Iteration 3 of the VCU App

For my third iteration of the Velocity Credit Union banking app, I changed up my usability testing methodology.

Not entirely – I still used the Think Aloud Protocol, which calls for users to literally say out loud what they are thinking as they accomplish a task. Studies have shown that though thinking aloud slows down users, it does not alter their choices as they accomplish a task. In other words, you can get an accurate picture of the choices people would make while doing a task even if you have them say their thoughts out loud the whole time. This is great for designers in that it allows us to get a lot of insight into where our designs are confusing or annoying people.

The other advantage of Think Aloud Protocol is that it is gentle on the wallet: you can get substantive results after testing with 5 users, and your returns (in terms of new information) diminish sharply after 10 users.

I did change my technique this week in that I organized my screens in a much simpler way, which allowed me to take better notes as people were testing out my app. This gave me much better results as I was able to ask my participants about their moments of confusion after they completed the tasks rather than having to piece together what was happening from my audio recordings.

The tasks I had my users test out were paying a bill to a saved payee, paying a bill to a new payee, paying a friend back for pizza, transferring money from your savings to your checking account, and setting up a recurring transfer.

As a result of my usability testing, I learned about quite a few problems with my VCU app. Here were the top three:

1. Poor Proximity and Visibility of the “Make a Recurring Transfer” Option

“I hit the 15th. How do I make it recurring?”


  • Users did not notice the small “Make this a recurring transfer” option on the main page.
  • Even if they did notice, they first clicked on the calendar icon and selected a date.
  • All users expressed that they wanted to be able to make payments recurring from the calendar screen without having to navigate back to Screen 6 of the Transfer Money Between Accounts Flow.

Recommendation for Fix:

  • Enhance the visibility of the “Make this a recurring transfer” box by making the text larger and checkbox larger.
  • Enhance its proximity to the date selection feature by placing it on the same screen as the calendar image.

Here’s what changed:

Transfer Flow, Iteration 2

Transfer Bad Version

Transfer Flow, Iteration 3

Transfer Good Version

2. Poor Mapping of the Person to Person Search Option

“Was John Smith already on the list?”


  • Users’ first instinct was to click the “Invite a Friend” button rather than searching among the saved contacts.

Recommendation for Fix:

  • Remove the “Invite a Friend” option from Screen 3 of the Person to Person flows, so users are forced to search among saved contacts first.
  • Instead, show the “Invite a Friend” option on the search results page so that users turn to that option only if their initial search does not turn up the person they were looking for.
  • Change the heading of the Saved Contacts list from “Saved” to “Contacts” to better suggest that the list includes all your contacts, not just people you’ve entered into this system manually.

Request Money from a Friend Flow, Iteration 2

Request Friend Bad

Request Money from a Friend Flow, Iteration 3

Request Friend Good


3. Search Results in Bill Pay Flow Do Not Appear Clickable

“Do I click on Search again? ”


  • Users found the payees they wanted in the Bill Pay flow, but then did not know what to do.
  • The current signifiers that the search results are clickable are insufficient.

Recommendation for Fix:

  • Add a chevron shape to each search result

Bill Pay Flow, Iteration 2

Bill Pay Bad

Bill Pay Flow, Iteration 3

Bill Pay Good


Other Flows

Those were the big shifts, but I also created or revised a number of other flows this week:

Set Up a Weekly Transfer Flow

Set Up Weekly Transfer

Set up a Biweekly Transfer Flow

Set Up Biweekly Transfer

Withdrawal Limit Charge

Withdrawal Limit Charge

Transfer Add Memo Flow

Transfer Add Memo Flow

Deposit Check Flow

Deposit Check Flow


I also revised my VCU concept model to reflect the changes in the information architecture of my app.


Asset 2

Tune in next week for Iteration 4.


VCU App Iteration 2: Usability Testing and Revisions

No flow plan survives contact with the user.

This week, I conducted put the first iterations of my VCU flows in front of three Bennu coffee patrons in order to test their usability. The method I used was think aloud testing, which basically involved asking my participants to say everything they were thinking as they tried to accomplish tasks using the VCU app. Every time they paused, I said a gentle “please keep talking” to get them started again. I had originally planned to test with more people, but these first tests turned up so many problems that I concluded I didn’t need to do any more testing.

Main Problem #1

The first big problem people encountered (quite literally) was that there were no signifiers on the login page to let users know what they should put in the input boxes.

Flow: Check Balance Screen 1, Iteration 1 Note the lack of labels for the input boxes
Flow: Check Balance Screen 1, Iteration 1
Note the lack of labels for the input boxes

One user said, “I’m clicking on the top one because it’s probably the username.”

The fix for this problem was relatively easy. I just added labels inside the input boxes.

Flow: Check Balance, Screen 1, Iteration 2
Flow: Check Balance, Screen 1, Iteration 2


Main Problem #2

The second big problem my participants encountered was that the main menu options were not clear.

Flow: New Bill Payee, Screen 1, Iteration 1
Flow: New Bill Payee, Screen 1, Iteration 1

Here are some quotes from my participants:

“I don’t see any that would suit depositing a check.”

“The names of the menu options were confusing. ‘Funds Transfer’ and ‘Bill Pay’ were really similar in my head.”

There were a few factors contributing to their confusion.  “Bill Pay” and “Funds Transfer” sound like they perform similar functions. The word “mobile” does not add clarity to the check deposit feature. 

To fix these problems, I did the following:

  • Changed “Mobile Check Deposit” to “Deposit a Check”
  • Changed “Transfer Funds” into two separate main menu options: “Transfer” and “Pay/Request from a Friend”
  • Subsumed “Credit Card” options within “Services” (in order to keep the full menu viewable without scrolling.

Here’s how it turned out:

Flow: Add Bill Payee Manually, Screen 1, Iteration 2
Flow: Add Bill Payee Manually, Screen 1, Iteration 2


Main Problem #3

The third big problem people encountered using the app occurred in the Deposit a Check flow. My participants had a hard time figuring out that the camera icon was a button that they needed to push in order to take a picture of their checks.

Deposit a Check Screen 5 The red box shows the offending button
Deposit a Check Screen 5
The red box shows the offending button

One user said, “I’m confused as to what this camera icon is for. I don’t really know what to do now.”

Flow: Deposit Check, Screen 5.25 Picture Taken
Deposit a Check, Screen 6 (Iteration 2) Note the lack of a camera button and the friendly green glow indicating that the app is about to take a picture of the check by itself.

I concluded that the button was too small and subtle over there in the corner, and I had originally planned to enlarge it. But then I thought, why not just have the app take the photo as soon as the check is aligned with the viewfinder.

I also edited my flows based on the feedback my classmates gave me, and then I added a few new flows. Take a gander:

Quickpay Payment Flow
Quickpay Payment Flow


QuickPay Request Flow
QuickPay Request Flow


Invite a Friend to QuickPay Flow
Invite a Friend to QuickPay Flow


Tune in next week for Iteration 3!

Iteration 1: My Redesign of the Velocity Credit Union Mobile App

Identifying issues with the existing Velocity Credit Union (VCU) app last week was just the beginning of our work this quarter in Rapid Ideation and Creative Problem Solving. The hypothetical information architecture concept map I created last week as a redesign of the VCU app underwent quite a few changes when I actually had to start putting together storyboards showing how people would use the VCU app.

For instance, I realized my original idea for the Bill Pay function was not really taking advantage of current tech. The existing VCU app has you manually enter in the information for every payee you want to add to your Bill Pay list. I simplified that process in my first hand-drawn sketch, but then I realized that I was missing out on an obvious and much easier solution: just allow users to select from a list of popular companies for which the VCU app would already have the billing information. Then, if someone needs to enter a more obscure company in manually, you can give them that option, but if they need to pay Southwest Airlines, for instance, the information for that company is ready to go. Below you’ll see what I came up with as the full flow for scheduling a bill pay. Flow_ New Bill Pay_ Screen 1

Flow_ New Bill Pay_ Screen 2 Flow_ New Bill Pay_ Screen 3 Flow_ New Bill Pay_ Screen 4 Flow_ New Bill Pay_ Screen 5 Flow_ New Bill Pay_ Screen 6 Flow_ New Bill Pay_ Screen 7 Flow_ New Bill Pay_ Screen 8 Flow_ New Bill Pay_ Screen 9 Flow_ New Bill Pay_ Screen 10 Flow_ New Bill Pay_ Screen 11

Flow_ New Bill Pay_ Screen 12

In addition to having the searchable list of common business payees, this flow differs from the actual VCU app in that when you select the date of the payment, a panel that actually looks like a physical calendar pops up. In the current VCU app, you just have to enter in numbers for the date. I chose to include that panel because it helps me to be better able to plan my finances if I can see when weekends or holidays are happening. That way I don’t accidentally make myself late on a payment because I scheduled it to go through on a Sunday.


I also built an updated version of the screens you would need to manually enter in a new bill payee.

Flow_ New Bill Payee Entered Manually_ Screen 1 Flow_ New Bill Payee Entered Manually_ Screen 2 Flow_ New Bill Payee Entered Manually_ Screen 3 Flow_ New Bill Payee Entered Manually_ Screen 4 Flow_ New Bill Payee Entered Manually_ Screen 5 Flow_ New Bill Payee Entered Manually_ Screen 6 Flow_ New Bill Payee Entered Manually_ Screen 7 Flow_ New Bill Payee Entered Manually_ Screen 8 Flow_ New Bill Payee Entered Manually_ Screen 9 Flow_ New Bill Payee Entered Manually_ Screen 10 Flow_ New Bill Payee Entered Manually_ Screen 11

This flow differs from the current VCU app in a few ways even after it forks away from where the last flow goes into selecting a common payee from the pre-made list. First, I added a confirmation message at the end letting the user know that they did successfully add a new payee (and giving them one last opportunity to review the information they put in). Second, after that confirmation message, I sent the user back to the “Saved Payees,” which has an alphabetized list of payees the user has paid previously using this system. In the original app the list of saved payees is organized in the order they were last used, with the most recently used appearing at the top. This means that if you add a new payee, it appears somewhere near the bottom of the list, making it hard to find.

Another flow I updated so that you do not have to manually enter in information every time you use it was the transfer funds feature. Now, in the current VCU app, the closest thing to being able to easily send money to a friend is the option to transfer funds to someone else who also banks at VCU, but you have to re-enter their information every time. For my redesign of the VCU app, I made it function much more like Venmo in that there is a searchable saved list of people you could send money to. Take a look:

Flow_ Send Money to Friend_ Screen 1 Flow_ Send Money to Friend_ Screen 2 Flow_ Send Money to Friend_ Screen 3 Flow_ Send Money to Friend_ Screen 4 Flow_ Send Money to Friend_ Screen 5 Flow_ Send Money to Friend_ Screen 6 Flow_ Send Money to Friend_ Screen 7 Flow_ Send Money to Friend_ Screen 8 Flow_ Send Money to Friend_ Screen 9 Flow_ Send Money to Friend_ Screen 10

This makes sending money much easier as no one, not even the person you’re trying to pay, is likely to know her routing and account numbers off the top of her head.

Next, I took a pass at updating the mobile check deposit feature of the VCU app. Here it is:

Flow_ Deposit Check_ Screen 1 Flow_ Deposit Check_ Screen 2 Flow_ Deposit Check_ Screen 3 Flow_ Deposit Check_ Screen 4 Flow_ Deposit Check_ Screen 5 Flow_ Deposit Check_ Screen 6 Flow_ Deposit Check_ Screen 7 Flow_ Deposit Check_ Screen 8

I primarily updated this flow by tweaking the UI. For instance, on the mobile deposit main screen in the original VCU app, every piece of information is centered and the same font. This means there is little visual hierarchy. In my version, I set the “Deposit to” information up and to the left, letting the amount of money you’re depositing occupy a larger and more central area. I did this because it seems like people are more likely to make errors entering in the amount of money their check is for rather than picking the wrong bank account. There are more ways to mess up when typing on a keyboard than when you’re choosing between your few bank accounts. Therefore, it made sense to me to make the check amount number larger and more prominent so that people have more of a chance of catching their errors before they try to deposit and get an annoying error message.

Lastly, I also took a stab at flow for checking you account balance. This was by far the shortest flow:

Flow_ Check Balance_ Screen 1 Flow_ Check Balance_ Screen 2

For this flow, I did a few updates. Most prominently, I moved your credit card balance out of the weeds of the “Services” Menu option and put it here, right on the home page of the app. I did this because keeping track of how much you’ve already charged this month is just as important for many people’s sense of their financial health as checking how much money is in their bank account at any given moment. If you’ve already got a $500 balance on your credit card, it doesn’t matter if you have $350 in your checking account. You still can’t afford those shoes you want.

Secondly, I updated the UI surrounding the header options. Instead of a button that says “Menu,” I used the common triple line symbol indicating a menu. Also, instead of a button that said “More” which weirdly gave you the same options as the top three Menu options (Deposit Check, Transfer Funds, Bill Pay), I included a “Log Out” button. Many people log in just to check their balances, so having a ready to hand way of logging out on the same screen on which you can check your balance made sense to me.

This is just my first iteration of the updated VCU banking app. I’m excited to get critiqued tonight so that I can rip apart many of the things I just explained to you and then make them better. Tune in next week to see the second iteration!

Adrift and Annoyed: Navigating Velocity Credit Union’s Mobile App

I always feel a certain self-righteous pleasure when I walk into my credit union. I chose local! I defied the big banks! I know the names and average check depositing speeds of my bank tellers!

I have always been happy with my credit union and its scrappy intent to serve its customers well. And when, occasionally, it lagged behind its bigger competitors in terms of amenities or convenience, I didn’t mind, because that moment of walking through Velocity Credit Union’s doors and renewing my connection with the people and ideals there made up for everything. And then, of course, it fulfilled the basic functions of a bank, a fact I’m now sure of since I created a concept map explaining how banks work.

Banking Concept Map

But having that baseline level of security about Velocity Credit Union’s abilities in its brick and mortar incarnation did not stop my trepidation when I began our Rapid Ideation and Creative Problem Solving class assignment: to analyze and improve upon our bank’s mobile app. Flawless execution of complicated infrastructure and keeping up with the latest technology has never been Velocity Credit Union’s strength: my first chip and pin credit card came a good third of the year after a family member who banks at Chase got hers.

My unease was well-founded. When I downloaded Velocity’s mobile app and mapped out its every link from the home screen right through to the legalese periphery, I found numerous breakdowns in the user experience (indicated in the concept map below by lightning bolt symbols) , some of them pretty catastrophic. For instance, if you click on the menu option for transaction, an option comes up for “Core Based Recurring…” This is confusing for two reasons: (1) you can’t read the full title of the link (Core Based Recurring Transfers) because it is too long to fit on the screen, and (2) what the heck is a core based recurring transfer? If you dig around in that section of the app, you can figure out that this is a vestige of an earlier version of Velocity’s app. This is the feature that shows the scheduled transfers you set up under that old online banking system. Why aren’t those scheduled transfers just integrated into the new transfer system?

Asset 1-100

Other sources of annoyance included the times links within the app sent you to third party websites (indicated in the map above by the circles outside the dotted line that marks the boundaries of Velocity’s app).  How come when I click “Secure Chat” it takes me to some chat page labelled “Office Survey”? Why do I have to go to to order checks from my credit union? All these features should be included in the app itself.

The most egregious error is located at that leftmost lightning bolt in the map above, the one next to “Credit Card Services.” Clicking that link will send you to a page where you can apply for a credit card, but once you get there, you can’t get out without actually applying. The “Cancel” button doesn’t work. The “More” button does nothing. Even “Menu” doesn’t function. You’re just stuck staring at a credit card ad (or clicking through to apply for a credit card) until you restart your phone, forcing the app to go back to the login page. This breakdown is annoying not just because it is inconvenient, but also because it feels like a betrayal of the values of Velocity Credit Union. You go to a credit union because you feel like they’re less likely to take advantage of you. Appearing to have the intent to bully someone into applying for a credit card by making it incredibly cumbersome to back out of applying makes Velocity look like sell-outs. Even if this was a simple coding error, that appearance of avarice is damaging to the Velocity Credit Union brand.

Clearly, Velocity’s app has some room for improvement. The first step in doing so is to create a new concept map illustrating how its navigation and information architecture could be improved.

Asset 2-100

As you can see from the revised concept map above, I streamlined the app significantly in my redesign. Here are just a few of the improvements:

  •  All features (such as check reordering and chatting with a customer service rep) can be accessed within the app.
  • The credit card functions are on the Home screen rather than hiding away in a dead end in “Services.”
  • I distilled all the transfer options into two categories: “Transfer” (for moving money among your own accounts” and “Send Money” (for sending money to someone else’s account).
  • Instead of having a few different areas that provided different forms of help, I put the FAQ and chat feature under the menu option “Support.” I also combined the messaging and alert history screens and placed them in “Support” as well.
  • In the old system, the menu option called “Alerts” let you set alerts for when your balance is getting low, or an unusual transaction goes through, or (curiously) when your anniversary is. In my redesign, I got rid of the feature allowing you to set an alert for your anniversary or birthday, and then I placed all the features allowing you to set alerts related to banking in the “Settings” section.

My next step in the redesign will be thinking through scenarios people using the app might experience and designing the actual screens they will see (as opposed to what I did in this assignment, which was to redesign the overall architecture of the app). I look forward to updating you all soon!


Taking a Shower: Designing for the Impoverished


The readings this week, which all proposed different ways of thinking about poverty, led me to one conclusion about the attitudes and strategies I should bring to that issue as a designer: the poor are agents, not victims.

For the story I wrote, I chose to explore my role as a designer in relation to poverty through the lens of a small family trying to accomplish a small goal: taking a shower. As you’ll see below, I’ll be interrupting the story periodically with sections in italics explaining how the storyline maps onto the theories our class explored this week.


To Take a Shower

“Mom, I’ve got the resume hardcopy,” Katie called out as she opened her mother’s, Donna’s, front door.

“I think we need to get you a new printer.” Katie kept moving deeper into the house. “But you look super competent on here. I’d hire you. Mom?” Katie pushed aside the drapes covering the patio doors. No one in the backyard, and Rocio had forgotten to water the bougainvilleas again.

Katie paused, listening. “Mom? Rocio?” They should have both been here, getting ready for Mom’s skype interview. Mom had lost her job at the Department of Insurance months ago. If she needed something at the last minute, she would have sent Rocio, her personal caregiver, not risked being late by going herself.   

Katie heard a sound in the master bathroom. Were they laughing? “Mom, I’m coming in.” Katie barely rapped on the door before shoving it open. The door hit something soft then rebounded back at her.

“Katie?” her Mom said.

Katie pushed the door open more gently. Her mom was lying there in a robe on the ground. She was crying.

“Jesus, Mom, are you okay?” Katie pulled her mom up to lean her against the sink.  “What happened?”

“I fell.”

“Where is Rocio?”

Her mom started crying again. “I had to let Rocio go last week. I couldn’t afford to pay her anymore.”

“Why didn’t you tell me? I would have helped you myself.” Katie’s mom was disabled. She could still walk a bit, but getting into a bathtub and then lifting herself back out again was out of the question.

Donna shook her head. “You can’t afford that. And I don’t want you helping me take a shower. Neither of us needs that mental image.”

“You should have at least waited for me to get here. What if you had hit your head going down?”

“I can’t have dirty hair for my interview,” Donna insisted.

“We could hide it with a hat.”

“It’s a job interview, not the Royal Ascot.”

“We could angle you so the light doesn’t shine on you so much.”

“I can’t be trying to hide my greaseball head  and sound smart at the same time.


Here I am echoing the ideas of Dean Spears. His research shows that poverty reduces one’s cognitive control because it forces you to make tough decisions constantly, exhausting your mental resources. Therefore, it is our responsibility as designers to make products and services for the poor that demand the use of as little cognitive control as possible. This frees them up to use that mental energy on other tasks, such as figuring out how to navigate the path out of poverty.



“You’re being silly.”  

Donna’s face closed down. “No. If I don’t want my daughter to see me naked, I don’t want her to see me naked.”

Katie sat back on her heels. “Well, this isn’t going to work. You can’t be falling down when there’s no one here to help you.”


Roger Martin and Sally Osberg advocate for social entrepreneurs to help the impoverished by perceiving and then overthrowing unjust social equilibriums. Though I found their theories a tad paternalistic, I do think that as designers we need to use our observation and synthesis skills to discern unsatisfactory equilibriums and take action to change them.


“I could do it myself if the bathtub rim weren’t so high,” said Donna.


Here I refer back to Chris LeDantec. He states that our designs should ideally be accessible and emotionally resonant with everyone, rich and poor alike. It would be possible to make a more universally accessible bathtub; that just wasn’t a priority for the original tub designer in this story.


Donna mused, “Or if I had one of those mini-elevator machines that can raise and lower you.”

“Yeah, that would be nice,” Katie said. They both knew they could never afford to install something like that. “They make those plastic shower chairs that let you sit down while you take a shower.”

Donna shook her head. “I know. That doesn’t help us right now though.”  


This section calls back to the pro- capitalist ideas of  Allen Hammond and C.K. Prahalad. They advocate for tailoring products for the poor so that they are not locked out of the broader economy because businesses assume that they cannot participate. In this story, someone has created a cheaper alternative to a mechanical elevator seat, though Katie and Donna unfortunately do not have access to it right now.


Katie sprang up. “Wait, let’s try this.” Katie walked out the door and returned in a minute with one of her mom’s lawn chairs. Katie put the lawn chair down in the tub. “This way you won’t have to stand up the whole time or get up from sitting down.”

“Help me up.” Donna held her arm out. Katie pulled her up and maneuvered her next to the tub. Donna reached out to the chair and started to lift herself over the tub edge. She eased back. “No, it’s too hard to get around the chair arm. Get me a stool.”


Returning to LeDantec, he proposes that designers view the poor as more than just consumers. Rather, they have agency, knowledge, and skills to bring to bear to help co-design their own solutions.


“But I don’t want you tippling over mid-shower.” Katie leaned her mother up against the sink.

“Go get my desk chair. The arms on that raise and lower.”

Katie set the lawn chair by the toilet and went to get Mom’s desk chair. It wedged nicely into the center of the tub. Donna heaved herself up and Katie kept a hand on her elbow as Donna gripped the chair’s far arm and edged her feet up and over the side of the tub. Donna settled into the seat and raised the chair’s other arm up. She looked snug in her robe, squashed securely between the chair’s arms.

Katie handed the shower head down to Donna.“Are you good now?” she asked.

“Yup.” Donna was already turning the taps.

“Okay, I’m going to be right outside if you need anything.”

“I’ve got it now.”


Muhammad Yunus’s ideas sneak in here at the end. He states that designers should make products and services that work to remove the structural obstacles that prevent the impoverished from accomplishing their goals, like becoming healthier or opening a business. In this story, Katie and Donna have co-designed a solution to Donna’s immediate problem, she can no longer afford to pay for someone to help her take a bath. This enables Donna to tackle her other big problem, unemployment.  


Katie pulled the door shut. “Well, Mom, do you want to practice?” She affected a deep interviewer voice, “Tell me, what experiences have prepared you for this position, Ms. Butler?”

“Go away! I’m trying to shower!”

The End

Participatory Design

This week in our design research methods class, we have been trying out participatory design, a research method in which the researcher actively attempts to involve stakeholders in the design process. Our class is just beginning this project, so our job currently is to help our participants define the problem space as well as get a feel for what possible solutions for their pain points would feel like. This will help us to make actionable insights and design criteria for our project.

My team in particular has been focusing on learning which factors influence consumers’ purchasing and eating of different cuts of meat. Consequently, we tried out two different but closely related participatory design methodologies. For our first three participatory design interviews, we had our subjects save their meat offcuts from any meals prepared between when we contacted them and our interview. We used those offcuts as a jumping-off point for discussing which parts of an animal they considered to be desirable as food and why. Next, we had our participants create a journey map of the last time they prepared a meal that included meat, all the way from the meal occuring to them through clean up. This allowed us to go in depth about their motivations and emotions during each step of the process. Finally, we asked our participants to create an idealized journey map that had all the same steps as the first map. However, for this map our participants selected images from a set prepared by Leah McDougald. For each step, they had to select an image that represented what that action would ideally be like and what it ideally would not be like. This, again, allowed us to focus on our participants’ desired emotional resonance for each step in dealing with meat.

At the suggestion of our teacher, Jonathan Lewis, we changed things up for our final participatory design interview by having our participant complete a different homework assignment. Rather than holding on to her offcuts, we asked our participant to go to the grocery store meat section where she normally shops and take 10 photos of things she had not eaten before, 10 photos of things she ate frequently, and 10 photos of things she wished she ate more often. We evidently did not explain this assignment well enough as our participant took photos from every section of the grocery store, not just the section with the animal products. However, she did get some photos from the sections we were interested in, and that did help to prompt a conversation about what she eats and does not eat. However, I’ve got to say that the most exciting part of the interview for me was when she unprompted began describing the barrels of food at the old markets in New Orleans that her mother and grandmother used to tell her about. It was so clear that this was her ideal, a visceral, sensual shopping experience.

Though these interviews yielded rich results, they could have been better. I found myself sometimes asking leading questions such as, “Do you like X?” rather than the more neutral phrasing, “What do you think about X?” We also gave our participants sticky notes with suggested steps in the meat consumption process on them. My thinking as someone who comes from an education background is that people often need scaffolding in new types of creative activities, but our teacher Lauren Serota suggested that we just let people state the steps in their own words, and that worked fine as well. We probably received similarly detailed descriptions using both methods, but by letting our participants write their own steps we got more insight into which steps they thought were important. Lastly, we need to do better as a team about arriving at interview sites early so that we can do the pre-interview checklist suggested by the design thought leader Steve Portigal. We sometimes entered interviews a bit flustered, which did not appear professional.

Design Research

These past two weeks, we have been learning about different methods of design research and the theoretical underpinnings of those methods. After considering readings from five different authors, I’ve walked away with limited respect for Don Norman’s belief in the limitations of design research and distaste for William Gaver’s conception of cultural probes. On the other hand, Paul Dorish’s idea of designing for a more phenomenological conception of context has value, and so does Jon Kolko’s faith in ethnographic research and synthesis as sources of design criteria. Likewise, Liz Sanders’s practice of co-design from start to finish appealed to me. But let’s go explore these ideas more deeply through the magic of Adobe Illustrator.

In the comic I created to illustrate my understanding of and thoughts about the latest readings, our protagonist is a young king. When we first look in on him, he is driven to madness by the repetitious “helpful” hints of Peppy, a side character in the N64 Game, Starfox 64.



Being an empowered and surprisingly design-oriented young man, he summons five designers to help him come up with a new game, the first of whom is Don Norman.





After engaging in ethnographic observation, Don Norman offers the perfectly reasonable if uninspiring choice to upgrade Starfox 64 and make it Starfox 65, a better version without the annoying character Peppy. This plot point reflects the actual Don Norman’s belief that design research is not good at finding hidden unmet needs, but is rather best used to observe the small annoyances and workarounds people use with existing products. One can then in a low-risk way incrementally improve upon previous works. Norman does not believe design research can lead to innovative leaps, so best for him to stay with a safe choice. In this case, however, the king, like me, finds Norman’s offerings inadequate.

The king’s next visitor is William Gaver, he of the cultural probes. Cultural probes, despite their somewhat menacing name, are just ambiguous activities research participants complete in the absence of the researcher. Gaver assigns the king a few characteristically odd tasks.

DesignResearchComicFinal-07 DesignResearchComicFinal-08 DesignResearchComicFinal-09 DesignResearchComicFinal-10


A reluctant king completes Gaver’s tasks, and then Gaver goes off and, embracing ambiguity and subjectivity, makes up a story about the king’s life given the meager evidence his probes reveal. Gaver then creates a game based on the, in this case wildly false, assumptions he made based on his cultural probe. This storyline reflects my frustration with Gaver’s methods, specifically with how we lauds the extra mystery and creativity that arises out of forcing oneself to make up narratives about one’s research subjects. This seems silly to me. Humans are pretty good at gaining insight from observing other humans. Why would you cut yourself off from that source of insight? Anyway, the king is likewise unimpressed and gives Gaver the boot.

Next, the king sees Paul Dorish.




The real Paul Dorish believes that context is constructed by people moment to moment and that it depends both on the environment and the activities taking place there. Consequently, he favors designs that go beyond mere co-design (which produces a fixed end product) by making the context of the design transparent to and modifiable by users. In this case, those qualities are represented by Minecraft, which allows users to create Mods and Servers that fundamentally modify the rules of the original game. While I believe having that level of control in every designed product would be overwhelming to users, it could be pretty cool in some situations.

Next,  the king meets Jon Kolko.

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Jon Kolko is a great believer in design research that produces design criteria. Furthermore, he believes that synthesis can lead to uncovering unmet needs that users might not even realize they have (in this case, the king wants to see the elderly duke it out). Like the real Jon Kolko, our comic Jon Kolko thinks that the measure of innovation is the value ascribed to a product by normal people. This jibes with my impression of the world and the ability of most people to see beyond the face value of others’ words. Kolko’s ideas seem applicable to every design research scenario I can envision.

Next and last, the king meets Liz Sanders.

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Liz Sanders believes in co-designing with participants from the fuzzy front end all the way to finalizing the product. As such, she acts more as a facilitator than a researcher, using her skills to elicit ideas from the king that he might not have been able to articulate on his own. In this way, the king and Liz Sanders form a true partnership.

Like the king, co-design seems pretty great to me, if resource intensive. I can imagine that many projects have budget and time limitations that would prevent co-designing a product from start to finish. I also believe there are some projects for which the designer is already so familiar with the problem area that co-designing would be a misuse of resources. However, it is nonetheless a good ideal to shoot for.

“Weird” Meat and Tomato Metaphors

Josh leaned in closer to the food truck window, trying to get his mike up by the owner. “You didn’t try the duck?”

The man was already shaking his head. “No. No.” He went on, spinning a hypothetical: “You’re 26, so your age, you never eat tomatoes. Are you ready to eat tomatoes?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “No. You will avoid – your stomach will refuse it.”

This from a man who had immigrated to America from Baghdad after the Iraq War. His wife had just told us how she sometimes cooked lasagna for their family at home, a dish they certainly didn’t eat back home. Here laid bare was the contradiction many of our research participants embraced.

You see, my little design research team of three has been looking into people’s experiences with meat off-cuts and exotic meat. After interviewing consumers, butchers, chefs, and subject matter experts, we had begun to see that just about everyone viewed some animal part or species as disgusting, and they often thought this new food item would make them physically sick. Nevertheless, upon questioning, these same people often had tried a wide array of meats and meat cuts other than the ones you would most commonly find in the grocery aisle. These conversations have shown my team that you can never really take people’s assessments at face value when they say they just eat the normal stuff. Normal in Baghdad was camel. Normal in Florida was gator and frog legs. As a consequence, whereas before I sometimes never got to it, after the first few interviews I have definitely always worked in an activity in which I give people a piece of paper listing (with images) different animals. This has become a great tool for getting people to remember and relate stories about which animals they have tried out. This gives us much more rich data about which animals and animal parts are “clean” or “healthy” and why or how those attitudes change. So maybe we will be able to entice the 26 year-old Josh’s of the world to down some metaphorical tomatoes someday.

Design Theory: A Love Story

To illustrate the ideas of the six design (or design-adjacent) thought leaders we read about this week, I created a “Ethics and Design: A Love Story.” In this story, our poor protagonist, “Michaela” Hobbes (a proxy for Michael Hobbes) searches for love on a series of blind dates. As all dating-age humans know, there be some dragons in the dating population.

First, Hobbes encounters Emily Pilloton.

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In dating as in life, Emily Pilloton sticks to her guns that people designing the solution to a problem should be personally invested for the long haul in a systems-based solution rather than a point solution.

Next, Hobbes tangles with Maurizio Vitta.

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Being an idealist, Vitta is shocked and dismayed to learn that Hobbes has wasted her life and sacrificed her autonomy by buying branded products, products that act as mere simulacra of useful tools. Consequently, Vitta burns her clothes in order to encourage her to redirect her energy into solving more worthwhile problems.

Hobbes’s third romantic encounter does not even make it to a face-to-face.

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She encounters a soul-patched ignoramus who sends the same very odd message to every woman he encounters online. In true Micheal Hobbes fashion, she urges him to let go of the idea that a plan that worked once in a highly specific situation will work in other situations. Instead, she urges him to tailor his solutions for each individual woman he approaches while also urging him to address the broader problem that his dating profile makes him look terrible.

For her fourth romance, Hobbes dates Edward Bernays.

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Bernays, desiring a bigger breasted version of Hobbes, decides to use her love of feminism as a lever to manipulate her into enlarging her breasts. Consequently, he parades beautiful curvy women in front of her, reframes Barbie as a feminist icon, and even claims that feminist thought leaders support silicone breast implants. Hobbes sees through this ham-fisted attempt to sway her. She is an individual, not a member of an imagined homogenous mob of feminists.

Luck finally begins to favor Hobbes on her fifth date, where she encounters Victor Margolin. Margolin is a pretty sweet guy who’s excited about his career as a researcher. His innovations into artificially growing meat could help to bridge the gap between carnivores and animal-rights activists.

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Hobbes admires Margolin’s use of innovation to bridge opposing worldviews, but her sixth beau entices her most of all.

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John Dewey provides the idealism to balance out Hobbes’s pragmatism. As a Blue Apron employee, he works to enable his users not just to cook, but to gain cooking autonomy. Hobbes could quibble about the lack of creative choices in Blue Apron recipes, but she knows that their recipes are just suggestions and users can choose to follow them or deviate, depending on their level of confidence and cooking knowledge. Indeed, Dewey might be working himself out of a job, but isn’t that just the sort of self-disinterest and effectiveness that Hobbes loves?

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