The Ambiguity of a Focus Statement: Starting Research

Team members: Christina Davis and Kay Wyman

We’ve embarked on our capstone project we will complete over the next 24 weeks!

As a class, we are focused on the topic: College Persistence and Completion for Post- Traditional Students. We are partnering with Peloton U, a local organization dedicated to the mission of providing working students a pathway and support to graduate from college on-time and debt-free.

In the week following our first studio class of Q2, Kay and I have researched (and researched), created a focus statement, and crafted a research plan… with many iterations of the latter two in the last 7 days. Our research will focus on understanding how prospective post-traditional students make educational decisions to achieve a degree and what types of resources and information are used in the process. We are focusing our research on students who have taken active steps to enroll in college, including students who were previously enrolled and plan re-enroll. We chose to focus on people making decisions around attending school because, in addition to identifying resources future students access to inform their decisions, we can identify and gain insight into other life circumstances that influence educational decisions.

On Friday we set out into the field and had our first meeting with an advisory stakeholder, College Forward. During our meeting we learned about the support services they provide to students in the 11th grade thru college. Aside from the in-person support provided, College Forward is doing remarkable work to increase student success rates across the country through technology they have created for tracking student progress and outcomes, which is available for free.  I love that College Forward is focused on scalability as they attempt to solve student completion rates.

On Saturday we immersed ourselves at ACC Fest, an event at Austin Community College providing information on career paths. The entire experience was engaging and provided a handful of learning opportunities:


  1. Pay attention to your surroundings outside of class: As a habitual billboard reader, this event was screaming in my face as I turned onto Springdale Rd!
  2. Be ready to improvise: We arrived ready with a tape recorder, gift card incentives, and consent forms in case we found an immediate interview opportunity, although anticipated we would mostly set up appointments. Approaching people in a large atrium with a band playing proved tough and we took a minute to regroup next to a table, an empty table. Like lightning, we realized we had found the perfect opportunity to stand behind a table like all the ‘official’ information providers and the students/ prospective students began to come to us!
  3. Watch and wait: We were most successful when we observed people’s behavior and activities for a while before approaching. People who stopped at the tables to chat with representatives and people who were smiling proved most interested in providing us their contact information for follow up screening. This was also beneficial in helping us to determine which attendees seemed truly interested in enrolling in college as opposed to the crowds surrounding the table handing out rubber duckies.

Today, Kay and I had a notable experience that we felt captured an essence of why we are here at AC4d and the work we will be doing as designers. We had great discussions (in a team-ly fashion) and evolved our research plan together, including narrowing our participants from students and potential students to (very serious) potential students and past students seeking to re-engage. As we expressed our ideas around the pros and cons of the options, we both had hesitations to eliminate people we had met at ACC to whom we already felt a connection, shared empathy, and had a deep desire to help.





Here we are at our last theory presentation and an opportune moment to reflect back on the past 7 weeks. In theory class, we began with readings on Ethics & Responsibility, continued on to The Role of Research, Design & Poverty, and finished on Design Thinking. Reading Design Theory is intended to not just inform us as designers, but help us to determine who we are as designers. In my Statement of Purpose when applying to AC4D, I spoke of why design was important to me by discussing design as it showed up throughout my life outside of traditional design roles. One enjoyable aspect of Theory class has been putting concepts and language around those experiences.

For our final presentation, we are presenting on how designers think. We were encouraged to approach something we would like to improve and for me that is storytelling and, not just processing and synthesizing our readings, but how that applies to me as a designer.

namibia table sunrise

Throughout this section of readings, I have been thinking back to a moment when I broadened my sense of design. The setting for the conversation was quite dramatic; sunrise atop a mountain in the Namibian desert. I was working as a Safari Guide at time and on this specific day I was off duty as a guide and tasked with setting up a surprise breakfast for a group of guests. While overlooking the otherworldly landscape along the Kunene River into Angola, I made what started as small talk with a guest who informed me he was a designer. Prior to this I had studied fashion design and construction, worked for an interior design firm, and read glossy design magazines with people sharply dressed, often in black. I was taken aback because nothing about this guest indicated to me he was what I identified as a designer. He explained to me that he had worked for Apple many moons ago and was part of the design team for one of their early model computers. In his description of the work he told me that the 12 designers signatures were etched into the mold for the hardware just as an artist signed their painting. I have never found literature to support his story, but for me the idea of a signature on a piece of hardware INSIDE of a computer broadened my definition of the art of design. As our conversation continued it turned into a discussion of technology in the world today and, as I would describe now, the wicked problems that have resulted. Elements of the conversation included the renaissance and the enlightenment and a future where qualitative human thought is of the greatest value. Wyatt’s article was poignant as she discussed the transition from design based on aesthetics to design providing solutions to complex problems, and human experience at a local level to identify user needs and perspectives.

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The period of industrialization marked an increase in technology that moved us away from being an agrarian society and gave birth to social problems, which Horst Rittel termed “Wicked Problems.” A frustrated urban planner, Rittel defines the nature of problems and identifies quantitative solutions cannot resolve social problems because each problem leads to a new problem. Another one of our authors, Herb Simon, defines well structured problems solvable by artificial intelligence and brute force and Ill-structured problems which require qualitative information. Ill structured problems are unpredictable and therefore the best approach to a solution is to MAKE something. He introduces problem solving as an iterative cycle that evolves forward based off of the external environment and long term memory. Nigel Cross discusses making things and the role of abductive reasoning, and the need for designers to intentionally inform their intuition.


Just as industrialization changed society through technology producing more efficiently than humans, computers are able to outperform humans in deductive reasoning. Chris Paccione argues for the need for universal design skills as a human literacy to be taught in school by following the societal benefits of the spread of math literacy that resulted not from Fibonacci making math accessible to people through his teaching methods. There will always be space for design as a specialized profession because we live in a world of wicked problems. Buchanan explores design as a discipline at a micro level where there can be cross contamination between design arenas of signs, things, actions, and thoughts. He proposes that instead of organizing around outputs, we organize around process.

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DeBono explores the creative process by pairing it with the constructs of humor to describe lateral thinking, the process of jumping from a rational line of thought to an unexpected parallel line of thinking. One of the ways he proposes transitioning between lines is through provacation; he describes a project with cigarettes and opening the dictionary, and randomly selecting the word stoplight. While this seemed absurd to me it reminded me of the statement of purpose I mentioned earlier, design is ubiquitous and interconnected because it is purposeful.

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In the context of this story, it was ironic that we were in a desert occupied by one of the last nomadic tribes in the world, the Himba. During a week off work I headed to Windhoek, and escorted a local Himba working in the lodge to ‘the big city’ for a dental appointment. To me this was a moment of two worlds colliding because I had assumed the tribe to live in a bubble and not be going to town for dentistry but instead applying a solution passed through generations. The two worlds collided when Ben and I drank beer in a cafe and he asked me to make a facebook account for him, which first involved setting up an email account, and then lots of explanation about why and eventually discussion about our digital identities of today’s information age. And thus a nomadic Himba was now part of the digital era where computers have the answers to all our questions… just not the answers to the true problems. I’ve always wondered about Ben’s facebook journey and its purposes: What value did facebook provide him? Did he find ‘friends’? What sort of advertising targeted him?!

My thoughts have changed and instead of thinking of technology as the driver of good or bad change I am thinking about design as the driver of positive change… Hobbe’s water wheels, Yunus’ social businesses, Pilloton’s call for immersion to address the real problems.

When writing a blog post about theory class at the beginning of the term I referenced what level of physical torture I would be willing to endure to not have to do the theory readings. I am happy to report that I now look forward to our readings; I liken it to how the first month or two back at the gym is miserable but as you build up those muscles again the tables turn and it can feel miserable when you DON’T get to the gym. What are we going to do without Tuesdays and Thursdays with Scott next term?! As Scott’s first set of students, I consider us fortunate that we had intellectual discussions brought to life with his amazing sense of humor and had the benefit of learning from somebody that had been in our shoes as an AC4D student not too many years ago. Thanks for an awesome term, Scott!


A Voyage in Design Thinking….

During our last unit in theory, we focused on Design and Poverty. The authors covered a vast range of opinions from Prahalad who proposes converting the poor into consumers to Pilloton who personally moved to the sites of her projects. The reading group was a healthy mix of idealism and capitalism.

Our assignment was to create a storyboard including the opinions of all the authors. Although we were not plotting the authors to a scale like usual, I found this was still a helpful exercise for processing. What I loved about creating a story was that it provided a clear opportunity to identify a hero.


Part 1

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Artboard 12

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Perspectives in Austin

During the past two weeks in IDSE 103, we focused on drawing perspectives and figures. I find perspective drawing to be a bit meditative so I was looking forward to spending some time putting a different part of my brain to work in between reading, interviewing, transcribing, and presenting. Pat mentioned a few places in Austin that sounded iconic and I imagined sitting on a bench by a lake, sketchpad in hand, enjoying the fresh air. The assignment seemed like an opportune time to see a bit of Austin since I have had little time to do that in the month since I moved here.

My pleasurable vision of sketching in the park was soon swept away by the realty of our schedules here at AC4D. Instead of the assignment serving me a chance to explore Austin, I had the opportunity to capture what Austin is to me! Below are perspectives of where I spend my time. For reference, I’ve arranged them clockwise from the lower left, beginning with where I spend the most time and ending with where I spend the least time:

Springdale General, the new home of AC4D (and the view of the final construction work from my desk) // My group work area at the AC4D Studio (…including our walls now covered countless utterances and post-its) // An Airbnb // and Cuvee Coffee on 6th (I have only been there twice but that seems like a lot comparatively).

Although my sketching did not take me off the beaten path, I enjoyed visually taking in the spaces where I spend time and having time to appreciate my days here.

IDSE 103 Davis


The Role of Design Research

We live in a world that is constantly evolving & in flux, and that makes design research relevant today. As AC4D students, we account for this in developing our designs:

Our design research to date is focused on capturing the experiences of the outliers, painting a picture of the people who sit on the outside of the norm.

We are tasked with developing probes and exercises that allow our participants to give definition to their personal experiences. We conduct interviews with questions formed around “why do you” and “show me”  instead open ended questions and directives to perform tasks.

The most recent module of our theory class focused on the different ways of describing the role of design research and included 3 sections: Designing With, Designing For // Participatory Design // Synthesis & Value

The following diagram allocates the 8 authors of our readings along the x-axis according to the role of the end user in the design research methods they describe. The authors on the far left side of the axis practice design research that includes users during research and design development. The authors on the far right axis engage users to obtain research and then move forward with the design phase independently. For they y-axis, I initially labeled my line to represent the predictability of users’ behavior with a range of ‘People are Predictable’ to ‘People Do Crazy Stuff’ – I kept the language clean for the presentation. After feedback from the group, I decided to update the axis to a range of ‘People Are Predictable’ and ‘People are Autonomous.

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As illustrated in the table, most of our authors view people as unpredictable and that is something we as designers should take into consideration at all stages of the design process.

Our assignment began as imagining these 8 authors having a conversation about their perspective on design research. After determining the authors opinion on designing with and designing for a user and how they view the users that user’s behavior I  evolved my analysis to include how the final design artifact fits into the construct. Below is a diagram representing the influences for change of an artifact.

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Week 3 Recap

Another week of jam-packed mental gymnastics has passed! I’ve been focusing hard on getting ahead of assignments and have finally entered a rythm where I find opportunities to begin assignments when (or close to when) they are assigned. On Sunday, I sat down at a coffee shop to read more of our theory assignment, which although I enjoy the messages the reading poses, it is a long and painful process for me. Sometimes I even make a mental list of what torture I would endure if it meant I didn’t have to read; one particular set of readings, I mentally agreed I would be willing to have my toenails ripped out! Luckily the degree of torture is decreasing closer to a stubbed toe. As I mentioned I sat down to do my readings, at a coffee shop to do the readings and after 2 hours, I had sketched the coffee shop as a start to drawing my studio assignment, read 2 pages of theory, and then wrote my blog post. It is comical to me that procrastination is not about cleaning the house or doing errands, but about doing a different assignment. Did I mention I had completed only 2 pages of the theory article when writing the blog?

Starting assignments as they come works well in theory but with demanding assignments I still end up in “fire drill mode” and imagine there will always be those moments at AC4D, that is a reality we are being equipped to survive in the working world. When I step back from school work, I remind myself I am immersed in a 9 month program of expanding knowledge, training of new thought patterns, building communication skills (within group and visual-verbal bridge) and increasing self-awareness. Even when I wish there were 28 hours in a day to finish assignments, I am remiss the days are passing and even 3 weeks in, I am cognizant each week that passes is one week less of the explosion of knowledge and experience we have 9 months to experience. I am so excited to be challenged again and hope the path will continue after completion of our course. It is a real privilege to be at AC4D and learning from accomplished  industry professional who share their passion by taking time to teach us.
Some highlights of the week:

Stories of APA!
Gaining clarity on the different organizational functions and viewing the business in new perspectives. For example, is the kitten nursery’s main mission to “process” as many kittens through to fosters in order to maximize cage availiability?

It was hard to find 100mobjects to sketch…It was a priceless moment when I found my classmate sitting on a stool in the middle of the bathroom sketching the toilet!

Week 2 Recap


A discussion following Week 2 at AC4D with Adam and Catherine:

Week 2 was no different from the preceding two weeks in that we faced a lot of new information to not only digest, but to put into action. It was satisfying to get into the field and conduct a couple of interviews at Austin Pets Alive! with my partner, Aaron. A benchmark of Week 2 was that we have now completed assignments for all of our courses. Juggling three balls and making sure one does not drop requires a rhythm; now that we’ve completed our first round of assignments, time blocking will be the key to keeping those balls off the floor.

The Value of Users in Design Theory

AC4D_IDSE_102_Assignment 1

During our first 2 weeks of IDSE 102: Design, Society, and the Public sector, we read works from Edward Bernays, Victor Papanek, Maurizio Vitta, Neil Postman, and John Dewey. Considering how each author views the role of design in society, we were assigned to plot the 5 authors on an scale of not important to important. The criteria I developed for ranking is how each author values the individual.

The theme of individual autonomy has been at the forefront of my mind since arriving at AC4D. In IDES 101/201: Interaction Design and Research Synthesis, Aaron and I wrote a research plan with questions aimed to gain qualitative data from interviewees through their unique lens. Focusing on the individuality of the outliers provides valuable insights into problems and better informs solutions.

Under the lens the of value for the individual, the authors we read covered the polarity of the scale. Bernays views persuasion as a tool for shaping people’s beliefs and justifies this is moral because individuals in a democracy have free choice, hence only the best ideas survive. The act of persuasion in itself renders the individual to have no power, no ability to withstand the sway of propaganda. Yes, we live in a democracy with individual choice, but we also live in a free market where the volume of demand determines what survives, individual preference has little power on its own. The next author on the scale, Papanek, believes design must be sensible and responsible in a world with depleting resources. He cites a barrier to design innovation is cultural blocking, preconceived notions of the public that prevent adoption. In this context, the individual user is held in low esteem, they doesn’t consume with intention but only within what culture prescribes as normal.

Vitta believes design has the power to shape culture but designers must beware of the consequences. The identity of the designer becomes lost as commodification creates a shift where consumption becomes a source for consumer identity. While this acknowledges the user seeks individual identity, they are expressing a specific identity within the constraint of an image prescribed not by themselves, but by society.

In his support for experiential education versus traditional education, Dewey concludes teachers are responsible for creating meaningful experiences that will positively inform future interactions for the individual. Dewey shows a high regard for the individual in his desire to ensure protection of the individual user and create positive interactions to provide a continuum for future success.
Postman addresses a group of computer technologists and warns design innovation creates both winners and losers. It is imperative we consider the reprecussions of our creations; history shows that technology diverges from the original intention of the designer and can result in dangerous consequences. While computers can provide a plethora of valuable information, information has the ability to create chaos. Postman assigns ultimate regard for the individual in stating “The human dilemma is as it always has been, and we solve nothing fundamental by cloaking ourselves in technological glory.”

Design serves numerous functions across our society from helping us move through our daily lives to fueling our capitalist economy. In all realms of design, artifacts are meaningless without the individual user. Our authors have ranged from considering the individual as something to control, believing the user consumes for the purpose of identity, to celebrating the complexity of the human dilemma.

Week 2

Saturday marked the completion of our first week of classes. It has been a whirlwind of navigating new experiences, processing new knowledge, and honing time management skills.

On Monday, we received our first assignment for IDSE 101/202 which entailed identifying a philanthropically minded business, pitching them to obtain access to their organization to interview 15+ employees over 30 hours, and pay us $1000 for our design research (research only, no solutions). Upon hearing the assignment was to be presented in 48 hours, I decided to not stick in my initial state of terror and to instead trust the process and take it one step at a time. It was somewhat comforting to hear a classmate voice that they didn’t really hear the content of the lecture once the $1000 clause.

Aaron and Cristina and I, gathered as a team in the morning to share companies we had identified to approach and brainstormed some more as a group. There was an additional level of challenge because Cristina and I moved to Austin a day before orientation and a day after orientation so did not have a knowledge bank of local organizations; Google, along with some creative search titles, was key to identifying business options. I think what made this assignment particularly difficult was that at every point, it seemed like we were working on the most challenging task but the next one seemed larger once we arrived at it. It was somewhat akin to trekking up to a plateau, but once you near the top you see there is another steeper portion ahead, and again when you believe you are nearing the top you see yet another steeper section ahead. I’m not quite sure how this analogy will continue into this week; one of our team members joined a different project and concurrently our verbal contract with REI didn’t go further. I am assuming this next phase is going to feel like trekking across a field of skree searching for the angle of repose and for that I am thankful and excited for the adventure. Sometimes we learn by falling and to me there are few feelings better than getting up and going forward with new perspective.

This week also marked the start of IDSE 101: Design and Society, our theory class,  and it was a nice balance to engage in active reading and commentary in contrast to identifying action items and finding solutions. I really enjoyed seeing the overlaps with architectural design history and theory in the writings. I found identifying the parallel design movements occurring in the architectural world at the time of the readings publication highly correlated.

We finished the week sketching in IDSE 103, our studio foundation class. Pat had great exercises for us to do and made our class really fun. Although I have taken a number of drawing classes, I was frustrated and in complete agreement that sketching is a skill that needs to be continually practiced. Some time ago, I read a study about success which focused on people who were innately good at something as opposed to people who struggled with the same topic. The conclusion was that the people who lacked the innate ability needed to dedicate more time to reach the same goal but in the mean time they gained an exemplary   expertise in the subject. And so I will sketch, and I will sketch…

Looking forward to the adventures to come next week!

Assignment 1 – REI

Aaron, Cristina, Christina

To begin our first assignment focused on Design Research, Synthesis and Service Design we brainstormed as a group to identify socially minded business to offer our design services. We identified portals listing co-ops, b-corps, and incubators, as well as drawing on Aarons knowledge of local Austin businesses.


We selected Tacodeli, Austin Pets Alive!, Mobile Loaves & Fishes, REI, and The Yellow Bike Project to visit. We also reached out to a local baby food company, Nurture Me, as well as a few local incubators. During each visit we participated in a typical customer experience and documented our interaction with points of service with photos. When we were able to make contact with employees we asked open ended questions about their experience in their roles, which we recorded.


We were excited to reach a verbal agreement with the manager at REI downtown to provide research on the store operations with a focus on the store warehousing and floor stocking. During our visit we spoke with a floor employee, visited the stockroom, and learned about current procedures around inventorying and restocking

View our Research Plan: