Introducing AC4D new board members

Please join us in welcoming AC4D’s newest board members – Margo Johnson and Mark Phillip. The two of them bring with them a wealth of experiences across sectors, and more importantly, a unique perspective on the intersection of design and social innovation. They will be instrumental in helping shape AC4D’s next strategic plan and we are thrilled to have them on board. Stay tuned for more exciting updates in the near future.

Margo Johnson

Margo currently serves as Head of Product at Transmute, an Austin-based tech start-up building user-managed identity infrastructure. She is also the creator of Nimble Mind, a product consultancy helping organizations align impact and revenue in the design of their products and programs. Previous roles include Director of Community Product and Partnerships for Aunt Bertha, as well as research and fellowship roles with UnLtd USA (now Techstars Impact) and the City of Austin. Margo is proud to bring her MSSW (UT Austin), nonprofit leadership, and undergraduate studies in cultural anthropology and social psychology (Arizona State) into the world of technology startups. She believes that social justice and participatory design can critically distinguish for-profit organizations in the eyes of their customers and employees.

Mark Philip

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Mark Phillip is the Founder of Are You Watching This?!, a B-to-B Sports Excitement Analytics company using patented algorithms to identify Instant Classics in the making, in real-time. A Brooklyn native, MIT dropout, and lifelong Yankees fan, Mark is obsessed with enhancing the game-watching experience through digital and physical innovation, whether it’s teaching a DVR to automatically extend the recording of a game going into Overtime, or hand-building wireless LED excitement meters for every TV in his favorite sports bar. When he’s not watching Cricket at 4am, you’ll find him working to improve diversity and equity in the tech community, and mentoring at schools, accelerators, and incubators around Austin.

A New Chapter

I’m excited to share that I am starting as the new director at Austin Center for Design. Jon Kolko, the founder of the school, will be transitioning into an advisor role and remains as core faculty. I know many people will wonder what this means for the school, so I hope to take a moment today to share some thoughts.

I was part of the AC4D’s inaugural class of ten students back in 2010. I was drawn to the school’s immersive approach, entrepreneurial spirit, and its opinionated focus on working on problems that matter. The inaugural class acted as co-founders of the school. We shaped the curriculum for future years, and charted new territories with the career paths we each took on after the program.

My own personal journey since graduation involved building two startups from the ground up. I co-founded HourSchool, an education platform where anyone can take or teach a class, inspired from the research we did with the homeless population during AC4D. It was bootstrapped and scrappy. I learned to code, grow a team and market with very little budget. A few years later, I moved on to join Aunt Bertha, a search and referral platform for social services. I helped grow that company from 4 people to 40 people through 2 rounds of funding, built and led multiple departments, and our product has touched the lives of over 300,000 people to date. As I began teaching at AC4D in the last couple of years, I had to reflect on my own experiences in order to share the lessons learned with my students. Those experiences – taking something to scale, relentlessly iterating and executing, while convincing others to join my mission – are also what I hope to bring to my new role at AC4D.

Jon and many faculty members have built an incredibly strong foundation: an education pedagogy that embraces empathy, prototyping, and abductive logic; that stands upon a foundation of solving problems worth solving. The program features small class sizes, affordability, and access to world-class working design practitioners. The faculty instills in our students a culture of rigor and constant iterations. Their success is reflected in the AC4D alumni’s career paths, happiness, and salary. As I take over the director position, the lofty vision that the school was founded on remains unchanged: to transform society through design and design education. My job is to build upon the foundation Jon and others have created.

I have spent many hours chatting with alumni and faculty as they reflected on their experiences. I have also talked to people in the industry to understand what they are demanding from new designers. With these findings and together with AC4D’s theory of change, I believe the following are the biggest opportunities to extend the impact of our school:

1) Design Jobs in the Public Sector: When the school first started, design jobs in the public sector were rare, at least in the United States. Designers who want to work on social issues had to venture out on their own, or resorted to working for Fortune 500 to make a living. We had supply, but not a lot of demand. In recent years though, more and more progressive organizations have been joining forces and started to invest heavily in the role of design when considering how they deliver services to their constituents. AC4D is in a great position to work directly with governments and foundations to tackle the challenges they face, through our students’ studio projects, fellowship placements after graduation, and other consultative engagements to support capacity-building initiatives within these institutions. This will ultimately lead to more design job opportunities in the public sector. My vision is to see design positions proliferate through every department of our government and a Chief Design Officer at every institution that is working towards the public good.

2) Support our Social Entrepreneurs: A focus on social entrepreneurship has always been with us from the start. When our students graduate and decide to venture out on their own, like most entrepreneurs, they have to be scrappy and lean. Anyone who has started their own business before would know that the runway doesn’t last forever and often times, it’s a race against time. AC4D will continue to build partnerships that help our students take their ideas further, faster: working with coding academies to get concepts off the ground, piloting minimal viable products with schools and clinics, or collaborating with data scientists and policy makers to inform go-to-market strategies.

3) Growth and Sustainability: This transition also marks a good time to evaluate our internal operations. Creating a diverse funding strategy, building a team of staff, and providing more formal support for students, such as financial aid, are all natural progressions as the school heads into the new decade. This is also important to ensure that our education remains affordable and accessible, for people from all walks of life who aspire to use the power of design to address the wicked problems we face today.

People have asked what my motivation is to taking on this role. My answer is a simple one: AC4D changed my life, and I have witnessed it changed many others who went through the program. I’m excited and honored to be part of the journey of our future students. Here’s to a new chapter and all the new possibilities it will lead us.


Founder Thoughts

Alex and I always talk about how we need to write more, do some writing first thing in the morning before diving into emails, get things out of our heads onto something tangible. Yet, it still doesn’t happen as often as we would like.

But here’s a start, some raw thoughts from the week.

On taking money
We’ve gone many months without outside money. We came this far by putting in our own savings and a ridiculous amount of generous help from friends and supporters. Well, money is running out and we need to raise some. But we’ve always had a lot of hesitations when it comes to taking other people’s money. Since day 1 we’ve always wanted to learn to make money, not raise money. The idea of bootstrapping was always more appealing to us than the idea of “being funded”. At the same time, I think we are also just nervous. Nervous about the responsibility. Here’s a thought I had the other day: I probably wouldn’t be as nervous if I was borrowing the exact same amount of student loan to pay for a 2 year master degree. It would’ve felt like the most normal thing to pay a huge sum for my education as an investment, and I’ll pay it back through years of hard work afterwards. When it’s viewed that way, investing in my own startup all of a sudden feels like a much better deal. I have control over what I want out of it, and I’m learning more everyday than any degree would be able to give me. Speaking of defaulting the responsibility to someone else – “I paid you tuition so now you’re responsible to teach me everything to be successful.”

On building supporters
It’s easy to want to stay in the studio. All the work that needs to be done! Someone’s gotta do it right? Recently, I have a new found appreciation for getting out and building connections. And I don’t mean the “networking” sessions where you exchange business cards but in reality everyone just really want to talk about their own startups (us included!) I mean building deeper connections and a group of supporters in Austin, with other groups that are doing amazing work such as PeopleFund, Center 61, The Next Fest, Aunt Bertha, Urban Roots, Four Teachers, to name a few. As much as sxsw has been overwhelming, because of our active outreach lately, we have met some really great people and felt that we are much more rooted in Austin than we were two weeks ago. Starting a business is an emotional journey. Having people around who understand makes you not die.

I have thoughts on some other topics, but haven’t articulated enough to write about yet.

I feel fine. Recovering.

A letter to AC4D

Dear AC4D,

Recent events left me feeling a mix of thoughts and emotions so I decided to write you a letter.

You are an 8-month graduate program, but you’re also a solid community. You are great mentors, but you are also all makers. The group of people coming in and out all day provide constant reassurance but they also never hesitate to jump in to challenge why we are doing what we are doing. You provide tools but not answers. You’re a safe place to learn like how a child learns – you know, start doing something, make mistakes, ask dumb questions, repeat, and eventually all of it become tacit knowledge. People go work on different things and have different definitions of success, but you welcome them with open arms as long as they’re still trying to change the world.

AC4D never really ends. For us alums, having the current students around in the same space keeps us on our toes. Accountability easily goes out of the window when the 8-month program was over. It’s too easy to not follow through, to come up with excuses, to let life get in the way. Watching new projects emerge is inspiring and it almost becomes your engine of innovation to ensure we never stop asking “what if’s”. In return, I hope we alums provide comfort for the current students that all of this is possible. It’s still fun, and I honestly can’t imagine doing anything else. The energy is contagious so no one ever feels like they are fighting a lone battle.

You don’t leave your students graduate with just a “good idea” either. The audience who came to the Q3 presentations today asked tough questions. “What are you actually doing? What is your role? Why would people want to use this? What are all the touchpoints? How do you build trust and protect your people? How do you change perceptions and create brand? How do you build expectations and instill responsibility and create delight? Who is paying who? How do you build a collective? Where do you start?” My heart beat really fast as I watched the students think on their feet with all eyes on them tackling every question being thrown at them. I’m so impressed and blown away with their work and how far they’ve come.

I have every faith that they will figure it all out and make it happen, as will all of your future students because of what you have created. In the wise words of Dr. Seuss, “unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”


Some feedback and observations from Q1 presentations

I took notes last night so thought I’d share them here. They’re raw and not complete, but hope they would be somewhat helpful.

On design research:

  • Need to explain more why design research is different and valuable especially to non-designers.
  • Design research is not supposed to be easy, it’s going to take lots of time, practice, and rigor.
  • Trust your findings. It’s great to tie it to the big picture, but don’t let external stats overshadow your rich insights from the field research you have from spending hours with people.
  • Reflect. Always.

On artifacts:

  • Label your concept maps. They should be stand-alone artifacts.
  • Watch for visual design typo (ex. use icons from the same library).
  • Make use of quotes.
  • Don’t be afraid to use big definitive statements. Take up the full slide.

On story telling:

  • Relate back to what you started with. Stories should be wrapped around a larger theme.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask provocative questions and leave audience thinking.
  • Decide on the one thing you want the audience to walk away from.
  • Learn how to dial up and down with your story to different audience, and the only way to get better is to keep telling the story.

On realizing limitations:

  • Understand what you would like to do more of (ex. new contexts)
  • “Not having enough time” is not a valid limitation

On having a system/process:

  • Have system to capture your whiteboard sessions and defining moments, whether it’s a deck of yellow index cards labelled “good ideas”, taking photos of all your sticky notes and brain-dumping in ppt, plain text file, anything, pick something. Never rely on your memory.
  • Jon once told me one of the most challenging things about being an interaction designer is switching between tasks: doing research, brainstorming, making, project managing, presenting, etc. It’s a skill, embrace it and learn it.

On choosing a topic:

  • Don’t over-worry about choosing the perfect topic. There’s no such thing. Let it evolve and follow where it takes you. You can’t decide in a room what you’re passionate about. Keep working and it’ll come.
  • Best case scenario: you find a topic you’re passionate about and you continue to work on it after ac4d. Worst case scenario: you have a set of new skills and tools to go tackle any problems you come across later on in your lives.
  • The only wrong thing you can do is not doing anything.

And here… some words of wisdom sent to me by Ms. Tran from LA.

Heart work takes hard work. Tell everyone what you’re working on. I really enjoyed the presentations. Thanks for letting me be a part of last night and I’m looking forward to Q2!

Reflections and Lessons Learned from SDNC11

I gave my very first talk at the Service Design Conference 11 in San Francisco last week. It was a really good experience and I wanted to share some of my reflections and lessons learned.

1. Biggest takeaway from the conference

This is my first exposure to the “service designers”, and it’s very different than the Interaction Conference in Boulder. As a gross over-generalization, the field often associates interaction designers with software developers, service designers with business analysts, and product designers with mechanical and electrical engineers. Interaction designers speak in the language of user interface and usability; service designers speak about customer journey map and touchpoints. At the moment, while interaction designers are asking if they should learn to how to code; service designers are asking how to show the business value of their existence to management.

One of my favorite talks was by Brandon Schauer from Adaptive Path, on how to “capture lost revenues from the Service Anticipation Gap by applying just a portion of the overwhelming ad spends on the optimization and creation of services”. He defined Service Anticipation Gap as the gap between customers’ expectations and perceptions vs. what they are actually getting. While ad spend creates promises, service design is what actually deliver those promises. His arguments are compelling and illustrated by great examples. Presentation can be downloaded here.

Richard Buchanan was the closing keynote with the conference. AC4D students should all be familiar with his definition of “wicked problems” and the four degrees of design – signs, things, actions, environment. After two days of talks focusing a lot on the tactical of how to make a case for service design to management, Buchanan reframed the discussion to why management itself should become a design discipline. He left Carnegie Mellon and went to Weatherhead School of Management (note: management school, not business school), because he envisions management as design activities and is currently working with organizations at all levels – corporate, government, foundations, community, to look at how we should build our future organizations. Going back to management literature in the past, Buchanan reminded us that the purpose of an organization is not to make a profit. Profit is the means that allow the organization to fulfill its purpose. The purpose of an organization is to provide goods and services to citizens. We, as designers, are at the heart of what makes an organization valuable. He concluded his talk by saying that design is a very humble profession, and suggest that as designers, we should let go of trying to be the star, but instead, the facilitator of the world around us.

Relating back to my own personal reservations about starting companies, calling myself an entrepreneur, and the general hype in the start-up world; Buchanan’s perspective on design continues to give me a strong ground to plant my feet on when I think about how this is not as much about “starting a company”, as it is about designing at the 4th degree – the environment and the organization, in which will hold and deliver the products and service I’m designing, in order to create the impact I want to make. As AC4D aims to turn students into founders and projects into companies, there are different tactical skills required for design (ex. making) and business (ex. marketing). However, I think it’s helpful for us to remember that it’s a similar creation process: how do we design at an organization/environment level to create an impact? what activities and interactions need to happen, collectively, to achieve the original vision?

2. Personal step forward in public speaking

I had 10 minutes for my talk. As I was preparing, looking for photos, and trying to put together powerpoint slides, it just didn’t feel right. It felt like I was forcing the limited amount of photos I have on my computer to tell a very powerful and emotional story. So in the end, I decided to go with one slide. It had one photo on it: the photo from Church under the Bridge.

I explained Church under the Bridge to the rest of the conference by saying that was where everything started, and is what keeps us grounded in everything that we do. So I wanted that to set the context of my talk. From there, I shared the leap of thinking and the journey of going from a homelessness project to an education startup. Finally, I concluded by stating that at HourSchool, we measure our success by the number of people we are able to turn from a student to a teacher. Overall, I think the talk was well received. It was short and not in-depth. But I didn’t think it was meant to be.

Personally, this is a huge step forward for me. For those that started ac4d with me last year could attest that I hated speaking in public, I was bad at it, and I would do anything to get out of it. But here I am, a year later, signing up to speak in front of over 300 people. I can pinpoint a very specific moment of this turning point. It was when I had to go present to the staff at ARCH with Ryan and Kat because Alex couldn’t make it. After that, I wrote about how rewarding it was, and how it was different – because it mattered. Since then, I have been willing, and wanting, to talk in front of crowds, because the story matters. And I want as many people to hear it as possible.

One of these nights I was working late at Thinktiv and overheard some conversations from Jon’s class. He said something along the lines of needing to get used to presenting our work and being confident in what we’re able to do. I share many of the same sentiments with the other students – it’s intimidating, it’s scary, it’s hard, to put yourselves out there, to be judged, criticized, and compared. I understand. But next time when you’re unsure of yourselves, just remember that this isn’t about us. Your stories need to be told, your work needs to be presented. Because it matters.

This time this year: some summer reflections

Around this time last year, I was getting ready to leave Toronto to begin this new journey at AC4D. This time this year, I can definitively say that it was the best decision I’ve made.

Over the last few months, I’ve gotten emails from prospective students asking what it’s like at AC4D. I’ve tried my best to answer those questions. But as with all things, thoughts continue to evolve.

The questions I get generally fall into 3 categories:

  • Skills (ex. I don’t have a design background, or do I have to learn how to code, etc)
  • Workload (ex. can I attend AC4D and hold a full-time job at the same time?)
  • Future (ex. what can I do after AC4D?)

After having continued to work on HourSchool throughout the summer, here are some of my newest thoughts.

Re: Skills

There is really nothing you must be and there is nothing you must do. There is a curriculum, and there are a set of skills you are expected to possess by the time you graduate. However, from my experience of launching HourSchool, it’s not about the things you’re being told to learn. It’s about constantly stepping out of your comfort zone, doing whatever it takes to make the thing you’re passionate about happen – be it sketching, coding, public speaking, or accounting. There was a good discussion thread over at IxDA a couple months ago about whether interaction designer should also have “technical skills”, but it really is more than that. AC4D is about nurturing people who would just go make things happen.  Dee would say that social entrepreneurs do not let their own limited resources keep them from pursuing their visions. Daniel Burka would tell you ideas are cheap, building is hard. And we at AC4D would tell you that the things you need to do after building is even harder.

Re: Workload

A good number of us continued to work on our social ventures/projects/programs after we graduated in April (well, after some well-deserved breaks). And I think we are reaching a conclusion that AC4D, although intense, provided a structure that was necessary for us to focus, progress rapidly, and got really close as a group. Even nearly 4 months since we graduated, we are still trying to find a sense of normalcy (whatever that means in the first place) in our lives. Taking care of those relationships and our own body well-beings that have taken a back seat for the past year, while trucking along with these “side projects” without schedules, structure, and support, is very hard – crazy to say, but post-ac4d is almost as hard as the ac4d school year itself. There have been talks about forming some sort of optional part-time incubation-style studio time next summer for the students who plan to stick around in Austin. So yeah, ac4d is intense, but at least it’s structured-intenseness.

Re: Future

If you are coming to AC4D confused about what to do with your life; chances are, by the time you graduate, you’ll still be confused about what to do with your life. Seriously. You’ll have more skills, you’ll have more options, and you’ll have bigger dreams – how is that not even more confusing? On top of that, the truth about how there aren’t a ton of opportunities out there that provide both work that changes lives and a good paycheck, remains the truth. A big part of AC4D is about creating those opportunities for yourselves so you don’t rely on the job market to provide that for you. “Do I have to start a business? I don’t see myself as an entrepreneur, and I don’t want to be one”, many have asked. A bunch of us are, and a bunch of us aren’t. But when I look around my classmates, I see every single one of them embracing an entrepreneurial attitude, making an impact in the way they feel most appropriate. The best part of that is when you’re surrounded by a group of people like that, they will push you to be the best you can be every day – sometimes even yell at you for worrying and making excuses. It’s great.

I’m really excited to meet the new students, and almost a little jealous that they are about to go through this incredible experience.

Interaction Designer and Social Entrepreneur

So the school part of AC4D is over. But I think all of us recognize that this journey has just begun and I hope to continue to use this as a platform to articulate our thoughts, state our opinion, and design publicly. Coming into AC4D with some socent knowledge and having immersed myself in the ixd world for the last 8 months, I have been internalizing how the two worlds fit together, what they mean to me, and how I would talk about them. As Frank Chimero wrote, “Writing pushes forward”. So I figured the only way I would be able to figure that out is to begin writing about it. These are more of my general thoughts about the industries so they will sound awfully obvious to the AC4D students, but do comment and add to this if you agree/disagree.

First and foremost, there’s this common ground: Both interaction designers and social entrepreneurs aspire and have the ability to create something new in the world that fundamentally disrupts the way things are currently being done.

Now I want to talk about why I think they need each other.

Why SocEnt needs more IxD’s thinking+doing:

1) The What – build solution based on people’s needs, not what feels good

Some social enterprises get a lot of press. Compelling photography combined with a charismatic leader are very PR worthy and easy to get lots of people excited. But as many have already written about, solutions that just “give” instead of building a community’s capacity to help itself does not solve anything. Akhila Kolisetty gave some solid examples in her recent blog post on some American’s attempts to tackle social problems – “TOMS shoes’s model of distributing free shoes undermine the local economy; voluntourism or ‘slum’ tours where rich Americans go abroad to see how the poor live in slums; Greg Mortenson building schools which ultimately end up as empty buildings when no one has bothered to properly train and pay teachers or make sure the school is what the community really needs.” Akhila was right when she said, “There is a lot more we can do to simply ask the community, What is it that you need, and how can we help you get there? There is a lot more we can do to serve their needs, rather than our agendas.” And this is exactly the place for more design research. Drawing from ethnographic techniques from other social science disciplines, design research is a process to uncover issues that are deeply embedded in culture and often aren’t expressed immediately. Whether through immersion or co-designing, design research helps everyone at stake get to a solution that they all care about, have a shared value in, and would be accountable for.

2) The How – learn how to make stuff so social entrepreneurship can be accessible

A lot of great work is being done in the social innovation arena. But the output is often in the form of whitepaper, conference panels, blog posts, and a lot of discussions around what great potential we have to end poverty and what great era we’re in to change history. Many in the field also believe “thinking is action”, leaving a lot of young people feeling this: “OK, I’m inspired, but now what? If I quit my corporate job tomorrow, what can I do? How do I begin working on problems that matter if I don’t find working at the soup kitchen or applying to the peace corp compelling?” I shared those same sentiments a year ago, which was what led me to apply to AC4D. Recently, more and more socent grad programs are incorporating design thinking into their curriculum. But design is fundamentally about making, and that the power of design thinking will not be realized unless it’s coupled with the making part of design. I have reflected upon this after IxDA this year in my other blog post here. Jon Kolko has also recently written about the role of designer in a startup and the qualities of a designer that are so essential to making ideas happen. More aspire-to-be social entrepreneurs will find themselves in a much better place to “know what to do next” if they learn “how to make”.

Why IxD needs more SocEnt’s thinking+doing:

1) The What – to solve problems worth solving and develop a sense of purpose

Thousands of talented young people graduate from design school every year, then go off and work at prestigious agencies where they create yet another app for the big telecommunication company or another iteration of the logo for an airline. It’s no longer news that my generation does not aspire to that type of work. We want to work on meaningful problems that change the world for the better, even if it means walking away from the big fat paycheck and living like a college student again. The social entpreneurship arena has nothing but challenging, meaningful, large-scale social and humanitarian problems. Education, health, environment, the hardest problems all in front of you and you can tackle whichever to your heart’s desire. As Gary Chou from Union Square Ventures has said, “A lot of people in the tech world talk a lot about how in order for an entrepreneur to be successful, they have to be passionate. But what hit me was that I realized that you can’t be passionate unless you have a sense of purpose about something. It’s sort of a precursor.” You don’t find meaning by being comfortable at a cubicle, nor talking about what you’re passionate about all day. You find meaning by stepping up, admitting that designer has a responsibility to create a better world, and act on it.

2) The How – a great product is not enough to solve the problem

Designers are driven to build beautiful, desirable things. They care about the user experience and the aesthetics, but not a lot of them think about how they get funded, how they get to market, or how they get into the hands of the end users. Designers feed off from being able to tackle a complex problem and create an awesome solution for it. But they get bored when they have to deal with the logistics, the project management, the cost and benefit analysis. But if the most awesome thing ever designed has nobody there to build it, fund it, launch it, support it, and use it, it’s a waste of time and money, and certainly doesn’t do the world any good. Great solutions almost always need an entity (a business/organization) in order to do all of the above. Thinktiv’s CEO Jonathan Berkowitz wrote that in order to navigate the challenges of moving something from Powerpoint to Production, a vision for the company needs to have 3 dimensions: a problem solving strategy (product or service), a customer acquisition strategy (sales and marketing), and a monetization strategy. As social entrepreneurs can no longer ignore the need to learn how to make, designers also can no longer ignore all the things that need to happen to bring their design to market.

There is so much great talent in the IxD and SocEnt worlds, but too often they work in silos. More people need to learn to cross the artificial boundary, take the best from both fields, and transform themselves into someone who can 1) create with a rigorous design process, 2) driven by an entrepreneurial spirit to challenge status quo and create something for the betterment of the world.

Interaction designer and social entrepreneur are great on their own, but better with each other.

Learn to build an airplane in hours because that's the only way you'll be able to build one. When do we ever learn the lesson?

I thought I understood think/make. But I didn’t really understand think/make.

For the last few weeks, we have been working on marketing plan, crunching financial spreadsheets, moving pixels, and entering the matrix doing a lot of git push heroku. You know, the nuts and bolts of starting a business and building a product. The things that will give our potential customers an actual site to use and let investors know how much we have thought through this stuff.

All the right stuff to do. But a conversation with Justin yesterday reminded me of how “we still don’t have anything to show”. After internalizing more, I think the larger point being, if we’re really building on existing behavior, really meeting an actual need, really making our customers’ lives easier – we should be able to show demand with or without technology. If it takes the two of us manually coordinating classes, then that’s what it’ll take. When it becomes too much, we’ll move to a spreadsheet in order to keep track. When that becomes too much, then we’ll figure out something else. But until we get to that point, it feels rather empty that we’re sitting in front of a computer projecting revenue.

Fast Co.Design had an article posted on Monday on “Wanna Solve Impossible Problems? Find Ways to Fail Quicker“:

MacCready’s insight was that everyone who was working on solving human-powered flight would spend upwards of a year building an airplane on conjecture and theory without a base of knowledge based on empirical tests. Triumphantly, they would complete their plane and wheel it out for a test flight. Minutes later, a year’s worth of work would smash into the ground.

Again, nothing we don’t know already, nothing we haven’t been taught. But what stuck out to me in the article was when the author said:

Progress was slow for obvious reasons, but that was to be expected in pursuit of such a difficult vision. That’s just how it was, went the common thinking.

We’re looking to address wicked problems – the large-scale ill-defined complex social problems that have been around for decades and centuries. We expect things to move slowly. We expect not to solve things overnight. But a little re-framing will get the momentum going, like when Paul MacCready built that airplane in half a year after nobody could for 18 years:

He came up with a new problem that he set out to solve: How can you build a plane that could be rebuilt in hours, not months?

So lesson learned (for the nth time):

When you are solving a difficult problem, re-frame the problem so that your solution helps you learn faster. Find a faster way to fail, recover, and try again. If the problem you are trying to solve involves creating a magnum opus, you are solving the wrong problem.

This morning I sent a bunch of emails to people who have previously expressed their interests in holding/taking classes so we can start having real customers. Fundamentally, our idea holds true with or without Facebook Connect on Rails.

I think I understand think/make a little better today than I did yesterday.

Design Synthesis is a process to Be Intentional

I’ve always stated my love of being in design synthesis land. It’s also where some of the most defining moments of HourSchool occurred.

Back in January, we were still thinking that there would be two types of audience using our site: the student and the teacher. We wanted to understand what the student and the teacher would do, respectively, before and after signing up to take/teach a class. As we stepped back from the whiteboard after we were done, we realized we did a temporal zoom. And in that, we found our theory of change. The student and the teacher aren’t two separate personas. They are the same person. Our mission is to transform current students into future teachers – and there is a very specific point in time during the process when that happens.

As we prepared for our final presentation last week, we spent hours trying to find the right balance between talking about problem (our research) vs. solution (our product). After multiple iterations, we ended with a story we were happy with. We stepped back again, and this is what we saw: People’s best part of the day is when they get to teach their peers + old school model does not provide avenue to do that = we will build a platform that allows peer-led social learning.

My original thought was that we used these synthesis methods accidentally. We were simply sketching out what felt right in our heads, and only noticed afterwards that we had used the methods. But as I began blogging and reflecting upon Q3, I concluded that there is nothing accidental about our synthesis.

Insight combination is a method that helps generate design ideas by combining what the designers gathered from research with knowledge from their own past experiences. The method suggests writing down all the data points and design patterns on color post-it notes, move them around, and force relationships between them in order to generate new design ideas.

By constructing stories together, asking hard questions, and walking each other through hypothetical scenarios, we were gradually building our “insight bank”. In particular, I found our impromptu mini-research sessions with others have been the most inspiring, and almost always connected some dots for us. No, they do not replace the rigorous approach of design research. Rather, I think they are one of the most essential parts during design synthesis, as the designer slowly put the various pieces together.

So here’s my new thought: although synthesis may happen unconsciously, it does not happen accidentally. To Alex‘s favorite saying of the year, “Be Intentional”. There’s nothing accidental about our idea, our theory of change, our product, and our business. Our brains constantly drew from the insight bank that we intentionally built.

Design Synthesis, as it turns out, is a process to be intentional.