(Group) Work

At some point during college, I remember coming up with what I thought was this revolutionary idea: if only I could do things on my own (operate in a sort of vacuum), I could be a freakin rockstar at anything I wanted to be. The real world required explaining to people your perspective before doing things. The real world required considering the parameters of an assignment. The real world required me to take breaks to consider other people.

*sidenote* I now wonder if that sentiment is not part of what drew me to study English. In writing an essay, I only had to consider the topic, the author, and my own thoughts. At the time, I may not have thought much about my professors who inevitably poked holes in my writing and their ability to understand my ideas all four years.

But then the real world happened. I had group projects. I joined organizations. I was a founding member of an organization. I graduated, got a job, and got coworkers. There were even moments I had to ask other people for help. *GASP*

Now I don’t say any of this to say (despite however egocentric 21 year old me was) that I didn’t or don’t have empathy. I have always loved stories. I have always loved listening to peoples stories and helping them achieve their goals. And if that was not a part of something I was doing or studying I probably would have lost interest real fast. But the ability to listen to someones story, synthesize it with an idea of your own and communicate it to them in a way that they understand has always felt like a lot of work.

These past three weeks we have been working on a team as part of a service design project. They has posed many, many moments when I have had to communicate the value of an idea I have or synthesize an idea I have with another person’s idea and then communicate it to them. And, many times in this process I have dropped the ball. Sometimes, I let it go. The idea was not one I was married to anyways. And sometimes I fight and struggle and argue my thoughts about an idea until my team acquiesces but still does not totally understand what I am getting at. Sometimes there is this weird limbo, where the person respects your vision and mostly understands and agrees with what you are getting at, but does not completely understand enough to know how to execute on that vision.

At this point in my career, I have managed people and I founded an organization which I established a board for and now manage. And I feel so far from mastering this skill. So far that, in comparison to some of the other skills I have been working to improve upon over the past couple years, it feels I should be much further along.

That being said, the experience of working with my team has allowed me to see how others work through this process, try to communicate the value and vision of their idea. In some ways, I think we are all just attempting different things to see what works and what doesn’t. And so every day I am getting new ideas and new insight into how to improve in this area.

So #1 I would like to thank my team for being patient with me in this process. And #2 I look forward to reading this post in a couple months and seeing what insight I might give past me, or someone who may be struggling with a similar problem.

Theory Assignment 2

This week for our Design, Society, and the Public Sector class, we were asked to create a visualization that compared the views expressed about when and how design research should come into the design process, views expressed in 10 articles by 8 authors.

I choose to analyze the approach of each of these authors from two points of comparison. The first being, “Would these authors more advocate for utilizing users perspective in the design process or not?” The second being, “Would these authors advocate for using data from prior research and other fields or analysis of a current product in the design process?”

This task felt especially difficult to me because the question of how and when and where is the best way to conduct design research is one that has stumped me since we began class, and before. However, what these readings revealed to me was that there are clearly differing opinions. Writers like Suri and Le Dantec would advocate for folding in findings from other fields or deferring to those who are experts in a user population during the process. Others like Norman or Forlizzi would advocate for using an existing product as a basis for further design (on or outside that product). Authors like Gaver and Sanders might more advocate for simply observing people in their environment and identifying problems from there.

This exercise has helped me see that there is no way to be completely objective in design as an aspect of personal judgement is involved in every design process. The when and where and how of going about collecting data from users will and (these authors have helped me see) can affect your process. Maybe the aspect of working on teams can help provide checks and balances that make our process as accurate as possible?

Regardless, I have really appreciated the insight of each of these authors and hope to use aspects of their approach in my process at various points.

Importance of Defining Your Values As a (Insert Profession Here)

This weekend I got to spend time with friends. One of them works in content mitigation at a large, well-known tech company, another works as a speech language pathologist, and another just transitioned into a data science role in tech (also at a large, well-known tech company) from finance. My friend who had just transitioned to her role in tech spoke about a shift in expectation from her previous role. Where prior she was given strict guidelines by which to go about certain projects and tasks, now she is essentially being given a goal to reach in respect to a project or task but less guidance on how to attain that goal. “There is a wrong way to do things, ya know?” she said.

The speech language pathologist chimed in and spoke of the many rules she is required by law and insurance companies to follow every day to do her work and expressed her empathy for my recently turned tech friend in the ambiguity of her current job functions. She “couldn’t imagine having to work with that few parameters.” The large company’s content mitigator stepped in and spoke about the strict guidelines she follows at work every day but also the way in which those guidelines change almost daily because of things people like her are asked to speak up in ways that further define those guidelines.

As I listened to this conversation, I considered the thought that the guidelines created by companies and sometimes set in laws were created by a majority of people who collectively decided “what was right.”

I loved my friends idea that, “there is a wrong way to do things,” because I think she is right. However, in the world that we will be operating in throughout this program and after, as we seek to find solutions for problems that are worth solving, there most likely are many or any guidelines at all yet. When you are working to offer a solution to a problem to a large social issue such as homelessness, there has not been even one broad, far-reaching solution created yet. And so it is hard to look to any one thing as an example or a guide for how to best tackle a problem like this. There are books upon books about how to design commands on a computer in a way that is intuitive and ample amounts of books on how to design a chair. But there is not a similar or uniform 3 to 10 step process you can follow to solve problems like homelessness.

I thought about the moments right after my recently converted tech friend had been assigned a task. What did she do first? How did she know to do that? Who did she confer with or ask for help? That led me to imagining the moments when my speech language pathologist friend is working with a client and they do something she has to react to but this time, she is not required to react in a certain way by a law or by an insurance company. And, she has to use her own judgment to move things forward. What are the experiences or is the knowledge she draws from to make a decision in that moment? What data does she refer to to ensure she is making the best decision?

This thought felt reminiscent of a reading we had this week by a famous computer scientist Paul Dourish. He spoke about two different theories of design: positivist theory and phenomenological theory. He spoke of positivist theory being one that “seeks objective, independent descriptions of social phenomena utilizing broad statistical trends and idealized models.” Conversely, phenomenological theory regards “(broad statistical trends) as having no objective reality beyond the ability of individuals and groups to recognize and orient towards them.” Essentially, he is saying that positivist theory asserts that if you add a touch of w, a cup of x, a pinch y, and a dash of z to any design process you will be able to create an outcome that can be tailored to the the individual experience. Phenomenological theory says that you can use w, x, y, and z as guidelines but these may be used in varying amounts depending on the individual AND there are other objective elements at play that need to be considered if the experience will really be tailored to the individual.

This may be a leap but, I wonder if there is a lesson for how to design the way you or I may hope to navigate the world as a professional within Dourish’s distinction of these two theories. In either approach, we have to consider prior theories and all existing guidelines that relate to something we are creating or something we are researching. But if we decide to take a phenomenological approach (and in some ways I would argue we have to because we are humans with biases) then we must consider as well what we know from our own personal experiences or the personal experiences of others and tailor our approach accordingly.

All of this is to say that I feel this past week has given me an opportunity that I am most grateful for in considering how I want to operate as a designer as I move through this program and after. It has given me the opportunity to consider my values and what I will prioritize in the moments when the theoretical bumpers have been taken down from my lane at work.  How will I hope to go about tackling the problems I hope to working towards solving after this program? What will I fight for when I am on a team of people each with varying perspectives? And how will all of this play into making great designs?

Growing Pains

With the close of this week, we have officially completed three weeks of our year here at AC4D. In so many ways, it feels like it has been much longer than the actual 21 days we have been enmeshed in this experience. I feel I have consumed more information than could possibly fit into three weeks (so much that it must have been longer than 3 weeks) and yet we have. And in other regards it feels like much shorter than three weeks. As I look towards the coming year and realize how quickly these three weeks went by, I recognize how quickly this year could pass and the importance of being present and soaking up as much as I am able and then filling in the gaps where needed each day. Those days will eventually add up to the year I have been granted to grow in this program.

In my post last week, I spoke about this feeling of uncontrol or untethered action. I spoke of knowing many truths about myself and my work style but, being thrown into this new situation suddenly, feeling as if I haven’t been honoring those truths completely. I spoke about being thrown a lot of information over the past couple of weeks and feeling like there is a pile of it on a table (some of it is actually physical and some is not) and now I am working to sort through that pile, organize myself in this new context and in the context of what I know about myself. It is a little jarring but exciting and comforting to know that the chips will eventually be sorted into their right place.

This week, along those lines, I want to talk about the content of “what has been thrown at us,” what we have started to learn and what we have been tasked to do.

So far, the major assignments we have been asked to complete are to research and select a business with a social good to their mission, sell that business a service design research study on their business at the cost of $1000, develop a comprehensive research plan and timeline for our work, secure and conduct interviews with participants in our study, read five academic articles on design, find elements of each to compare and contrast, develop a statement on these comparisons and contrasts, create a visual representation of that statement, present this visualization and our process for creating it to a class of our peers, sketch every day for at least 45 minutes, and write blog posts (of which this is one). In a typical business, these tasks would be allocated to various individuals, one being detail oriented, the other being creative, another being process driven and the other being charismatic and sociable. In the “typical business,” we know these divisions of responsibilities get blurred every day. Folks are asked to step in here and there to do tasks that utilize skills that they don’t get the chance to practice every day. But unusual is for one person to be assigned all of these responsibilities at once from the onset.

What happens in this scenario is that each person in our class is inevitably good at one or two things, okay at a handful of things in the middle, and just terrible at another few. And what occurs is a retraining of your brain to attempt these tasks which require skills you may not have honed recently or ever in order to complete an assignment. And despite your efforts it may come out terrible just because you have not had the opportunity to flex the muscles required to do that task.

After spending many years getting validation for what I am good at, being placed in classes and positions at school and roles at work based off of what I am good at, it is fascinating to be asked to complete a tasked and then judged on it based off of what I am not good at.

I wonder what “at the end” of this program that will mean for me, how attempting and reattempting these things will manifest when all is said and done. And I have to imagine the affect will be two-fold: one that I will be better at these things I no inclination of how to do before and; second, that I will be unafraid to jump in on tasks that I haven’t done before and will be able to be be really honest and self aware about my ability to complete such tasks.

I’m not sure though so I will get back to you in about 9 months.

Reading Comparisons

For class this week, we were asked to compare the 6 essays by 5 thought leaders and identify their chief arguments. We were then asked to plot the 5 leaders based off of their chief arguments on a  axis of importance.

I chose to define importance as making a direct argument for how to be a great designer with the other end of the spectrum arguing how not to be as a designer. I found Dewey’s argument most valuable in that sense as it explained the direct affects of positive and negative interactions on an individuals development.

Postman was on the far opposite end of the spectrum because he said we should not focus on the deluge of information in society today in order to identify the “real problems” we should be working on, not clearly stating what we should do.

Writing Comparison

This is It – Michael Jackson

I remember returning to school after summer break the beginning of my senior year of college and for the first time thinking, “I understand how to do this school thing.” After three years of adjusting to college life (i.e. finding and cooking my own food, managing my to-do lists, going through various modes to manage my calendar, etc.), I finally felt that I was on sure enough footing to be able to be deliberate about achieving success and recognizing what caused any failures. For the first time, I was not a chicken with my head cut off bouncing from assignment to assignment to house party to football game to assignment, hoping I landed in the right place. I was deliberately making decisions that would lead to my success and I knew it.

Since graduating, I have only taken that ability and learned it better. I have had to forget and then remember how to listen to advice I am given, to be a conscious contributor to my own decisions, etc. And the truth is I will still have to and will continue to have to be reminded of the truths I know about the world and myself, including what makes me successful.

This first week of school at AC4D was a deluge of wonderful information about design. We were assigned major projects in each of the three courses we are taking. We were had to do research to find a company with a social good mission who would allow us to conduct a service design study on their business. We then had to ask them for $1000. We had to sketch things that were difficult to sketch. We had to read academic articles on design and consider how they apply to our work in this course and beyond. And all of that is not considering the dramatic shift in schedule we are experiencing. It has been a dramatic shift to the kind of problems my brain is considering. It has been a dramatic learning curve full of information I have never encountered. It has been a dramatic shift in having to think through group dynamics more than I have in many years (possibly ever). And right now I feel a little bit like that chicken with my head cut off.

It is an odd sensation approaching an environment like this, knowing you have the capacity to be successful, knowing what your strengths are, knowing what you need to stay afloat, and yet noticing the chaos of the unknown and the new and having to sit with it and be okay with it.

From what I glean, this feeling will not go away for a long time and may not go away for the entirety of the program. But I am excited about the opportunity to chip away at it and be creating processes that allow me to make more deliberate steps towards my success. And I look forward to sharing that experience with and comparing notes with my classmates along the way.

I am excited for this wild ride!


I know that this blog post is supposed to be about design. This is a warning that I am going to start with a divergence because it is what is most on my mind but it’s apt. So, bear with me.

Aretha Franklin passed away today. When I think of her legacy, I first think of her voice and the power it seems to magically transfer to me (and I have to imagine others considering the outpouring over her loss) as a listener. Immediately next though, I think of how that voice was a perfect symbol for the woman, who used her power, her position in the world, her voice, to create change.

My grandmother passed away a little over a week ago. She was my Aretha. She was almost 101 and yet the most physically and mentally able 101 year old you could imagine. She was a housewife up until my grandfather passed away in 1995 and, then, at the age of 80, she started creating, building schools, human resource centers, and public spaces like concert stages and soccer fields. When I struggled to explain what I would be studying in school and worried I may have referred to technologies she didn’t understand, her answer was, “So you are the person who is going to make it easier for me to read the instructions on my pill bottle.” She was smart and witty and had the best business savvy.

I bring these two women up not because they had much to do with all we did in class today. But because these were two women who, beyond convention, changed the world in the creative and unique way they knew how.

Today, after two days of research and synthesizing, we began to narrow in on possible solutions that we could create to improve the way people plan their route to work. And it was hard! We came up with 150 possible solutions to 3 problems and then had to narrow down those options to one.

Clearly there was not a lack of ability to do the work that needed to be done to generate possible solutions. I have tried to hone in on what about the process was so difficult. And, I think at the end of the day the toughest part of the process is the decision making. It has to happen at every step of the way and it feels like one decision could be the end of the world.

But I believe that at least one of the major skills we will hone over the next 9 months will be the ability to make these decisions with a humble conviction, believing in their ability to succeed but understanding it is a risk that may need adjustment or may just fail.

Courage is the word that comes to mind. It seems to be the sentiment I have thought about most this week in relation to class and it seems to be the defining feature of some folks I (and it seems many others) admire most. I look forward to flexing this skill no matter how uncomfortable it may be to make bold decisions that hopefully lead to bold innovations.

The Discomfort of Design

When I think of a good product, I think of products that “feel like they should have always existed.” They always feel like it was an idea I had once but did not pursue. I have not ever really unpacked that or considered what went into creating that as deeply as I did today.

The thing about a good product or a good experience is that it is associated with an emotion. When I go to my favorite coffee roaster, am greeted by the staff (one seeming to be more passionate about coffee than the next), when I am able to smell the variations between the coffees I could buy, hear about their roasting process, I suddenly feel excited about coffee, this thing that was once just a means by which I was able to wake up each morning. And every morning when I brew my coffee I now fondly think about the Tanzanian or the Peruvian or the Rwandan roast I am sipping on and appreciate each subtle note, knowing I will return to my favorite roaster when I run out. That happens by design.

After spending the day yesterday connecting with people about their public transportation use, today we worked to synthesize that information and develop findings. We worked to identify themes in the information we heard. We worked to create insights, or draw conclusions, from our findings. And now we are working on creating solutions, after identifying themed problems and their causes.

There are so many different emotions to feel in this process, the one where in theory you are developing the product or experience that will feel obvious or innate to the user. You must be working on a team and be absorbing input from your team members. After speaking with any more than one individual in user research you will have identified multiple problems and multiple reasons why they exist. Once you have narrowed it down to one problem and one reason it exists, you have to choose one way to fix it.

Our class spoke today a lot about the room of error in all of this. The risk created by the variety of options at each juncture and arbitrary nature of each decision is uncomfortable. I left class today feeling just that way: uncomfortable. It feels there are so many options and can only be one or a few ways to solve a problem in a way that is natural or innate.

That said, I very much look forward to flexing the muscles that allow me to draw conclusions and make these tough decisions confidently over my time at AC4D and feel so grateful for this opportunity to do so.

Getting Our Hands Dirty

Yesterday morning we had a wonderful first class with the brilliant Jon Kolko. He spoke to us about the evolution of design over the past couple of decades. He made an important differentiation between what folks may think when we tell them that we are going to school for design (i.e. a Eames chair) verses what we will actually be learning (to use design thinking to create solutions for problems worth solving). He gave us wonderful examples of products he was a part of creating that changed experiences dramatically at Disney and in universities. This was very valuable to me as I have already struggled to express to people what I am actually devoting 80 hours a week to studying.

We spoke about the importance of understanding the problem you are trying to solve and understanding your user. “You can sit around a table and have ideas all day. But they don’t mean anything until you get out there and talk to someone,” said Jon.

And that is just what we did. We were divided into groups of 3-4 students and given a general topic of public transportation. My team decided to focus on understanding the question of how people plan their route to work. From there, we decided to focus on a specific population: construction workers. We recognized that there was a lot of construction downtown and we wanted to best understand what challenges (if any) construction workers have getting to their sites (or planning their routes) when coming into high-density areas for work.

I was on a team of three and we worked very well together. What felt a little uncomfortable immediately, quickly become very natural to our team as we blurted out ideas of locations to visit, individuals to chat with, and questions to ask. We were able to build off of one another’s ideas and create a great game plan.

Things did not go exactly as planned. We walked onto a site when were not allowed to. We walked into the office of a construction building hoping to speak with someone right away and that didn’t quite work out. But what we did well was create a rapport with the folks we met by having a strong introduction/explanation of why we were approaching them and introducing ourselves. From there I think they were very willing to answer our questions and tell their story.

In short, yesterday was a very invigorating day and our first opportunity to get involved in the design process.

First Day Jitters

My first day of orientation at AC4D is complete and I am humming with excitement. There is so much to look forward to.

Firstly, we are the inaugural class at the new Springdale location. It is a beautiful space within the Springdale General development. Many of the other organizations and businesses that have moved or will be moving into the space have a social good to their mission. It is wonderful to know that we will be surrounded by folks working to make an impact on our world, while we are learning the best practices for designing social impact solutions.

To add, the staff of AC4D have made it very clear that we have the ability to create the culture and work environment of this new space. I am excited about ways that our class can create traditions or processes to be passed down to future cohorts and ways that we can honor and maintain the space.

We had the important opportunity to introduce ourselves to one another yesterday. Each student in our class has had such a unique journey to AC4D and I cannot wait to see how those different perspectives manifest together as we work on group projects and get to know one another better. From journalism to GIS sciences to finance to the education space (like myself!) we have such a broad range of backgrounds. There is no threat that this group will be boring.

We heard from a wonderful panel of alum in the afternoon. The camaraderie that exists amongst this community was immediately apparent. Even amongst these students from various graduating classes, now working in various roles in various industries, supportive words were passed between the bunch very easily and they consistently reinforced that this community supports one another while going through the program and after. This felt like a clear and obvious message: use us (alumni) to help you get through this.

That segues nicely into my last point: this is clearly going to be a very time and emotionally consuming experience but one that can be infinitely rewarding. The alumni made it very clear that these 9 months were not easy for any of them but that when they were able to trust the process and the curriculum and realize that this experience was their own to make of it what they wished, there was no limit to what they could accomplish. I look forward to taking their advice and diving in head first over the next couple of weeks.