A reflection on Closure

I’ve gotten a reputation for redesigning AC4D via blog posts. It’s a testament to the school’s openness and our relationship to the school as inaugural class that I’ve been able to channel my critical reflections into something proactive and creative. And I’ve realized that everything that the school has put forth this first year has been a stake in the ground—this is how we do things— and that without that initial catalyst, no reflection/improvement/differing opinions can be had in the first place. And I’ve grown a lot doing this kind of thinking and reflecting, and I hope none of it comes off as too critical because it’s all done with #ac4dlove and with the future in mind. Anyway, to end the year with more of the same, some of us felt that our graduation dinner was anti-climactic and missing something, and upon reflection I remembered and learned and wanted to share the following.

One of my undergrad communications professors told us that ceremonies served as punctuation marks in our lives. The graduations, birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, and funerals mark the passing of time and let us pause to reflect and celebrate. I initially was going to write about the ceremonies of years past and how they were awkward yet necessary because they allowed us to step out of normal time by doing this weird pomp and circumstance routine. And only by participating in it were you able to feel the feelings you needed to feel in order to blah blah blah.

But then I realized that’s not what we needed more of this past week. Making the receiving of graduation certificates more staged or more formal wouldn’t have helped bring closure to this AC4D inaugural experience. What we needed more of was the reflection that ceremonies sometimes let us experience. What we needed more of was group reflection time—an AC4D members-only powwow instead of individual POWs.

Learning from Owl’s Nest

I was fortunate enough to be able to participate in the first Owl’s Nest: a weekend retreat for women who used the creative arts to engage community. Because the two creators of the Owl’s Nest were women as well as professional community facilitators, they did an exceptional job of structuring our introduction to and our exit from the Nest.


Though I do not remember the specifics of our first day activities, one thing I do remember is that we covered ground rules and did some games and activities before we had to introduce ourselves and give our spiels about our backgrounds. When you jump into introductions right away before having a chance to work with or even just hang out with people, the names and facts don’t stick because there’s no context. How much more impactful would it be to be introduced to your AC4D classmates after a day of working with them in a design bootcamp than it is to sit through an hour’s worth of intros only to forget everything and relearn people’s names over lunch.

Group Reflection

Even more powerful and more impactful was the way Owl’s Nest closed out our weekend work together as a group. First we had group reflection time: We did a Poster Dialogue activity where large sheets of paper were posted around the wall, a couple sheets for each of the following questions:

  • What was most important to you over the weekend?
  • What did you enjoy most?
  • What are you taking away?

People could write their own answers, read other’s answers, and comment on what others had written. Following this, the retreat leaders led us through processing the posters by holding a group conversation by reading aloud what we had written, asking questions, and letting people voice follow-up thoughts with the whole group. I could definitely see this being useful as a way to process and reflect on a period of collaborative worktime including design workshops, the last day of an individual class, or pre-graduation. And easily adaptable to whiteboards or post-its.

Group Appreciation

The other activity that brought Owl’s Nest to a fulfilling closure was a community closing activity focused on appreciation. We were about 30 people. We sat in a circle, and we took turns, each appreciating what someone else in the circle had brought to our experience together. Each person shared one thing about another person, and when it was your turn, you had to choose someone who had not yet been appreciated. Everyone in the circle got one moment to be honored by the group and one opportunity to share a story about someone else in the group. It may sound cheesy, but it’s incredibly powerful, period.

Three other variations on this activity came from my time as an after-school teacher.

  1. You can pass a ball of yarn from one person to another as each person thanks another. At the end, the facilitator walks around the circle and cuts the strings each person is holding and weaves a story: despite the fact that we may have to leave the group now, we will always hold a piece of our time together with us into the future (symbolized by the length of yarn we’re left with).
  2. On large sheets of paper one per person (possibly with respectively traced silhouettes if you’re working with small children), each person writes his/her name. Then the group walks around and writes good things or appreciations or thanks about others. These can be written directly onto the paper, or onto post-it’s or cut-out shapes that are then attached to the person.
  3. As a Badgerdog summer camp writing instructor, we had to introduce each of our students at the closing community reading before they came up on stage to read their work aloud. Each instructor did it in a different way, but most took the time to appreciate and say something uniquely observed about each student. It’s necessary to sometimes very publicly acknowledge and honor the specialness of individuals at the milestones in their lives, because it’s usually the most amazing people who are the most humble and sometimes the most insecure of us all.

At the Owl’s Nest, in between and after our closing activities, we also completed individual written evaluations, packed and cleaned, said goodbyes. Many of us also went to Trudy’s afterward for drinks and food where other ‘outsiders’ joined our group. But because we had already reflected and closed our weekend retreat together, everything else fell easily into place.


Now, in hindsight, I think AC4D students and faculty should have just gone out for drinks together before our graduation dinner—members only, no guests allowed—to shoot the bull, reflect on the year, and say all of the things we needed to say, out loud and to the group, as uncomfortable or as squirmy as they may make us feel: all the “thank you’s” and “can you believe that” and “so proud’s” and “omg’s” and “I’m so glad to know you” and “this was fucking amazing, holy fucking shit…”

Because holy fucking shit, Mr. Kolko and Mr. Petro, a year ago none of this existed! And look what you created! And how the fuck did you manage to bring together such an incredible and inspiring and amazing group of people? And kudos on a damn good first year.

And thank you.

Marketing 101 from @getmetacos

So whut had happen wuz: Hour School was like, “Yo Scott, whut joo know bout marketing?” And Scott was all like, “Bring it.” And lemme tell ya, dat boy Scott dropped some dope wisdom on us.

If you want some framing and language and context and understanding to enhance your nuts and bolts and excel spreadsheets, read on. Because theory + practice = rainbows and unicorns!

Everything is marketing.

Marketing is not a 4-letter word. Everything you do is marketing: your name, your brand, your words, how you present yourself, your Twitter handle, your tone, your product, your customer support, everything. In the end, the culmination of how people perceive your company can be affected by any of those pieces (for better or for worse).

Marketing is about understanding how people see you, and how they hear you.

The 4 P’s

The 4 P’s are something you learn in school when you’re starting off as levers you can adjust. You end up internalizing them, and then no one ever explicitly talks about them in meetings.

  • Product: Creating value means understanding your product market fit and making sure you fit within a niche where your product and values align with your customers’. Just talk to people, and find out what their needs are. (Ahem, design research.) So much of typical marketing = broadcast. Don’t settle for that. Find the right people, and position it for them.
  • Price: Projecting your value and aligning it with other’s perceived value.
  • Place: How are people going to find you? How are they going to find out that you’re good? Where are they when that happens? Use customer journey maps and temporal zooms to understand those touchpoints.
  • Promotion: Quotes from your customers speak volumes. Transfer of trust is very real. Find a way to have a connection to the person/industry. Craft specific messages for specific audiences. “No one wears a sign on their head saying ‘I want your stuff.'”

The most important P

is of course patience. Do it right. You only get one shot with some customers. Listen to them.

Marketing vs. Sales

  • Marketing = demand generation: who you are, where you are, how do people get to you. Go to where the people already at (fish where the people are already at.) Don’t create new behaviors; discover existing behaviors. Make it so simple to work your product/service into their normal patterns, they can’t not use this next great thing.
  • Sales = conversion: how do you get them to do this action or to transact? Awareness is well and good, but to be sustainable, you need to generate revenue, so you can get a return on your investment.

Read startup-marketing.com

Great posts, for example this one on Lean Marketing Basics that take cues from Lean Start-Up values. Basically, be smart about your marketing: don’t just throw money at old broadcast mediums when you could be creating more personalized messages.

  1. Minimize waste via sophisticated metrics (Understand where your $ is going with stuff like google analytics, measure it, understand whether it’s good or bad, adjust as needed, so you’re not throwing money away.)
  2. Understand your customer’s values. (empathy)
  3. Optimize the funnel (typical funnel 1% transacting = good But if you find the right people to market to, you can make the funnel more of a cylinder. Don’t waste your money bringing in non-qualified leads at the top. No reason to market at people who aren’t your customer.)


Set marketing/sales goals, and make sure you achieve them. When things aren’t working, good marketers turn the magnifying glass back onto themselves; bad ones just throw more money at it.


Be consistent in all of your messaging. If you’re consistent, your message will get across. Nuances may get seen by outside as something different. (e.g. if you’re selling your product to three different groups, you may be tempted to talk about it in a different way to each, but it’s still the same product; don’t confuse people)

Makes it easier for others to be able to describe it to other people, makes it easier for others to evangelize for you.


Someone else is probably already doing it; look at what they’re doing for free research. What’s working, what’s not?

Don’t forget the basics

  • Find out people’s intents and motivations
  • Get to where they’re at and other people like them
  • Visualize the experience. Think through every detail of your business as if it’s successful. Work through details such as: in an ideal world, how would they find you? what’s their first experience with you? when would they realize they’ve found something great? what would you be doing when they found that out? why would the user think it’s great or important?

Key questions

  • What would make you do this again?
  • What would make you want to tell someone else about this?
  • How do you make your customer kick-ass? How do you make them awesome?



Mad props to Hour School and Scott Magee for throwing down and helping a sista out with her humble start-up marketing plans.

Healthcare marketing AKA games AKA interaction design

When I started writing this post, it was about marketing trends in healthcare. Rereading the draft, I realized they were actually gaming trends, and that they apply to interaction design in general. But those are all just surface key words. The reason these ideas resonated with me is because of the opportunities they open up for forward-looking and people-focused designers.


The following caught my eye in this post about gamechanging trends in healthcare marketing (pun not intended, I’m sure):

Kinect SDK could open the door to the next big thing in UX: This is a fantastic one – Earlier this month, Microsoft released a software development kit for its motion-controlled gaming system Kinect. That means third parties (like us) will be able to develop games and experiences that work on Kinect. You can imagine how this could reinvent how we think about UX. Today, most of the experience revolution is happening on the touch screen (in the apps and tools we’re developing of iPads and other slates.) Kinect opens up the potential of creating motion-based interfaces that connect with real-world human behavior.

Many of the early announcements around the Kinect SDK include examples alluding to Minority Report and Wall-E, and paint pictures of its use in people’s homes or offices. But I’m much more intrigued by the idea of something like this in a hospital or a doctor’s office, where there is a lot of natural movement and interpersonal connection. Motion-based interfaces remove the middlemen screens that come between many of our existing people-to-people interactions, as we move further toward the internet of things.


The first post led me to this one about what the Madden NFL Game can teach us about healthcare education/awareness campaigns. Instead of PSA’s, posters, and Facebook pages, let’s embed messages where they make the most sense and meet people where they are. That phrase gets tossed around a lot in my world because I value the idea, and this is a great example of that.

Instead of creating a PSA about concussions during football games and encouraging people to sit out after receiving one, NFL Madden from EA Sports started incorporating the scenario into their video game.

…the folks that developed the game recognized an issue with their sport and the well-being of its athletes and they chose their game as a means to address that. The reasons why this will probably be the most effective way to educate kids about concussions are simple. First, you’ll reach a huge proportion of them where they are (opposite signs in a doctor’s office) and likely disproportionately reach actual football players too. You put the injury in context of something they can understand. That is, if a concussion happens to your player in the game, you see the effects in real-time. You see the impact and the announcers reinforce it. As a player, you can’t help but absorb this, as the game stops for a moment while a replacement comes into the game. What will eventually happen is that players of the game will alter how they play the game to reduce the chances that their key players end up with a concussion (Madden NFL developers plan to make certain hits in the game result more often in concussions). Consciously and subconsciously this changes the way you think about the real game of football as a player too.

This will work to educate the people that matter: football players, coaches, and parents of football players (who also will be playing the game). It will work because it will reach this audience where they are, with a message that is very much in context of what they are doing at that moment, at a time when they are receptive (whether they know it or not) to receiving this message, and in a form that’s simple to understand with clear cause and effect.

Why now is the time to be in #IxD and #SocEnt

We are interaction designers. We are social entrepreneurs. We want to work toward social change. We want to make an impact. And we want our lives to have meaning. The moment is more than ripe. The possibilities are breathtaking if you think about where we are now as…
  1. As designers and the general public start to embrace that design is a verb, is a liberal art, is a collaborative effort, and is about the WHY. (Questions designers were asking during ‘one day for design,’ curated by Frank Chimero.)
  2. As technology makes the boundaries between the internet and life “so porous as to be meaningless.” (Beautiful and thought-provoking presentation on what’s Beyond the Mobile Web.)
  3. As we infuse ethics, commitment, values, and creativity into all of our work, no matter the channel or platform or means. (What nuns, yes nuns, can teach you about social media)


Theory of Social Entrepreneurship

AC4D is a different kind of school. We quickly realized on day 1 of student orientation that we were all here to work toward social impact. There weren’t going to be endless discussions about whether or not we should be “doing good” because it was pre-defined and a given in all of us as AC4D students. As Steve Portigal observed after guest lecturing:

The school is focusing on applying design to social change, but the discussion is about the problem solving power of design – to understand, reframe, and innovate, rather than an excess of earnestness or worrying. I suspect their point of view is maybe what you could call post-worldchanging…of course you want to address homelessness, let’s use the tools we’ve got to look at it.

We can’t just talk the talk; we have to walk the walk.

The great thing about the mix of method and theory classes we’ve been getting in Interaction Design is that we can both walk the walk while being able to talk the talk. We are able to frame our work within the larger context of the design community while understanding the history of what’s come before us.

We are missing the same kind of framing in the world of social entrepreneurship. We need a “Theory of Social Entrepreneurship” class to support our real work in the social enterprise space.

  • If the history of Xerox Park and Lisa and desktop publishing enrich our understanding of what is possible in our interaction designs today, the history of philanthropy and social finance and the sustainability movement give us a frame of what social entrepreneurship means in today’s world.
  • If we must read and engage in critical class debates about John Dewey and Richard Buchanan and Emily Pilloton to be able to attend IxD11 and not feel like a noob, we must also read and engage in critical class debates about Muhammad Yunus and Jacqueline Novogratz and Jeff Skoll to start to find our place in the SocEnt space as well.
  • Our stimulating discussions about the hot questions in design today (design with vs. design for; the role of technology in our lives) should be partnered with stimulating discussions about the hot questions in social entrepreneurship today (measuring impact; how does scale affect impact; passion vs. burn-out; legal structures and not getting sued by shareholders).

A couple of our classmates have been living in this stuff for the past couple of years and know how to talk in the language of social entrepreneurship. And while they were sometimes frustrated with the all talk and no walk of their previous SocEnt communities, we are now in danger of the opposite. I’m lucky enough to be able to pick their brains.

I’m starting to understand that SocEnt in the U.S. is different than its movement in Canada or the UK, and I’m starting to see why I’m still struggling to fit in. In other countries, SocEnt is tackling urban planning and local community issues. In the U.S., the SocEnt projects that get the most buzz and the most traction are targeting developing countries and the bottom of the pyramid. In other countries, SocEnt is tied to universities, research grants, and government money. In the U.S., our funding comes from VCs and philanthropic investment funds—and I’m not sure how funding of research (not just tech R&D) plays into it all yet. (Hope Lab is an interesting model: non-profit org that funds research and development, eventually spinning off social enterprises such as Zamzee.)

I’m wary of VC funds because I can’t guarantee 10x return if I’m operating a double- or triple-bottom-line business. My solution is to simply bypass it altogether (without much critical thought into the matter). I’m sure some debate and discussion would at least help me see my options more clearly.

I also believe that social enterprises and typical business ventures are different and require different types of incubation. Yes, they share the same backbones of business, and yes, fiscal sustainability is tantamount to success. But there are some new core questions that social entrepreneurs have to weave into their start-ups. How do you get your business off the ground while fueling your mission at the same time? How do you define success, and how to you measure that? How do you position yourself in the current marketplace? Cliché but: where is the line between you and your business, your passion and your investment?

Then throw in the questions that design brings to the picture of enterprise…let alone social enterprise. For most entrepreneurs, proof-of-concept and market validation typically come after you have a working beta, whereas designers create their products out of user research and synthesis and have to prove fiscal traction in addition to market validation.

Typically, we find MBAs with a business know-how searching for their passions; in SocEnt, we get reluctant innovators pursuing business know-how. Where do we interaction designer social entrepreneurs fit into these frameworks? We come at it from multiple sides, trying to make things meet in the middle. We’re making it up as we go along, as all adults do. Out of the frying pan into the fire.

Here are some examples of social enterprises that might provide some clues:

  • Tom’s Shoes
  • Catch a Fire (channel corporate employees to do pro bono consulting)
  • Ecojot (recycled paper notebooks)
  • Seventh Generation
  • Para Vida (coffee)
  • Better World Books
  • Good Capital (investment firm that invests in social)
  • Ben and Jerry’s business
  • Brand Aid Project
  • Root Capital
  • O Liberte (shoes)
  • Acumen Fund
  • Grameen Bank

Web sites where the debates are happening:

Books to whet your appetite:

  • David Borenstein: Social Enrepreneurship – What Everyone Needs to Know
  • Jacqueline Novogratz: The Blue Sweater


  • A Better World for Design
  • Harvard Social Enterprise Conference
  • re:Vision 2011
  • RISE

Incubators focused on social enterprises:

  • Unreasonable Institute
  • Good Company Ventures
  • Echoing Green Fellows

[Thanks to Hour School co-founder Ruby Ku for a lot of the above links and resources. In the spirit of Hour School’s mission to transform learners into teachers, I believe either she or Ryan Hubbard is fully capable of teaching a kick-ass course in IDSE 402: Theory of Social Entrepreneurship.]

Business Model Generation

Meet my first business model canvas. Isn’t she cute?

I was spurred on by our IDSE 401 discussions about income statements, balance sheets, and cash flow statements—and the ‘oh snap!’ realization that we haven’t solidified our revenue streams. I’ve been using Alexander Osterwalder & Yves Pigneur’s Business Model Generation book (recommended by Justin Petro during Q1) to walk through key considerations of a business plan:

  • Customer segments
  • Value proposition
  • Channels
  • Customer relationship
  • Revenue streams
  • Key resources
  • Key activities
  • Key partnerships
  • Cost structure

The Business Model Generation book offers common patterns, examples, and good questions to think through each of these sections in their version of a business model canvas. The authors approach business model generation with a design sensibility and encourage ideation and prototyping to arrive at a proper and/or innovative model for your idea.

I’m gonna go off and do 10 more iterations. See you later.

Thoughts on studio learning

The last week of our Q3 studio class was much more informal than previous weeks. It was open work time as we prepared for our final presentations with no structured check-in’s with Justin, though everyone ended up chatting with him throughout the day.

Because of those small changes, I realized a few things about the way I learn:

  • I learn through eavesdropping. Because Justin was walking around to groups in their workspaces or meeting with people in his office with the door open, I was able to pick up on various bits of advice throughout the day (including, “if you want people to pay attention to it and remember it, write it down on a slide. Don’t just talk about it.”) I could integrate what I wanted, I ended up learning more, and he didn’t have to repeat himself over and over again.
  • I’m nosy and want to know what other people are doing. Because of the structure of scheduled one-on-one’s between groups and Petro (which I’m glad we had because we had given feedback during Q2 that we wanted more of that time with professors), groups ended up presenting and preparing for their meetings with Justin behind closed doors. And the feedback was in some ways trapped in that room because 1) we just integrated our feedback into our own process/project and went along our merry ways and 2) we didn’t have the time or discipline to reflect and share that feedback back via blogging, and 3) we simply didn’t realize what we were missing in not sharing all of that back. We spent the rest of our class times working in our teams (often in separate rooms or corners). While we did catch bits and pieces of what others were doing, notably when someone (inside or outside the class) asked a group about it, there could have been a lot more.
  • I wanted coaching about the design process. This clicked for me when I read this in an Edward de Bono article: “I am not suggesting that [lateral thinking] is easy. It requires a lot of careful practice and coaching. But the deliberate steps can be used.” And then when I saw this happen because Kat asked for Jon’s help in walking her through an insight recombination exercise:Feedback is an important part of coaching when you’re trying something new. One net result of the structure of the quarter was that we got a lot of feedback on whatever we managed to pull together to present of our projects, and less feedback on our processes. Coaching is tricky when the process is so messy, but there is value in walking through the methods we are new to in the specific context of the project we’re currently working on—often when the need arises, and in the middle of our individual worktime. It helps gel the individual methods we learned previously floating around in our heads with the context and roadblocks of our current project floating around in other parts of our heads.

Of course, hindsight is much clearer than foresight. It takes a change, reflection, an outsider, and/or the ability to step back to see how things are currently working. Because we’re usually too caught up in the actual work, and we fall into habits and routines, and things just go unquestioned. It’s a struggle new organizations also have to deal with after a few years of operation—how to best use the people and the space that you have to work with.

As interaction designers, we can look at the “touchpoints” of a studio learning experience:

  • meetings: open vs. closed, location, formality, who’s invited, who can sit in.
  • do you go to the higher-up or does the higher-up come to you?
  • do people feel free to come up to you while you’re working and interrupt and ask questions?
  • where do people actually work? what’s the space like?
  • where are the closed doors? (the physical ones and the assumed ones)
  • how public is your process? how visible is it?
  • what are each person’s expectations about the space, the time together, the process?
  • how do people keep each other updated on each other’s work?
  • what’s the dynamic of teams within the larger organization?

Reflections from Q3

It’s a shame we didn’t do POW reflection videos the last week of Q3, because a lot of things clicked, and I learned a lot during that last week. What you get is a long thoughtful blogpost instead.

Design Research is integral to the Design Process

In my last post, I wrote about our cycles of research/synthesis/design as we worked on Nudge. The stages in the design process were definitely not clear-cut, nor were they scheduled. They flowed one into another, as they should, and they were often overlapping.

This past quarter helped me clarify my belief that design research should be an integral part of the design process. It can’t be segregated to the beginnings and ends of a project with a neat hand-off—or the possibility of facing the chopping block if the team doesn’t have enough time or money. Earlier in the quarter I had lunch with a local designer who didn’t believe design researcher should be its own role. He believed the “design researcher” runs the risk of becoming lazy about not having an opinion about the research findings because they can just hand the findings off to the “designers” who then have to deal with them. When the roles are segregated, I would also argue that the designer also runs the risk of not feeling responsible or empowered to do additional fieldwork on their own during the course of a project—especially when they need those gut checks, and especially if we are to keep people at the core of our designs.

Going Deep

I think continued research/synthesis/prototype cycles are more apt to happen naturally if you are working over a period of time within one specific social issue that you feel passionate about. You will continue to learn more, talk to more people, and have experiences within the relevant field, and the insights you’ll accumulate from following your curiosity will continually inform your design work.

It reminds me of our discussions about social impact during Q1, when we read Emily Pilloton’s take on going local and going deep to have any meaningful social impact.

After two years of tackling design projects for measurable social impact, the one piece of advice I would give to other designers who seek to apply their creative skills toward activism and community engagement is to sit still and focus on one thing.

I mean this not in a cubicle context (”sit at your desk and return emails”), but rather as it pertains to approaching huge, high-stakes design for social-impact projects and enterprises. To sit still and focus on one thing means to commit to a place, to live and work there, and to apply your skills (your “one thing”) to that community’s benefit.

This idea of deep engagement makes me question the consultancy model of design—where you come into something, work for a predefined amount of time, and then leave. It’s what rubs me the wrong way about the recent surge in design “competitions” that call for submissions from creative citizens to solve problems that are remote to people’s lives—physically and emotionally. If you are going to be tackling maternal health in Africa, I may be able to contribute my ideas from Austin, but I am lacking 1) context, 2) skin in the game, and 3) responsibility in the follow-through to what happens to those ideas. It feels more productive to me to either engage a curated group of people (including designers) who have an invested interest in the issue or to co-design with the mothers in Africa themselves.

Commitment to the consequences is important when we’re tackling social issues where our solutions will have real impact (positive and negative). There is a role for the designer, but we must be willing at some point to throw ourselves into an issue space for an extended period of time and to partner with real experts and actual stakeholders. Commitment to anything is difficult in my 20’s when I don’t want to plan beyond next week, but I think it is a step I must take if I want my work to have social impact.

The Role of Technology

I recently read a revealing article by Kentaro Toyama questioning technology’s role in solving social issues. Technology is an amplifier of human intent and capacity. If we don’t nurture human capacity in any specific region, rushing in with technology (best case) doesn’t stick or (worst case) does more harm than good.

Academic observers have deconstructed telecenters and other ICT4D projects, enumerating the many reasons why the initiatives fail: ICT4D enthusiasts don’t design context-appropriate technology, adhere to socio-cultural norms, account for poor electrical supply, build relationships with local governments, invite the participation of the community, provide services that meet local needs, consider bad transportation infrastructure, think through a viable financial model, provide incentives for all stakeholders, and so on. These criticisms are each valid as far as they go, and ICT4D interventionists sometimes focus narrowly on addressing them. But this laundry list of foibles ultimately provides no insight into the deeper reasons why ICT4D projects rarely fulfill their promise, even as their cousins in the developed world thrive in the form of netbooks, BlackBerrys, and Facebook.

…In every one of our projects, a technology’s effects were wholly dependent on the intention and capacity of the people handling it…In our most successful ICT4D projects, the partner organizations did the hard work of real development, and our role was simply to assist, and strengthen, their efforts with technology.

If I were to summarize everything I learned through research in ICT4D, it would be this: technology—no matter how well designed—is only a magnifier of human intent and capacity. It is not a substitute. If you have a foundation of competent, well-intentioned people, then the appropriate technology can amplify their capacity and lead to amazing achievements. But, in circumstances with negative human intent, as in the case of corrupt government bureaucrats, or minimal capacity, as in the case of people who have been denied a basic education, no amount of technology will turn things around.

For me, the amazing potential of design is when our ethnographic research unearths opportunity areas where people have the intentions and capability yet aren’t following through with actions. To find areas where human capacity exists and build on it. A prime example is environmental sustainability: we all know we shouldn’t be driving or buying that bottle of water or using yet another plastic bag…but how many of us live actively green lifestyles? I believe that design and technology can bridge that gap.

Thus, the search for ‘elegant’ solutions

One of my ultimate goals for my designs is elegance. After I present a design solution, it would be awesome if the feedback was “why hasn’t anyone already done that?” I realized this after I watched Ruby’s and Kat’s participation in the student design competition at Interactions 11 conference. Through their research they found that hotels in Boulder were already housing people when shelters overflowed during the cold winter (and off-season) months for a discounted rate. Their proposed solution was a website that would make those booking connections easier between shelters and hotels. An additional public display and text donation system helped draw in awareness and participation from the citizens of Boulder, most of whom probably don’t know this is going on in their own city.

Actually, before they presented SafeBed, part of me thought they might not win because the end product of a website to connect the shelters and hotels seemed so obvious, that it might not be perceived as that innovative. (Of course, they did win!)

Edward de Bono of the “six thinking hats” system puts it best when he laments that:

…every valuable, creative idea will always be logical in hindsight. If an idea were not logical in hindsight, then we would never be able to appreciate the value of the idea.

When design works well, the solutions merge seamlessly into our lives, and we stop thinking about their inventiveness (possibly controversial nature) at the time. But we can only arrive at elegant solutions that will integrate into people’s lives if we have empathy for how people behave and a sense of what they’ll be willing to adapt.

It seems pretty simple to arrive at elegant design solutions: use design research to discover existing behavior and intentions that can be amplified by design and technology, and then design! Simple yet difficult. Yet exciting.

Reluctant innovators

The idea of a reluctant innovator has been stuck in my head since I read this blog post on kiwanja (via Erik Hersman’s tweets). These are “people who found themselves in the midst of a problem they felt compelled to solve.” They became innovators, and eventually entrepreneurs—and reluctantly. They weren’t looking for problems to solve; the problems found them.

I think one of the strengths of AC4D’s program is that we have all come together around this social issue of homelessness, and we’ve been able to learn together, share together, and bring our own points of view into the design process. At the same time, I don’t have a good sense of where people’s hearts really lie. I’m sure there are specific social issues nagging at each of us, problems that we want to tackle after school.

I’ve been able to pretty easily put the two social issues I feel most strongly about—living sustainably and improving public education—onto my professional back burners. (And no, I’m not going to combine them for the sake of combining them.) Haven’t really thought through personally or professionally what it means to apply a design methodology and entrepreneurship model to tackling either of the two. Partly because I’m scared to leave the consultancy model of design that I know and love. Good time to start thinking!

The evolution of Nudge

Nudge is a communication service to connect case managers and families experiencing homelessness in-between face-to-face meetings. We believe that strategically increasing the amount of low-key communication will enable case managers to serve clients better, enable clients to reach out for help, save time on both ends, and increase the support available to families. This increased support will help families stay on-track as they move toward achieving their goals.

My biggest takeaway from the quarter:

Research is no excuse to delay designing.Design is no excuse to stop researching.

Ryan and I have been through multiple, overlapping research/synthesis/prototype cycles during the process of Nudge. Part of this was due to logistics: since the beginning of the quarter, we have been wanting to partner with a local organization who works with families experiencing homelessness, but our ability to meet with one only came through during the last week of the quarter. After procrastinating for a few weeks at the beginning of the quarter waiting on interviews that kept getting rescheduled, we plunged in and started designing in the spirit of rapid prototyping. After all, we did have all of our knowledge from the class’s 8 weeks of research, my previous conversations with teen moms in shelter, and Ryan’s discussions with people in AA to inform our best guesses. We had gotten to a point where we had a framework for a theory of change—help people strengthen support networks to increase success and prevent return to homelessness. So we stopped talking, and we started making.

And we kept talking to people. We were doing many steps in the design process simultaneously: research, synthesis, design, development. During the process, I felt like we were getting sidetracked, and I questioned whether we should still be doing “research” and scheduling interviews. For instance, we couldn’t talk to any families, so we talked to some people at ARCH and in transitional housing. This confused us for awhile because these clients—who have experienced chronic homelessness, addiction, and intensive case management—have very different needs than families who are temporarily homeless. But we wouldn’t have figured that out without having done those interviews. Each time, we came out with more “clay” to work with. True, we needed more time to synthesize those experiences, but the culminating insights were valuable. And when things started clicked during the last week of the quarter, and I was finally able to fit our Nudge product into a compelling story framework that made sense with our research and the needs of the people we’ve been talking to, it felt pretty magical.

Each time we did anything—whether that was an interview, moving forward with our coded prototype, or drafting our story—it felt like we could get deeper and more specific. At one point or another, our project has evolved through the following themes: co-design, safety nets, asset protection, stress release, support systems, mood-tracking, and communication. Our focus has now landed on the specific need of “communication of case managers and families experiencing temporary homelessness in-between face-to-face meetings.”

It reconfirms for me the value of rapid prototyping—even if it’s oftentimes difficult to just start. Also, the quick cycles of research/synthesize/prototype feel akin to agile software development. Lastly, it reminds me that the design process is messy, individual, and unique to the needs of each project and project team…I’m starting to embrace that messiness and have to keep reminding myself that there is no right “answer” to where we should be in the process. The only wrong answer is to do nothing.

Up next for us:

  • Talk to and co-design with families
  • Pilot Nudge with case managers and clients (or some other group: high school teacher and students maybe?)
  • Answer lots of really hard questions as we try to wrap a business model around Nudge
  • Talk to people in the mobile space or who have worked on mobile projects. Please email us if you have any suggestions.

Design research themed links of the week

I’ve come across some cool Design Research stuff in my web-surfing of late.

    This is slightly unrelated, but a link I want to archive. From Ryan, a list of papers that “represent a summary of the past thirty years of service design literature: http://howardesign.com/exp/service/