Working Out-Loud Through Design Choices

Project Scope

Over a 7-week period, I am designing the screens and architecture of a mobile banking application to help people confidently manage their finances. I am particularly inspired by designing for recent US immigrants and refugees, and I plan on designing an application to help connect these groups to financial resources, such as Mission Asset Fund and the International Rescue Committee’s loan program. Above this, I aim to design a simple and intuitive application that will help overcome language barriers. By designing with more challenging use cases in mind, my vision is to create an application that will be simple and delightful for a much larger subset of the population.

Last week, I focused on creating the initial touch-points for my application: the landing page and a guide to getting started. Then, I prioritized flows for check deposits and credit history building – two elements I found in my research to be particularly important for people who are new to the United States.

This Week’s Feature Focuses and Testing Approach

This week, I decided to take a step back and develop strong flows for functions that satisfy the primary user goals: logging in, checking your balance, depositing checks, and transferring money between accounts.

Rather than building out the complete toolkit before seeking user feedback, I focused my efforts on the check deposit function, and then I executed three think-out-loud user tests that took my testers through the login and deposit pages.

Think-aloud-testing involves giving the user specific tasks to complete with no additional guidance. Simply and continuously asking the tester to “please keep talking” prompts him or her to express their reactions as they first experience the elements of your design. The method provides unfiltered reactions and highlights disconnects between your intentions and how your design communicates to users.

Think-Out-Loud Testing Findings

My primary takeaways from these think-out-loud usability tests, outlined below, informed my design modifications in my next iteration.

Takeaway 1: Moving seamlessly from one step to another is of paramount importance.

The word choice and visual layout of my deposit screens made sense to my testers, but they weren’t able to get to the next input prompt how they thought they should. The navigation design held them back. This caused my testers to second-guess what the screen was asking of them, and it confused and noticeably frustrated two of them.

One of those testers, Kristen, experienced a significant, negative critical incident when trying to move from her account selection to the deposit amount. I designed the navigation so one would need to tap on the account tab to collapse it before moving on, but all three of my users wanted to be able to tap right into the amount box to move forward.

Navigation Design Critical Incident
Navigation Design Critical Incident

Not helping Kristen through this 40-second challenge was the most difficult moment of my first round of tests. She looked distressed and nervous that she was failing, and her frantic taps were not moving her anywhere. I reminded her that we were testing the application, not her, and a rush of relief flooded over her – visible in her tone and body language. Yet, it still took some time before she happened upon the solution to her problem. This incident dampened Kristen’s enthusiasm and confidence for the remainder of the usability test. After this, I couldn’t wait to go fix the navigation. This is a simple fix that, left unaddressed, could discourage users into not completing the task and achieving their goal.

Takeaway 2: Only set defaults when there is little-to-no deviation from that default.

Defaults work for prompts like “when do you want your money?” – Most people will want is as soon as possible. When there isn’t an obvious choice, however, the default may obscure the fact that there is a choice to make.

I initially designed the check deposit page to list “Checking” as the default account in which to deposit the check. I wanted to watch my testers explicitly make the “Savings” account selection, so I instructed them to do so with the prompt “ Deposit a $250 check into your savings account.” The account selection was then the third choice the user had to make in the flow, so I assumed it would still be top-of-mind. However, since “Checking” was pre-selected, all three of my testers immediately moved to the second input on the screen: Amount.

Deposit Default Account Critical Incident
Deposit Default Account Critical Incident

Selecting the account in which you would like your funds is a relevant decision for users, and therefore it should be an explicit choice, rather than something users are encouraged to gloss over. This is a straightforward, yet important lesson that I carried forward in my next designs.

Addressing Takeaway 1 and Takeaway 2 with Screen Revisions:

Adjusted account selection and navigation to next step of deposit.
Adjusted account selection and navigation to next step of deposit.

Takeaway 3: Don’t take the “simple” flows like the Login for granted.

All of my tests got off to a rocky start with the unclear login flow. There were a couple navigation steps that should have been more evident, but I failed to address these nuances in the last version, assuming that the flow was so familiar that they would be intuitive enough. This was a great lesson in diligently thinking through each tap someone makes on the screen.

Takeaways on the Login Screens from Think-Aloud Testing
Takeaways on the Login Screens from Think-Aloud Testing

Next Week’s Plan

For my next round of think-out-loud usability testing, I plan on putting together a more comprehensive prototype of the application’s menu items and key flows. This will help me observe how people work through the system and pinpoint pain points in my information architecture.

For reference: my most current concept model of my designed information artchitecture
My most current concept model of my designed information architecture

banking app v2 screens

 

 

 

Designing for a More Inclusive Financial System

Building on Last Week’s Exploration

Last week, I immersed myself in a mobile banking application (US Bank), cataloging every screen that exists within it and using these images to map out its information architecture. The in-depth navigation exercise made me feel confused and overwhelmed – functions come from all over the place and are housed in locations that feel nonsensical. Engaging with my classmates’ work reinforced this need for a simpler banking interface; there’s ample room for a successful new product in the industry. So, in creating something more successful, what categories and functions can I challenge, and how can I better communicate away some of the complexity?

From here, I developed some characters of different backgrounds who would want to use a banking application. I colored my characters with ages, jobs, values, and goals. Then, I placed these characters in sets of contexts through which they built their banking processes. I drew off of these stories and began creating storyboards, but then I paused.

While I felt a connection to my characters, I didn’t feel my designs were solving any meaningful problems; instead, they were simply making achieving currently-achievable goal easier. I sought my AC4D mentor’s advice, and together we talked through problems with our financial industry. What do I want to help my users achieve with my application? What are some salient problems worth addressing?

Identifying a Compelling Problem

Our discussion landed us on US immigrants, and specifically refugees. Our country’s credit system is difficult to navigate and to participate in when arriving from an outside nation. There is a catch-22 with credit that is incredibly frustrating and unequal – how might we start to overcome this barrier and help refugees thrive in the United States financial system?

After hanging up with my mentor, I felt inspired and invigorated, and I dove into hours of desktop research. I learned about the process of arriving and settling into the United States as a refugee, the institutional and educational resources available to this group, their primary financial motivations, and any previously identified reasons for their lack of participation in the mainstream US financial system.

Through my research, I learned that many immigrants don’t trust the US banking system. Some think that the bank will police them, and others worry that banks will withhold their accounts for reasons like expired identification. I also learned that many immigrant households are unaware that they qualify for checking and savings accounts at these institutions. How can we start building a dialogue between immigrants and financial institutions?

Before moving forward from my research, I articulated a sets of design criteria to guide my interface designs.

  • The design must promote trust between the user and the bank.
  • The design must promote flexibility in asset access and movement.
  • The design must be simple and intuitive enough to overcome language barriers.
  • The design must successfully guide the user through complex systems.

Moving to Screens and Wireframes

1st Point of Contact for New Users

US Bank and Bank of America currently do not have any language options other than English. You can contact customer service in Spanish, but navigating these digital interfaces in a secondary or unspoken language could be incredibly challenging. I wanted to show people from the start that US Bank is keeping the diverse US population in mind and is here to cater to anyone’s needs.

welcome 2welcome 1

welcome

From the entry, I created somewhat of a tutorial to guide new users through 3 key aspects of banking:

  1. opening checking and savings accounts
  2. making a deposit – in this flow, a mobile check deposit
  3. understanding, evaluating, and building credit history

The flow of these elements needs to be refined as I work on the next iteration.

Opening checking and savings accounts.

In this flow, my primary goal was to highlight the accessibility and simplicity of opening these accounts.

getting started 1

getting started 1

getting started 1.2

Making a deposit.

A 2006 report on financial access found that US immigrants spend more than $2 Billion dollars a year cashing their paychecks through check cashing organizations that charge fees and percentages. This is a simple and huge opportunity for our financial institutions to help, as they already have this infrastructure in place, and it is a free service.

makeadeposit1

makeadeposit2

Understanding, evaluating, and building credit history.

Credit is the biggest problem for refugees (and many Americans alike). Refugees often have to quickly uproot themselves, and, from there, they are dropped into the US financial system that requires you to already have been planted for a long time.

One former refugee I spoke with, who has engaged in design projects centered around refugees, told me that financial systems are increasingly similar across nations, so language and explanation are not as important as communicating the value of credit, how the credit system works, and helping refugees to successfully build credit so they can participate in the system. This set of screens starts to address credit education and resources.

credithistory1

credithistory2

Next Steps

From here, I plan on reaching out to refugees in the Austin community to better understand their goals and values, as well as learn how my current wireframes can better address these goals. I am looking forward to immersing myself in this space and creating something of value by the end of these next few weeks.

Mobile Banking: A Messy Concept Mapping Case Study

Mobile banking applications can usually do what you need them to, but rarely in the manner and ease that you would expect. So, what’s really going on in there? To better understand these important, yet messy products, our class was challenged with selecting a mobile banking application to deconstruct, and then subsequently rework into an architecture that makes sense.

First, to help contextualize the problem space, I built out a matrix table with about 150 terms and ideas related to banking and finance, charting every relationship between terms.

A bird's eye view of the relationship matrix table.
A bird’s eye view of the relationship matrix table.

Some of the prominent terms (bank, money, credit card) didn’t surprise me, whereas others I did not anticipate. Not only were credit cards important, but the idea of multiple credit cards also rose to the top. Additionally, I found myself fascinated with the concept of security as I worked through the matrix – something I had initially listed with thinking of fraud, and it quickly became extremely important in terms of financial security.

Relationship Map

From here, I began working with US Bank’s application. So, what did I find? Well…

  • Functions are placed in every section where they might maybe make sense, instead of placing them in one clear domain.
  • There are a lot of pages and functions within my application that I had no idea existed – who uses these?
  • This mobile banking application is trying to check every box instead of emphasizing the core few things most people actually use.

These observations are displayed in the current state concept map, which has a lot of connections and routes.

Actual IA Concept Map

In my redesign, I focused on the core functionalities exhibited in US Bank’s application, and I consolidated pages where appropriate.

Redesigned IA Concept Map

I’m looking forward to jumping off of this to create storyboards and wireframes for next week. More to come as we iterate and iterate and iterate.

My First Wicked Problem

An Imaginative Retrospective on my First Quarter of Design Research.

 

 

“Girls!”…. “Giiirrls!” -Polly yelled out towards the front pasture. Over the hill, blurred figures started roaming our direction, and within about fifteen minutes, all of Polly’s 50 cattle were peacefully grazing in the back pasture. Polly is gentle with her cows, nurturing them all as if they were pregnant, and yielding impressive fertility rates as a result. She also possesses comprehensive knowledge on the grass-fed beef industry, is well-versed in pricing and marketing, and generally kicks ass.

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Even still, as a mid-sized, sustainable cattle rancher in Central Texas, Polly lives right below the poverty line.

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The push for efficiency in our society has valuably progressed many systems, but now that the straightforward problems are more-or-less addressed, as Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber point out in the article Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning, this continued push for efficiency is being challenged with “a renewed preoccupation with concerns for equity.” I am currently consumed by my preoccupation with Polly, and with all the other local sustainable livestock farmers in Central Texas, who are providing public goods in ways of air quality, water quality, and an honest food product, but who are struggling to scrape by. I had to probe deeper.

As a first step, I set out to understand what the government and other institutions are currently doing to support these farmers. As Rittel and Webber would anticipate, these institutions are taking a rational, systematic approach: they are putting economically- and environmentally-motivated grant and cost-sharing resources out there, assuming those who need for them will access them, but these local livestock farmers are not. The problem is apparently not be that there are no resources available, so why are these farmers so under-resourced?

A couple initial conversations with subject matter experts on Austin food policy were enough to start painting the complex picture into which these farmers are situated. Farmers aren’t accessing these resources because they don’t have the resources to access them, because they spend all day tending to their farm responsibilities, even though this only amounts to a small sum of money, because the market price for foods in the United States is so low thanks to government subsidies for commodity farms, because the government has an ever-growing population to feed, and, even still, 18% of Travis County’s population is food insecure (2015 statistic). It appears we have a wicked problem on our hands: within this network of systems, “the outputs from one become inputs to others” (Rittel & Webber). Every problem I uncovered illuminated as a symptom of another problem – one of the qualities of these wicked problems that Rittel identifies and Richard Buchanan furthers in his article Wicked Problems in Design Thinking.

So, I’ve got a wicked problem on my hands – where do I go from here? Rittel suggests formulating your goal, which, at this stage I would define as getting these local livestock farmers comfortably above the poverty line. In my naivety to the subject matter, I suspended any problem-stating or solution-finding, and I embarked into the field with an ethnographic research framework focused around my goal. Wicked problems are inherently ill-defined, and I knew my design research with livestock farmers would start to add clarity. In their article Design Thinking For Social Innovation, Jocelyn Wyatt and Tim Brown emphasize the importance of relying on local expertise to uncover local solutions, so, to avoid getting too far ahead of myself on a macro-level, I decided to focus specifically on sustainable livestock farmers that sold in Austin. Wyatt and Brown also suggest identifying any positive outliers in the community to understand what they’re doing that others are not. Well, thinking of the closest example of a positive outlier, I go back to Polly.

I visited Polly with questions around her business model and how she views the system. Polly became frustrated as she described the cattle auction ring – how volatile the prices are and how little the rancher gets. Then, she glowed as she described the bold move she made to gain control and increase her margin: selling wholesale and direct-to-consumer.

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She meticulously planned and grew her customer base, and now she even has other family ranches within her consortium that she sells under her company name. This is, no doubt, an impressive business that Polly has grown, but it works within the confines of the current, broken system. Is this success if, at the end of the day, Polly is living in poverty?

It became clear to me that we needed to break out of the current food system to start addressing the underlying problems and solutions. So, what would this solution look like? If I could identify this, then I could work my way back to the problem getting in the way of my solution. Nigel Cross, in his article Discovering Design, explains that problems and solutions in design are closely interwoven, and consequently, “the nature of the problem can only be found by examining it through proposed solutions.” (Cross quoting Marples). So, now I just had to generate solutions to an aspect of a wicked problem – oof. Let’s go back to data synthesis instead, I thought, until I feel a little less overwhelmed. After all, Ritter writes that, with wicked problems, it’s important to not know too early which solution you’re going to apply. It just wasn’t time yet.

After hours of synthesis, my research partner and I sat stuck, wondering where to go with our half-baked insight statements. Then, Edward deBono’s “Six Hats” technique, even just employed for a minute, pushed us forward. We put on our “green hats,” which opened the floor to more alternative and provocative ideas. The first thing out of my partner’s mouth was, “Well, what if it’s the farmers holding themselves back?” That inspiration lightbulb finally went off after all our arduous debating. Small farmers are so caught up in the idealism and isolation of farming that they aren’t seeking to engage with greater systems.

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The approach to wicked problems is not a linear one; the specifics of what that approach looks like varies between designers, but at the core they agree that it is not a problem-to-solution trajectory – designers bounce around, just as I bounced backwards from here. With this new insight that farmers are trapping themselves in an incremental, mindset, I revisited my original goal. While I still want these farmers to rise above the poverty line, my primary goal evolved into bringing these farmers into an experimental and innovative mindset where, united, they can challenge Big Agriculture and support one another.

Just as Wyatt and Brown urge every designer to do, I started working out rough prototypes of my solution, the design curriculum, and testing iterations with Polly and her peers for feedback on teaching methodologies and the content accessibility. Farmers generally aren’t very social, and some of the group activities were received with awkward hesitation, so I added ice breakers to the start of the group activities that didn’t run smoothly by consequence.

One of the key lessons I ensured to include is on Edward deBono’s approaches to creativity through lateral thinking. We can all practice deBono’s challenging, yet rewarding, cognitive operations to move into a new pattern of thought and elicit creativity. It’s a daunting concept, but one that deBono makes more approachable with some simple approaches, like the random word generation.

After helping me craft the curriculum, Polly served as a pioneer in her farming community, rounding up more intrigued farmers to attend the first official session. Since the fundamentals of the discipline are rooted within each person, farmers connected with the information more than they originally anticipated.

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After the courses, I could see the inner-designer developing in each farmer as they navigated provocative discussions and began imagining new ways of farming and structuring their business.

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I had a strong feeling this was just the beginning. Design made a lot of sense for this group of farmers, as their positions are complicated and challenged by the globalizing world. Pacione argues that, just as the industrial age made arithmetic a widespread tool, the complexities of globalization will push design into that role. In fact, we’re already seeing this happen, and, from there, we will get to a place where design is solidified as its own core discipline taught alongside mathematics, reading, and writing.

As a final thought to leave you with, I’d like to address the term “design thinking.” IDEO added on, “thinking” to communicate the intellectual aspects of the design process. Through the process of affinitizing and synthesizing practitioners’ verbalizations of the design process, one of my key takeaways was that design is centered around challenging cognitive exercises. Since “thinking” is at the core of the meaning of design, then the second word becomes redundant. Why muddle “design” when it’s so beautiful and all encompassing on its own?

Note: this post is inspired by a true story and expanded upon to see it through to a resolution.

Mr. Businessman

Introduction

What can we do as designers, product creators, and entrepreneurs to address the world’s citizens who are facing injustice and poverty? How can we empower this group? If there were a clear answer, then we wouldn’t have spent the last week at AC4D synthesizing the works of five authors who all approach the problem differently. To communicate these approaches and my views on their effectiveness, I wove these authors’ points of view into the below story. This story follows the trajectory of Mr. Businessman as he stumbles through different approaches to his mission, which is continually redefined by his experiences interacting with a poor community.

The Story

Mr Businessman p1 Mr Businessman p2Mr Businessman p3

The crowd murmurs in an anxious excitement as Mr. Businessman reveals Pimway’s VitaPill and Crave Candy – two hyped products that are accessible in price to this financially poor group. The VitaPill contains your daily value of 4 essential vitamins in one capsule, and the Crave Candy is a treat layered with various complementary flavors that lasts for up to an hour. The crowd’s minds raced around these newfound possibilities – more nutrition and more entertainment – but what money would they use? How would they rearrange their tight budgets? “Maybe I should only buy one or the other,” they thought, “…but then which one?” The VitaPill would have positive health impacts, but children would love the Crave Candy. “So, if I were to buy both…” the group considered to themselves, “…then what would I have to forego instead?”

While the group wrestled with their decision dilemmas, Mr. Businessman continued his presentation, revealing another enticing component to his offering: the opportunity to be an entrepreneur just like him. “You are a smart group,” he said, “you all see the value in these wonderful new products. They are going to make your lives so much better! And, you know that your friends and neighbors will also want these products, so instead of everyone buying them from straight from Pimway, you can become an independent business distributor and sell them to your friends directly!” The murmurings roared as these poor men and women conceptualized this new opportunity. Mr. Businessman fed off the energy and kept rolling through his presentation, illustrating the structure of the distributor program and how lucrative it would be for everyone in the room.

Four members of the audience made the daunting investment in the Pimway product briefcase, while the rest of the group shuffled home with some VitaPills, Crave Candy, and expressions of exhaustion.

The next day, the new entrepreneurs set off to sell their two great new products, pedaling them around town to all the poor people. Each sales pitch was met with a strenuous decision of economic trade-offs: movie or candy – candy or vitamin – vitamin or soup – soup or clothes – clothes or rent? The new products played into an already challenging landscape with limited resources. As the independent distributor community grew and the choice kept presenting itself, the poor people of the town felt more and more depleted of their decision-making strength.

As Dean Spears’ research reveals, this depletion in cognitive energy can lead to poor control over decisions, and the exasperated town caved, giving into their temptations – from ice cream sundaes to gambling. The townspeople were no longer spending much money on Pimway products, in which the distributors had their savings tied up, and the pyramid of “entrepreneurs” that had grown under Mr. Businessman dissolved.

Mr. Businessman acknowledged the direct selling system’s failure to help the poor (although he ended up with a pretty penny), and he wondered how else he could approach this group of consumers. He brought new, valuable, and financially accessible products to a section of the poor population, just as C.K Prahalad urged businessmen to do to empower the poor, so where did he go wrong?

Looking for a new approach, Mr. Businessman read into Muhammad Yunus’ work on social businesses, and he grew inspired by his idea of a self-sustaining business that continues to invest back into its cause. Maybe it wasn’t the product that needed evolution, he thought, and alternatively he should experiment with the business model, a step Yunus asserts as fundamental in the social business creation process.
Mr. Businessman’s mission from the start had been to provide affordable food products, but, after experiencing his initial failure, his underlying objective flipped from making money to establishing better food access for the poor community. Yunus emphasizes the need to define social profit objectives clearly from the onset of your venture, so Mr. Businessman rebranded himself as Mr. Social Businessman and set out to address food access, throwing personal gain to the wayside.

Mr. Social Businessman conducted outreach guided by Yunus’ idea of the “value constellation”: a product’s value network of suppliers and partners. “Who else has a vested interest in nutrition?” he thought to himself. Guided by this, Mr. Social Businessman built relationships with primary care physicians, who in turn worked with the insurance companies to convince them of the preventative value of these vitamin pills. Through the partnership these entities formed, poor people could now get the vitamins from any primary care doctor for little to no money.

Emotionally energized and proud, Mr. Social Businessman gave another presentation to the poor community about this great opportunity to get the vitamin pills for free. But, over the next week, as he roamed around town, he noticed that there were a lot of poor people who hadn’t accessed the vitamins. He approached a few townspeople, asking each one when was the last time they visited the doctor. Most said they had no strong recollection. Mr. Social Businessman was astounded. He began probing as to why, and he garnered several key insights: the townspeople had no easy way of making and keeping appointments, they lacked access to information that would help them understand their healthcare benefits and options, and they felt it was vital to stay connected to their social networks, but struggled to do so.

This brought Mr. Social Businessman into the mindset of Chris LeDantec and Keith Edwards, who both explored these challenges with the homeless population. Their approach towards developing a solution was to co-create with the two groups at play, aiming to meet at their shared boundary. Instead of continuing to view the poor population as consumers, Mr. Social Businessman thought, it was time to view them as a valued voice in designing a better society.

Our hero worked to design a solution with the poor community, and together they arrived at a centralized information center in the hospital’s lobby, as well as an appointment reminder system that would reach both the individual and one designated family member. When Mr. Social Businessman met with the doctors, they designed a similar system, but one that would also have individual messaging capabilities at the central hospital message board.

Upon its execution, these new communication and information distribution channels brought the poor community into an essential loop of society, empowering them to seek out medical care. The poor accessed the vitamin pills, along with other care they had foregone in the past.

Several years into the future, these medical care communication channels dispersed across the country, connecting more of the poor population with the care they deserve. This phenomenon significantly increased the demand at hospitals, forcing the government to restructure the country’s healthcare system, which allocated more resources towards a new socialized medicine framework. This sustained and significant shift in healthcare access shoots Mr. Social Businessman to Mr. Social Entrepreneur status.

Discussion

The story’s narrative takes the reader through the authors’ theories in the order that I found them most effective in addressing the fundamental challenges of poverty. However, this is with the exception of Spears’ theory of poverty leading poor people to make poor choices, rather than poor people being poor because they make poor choices. I believe this to be a powerful truth. This truth must be acknowledged throughout all these approaches to devise a successful solution, yet it is most in conflict with the earlier theories, which rely on globalization and consumerism. Prahalad’s and Yunus’ approaches can help to bridge inequality, and they are potentially positive first steps, but they address the low-hanging symptoms rather than the messy root causes. Additionally, there is a particular predatory element to Prahalad’s view, which I aimed to communicate with the direct selling collapse that negatively affected those at the bottom.

When we really start to dive into solutions, to me this looks like LeDantec’s & Edwards’ frame, connecting poor people into society via the proper tools, and taking poor people outside the consumer framework, giving them an equally powerful voice as the current creators or decision-makers. A successful outcome would look like Martin’s and Osberg’s definition of social entrepreneurship, which results in a sustained shift in an unjust equilibrium – getting to the root of a problem to change it fundamentally. I do push back on Martin’s and Osberg’s argument that the qualities of a social entrepreneur are innate, as I believe these can all be learned; we see this with the evolution of Mr. Businessman, eventually becoming a social entrepreneur in the eyes of these authors’ three steps.

Research Reflections and Another Impactful Farm Visit

During my last reflection on this quarter’s research process, I wrote about the enlightening experience of finally interviewing farmers on our (then) focus: how intermediate livestock farms impact the environment and public health. Those farm visits challenged my research focus, and I began to explore where to go next.

Since then, my research partner Jay and I took a dive into our data and saw an intriguing disconnect between small farmers and the resources available to them. Does the current information out there make sense for intermediate farms? Does the information make sense for Texas farms and other climates where farming is trickier than in the Midwest? How do the state and federal governments interact with these farms? When, how, and to whom do intermediate farms reach out for help?

This felt like an approachable space for us to move into, and it makes a lot of sense for ethnographic research: it’s focused on people, communication, and networks. Plus, empowering these farms with the information and connections to sustainably run their business makes for positive impacts on the environment and public health, circling back to our original motivation.

With this change in focus, Jay and I have targeted farmers and farming educators. We tried a participatory exercise with one educator earlier this week, where that educator worked with us to design an ideal grant application experience. The activity left us with some valuable data around how to make the process more accessible for famers. For our next two or three participatory exercises, we plan to work with farmers to understand their ideal interactions with the resources they value most.

Before diving into the participatory activities with farmers, I felt I needed to understand more regarding the resource landscape, so Jay and I conducted a few more contextual inquiries and subject matter expert interviews. I continue to be impressed by how much more fruitful our interviews have been since going in with our refined focus. Beforehand, we collected great data, but we also got a lot of tangential information. With something so broad, Jay and I kept ending up down rabbit holes of large-scale societal issues that we can’t really get our hands on right now. We were being pulled in whichever direction the participant wanted to take us, and now I feel I have a much stronger command over where I guide the interview.

I recognized a sense of hesitancy with farmers when we approached them with our environmental focus, but I didn’t attribute this hesitancy to our topic until I began connecting around our new focus instead. Farmers have opened up with us a lot more around resources that have a direct impact on their lives. Last week, I shared a powerful and emotional connection with an incredibly hard-working farmer named Tom [actual name redacted] at his farm about an hour-and-a-half outside of Austin. Based on our initial interactions, I would never have imagined how great this meeting would be.

I first called Tom early on in our research; he picked up his cell immediately and came off short and disinterested. He did, however, tell me to follow up with an email in more detail. So I did, and then we waited. Eventually, Tom got back to us saying he could talk over the phone. I expressed the importance of meeting him at his place of work, if possible, and then never got a reply. Feeling hopeful with our intriguing new focus, I gave Tom another call last week and explained the shift in our research. At first, he was defensive, pushing back on all our previously emailed questions surrounding the environment and animal waste. Feeling stuck and awkward, I began telling a story of an extension agent whom Jay and I interviewed and some of the disconnect we were seeing. From there, Tom ran away with the topic of extension agencies, talking about how they have no interest or investment in smaller farms.

Even though he is a busy man who was about to leave on his once yearly vacation, he invited me out, because he felt this was an important story to tell.

I arrived at the farm in the late afternoon, and the two of us sat across from each other in wicker rocking chairs on his porch. Tom spoke to me of the stifling legislature, the frequent visits and inconsistent information from inspectors, and the lack of resources to help him ensure he’s compliant with the changing regulation landscape. This was all incredibly helpful, engaging information, yet what really struck a chord with me was Tom’s feeling of exhaustion. He said small farming just isn’t sustainable physically, emotionally, or financially. His wife frequently asks him when they are going to quit, and he thinks it will be due to physical restrictions once he finally does: he currently works from 4:30 am until dark every day of the week, and it isn’t easy work.

Tom told me stories about all the “dead farms” whose families abandoned them to the weeds and of nearby farms going out of business after one bad season. Those who are left on these farms, he said, are typically not invested like farmers used to be. Tom feels so strongly about this that he wrote a letter to President Obama in 2008, talking about how we need to revitalize the farms of our nation. His face lit up as he spoke of everything he wrote in that letter – the potential for more localized economies, revived communities, and healthy food. And then that sparkle dulled as he told me that he never got a reply from anyone.

This flipping between inspired and painful emotions was a common pattern throughout the interview. He felt incredibly thankful for his customers, while also disillusioned by our food system. He felt independent, but also alone; successful, but unsure of future viability.

I drove home down the farm roads filled with compassion, gratitude, and an aching for this man who fights for a better world amidst the challenges that the world brings him. The sadness in his eyes when he told me of that letter and the happiness in his gentle smile when he sent me home with a half gallon of milk are both strongly imprinted in my mind – and this is all from a man who initially did not want to connect beyond a phone call.

Although this echoes a bit of what I wrote about previously, I cannot emphasize enough the impression that each farmer I’ve met with has left on me. These are all people who, despite the adversity, keep working hard towards something to which they feel connected – towards a noble vision of the future of our food system. My goal for wrapping up field research is to keep making as many of these connections as possible.

Speaking of wrapping up, the field research phase of our project is coming to a bittersweet end here shortly. This was my first experience with an immersive research program like this course structured for us, and there are certainly things I learned to do differently next time.

  • First, I plan on reaching out to more of my target users sooner. Reaching out to five farms, for example, then sitting and waiting on those for half a week isn’t enough – especially with a population like this that’s proving to be hard to reach.
  • From there, thinking about how farmers reacted to our initial research focus, I plan on tailoring what I tell participants more than I did: I want to ensure the participant that I am on their side. We’ve been taught to make our participants feel as comfortable as possible, and that starts with the wording of that initial voicemail or email.
  • Lastly, I plan to coordinate closely with my research team on signals for when someone other than the facilitator wants to jump in. Jay and I were pretty strong at allowing the other to chime in with a question when possible, but there were a few times when it took the conversation off the track the facilitator was planning. Some sort of gesture that signals, “I see you – let me get this train of thought done, then it’s all you” would be helpful to establish.

I’m positive that there are more things I’ll adjust and change as I try this again. This process was a lot of learning-by-doing. My mistakes were particularly constructive, though, because I knew I needed to make those mistakes in order to grow into a stronger researcher. With human interaction, experiencing the awkwardness or a shift in the participant’s demeanor is so much more effective than being told about these dynamics.

While it’s hard to put an end to field research, I’m also anxious to interact with my data on a deeper level and see what insights come out during synthesis. Time to keep moving forward!

Going to the Source

It is a fairly intuitive assumption that research is essential in beginning to understand a foreign problem space. AC4D takes us right into it with the first quarter’s research and synthesis course. Design research, guided by ethnography, is different than any research I’ve done before. It’s immersive, sometimes awkward, and very rich. I’ve spent the last week and a half running around the Austin area with my classmate, Jay, engaging with people around our selected focus: the environmental and public health impacts of intermediate* livestock farms and ranches.

*Note: the USDA classifies intermediate farms as “farms with less than $350,000 in gross cash farm income and a principal operator whose primary occupation is farming.”

Our meetings kicked off with some subject matter experts: academics, city officials, and professionals seeking to improve the animal product industry. Throughout these inquiries, Jay and I struggled to dig into a lot of the topics we thought would be primary concerns in this space: managing manure, emissions from transportation and livestock, and water quality. These yielded quicker, straightforward responses, while our discussions journeyed deep into topics surrounding food access, the weight of consumer demand, and the economics of urban farmland. When externalizing our data, our very initial inspiration, waste management, found itself in the lonely, far right, bottom corner of our board. Jay and I began to question our focus.

So, where do we go from here?

We needed to hear first-hand what the farmers are dealing with, so we journeyed out to two farms and hammered on our original environment-centric questions. My visits to both the poultry farm of about 1,000 birds and to the ranch of 50 purely grass-fed gave me a high I hadn’t felt before during this research experience. I had finally connected with the people whose activities I’ve been trying to understand! It seems pretty obvious that one should talk to farmers if his or her focus is around farms, right? Trust me, it was on our radar, but, when it came to fruition, I developed such a deeper understanding and appreciation for needing to go to the source of my research focus.

I’d like to share some of the things I learned on these two farms that challenged my initial assumptions and guided where I think I’m going next. It’s a small sample set, so there are likely some exceptions to these findings. One of my goals for the next week of research is to test and challenge these takeaways.

 

Waste is impressively minimal on small-scale farms.

The poultry farm we visited only has one element of waste, and that is duck feathers, which they compost. (Funny enough, it seems like there could be a lucrative market in selling those.) Everything else that could potentially be waste is either fed to animals or put back into the soil.

The cattle ranchers find themselves with a bit more materials, but it is all stuff that can be recycled or composted. Even the bailing wire is 100% recyclable.

I thought getting rid of manure may be a task some of these intermediate farms had to undertake, but it turns out it’s really hard to find any farms in the area that are getting rid of manure, let alone “natural” manure. If you’re looking for organic manure, then be ready to shell out some cash. No one seems to be giving that away.

Smaller farms are, by design, more self-sustainable, and they thrive off their carefully designed ecosystems.

Moving the animals around the farm is essential to fertilizing the soil and allowing the land to thrive. With a healthy ratio of animals to land, the pasture is able to take a lot of regenerative matters into its own hands. Certainly practices like rotating livestock, feeding the livestock a proper diet, composting, and fertilizing are important elements of human intervention. These farmers make informed decisions around how to work with nature instead of against it.

On another interesting note, the cattle ranch we visited doesn’t kill any predators, because they see them as an important part of the ecosystem. While others shoot coyotes, not a single coyote has ever hurt their cattle, so they leave them be.

Water contamination is hardly on these farms’ radars (nor on the protection agencies’).

When doing our initial secondary research, Jay and I found several websites talking about manure run-off into water sources. We figured that this must be something to dig into. Turns out, when you have a well-contained, manageable farm, manure goes where it’s supposed to, and not into nearby water sources.

Between farm visits, I spoke to a man who specializes in identifying potential sources of water contamination, and he continually re-iterated that we were way too focused on livestock farms; these weren’t the issue. To him, livestock farms are one small concern under an umbrella of hundreds. Adding to this thought, a professor at Texas A&M shared study results with us yesterday, revealing that wildlife, and particularly birds, are where we really need to focus our water preservation efforts.

So, again, where do we go from here?’ I thought to myself as we pulled away from the ranch.

The farms we visited have their processes down, but do all or most intermediate farms? Further, our country heavily relies on commercial agriculture to meet our demand for animal products. How do these industrialized farms fare across our environmental and public health concerns? How large can we scale while still maintaining the serendipitous balancing effects I witnessed on the farms I visited?

Spending hours on these farms showed me that some people DO have it figured out. They can raise animals humanely while progressively making their land richer and making a living. I now see the issue as less with being able to farm sustainably, and more with being able to farm in a way that gives back to the earth while also meeting growing global demand for animal protein. Is this possible? Currently, there’s no strong, clear alternative to our nation’s farming practices that wouldn’t carry with it harmful food security tradeoffs.

Experts I’ve spoken with have all ended up at the consumer. In order to alleviate pressure on livestock farmers and give them flexibility to implement more ecologically responsible practices, we need to alleviate consumer demand. So, then, how do we realistically influence consumers to reduce their animal product consumption? From there, if we are successful at reducing animal product consumption, how will this impact the pressures placed on produce and grain farmers?

Each messy problem keeps leading me to another connected and equally messy problem!

I had thought that going to the source and conducting diligence around my initial focus would take me back into that focus. Instead, it reinforced a lot of the connected issues that have been pulling me in other directions. I now feel more empowered to pursue the questions that have been calling out to me, and I definitely would not feel this way if it weren’t for engaging with the heart of my research focus.

With that, I suppose you can’t predict what you will get out of engaging with the primary stakeholder you are trying to understand. You can expect the engagement to yield fruitful guidance in framing what you want to want to solve, while at the same time leaving you with that same, ever-pressing question:

Where do I go from here?

Design Clashes in Evergreen

Design Clashes in Evergreen

This story pieces together six philosophies related to the designer’s role in society, and it depicts the clashes that can arise with differing views. Click the hyperlinked title above to find the illustration.

The story starts out with X, our Expansionist, whose dad is teaching him the tradition of cutting trees to earn a living. This education, according to John Dewey, is a miseducative one, as it impedes X’s growth in any other directions. He focuses simply on cutting trees and is successful at it, so he experiences nothing else and therefore learns nothing else.

Our next character introduced is the Equilibrium Man, whose primary concern is keeping the ecological resources of Evergreen in balance in order to keep the world functioning. The Expansionist and Equilibrium systems come from Victor Margolin, who posited that we currently live in more of an Expansionist world, but that the Equilibrium model creeps in and collides with it. We see that tension in this story, which is indeed ruled by the Expansionist.

All of this logging is for books, which are “king” in Evergreen. We take a sidebar from the main story to see V, who represents Maurizio Vitta’s views. V has more books than he could need – even two editions of the same work. He is flaunting the vapid beauty of the new edition’s cover, as well as connecting himself to the value of his materials. He owns a lot of philosophical works, which gives him the confidence to tell anyone who will listen that he, himself, is a very philosophical man.

Traveling back to our friends X and the Equilibrium Man, just as the Equilibrium Man is stopping X from cutting down the last tree in Evergreen. That tree is inhabited by a group of squirrels who have been displaced from their home and are holding on to the last bit that’s left. To save the squirrels, E builds a treehouse in this same tree to feel at one with the community she wants to help. E is following Emily Pilloton’s guidelines for the designer to not only be close to their user, but to live with them and immerse themselves in the community. You’ll also see E’s empathetic investment later in the story as she fights with the squirrels.

Off in an office somewhere, H, a humanitarian, orders his team to deploy the “acorn slingshot” to the tree. The squirrels learn how to use it, and it sure is effective at fighting off X. The nail him with acorn after acorn until he gives up. H’s project was a success!

But don’t stop the story there. The aftermath sets in when the squirrels realize they used all their nuts in the slingshot. Winter is now here and they have no way of getting food. H’s slingshot worked great in all the very hot climates he listed as test cases, but he failed to think of what would happen come winter in Evergreen. Failing to properly evaluate a new ecosystem for a proposed solution can cause a lot of unintended consequences, as Michael Hobbes discusses with international development projects. Test cases need to be evaluated carefully, and solutions need to be scaled conservatively. If only H knew what his slingshot would lead to…

The patriarch of the squirrels, Papa Squirrel, knew something had to be done to save their lives. He concludes that eating fellow squirrels is their only chance at surviving through the winter, but how will he convince the others? Their currently held belief is “one tree, one family.” They are one unit, one ecosystem.

Papa Squirrel knows that the matriarch, Mama Squirrel, is well trusted by the bunch, so she will be his best shot at selling his new vision: looking out for the greater good. With Mama Squirrel’s support, Papa Squirrel feeds the family a meal of Tom, one of their brethren. As Edward Bernays recommends for swaying public opinion, Papa Squirrel creates the circumstance he wants. He shows the squirrels what is necessary for survival and how much better it is than how they were starving previously. The group then shifts to their new motto: greater good!

By the time E comes to the squirrels with her solution, only Papa Squirrel remains.

Meanwhile, X is stuck on how to move forward, because he knows nothing other than cutting trees. He visits D, who fills in the rest of John Dewey’s argument: X needs positive, educative experiences. D gives X the tools to start learning to code on a computer, giving him a structured space to learn and develop.

The positive experiences amount, and X, being the Expansionist he is, innovates a new product to solve the tree scarcity problem: an e-reader! The Equilibrium Man is very happy for the trees, but now he can’t help but be concerned for the silicon that will go into all those new readers.

As I write at the end: the clash continues. New and old problems permeate society, and, as designers, our goal is to start untangling them in effective ways.

-Nicole Nagel