Tell us about your projects using design to tackle social problems

Interaction design and wicked problems banner

As you know, at the Austin Center for Design we’re focused on learning how to apply the tools and processes of interaction design to wicked social problems like homelessness, education, social isolation, or international development.

Most of this blog is about our projects, but we’d love to hear about yours.  If you’ve worked on anything in this space, or just heard about a cool project, please comment on the post or tweet a link @ac4d or @ryanhubbard to tell us about it.

Or, if you’re here with us in Boulder at the Interaction’11 conference, join us for a conversation over lunch on Saturday to share your work or tell us about a cool project that you heard about.  We’ll meet at one of the tables in the back of the main auditorium (Glenn Miller Ballroom) at 11:50.  Feel free to come by to share a story or just to get some inspiration from the great work that folks are doing.

Being Empathetically Correct

I was explaining our work with Frontsteps to a good friend of mine last night, and I used the phrase ‘people experiencing homelessness’ to describe the clients at Frontsteps.  Curious, he asked me if that was the politically correct term for homeless people.  I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but it felt like the phrase was important for a reason beyond being politically correct.

This morning it hit me: using ‘people experiencing homelessness’ is not about being politically correct, it’s about being empathetically correct.  We know that the language we use both reflects and shapes how we think about the people and world around us, and these two terms have very different implications.

The term ‘homeless people’ suggests a changed identity and lends a sense of permanence to the state.  This change in identity immediately puts them in the category of ‘other’ and makes it more difficult to empathize.

While more cumbersome, the term ‘people experiencing homelessness’ emphasizes that they’re going through a temporary situation.  I also like it because it stresses that they are people first and after all, people are people.

Posted from Ryan’s blog.

Evaluating design solutions and the Perils of Introspection

So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.” – Ben Franklin

In the 1930’s a researcher named Norman Maier [1] conducted a curious psychological experiment.  He brought people into a room with two long ropes hanging from the ceiling, and instructed them find as many ways as possible to tie the ropes together.  The ropes were separated from each other by just enough distance that you couldn’t simply grab one and walk to the other, but the room also contained a variety of objects like a length of clothesline and a long pole. Most people quickly discovered that they could tie the clothesline to one rope and walk to the other, or that they could use the pole to reach out and draw one of the ropes to them.  Once they got through the obvious solutions, however, everyone was stumped.

After they had been confused for a while, Maier, who walked around the room throughout the experiment, would casually brush one of the ropes with his shoulder, causing it to sway.  Within a minute, most people would then solve the puzzle by tying something heavy to one rope and swinging it like a pendulum to get to the other.

The curious bit came when Maier asked them where they got the idea for the swinging.  Almost invariably, they would say something like “I just thought suddenly of a grandfather clock,” or “I remembered reading Tarzan as a child.”  Not one of them mentioned Maier brushing the rope with his shoulder, even though they had the idea immediately after it started to sway.

These people had no reason to lie and indeed had no clue that they were.  The idea came to them subconsciously and they honestly weren’t able to understand its origin.  The tricky part, though, seems to be that we are hardwired to make up (and believe) plausible reasons for our behavior, even when we don’t know the real answer. Psychologists have a name for this combination of our inability to articulate our internal motivations with the tendency to invent reasons. It’s called the Perils of Introspection.

So what does this have to do with evaluating design solutions?  Everything.

Every time a usability tester asks the user why they clicked the left button or a focus group facilitator asks a customer why they prefer red over blue, we have to be aware that the person quite likely doesn’t know and are almost certainly (though unintentionally) going to make something up.  Even worse, researchers Wilson and Lisle have shown that if you’re asked to explain a choice before you make it, you might end up picking the option that’s easier to explain, not the one you would have chosen in the real world.

There are numerous examples of successful products (like the Aeron Chair) that almost didn’t happen due to bad reviews resulting from the perils of introspection.  Malcolm Gladwell gives a good overview of the problem and some great examples in this talk from PopTech in 2004:

[vimeo 18064586]

So now that we know there’s a problem, what do we do?

The solution can be found in one of the most important things we know from design research, which is that you cannot just talk to people but also must watch them in action.  In research, we understand that what people say and what they do often don’t line up, and it’s in those inconsistencies that some of the most interesting insights are found.

So if apply this same understanding to evaluating designs, then the next time we have a great idea and start to pull together a roundtable focus group, we might think twice.  We might instead remember the Perils of Introspection and devise a way to sketch or prototype the idea and watch how people interact with it.

Your participants will give you much better data if you observe their interactions.  Just don’t ask them why.

[1] Story adapted from Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink.  Maier’s 1931 paper: Reasoning in Humans. II. The solution of a problem and it’s appearance in consciousness.

Posted from Ryan’s personal blog, Back of the Envelope and Big Ideas

Following the Money

When choosing the focus for our design research, Julia and I were torn between a client service like transitional housing or looking behind the scenes at the less sexy but ever important process of raising money for the organization.  Ultimately, focusing on fundraising seemed further out of our comfort zones as designers (which, after all, is what school is all about), so we dove into the difficult and often uncomfortable world of asking people for money.

When it comes to funding, the biggest challenge at Front Steps is well-known to them and will probably be quickly obvious to you:

Front Steps Current Funding Distribution

It doesn’t take much to understand the dangers of having a single source of funding dominate your revenue.  The problem is even more difficult when that source is the city:

Problems with City Funding

Restricted: Designated for ARCH and existing programs, making innovation difficult.Precarious: Dependent on political climate and funding priorities of the city.Dominates revenue: Unlikely as it is, it would be devastating to Front Steps if the funding were cut.

As I mentioned, Front Steps is well-aware of the issue and has recently hired a great new director of development to help them address the problem.  We spoke with him after he’d only been on the job for a couple of weeks and we were impressed by the firm grasp he had on the organization and his creative ideas for securing new funding.  He also had a clear opinion on what a healthy funding distribution would look like [more after the jump]:

Continue reading Following the Money

4 Social Innovation Fellowships now accepting applications

StartingBloc Boston 2010

One of the most important factors for success in any field is the strength of your professional community, and the social sector is no exception.  Fellowships are a great way to instantly connect to world-class communities, and four of the best social innovation fellowships available are currently accepting applications.  Take a look:


StartingBloc is a people accelerator.  I had the great pleasure of becoming a StartingBloc fellow last February, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the experience to any young professional or college student finding their way in the social sector.  It starts with a 5-day institute shared with 120 of some of the most astounding social innovators you’ll ever encounter and continues as a professional community that has continued to introduce me to some of the most amazing people I know.  StartingBloc is partially self-sustaining, so there’s a fee to attend the institute, but I assure you it’s worth the cost.

Deadline: October 24th (Soon!) Apply for StartingBloc

The Unreasonable Institute

Have a 2+ person Social Sector startup in the prototype/pilot phase?  Do you have an internal revenue mechanism (not just donations-based)? Do you have an unreasonable ambition to reach at least one million people?  Then you’re perfect for the social venture accelerator the Unreasonable Institute.  After an astounding successful first year, they’re gearing up for their intensive signature summer institute that provides the best mentoring around and is guaranteed to refine your

Deadline: November 20th,  Apply for the Unreasonable Institute

Echoing Green

Provides seed funding and technical assistance to emerging social entrepreneurs with ideas for social change.  If your social-sector startup is less than two years old and you’re committed to working full time on the idea, Echoing Green could provide crucial assistance to get you through the rocky early years.

Deadline: November 12th, Apply for Echoing Green

Ashoka US

Do you have a radical new idea to change the world?  Are you ready to take your impact to the next level, scaling nationally or globally?  Want the clout of the oldest and largest association of Social Entrepreneurs behind you?  Then you should look into Ashoka.  With some of the biggest names in Social Entrepreneurship from Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus to Kiva’s founder Matt Flanner, you’ll be in good company.  Ashoka selects Fellows internationally as well as here in the US.  [Full disclosure and all that, I used to work for Ashoka]

Deadline: Rolling, Nominate a US-based Fellow (self nominations allowed)

Posted from Ryan’s personal blog, Back of the Envelope and Big Ideas

Learning by Doing: Ready to Rumble

Logo for the Rails Rumble

I’m a firm believer in the hands-on, sink-or-swim philosophy of learning.  Which puts me in pretty good company with the rest of these loons who decided to join the first year of a crazy new design school. My experience at AC4D so far has fit this preference of mine very well, but this weekend should be a special treat.

Chap and I (and a bit of Alex) will be participating in a 48 hour web app competition: Rails Rumble.  Chap’s been working with Ruby on Rails for a couple of years, but my preparation thus far consists of a basic basic “Hello World” rails app I wrote on Tuesday.  This should be a steep learning curve and a heck of a lot of fun.

We’ll post what comes out of it on the blog next week, and maybe a caffeine-fueled update or two along the way.

Now I’m off to the most important preparation for the weekend: sleep.

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain part 2

This is the second exercise I performed from the Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain Book.  I was excited to hear today that Saranyan bought the book on his Kindle and is joining in the fun.

The exercise for today took only about fifteen minutes and you could do yourself quite easily, as the book authors have posted it as an example on their website.

The basic premise of the exercise is that they force you into a verbal ‘L-mode’ of thinking by having you draw one half of the vase/face and then retrace it specifically calling out the names of the forehead, nose, chin, etc, as you trace them.  Then you immediately try to draw the other side and it’s surprisingly difficult.  To finish the drawing you have to pointedly switch your mind to the spatial ‘R-mode’ and think about the lines apart from the symbolic concepts of noes or eyes.  It took me a couple of mental tries to get back there, as you can see from the faint, erased lines.

Anyway, the exercise is short, and it provides an interesting perspective into some of the workings of your mind.  Give it a go if you have a chance!

Learning to Draw, a Student’s Perspective

Alex’s post was perfectly timed, since today was the start of a series of drawing exercises I’m working through from Betty Edward’s well-known Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.  I heard about the methodology from reading Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind.  He took the 5 day course in person (I’m settling for just working through the book), and showed his before and after drawings, which were stunningly different, so I thought it would be worth giving it a go.

The course is built around the understanding that we actually have some amazingly powerful visual perceptual abilities, but that our logical, symbolic modes of thought that dominate our everyday existence suppress those abilities.  This means that when we look at a chair, we quickly discard the visual information and condense it into the symbol/word of ‘chair’.  This is often a very useful skill, but it would be even better if we could switch to other modes of thought at will.  So the course takes you through a series of exercises to teach you how to quieten the symbolic modes of thought.  One fascinating insight that drives the design of a few of these exercises is that the symbolic/language mode (often reductively referred to as Left-Brianed or L-mode) of thinking will concede dominance if it finds the task to be excessively confusing, slow or boring.  I’ll get into some of those exercises during later posts.

For the start of the course, the book asks you to make some reference drawings so that you can see how you change over the course.  In the AC4D spirit of learning publicly, I’ve posted my drawings after the jump.

Continue reading Learning to Draw, a Student’s Perspective