Design Research with APA!

Over the past month, our group has been engaged with Austin Pets Alive! (APA) in order to use design research (specifically, contextual inquiry) to learn in real-time how employees and volunteers log their activity and communicate to achieve consistent care for the thousands of animals that pass through their programs.

APA is a no-kill shelter, which they define as 95%+ life outcomes. Basically when the Austin Animal Center creates their ‘euthanasia list’, APA steps in and takes those animals into care with the goal of nursing them, fostering them, and ultimately getting them adopted. We learned in this process that Austin is one of a select group of cities that can boast the ‘no-kill’ label, which is really cool.

We would like to share the stories of three people at APA that we feel illuminate some of the major issues APA deals with on a daily basis.

First is Brent. Brent is a researcher for APA but has held many roles over the last 6 years. He started as a volunteer when he first moved to Austin, and through that experience learned of a full-time position with APA. He has stuck with APA through a Masters program and now a doctoral program because he believes in the shelter’s mission.

“I guess just the overall satisfaction with the job and what I would consider good work being done by the shelter is what kept me here as more of a career rather than just a placeholder job.”

(Brent line 146)

However, Brent is routinely frustrated in his capacity as a researcher, mainly due to a lack of consistency around the way information is logged and shared across the whole of APA. APA pays for a CRM program called ShelterLuv, which was supposed to be a way to achieve paperless operations and to centralize information. Even after years of having ShelterLuv, this is not the case.

“We switched to ShelterLuv hoping we would go paperless. We didn’t. I dont think that any department is even close to being paperless.”

(Brent line 30)

A while back, Brent recognized inefficiencies and did his best to make changes. However, his pleas fell on deaf ears.

“My boss, at the time, wanted everybody to be writing out paper prescriptions for all these animals. So what we would do is take pictures of them, email them to a data entry volunteer … I basically wanted to go over my then-bosses head because I disagreed … we were wasting tons of money. It was thousands of dollars that we were wasting over a year, just in the incremental time and amount we were paying [a data entry person] … [the CEO] was busy with other stuff so she was like ‘no,’ … so I got the ‘follow your orders.”

(Brian lines 61-64)

It’s hard not to identify with Brent – having a good idea that could save money, with strong supporting evidence – then being brushed off. The feeling of not being heard can be crushing and can cause people to lose passion for going above and beyond.

Next, we have Gail. Gail is the manager of the kitten nursery. It is a new role for her this year. Gail had been working at a legal services firm for 17 years, which equipped her with solid organizational skills. Gloria loves her job,

“I love saving animals. Love it. I had no idea. Growing up as a kid I thought when you take your cat to the shelter they just found a new home. Like I had no idea that counties killed so many animals. So being here being able to save so many animals is why I do it.”

(Gail line 5)

Gail loves the “one stop shopping” for data provided by the spreadsheets she inherited from the previous manager. Keep in mind that this spreadsheet exists outside of ShelterLuv; this is the exact problem identified by Brent in his workflow.

One of the challenges Gail faces in her role is Panleuk outbreaks in the nursery. Panleuk is a deadly and highly contagious disease that is easily spread through physical contact. Once a room is ‘Panleuk exposed’ it becomes quarantined and kittens cannot be admitted or moved to a different room. This is extremely stressful because it limits the number of kittens Gail can intake and could lead to kittens being euthanized elsewhere.

Panleuk is one of the worst things to deal with. It’s always a challenge, it’s probably the biggest challenge Panleuk outbreaks brakes. When an outbreak happens, the entire room shuts down. So we will have a room with cages that we can’t use because Panleuk is in there.”

(Gail line 10)

Gail’s job is further complicated because the nursery relies heavily on volunteers so anything not completed falls on her shoulders. This problem is two-fold. On the one hand, reliable volunteers are needed to help feed and keep kittens alive. Feeding for “bottle babies” must occur every 2-3 hours. On the other hand, Gail has no operating budget, which means she must lean heavily on the community for bare necessities – bleach, paper towels, Tupperware, towels, etc…

“We have no budget. None. Even if we really need something, it all has to be donated.”

(Gail line 113)

After following Gail for a couple hours during an influx of kittens, I can definitively say she is a superhero. She would process a litter, wash her hands at the other end of the nursery, walk back and check the feeding schedules, bark a couple orders, process another litter, wash her hands at the other end of the nursery, and basically do this all over again until all the cats were in cages. She washed her hands 9 or 10 times, about 50 feet away from the action. Then she went right back to dealing with volunteers that “called out,” meaning they are skipping their shift.

She does it because she loves animals and it really struck me how much of her success relies on help from the community.

Finally is Betsy. As training coordinator at APA, Betsy’s role is essential to keeping the kittens alive. The neonatal kitten unit is a specialized operation and it is essential for volunteers to understand the importance of their role. One of the problems Betsy has to overcome is educating the volunteers they are going to get dirty and be in stressful situations.

“We want to set the expectations up front that [volunteers are not here to cuddle cute and fluffy kittens. You’re not here to play with them. You’re not here to socialize them. And bottle feeding isn’t always easy and it’s not all bottle feeding. What it is, is always rewarding and fulfilling, and can always be fun.”

(Betsy line 92)

If bottle feeding volunteers do not understand the importance of their role, it halts the neonatal kitten unit because vet techs, managers, and other staff need to stop their duties of administering meds and in-taking new kittens in-order to tend to the most important need of the kittens, being fed.

Betsy not only trains volunteers at APA but is responsible for training vet-techs from other shelters across the country who are setting up neonatal units in their shelters.

Next Steps:

Following the conclusion of our Research Phase, our next step is to synthesize the utterances from our interviews into themes. Identifying themes will lead us to meaningful solutions that allow us to work towards finding ways for APA to optimize how they chronicle activity and communicate important information to provide consistent care.


The Role of Design Research

What role does research play in the design process? Over the last week and a half, we’ve been digesting the writings of 8 authors that have contributed to the discussions surrounding design research, innovation, context, and value. While reading these texts, I’ve been forming an opinion about where these authors would fall on a spectrum between ‘designing for’ and designing with.’ This turned out to be more easily said than done, simply because the spectrum doesn’t address the question of ‘designing for’ or ‘designing with’ whom. Is the focus on designing for/with a person, a user, people, or even other designers? Because each option yields significantly different results. Ultimately I chose to focus on people and how they engage with designers during the design process.

Personally, I identify most with the writings of Jon Kolko, Jodi Forlizzi, Liz Sanders, Jane Fulton Suri, and to a degree, Don Norman. If the design process is one of problem-solving, surely there must be a section of that process that focuses on identifying a problem. I believe design research to be that section: a method of finding a problem, or problems, worth solving. It should acknowledge context that, in an experiential sense, cannot be separated from activity. It should be empathetic, human-centric, and subjective. Designers can get more out of the research phase if they involve others with diverse backgrounds and life experiences. When applied to finding incremental enhancements, it is a very powerful tool.

To illustrate my views, I’ve created a Cartesian plane with ‘designing for people’ and ‘designing with people’ on the x-axis and an analogy on the y-axis. This analogy draws on my time spent producing music. On one extreme is Pop, which is formulaic, often unoriginal, structured, and doesn’t push the boundaries of music. On the other side of the spectrum is Acid Jazz, which does push the boundaries of music, can be unstructured and chaotic, and experiments for the sake of experimentation. Both symbolize an approach to design research. Be it by-the-book as with Chris Le Dantec’s well-structured methodology or like Bill Gaver’s experimental style of research, which seeks to deliberately confuse participants, design research comes in many forms and flavors. Thanks to people like Jodi Forlizzi, designers are creating theories and frameworks to help other designers pick methods that lead to valuable observations. However, Forlizzi argues, and I tend to agree, that the true value is not in the observations themselves but in the quality of interpretation and synthesis that is applied to those observations.

Artboard 1

Rather than go through and justify each authors location, I’m going to stick with the analogy and talk about the four quadrants of the chart.

Screen Shot 2018-09-13 at 6.05.20 PM

In the top right are the ravers. These are people who like to experiment but also have a pulse on the shared experience among everyone around them. In the bottom right is a theater concert. There is still a desire for a shared experience but it’s organized – people have tickets for a specific seat, there’s a defined start and finish, etc… In the bottom left, which I don’t believe any of the authors fall into, is a marching band. Music is written for them, everyone plays their individual part, and any deviation from the norm is highly frowned upon. This quadrant, for example, would house someone who uses a prescribed methodology to create an app for homeless people that the population neither wants nor needs. Finally, in the top right are dueling pianos. The structure is loose and the performers can improvise, but the experience lives for individuals – who often request specific songs.

Week 3 in Review

Last week was spent largely conducting interviews. I shadowed many incredible people at Austin Pets Alive and can say I’m thoroughly impressed by everyone I’ve met. From volunteers to the nursery manager, it’s baffling how they do so much with so little.

On the personal front, I finally got everything moved into our new house. Feels good to have one less ball up in the air.

Transcribing sucks. I believe it may be time to break out Mario Teaches Typing again. I have been realizing, though, that hearing the interview recordings helps put me back into the interview mentally. On hearing a memorable utterance, I can clearly recall the context.

We spoke earlier this week in our theory class about context. Before the program, I ascribed to the positivist view of context, i.e., it is something that can be observed and measured, and it’s something that is separate from the content it surrounds. However, I find what Dourish had to say on the subject – that context arrises from content/activity – very interesting (his article is called

“What we talk about when we talk about context,” by the way). Definitely something I’ll be keeping in mind while doing design research.

Last week, we also learned a lot about how to stand in front of a room and present. It’s one thing to learn, another to put information into action. Presenting is nerve-wracking; it may always be that way for me. But it’s an incredibly valuable skill. Here are the three biggest takeaways: 1. Every presentation is a chance to gain or lose something. 2. Every presentation is a structured conversation – even if you are the only one talking. 3. You feed the energy in the room. Your participants consume it.

See you next week.

Ethics, Responsibility, Experience, Technology

Over the last week and a half, we have been digesting the writings of 5 different authors that offer their perspective on ethics, responsibility, experience, and technology: Edward Bernays, Maurizio Vitta, Victor Papanek, Neil Postman, and John Dewey.

Whether in a direct or indirect manner, all of these authors’ writings have implications for the field of design. After much thought, I have made judgments on how important I think their ideas are and ranked these positions based on my own criteria.

The first thing I considered was relevance. How relevant are the writers’ points to the world of 2018? While Postman may have hypothesized it, I highly doubt any of the authors would have forecasted the rise of Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, etc. as a principal way that people in the modern world create and maintain relationships and consume information (at least at the time of their writing).

The second criterion by which I ranked the authors’ positions is level of responsibility. All of the authors agree that responsibility lies with a certain group of people. Postman and Bernays would agree that responsibility rests with authoritative and influential people, Vitta and Papanek would agree that responsibility is the burden of the designer, and Dewey would posit that responsibility is held by the person responsible for educational experiences. What differentiates these positions for me is the of reach attained by the people that realize this responsibility. In my current and somewhat limited view, for example, influential people/groups that are able to drive market forces or cultural beliefs have more responsibility to adhere to an ethical standard than do individual designers of objects. As sad as it is, Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber have some of the best platforms to influence our culture.

Below is a visual representation of where I ranked the importance of each author’s position:


I ranked Papanek highest in importance. The way he outlines what should be the focus of the design is pervasive to all industries, in that design is cross-disciplinary. Those in the field of design have great power to use their tools and skills to address problems of poorly represented people in a society. I also really liked his position on failure. An atmosphere that is conducive to experimentation (and consequently, a solid amount of failure) is absolutely necessary for creativity and problem-solving.

Postman is next in the line of importance. is subject matter, the computer age, is both highly relevant and has global reach due to the interconnectedness of the internet. I particularly enjoy the context in which I read his piece. The reading is a transcription of a speech he gave at a technology summit in Germany. I imagine him being the only speaker at the conference that offered some warning and alternative perspective to the field of computer science.

Postman is followed by Dewey on the ‘importance line.’ Dewey’s focus is mainly on education reform. Education is, and will always be, relevant in a developed society. While any individual teacher may not affect a significant number of students, all teachers in America interact with nearly 100% of the country’s youth. His theory on the experiential continuum and his focus on the context in which a student experiences different situations brings up an obvious point that often flies under the radar. “No one would question that a child in a slum tenement has a different experience from that of a child in a cultured home; that the country lad has a different kind of experience from the city boy, or a boy on the seashore one different from the lad who is brought up on inland prairies.”

Next comes Bernays, who talks about the power of propaganda and affecting change in public opinion. I think Bernays’ position is important but given historical events, people now associate the ‘propaganda’ with something negative and are therefore on the lookout for its application (however, this may just be my internal optimist speaking). When I hear propaganda, I instantly think of lies perpetuated by a partisan entity to convince others to conform to their view. The most obvious example is the Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, who took inspiration from Bernays’ ideas.

Lastly is Vitta, who speaks to the culture of design as it pertains to mass production and consumption. While his position is important, I ranked it below the others since his ideas are widely theoretical and he offers very little in the way of ways to combat that which he warns against: consumption as a form of social communication. Honestly, his writing struck me as anti-capitalist, which isn’t a problem, but I don’t fully support the idea that objects should not be used to communicate. As a group, we discussed the example of Air Jordans, a shoe that is more expensive than others but serves the same purpose. I agree that by buying Air Jordans one is trying to communicate something socially, but the object is still being used for its intended purpose: it is covering someone’s feet. If for some reason people started tying the shoelaces together and wearing their Air Jordans around their neck, leaving their feet bare, I would agree with Vitta that we have a problem. However, at least as of now, this is not the case.

Week 1 in Review

One down, so much more to go. With week one in the books, I can honestly say that the pace here is intense. I was warned, but I don’t think any amount of words could have prepared me for this experience. However, being thrown into the fire is a great way to learn. Most bilingual friends I have only reached fluency by immersing themselves in another culture. I am immersing myself in design.

Week one was characterized by failure. The perfectionist in me thinks this is unacceptable, which is a hard thing to get over. But as Victor Papanek has taught me, experimenting oft ends in failure. And only through learning from our mistakes and failures can we truly continue to innovate and improve.

Our first presentation in the design research class was a little rough. It didn’t help that we heard a lot of “no’s” in trying to find a company to partner with, as it left us with little time to flesh-out a meaningful research plan. We’ve recently heard back from a couple other companies that may be interested in working with us. This is incredibly exciting since it gives our team the opportunity to work with a firm that more closely adheres to the project’s criteria. It also may be exciting for the sole reason that we heard “I’m interested” instead of the typical shutdown response. Originally we were planning to work with REI, but Austin Pets Alive! responded with interest and tomorrow we have a call with NurturMe to discuss the project.

One thing that was a pleasant surprise: I’m not as terrible at sketching as I had originally thought! This was incredibly welcome news since, as I said a little earlier, I tried and failed a lot in the first week. “Sat with Pat” or “Paturday,” (I haven’t yet decided which name I like more), proved to be a wonderfully enriching experience. I’m looking forward to building on that experience. Here’s a picture of a cat I drew!


Our Tuesday/Thursday theory class with Scott is also great. It was pretty surprising to hear the range of opinions regarding the writings of Bernays, Papanek, and Vitta. For me, the hardest to digest was Vitta. Not only does his writing style make his ideas a bit difficult to understand, but the ideas themselves are cerebral and tend toward the philosophical end of the spectrum. I think my favorite was Papanek. I enjoyed his example of the toilet innovations in the context of cultural blocks.

To summarize: Papanek researched and suggested new ideas to his client, a toilet manufacturer. Despite great reasons for a redesign of the porcelain throne (even medical reasons!), the manufacturer shunned the idea due to our culture’s collective value to brush all things ‘icky’ under the rug.

My takeaway from this was that even if you have a great idea and solid evidence to support that idea, challenging norms can still be a major uphill battle.

To go back to the topic of failure, one thing has dawned on me. It sets the bar low which means that there’s a lot of room for upward mobility. Like the people who move to a foreign land to learn their culture and their tongue, achieving fluency in design requires immersion, practice, patience, and an atmosphere that is accepts failure as part of the growing process.

Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger

We crossed the finish line. Not necessarily like a runner triumphantly breaking the tape, but more like a cannonball. As I said in the last post, I would share the results of our assumption testing. It was actually higher than expected, around 95%, but I believe that to be a failure of the test we designed. I would give us an ‘A’ for effort, but a ‘D’ for execution. The good news about this is: there’s a lot of room for growth. Basically, all we confirmed was the people want free stuff; this is a total no-brainer. What we failed to do is to see whether something free (a one-way bus ticket in this case) would be incentive enough to change a person’s behavior.

I’m not afraid of failure, but that doesn’t mean it sucks any less when it happens. All I can do at this point is learn from the mistakes and become better. If there is one true cardinal sin in this world, it’s making the same mistakes over and over again.

To my group from this week – I want to express my gratitude. Kim, Kay, and Susi – I truly enjoyed working with you all. What I loved most was having three very unique perspectives on defining a problem and creating a solution. We fought, debated, laughed, hugged it out… but most importantly, we persevered.

Orientation came to a close on such a high note. Hearing David’s path to the Federal Government was a bit of an inspiration for me. He has the opportunity to do good for such an overwhelming number of people. Plus it opened doors that I hadn’t seen before in terms of design application. We ran short on time for questions, but I had one that I’ll share here. In presenting his project with the VA, he clearly had an emotional connection with the people he interviewed. I wondered, especially in this case of meeting people who have made personal sacrifices for our country’s freedom, does he ever have a problem with ‘taking the work home’? If empathy can make a good designer a great designer, how does one protect their own sanity if they fully embrace empathy? This is something I plan to ask many alumni when I have the chance.

You da real MVP

We are making something, satisfying the first rule of AC4D. We spent a lot of time in our group figuring out what our Minimally Viable Product is. This, of course, spurred some interesting debate amongst our group as to what is the smallest thing we could build to deliver value to both the customer and producer.

The biggest take away from Emiliano’s lecture is that it’s important to always validate your ideas in front of users. We can of course build the product we’ve envisioned, but the real question is: ‘should we?’ We test that question Friday in the real world. I expect that we will have a 75% success rate, and I will commit to posting the observed statistics after we have a chance to talk to actual stakeholders.

Favorite quote of the day comes from Emiliano: “The dream of a perfect plan is the enemy of a good-enough plan.” I suffer from perfectionism, so this lesson will be one that I need to remember.

Danger, Will Robinson

Jon said something that, while possibly obvious, hadn’t crossed my mind. “Design is dangerous.” With so much subjectivity and personal influence/attachment, actionable insights need to be carefully thought out. Provocation can cut both ways and doesn’t necessarily need to elicit positive responses.

I think what hit me hardest about this lesson is how dichotomous our culture is. The pull for humans to categorize is strong and has been gaining strength recently in some important areas of our lives. Take politics, for example, an area that has long suffered from a two-sided narrative. You’re either one of them or one of us (in this case, Republican or Democrat). This chart sums up a progression of the polarizing trend.

I’m a huge Star Wars nerd, and this style of thinking reminds me of the dreaded Sith. Fear leads to Anger. Anger leads to Hate. Hate leads to Suffering. I see this all too much, specifically within the context of politics. It’s gotten so bad that I can’t even engage certain family members in conversation about our country’s leadership, which brings me back to Jon’s statement about design being dangerous, and a dilemma I’ve noticed. If our goal is to be provocative, this is a lot easier to achieve in a dichotomous world since it’s easier to compare the differences between two things, entities, belief systems, groups, etc…

Another insight from Jon that I believe will be my new mantra: what makes a good designer is his/her ability to have ideas on demand. I love this. Basically, an endorsement to let the creative juices flow.  Come up with ideas, iterate on them, and don’t let your own value judgments get in the way of the creative process. It’s ok to be wrong.

When I was producing music, it was important to learn to separate your perceived self-worth from the actual product you submit for judgment. This is especially true in fields with subjectivity: art, music, writing, etc… It hurts having someone tell you that your work sucks. I saw many talented people call it quits because they internalized criticism rather than dissociate themselves from a piece of work. I learned then that it’s better to hear “this particular thing you made is not for me” rather than “you are bad and you should feel bad for being bad at what you are trying to do.” I hope I am able to recall this lesson throughout the AC4D program.

Cold Calling In Person, Not So Cold

Today was an interesting day. As an extrovert, I generally relish opportunities to meet new people and have interesting conversations with strangers. However, as someone who really enjoys his personal space, I am reticent to interrupt people going through their daily motions.

For color, we broke into smaller groups and went around town asking commuters about Austin’s public transportation system, specifically about how they plan their route from A to B.

Some people were an open book, going into very personal stories 30 seconds after meeting us. Some respectfully answered our questions, possibly to get us out of their hair, and a couple wouldn’t give us the time of day. I was not surprised that most people didn’t want to have their picture taken. Putting myself in their shoes, I’d probably decline to have my picture taken by a group of notebook carrying strangers. By no means do I think we came off as intimidating but being approached by a group of four can be startling.

I learned a good amount about a few people’s lives, the difficulties they face every day, the small acts of kindness they hold on to that inspired them… One of our public transportation ‘experts’ recounted a story where he and a friend were short a bus fare by 10 cents, but the bus driver let them on anyway. It’s pretty incredible that such a strong, lasting memory was made over 10 cents.

In terms of empathy, one thing that stood out to me was how uncomfortable waiting for a bus can be, especially in the dead heat of a Texas summer. I don’t know that empathy is my strongest trait, but it’s something I look forward to working on.

A1 Day One

What a day. New beginnings; new space; new friends.

Today was the first day of a new chapter for myself and a handful of bright and talented people. First-day-of-school experiences have been hit or miss for me. Generally, one can expect to sit in a room of complete strangers as everyone goes around the room to give a brief synopsis of their careers, goals, accomplishments, etc… What I didn’t expect was the level of openness from everybody today. Needless to say, it was a refreshing way to kick things off. Even more amazing is the breadth of experiences and skills among the group. However, how well can you get to know someone from their ‘elevator pitch’? I am truly looking forward to getting to know everyone individually over the coming weeks.

Another pleasant surprise was the alumni panel. A special thanks to Scott, Eric, Sophie, Celine, and Jacob for their time today. It was extremely valuable to have the chance to pose questions to former students, each with a unique perspective on how the AC4D affected them.

Hoping day two is as great as day one. Sounds like the real fun starts tomorrow.