swiss cheese of success: a concept model for persistence

The “Swiss cheese model” is a risk analysis model used by engineers, aviation specialists, and cybersecurity experts. The idea is that even the best-designed human systems (inevitably) operate like Swiss cheese—mostly sound, but with holes here and there. For the most part, systems operate as predicted. But when the holes in a stack of systems all line up a certain way, an unexpected event can slip through.

For the last three weeks, our team (myself, Shelly, and Susi) has been conducting research into how first-generation Americans in Austin perceive the role and importance of post-secondary education. One stakeholder, a student advisor at a post-traditional college completion organization, had especially salient points to make about barriers and influences on student completion: that students consistently name “relationship with my advisor” as the most important variable in their persistence; and that job changes are the number one factor in throwing students off their planned trajectory.

In our conversations with young first-generation Americans, many participants have also centered the role of family expectations, high school support networks, and legal documentation/financial aid access as determining factors re: their educational opportunities.

As we began to map out concept models for what we were hearing about persistence, influencers, and barriers, we found ourselves sketching something similar to the “Swiss cheese model”—a look at what can happen when young first-generation American students attempt to persist toward a degree. While this type of model is often used to predict negative events, we found something compelling about reworking it to show a positive situation.

In this light, the model also suggests just how hard it is for students attempting persistence to succeed.

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Here, the “slices” represent external factors that impact behavior and opportunity.

The red lines represent “stopped out” student pathways, those who may sail through to success in some areas only to be met by barriers in others.

The blue line represents those students who successfully navigate each influencer/barrier in the path toward their educational goals.

As you can see from the concept model, persistence requires a precise alignment of the right conditions at the right time. And within the larger context of post-traditional students who attempt to persist, successful completion is rare, and not exclusively (or even primarily) due to a lack of individual effort or responsible studentship.

This model can describe all post-traditional students, to some degree—first-generation American students aren’t alone in feeling the pressures of family or a lack of mentorship or the necessity of holding down a job. But as we continue to conduct interviews, we suspect that the family and culture slices in particular may yield rich nuances and insights into the unique experiences of first-generation American young adults in Texas.

More to come…

insights with we are blood.

When telling our service client that we were developing “insights,” we felt the need to clarify. The word “insight” is usually treated as shorthand for “brilliant intuition,” so we knew that marching into a room of stakeholders announcing that we had insights into a service we had spent a limited amount of time with could seem, well, “obnoxious.”

But insights are not the same thing as impressions. As with everything in the design process, an insight means something specific, made up of a series of smaller processes.

To get to insights, we first examine the context, by interviewing a number of users and stakeholders and observing their behavior. Before we do anything else, we collect each of these tiny interaction points as data.

From there, we begin to make sense of this data: pulling out stories that illustrate a complex, nuance human experience of this service; combining and recombining those stories and data points to get at underlying themes; and slicing a particularly dense interaction to pull apart all of the dynamics at play in one interaction, in one environment, over time (what we call service slices).

Finally, we turn each of those themes and pain points into “why?”s. Only then are we prepared to start developing insights.

Even then, insights are largely guesswork. But unlike instant, superficial observations from newbie designers who just stepped foot into a massive mobile blood donation operation (us, mid-August), we are now equipped to offer meaningful and provocative observations about the service, because we are now armed with deep, 360-degree knowledge of a sizeable amount of data—much of which is data that company leadership has not had much access to, or synthesis around, before.

And that is not obnoxious at all—instead, it can be a viable value add to any service organization.

Here’s an example from our work with Central Texas-focused blood donation group We Are Blood:

A lot of people have been positively affected by blood donation … [but] you don’t know who gets your blood.

—Joseph, 19

“Joseph” is a long time donor. He loves giving blood because it makes him feel connected to a larger community. But he openly admits that he doesn’t know where his blood actually goes. And he’s not alone—several donors and phlebotomists alike made note of this.

As we worked through the data, this theme kept popping up for us, because a core tenet of We Are Blood’s mission is to inspire people to give blood. But they aren’t telling donors or the public about who actually gets the blood that donors give. 

There’s one good reason for this—HIPAA regulations place some constraints on disclosing recipients. But there are many other potential ways to tell these stories, and we found that presently, We Are Blood isn’t proactively pursuing these avenues.

To build from a provocative theme into an insight, we need three things:

a value statement,

a supporting phrase, and

a provocation.

To make a strong insight, the combination of all three of these things will stand on its own as a complete idea—one that, like it or not, agree with it or not, anyone can understand.

Here’s our full insight to the story from Joseph (and others):

Delivery on value promise is essential for successful service. But in contrast to WAB’s mission statement—to inspire new donors to give and to create a feeling of family—donors have no idea where their blood goes. This is a problem because WAB’s entire brand ID is built on this emotional payoff.

We drove this home with this image:

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We called this girl “Suzy.” Suzy is a stock image of a girl in a hospital. We don’t know anything else about her story. Why? Because we never have the access or the opportunity to learn it.

Instead, we do know the stories of Pat, and Gina, and Katie, and Jane, and Joseph, and dozens of others who work or show up to mobile drives. We can (and should) tell their stories in other insights…but one common theme among each of those individuals is that they don’t know “Suzy’s” story, either.

When we presented this insight to We Are Blood, leadership in the room agreed that this was an issue. They noted that they had tried various methods to tell these stories, all of which had been unsuccessful over time. We then had an invigorating discussion around things they had tried, what elements worked and didn’t, what other barriers existed to getting these stories told — and why they aren’t proactively trying to tackle this problem right now.

The next step in the design research process is to take a stab at new ideas. Some of those ideas came up in our discussion with WAB; others live on post-it notes on our wall, waiting for us to push them further.

A good insight will, above all, spark discussion and the curiosity to build new things. We’re excited to move forward into these new ideas—knowing that however provocative they may be, they will be built on a solid framework of insights, now shared by us and our client.

sketch library.

To sketch tech interactions, I took photos of team members holding phones for a variety of purposes: Watching a video, texting, swiping, taking a photo, talking. Using an existing visual model is helpful for capturing proportion and dimension … especially when drawing HANDS.

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I began my next iteration with pencil. This creates flexibility in practicing finger shape, position, and angle — and minimizes early mistakes, like “too many knuckle wrinkles in weird places.”

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This was closer, but the phone lines weren’t precise, and the right hand dimensions were a bit mismatched. For my next iteration, I traced this basic form, then added precision, detail, and line heft to the phone, and slightly adjusted right finger placement.

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In looking back at this iteration, the placement and visibility of the fingernails on the right hand look off. I’ve also actually lost some of the fidelity by removing the pencil lines. After consultation with the class, my next hand iteration will include light pen lines around key interaction points (bent knuckles; left finger wrapping around phone), as well as fingernails moved to the top of the fingers.

To be continued…

design existentia.

Don’t let our emphasis on “making things” fool you: Human-centered design is an existential discipline.

For the last 20 years, design theorists have been publicly weighing the ethics of designing with users or designing for them. User-centered tech is the newest frontier, but this debate first went global when design, well, went global. In the mid-1990s, socially-minded entrepreneurs began to look seriously at the systemic problem of global poverty. Universally, they came to argue that the existing global model of capitalism-plus-federally-funded international development was not sufficient as a response to rising inequality.

You probably know the name Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank, inventor of microfinance, and pioneers. You may also be familiar with the names Dean Spears, researcher into cognitive depletion and economic decision-making models of the poor; Emily Pilloton, early adopter of the idea of place-based social impact; or Sally Osberg and Roger Martin at the Skoll Foundation, who in the mid-2000s led efforts to define and fund the idea of the “social entrepreneur.”

Each of these individuals, along with international development-careerperson-turned-journalist Michael Hobbes, businessmen C.K. Prahalad and Allen Hammond, and influential design theorist Victor Margolin have grappled with the best models for ethical social impact, and where design fits into—or drives—that model.

 

Poverty is a clear example of what designers called a wicked problem: something difficult or impossible to solve due to contradictory, incomplete, or constantly-changing components of both the problem and the criteria for success. Wicked problems do not want to be solved.

But it is clearly a problem that deserves the trying. And herein lies the existentia of human-centered design. If we agree that poverty is a negative for the people living in it; and that resources exist both within and without impoverished ecosystems that can help alleviate or solve this negative — what’s our next move?

Many designers, myself included, would say here: The people living in poverty have the best ideas and answers about what is needed to improve their lives (as all of us do for our own lived realities). The role of the truly-human-centered designer is to listen, gather data on people’s stated desires and their behavior, and work with the people to design what they say they want and need.

But human-centered design is still a fairly ivory-tower discipline. Who has the networks and the money to train to be a designer? Who has the portfolio and influence to hire design services before proof of concept? Do the people who could most benefit from human-centered design have a way of accessing these tools on their own, should they want and need them, in an unforced way?

(This tension is present even at our own scrappy school. Our class is overwhelmingly white. Our instructors are overwhelmingly male, though the students are majority female. And while no students have said this program is financially easy, the fact that AC4D does not qualify for federal loans means that each of us, to some degree, has enough of a social, financial, and/or familial safety net that we have decided we can incur tens of thousands of dollars of life-work expense for a year of training.)

If the answer to that last question — Do the people who could most benefit from human-centered design have a way of accessing these tools on their own? — is no, then we have to ask: How are we best to take design’s problem-solving approach to people in other places and circumstances without inherently doing some degree of white-savior unasked-for evangelizing? (In designer terms: How do we ensure that we ourselves are not the “non-native product introduced to a fragile ecosystem”?)

And if that’s what we’re doing … are we respecting the agency of the poor any more than an openly exploitative model?

Is your head spinning yet?

It turns out “making things” is a very intricate challenge if you believe that a third word is implied: “make things responsibly.”

To me, the designer who best represents one way forward is Emily Pilloton. Yet she doesn’t quite resolve this last tension, of evangelizing from what is ultimately an outsider’s position. Her exhortation to place ourselves physically in a place, and work from where we are planted, is to me the most ethically sound argument, that recognizes the agency of the user and respects their participation in the process.

But I wonder if we can take her challenge one step further: Instead of moving ourselves to places that we determine are in need of our services, could we instead plant our feet in the communities and networks we are already in, regardless of their wealth? If instead of communities of poverty, we exist in deep community with developers and designers and investors and founders and thought leaders … can we consider that our design field for embedded user insight? Can our design provoke those who are most insured against provocation?

In the meantime, we have these models to consider. In the spirit of understanding how these models would, and do, play out on Earth … this comic looks at how each of these design theorists approaches the wicked problem of poverty, and where I might fit, and why I want to play along.

why design research matters.

So you want to be a designer. People will crinkle their brow and ask, “What kind?” And around the time you get to “prototyping ideations drawn from synthesis-theming our user utterances,” their eyes will go from glazed-over to all-the-way-back-in-their-head. Now what?

That humans design things around human needs and wants is a concept as old as time (see: the wheel). But today, as boardrooms and investors are fast-tracking the field of design from a cool, tangential thing to a strategic imperative, the answer(s) to “what is design and why does it matter” is growing more necessary. And design research is a focal point for a lot of this debate—among designers themselves.

What’s the role and purpose of design research?

There are a couple of fault lines in the debate. Designers are in general consensus that design research is a process of rigorous inquiry, toward the goal of uncovering needs or opportunities. What makes design research distinct from other tools, like market research, is that design research is focused on understanding users’ perspectives and behaviors. 

But from there, among designers, all unity breaks loose. One major line of debate falls along whether the aim of design research is to design with users, or design for them. You can think of these positions as “the co-creators” vs. “the experts.”

Another line of debate is around what the end goal of design research should be: exploring wholly new opportunities, or improving on existing products. You can think of these as “the innovators” vs. “the incrementalists.”

Over the last 20 years, eight leading designers have produced various arguments at different positions along these dividing lines: from Sanders, who preaches radical “co-design” between designer and participant to uncover new understandings of identity and social meaning, to Forlizzi and Norman, who suggest design research is well-conditioned to observe how already-created products affect and shape human experiences.

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Eight designers on the role of design research: With others, for others, toward creating new opportunities, and toward improving existing products.

In terms of implementing research design, designers can draw from many models for conducting field research: everything from “experience prototyping” (designing a 3D simulation of a new experience for users to test out and give practical feedback to the designer), to “cultural probes” (asking participants to share responses to a prompt, with no further analysis or explanation, for a designer to use as imagination-fuel), to “contextual inquiry” (synthesizing participant interviews with observed behavior, gathered artifacts, and other interviews for the designer to build empathy and deep understanding of/with users).

What these eight designers do all agree on is that the design research models you choose use will rely, in large part, on the design research values you embrace.

As we move forward in contextual inquiry, I’d place us toward the center, but in the lightbulb + people quadrant—alongside Sanders, Suri, Le Dantec, Kolko, and Dourish. If we see design as a fundamental approach to wicked problems, and we believe in trying to solve those problems—or at least, working to minimize and alleviate facets of them—we must aim for the personal and the universal. Design research will necessarily be both collaborative and controlled; it can aim for innovative and incremental. But if we’re going to be invited into the boardroom, let’s come in with a little vision, no?

telling the story.

This week, my team went fully into the field, interviewing multiple people at pop-up blood donation stations. We observed phlebotomists who talked passionately about the mission, interviewed mobile supervisors and account managers who have a long personal history with the organization, and conducted mapping activities with first-time donors with a wide range of motivations for coming in to give blood. It was invigorating, exhausting, and fully immersive. And it fit nicely with our two other courses this week: Designing research, and sketching perspective.

In our theory class, we’ve been exploring different approaches to design research: contextual inquiry (focusing on users’ behavior, along with—and sometimes over—stated opinion); cultural probes (providing broad prompts for participants to provide their associations, with minimal synthesis or analysis); photo-elicitation interviews (participants visually capture their pain points throughout the day, equipped with a camera); and more. Debating these methods, as a class and for ourselves, has challenged my team to take a daily step back and re/assess our real-time approach with our clients.

In our sketching class, we focused on perspective: how to draw the same object from multiple points of view, angle, and distances. Learning the rules of horizons and vanishing points helped provide guard rails for what real-world representational sketches can and can’t do. A square can look any number of ways when turned on an axis—but the rules of perspective dictates that the same common properties of squares, three-dimensional space, and distance will hold.

Changing perspective can help find both the rule and the distinct variations of an experience. And explicitly naming the underlying values of an experience can help focus the research phase of a project.

Last week, we also practiced presenting. A few of us were called up, unexpectedly, to re-deliver our team presentation from the week before—this time cold, with no notes, warning, or other teammates to help. My first attempt was overeager and nerves-shaken (my tactic was to rush from point to point to prove that I knew the material, and I way overshot). But after quick feedback from Matt and the class, I took a breath and told the story—this time with ease and confidence (at least for 60 seconds or so, before I derailed again.) This, too, was training for our team projects: Take a breath, consider the story, and speak/design from what you know that you know.

Next week, we will be presenting these real stories from real participants in the field. I’ve so valued how AC4D is immersing us in every aspect of the process, and after this week, my brain is on how-to-conduct-design-research synthesis-overdrive. We’re hoping, on the other side, to tell a good story, and tell it clear.

design is philosophy in action

My seven personal principles of design, and where five thinkers fall. **Edit: Updated with the color version.
My seven personal principles of design, and where five thinkers fall. **Edit: Updated with the color version.

In high school, I had a professor who taught a class he’d made up, apparently just because he wanted to. He called it “Junior Seminar.” This was an invite-only class, to high achieving kids who consistently got As.

On our first day he told us that we already had an A in the class. (Much to our disappointment—overachievers are obsessed with delayed gratification.) Instead, we talked about the books we would read that year, and how we could quit reading the ones we hated, and where to find more of the ones we loved; about what we saw about the world, and ourselves; what we wanted to do about it. Our one assignment for the entire semester was a single paper: How should I live my life? 

It was awful. It was hard to do, and listening to each other read portions out loud at the end of the semester, each paper an exercise in hubris and fear and hormones and insecurity, was even worse. But many of us couldn’t stop thinking about it. And by the time I graduated, I had a very different, and much clearer, answer to that question. It’s still one I regularly come back to.

These five thinkers are tapping around a similar question, of our work, and its responsibility to the world. If philosophy is the underlying value grounding our posture as designers, design is the work of putting those values into action. Whether it’s Dewey’s solutions-minded call to delight; or Postman’s cautionary siren; or Bernays’ yes-man corporate spin, all five voices are in some way familiar voices to us, from society or from within ourselves.

As these five voices are acting as practical philosophers, this diagram sets up a theory of “good” design, as a series of debates. Resolved: That good design is design that fulfills a clear function. Resolved: The good design is design that prioritizes human value. Each designer is named next to their core thesis. The dots on the grid correspond to the color of the box holding the designer’s name.

Some interesting pairings result. Bernays and Dewey, for example, share a belief in the need for a design that delights the senses. Yet they could not disagree more about the priority of individual human value.

As we head into this year, we will be grappling with a similar question to the one my high school teacher posed: How should I design? May the process be as illuminating. (And preferably less humiliating…but I’m not holding my breath.)

design for your life

i had an “a-ha” moment in studio on saturday, when pat was talking us through sketching technique: move the whole arm, keep your wrist flexible, don’t rest it on the page.

this was exactly what my violin teacher used to tell me, through years and years of study. move the whole forearm, keep your wrist flexible, don’t rest it on the neck of the violin. i never quite bothered internalizing it: i could do it the easy way and still play violin, sooooooo…

pat’s class was our final “first class” this week, and he kept up the tradition of “you thought this program was about learning design as a skill but SURPRISE IT’S ABOUT LEARNING DESIGN FOR YOUR LIFE!” — a stealth mantra carried out by ruby and every single teacher (and orientation instructor and alumnus and etc., etc.) we’ve encountered these first two weeks.

client pitch? SURPRISE, WE KNEW PUBLIC SPEAKING WAS ON YOUR SECRET LIST OF ‘NEXT MOVE’ GOALS AND BY THE WAY WHEN DID YOU PICK UP THAT HABIT OF TOUCHING YOUR FACE, STOP THAT

interviews + transcribing? SWEET TO THE BEAT, MORE PODCAST TRAINING, GOOD NEWS YOU STILL CAN’T STOP SAYING “LIKE” AND LAUGHING AT WEIRD TIMES

blog posts due every night? AWESOME, NO TIME LIKE TODAY TO FACE THE FACT THAT PROCRASTINATION IS YOUR PREFERRED FORM OF SELF-SABOTAGE, FIX THAT YESTERDAY THANK YOU AND AMEN

group challenges every week? NO SWEAT, GUESS YOU GET TO LEARN TO TRUST OTHERS WITH THE PROCESS AND ALSO LEARN TO DO THE WORK TO HELP OTHERS TRUST YOU, HELLO 24/7 RELATIONAL MANAGEMENT SKILLS, I’M OK ARE YOU OK?

theory that reads like all your fave undergrad anthro classes? YOU WILL YELL “I LOVE GRANT MCCRACKEN!” TO A TEAMMATE, UNIRONICALLY (YOU HAVE A STORY ABOUT READING HIM FOR YOUR OLD JOB AND KNOWING THEN AND THERE THAT YOU HAD TO GO TO DESIGN SCHOOL, BUT YOU WON’T REMEMBER IF YOU ACTUALLY EXPLAINED THAT PART OR JUST YELLED HIS NAME IN JOY)

six hours every saturday for sketching? A REASON TO REMEMBER ALL THE ART CLASSES YOU TOOK AS AN AWKWARD KID, AND TO REMEMBER, FOR THE FIRST TIME IN YEARS, HOW YOU NEVER FELT HAPPIER AND MORE AT PEACE THAN WHEN YOU WERE IN A STUDIO QUIETLY LEARNING HOW TO DRAW PERSPECTIVE HIGHWAYS

two weeks in, my dispatches to friends and family have been roughly 20% “this is what we’re doing,” and about 80% “this is what i’m learning, and realizing, and i keep finding ways how what we’re learning connects to things i’ve loved in the past, and wow this program is forcing me to take each of those things more seriously and do all of it better.”

so thanks, y’all. i’m learning a lot. but i’m also enjoying each reveal — an ever-increasing string of moments that suggest that practicing design can change your life, and heal it, too.

AC4D + We Are Blood: The Sequel

TEAM: Catherine, Kim, and Zev.

Two years ago, We Are Blood (WAB) decided to work with a team of AC4D students. During this time, WAB was also going through a transition phase.

From 1951-2016, WAB was known to the local Austin area as The Blood and Tissue Center of Central Texas. Recognizing that there was a space and need for them to make a bolder statement of the value to their local community, The Blood and Tissue Center of Central Texas rebranded and renamed to identify themselves as who they are today.

WAB saw a clear need to draw a distinction between their principles and services they provide to local hospitals, versus that of the national level donation based blood banks. We Are Blood is unique in its own industry, in that it operates in its own community, versus nationally, and that it prioritizes its social value in the community by carefully balancing the company’s scale and impact, rather than thinking about baselines and profit margins first and foremost.

We are thrilled to say that We Are Blood has chosen to work with AC4D again, in an effort to re-approach their original reason for rebranding: paying particular attention to their outward-facing service, and working to match that to their internal mission statement. How best can We Are Blood exude their mission of community and family, day in and day out? We will be working with them to find out!

Read our We Are Blood Community Culture Research Plan here.