A Look at Electricity in Ecuador

During my recent trip to Ecuador, I explored the attitudes around and the uses of electricity. The goal of the research was not to come up with specific design ideas around a particular product or service, but rather to lay an ethnographic foundation which can later be built upon.

Ecuadorian street


Ecuador is an extremely diverse country, so my research took me into the homes of three different families to catch a glimpse of this diversity. These included:

  • A mixed American and Ecuadorian upper middle class family in Ecuador’s capital, Quito ( ~1,504,991 people; avg temperature between 49 – 67 F)
  • A middle class Ecuadorian family in Ecuador’s 9th largest city, Ambato (~354,095 people, 45 – 70 F)
  • An indigenous Ecuadorian family living in the Amazon ( ~3000 people, around 75 F year-round)


Family Profiles:


  • Average Electricity Cost $95-$125
  • They use electricity mostly for heating water. They keep their two water heaters on all day because it takes 4 hours to heat a full tank of water which gives a hot 20-minute shower.
  • What they thought used the most electricity: Refrigerator

“I turn off lights all the time and it makes like a $5 difference. When we have a lot of visitors in town, the bill goes up to $125 instead of $95 or $100. We leave the water heaters on 24 hrs a day because there are so many people taking showers.”



  • Avg. Electricity cost: $25, have paid as much as $35
  • What they thought thought used the most electricity: washing machine

“I try not to use electricity because of the environment. Before we wasted a lot of energy, but now we don’t. Only where you are in the house you turn on the light.”





* Avg. Electricity cost: $15 – $18
* First got electricity about 15 years ago
* Had to pay for the power transformer to their house ($1500), municipality donated three posts ($3000)

“We use it to see at night, to iron clothes, and, let me see, to put music on the radio, to see the news on TV, and also to refrigerate the beer and food that we are saving.”

Watch here: Interview in the Amazon (find a parrot at 19:32 in the movie)

English transcript and translation here


Around Ecuador:

In addition to speaking with and observing families, I photographed several places I visited and observed electricity usage, including the mayor of Ambato’s office, a roadside carnival, and a local market. This slide show captures these learnings.

See slides here: Electricity in Ecuador


Insights & Observations

1. Conservation and lip service

An attitude toward the importance of energy conservation and protecting the environment is widespread throughout Ecuador. Global warming frequently comes up in conversations as a reason for limited usage of electricity. Most buildings use energy efficient light bulbs. However, in practice, conservation is negligible as a motivating factor in electricity usage and usage decisions rely much more heavily on cost savings. I observed a public university where conscientious teachers and students left equipment and lights on long after they were being used because the government paid the electricity bill. Small businesses, on the other hand, only turned on lights between the hours of 6pm – 9pm when natural light proved insufficient.


2. In the city, electricity is directly correlated with safety.

In Ecuador, crime happens frequently. Not only does electricity power fire alarms, neighborhood criminal warning sirens, doorbells, and electric fences, but more importantly electricity powers light. People know not to walk down unlit streets. In fact, when rolling blackouts occurred in Ambato, storekeepers shut down, pulled padlocked metal doors over their storefronts, and went home. Not only was this a safety measure, but even if they stayed open few patrons dared venture out. In neighborhoods, light shows the street that a house is occupied. While similar attitudes toward light can be found in other countries like the United States, with a limited and corrupt police force in Ecuador, light carries an even greater importance to safety.


3. Paying an electric bill in Ecuador is a nightmare.

Electric bills must be paid during a neighborhood’s five-day window and usually involves long waits in line. Houses with stores and restaurants, which is common, must pay two different electric bills at two different rates, one for the business and one for the residence. While online payment is an option, hardly anyone uses this option because they must pay their water bill in person, which can be paid at the same time as their electric bill. Given Ecuadorians usage of mobile devices, there is an enormous opportunity for an electronic mobile payment system.


An Interaction Designer at 3-Day Startup

40 people.  3 Days.  5 startups.This weekend, I participated in 3-Day Startup with the goal of launching a technology company in three days, on no sleep, and with people I just met.

The weekend started out with everyone pitching their ideas and then voting with their feet which project to work on.   I chose Tripgather, a data aggregator for travelers because I liked the people on the team.  I am lucky to work with amazing, passionate people every day at AC4D and was happy to have a similar privilege at 3-Day Startup.

Our team:

  • Jonathan Spillman – UT MBA, awesome leader, idea man
  • David McCleary – UT Masters in Engineering, Mr.Make Things Happen in business and marketing
  • MacKenzie Seale – UT Finance undergrad, content guru, Miss “I’ve never talked to random people, but let’s do it.”
  • Garrett Eastham- Computer Science whiz from Stanford, who Jonathan rightly called the “Michael Jordan of programing”
  • Levi Lalla- Engineer from MIT who just happens to also front-end code with the best of ’em
  • And me, AC4D interaction designer

What do you do with an interaction designer?

At our first team meeting when I announced my role, I got a few understanding nods from the programmers and understandably blank stares from the rest of the team.  What does an interaction designer do? More importantly, what do they do at 3-Day Startup?

My short answer – nothing and everything.  Here’s where I found myself:

  • Traditional Design:  An “agency” of three graphic designers worked with all the 3DS teams, and they were awesome.  I worked with them to help make our visual language matched our overall product message.

  • User Research: My heart leaped with joy when our whole team enthusiastically wanted to talk with customers.  I pushed for design research open-ended conversations rather than trying to collect quantitative data through surveys.    Steve Portigal’s got some great wisdom on the perils of bad surveys here and here.

  • User Flows:  What does a user expect to see?  What does a user want to see?  What user flow goes with our pitch story?

  • Pitch: Pull out the post-it notes.  Let’s craft a story that anyone can understand and that clearly tells the problem we’re trying to solve (Justin Petro would be proud of the post-its).

Looking back on the weekend, on the surface, it looks like I did nothing.

I didn’t present.

I didn’t code.

I didn’t do the financial model.

I didn’t do the graphic design.

Hell, everything I did was thrown away.

The home page I designed? Scratched.

The user flows and wireframes on the whiteboard?  Erased.

The post-it notes used to craft our pitch?  Trash.

But I couldn’t be more pleased. All that throw away meant that over the course of 3 days, we were iterating, reframing, and finding new and better ways to tell our story.  That’s what an interaction designer does and that’s what I brought to 3DS.

On Design Education

Scott, Ruby, and Chap making things happen

The biggest takeaway from AC4D, and more generally design education, is the learned discipline of making.   Design exists not in thoughts and ideas, but in the practical implementation of ideas in the digital and physical realm. It’s really easy to live in idea land, talking about the possible.  Often times, conversations provide a false sense of accomplishment and progression toward an end goal without any actual movement. Design teaches that if there is no artifact during or after a conversation, the conversation might as well not have happened.  If nothing is made, nothing is accomplished.

Why is this?  The truth is that the best thinking takes place in the process of externalization.  Most non-design disciplines tacitly recognize this, which is one reason why there is such an emphasis on reports and documentation.  Synthesis happens in taking an idea out of the air and communicating it on paper. To communicate anything requires clarity of thought.  Design, however, distinguishes itself from other disciplines by stressing the importance of the visual vocabulary in addition to the written one. Based on the ubiquity of post-its, for a designer, even words are better understood when represented visually.  These visual artifacts help a designer process an idea but also give team members and clients something concrete to react to and evaluate.

Even once a project gets past the initial idea phase, it’s easy to get sidetracked by tangential ideas, the “wouldn’t it be great if…” conversations.  It’s easy to fantasize about how good or cool or useful an idea might be, but it’s quite another thing to actually solidify an idea and evaluate it.  In the former, nothing is proven or tested, and therefore nothing is learned, produced or accomplished.  In a way, this mentality protects the ego and requires little work.  The latter, requires a willingness to be proven wrong, to throw away code, or realize that a cool idea is not so cool after all.  However, none of that could have been learned just by talking about an idea.

Over an over again at AC4D, Justin Petro repeated the mantra, “Less talking, more making.”  It’s great practice in design, and it’s great practice in all of life.  Stop talking about what you are going to do, and do it already.

Mommy's Corner Pitch

Last Saturday, Saranyan and I pitched our idea for Mommy’s Corner (think the craigslist of trading).  We got some great questions around the legality of our site and the logistics of making a trade.  Stay tuned for solutions around how to make a trade run smoothly.

Here’s the deck for our pitch.

Here is the current version of wireframes for the site:

Ah, that ol'Designing For Debate

Throughout the year, various classmates and I have had discussions around imposing our own middle class values on other people through our designs.  First, this came up when deciding what our main project for this year would be.  If we were to work with those experiencing homelessness, would our perspective be one of rescuing/saving/helping the people we were working with?  Inherent in that view is a value judgment that my way of life is better, and in turn, it’s easy to think “I am better.”  Besides this debate, several times we have discussed designing abroad and the value and/or detriment of these design solutions.  Is it imperialistic?

While this debate is not new to the design community, it is also important to remember that this is not a new debate in general, and many, many people have weighed in with their opinions.  During my two years living in Ecuador, and the past semester trying to grasp what it’s like to experience homelessness, I’ve struggled to withhold judgment of people and situations that I don’t truly understand.   The best I can do is continually remind myself to try and see the world from other people’s perspective.  While this often comes from spending time with other people, it also frequently comes from tapping into historical perspectives and readings.

I ’d like to share two readings that have affected and shaped my own opinions on debate, and have allowed me to see doing good and poverty from a differently.

  1. To Hell with Good Intentions” by Ivan Illich.  Illich warns of volunteers in Mexico, but most interesting, I find his view of the American spirit.

  1. La Vida by Oscar Lewis.  Lewis was an anthropologist who studied families living in poverty in Mexico, Puerto Rico, and New York. He developed a controversial theory called “cultural poverty,” which he distinguishes from material poverty.  The theory sees the positive, rather than negative in in the value system of those living in poverty.  Below, you’ll find excerpts from the introduction to the book La Vida where he intensely studies one family living in poverty.

My hope is that these readings also help reframe how you, the reader, thinks about the “we are imposing our values” debate.

Excerpts from the introduction of La Vida:

The people in this book, like most of the other Puerto Rican slum dwellers I have studied, show a great zest for life, especially for sex, and a need for excitement, new experiences and adventures.  Theirs is an expressive style of life.  They value acting out more than thinking out, self-expression more than self-constraint, pleasure more than productivity, spending more than saving, personal loyalty more than impersonal justice.  They are fun-loving and enjoy parties, dancing and music. They cannot be alone; they have an almost insatiable need for sociability and interaction.  They are not apathetic, isolated, withdrawn or melancholy.  Compared with the low-income Mexicans I have studied, they seem less reserved, less depressive, less controlled and less stable.

The Rios family is closer to the expression of an unbridled id than any other people I have studied. They have an almost complete absence of internal conflict and of a sense of guilt.  They tend to accept themselves as they are, and do not indulge in soul-searching or introspection.  The leading characters in The Children of Sanchez seem mild, repressed and almost middle-class by comparison.

In writing about multi-problem families like the Rios family, social scientists often stress the instability, the lack of organization, lack of direction and lack of order.  Certainly there are many contradictory attitudes and inconsistencies expressed in these autobiographies.  Nevertheless, it seems to me that their behavior is clearly patterned and reasonably predictable.  Indeed, one is often struck by the inexorable repetitiousness and the iron entrenchment of their behavior patterns.

It has been my experience over many years that the psychiatrists, clinical psychologists and social workers who have read the autobiographies and psychological tests of the people I have studied, have often found more negative elements and pathology than I am willing to grant.  This has also been the case with the present volume.  Their findings may reflect some bias inherent in the test themselves, but perhaps more important, it seems to me, is the failure to see these people within the context of the culture of poverty…

In spite of the presence of considerable pathology, I am impressed by the strengths in this family.  I am impressed by their fortitude, vitality, resilience and ability to cope with problems which would paralyze many middle-class individuals.  It takes a great deal of staying power to live in their harsh and brutalizing environment.  They are a tough people, but they have their own sense of dignity and morality and they are capable of kindness, generosity and compassion.  They share food and clothing, help each other in misfortune, take in the homeless and cure the ill.  Money and material possessions, although important, do not motivate their major decisions.  Their deepest need is for love, and their life is a relentless search for it.

Unfortunately, because of their own negative self-images, the Rios family do not always present themselves in the best light.  Even in the recorded days, their particular style of communication and the crudeness of their language make them appear less attractive than they really are.  When Cruz screams at her three-year-old daughter, “I’ll pull your lungs through your mouth!”  and the child continues to disobey without apparent fear, it suggests that perhaps the child is quite secure in her mother’s love.  When Felicita sings a “dirty” song to her children instead of a traditional lullaby, the reader may be so disconcerted by the sexual imagery that he forgets the healthier aspects of the scene, children dancing and clapping happily to their mother’s music.  And if the children’s hurts go unattended, it is equally true that in the long run their mother’s lack of concern is not entirely inappropriate in an environment where toughness is necessary for survival.  Soledad may seem like a harsh, cruel, inconsistent mother by middle-class standards, but one should also note how much time, energy and attention she gives to her children and how hard she tries to live up to her own ideal of a good mother.  With much effort she has managed to provide them with a home, food and clothing, even with toys.  She has not abandoned them, nor permitted anyone to abuse them, and she is devoted to them when they are ill.

In the traditional view, anthropologists have said that culture provides human begins with a design for living, wit
h a ready-made set of solutions for human problems so that individuals don’t have to begin all over again each generation.  That is, the core of culture is its positive adaptive function.  I, too, have called attention to some of the adaptive mechanisms in the culture of poverty – for example, the low aspiration level helps to reduce frustration, the legitimization of short-range hedonism makes possible spontaneity and enjoyment.  However, on the whole it seems to me that it is a relatively thin culture.  There is a great deal of pathos, suffering and emptiness among those who live in the culture of poverty.  It does not provide much support of long-range satisfaction and its encouragement of mistrust tends to magnify helplessness and isolation.  Indeed, the poverty of culture is one of the crucial aspects of the culture of poverty.

The concept of the culture of poverty provides a high level of generalization which, hopefully, will unify and explain a number of phenomena viewed as distinctive characteristics of racial, national or regional groups.  For example, matrifocality, a high incidence of consensual unions and a high percentage of households headed by women, which have been thought to be distinctive of Caribbean family organization or of Negro family life in the U.S.A., turn out to be traits of the culture of poverty and are found among diverse peoples in many parts of the world and among peoples who have had no history of slavery.

The concept of a cross-societal subculture of poverty enables us to see that many of the problems we think of as distinctively our own or distinctively Negro problems (or that of any other special racial or ethnic group), also exist in countries where there are no distinct ethic minority groups.  This suggests that the elimination of physical poverty per se may not be enough to eliminate the culture of poverty which is a whole way of life.

“Throughout recorded history, in literature, in proverbs and in popular sayings, we find two opposite evaluations of the nature of the poor.  Some characterize the poor as blessed, virtuous, upright, serene, independent, honest, kind, and happy.  Others characterize them as evil, mean violent, sordid and criminal.  These contradictory and confusing evaluations are also reflected in the in-fighting that is going on in the current war against poverty.  Some stress the great potential of the poor for self-help, leadership and community organization, while others point to the sometimes irreversible, destructive effect of poverty upon individual character, and therefore emphasize the need for guidance and control to remain in the hands of the middle class, which presumably has better mental health.

These opposing views reflect a political power struggle between competing groups.  However, some of the confusion results from the failure to distinguish between poverty per se and the culture of poverty and the tendency to focus upon the individual personality rather than upon the group – that is, the family and the slum community.

As an anthropologist I have tried to understand poverty and its associated traits as a culture or, more accurately, as a subculture with its own structure and rationale, as a way of life which is passed down from generation to generation along family lines.  This view directs attention to the fact that the culture of poverty in modern nations is not only a matter of economic deprivation, of disorganization or of the absence of something.  It is also something positive and provides some rewards without which the poor could hardly carry on.

The culture of poverty is both an adaptation and a reaction of the poor to their marginal position in a class-stratified, highly individuated, capitalistic society.  It represents an effort to cope with feelings of hopelessness and despair, which develop from the rationalization of the improbability of achieving success in terms of the values and goals of the larger society.  Indeed, many of the traits of the culture of poverty can be viewed as attempts at local solutions for problems not met by existing institutions and agencies because the people are not eligible for them, cannot afford them, or are ignorant or suspicious of them.  For example, unable to obtain credit from banks, they are thrown upon their own resources and organize informal credit devices without interest.

The culture of poverty, however, is not only an adaptation to set a set of objective conditions of the larger society.  Once it comes into existence it tends to perpetuate itself from generation to generation because of its effect on the children.  By the time slum children are age six or seven they have usually absorbed the basic values and attitudes of their subculture and are not psychologically geared to take full advantage of changing conditions or increased opportunities which may occur in their lifetime.

People with a culture of poverty are aware of middle-class values, talk about them and even claim some of them as their own, but on the whole they do not live by them.  Thus it is important to distinguish between what they say and what they do.  For example, many will tell you that marriage by law, by the church, or by both, is the ideal form of marriage, but few will marry.  To men who have no steady jobs or other sources of income, who do not own property and have no wealth to pass on to their children, who are present-time oriented and who want to avoid the expense and legal difficulties involved in formal marriage and divorce, free unions or consensual marriage makes a lot of sense.  Women will often turn down offers of marriage because they feel it ties them down to men who are immature, punishing and generally unreliable.  Women feel that consensual union gives them a better break; it gives them some of the freedom and flexibility that men have.  By not giving the fathers of their children legal status as husbands, the women have a stronger claim on their children if they decide to leave their men.  It also gives women exclusive rights to a house or any other property they may own.

When we look at the culture of poverty on the local community level, we find poor housing conditions, crowding, gregariousness, but above all a minimum of organization beyond the level of the nuclear and extended family.  Occasionally there are informal, temporary groupings or voluntary associations within slums.  The existence of neighborhood gangs which cut across slum settlements represents a considerable advance beyond the zero point of the continuum that I have in mind.  Indeed, it is the low level of organization which gives the culture of poverty its marginal and anachronistic quality in our highly complex, specialized, organized society.  Most primitive peoples have achieved a higher level of socio-cultural organization than our modern urban slum dwellers.

On the level of the individual the major characteristics are a strong feeling of marginality, of helplessness, fo dependence and of inferiority.  I found this to be true of slum dwellers in Mexico City and San Juan among families who do not constitute a distinct ethic or racial group and who do not suffer from racial discrimination.

When the poor become class-conscious or active members of trade-union organizations or when they adopt an internationalistic outlook on the world they are no longer part of the culture of poverty, although they may still be desperately poor.  Any movement, be it religious, pacifist or revolutionary which organizes and gives hope to the poor and effectively promotes solidarity and a sense of identification with larger groups, destroys the psychological and social core of the culture of poverty.  In this connection, I suspect that the civil rights movement among the Negroes in the United States has done more to improve their self-image and self-respect than have their economic advances, although, without a doubt, the two are mutually reinforcing.

Think Make, not Think Meet

"picture of the book impro"

Think Make, acting instead of talking, isn’t new and isn’t limited to design.  Last night, I read this in Keith Johnstone’s Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre:

“My bias against discussion is something I’ve learned to see as very English.  I’ve known political theatre groups in Europe which would readily cancel a rehearsal, but never a discussion.  My feeling is that the best argument may be a testimony to the skill of the presenter, rather than to the excellence of the solution advocated.  Also the bulk of discussion time is visibly taken up with the transactions of status which have nothing to do with the problem to be solved.  My attitude is like Edison’s, who found a solvent for rubber by putting bits of rubber in every solution he could think of, and beat all those scientists who were approaching the problem theoretically.”

Think. Make. Go.

Also, while reading Impro, I found myself asking: By studying a subject’s rules, guidelines, and best practices, do we become less creative?  For instance, in design, usability guidelines may help a product be used, but does it also prevent leaps in innovation and creative interfaces?  Johnstone talking about becoming a theatre director:

“Obviously, I felt I ought to study my craft, but the more I understood how things ought to be done, the more boring my productions were.  Then as now, when I’m inspired, everything is fine, but when I try to get things right it’s a disaster.  In a way I was successful – I ended up as the Associate Director of the Theatre – but once again my talent had left me.

When I considered the difference between myself, and other people, I thought of myself as a late developer.  Most people lost their talent at puberty.  I lost mine in my early twenties.  I began to think of children not as immature adults, but of adults as atrophied children.”

What do you think?  Does this only apply to creativity, not craft?  Or art, not design?

In the 4th Dimension We're More One-Dimensional

While theoretical physics continues to struggle with string theory, and, thus, unify space and time, technology, is already in the process of the space-time unification.  No, an individual cannot literally travel through time, but the digital footprint gathered by most babies born in western society today, carries enough residual facts, moods, and moments, to simulate, if not entirely digitally recreate, the major events of their lives.  In fact, given the current speed of technological innovation and the advancement of computer animation, a future of digitally recreated, life-like memories is more plausible than not.  One can imagine “traveling in time” to a memory in one’s past. Couple this digital memory potential with the future of embedded technologies and an ambient environment, and Rob van Kranenburg warns that the consequence just might be that “there are no more humans, only information spaces.”  Technophiles imagine the future as a space more rich and meaningful, but according to van Kranenburg, backed by Suchman’s insights into human computer interaction, the future looks more and more one-dimensional.

The idea that a human could lose their humanness sounds absurd to anyone who grew up in an analog world.  However, the generations growing up in today’s digital world are integrated so intimately with technology that many see it as an extension of self and means of self-expression.  Turkle’s experiments and analysis of teens’ cell phone usage reflects this idea.  When their cell phone is taken away, teens speak of the loss as an “anxiety of disconnection.[1]” It’s almost as severe as the loss of the companionship of another human being.  The current trend in programming languages toward more characteristically human structures only contributes to the complete acceptance of technology integrated into all aspects of life.  Indeed the computer seems more human as it “employ[s] terms borrowed from the description of human interaction – dialogue, conversation, and so forth” (Suchman).  Computer languages themselves are so abstracted that almost anyone can guess what the Ruby line ‘print “hello world'” will do. As the computer is perceived more human, and “demonstrate[s] some evidence of recognizably human abilities, we are inclined to endow [it] with the rest” (Suchman).  Humans are inclined to see themselves in the computer and therefore more likely to accept it into their lives without questioning its role.

Van Kranenburg recognizes a continued lack of critical thinking around technology through his observation that machines trend more and more toward complexity and less and less toward understandability.  Van Kranenburg sites the fact that a car manual that used to be one-hundred pages is now more than a million, unintelligible without the aid of a computer.  When the parts are unintelligible, human’s natural inclination is to “to ascribe actions to the entity rather than to it’s parts” (Suchman).  Technology is no longer seen as something made and put together, which inherently implies it can also be taken apart.  Rather, technology is seen as a whole, functioning on its own.  Because of this, its acceptance comes more easily into the fabric of everyday life.

A new world of integrated technology promises safety.  It promises that we know more about the world, but also, that more about the individual is known to the world.  Van Kranenburg claims that this results in a loss of privacy where there is no more public, but only audience.  People are only data streams to be analyzed and observed and reduced to a predictable number.  However, it is in acquiescing to these norms the very nature of humanness, with all its fallibility and unpredictable is indeed lost.   Not only are individuals reduced in this ambient world, but the mystery of Nature herself succumbs to the illusion of control.  An abundance of data creates a false sense of understanding, for it is only with mystery taken out of life’s equation, that one can also find the beauty and meaning.

While it’s easier to reduce van Kranenburg’s arguments to some Orwellian warning fit only for Luddites or science fiction enthusiasts, his assertions are backed in the history and progression of human computer interaction.   Without further intervention and an open debate about how and when technologies should integrate into everyday life, humans might are in great danger of losing their form, their essence, their three-dimensionality.

[1] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/digitalnation/interviews/turkle.html

Research Ethics and Wicked Problems

When working on wicked problems, what one does can directly and powerfully affect lives.  While this opportunity for impact initially drove me to AC4D and to work on wicked problems, I soon discovered the complicated ethical challenges of conducting research in the social space.

During classes at AC4D, we learned contextual and participatory research techniques and discussed the necessity of participant consent. However, the examples we discussed in class involved consumer products like toothbrushes or razors, not people in crisis.  As I began research on homelessness, I realized that I was not probing into someone’s life habits but into someone’s life.  Homelessness is not caused by any one thing but by several bad decisions or unhappy circumstances, and I asked people to tell me about these mistakes or unfortunate events.   Research forced me to walk a delicate line because the stories people told me were so personal.  Some people refused to answer my questions.   For those that answered, sometimes, I probed too far. Other times people opened up to me too much and told me things I didn’t know how to respond to.  A good researcher can lead a conversation toward information they want, but many times, I found myself just simply listening.  I felt like I constantly walked a fine line between what I was supposed to be doing as a researcher and what I felt like I should do as a compassionate human being.  At times, I felt more like a counselor and less like a researcher, giving out hugs instead of business cards.  Other times, I simply didn’t know how to respond and found my hands in my pockets awkwardly not knowing what to do or say.

Many professions have codes of conduct when dealing with people in vulnerable situations. Psychiatrists never make physical contact with a patient and never talk about themselves.  Social workers engage their clients only in the context of their job, not outside.  These professions establish clear boundaries between practitioner and client.   While conducting research over the last eight weeks, I’ve wondered what exactly those boundaries are for the designer. Are there situations where a designer should just walk away?  Is it okay for a designer to make physical contact with a client?  Is there an ethical responsibility to share information with authorities if law-breaking activity is talked about?  There must be a certain amount of trust between the designer and client, but how far does this trust extend?

These questions are important in any design research situation, but even more pertinent in the social sector, where the line can easily blur between researcher and empathetic human being.

Interactive Tools on Homelessness

Changes in Homelessness:

It’s hard to get accurate statistics on the exact number of people experiencing homeless in the United States.  The National Alliance to End Homelessness tries with their detailed estimates and state comparisons with the national average.

Children & Homelessness:

What about children?  Often the forgotten face of homelessness, children face a great risk of being on the street. Find out how children fare in your state.

Multi-Year Homeless Count Map:

Homelessness appears to be on the rise across the US.  Although Texas lacks updated data, the number of people experiencing homelessness in Austin, TX is around 9,000.   What does your city look like?

Homelessness is Messed Up!

Week three.  We had lots of great research but no clear focus.

What did we do?  We wrote down all of the things that felt were messed up about ARCH, the system, and homelessness.

Then, we took that criteria and imagined what ARCH might look like in “Impossible World” where we were in charge and could do anything we wanted.

Out of this came design criteria that will guide Christina and I into whatever focus we choose.

  • How do we give people more breathing space?
  • How can we make the past help, not hurt?
  • How do we incorporate rewards and immediate feedback into more processes?
  • How do we make services more convenient for those who are working?
  • How do we respect and use cultural differences?