Team Two Wheels: Prototyping Design Ideas


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


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

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.


A Designer’s Carol: An Early Christmas Story

A Designer’s Carol is my attempt to synthesize the writings of seven design thinkers into a narrative comic strip. I will not be present for a live presentation of tonight’s work with my classmates. In planning, I knew I would need to create a narrative where a fellow student could simply press “play”. I recommend watching the video below next, which will make the rest of this post more coherent.

As it turned out, taking the “live” element out of my presentation played to some of my strengths as a storyteller. I was able to mix audio, perform accents, and enlist my fellow students to help. I had a vision and stuck to it. It also clarified the skills I’ve got a long way to improve, including sketching and digital illustration.

There’s serendipity to my absence tonight. I’m joining my sister who’s in town for the Austin premiere of Little Women, a feature length film she directed and co-wrote. It is her directorial debut, and she was fortunate to get a substantial distribution deal, which is rare for a small-budget independent film. Yet, as potential audience increases, so do critics, as does pressure. At AC4D, “You Are Not Your Work” is oft-quoted and useful advice, and it applies here.

I had to create a simple narrative in a 1.5 week span and deal with the critique of 15-20 individuals, while my sister has to manage letting go of 2+ years of work, simultaneously traveling to promote the film, all while hearing thousands of critiques of her work, with no ability to change the original creation.

Designers and artists share this conundrum of creating work with passion and empathy, and then being forced to let it go, potentially dealing with disdain from the audience. It’s difficult emotionally. I was reminded during my small assignment how important being a member of a team helps to create a sense of passion and support during the work. And regardless of the outcome, enlisting a  team makes me eager to jump into the next assignment.

Week 4 Reflection: Lessons from the Marshmallow Kid

Teaching Improv Comedy 

For five of eight years of living in Austin, improv comedy was a significant part of my life and work. I ran a youth program, “AP Comedy” for the New Movement Theater (currently the Fallout Theater) and performed regularly as a musical improviser. Improv and its training of action over deliberation has many useful life lessons, but it wasn’t until this week at AC4D that a previous 6th grade student of mine, the “marshmallow kid,” came back to me.

The Marshmallow Kid

The marshmallow kid did not have many friends in my improv class. He was odd, but accepted as a member of the class troupe. I gave him his nickname (behind the scenes) because every scene he performed involved marshmallows. “I’m the marshmallow King!” he’d announce, taking the lead at the top of a scene. Or in a another scene between two firefighters: “The school is full of marshmallows!” he’d explain to his scene partners, throwing a wrench in their established scene environment. I imagined him plotting on the wings of the stage about how to fit his favorite candy into every scene imaginable.

As we developed a relationship, I was able to ween my student off his metaphorical marshmallow obsession by guiding him to un-think before a scene, but once in a scene, listen to what’s been previously established by his troupe mates.

How Improv Works

An improv mentor of mine explained this concept with the Venn diagram below.


Two people enter a scene typically one before the other. Each inhabit different characters, and in some cases, completely different worlds. It’s a mistake to believe that every scene must be dominated by one character, the scene playing to their world. Or that each scene must be a complete merging of the two. The magic of improv comes from two different characters finding a scene while keeping their own worlds as characters.

Acting, the AC4D Way

Now let’s replace Character A and B with AC4D students. The same concept applies, we as students are coming in with different learning styles, communication methods, we are in essence, different characters with a common goal in mind. Similar to improv training, at AC4D we are required to act, iterate, step back, repeat. Like the best improv scenes, they rarely begin with a plan in mind, and a mindless gesture or spoken line often ends up with productive results. It doesn’t always work. Just like improv, the earlier you can fail, the faster the lesson can be learned, and the project, product, or AC4D assignment improved. We all have preconceived notions about what the finished product should look like, or we have worries that a first draft of a work will be sloppy. Sometimes we will we get in our heads like the marshmallow kid. But if we respect each world of our AC4D classmates, but limit deliberation in favor of creating or visualizing, we can grow as students and end up with unexpected, powerful results.