Week Four: Who’s With Me?

Four weeks into the AC4D program, and I am figuratively mud doggin’ my way through this week. For those who are unfamiliar, “mud doggin’” basically involves running a pickup truck or 4×4 vehicle through a flooded field of deep mud with total abandon and total uncertainty of making it out. Style points apply for making a mess of everything and making a damn fool of yourself. This week has felt like going with full abandon to the other side as fast as possible, but spinning wheels, kicking up high rooster tails of mess and mayhem, and looking like a damn fool.

One thing I did not look like a fool at was when my team and I gave a presentation of real stories and quotes from our design research project to the client on Thursday. This project began on August 22nd, and the interviews started on September 1st. Our client is involved in community supported agriculture, sustainability, and distribution. It has been a gratifying experience. The participants we interviewed each had interesting stories and personalities. I have rethought my assumptions about social norms. It’s pleasing to know how willing people are to share their stories.

I wish I had reserved more time to rehearse my theories class presentation. From my days of teaching, I have discovered I have a sweet spot between under preparing and over-preparing. I did not reach my sweet spot. I was enthusiastic about sharing the epiphany I had about the Le Dantec and Dourish articles, but I rushed my information, and the argument structure collapsed. My big takeaway was to assume (moving forward) that all our opinions will differ and it is so much more important to make a stronger stance. My mistake was thinking I didn’t have to sell my ideas so hard. I feel vindicated in the next set of readings that I’m on the right path. Designing with has deeper and a more enduring reach.

I have a classmate who confused the difference between giving feedback and giving advice. It was frustrating because I wanted the trust and opportunity to resolve a particular issue about our presentation on my own. Providing feedback is to design with. Giving feedback grants the listener a choice or problem to solve with autonomy. Giving unsolicited advice is to design for. Giving unsolicited advice grants the listener an assumed solution. It is inappropriate to design from a solution rather than to design to a problem. This person was determined to get me to accept their advice (under the guise of giving feedback.) I will use this experience as a learning opportunity.

Design Research that Endures

I am writing today to discuss the role of design research. The theories class began with discussing our role and responsibility as designers to society and the ethical challenges. The course naturally followed up, to meet these challenges, with the role of design research, the perspective of how designers may conduct themselves and their team-oriented design research projects. The goals I want to emphasize are my desire to elevate my new profession (upon graduating Austin Center of Design) We can deliver values of many considerations with a broader reach, that is more enduring and value that is more meaningful. Furthermore, we are more directly seeking critical ideas to articulate benefits of and defense for our relatively new roles and methods. This class itself is conducted in a fashion that reflects the values we are learning.

The assignment for the past two weeks included ten articles written by eight thought leaders. The underlying theories focus on the role of the design researcher between to design with the user or to design for the user. We are looking to analyze and then synthesize the considerations in these articles to form a perspective on the role of design research. The authors of the articles are listed here in chronological order:

  • Jane Fulton Suri; 2000
  • Paul Dourish; 2003
  • William Gaver; 2004
  • Jane Fulton Suri; 2006
  • Jodi Forlizzi; 2008
  • Chris LeDantec; 2008
  • Liz Sanders; 2009
  • Jon Kolko; 2010
  • Donald Norman; 2010
  • Chris LeDantec; 2010

I have been able to draw a few themes about establishing the value promise shared among these articles. If one is going to choose which “tool” is most appropriate, one needs to identify the situational advantages designers can bring to who they design for and/or with. The benefit I have identified is that designers can elevate their profession in the long run while bringing value with a broader reach, that is more enduring and value that is more meaningful by designing with the user.

Considerations brought from the reading can be summed up as who benefits and to what range and scope are we concerned?

Who benefits? According to Fulton Suri, LeDantec, Dourish, Gaver, Sanders and Kolko the scope of bringing direct involvement with the users, participants, stakeholders, and design teams fosters a positive, cooperative experience that Dewey could subscribe. Sanders’s 2009 article argues that designing with can deliver longer lasting meaningful values from the outset of a project. LeDantec’s 2008 and 2010 report shows that his considerate and respectful involvement of the homeless could have positive repercussions beyond the success of his study. The publics, or groups of common interests, would have the immediate social self-actualizing experience that Vitta would approve of. Based on this I would argue that designing with your users is ideal for approaching wicked problems.

What range and scope are we concerned with when we talk about designing with the user? I am referring to multiple perspectives of reach in both scope of the problems identified, and the scope of innovation. According to Sanders, Fulton Suri, Dourish, Gavers and Kolko, the extent of problems identified is more significant with a social mindset or research focus. Kolko argues that focusing on human behavior and user-centric approaches open up a broader range of opportunities and potential. Norman, Kolko make an argument about incremental innovation is a strong consideration to make. Similarly, Dourish makes a case for the context and social conversation regarding how relevant and subjective something like how incremental or revolutionary an innovation is for instance. There is no benefit to assigning a Minister of Innovation to determine what is or is not revolutionary.

I have identified that designers who implement a user-centric, behavior-focused “design with” approach will elevate their profession in the long run while bringing value with a broader reach, that is more enduring and value that is more meaningful. Victor Papanek would approve the experimental spirit of cultural probes and experiential prototyping. John Dewey and Maurizio Vitta could support of the social value and the wicked problem addressing potential of designing with.

Metaphorical vantage point to observe more and cover greater distance in enduring design.

This graph shows the authors I discussed and the degree to which I believe they are either design with or design for and their potential to accomplish enduring design research.

Week Three: Finding Context

Three weeks into the AC4D program, and I am diverting much of my attention to theories class articles. As I process one particularly dense article by Paul Dourish called “What We Talk About When We Talk About Context” and how it applies to designers, my brain processors would be hanging up a spinning beach ball of death.

While the article renders in my head, (although not quite in a suitable resolution yet) it has afforded me other ways of assessing at my AC4D experience. I will be looking to find more meaning in practicing all the methods and skills we are pushing to the limits. I am making considerations about what is relevant in my educational dialogue.

I am getting more into the rhythms of all my classes. Timeboxing is revealing my “areas of opportunities.”  My most fruitful experiences this week was drawing 100 objects. For every sketch I made, the challenge diminished because my muscle memory was returning. I spent years practicing and developing my drawing skills and then years of letting that practice collect dust. The feel of having my dormant art school skills come back has been enjoyable. Now I have new demands to push my skills further but faster.

I have nothing nice to say about transcribing audio.

I am fortunate to have one aspect of the semester developing at a good pace. There are other aspects of this semester that demand more attention. My core belief is that there is always room for improvement so at no point will I think I am good enough. Considering where I need to be to view myself as an excellent design candidate with the autonomy to grow, I see that my most significant room for growth lies in my theories class. I want good tactical skills, but I am aiming for solid strategy and communication skills. Time to get back to work.

Week Two: Do No Harm

Two weeks into this unique learning experience. If there were a theme to synthesize of this week, it would be “Do no harm,” a fundamental ethics principal. I have my doubts if the patterns I experienced this week were designed, but it has been an interesting coincidence. There has been a pattern of pattern recognition. Over the course of the last two weeks, we’ve been asked to find common themes in several UX related exercises and assigned readings concerning design’s role in society. My brain has become primed to connect ethics with my social environment.

The week has included how to work, plan, delegate, resolve issues, move forward in the face of disagreement, brainstorm, and critique harmoniously. Its a theme of how to conduct ourselves interpersonally. An assignment in our theories class included ranking the assigned reading in order of importance and articulating our position in a six-minute presentation. Encompass common threads throughout the separate reading was very useful in forming my presentation’s angle. We had a lecture about how to uncover compelling insights from our interview data which involves finding patterns and themes. My team was fortunate to experience a couple of lessons with the instructor. He walked us through simplifying the focus statement of our research plan and the conceptual block we were having with that focus statement. This distilling is necessarily the same mechanics of finding a common denominator.

My wife complained that part of my blog had become too cryptic to follow along. I related the comment to Postman’s “Informing Ourselves to Death” article, and I thought about accessibility. A conversation with a mentor brought up issues from NPR’s stories about photo privacy issues with Facebook, hate speech and false information on Twitter, the implications of a single button or feature, and the proliferation the conscientious food companies. Declaring the awareness does not make me a complete designer. I accept the realization that ethics is not a simple promise. I am realizing I will need very thoughtful deliberate hard work on my part to fulfill this new design responsibility.

Rise Above Good

Today, I will have a presentation about the IDSE 102 class. This theories class focuses on the role of the designer in shaping culture and ethically positioning design in society.

This assignment includes six articles ranging in topics from design, sociology, marketing, public relations, education, to information technology, We had two class discussions about the articles and even molded a common theme from them. The final part of this assignment is to draw a graph placing the readings in order of importance. I do not believe the sequence is fundamentally essential but putting them in order forces the students to take on a perspective, form an opinion and justify that opinion.

Several connecting threads run throughout the papers. Society and culture play different roles in almost all the articles. There is the integral role of unchecked consumerism and mass production in the Papanek, Bernays, Vitta and Postman’s articles. Culture plays the role of perpetuating misconceptions and dated expectations (Meaning of Design, Manipulating Public Opinion.) Society in the form of manufacturing and marketing playing a role of resisting change (Design for the Real Word) or imposing short-sighted policies (Informing Ourselves to Death and. All of these roles conspire in some fashion to set traps for designers or diminish our profession.

In my journey as a designer, I have some experience dealing with the misconceptions and false expectations of design. This personal relationship with the some of the themes covered in the articles sets up my perspective in order of importance. The order of importance follows what I have learned and what I find critical in my path to growing beyond being a “good” designer.

To effect a good design process, the primary function must be considered. When conversations involved in the design process are distorted with cultural misconceptions and shift focus from function to aesthetics, the critical problems are left to persist. Although this is not a literal reflection of The Meaning of Design, it does parallel the issue. This point is just one of many that prevent designers from providing lasting value to society.

My graph begins with an extra line at the middle. This was to set some context for the discussion around which article is most and least important. I marked having a job because it is the most neutral thing in the context of a design profession. The line graph below represents my perspective as to how I and my fellow classmates should see the progression of their understanding of these readings and their relationship with culture and their careers.


We could start with Papanek as I did. Making a case for good design is developing the ability to persuade stakeholders what the most effective design goal is and how that could potentially affect their customers, brand and bottom line. Postman’s article, Informing Ourselves to Death, develops a healthy perspective about the pitfalls of technology and too much information. A tool is just a tool. What matters is who and how it is used. This segues into ethical questions. Bernays overly optimistic article, Manipulating Public Opinion, leads me to emphasize “doing good” is subjective, requiring subject strong ethical alignment. It takes more than being a “good designer”. Designers have a responsibility to elevate their work to ethical standards. Bernays and Vitta both made good points about design’s responsibility to society. The most important article to me is based on the strong effect emotional trust and positive trajectory his case makes for experiences in education.


First Week Inductions

One week into this unique learning experience and I feel like I’ve learned so much more than a week could produce. I also feel like I’m already a week behind. I’m already grateful for switching to part-time work.

The first class began with an honest brain juicer. We were asked to define value and how that ties into the human experience and why we (design thinking students) are bothering with user experience at all. Why we need to figure this out becomes critical when we will launch into a very challenging part of our first assignment, asking for a 1000 dollars compensation in exchange for our contextual research. My team will see if we have properly formed our value statement soon. “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” – Albert Einstein. If you don’t understand it well enough, how can you convince others to appreciate the value we provide as well? Confidence will help too.

The class assignment included slide presentations introducing the business we chose to work with and the research plan we were going to execute. The presentations were a sweaty throat parching affair. I have made many presentations since college. Everyone in class could see we needed to elevate our presentation game. Every single slide, bullet point, physical detail and statement uttered was an authentic learning experience. Every presentation and critique became a chance to learn and gain something useful. The analogy that comes to mind is blacksmithing. We were each thrown into the fire and hammered everytime a team got up to present. Making peace with the learning experience quenches the fear and builds confidence.

The week wrapped in the studio class. The studio class will build our visual communication and visual problem-solving skills. When I wrote my school application’s statement of purpose, I wrote about my early love for drawing and admitted to losing a good deal of those skills by neglect. Confidence built up with every sketch and goofy stick figure. I am very grateful to need to dedicate myself to drawing again. I saw resistance and dread among some of my classmates. I find myself wanting to help and convince them any style, crude or simple, can have lots of character and be visually engaging.

There is lots more to learn and mentally articulate. I see opportunities to leverage a part of each class in another. I hope I can work faster and catch up.


Introductions Matter: Beginning a Research Plan

This class assignment, the beginning of a complete contextual research exercise, was to engage with at least five local businesses whose core focus was to solve humanitarian problems worth solving. To qualify, the businesses must employ at least 10 people and operate between two to 20 locations.  


This initial discovery phase included photo documenting the entire journey with as many touch points as possible and inviting the owner or manager to engage with our process over the course of the whole semester. Our team’s selections began with deciding our team’s preferred field of social good, and in this case, we pursued health and food sustainability. Our search methods yielded more productive results from the online resources of the Austin Reuse Directory and browsing the Philanthropitch Austin 2018 finalists. Qualifying the businesses included calls, online researching, and email introductions with a brief survey.


We successfully engaged a local food distribution business. This business engages, recruits, and fosters local urban farming provides a market for the farmers and then distributes healthy food to local subscribers.


We were both impressed by the variety of ways this business is working towards innovative solutions with some pretty complex problems in the spaces of sustainable food production and local distribution. We feel that there would be ample opportunity to research and offer them behavioral insights that could help to inform their future growth.


Using a research methodology called a contextual inquiry, we will do in-depth interviews with a select number of specific users to build a stronger understanding of how participants interact with the service. Contextual inquiry is a style of research that involves studying users in their own natural environment.


The research will be conducted in the homes of almost twenty subscribers to the food delivery service and will involve interactive discussion and exercises to draw insights. We will deliver the subscriber’s weekly delivery to their home and walk through their reactions to the contents of the delivery.

We hope to gain insights on how the components featured on the recipe handouts align with the information that is most valued by the user. Our protocol will involve walkthroughs of receiving the food delivery and meal preparation, exercises in “talking through” the recipe handouts, and a rank-ordering activity to assess the alignment of principles between subscribers and the business.

This assignment has been invaluable in teaching us a few important lessons. We quickly realized the importance of first vetting the eligibility of the business before going too far into weeds regarding the project details. Also, we learned it is surprisingly difficult to find businesses under various humanitarian causes through mainstream online searches.

Is it better to beg forgiveness or ask for permission? Neither. The approach matters. Having your introductory information buttoned up regardless of time availability makes a big difference. Introducing yourself and your purpose will go sideways in so many unpredictable ways. The most important thing is to try, fail, and then keep working.

Baptized with a Boot

The end of the beginning hath arrived. We have completed the orientation week. This week of assigned work was not even close to the difficult part but this, without doubt, had plenty of challenges.

What I appreciate about this week is the confirmation that no workshop or online course can teach all the skills we just experienced. Working through the challenges first hand exposes all the shortcomings we need to build upon. I can see how the pressure will quickly reveal strengths and weaknesses.

On this day, we surveyed to validate the key assumption of our MVP. I felt a bit more confidence and purpose. We set a target number of 100 samples. The pressure to find 100 people got me in focused mode. Our group’s biggest challenge was finding a narrow group of folks who ride the bus with their bikes. Our group made two breakthroughs by casting out an online poll with SurveyMonkey and by making our actual in-person survey digitized with SurveyMonkey. Good times was briefly interrupted when we got booted out of a sweet coffee shop. We’ve been told getting bounced is a right of passage at AC4D. We were baptized with a boot.

Had fun participating in a video confessional “Between Two Ikea Plants” with Zev, Catherine, and Cristina. Hope it lasts.

Looking forward to meeting more alumni, hearing about their after-AC4D stories, meeting next year’s challenges and working with everyone.

Day 4 Vignettes

The new challenges just keep coming. At this orientation, the name of the game seems to be practicing and committing all these activities and skills to habit. What a lot of skills there are too. Sketching and storyboards were introduced today. Sketching and storyboarding is a comfortable and enjoyable activity for me. Throw timeboxing into the storyboarding mix and it’s another new challenge to start practicing.

The latter half of the day involved preparing the validation of our current best idea. In the past, hearing about starting/running a business always made sense, but only when someone knowledgeable in the subject is around to explain things. I have a much harder time parsing entrepreneurship on my own (for now.) I hope to change that soon.

We’re set to go back out and interview tomorrow morning for another round of data. We will be hunting bicyclists.

(addendum) I wanted to come back and add three things I had to process a little more. These eye-opening lessons stood out as valuable: ideas are free, framing value, and key assumptions.

The discussion began when a student asked “Aren’t you afraid of someone stealing your idea (when you pitch to and survey people.”) The answers were really interesting. One answer, that ideas are free, sums up the lesson that some ideas need to exist and be real before they can have or provide value. Making ideas real requires several drums of work sweat and we’re just getting a mist of that experience. Additionally, we were told that almost all pitches have been heard before or recycled. Wow. Isn’t that a kick in the face?

What I mean by framing value is specifically about the process of testing your big assumption. At the end of your pitch, you have to gauge what value your assumption will have on the market. Gauging the value to test is probably the pitfall the team fell into. The economics lesson we were given is price and demand do not necessarily correlate. You either charge something greater than a penny or not. The other side of the lesson was framing the (value) survey such that the audience is aware the actual assigned monetary cost is not what we’re after but whether there any value (monetary, time and/or effort) can be tied to our key assumption.

Identifying the key assumptions versus the working assumption appeared to be a common mistake among the teams. I found it interesting because it seemed to tie back to this message we’ve been repeatedly told. Making these assumptions and leaps can and will be uncomfortable. We seem to hope to justify them. I understand WHY we are making these assumptions and yet I still sense the unease. Confidence is such mind fuck.

Clearance on All Red Trucks

Today was day four of orientation, and I thought the previous day was challenging.

We filled this day with practicing sensemaking. Today did indeed finally make sense, but the details took quite a bit of time and effort to grasp. In my personal experience, my previous attempts at learning design thinking always crumbled with sensemaking and pattern building. The tactics and high-level approach were taught essentially the same, but the goals were not articulated nearly as well as Jon and today’s exercise accomplished. The dots to connect started with the red trucks and sentimental value comparison. My problem has always been red trucks. Stay away from useless unactionable red trucks.

Despite struggling, it was a concept to grasp onto, but as my team slogged through several random selections of quotes, an emotion began to emerge, followed by a human need. We kept second guessing ourselves. Is this right? Is this how we’re supposed to interpret this? I would drop the quotes and start over with another. We shared interpretations, and someone made a joke about sounding like a commercial. I love drawing analogies, and the joke made me think about defining marketing benefits. Jon made a comment earlier in the day about listening to a transcript but missing the visual vibe and behavioral cues. Reframing the exercise a bit more I switched from visualizing the mood of the quotes as commercial clips to vignettes or scenes from a movie. What theme would I arrive at if these appeared throughout a film? The next dot connected and thoughts about emotions and human needs naturally lead to the next dots. This is storytelling. This is a narrative. The team was able to build momentum off each other, but it was still a challenge.

When Jon presented the next assignment, there was a slight bit of personal relief. Coming up with 50 plus ideas feels much more familiar. Familiarity doesn’t make it easier. Its still plenty of work to do.