Impending Doom & The Future of Design

Yuval Noah Harari
Yuval Noah Harari, author of Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.

 

I would like to tell you about a book I’ve just finished. It’s one of the finest books I have ever read.

Reading this book also bolstered the belief that I’m in no position to make the previous claim. I’m a human, a fledgling designer, and a biological creature. Which makes me a product of evolution, prone to cognitive dissonance, and recency bias.

The implications of these faulty human traits become clear in Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. But more than proving we’re faulty creatures, Harari’s thesis should resonate with anyone who has a stake in design.

Humans, Just Another Animal? 

Harari is a historian, a realist, and most likely, atheist or agnostic. He contends that humans have dominated the planet due to our creation of fictions.

Our fictions are the fuel that propels our dominance on the planet. These stories define our uniqueness within the animal kingdom: the ability to organize in groups far above 100. The utility of money is a tangible example of a shared global fiction. A $100 bill is a piece of paper, but we all agree on the fiction that it has value.

Harari details how our ability to organize under shared fictions has led to the Anthropocene, the current age where human activity is the dominant force on the Earth’s environment. But it’s not only the Earth we’re changing.

We’re beginning to modify our genetic code, we’ve extended our lifespans, and we can ingest mood-lightening pills to ease our worries. Harari writes that as we reshape our biology with greater precision, it’s the old and new fictions that will guide what we create.

Huxley, Orwell, and Atwood all warn us through their literature that as we gain greater biological control over ourselves, we’ll lose our humanness. But maybe those warnings aren’t predictions just yet. Today, mitigating depression with an accurate dosage of chemicals has made life livable for many people. The trouble, Harari writes, is that our scientific developments in the life sciences (biology, behavioral economics, cognitive psychology) are quickly eroding the dominant shared narrative most of us live by.

You’re a Humanist, Like It or Not 

The dominating narrative of our age is humanism. Most of us have grown up with a feeling that “I am a unique individual with a clear inner voice that provides meaning to the universe.” Humanism sanctifies life, happiness, and the power of Homo Sapiens. It’s a story that says, “It’s up to me to choose what is right, what is art, what ice cream is best.” It also says “It’s up to you to choose the same for yourself.”

“Feelings” can have a very touchy-feely connotation, but it’s also humanism that fuels capitalism, choice, and our sense of freedom. It’s what legitimizes voting, and urges us to seek more equitable justice.

And it’s here that Harari’s warnings begin:

The humanist belief in feelings has enabled us to benefit from the fruits of the modern covenant without paying its price. […] What, then, will happen once we realize that customers and voters never make free choices, and once we have the technology to calculate, design, or outsmart their feelings? If the whole universe is pegged to the human experience, what will happen once the human experience becomes just another designable product, no different in essence from any other item in the supermarket?

We’re Walking, Justifying, Narrative Machines

If you’ve ever concluded that humans are irrational and fickle, you’ll not find much argument from Harari. What sets his writing apart is how he synthesizes scientific developments in light of our ancient human fictions.

A few of the unsettling scientific developments in irrationality:

  • fMRI scanners have proven your brain makes decisions before you’re aware you’ve made them
  • Split brain experiments have shown that humans are experts in cognitive dissonance, sliding into rational explanations even under bewildering circumstances
  • Behavioral economics has shown humans “narrative self” consistently overpowers our “experiencing self,” which turns the irrational, unpredictable choices we make into the illusion of a coherent, individual story (referred to as “System 2” in Daniel Kahneman’s terminology)
Daniel Kahneman receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Many of his experiments led to the conclusion that we have a "narrating self" that makes justifications inconsistent with our "experiencing self"
Daniel Kahneman receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Many of his experiments led to the conclusion that we have a “narrating self” that makes justifications inconsistent with our “experiencing self”

Dear Algorithm, Tell Us What To Design

Most of us don’t design by religious guidelines or by a dictator’s demands, we design for an environment where individuals are free to choose: my barstool or Ikea’s, your app or Apple’s. We believe in choice, and we design knowing there is a choice on the user’s end (most of the time).

Harari foresees a conflict here. On one side, the humanistic legacy and individual choice. On the other, the developments of science and technology, along with the rise of algorithms which increasingly make choices for us. Harari writes: 

Humans are relinquishing authority to the free market, to crowd wisdom and to external algorithms partly because we cannot deal with the deluge of data. In the past, censorship worked by blocking the flow of information. In the twenty-first century censorship works by flooding people with irrelevant information. […] Today having power means knowing what to ignore. So considering everything happening in our chaotic world, what should we focus on?

This leads me to imagine a loop that will impact designers at a high level:

  • We’ll continue to design based on witnessed human behavior, but will have to fight louder for a voice among the screams for large quantitative data
  • Big data collection and the algorithms will increasingly affect what gets made
  • What gets made = what gets used
  • We’ll increasingly study human behavior that’s created or influenced by algorithms

Pessimistic enough? I suppose Harari brought it out of me. But his book isn’t simply pessimistic. It’s an exercise in reflection and an attempt at broad foresight. More optimistically, it helped me gain a sense of the big picture of creating things for fellow humans.

Are we in danger of designing for “data fiends” who may trust algorithms over individual feelings? In reaction maybe we’ll design for the opposite, an “intentional ignorance,” or peace of mind that purposely avoids the prescriptiveness of data. Perhaps the data will show us more clearly our cognitive dissonance and we’ll act differently, more efficiently, or even more ethically.

Whatever we’re called to design, we should recognize the fictions we’ve been operating on, and act on the the stories we want told in the future.

Banking Not Budgeting: The Perils of Adding Features

Background

Designing Digital Interfaces at AC4D is a mixture of visual design education, user testing, and like many of our courses, an exercise in asking “Why?”

We’ve been tasked with redesigning a banking app of our choice. My choice is Ally Bank, an online-only institution. We redesign by creating wireframes- draft versions (either paper or digital) that can be quickly modified and tested.

Four weeks ago I began to tweak existing features such as checking balances and depositing checks. Over the last two weeks our cohort have been tackling something much bigger: adding budgeting functionality to our banking apps.

My process began with drafting a “Process Flow Diagram.” Essentially, it’s a visualization of how budget functions would fit into existing functions, from the user’s perspective. A process flow details all the choices a user would make when they view a screen, in this case, a mobile app.

 

A Process Flow Diagram
A Process Flow Diagram

After completing a a process flow, I created wireframes of screens that included the new budgeting functionality. And I began to form “missions” for users in order to test the viability and usefulness of Ally’s new budgeting functions.

Here were the “missions” I gave my users, and the reasons why in bold.

Assignment 4_Financial Modeling.010

Why Are We Doing This?

In full awareness of putting the cart before the horse, these reflections came after my user testing. This assignment gave me the opportunity to:

  1. Expand my research capabilities as designers by user testing
  2. Apply a system-wide awareness (using process flows and system maps) into instituting a new app function
  3. Gain greater empathy for users in using a new function
  4. Gain greater empathy for my imaginary coworkers at Ally Bank, whose work could be affected by adding the new functions

Banking Not Budgeting 

I tested five users, all non-Ally customers. Zero of my five users used their bank for budgeting. None. It didn’t matter whether they used their banking app daily, or only used their bank’s mobile site twice a month.

A snapshot of my five users.
A snapshot of my five users.

This leads us to the reason why aggregative budgeting apps exist. The most popular being Mint or YNAB (You Need a Budget). These two apps can do something that single-bank applications cannot: pull in data from two or more financial institutions, budget all expenses in one place, and set goals that relate to a user’s complete financial state.

This led me to a difficult realization: either I imagine that Ally can have the capability of collecting info from different institutions (a la Mint or YNAB); or I operate in the complete opposite sphere, where Ally only tracks Ally expenses and transactions. I opted for the former, which I would come to regret.

“‘Current Flexible Cash’ What the heck is that?”

…stated one user. Current Flexible Cash was my idea to give users a “safe to spend” amount, a subset of their checking account. The idea was for users to know how much cash they have on hand that’s available to make urgent cash purchases.

Here’s how it was introduced. Users saw this designation on their first screen, “Snapshot.” Stuck in the middle of the screen, users communicated it seemed unimportant, and the graph, “confusing.” As they continued their missions, they saw that “Current Flexible Cash” was connected to both “Budget Categories.” Any money that wasn’t budgeted, or in Savings was considered “Flexible”.

Users saw "Current Flexible Cash" on their first screen. Then confusion ensued.
Users saw “Current Flexible Cash” on their first screen. Then confusion ensued.

I attempted to introduce this “Flexible Cash” concept in a tutorial, which popped up when users clicked the middle button of the Snapshot screen:

The brief tutorial on "Current Flexible Cash"
The brief tutorial on “Current Flexible Cash”

From my users’ near unanimous feedback, budgeting is not the expected functioning of a banking app. If introduced, it must not conflict or even interrupt the more common banking tasks. I still have hope that users can find value, but the structure, and especially placement of budgeting functions needs to improve. Perhaps “budgeting” should be its own tab.

User Conclusions

All of this confusion resulted in my major takeaway from these tests: in the way I presented budgeting with Ally, users found no immediate value added. For them, the primary goal of a banking app was to check recent activity was accurately documented. Or to recognize inaccurate or fraudulent transactions.

Big Questions & Next Steps

Moving forward, I plan to operate on the reverse assumption of this user test: Ally will not have data from user’s other institutions, and therefore should create budgeting functions that don’t rely on external data, but still provide value to the user.

Ally could theoretically have Mint or YNAB functionality, but why should it? How do we create value with these functions when most use banking apps simply as  an official ledger, checking to making sure all is well.

These are the questions I’ll keep in mind when moving forward in doing a Heuristic Evaluation and Cognitive Walkthrough with users.

The questions I will keep in mind moving forward in the Ally functionality process
The questions I will keep in mind moving forward in the Ally functionality process

 

Team Two Wheels: Prototyping Design Ideas

Context

Over the past three months our trio, Team Two Wheels, has been researching how advisors can build effective and meaningful relationships with college students.

This week saw us go into the field with 3 design ideas. We prototyped on paper, online, and using the application Sketch. Last week my teammate Zev Powell detailed the early storyboards of these ideas. Next week my teammate Cristina Suazo will detail findings form more comprehensive user testing.

This week we tested each of the ideas in the field, refining each as we went. Listen to our full reflections on the week and lessons learned in our podcast episode. If you prefer a brief text recap, see below for a quick update on each idea, and a lesson learned from testing.

Idea #1 Student Pre-Meeting Assessment:

A tool for advisors to better assess student needs before meeting face-to-face. It addresses the unique needs of non-traditional students.

This Week’s Lesson Learned: Wording surveys can be tricky; the idea’s language will need to gain more precision moving forward.

Idea #2 College of Forking Paths: 

A Choose Your Own Adventure conversation tool for advisors to use live with students. Students read aloud and discuss future decisions they might have to make down the road.

This Week’s Lesson LearnedAn audience you don’t intend to be the target may be the one who ends up using it. For example, students who don’t need to fill out their own FAFSA still get an empathetic benefit from role playing the situation.

Idea #3 Many Healths App: A digital tool for advisors to “check in” with students about non-academic issues throughout the year.

This Week’s Lesson Learned: User testing takes grit and determination. Not only are you rejected by strangers, but you’ll get conflicting findings. The conclusion for now? More testing.

 

Don’t Stand So Close To Me: And Other Lessons in User Testing

Intro

This week was a high-speed crash course in building wireframes and user testing. Before any of us felt ready, we were showing our wireframes (in this case, draft screens of a banking app) to design professionals. By the following Monday, we had to test our wireframes with five users and present our findings.

Running head-on into an abyss is a common situation at AC4D. As a student, you become used to it. Lessons come almost too fast to internalize. Yet there’s no faster way to test the thing you made than by putting it in the hands of people you don’t know.

I redesigned Ally Bank’s mobile app in order to test 3 different “missions” or flows: checking account balance, depositing a check, and sending money. I drew wireframes on paper, then recreated them in the app Sketch, and finally- used Sketch’s prototyping functions to make a clickable prototype for users.

Screen Shot 2019-01-28 at 2.54.08 PM
From left to right, the drafting process of making wireframes. The second and third steps were made using Sketch App.

Beer, Wine, and Queso

Together with fellow student Cristina Suazo, we gathered the incentives to draw people to us. There was no time to send out recruitment screeners. Instead we bought a six pack of “Mama Tried” pilsners, a bottle of Chardonnay. We made queso and invited friends to the AC4D studio. We also passed the word to fellow AC4D alumni and their networks. Cristina and I exchanged friends so that we each interviewed users we were unfamiliar with.

User Lessons Learned

My users spanned the ages of 32-48 and used five different banks regularly. See below for more comprehensive demographics.

Screen Shot 2019-01-28 at 2.54.20 PM
Demographics of my users, their banks, and banking habits

Each user completed three banking missions. To sum up their feedback:

  • “Snapshot,” the home screen, should not appear as a button
  • Users had unclear expectations of the “Explore” button
  • Deposit confirmation doesn’t feel complete enough, present more options, and/or show that the newly deposited money is “on its way”
An example of a user takeaway: deposit confirmation needs improvement
An example of a user takeaway: deposit confirmation needs improvement

Researcher Lessons Learned

Getting feedback for a future revision of wireframes was only half the point of the assignment. The other was to become a better researcher, particularly a better conductor of user interviews. This included the famous words of The Police, and the title of this blog. Full takeaways are below.

Screen Shot 2019-01-28 at 2.54.35 PM
My top three takeaways from week one of user research

To sum up my learned experience: conducting user testing bears similarity to contextual inquiries; get out of the way and get the user/subject talking. Particularly, get users to voice their expectations of what a prototype might do, and encourage them to verbalize confusion, which often presents itself as silence. And finally, sit to the side and slightly behind the user! Don’t stand (or sit) so close to them. Create an environment where the user is free to explore the product on their own terms.

This week we’ll double down on the process: iterating our wireframes and getting new users. My personal mission is to expand the age range of my users, and document how the interaction of users 18-24 and 50+ years experience the Ally mobile app redesign.

A final note: You can view my full presentation and results in this presentation deck.

Wireframing: Simpler Than It Sounds

I admit it. When I heard we’d be learning how to wireframe at AC4D, I was intimidated. Sounds like architecture, sounds like engineering, sounds, difficult. In actuality, wireframes are just sketches of a digital product, typically an app or website.

Designers, like writers, artists, and 147 other professions, make a draft before they create the real thing. Forgive the sarcasm, but there’s not much original or scientific about this process. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy, only that there’s not one right way to do wireframing.

In my assignment of redesigning the Ally Bank app, I began with simple sketches, and later drafted them in Sketch, the digital design program. The point is to create a “good-enough” prototype focusing on flow, rather than look-and-feel. From here, I plan on linking screens together, so that I can test my re-design with prospective users. I hope to answer: Will my redesign provide a simpler way to deposit a check? How clear is my navigation?

These and other questions will be answered once my prototype is in front of real users.

Hand drawn and digitized wireframes of two Ally Bank app functions
Hand drawn and digitized wireframes of two Ally Bank app functions

 

Ally Bank Mobile Infrastructure: This Had Better Work

Intro: Ally Bank is an online-only bank. There are no physical locations besides a large impenetrable office in Philadelphia for employees. Being one of the first online banks, Ally’s mobile features have since proliferated all banking apps, most of which have physical branches.

So for Ally, this app had better work, because there is no physical alternative.

Fortunately, it does. For the most part. Here is a “Concept Map” which shows all the current functionality of Ally’s app:

Ally Mobile App Existing Infrastructure

Here’s my redesign, which had to include all original functionality:

Redesigned Ally Mobile App Existing Infrastructure

All changes are signified through a new “purple-glow” color. But there are two significant revisions to the app’s infrastructure to point out:

Revision 1: “Explore” is now “Invest.” This is the fourth major menu item and a huge bucket of content. The main purpose is to sell other Ally products to users. I made the judgement that people who use Ally (one of the first online-only banks) are less interested in traditional, low-risk banking products like CDs or Bank IRAs. Investment-type actions should be tiered accordingly. And “Invest” speaks to a more specific action for a user’s money, rather than the tepidly labeled “Explore.”

Revision 2: Consistent “Tasks”. There’s lots you can do in this app, but there’s discrepancy in how you reach all viewable tasks. For example, a user can reach most tasks (order checks, report a lost debit card, i.e.) by selecting a bank account in “Snapshot,” but cannot through the more prominent “Tasks” menu item. All available tasks should be reached by both the “Snapshot” route or “Tasks” route.

Process Notes: Using Sketch, I began by centering the key menu bar items from the app to be the center of my working canvas. I then created horizontal and vertical structures from there, mapping every function. With one hand on my iPhone with the Ally app open, I walked through the application. This helped to create every piece of content as a circle first, then get feedback of how to move, group, or simplify areas with lots of content.

 

Be Advised: Researching in Unknown Territory

Greetings, AC4D blog reader. You may have heard the penchant for ambitious projects at this school. You heard correct. The latest topic and mission will be with us through April 2019- college persistence and completion.

Our focus is how advisors create a meaningful relationship with their advisees. In other words, we’re researching how people talk with one another. Or, how they build trust. Or, how they show others a pathway to be courageous learners in their college career and beyond.

Ambitious? Too broad? Naïve? Maybe. But that’s the beauty of being in this school. Our aim is to complete 10-15 hours of research in the next two weeks, and begin to form dozens of concepts, which may number in the hundreds in the coming months.

I’m not the only one in my cohort who has a slight indifference to the topic. Spoken from a college graduate myself, I know the hypocrisy in making such a claim. My chance to go to college was determined by my parents choice to live near excellent public schools, the support of my family, and the financial backing of Dad co-signing a student loan, much more than it was my academic ability. And that same degree I’m half-complaining about led in some way to all the decent income I’ve made, the ability to live and work in Japan and Tanzania, and to form a decent sentence.

A four year degree is still the most common catalyst that fuels a living income in the U.S. I’m fortunate to have one. My dispassion stems from the feeling that this topic is well-trodden territory. For public policy academics. For educators everywhere. For the ED-tech community. And yes, for designers too.

But this feeling- wanting to do something new, something big, something different- that’s learned. And my college experience helped solidify that. So I shall do my best to let my dispassions be deterred, because creating a transformative learning experience for one other person is worthwhile. Be advised.

How’d you get your values?

Here’s a quick profile of my values:

  • 40% Catholic
  • Golden-rule centered ethics
  • Heavily family influenced
  • American, but not fervently patriotic
  • Belief in the dignity and possibilities of humankind

Broad, sure. But I’ve been trying harder to analyze my particular values this last week of our Theory course. This is because as we read from the pantheon of design gods, there’s a heavy emphasis on should. As opposed to Science, which defines what is. 

“Should” is a statement of intention and value. Often when we use “should” we’re subconsciously supporting ancient beliefs, passed down through people, books, and institutions. “We should have universal health care.” Sometimes we drop the word for emphasis, “Freedom of religion is a human right.”

My insight from this week is this: design can be about making what should be, but designers cannot define values (or don’t display any particular knowledge in that department). This means as designers we must look to other sources to guide our work. As I enter into quarter two of this school, I’m looking to have an ongoing discussion of finding common ground on values, and the best environments in which to do that work.

Below is the short story I created that speaks to this insight:

 

 

 

Recycled Reads: Themes from the Field

Introduction
Recycled Reads is our team’s client during the first half of our AC4D year. Recycled Reads is a used bookstore within the Austin Public Library (APL). It’s an affordable resource for the community providing 25 cent kids’ books, $1 paperbacks and $2 hardcover books, among other materials. While the store is packed with formerly circulated APL materials, it is also a donation and recycling center for the public, where their donated material is either sold or recycled.

The kid's corner at Recycled Reads.
The kid’s corner at Recycled Reads. Most of these books are 25 cents. 

Over the past month, our team has interviewed and observed a selection of 24 people who work, volunteer, or are customers of Recycled Reads.

The Theme-ing Process

After transcribing our interviews, we broke up each transcription into discrete thoughts, which we call “utterances”. We printed these utterances, cut into small squares and posted on foam boards in our studio. Next, we began the process of marinating in this data – reading, re-reading, and discussing connections, for the goal of identifying thematic patterns. As a team we worked together to discuss the patterns we saw emerging, and started to draw inferences from similar thoughts, seeking the deeper meaning behind the words. We grouped similar utterances under a theme which stated those thoughts to an underlying behavior or attitude.

The Hidden Value of Books
From this wealth of information, we uncovered nine themes that resonated with us. Each speaks to an overarching thread: Books are not merely objects, but facilitators of experience for a reader.

Experience in general is varied and personal, and the same is true with reading. People read to get different types of experience: entertainment, to self-educate, to educate others, and to explore interests. Reading is an active as opposed to passive activity, and the experience is unique to each person. Recycled Reads provides access to these experiences by providing books and other materials at very low cost with a unique, constantly-shifting selection of inventory.

A customer describes a book he wouldn't have otherwise bought. But Recycled Reads affordability allows customers to explore new experiences.
A customer describes a book he wouldn’t have otherwise bought. But Recycled Reads affordability allows customers to explore new experiences.

We saw certain tendencies emerge from our process, and then we defined themes within larger theme categories, below in bold:

Emerging Theme Categories
Ownership & Experience

Theme 1: Children need to own their own books in order to control their experiences.

Theme 2: People select books based on a reflection of how they see themselves, who they want to be, and the type of experience they desire.

Connecting with Others
Theme 3: People recognize a connection between the subject of a book and a person in their life and then, gift books as a means of making that connection tangible.

Theme 4: People desire to share their love of books and reading with others.

Changes with Life Stages
Theme 5: People’s relationship with books changes with their life stages.

Validation of Donations 
Theme 6: When people donate books, they give away pieces of themselves.

Theme 7: When there is monetary value placed on donated books, it belittles the emotional value people have for them.

Theme 8: People trust Recycled Reads to do the right thing with their donated materials by passing them on to others.

Theme 9: Staff and volunteers at Recycled Reads feel the need perpetuate the perception that all donations have value.

A customer at Recycled Reads shows us a list of books he plans on donating.
A customer at Recycled Reads shows us a list of books he plans on donating.

Recycled Reads’ Reaction
We presented the above themes to Recycled Reads’ staff, bolstering our themes with interesting utterances, stories from the field, photos, and observed behavior.

After our presentation, we asked the staff members if they found anything surprising in the themes we presented. One staff member pointed out most of the themes weren’t surprising because, as staff, they are intimately aware of people’s relationship with books. She did say, however, that being presented with these themes affirmed behaviors that she’s familiar with from her career developed over a 17-year career.

However, theme category four, “Validation of Donations,” was met with interest and surprise. Upon reflection, the staff member said that she realizes that she does validate donors when they bring items in, but she had never considered it consciously. The staff and volunteers of Recycled Reads intuitively validate donations, but she hadn’t realized the underlying need for that reassurance. Now that she’s been made aware of that need, the staff can be more aware of the potential difficulty donors have in that situation, and do more to acknowledge it.
Our team is excited for progressing these emerging themes to develop insights for Recycled Reads, and create visualizations of insights for Recycled Reads to consider implementing in the future.