in to these readings.

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Position Diagram #4 – Design’s Role in Solving Complex Problems

Hey Ya’ll!  I’m back at it again, trying to synthesize the meaning of some lovely readings – Herb Simon’s The structure of ill structured problems; Chris Pacione’s Evolution of the Mind: A Case for Design Literacy; Amos Tversky & Daniel Kahneman’s Judgement under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases; and Philip Johnson-Laird’s The Shape of Problems.

The past two weeks took us on a journey through the definition of problems and problem solving methods.  The synthesis of this took a long time.  I sat with the four readings for multiple hours, and re-read for clarity of understanding.  I hope you find it to be enlightening.  It has certainly helped me understand where design can fit in the complex problems that Pacione sees as evermore common these days.



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Position Diagram: Where There Be Dragons

Kahneman:  ” Seek out new experiences and our biases will show up.  Experience and immersion adds or removes biases.”

Laird:  The knowledge derived from tactical explorations yields constraints on the process of problem solving.

Simon:   Defines Ill Defined problems vs Well Defined Problems

Pacione:  “The practice of design is broadly applicable and once mastered can help anyone or any organization make and think better.”

In times of massive change, solving complex problems also changes.  Complex problems have no direct solution, but when coordinating and collaborating with different groups, working and sharing resources, and looking at many different angles, we can begin to unravel the complexities.

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tackling ill-structured problems

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Complex Solutions to Complex Problems

This week we were asked to describe the difficulties of solving complex problem. Simple problems can be solved through reaction, while complex ones require more investigation and strategy. Philip Johnson-Laird broke the process down to a molecular level. While not simple, chemistry notation can be used to model a complex and ever changing problem.

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Position Diagram 4: Problem Solving in Design

For our last position diagram in ‘Design, Society and the Public Sector,’ Jon asked us to illustrate difficulties in solving problems.

I wrestled with the ideas of Herb Simon’s “The Structure of Ill Structured Problems” and Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman’s “Judgement under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases”.

We decided in class (so it’s true) that problem solving is decision making. When designers are asked to solve a problem for a client, they are being asked to make decisions. The authors acknowledge the inevitability of employing biases, heuristics and constraints as a way to well-structure, if at least for a small moment in time, an ill-structured problem. Some of them even embrace it.

The result is messy and difficult to iterate on because of how much implicit bias is embedded but not communicated.

In Tversky and Kahneman’s article, they explain: “the lack of an appropriate code. . . explains why people usually do not detect the biases in their judgements of probability”. Similar to this (which is speaking more to artificial intelligence than design team culture), designers cannot deny the existence or inevitability of biases in our approach to solutions. Naming them and assigning a code provokes designers to be aware of, name and communicate their biases. One might say ‘design with your biases, not for‘.

This leads to a cleaner iteration process where ill-structured problems have the best shot at being solved.


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How Helpful are The Hands of The Masses

After our last group of readings, I have taken the position that Ill defined problems, problems that seem to be un-solvable, will be easier to tackle when handed to the informed massive. As Pacione said, “design will have its greatest impact when it is no longer perceived to be in the hands of people who are professional designers and it is put back into the hands of everyone”.


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Position Diagram 4: Experience, Bias, and Designing for Difficult Problems

This is the final diagram for Jon Kolko’s class, “Design, Society, and the Public Sector.” Like the last diagram, this artifact had to stand on its own with little explanation or exposition. Additional parameters were placed on it as well: “pithy, succinct, small.” Given that most of my previous diagrams relied on narratives spanning 6 to 16 panels, I was up for the challenge.

Diagram 4: Experience, Bias, and Designing for Difficult Problems

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