Rapid Prototyping: A One Week Redesign

As mentioned in my recent banking application redesign blog post, we are developing a mobile banking app in our Rapid Ideation and Prototyping class. We just finished our first round of redesigning the system, and we’ll be completing four more redesigns before the end of the term. Each one-week redesign entails a full sweep of revising and expanding on the application system.

The redesign process:

  • Usability Testing
  • Information Architecture Redesign
  • Wireframes Redesign
  • In-class Critique

In this week’s blog post regarding the banking application, I will review how I used these methods to evaluate  and improve my own Wells Fargo banking app redesign.

Usability Testing

After last week’s critique, we went straight into usability testing to begin the redesign process.

What is “usability”?

Usability is the quality that describes the ease with which a user can complete a task utilizing a designed system. A system is regarded as usable if the user is able to complete a given task, makes few errors in completing a given task, and does not take more time to complete the task than the designers intended.

Usability is expected in today’s world of software applications given everyday consumers are used to experiencing high quality usability in web, mobile, and desktop applications.

Designers should do methodical testing to determine how to improve a software application’s usability. The method of usability testing we employed is called think aloud testing.

Think Aloud Testing

The goal of think aloud testing is to learn about test participants’ thought process regarding the completion of tasks. This is done in order to identify critical breakdowns in the participant’s solutioning process. This process  will inform re-designing the parts of the designed system that contributed to those breakdowns in usability. In order to understand participants’ thought process, they are instructed to describe what they are doing as they are manipulating the system in their attempt to complete the task.

One may wonder if talking about what one is doing actually changes the outcome of the solutioning process. This question is exactly what Herbert Simon and Allen Newell asked when they went about studying artificial intelligence back in 1972.

Alan Newell and Herb Simon
Alan Newell and Herb Simon developed ways to study problem-solving processes in order to understand artificial intelligence.

The conclusion of their cognitive psychology experiments was that verbalization does not affect the outcome of participants’ problem solving after all. This is great news for understanding how people think while problem-solving, but it does come with a caveat – the outcomes are affected if participants introspect during the process. To deter participants from introspection, they are encouraged to continue talking about what they are doing throughout the experiment.

Testing Implementation

I used paper prototypes for my user testing and tested five individuals in five separate test sessions. Though one may think that five participants in a study is too small a sample size, studies in usability testing show that the rate of finding additional usability errors drops off precipitously after completing testing with five to ten users. For the purpose of this one-week redesign, we determined that five users was sufficient.

I found those individuals at a local coffee shop and each of them agreed to test all six of the tasks I had created.

System tasks assigned to the user:

  • Send $48 to your friend, Alicia
  • Transfer $4,000 from your Savings account to your Charles Schwab account
  • Set a balance alert to send you an email when your debit account goes below $300
  • Use mobile-deposit to deposit a check for $25
  • Set-up a recurring monthly bill payment to Dr. Chalmers for $40
  • Check the balance of your debit account.

IMG_1217

As users reviewed the screens and “clicked” on different parts, I stood by to hand them a new screen that would result from the buttons or areas that they clicked. They verbalized their thought process, and in all it took approximately fifteen minutes for each user to complete all six tasks.

Testing Results:

The last part of the test was to review my notes and recorded transcripts in order to identify the most pressing problems I found in the tests. I identified three main problems and, for each problem, I describe below the problem and my recommendation for fixing it. I included a quotation from a user for each scenario as well.

Critique 2.001

Critique.002

Critique.001

 

Redesigning the System

With the usability results, critique feedback, and a set of my own notes on system improvement in hand, I set out to redesign the system.

Information Architecture Concept Map Redesign

Revising the information architecture (IA) concept map was the first step. Below you can see the initial IA map and the the new IA map side by side.

Wells Fargo Information Architecture Concept Map version 2
The new information architecture concept map includes changes informed by in-class critique, usability testing, and personal notes for improvement.

 

Wells Fargo Information Architecture Concept Map version 1
The original information architecture map

I made a number of changes as can be seen when comparing the maps.

Move functions from Account Services to Customer Services

As identified in usability testing, the term Account services is very broad and led users to look there for functions like transfers and check deposits. Rather than just change the name, I believe that the enclosed functions were better relocated to other containers like Customer Support and Manage Funds. I moved these functions to other containers, removed the Account Services container, and renamed Customer Support to Customer Services to imply that many services could be found in this new container.

Move Card-free ATM to Manage Funds

The Card-Free ATM feature is one of the features I moved from Account Services. Since this feature is about accessing funds, I moved it to Manage Funds.

Modify Manage Alerts Information Architecture

Individuals from my cohort said that the “More Alerts” sub-container was confusing, and I agreed. I moved the two alerts that was in “More Alerts” to the “Account Alerts” and I believe this will work well by centralizing the alerts.

I made modifications to the usability challenges regarding alerts in the wireframes as this IA map does not deal with those challenging elements.

Reorganize hierarchy on menu

I also reorganized the hierarchy in the menu so things like Set-up, which are usually one-time changes, are lower in the list than Financial Planning, which is a more often used feature given its access to Spending Reports and FICO Score updates.

Link Star to Starred tools

I included a link from the star in the Starred Tools area of the accounts overview page to the Starred Tool set-up sub-container. This will make accessing and modifying those tools easier. This change was inspired by a usability test participant who clicked on the star to see what it would do.

Link Account Details to Manage Fund functions

One challenge brought up in the usability test was the need to link the Account Details to Manage Fund functions like transferring money, sending money to a friend, or depositing a check. I created these linkages in response to fix this problem.

Add replace card and turn card on/off to Security

There was no “Replace Card” or “Turn Card On/Off” feature in the Security area, but I believe this would be one of the first places people look when they lose a card. In response to this observation, I added links to those features in the Security sub-container.

Wireframes Redesign

Once the information architecture map was complete, it made modifying wireframes easier by providing a roadmap for many of the changes I needed to make. As can be seen in the images below, I modified the containers and lists to reflect the information architecture map, and I also made additional changes to the visual design of the screens.

Below are images of the multiple task screen flows I created and updated this week.

Transfer Money Task v2

Mobile Check task v2

 

Send Money to a friend task v2

 

Recurring bill pay task v2

Check balance task v2

Specific Changes

Modifying Lists

One major change to the information architecture was the container hierarchy and list. As can be seen in the image below, I reflected this change in the menu as well as the naming of items like Customer Services. Account Services no longer exists.

New app menu
The menu changed to reflect the new information architecture map.

Darken the text of the starred tools

By darkening the starred tool text, it will save users time by helping them see those tools before they go look elsewhere to access them.

Screen Shot 2017-11-13 at 3.32.09 PM

Add a screen for links to manage funds functions from within the accounts details view

In response to users going to the Account Details area for functions like transfer, check deposit, and sending money, I created a new screen that allows users to access those functions from the Account Details.

Account details with Manage Funds functions
This new screen adds the possibility for users to access Manage Funds functions like transferring money, depositing a check, and sending money to a friend from the Account Details area.

Changed the process for Managing Alerts

The last major change made to the wireframes was to simplify the Manage Alerts process.

Set Alert task v2

Change Indicators

I modeled the indicators on the last version of the main alerts screen on the original Wells Fargo app. They  were confusing to my cohort during the critique, and I removed these indicators so there is only an indicator light. Users don’t need to see if there is an alert for phone, push, or text from this screen. They can go into the alert to see which alert methods are used.

 

Alert Message Indicators
The simple indicator lights in the new version (left) are easier to read and essential in nature compared to the extraneous message type indicators in the old version (right).
Remove Update function

The biggest challenge identified in the critique and during the usability test was the user’s confusion and errors in updating the alert settings. The Wells Fargo app requires users to click “Update” and save alert settings when changes are made. Rather than move this button around as I did in the first design, I changed the Manage Alerts function in this design by removing the Update button entirely. There is no need to manually save settings when modifying them in an app. I propose that these settings save automatically now whenever changes are made.

In order to make a change, a user will modify the settings. Since the message settings did not automatically update after changes before, I changed the interface so they would automatically update. For instance, when a user updates the balance alert as seen in the above Balance Alert Task screen flow, the email message setting automatically turns on. As can be seen when the user opens the drop-down box, the default primary email address is selected when this occurs. This automatic mechanism ensures that messages will be sent when a user modifies a new alert, even if they do not know or forget to modify the message settings. If they would like the message to go to additional or other places than the default, they can change it in the alert’s message settings.

In Conclusion

This week we had a critique, did usability testing, redesigned the information architecture, and then redesigned our wireframes. This afternoon, we’ll start that process over with another critique. The process has revealed things I never would have identified on my own, and it reaffirms the lesson I’m learning here – show your work to others as often as possible. It’s the surest way to correct for blindspots, and it’s the only way to understand what users really think when they use the app – because, as it says up on the wall in the studio – “You are not the User”.

Concept Mapping for Banking Applications

One of the most important skills a designer can develop is the ability to untangle and synthesize understanding about systems and complex concepts. In our first assignment for the Rapid Ideation and Prototyping class, we continued our development of this skill through the creation of concept maps.

Concept maps are representations that convey ideas, processes, comparisons, relationships, and other phenomena through visual means. A geo-spatial map itself is a particular kind of concept map used to represent places, distances, and other features. A storyboard is another type of concept map that represents things happening over time and what happens in those snapshots of time.

Our Assignment

For our assignment, we took on making concept maps for a banking application. Over the quarter, we will iterate on our representations of how banking works, how existing banking apps work, and we will also develop our own re-design of a banking app.

In this first assignment, we developed two types of concept maps. The first map represents the relationship of words and ideas related to the concept of banking. This map is a diagram that defines how concepts are related in the complex system of banking. The figure below shows an example for baseball.

Screen Shot 2017-10-30 at 6.42.12 PM

The second type of concept map we created is called an Information Architecture map. This diagram illustrates the features in a software system like a mobile application in order to understand the structure, function, and relationship of features and parts in the application. The figure below is an Information Architecture map of a train ticketing application.

Screen Shot 2017-10-30 at 6.42.00 PM

Concept Definition Map

I began the assignment by first tackling the words and ideas relationship map, which I refer to subsequently as a concept definition map. I began here so that the process of creating the map would force me to think about banking, how it works, and what is most essential and valuable in banking.

To begin, our class developed a list of words and concepts that have to do with banking. Next, I partnered with a teammate to put these words into a ranking matrix. We reviewed each word-pair and indicated if the words had close relational value by marking a one in the intersecting matrix field.

Screen Shot 2017-10-29 at 7.52.14 PM

At the end of the exercise, we tabulated which words had the highest frequency of relational value with other words. The output from this exercise was a list of about eighty words related to banking in rank order of frequency. The purpose of this exercise is to develop a rank-order of a large set of items which are complex to rank. This type of technique is valuable for the design process given how essential it is to learn to deal with large sets of complex data.

I then developed a core backbone to the concept definition map by creating a sentence linking the most important words related to banking. This sentence can be seen in the resulting diagram in the black boxes down the center of the concept definition map below.

Once the backbone was set, I then arranged and re-arranged most of the remaining words on sticky notes, creating sentences that defined what I felt to be the most important aspects of banking.

Once this map was complete, I moved to a digital tool and created the resulting graphic in Omnigraffle, a digital diagramming tool.

A1 Diagram - Banking Relationships

 

Information Architecture Map

Our assignment over the next two months is essentially to develop a banking app. To do this, we started by analyzing a banking app of our choice. I chose Wells Fargo since it’s the bank I have the most accounts with. From this analysis, we will continue to redesign the app and develop skills in communicating ideas, creating meaningful product features, and creating intuitive user interactions.

To create the information architecture map for the existing Wells Fargo app, I did the following:

  • Print and organize screen shots of every screen and interaction within the Wells Fargo app into a “screen inventory”
  • Develop a sketch that represents how the features are organized within the app
  • Create a digital concept map using Omnigraffle

IMG_0806

I went through various iterations of how to organize the information visually, starting by using stickies on brown paper and eventually moving to Omnigraffle for a digital product.

IMG_0821

One of the most important decisions was on choosing how to represent the main feature sets within the app. I chose the vertical layout of bars instead of the bubble diagrams I saw in sample concept maps because it most accurately mapped the top-down menu that is prominent throughout the app. The priorities of features is represented in a top-down fashion, which I believe represents how Wells Fargo also prioritizes information.

Canvas 2

Additionally, the menu and sign-out features are accessible throughout the app. Rather than include arrows pointing every time from a feature to the menu and sign-out, I included them as bars connected to each main feature set.

Afterward, I differentiated the enclosed features with a color hierarchy ranging from black boxes as the most essential to the banking apps core function to the white boxes with grey text as the least essential.

To indicate connectivity between features and to the web, I added lines. Dotted lines go to external web links and solid lines connect internally or are used for sign-out.

The enclosing dashed line surrounds the app assets, enclosing both the app assets while logged in and logged out. One major breakdown in the app was the non-functioning Make an Appointment feature. When clicked, nothing happens.

Redesign

Next I needed to redesign the app. I reviewed my own diagram and made notes about my changes, and then developed a new sketch and digital illustration.

A1 IA WF v3 revamp

To redesign the app, I made the following changes:

  • Correct the Make an Appointment breakdown so it links to it’s resulting action
  • Move Deposit Checks function into Transfer Money. I don’t think it needs to be another item on the menu’s top level hierarchy. Checks are on their way out and will be used less and less often.
  • Rename Transfer Money to Manage Funds. This overarching term is more representative of its enclosed features.
  • Eliminate a majority of the externally linked features. More content will need to be created within the app but I believe it will be useful to have more features available in case someone is not within network or does not want to use data.
  • Move Online Security Guarantee, Privacy, and Ad Choices from the highest level menu hierarchy and into the Security and Settings containers. This frees up menu space and puts them in logical places.
  • Rename Settings to Set-up since the contained features are not settings that are normally changed often and instead are about setting up features like Apple Pay and Touch ID. The Settings name is also misleading because many of the settings exist in other containers like Manage Alerts, Profile, and Security.
  • Add a Starred Tools organizing feature. The landing screen is the Account Summary screen, and it includes many items that Wells Fargo changes based on a blend of what they want users to utilize and what users want. These tools also exist elsewhere in the app, such as Deposit Checks and FICO Score. Instead, I suggest that many of these tools on the primary landing screen should be optionally included so they are at hand when a user first signs-in. The Starred Tools feature in the Set-up container would allow users to select from a variety of tools that could be linked to from the primary landing screen.

These changes would make the Wells Fargo app more useful, less cluttered, and more independent of external assets otherwise linked to.

This project has proven to be challenging in a way different from past projects. Before, some of the greatest challenges were in developing a narrative that summarized concepts and drawing characters and storyboards that communicated both ideas and emotions. This time around, the organization of concepts is much more abstract. There are many sets of features that could be used at any time, not one set used by one person in one scenario. The organizing of so many ideas is challenging, but it’s definitely a critical skill for designers to have.

Design as a Liberal Art

These past few weeks, our class at the Austin Center for Design focused on the question that in a way is at the heart of this program – “What is Design?” This question has become more prevalent over the last century as thinkers like Dewey and others have wondered if the art/science of design is something worth exploring and harnessing for the benefit of society. To me, the answer is undoubtedly “Yes!”, and both the readings and paired video assignment made that clear.

The assignment for the topic of design was much like the past few assignments. First, read a handful of articles by luminaries in design and related fields. Next, make something that synthesizes those readings in a narrative. In past assignments, we needed to make sketched comics, presentations, and even a whiteboard presentation. For this assignment, the challenge was to develop a video that told our story.

The readings on design included:

Discovering Design Ability – by Nigel Cross

Serious Creativity – by Edward DeBono

Evolution of the Mind: A Case for Design Literacy – by Chris Pacione

Wicked Problems in Design Thinking – by Richard Buchanan

Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning – by Horst Rittel, Melvin Webber

Design Thinking for Social Innovation – by Tim Brown, Jocelyn Wyatt

These readings were some of my favorite to date. I’m passionate about design, but in addition to design I also have worked in education the last eight years, read books about psychology often, and even minored in philosophy in college. These readings resonate with all these interests. Instead of looking at the question of design in relation to something such as poverty or public responsibility, these got “meta” and reflected back on the thinking processes, systems, and educational discipline of design itself.

Once I finished the readings, I took to externalizing my understanding of them. Externalization is an interesting process to reflect on in this particular post. It is a key process that a designer may use to make sense of the overwhelming amount of information they may try to process in the context of a project. Externalization is the process of getting information out of one’s head and into an external information system. The classic image of a designer’s studio wall covered in stickies used to seem silly to me, but now I understand how meaningful it is. By getting information onto stickies, about insights, observations, or other ideas, it becomes possible to better see, manipulate, and connect that information with other pieces of information.

Affinity diagramming - notes in yellow; observations and insights in teal; storyboarding in red.
Affinity diagramming – notes in yellow; observations and insights in teal; storyboarding in red.

In the case of my readings, in addition to externalizing the data so I could review it, I also did affinity diagramming. This is a process that helps develop insight into patterns that exist within sets of data. To do this, I wrote down my most important notes onto stickies and labeled them by author. I then assembled those notes into groups that I felt had similar themes. Feeling and intuiting in this case is just as or more important than analyzing the notes for common themes. If it feels similar, group it and see what they have in common afterward rather than require a logical explanation for grouping them in the first place. Lastly, I reviewed the groupings developed and wrote a description of what that group of notes described. This process helped me synthesize the data across the multiple articles, and it helped me see patterns and make personal connections that I would not otherwise have made if it were not for this additional process.

One of my favorite insights came as I grouped the data listening to jazz on my headphones, and it relates particularly to the articles at hand.

Edward DeBono is a psychologist who has made many contributions to theories of creativity. In his article, he urges people to move beyond logic and to appreciate creativity and intuition in solving problems and thinking more rigorously. In other readings, similar themes recurred regarding transcending the rationalism of science and distinguishing design from science in its reliance on intuition for sense-making. There is a sense in which design draws from the knowledge that science establishes, and then it will go a step further to seek truth by relying on a foundation where science would never find support – intuition.

In the same sense that designers utilize the structured knowledge of science and then extend further by leaping off from intuition, as I listened to the music in my headphones, it struck me that this is exactly what jazz musicians do. The insight that came to me was this:

“Design is like jazz, drawing on proven structures and departing to make provocative statements of truth that elicit conversation and movement.”

I know many jazz musicians, and they nearly all are well versed in classical music theory and structures. They know the standards, and they rely on traditional forms. But then they jump off from there to establish a new form of their own, and only intuition can guide them there.

Throughout these readings, I found so many interesting themes like these. The readings also touched on the potential for design as a type of intelligence, methods for design, whether design should be taught as a liberal art, and how design companies could even spread the gospel of design in communities and with their clients.

As I approached my project, I wrestled with the narrative I would tell. Would I have a designer as the main character? A city planner? Who?

Given my experience and love for the realm of education, and since the articles had such a strong theme around teaching design, I decided to craft the narrative around a school. In the school, a teacher is pit against a tough group of uninspired, uneducated students, and she decides to try teaching them through design project. Through their project, students learn about techniques for creativity, design research, and even how to better make use of what they learn in classes like math or reading by applying those skills in a real project.

Design is a fascinating field, and the opportunity to leverage design thinking as a skill and discipline across a variety of fields and types of work is exciting. This quarter is now over, but I look ahead to expanding on this skill set for years to come.

Designing a (truly) more connected society

During the past week, our cohort tackled learning about a challenging topic –  poverty. Poverty is, as Horst Rittel would call it, a “wicked problem”. It’s a problem whose boundaries escape definition, and it’s a problem that has no definite solution either. This is a problem so systemic in its nature that it seems to be connected to everything, and everyone, in society. Over the course of the two week assignment, it became clear that as challenging as it is to define poverty, it’s there, we can’t escape it, and there’s something we can do to address it.

To better understand poverty and some ways people in society have attempted to cope with it, our cohort was tasked with reading about the topic and then developing an illustrated narrative that communicated these readings to the public. The readings spanned topics from the sociological and psychological effects of poverty to how products and services can be positioned to better serve the poor.

After reading and discussing the authors’ perspectives, each student then synthesized them into a narrative.

My approach to the narrative was to present the story of Jonah, a Director of a fictional organization called the San Francisco Social Services Alliance. With a character like Jonah, who can personify responsibility for the poor in a powerful way given his position in society, I felt that the story as a whole could represent poverty at large in a society. This was important to me so the systemic problem could both be depicted and also addressed through the character’s intervention.

Jonah’s particular challenges in addressing poverty become apparent in the first page of frames as seen below.

Q1 Theory A4-01

Jonah’s charge is particularly challenging given he works in San Francisco, a city that has a classic problem with homelessness and which is now facing sky-rocketing costs-of-living that burden the poor more than ever.

In the third frame, Jonah tells a friend about a meaningful point of irony. Though technology industry has in part spurred these rising costs and hardships on the poor of San Francisco, the homeless and poor do in indeed rely on cell phones and apps to stay connected. The fact that many homeless and poor have cell phones is a reference to Christopher Le Dantec’s research into poverty.

In Le Dantec’s findings, cell-phones are the main tool used by the homeless to stay connected. It’s no wonder, given it’s the tool that most people use in society to stay connected, but it is surprising that the homeless have adopted a tool that can be costly and confusing to maintain and manage.

The challenge for the poor to manage their technology and lives is reflected in the next frame. This difficulty in organizing one’s life is a reference to Dean Spears’ work on the psychology of poverty.

According to Spears, though the common belief is that people fall into poverty because of their poor decisions, there is evidence that points to the contrary causal relationship – poverty, in fact, leads to poor decision-making.

Dean’s studies show that when individuals live in poverty, the weight of their economic decisions are more exhausting, and this mental fatigue leaves individuals without the cognitive resources to make sound, rational decisions. The impact of this study is powerful when considered in full. If the so-called “underserving” poor are handicapped by their economic condition, how are they to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps”? Sheer luck? The ramifications of this study underscore the need to alleviate the burden of those in poverty. Luckily, Jonah has an epiphany of just how to do that.Q1 Theory A4-02

As we learn from the above panel, Jonah’s idea is to leverage a social network like Facebook to better integrate and connect the poor and homeless in society. This notion of utilizing technology to integrate the disenfranchised is taken from another of Christopher Le Dantec’s articles on poverty. In this article, Le Dantec reasons that what the poor and homeless most need is social inclusion. They need positive social support moreso than opportunities for consumption, as is often the design intent for technologies like phones where users purchase apps, products, and services through them.

Jonah’s move to meet with Mark Zuckerberg ignites a conversation about the possibilities and obstacles related to developing solutions to address poverty.

Those challenges are for the most part resolved through the back-and-forth dialogue and problem solving between Jonah and Mark.

Q1 Theory A4-03

Multiple of the authors are represented in this brief but weighty dialogue. Muhammad Yunus, for example, is responsible for many of these ideas. Yunus is the founder of Grameen Bank and was awarded the 2006 Nobel prize for his work in addressing poverty in Bangladesh through micro-loans to the poor. He is a proponent of developing social businesses as an alternative to charities. In the social business model, an organization covers its expenses through the revenue generated instead of relying on grants or donations. If one is to pursue the route of developing a social business, he strongly recommends finding a complimentary business partner and ensuring that businesses partner with stakeholders, including shareholders, who are committed to prioritizing social objectives over fiduciary ones. These ideas are both represented in the dialogue.

In addition, Roger Martin, another of the authors reviewed in class, believes that true “entrepreneurs” are those who are dedicated to systems change. This is reflected in the story when Mark declares his intention to change the world, not just San Francisco, through the possible Facebook intervention.

Lastly, the idea for marketing to the poor is a reference to C. K. Prahalad’s theories. In his article, “Selling to the poor”, Prahalad makes a strong point that the poor of the world have needs just like middle and upper class populations, albeit they are distinct needs with distinct product and service solutions. With over $1.7 trillion dollars in spending power, it’s clear that there would be advertising funding available to support the Facebook product for the poor.

With the logic and business model clear, Mark and Jonah agree to move forward together to develop a new Facebook app that will serve the poor and connect them to supportive social services, networks, and products in the community.

Q1 Theory A4-04

As the design research process is completed, several of the needs that define the condition for poor and homeless become apparent, and those needs inform the product features of the new Facebook Plus app. This feature set reflects Le Dantec’s theory that it is helpful to define the “poor” as a “public” in society. In one of Le Dantec’s articles, he refers primarily to the homeless, but this concept can also be applied to the poor population. To put it simply, Le Dantec uses the word “public” to refer to a population that has a shared social condition. The importance here is that in defining a population’s social condition it is possible to then address that condition and to promote the agenda of the population. In the case of the Facebook Plus app, the definition developed of the “poor” through the design research process informs a defined feature set and interface that reflects the needs of the poor.

Q1 Theory A4-05

Two of these needs, namely connection with supportive communities and services, reflect Le Dantec’s studies about the needs of the poor. The need for a clean interface is a reaction to the implications of Spears’ research regarding the diminished cognitive capacity likely to afflict those who are poor. And the advertisements for products aligned with social objectives is a fusion of Prahalad’s and Yunus’ writings. The standard view feature is an addition that reflects my own modest contribution to the great thinkers whose writings we reviewed.

While reflecting on these writings, very often it occurred to me that it is too simple to create a label, a solution, and apply it to the poor as if there were no room for error. Those who register for this product are likely to fit outside the norm of the “poor” population definition, or they may move out of poverty. They may even fit the definition quite nicely but still feel slighted by the imposition of a simplified and “other”ed Facebook app variation. For all these reasons, I included a feature for the user to switch to the standard Facebook view upon command. Though this is a small form of empowerment, it represents to me an important choice – the choice of how to identify. Am I a Facebook Plus user, or more than that.

Q1 Theory A4-06

At the end of the story, Facebook Plus is a roaring success. This time, it’s Mark Zuckerberg who calls on Jonah, and now it’s Jonah, the nascent social entrepreneur, who calls on the Facebooks of the world to serve the greater world.

Through this assignment, it became clear to me that poverty is bigger and harder to define than I thought. It’s like a cancer – obvious to see but near impossible to pin down. Poverty is intractable, pernicious, and sapping of the human spirit. Despite all this, just as medicine has advanced on treating cancer, design can advance to alleviate poverty.

From Systems to Experience: Shfiting Perspectives of Research

Before I came to AC4D, I spent six years working at a non-profit called the Connecticut Pre-Engineering Program (CPEP). At CPEP, I went from teaching classes to middle school students in the CPEP educational science and math summer program to managing that summer program. I eventually shifted to managing the CPEP organization while serving as Acting Director for five months. I realized recently that the systems mindset I developed over the years at CPEP has had shaped how I tend to make sense of things, and that systems approach has had some unwanted influences on how I’ve approached shaping my team’s design research.  I’ve changed my tune, I’m happy to say. This is the story of that change.

The revelation occurred one night during Research class. We had prepared our participatory design plan and were very satisfied with how the activities were laid out. Our focus was to understand what impact schools had on students’ awareness and agency in their food choices.

We were prepared to interview several school administrators who had the power to effect policy changes to improve students’ awareness and choice regarding food, such as through developing educational programs or integrating more food sampling into the cafeteria to habituate students to new and healthier foods. By interviewing these change-makers who had so much experience with students’ habits and reactions to new food, we presumed to develop a big picture of where there were opportunities to improve their system.

We had several participatory design activities set-up like pre-session homework questions to prime their thinking about student food choice and ideal solution activities that would help explore what a solution might feel like, e.g. simple to administer, community involvement, and so on. These activities would set-us up well to inform the development of policies or programs that would improve students’ awareness and agency regarding food consumption.

Here I was, looking to learn about the system so we could improve students’ experience. It turned out this was just a tad backward for the requirements of this research.

Class started, and we presented our ideas. The instructors patiently waited for us to complete our five-minute presentation. Then the curtain was pulled way back. To paraphrase them: “This is exactly how things are currently planned. Top-down. Why aren’t you interviewing students about their experience of food choice? Or else ask the administrators about how they experience food service planning.”

Our team was completely surprised. We had completely misinterpreted the nature of the process. We had tried to understand the system and then shape the experience, but this is not the proper way to approach it. The way I have come to understand it better is to frame the research around defining the solution and experience, and then to shape research around those definitions. Let me explain.

First, who owns the solution? Second, who’s having the experience? In the case of creating a solution for student’s awareness and food choice, it’s true, the administrators largely “own” the solution. They are the ones who would have to enact it, and they understand many of the constraints around creating the solution. They also have to “experience” the solution from the point of administering. But they aren’t the primary subjects who have the “experience” we are defining. The students are having the experience. What do they know about food? Where do they learn about it? What’s it like to see a new food item in the cafeteria? What choices do they feel they have around food?

My background as an administrator and educational program designer largely stilted my approach to this research. Teachers and administrators are (supposed) to be experts in education. They may know more about what is administratively possible or what is pedagogically researched and sound when developing lesson plans compared to a middle school student, but they are not the ones having the experience. If we were to develop a solution for a classroom, a key subject to interview would be students, and whatever the solution proposed may be, the teacher can own the solution.

After class, my team was faced with a challenge – we had spent almost 6 hours developing our participatory design research materials, and now we had strong criticism of the very basis for those materials. We had three interviews already lined up that were to take place within forty-eight hours, and it was now 10pm. What to do?

I’m happy to say that we changed our whole framework and question that night. Given our interviews were lined up with food service staff members, we decided to inquire about their experience rather than try to interview students about our prior research question. Our question was “what’s the experience like of developing school food menus?” We tested our the questions and material the next day with an executive chef, and it went swimmingly. The responses were rich, the stories were aplenty about the logistical, conceptual, and even aesthetic choices faced when developing menus for cafeterias that serve 5,000 students each day.

In summary, I’m slowly learning to adjust my approach to this kind of research. Even though I often took students’ and staff members’ input when developing the educational programs I managed, my headset is still to observe and learn about whole systems. As much as it is possible to learn about the system in which experiences take place, I am learning more and more to shift my lens for the lens to the singular experience of people in that system. I’m shifting my lens, pulling it into focus, and it’s making the research even more enjoyable.

Writing a narrative on User Research

This is the second project for theory class, and it feels like it’s the tenth. The pace at AC4D has been exhilarating and exhausting, and without a doubt it’s been educational. In theory class we’ve dived deep into several readings, and after each set of readings, we’ve been tasked to create a comic to illustrate the concepts learned. This has been a fantastic device as it forces us to read for understanding, synthesize the concepts across a range of authors, and exercise our creative and communication skills through developing an aesthetically pleasing and rationally sound argument through narrative. For the rest of this post, I’m going to unpack just what this all means and what I learned along the way. I hope it’s helpful to you.

The first set of readings or which we made a comic was due early September, and we read six pieces by six different authors’ all along the theme of a designer’s responsibility in society. The assignment was our first, and the learning curve was pretty steep, as Jon, our instructor, often chose to be more enigmatic about defining requirements rather than prescriptive about how to do the assignment. I for one failed miserably on the presentation given I talked about the process of designing the comic much more than I mentioned anything about theory or the narrative itself. This time around, I incorporated most all of the feedback and wish-I-hads into my project. More about that later.


Luckily, our second assignment was more or less the same as the first but with a different set of readings.

  1. Do the reading
  2. Write and illustrate a comic that both tells a narrative (replete with conflict and resoution) and ALSO communicates clearly each of the author’s positions.*
  3. Develop the final draft of the comic in Adobe Illustrator
  4. Post the comic with a blog post of about ~1000 words online.
  5. Present the comic in class for critique.

*In particular, Jon requested that we explore how each author would engage users in design research. Since the writings could be interpreted to cover a much wider range of topics than just design research, this bit of focusing criteria helped define a clearer choice of paths to take.)

As I said, this is essentially the same project as the first, and, in a school where there’s another new project every other day, I deeply appreciated the opportunity to iterate and improve on a particular project, especially one that utilizes so many important skills like theory analysis, drawing, illustration, visual communication, story-telling, presentation, and finally writing (this blog post right here in fact.)

The readings we did this time around included:

  • William Gaver – Cultural Probes and the Value of Uncertainty
  • Donald Norman – Technology First, Needs Last: The Research-Product Gulf
  • Jon Kolko – The Value of Synthesis in Driving Innovation
  • Liz Sanders & George Simmons – A Social Vision for Value co-creation in Design
  • Paul Dourish – What we talk about when we talk about context

The theme was more than anything about user research, though each writing touched on several other topics. Kolko’s article argued for gaining access to the boardroom for designers, Dourish discussed the depths of phenomenological and positivist world-views and their impact on contextual definition in computer science, and Norman spoke largely about innovation rather than user-research in detail. Nonetheless, the common thread was there, and it made for a rich set of articles.

In approaching the assignment, one of the greatest difficulties is both in synthesizing the author’s arguments so their perspectives can be lenses for the same conversation. The assignment is to develop a narrative, and what’s worse for a narrative than incoherence. Developing a sense for how these authors could dialogue together without talking about separate subjects was therefore the first challenge I set out to do in my own process.

To do this, I used a mix of mind-mapping and affinity diagramming. My version of affinity diagramming in this sense was to review my notes and highlight what I felt were the most important points each author made in their article. I then reviewed the different authors’ points side by side and started discerning themes and grouping.

On the other hand, once I had some themes written down, such as “Creativity of the user”, or “Role of innovation”, I wrote each author’s initials in a circle around that theme and wrote down each thing that author said about that point, if anything was said at all. This activity was more like mind-mapping or brainstorming.

After I had my author’s points synthesized and clarified around several themes, I tackled the question of narrative. This was somewhat easy for me. Ever since we started at AC4D, I’ve heard people talk about the challenges of convincing those with power to invest in user design research. With this in mind, I decided I would write out a narrative about a company that experienced challenges in the marketplace and decided to pursue user design research for the first time. In this scenario, a single person would be the advocate for design research, and they would both be inspired by the many arguments for it and also have to make the argument themselves to their board.

This approach both helped me learn the readings and also helped me prepare to make a case for user research investment in a boardroom.

Next, I needed the details of the narrative. After some brainstorming, I started mixing and matching ideas that I liked including educational settings like a school district (not a boardroom at all, I know, but it was a contender for winning narrative), and the corporate boardroom. I “compromised”, though really it feels like a total win, and decided to write about an education technology corporation. I personally love languages, and so I made it even more interesting for myself by making this company focused on language learning software.

Thus was born my comic strip.

Over the next 48 hours, I spent about 35 of them working on the story, deciding which drawing style I’d use, storyboarding, script-writing, hand-drawing, doing digital illustration in Adobe Illustrator, and finessing the format and composition. It’s been grueling.

That being said, I’m very proud of my work. I know that it could be better. It can always be better. But I invested so much effort, and I have pretty much only worked and not slept for the last 24 hours.

I love the theme of language ed tech that came to the surface. I love that I worked so hard to make my pretty amateur drawings at least a bit more polished. I love that there’s so much detail and there’s even a couple plot twists in such a short story. I love the character, Sarah, who came to the surface – she really seems striking to me. She’s courageous, compassionate, and dedicated, and she embodies many of the values I admire. It’s no surprise of course given she’s my creation, but then again, sometimes we don’t let those values come to the surface, and luckily they did here.

I learned a lot from this project. I learned about great theory related to user research, co-design, using cultural probes, and the intersections and implications of philosophical world-views in computer science. I’m well over 1000 words now, so if you want to know about those topics, you’ll need to look those articles up yourself, (or read my comic.) What I perhaps have valued the most from this project was the learning developed through rigorous creative work. Creative works requires the most varied and highest level of skills and cognitive skills, and it’s been taxing to say the least to fit about 100 pages of dense theory into a comic strip narrative. Nonetheless, I look forward to the next time.

Note: I set up my comic below as a gallery. Click the first image, and it will open in a black box on the screen. There are navigation buttons that appear on the bottom of the slide when you hover over the bottom. Use those navigation buttons to scroll from page to page rather than going in and out of the media files. Thank you for reading.

A glimpse inside the kitchen

From the outside, the building is unassuming – brick, short, and with a simple, flat facade. As we walked through the front door, however, we immediately heard the chatter of teachers in the school cafe and the clanking of dishes, the whirring of washers, and the banging of ovens in the cafeteria kitchen. We began our first design research project for the AC4D design program just a few weeks ago, and our focus is to learn about the factors and actors that influence school food service. The day we walked into that school was the day I really got a taste of just how little I knew about the world I was about to design for. It’s now clear to me just how important contextual research can be to paint a more rich picture of that world and to inform our design.

Up until that point, our team had lived in a world of stickies, conversation, laptops, and the interior of the AC4D classrooms, with occasional breaks for tacos nearby. We talked in class about the importance of user interviews and ethnography to gain a fuller perspective of our research topic and to develop greater empathy with the people we would design for, and as we delved into scoping out our research topic, it felt alive with curiosity, questions, confusion, personalities, and debate.

But in a way, we didn’t really known anything about our topic until we arrived to the first school cafeteria.

We arrived at the school, and the noise, sights, and people who we had previously only talked about came to life. In fact, most of what we saw and heard we hadn’t even talked about or imagined. The teachers’ separate cafe and meeting space, distinct and shielded from the din of students in the cafeteria; the cafeteria workers’ conversations in Spanish; the very small staff that ran a huge cafeteria operation – these were all unforeseen details of a world that kept unfolding before us, proving the topic more complex with every new glimpse inside it.

This was clearly not the world I imagined. Indeed, the world is not what we think.

I think of a school cafeteria, and images from sitcoms immediately come to mind. Or maybe images from my own experience attending school come to mind. Or else images sparked by news articles and stories about school cafeterias come to mind. When I tried to imagine the world of school food service prior to this visit, these images were likely feeding my imagination. But all these sets of images are blurred by vagaries of my own memory, and more importantly they represent superficial impressions of that domain as a whole.

During our first visit, when we met our participant, she didn’t look anything like what I imagined a school food service director would look like. What’s more, during the interview, instead of viewing her job as a relentless barrage of administrative and regulatory tasks as I had projected, she painted a quite different picture for us. When we asked what feedback she got from parents, her response was that yes, she does get feedback, requests, and complaints – and she completely understands parents’ earnestness to communicate with her. After all, she’s responsible for feeding thousands of other people’s children, and it’s an honor and a huge responsibility.

How did I never think of it this way? This food service director has a strong emotional connection to her work, and an immense responsibility and connection to that charge. But for some reason, my mind was busy with looking at the emotions that may arise due to faults or snags in the system, administration, or logistics. This insight into how she sees her role and her responsibilities could be central to a design solution. It could inspire solutions that create more caring, devoted, and responsible school nutrition services for thousands more children. If I had projected my lens on her role, making administrative tasks easier, that would likely have inspired a much different and likely less effective, energized solution.

Over and over, throughout that first visit, the world I only faintly had imagined grew bigger, more complex, more rich, more connected, and, in a way, more incomplete. Our minds want to make things whole, so we imagine we see the whole. This illusion of wholeness, of the completeness of our knowledge, however, can be the undoing of the solutions we strive to create. Once we assume we know the whole picture, we stop learning and developing an even more complete picture that can be used to inform the design process. Contextual design is a process that not only gives designers a better picture of the world they’ll design for but also reminds them of how incomplete their ideas are. It is certain that our perspectives are far, far from complete. To put another way, every meal has a story, and if you want to know what’s on your plate, it’s best to look inside the kitchen and ask the chef – but even then, it’s just a glimpse.

Design on Trial: Designer’s Responsibility for their work

This story is about the responsibility of designers. It isn’t common to hear of a designer going on trial because his or her design caused harm, but through this course and the associated readings about design and it’s responsibility to society, it seems that it is critical to reflect on designer’s responsibility. Perhaps one day designers will go on trial as depicted in this story.

This project was truly a challenging one that helped me develop multiple skills. The challenge was to present six authors’ viewpoints that we had read in class in a comic-strip type story. From learning to use Adobe Illustrator to publishing in WordPress, the technical skills we needed to learn were useful and also full of unexpected troubleshooting.

One of the most difficult things to do in this assignment however was to make almost one-hundred pages of mostly dense and abstract theory into a story that is grounded in a concrete narrative.

Given responsibility was one of the key themes in class so far, however, a trial scenario seemed to be a good way to set the theory in narrative. Over the course of the trial, the authors present as expert witnesses and debate the fictitious designers’ project and it’s dire fall-out for Zambia. This format was enjoyable to let the designer’s snafus and narrative unfold through the court case.

The designers make many mistakes, but whether or not they are responsible is a very complex and difficult decision to make. For just that reason, the reader of the comic is left to make up his or her own mind. I hope it helps readers think deeply about designers’ responsibility in society and make up their own mind about whether they should be held accountable or not.