Rapid prototyping: one week for usability test and wireframe iteration

The third week of Rapid Ideation and Creative Problem-Solving course (see last week’s post about the initial wireframes) included user testing, information architecture concept map iteration, and revised wireframes.

User Testing

I used the Think Aloud Protocol for the usability tests. The method evaluates the usability of an application by encouraging a person to think aloud as they use the product. By verbalizing their thought as they use the product, I was able to understand what they are thinking as they go about a task. As a person completes a function during the test, I provided one instruction: please keep talking.

Critical Incidents

The usability tests identified several incidents and areas for improvement. In several instances, the low-fidelity of the application seemed to hinder usability testing. Which was quite telling and instructive for me.

The three most critical incidents identified were: viewing and downloading a check; paying an existing bill, and sending a friend money. I determined these as significant since they are primary functions of a banking application. By addressing these areas, it will also improve the fidelity of other wireframes.

Findings: Please Keep Talking


Critical incident: download a cashed check Critical incident: send money to a friend Critical incident: pay existing bill


Information Architecture Concept Map

Due to the low-fidelity of the wireframes, I did not make significant changes to the information architecture concept map this week. The most notable difference I’ve proposed, placement of deposit a check within a new area called Move $, did not cause problems during the usability test.

After further usability tests this week, I will revisit the information architecture concept map.

Information architecture

Revised Wireframes

The most significant design decision I made this week were:

  • Navigation bar. I added two icons: home, and more (formerly called help).
  • Tab bar. I added five icons: Accounts, Move $, Bill Pay, Service, and Products.
  • Home page. The homepage is meant to allow a person to quickly go to their most visited areas of the application. While still under development, I redesigned the table and included preliminary icons for each section. I also designed a prompt for a person to customize the dashboard.
  • Usability test findings. Revisions were made to pay an existing bill, view and download a check, and send money to a friend.

Home and customizationMove $: send money to a friendBill Pay: pay existing billAccounts: view and download a check






Next Steps

My next steps in the project are to continue usability testing, to develop additional screens, and to revise the screens and flow based on critique and testing. My hope is that with the changes made this week, I’ll have a higher fidelity wireframes that are better suited for usability testing. Stay tuned!


Service Design: a team project by Josh Browning, Nicole Nagel, and Scott Reed

We started the Service Design course by hitting the pavement and approaching businesses in East Austin to hire us for a service design project. We contacted a variety of companies, including a sign manufacturing company, a coffee shop, a bicycle shop, an auto body paint distributor, and finally an auto body repair shop.

After a day of recruiting, we decided to pursue the auto body shop, which is a family-owned business operating in its current location since 1954. They have multiple customer interactions throughout their service, and emotions play an intriguing role throughout the repair process.

Our next step was a lunch meeting with the client (and since we’re in Austin, it was a taco truck) to make our pitch and present the proposal. We offered to analyze the client’s existing service delivery and to create and implement solutions to enhance the customer experience. The proposal detailed a 7-week project plan including fieldwork, synthesis, prototyping, and a presentation and report of the findings.

After closing the deal, we developed our research plan and immediately started customer interviews and observations.

Front of House Research Approach

We aim to understand how customers interact with the auto body shop service. Customers will include people receiving estimates, those who have scheduled repair appointments, and those picking up their car at the end of the repair.

Front of house research

Goals and Intent

  • To understand the factors that promote the customer to reach out and then use this service.
  • To understand how the customer perceives the value, and where and how the client provides that value.
  • To understand the frequency and effectiveness of customer communications throughout the experience.
  • To understand customer emotions throughout the experience.
  • To understand the ideal collision repair experience.


We will utilize contextual interviews and participatory methods as the primary tools for gathering qualitative data. Interviews will last approximately 30-60 minutes.

We will observe customers as they experience the service, and then engage select customers as participants. We will ask them about their experiences through design research methods, conducting in-depth interviews to understand the perceptions and expectations of participants who have just experienced a component of the service. Finally, we will facilitate a participatory activity with participants who have completed the entire service to arrive at an image of their ideal collision repair experience.

Key Questions

  • What does the ideal collision repair experience look like to each customer?
  • What aspects of the service does the customer perceive as valuable, and where and how does the client provide or lack that value in their eyes?
  • What is the frequency and effectiveness of customer communications throughout the experience?
  • What are the primary behaviors exhibited by customers getting their vehicles repaired?


Research participants (8-10 in total) will fall across three distinct customer interactions:

  • Participants who are receiving an estimate and have not yet decided to use the service. Key moments to capture: initial arrival and estimate communication.
  • Participants who have finalized a decision to use the auto body shop, have an appointment for repair scheduled and are dropping off their vehicle for repair
  • Participants who have completed the service repair and are picking up their car.

Also, research participants should contain a mix of customers who are passionate about their vehicles and customers who have a functional relationship with their cars (as well as any other critical behavioral qualities that surface through our research).

Back of House Research Approach

We aim to understand how the auto body shop culture and operations influence the customer experience. Vital operational aspects include customer communications, repair planning and execution, and team coordination.

Back of house research

Goals and Intent

  • To understand critical processes and timeline for service delivery.
  • To understand the culture, helping guide what types of changes and recommendations would be well received.
  • To understand the current customer experience from the employees’ perspectives.
  • To understand how the managers and technicians measure customer success.
  • To identify their history with understanding and changing their service offering.
  • To identify the key stakeholders and their interest, role, and responsibilities concerning the service offering.
  • To understand how the client perceives the value they provide, and where and how (specific touch points or moments in time) the service provides value.
  • To understand where the customer experience starts and ends.


We will utilize contextual interviews and participatory methods as the primary tools for gathering qualitative data.

We will observe the front office participants as they engage with customers, insurance providers, rental car companies, and any other entities to understand how they manage the various components of their responsibilities. This will help us gauge moments where the service delivery is not seamless, and where there might be an opportunity to improve the customer experience.

For the technicians, we will observe and probe as they work through their shop duties. This will allow us to better understand the level of work, detail, and skill required to execute their roles, as well as diagnose pain points in their processes. These inquiries will add color to the participatory timeline activities we plan on doing with most of the employees.

The participatory research will consist of 40-70 minute activities with managers. We will conduct a Daily Timeline activity and an activity where they map out their interactions with a specific customer from beginning to the conclusion from their perspective. These participatory activities will allow us to observe their emotions, perceptions, and expectations around the elements of their work, and prompt us to probe where potential opportunities may lie.

Key Questions

  • How does the team describe is the current customer experience?
  • What type of changes has the client made in the past? Why did they make those changes and how were they implemented?
  • Who are the external players involved, and how do they challenge or affect the client’s service delivery?
  • What is the frequency and effectiveness of customer communications throughout the experience?
  • How does the client’s team approach and cater to different client types?
  • Where does the client’s team perceive their customer service as the beginning and ending?
  • How do the employees interact and work with one another?


Participants will include management, and interviews with body technicians, paint technicians, and assistant paint technicians.

Customer journey map in progress

Next Steps

At this point we are about a third of the way complete with the project. We have created a complex customer journey map detailing the end-to-end process, the elements at play in each step, and the breakdowns within particular steps. Our plan moving forward is to complete additional customer interviews to collect more stories and data around the unique elements of the customer journey we have identified during this initial synthesis.

Banking mobile application: scenarios and wireframes

The second phase of the project for Rapid Ideation and Creative Problem Solving course (see a post about the first step) was to craft scenarios, storyboards, and wireframes.

I started with scenarios, written stories, that explain how a person will use a product or service to achieve a goal. Each scenario includes the person involved with a brief background, the person’s starting state/context for where they are using the product or service, their goals (want or need) in using the product or service, and stories that explain how a person uses a product or service to achieve their goals.

I developed three characters across age-bands so that I can better understand different types of customers who use banking applications.

Characters and backgrounds

Allie: A 38-year-old physician at a local hospital. She lives in an affluent Austin neighborhood. Mother of three and balances a busy home/work schedule. Allie uses a computer and smartphone daily.

Timmy: A first-year student at the local university majoring in International Relations. Parents supplement his part-time campus bookstore income with a weekly allowance. Opened his checking account before going away for college. Grew up with technology and got his first smartphone for his 12th birthday.

Connie: A 59-year-old human resources professional at a midsize company in Austin with offices spread across the country. Her first grandchild was born a year ago, and she enjoys visiting them on the East Coast whenever possible.

Sample scenario


 The written stories were helpful for me to understand what a customer might want to accomplish with a banking application, to consider new mobile services, and to develop a list of screens to create.

Scenario to screen mapping

I created several rough storyboards of the written stories to help illustrate ideas and the customer needs. I moved onto sketching wireframes of screens and used Adobe Xd to enhance the fidelity.

Wireframes: deposit check

Sample wire frame: deposit check


Wireframes: view checking account debit transaction

view checking account debit transaction


Wireframes: pay existing account

pay existing account


Wireframes: send someone money

send someone money

My next steps in the project are to begin usability testing, to develop additional screens, and to revise the screens and flow based on critique and testing. Usability testing will be essential to iteration and improving the design.

Banking on a positive customer experience

As part of our Rapid Ideation and Creative Problem Solving course at AC4D, we are redesigning a banking application. We are learning creative problem solving and ideation related to interfaces, such as sketching, diagramming, and both abductive and divergent thinking.

We were instructed to redesign any mobile bank application. Banks throughout the industrial world are finding themselves in the position of closing branches and physical storefronts, as more customers prefer to manage their financial needs online. Modern banking apps can provide customers with practically all of the services they need from account balances, transferring money, and even depositing a check.

I chose Bank of America since I am a customer and use the app several times weekly. I’m somewhat of a bank nerd who still has a moment of amazement when I deposit a check with the application.

Relationships concept map

While I am a customer, I do not have a significant related industry experience to draw on. To learn more, I used a broad list of banking terms (everything from APY, FDIC, to wire transfer) and created a 2×2 matrix. The exercise gave me a better understanding of the relationship between words and ideas. From there, I created a relationship concept map by hand and increased the fidelity with draw.io. The relationship map ultimately helped me build a better understanding of conventional banking products and also how banks make money from those products.

Relationship concept map


Existing screen inventory

With a better foundation, I partnered with a fellow student working on the same bank to develop an inventory of existing screen images and posted them on a wall for easy access as I work on the project. The process of developing a screen inventory increased my knowledge of the existing application. While a regular user of the app, there were several features (some more useful than others) and options that are available to personalize the application that I had never seen before. As part of my redesign, I will plan to make this existing functionality easier to find and access.

[Photo: Mariangela Marin]

Screen Shot 2017-10-30 at 11.27.34 AM


Navigation and information architecture concept map

I created a navigation and information architecture map of the application that included all of the current functionality. I sketched the map by hand on a large sheet of paper and then recreated it with draw.io. The concept map reinforced my initial impression from the screen inventory that there are existing capabilities that are difficult to locate in the current application, such as 20 items in areas titled “menu” of the tab bar, and an area titled “help” in the navigation bar.

Navigation and information architecture concept map, existing


Redesigned navigation and information architecture

From there, I created a redesigned navigation and information architecture concept map for the application. Similar to before, I started with a hand-drawn map and increased the fidelity with draw.io.

In the attached image, I highlighted significant changes in grey. My current thought is to take advantage of an optional dashboard feature by making that standard with the ability for a customer to customize their dashboard with additional shortcuts. With the redesign, a customer will be able to immediately view their account balance, recent transactions, deposit a check, and send money to a friend; and they will be prompted to add custom shortcuts for banking transactions, such as transferring money or viewing spend/budget information.

Redesigned navigation and information architecture concept map


I also plan to take advantage of the tab bar by moving the deposit feature (which has one essential capability) within a new area of the toolbar tentatively named “$ motion” where a customer can deposit a check, send money to a friend, and transfer money between accounts. A new section in the tab bar named “service” is where a customer will be able to access any features related to an existing account, such as ordering a check, managing a debit card, and accessing statements. By creating the “service” category, it will allow for content and features to be in a more intuitive area vs. the existing “help” and “menu” areas of the application.

Based on my secondary research and as a customer, I know that banks use the applications to promote other products and services. The ability to open a new account and apply for a loan is an essential feature of the app. With this in mind (and understanding how product information helps the bank and the customer) I created a new section in the toolbar named “products” for promotional communications, product descriptions, and applications for new accounts and loans. In the existing application, marketing materials and related items are in the “help” section of the navigation bar.

Next steps

My next step in the process is to create scenarios of a person using the application. The scenario development process will lead to a better understanding of the customer goals when using the app. Be on the lookout for more soon about how we might design a better banking application.





Aerial: how might a drone become more than an observer by learning design skills?

In Jon Kolko’s course, Design, Society, and the Public Sector, we have spent the past two weeks reading and discussing articles about how designers think and work. The writers were Richard Buchanan, Nigel Cross, Edward De Bono, Chris Pacione, Horst Rittel, Jocelyn Wyatt, and Melvin Webber.

Design literacy and skills

Pacione, the writer of Evolution of the Mind: A Case for Design Literacy, laid the foundation for discussions by making the case that design can be as important to humanity as mathematics. The work completed by Leonardo of Pisa in the 1200’s enabled people to learn math, which later ushered in the Industrial Age. For Pacione, design is a fundamental human literacy (equivalent to reading, writing, and mathematics) that is required to advance society.

Building off from Tim Brown’s famous quote, “design is too important to be left to designers,” Pacione reasons that design should be “put back into the hands of everyone.” Pacione is not trying to make professional designers out every student (no more so than teaching mathematics turns every student into rocket scientists). He believes that basic design skills like “inquiry, evaluation, ideation, sketching, and prototyping” are within the “cognitive and kinesthetic capabilities” of everyone and will better meet the challenges ahead of us.

Cross, the author of Discovering Design Ability, described distinctive themes of how designers describe their work: the importance of creativity and intuition; the use of sketches, drawings, and models to explore problems and solutions; and “recognition that problems and solutions in design are closely interwoven.” Cross reasoned that design is a discipline and that everyone has design ability (to greater or lesser degree). He reasoned that design ability is a form of natural intelligence and that it should be a discipline of study.

De Bono, the writer of Exploring Patterns of Thought: Serious Creativity, put forth ideas to enable everyone to think more creatively. Recognizing that is not natural to cut across patterns, De Bono created constructs to nurture creative thinking, and to lead to new perspectives and ideas. His techniques included the use of random words as a provocation to disrupt ordinary ways of thinking. I believe that De Bono’s methods are suitable for everyone to use for creative thinking, and especially so when stuck in a paradigm.

I think Pacione, Wyatt, and Cross make the case that design is an essential human skill that can and should be taught as a fundamental human literacy. Our world is changing as technology advances. Two hundred years ago most people worked on a farm. What will they be doing two years from now? Teaching necessary design skills will prepare society for the future—to help shape it and to live in it.

Design by definition

Gaining support to include design within educational frameworks might be difficult. I think Pacione is onto something when he writes that it is critical that we take control of the design narrative by stamping out “popular stereotypes” that design is “merely the act of arranging how something looks” and that innovation simply turns “on in our mind, like a light bulb.”

Even as a graduate design student, it can be difficult to give a concise definition of design. In Wicked Problems in Design Thinking, Buchanan wrote, “design eludes reduction and remains surprisingly flexible.” For Buchanan, design is found in so many places because of its degree of depth and context. Buchanan developed a framework for where we see design: signs (symbolic and visual communication), things (material objects), actions (activities and services), and thoughts (complex systems). Buchanan saw an opportunity for innovation by repositioning items within the framework (for example, taking a product (thing) and repositioning it as a brand (sign) to develop unique product categories.

Rittel and Webber were the first to use the phrase wicked problems. As urban planners, they found that the existing tools of their trade were not enough to solve the dilemma of urban planning because each problem led to another problem. “Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.” An essential point of the article was the importance of problem identification.

In Design Thinking for Social Innovation, Wyatt makes the case that designers are moving away from traditional roles rooted in aesthetics and functionality toward designing solutions to complex problems. For Wyatt, it’s the convergence of design (visual, feelings, intuition) and intellect that creates something new called design thinking. Wyatt stresses that design thinking “relies on local expertise to uncover local problems” as she reiterates the importance of understanding the user’s needs and perspective.

On assignment

The assignment was to identify the author’s positions, sketch a storyline that explains their views, and recreate the sketch in a short video that leverage the unique qualities of the medium to enhance the message.

My story is about a drone, Aerial, with plans to become more than an observer of the world. Using his existing cognitive capabilities, he sets out to learn design as a new skill.

  • From Pacione he first learns about design as a human literacy
  • From Buchanan he learns about a design framework consisting of symbols, objects, actions, and thoughts; this helps him understand the depth and context of design
  • From Wyatt, Aerial is encouraged to continue learning design since he’s uniquely capable of going where design is most needed, and he’s cautioned to be careful with bias
  • From De Bobono, he learns techniques to think differently and cut across patterns
  • From Rittell and Melvin, he learns the importance of problem definition and those complex problems do not have straightforward answers
  • From Cross, he learns necessary design skills like models and begins to use them
  • He also starts to think about himself as a design problem—how might he become more than a drone? His intuition told him that his desire to be more than a drone was essential and that his new human literacy, design, can help him reach his goal.

As the story comes to a close, Aerial has many traits that we might find in a designer (even with Cross’ ordering principle of designers hanging onto ideas because of the difficulty of starting over). The story ends with Aerial positioned to become more than an observer, or consumer, of the world and with a cliffhanger concerning the impact that a drone with design skills might have.

I chose to work with stock footage and photography, which I thought would give me the ability to take advantage of the medium. Ultimately, stock visual items presented constraints. What I had in mind for a scene might have been unavailable, and I found myself swayed by images and videos as I curated them. For example, a camel never made it on my storyboard, but a scene with camels went into the video when I found striking stock footage that evoked the words from the narrative.

Aerial: a drone with plans to become more than an observer of the world

Poverty and social business: implications for design

Unless the world tackles global inequity today, UNICEF reports that by 2030 167 million children will live in extreme poverty, and 69 million children under age five will die between 2016 and 2030. In the United States, 43.1 million Americans live in poverty (2015, University of California, Davis).

As students at Austin Center for Design, we are studying interaction design with an emphasis on addressing humanitarian problems. Jon Kolko, who encourages us to work on problems that matter, recently facilitated discussions about poverty and social business models. Authors included: Christopher Le Dantec, Allen Hammon and C.K. Prahalad, Dean Spears, Muhammad Yunus, and Roger Martin and Sally Osberg.


In Christopher Le Dantec’s paper, A Tale of Two Publics: Democratizing Design at the Margins, he made the case that homeless people are at the margins of society and largely ignored. He wrote about the need to democratize technology—to bring interactive experiences and technology to the wider public, to expand inclusion, and to impact both social and political realms. He described a project in which he co-created a communication platform built with homeless persons and their care providers. Le Dantec pressed that not only should we focus on the marginalized; we should design with (not for) them.

In the second paper by Le Dantec, Designs on Dignity: Perceptions of Technology Among the Homeless, he presented various factors that contribute to a person being homeless. While it’s true that addiction and health issues are factors, a chief challenge for homeless individuals is poverty and available low-income housing. He goes on to discuss the problem of information poverty due to technology access and compounded by lower levels of education and literacy.

I think a common theme throughout the two papers by Le Dantec is the challenge to use technology and design to empower the homeless. These are not silver bullets, yet they can be a rung on a ladder that enables many a homeless person to find permanent housing and rejoin family, friends, and society. If we are going to empower homeless people to improve their lives, it will be a combination of efforts so we should not discount those that do not immediately appear relevant.

Dean Spears, author of Economic Decision-making in Poverty Depletes Cognitive Control, is an economist and his life’s work is around compassionate economics and child health and human development. His report challenged the folk theory about the undeserving poor and their decisions, which may make poor people appear less worthy of help. The results indicate that because the poor make difficult economic decisions every day, such as to eat or to pay rent, it extracts a toll on them. The decision-making process and the choices that the poor have to make are weighty, and the result is that poverty appears to have made economic-decision making more consuming of cognitive control for poor people vs. rich people. Spears reasons that even everyday food decisions are costly and arduous for the very poor.

What can we take away from the Spears research? He reasoned that if we understand how poverty influences decision-making and behavior, it might change policy and how the public views the poor. For me, it challenges my understanding of what it means to be poor and to pull out of it. It also makes the cycle of poverty all the more intractable. To imagine myself, as poor and reasoning if should skip lunch so that I can pay the water bill sounds soul-sucking. Which makes me think that Spears is onto something. Indeed.

Yes, this is depressing. Hang with me.

Poverty. Homeless. Hunger. To pep things up, we read an article by Allen Hammond and C.K. Prahalad titled, Selling to the Poor. There are so many poor people in the world that it’s “the largest untapped consumer market on Earth.” Irony.

The writers make the case that many companies are doing well by doing good. The authors stress that if poor people are not able to participate in the global market, they cannot benefit from it either. Examples include sunscreen that individuals in the developing world can afford, increasing access to digital information, and so on. Similar to Le Dantec, the writers stress the need to understand local circumstances, unique constraints, and that poor consumers challenge practically every preconception.

When I think about AC4D’s mission, it seems like developing products for the overlooked can indeed be a new frontier for work that matters.

In Building Social Business Models: Lessons From the Grameen Experience, Muhammad Yunus, the father of microcredit, provides a case study about three programs offered by Grameen Group. Yunus writes that capitalism may be able “to address overwhelming global concerns” by “formulating a social business model, which require new value propositions, value constellations, and profit equations.” The writers encourage the best of for-profit and non-profit organizations to develop a new type of social business that is self-sustaining and empowering. Yunus found success by challenging preconceived notions and process (such as a bank can’t loan money without collateral) and myths (like poor people won’t repay a loan or can’t be entrepreneurs).

Writers Roger Martin and Sally Osberg, Social Entrepreneurship: The Case for Definition, see the need for a rigorous definition of social entrepreneurship. They begin by dissecting the term and defining the word entrepreneurship as a mix of creativity, drive, and determination to solve specific problems (equilibrium) and they make it more rigorous by saying that to be called an entrepreneur, one must also be a success. If you look at their dictionary for the word entrepreneur, you’ll find an example of Steve Jobs, not the local hardworking, self-employed immigrant running a small shop. It is reminiscent of Jon Kolko’s definition of innovation that I wrote about in an earlier blog post (his qualifier was a market success).

Martin and Osberg see many similarities between the entrepreneur and social entrepreneur, with the key difference being the unsatisfactory equilibrium. For the entrepreneur perhaps it’s a broken process or a disjointed industry. For the social entrepreneur, the focus is an unjust equilibrium that causes exclusion, marginalization, or suffering. Similar to their qualifier for an entrepreneur, the writers believe that to be a social entrepreneur one must have large-scale impact.

On assignment

Our assignment was to identify the author’s way of thinking about poverty. From there, we created a storyline that explains those positions and our perspective.

I chose to use the construct of a fable for my storyline. Fables are an enduring form of storytelling and often use animals or inanimate objects with human qualities, such as the ability to speak (or in my case, dinosaurs with the capacity to run complex financial deals over 65 million years ago). Fables include a moral or a lesson to be learned.

Enjoy the story: Don’t Be a Dinosaur.

Don't Be A Dinosaur

Design research: a reflection on field research and project work

Our team aims to learn about the factors and actors that influence school menu planning. We have an interest in animal-based food products, such as meat, seafood, pork, and dairy. At the start of the course, we learned from an expert with Greenfield Project, whose work includes advocating for sustainable livestock programs, the humane treatment of animals, and working to promote related government policy changes.

We chose institutional food services because it represents a significant opportunity to influence food purchasing and we thought that it might be a meaningful area for Greenfield Project. We narrowed our focus on K-12 school menu planning because of its connection to wicked problems (such as hunger, poverty, and education), and our desire to use design research to immerse ourselves within a specific cultural context.

Why design research?

The primary goal of design research is problem finding. Throughout our fieldwork, we’ve strived to:

  • Understand the various people involved with school menu planning and what they do, why they do it, and how they feel about it.
  • Cultivate empathy with our participants. This is an important component for me: as a married man who has chosen not to have children, as a professional who has spent 20 years in marketing and spending the majority of my time with other professionals, etc. So I have not spent much time before now thinking about school menus, childhood nutrition, etc.
  • Curate stories from our research findings and data to share with others.
  • Document data, artifacts, photos, etc. that will enable us to move into synthesis (problem understanding) at the appropriate time in the course so that we can make meaning from our research.

Our design research has been generative, and we have approached it with a beginner’s mindset. Our research methods in the field included:

  • In-depth and ad hoc interviews
  • Subject matter expert interviews
  • Contextual inquiry
  • Participatory
  • Secondary research

While we are still recruiting and completing interviews, I have a sense that the design research fieldwork has given us: insights to better define the problem and opportunity with school menu planning; inspiration to identify potential areas of opportunity for school menu planning; and, information assembled over a short period so that we can intelligently talk about school menu planning.

About a boy and his baked potato

Throughout our fieldwork, we’ve heard a variety of stories about creating, testing, and managing school menu programs. There are many constraints and limitations (such as federal, state, and local regulations, budget, facilities, staffing, software applications, nutrition, etc.) that people must manage with school menu programs. And of course, a component of school menu planning is children—their food desires, habits, and nutrition needs.

Working within those constraints can be a challenge. Laura (not real name) has been a chef for more than 18-years and has spent most of her career in restaurant and catering kitchens. After starting a family a few years ago, her interests in childhood nutrition took root and grew into her current role as the food services director for a large network of charter schools. She’s responsible for feeding thousands of children breakfast, lunch, and snack, and she manages an annual budget of more than $4M.

Laura loves to develop creative menu items. And for her, creativity means delicious and nutritious food that children will eat, that her staff can prepare within the allotted time and that her kitchen facilities can accommodate. One of her best resources for ideas is the student. It can be a challenge though—sometimes the ideas of students sound simple, but because of constraints she has a difficult time implementing their suggestions.

Once a young boy in first grade had an idea to share with Laura. She could tell that he had been thinking about this question for days (and perhaps weeks) as he mustered the courage to walk up to her and say, “Hi. You work in the school cafeteria, don’t you?” Laura leaned down to make eye contact as he went on, “I love baked potatoes. Why don’t we have them for lunch?” Laura was moved as they discussed the merits of baked potatoes and she learned more about other foods that he likes.

Laura went back to her office and set out to solve a problem: how might she add baked potatoes to the school menu? She goes on to tell us about the quandary: “It’s complicated. Let’s see, first I’ll need to source 2,000 whole potatoes, then wash the 2,000 potatoes, the staff will need to place 2,000 potatoes on cooking trays and bake them for the required time, and then the front of the house needs to keep them warm for serving,” and this list goes on.

It appears too complicated and time-consuming for the school kitchen. Laura seems crestfallen that she’s not able to include the beloved baked potato on her menu. After all, here’s a young student that wants to eat a vegetable and she’s faced with numerous constraints.

Laura’s still thinking about it months and months later: “how can I serve that brave little boy a baked potato?” There were wins along the way. She was able to add another of his suggestions (pizza fingers!). And yet, she’s still thinking about the little boy and his baked potato.

Lessons learned

  • Daily debrief. In class, we learned that daily debrief sessions allow team members to share early observations and highlights from the work they’ve done. During our planning stage, we committed to day-of and worse case, next day debrief sessions. With competing demands and the challenges of time management, we find ourselves with a backlog of debriefing sessions. The next time I will make daily debrief sessions a priority.
  • Preparation, preparation, preparation. We knew that we wanted to talk with students to learn about their experiences with school food programs and knew it would be difficult to get interviews. When an unexpected opportunity presented itself, we had not thoroughly prepared, so we improvised. Improvisation can be our friend and our worst enemy. The next time I will endeavor to be more prepared and practiced.
  • Show me more. During our planning and throughout fieldwork, as a team, we wanted to make data come alive with visual images to help us better understand the problem area and to share with others. We’ve completed several visual images (such as a model of the various actors involved with the problem area and sketches of the school cafeteria), and yet find ourselves with fewer images than we’d like as we near the completion of fieldwork and prepare for synthesis. The next time I will make creating visuals throughout fieldwork a priority.

Value and participatory research: only love and creativity can save the world

Value. It’s a word found across businesses, governments, and other organizations. Everyone is looking to create value or to find hidden value. There’s the value chain. And some industries, such as healthcare with a movement called value-based healthcare, are rebuilding their business models on the concept of value. The top three definitions of value from Merriam-Webster are the monetary worth of something; a fair return or equivalent in goods, services; and money for something exchanged, and relative worth, utility, or importance.

Value has been explored in depth recently in the Interaction Design, Society, and the Public Sector course taught by Jon Kolko at Austin Center for Design. Focusing on the role of research, Jon facilitated discussions centered on value (based on articles by Donald Norman, and Kolko) and participatory design (based on articles by Paul Dourish, William Gaver, and Liz Sanders).

On assignment

Our assignment was to identify the author’s point of view for different ways of doing research and engaging with users. From there, we were instructed to sketch a storyline that explains the positions in a story.

At the end of a recent blog post I asked a simple question: are designers the new superheroes? Since joining AC4D and learning more about the designer role and opportunity, the idea of designers as heroes has come to my mind. Heroes are an interesting archetype and in a world filled with wicked problems, it’s not too far of a stretch to imagine a need for the Justice League—with Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Aquaman, Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter, and Flash—as designers.

Based on feedback from the last assignment, my objectives for the assignment were to go into more depth about the author’s intentions and, importantly, to improve the aesthetics of my Illustrator drawings.


Much like the word value, in chapter four of Exposing the Magic of Design, Jon Kolko recognizes that the word innovation has “crept into the vocabularies of executives….” It’s worth noting Jon’s definition of innovation for product development: “an innovative product is not simply new; it must be new and successful in the marketplace.”

He presents the pressing need for design research (problem finding) and design synthesis (problem understanding). Jon makes the case that design research may describe what to make, how to make it, and how it should feel or look. Jon argues that design research should focus on experiential, emotional, and personal aspects of culture. The goal of design research is to find inspiration for a design project. The goal of design synthesis is to describe the situation and ultimately translate opportunities into specific design criteria.

Jon also speaks to the challenges that designers face. The designer role is multifaceted: a designer should be able to think strategically and to design visuals or other tangible assets that evoke emotion. Designers are now expected to solve a problem and also to decide which problems should be solved. Sounds like a job for Superman!

In Donald Norman’s article, Technology First, Needs Last: The Research-Product Gulf, he puts limitations on what one can expect from design research. Norman contends that the significant technology innovations of civilization came from inventors who invent—not designers who research. “Design research is great when it comes to improving product categories, but essentially useless when it comes to breakthroughs.” As technology is invented and progresses, people discover value and products come second, and later needs.

That’s where Norman sees an opportunity for design research. He argues that ethnographic research can lead to an understanding of human behavior and that leads to uncovering human hacks that will suggest product modifications and improvements. While this limitation may seem narrow, history tells us how “flush toilets, indoor plumbing, electric lighting, automobiles…” were invented—technology revolution led by engineers, scientists, and inventors.

This doesn’t sound like a superhero opportunity!

Norman might not agree with that last statement. He recognizes that small, incremental innovation is the bread and butter of product management and organizations since they can lower costs, add features, make a product simpler and easier to use, solve user problems, and so on. Design research can lead to novel innovations and market success. Incremental innovation can be a slog because new ideas for product innovation are viewed as strange, can be politically unpopular, and they compete for scarce resources within an organization. Designers can help overcome these hurdles by telling stories and promoting value from the participant’s perspective.

Sounds like a job for Wonder Woman after all!

Participatory design

Liz Sanders, a co-author of A Social Value for Co-creation in Design, makes the case that all people are creative and seek outlets for creativity. What if we tap into that creativity to co-design with participants?

Sanders boldly positions that designers should do just that: move from the role of designing for users, to one of designing with users. She argues that co-design should exist across the life of the design process and describes four levels of creativity: doing, adapting, making, and creating. Sanders aspire to a design process that is for the longer-term, more humanistic, and more sustainable.

William Gaver, a co-author of Cultural Probes and the Value of Uncertainty, takes Jon Kolko’s goal of design research, to find inspiration for design, to new heights by embracing interpretation, emotions, uncertainty, and subjectivity. Probes are “evocative tasks meant to elicit inspirational responses from people” that provide designers with inspiration, fodder for storytelling, and hidden information that may or may not be true.

And unlike the superhero Martian Manhunter who can read minds, Gaver’s recognizes and embraces that fact that even with Probes a designer cannot get inside of someone’s head. That’s okay by Gaver. It’s almost as if storytelling and inspiration from Probes activities may have the ability to transform a designer to an artist as they go about creating products and services.

In What We Talk About When We Talk About Context, Paul Dourish argues that context is more than a setting—it’s something people do. As an international computer scientist, he presses the case for ubiquitous computing, also known as context-aware computing. The idea is that “ubiquitous computing proposes a digital future in which computation is embedded into the fabric of the world around us.”

Dourish states that context is critical for understanding activity and information. He goes on to write, “…context and activity are mutually constitutive.” So for the designer, recognizing that context is a feature of interaction is central to our opportunity to understand the meanings that people find in the world and the meaning of their actions.

One last superhero reference. It sounds like Batman must have embraced context-aware computing when he developed his bat suit, the Batmobile, and more!

Designer tips

  • Use immersion perspectives focusing on human behavior to learn about opportunity and potential (Kolko)
  • Watch people (Norman)
  • Design with participants (Sanders)
  • Get inspired by participant’s subconscious (Gaver)
  • Understand context, the connections between context setting and activity, and how it’s constantly changing (Dourish)


As I reflect on the readings, several comments and questions come to mind as I take steps to becoming a designer.

  • Creativity as a high-wire act. Quantitative + qualitative + creative thinking = new and interesting ideas (Kolko). I’m inspired by the idea of designer as artist and research as inspiration for the artist (Gaver). If designers find problems, understand problems, and then take these insights to make things… How will I know when my artistic-side has jumped the shark? When does a designer transform from being a talented artist to one that cuts his ear off? How do I maintain balance?
  • Tell me a story. Throughout the articles, the importance of storytelling and the role of the designer kept coming up. And not just stories to sell ideas, gain empathy, etc. From gathering fodder to create stories, to being effective storytellers, and so on. How might I work to become a better storyteller (and writer of stories)?
  • Technology and design research. I don’t take too much issue with Norman’s argument about the history of civilization and technology. What if inventors and designers worked more closely together? If the goal of design research is to understand culture and human behavior, how might that put technology innovation on steroids?
  • Something new. Valuing co-creation is a shift in my thinking that occurred over the past few years. Before that, I was the typical business executive that thought he knew what our customers wanted… After all, I had been in the business for over 20-years, had worked alongside customers at the beginning of my career, etc. Co-creation is a rich area for design insights and inspiration. How might I include co-creation within my design practice?

Story: Justice League Designers

Value and Research, 1 of 8

Finding focus: are you my mother?

In the Interaction Design Research and Synthesis 101 course at Austin Center for Design, we are learning the methods of qualitative design research and synthesis used to study complex problems, such as technology, behavior, and society. As students, we are learning techniques and processes to gather data in the field, rigorously analyze that data, and gain insights, meaning, and trends.

Getting started and fumbling (in the dark seems harsh, but perhaps) along the way reminded me of the classic childhood book, “Are You My Mother” by P.D. Eastman. A mother bird goes off to find food for her unborn bird. Meanwhile, back at the nest, the egg “jumped and jumped. Until…” the little bird pops into the world and asks, “Where is my mother?” That was the start of the bird’s journey to meet a wide-variety of characters as he asked his burning question, “are you my mother?”

Are you my focus?

After learning our topic area—the value chain of food produced from animals—we strived to determine a focus for our project. In class, professor Lauren Serota highlighted that “focus is the point of view you take while conducting design research. The focus is an active perspective that helps you find the right people and ask the right questions. It’s an anchor for your research.”

Karen Holtzblatt wrote that a project focus is important because “it tells the research team what to pay attention to—of all the overwhelming detail available, what matters for the design problem at hand. Before starting a project, the team defines the problem to be solved, the users who are affected, the relevant activities and task, and the relevant situations and location.”

We used an affinity diagram, multiple iterations, and team discussions to land on our research focus: we aim to learn what factors and actors influence school menu planning particularly around animal-sourced food products.

Are you my problem?

We chose schools because there is an opportunity to make a difference today and tomorrow: institutional food programs represent a significant budget and related choices on how to spend it, and a child’s nutrition and relationship with food may set them on a path for their entire lives.

At this point in the research project, we are beginning to get overwhelmed with the sheer number of key players and influencers we have uncovered. For example, to name just several:

  • Administration: district-level, school principals, and leadership
  • School: teachers, nutrition, and food staff
  • Policy and finance: federal, state, and local government
  • Influencers: activists, NGOs, lobbyists, big money/business, etc.
  • Vendors: producers, suppliers, food commodity program
  • Key relationships: co-op procurement, nutritional associations

Our completed and pipeline interviews primarily draw on administration, school staff, and parents (and students) for contextual interviews, and influencers and vendors as the subject matter expert interviews.

As we begin to develop a plan to integrate participation design methodology, we find ourselves asking an important question: who is our customer? Due to the nature of the learning situation, we did not wrestle with that question earlier, so we have a luxury of being our customer. For our purposes, one could say that the customer—that we might co-create a solution with—is the food/nutrition staff such as the food director and executive chef whose roles are deeply embedded with school food services. With our broad list of factors and actors, the customer could be anyone.

You are not!

I find myself wondering if better criteria and focus would have helped the bird find his mother sooner. He spoke with cows, construction equipment, dogs, and more. At the same time, what would he have missed if he only asked animals with feathers? With that said, to understand the factors and actors of such a complex ecosystem like school food programs, a funnel type approach where we start broad and then quickly narrow might be the best approach.

“Yes, I know who you are,” said the baby bird. “You are not a kitten. You are not a hen. You are not a dog. You are not a cow. You are not a boat, or a plane, or a Snort! You are a bird, and you are my mother.”

Suspending judgment and embracing ambiguity is important as we try on the design researcher role. The questions we ask. The questions we learn over time to ask. Who we ask. Who we do not ask. Tossing the discussion guide aside as our curiosity is sparked in the moment. Our research focus continues and what we learn along the way is important for our project and our educational journey to becoming designers.

Ethically positioning design and society: manipulation and globalism

Over the past two weeks in the Interaction Design, Society, and the Public Sector course we focused on design ethics and responsibility. Jon Kolko facilitated a discussion about manipulation (based on articles by Maurizio Vitta, John Dewey, and Edward Bernays) and globalization (based on articles by Michael Hobbes, Victor Margolin, and Emily Pilloton).

Background. Our assignment was to identify the author’s point of view to ethically position design in society. From there, we were instructed to sketch a storyline as a comic strip that explains the positions in a story.

I chose to work with the construct of a fairy tale for storytelling. The medium seemed relevant since some elements of a fairy tale are vehicles to express design ethics and responsibility. There’s royalty (a designer who lives in a tower removed from those that he designs for); a village with people trying to get by (representing the developing world in most need of social impact design); a dragon (symbolizing design initiatives that are unconnected and with a scale too big to succeed); and universal truths (hopes to make a mark in the world).

The fairy tale designer first struggles with lack of empathy and understanding due to living in a tower and separating himself from the villagers. Once he overcomes that obstacle, he does not have an easy path to becoming an ethical and responsible designer.

Mindful Manipulation. Manipulation requires skill and often is to the benefit of the manipulator. A definition of manipulating is to manage or influence skillfully, especially in an unfair manner. An example might be to manipulate people’s feelings.

Edward Bernays reasoned that public opinion could be manipulated to become champions of ideas, causes, and products. Bernays argues a moral obligation to shape public opinion thereby advancing new beliefs, ideas, etc. Many might describe PR in softer language, such educational and an attempt to raise awareness about an important topic. An example that comes to mind is LGBTQ perception and role in society. My reality as a gay man is light years away from what I thought it would be when I was growing up. Much of this can be attributed to a comprehensive campaign to shape public opinion.

Even with this understanding of the power of PR, manipulation is inherent in PR. The same can be said about design. Designers should operate a mindful manipulation framework.

Maurizio Vitta radically steps away from the traditional thought of design as form and function. He focuses on a consumer-oriented society by which people express their identity through consumption. Products become semiotics, and their sole purpose is to signal identity to others. My Fitbit becomes a signal to others that I value exercise and wellness. Vitta reasons that the role of designers becomes equally trivial and superficial.

Manipulation comes to mind with John Dewey’s writing of the importance of continuity of experience over time to reify identity. Experiences and continuity can be limiting and arrest a person’s identity/character.

Globalism. Turning to globalism, Emily Pilloton makes a passionate argument for designers to work locally, to be embedded in the community, and to “hold a personal stake in the community.” Uninterested in building a robust portfolio of unrelated small projects (which she calls planting trees), she advocates for a mission driven approach in which designers “…cultivate ecosystems rather than plant single trees.” She goes on to describe, “…multiple initiatives within one community become an ecosystem of projects (multiple trees, shrub, and moss) that feed off each other and support each other symbiotically.” Pilloton takes empathy a step further by stating the case for empathic investment where a designer “must genuinely identify with the community and consider ourselves part of it….”

Michael Hobbes makes the case that big ideas (with lots of money behind them) often go bust because we presume that what works in one place will work in another. His example is the PlayPump, which worked to bring clean water “every time the kids spun around on the big colorful wheel…” in rural sub-Saharan Africa. One success over a short period resulted in worldwide media attention and millions of dollars to install PlayPumps across Africa. Without testing the service more and understanding the local needs, the pumps were “…abandoned, broken, unmaintained.”

Hobbes lambasts the “paradigm of the Big Idea—that once we identify the correct one, we can simply unfurl it on the entire developing world like a picnic basket.” He goes on to state that “the point is, we don’t know what works, where, or why. The only way to find out is to test these models—not just before their initial success but afterward, and constantly.” The pressure NGOs and others involved in development are under pressure to deliver big, not to build on a small success incrementally, similar to companies that chase quarterly profits for the sake of so much more.

Victor Margolin presents two world models: equilibrium (where the world consists of ecological checks and balances with finite resources) and expansion (where the world is reduced to markets instead of nations and cultures). Margolin writes that designers have the skills to work at the convergence of the two models.

Reflection. After being accepted into the AC4D program, I started to read about the courses in more depth. The first assignment I read was the one that I am about to finish. At the time, perhaps only 4-6 weeks ago, it provoked anxiety: from not being comfortable with sketching to being unfamiliar with Illustrator to learning and discussing theory and so on. And here I am now—the first assignment complete. Sketching felt better than I thought it might and basic Illustrator lessons (and peers) were helpful. It’s a good feeling. With that said, I now have anxiety about my ability to synthesize theory. A new challenge!

As I reflect on the readings, several questions come to mind as I take steps to becoming a designer and learning more about the designer role, responsibilities, and opportunities.

  • Are designers the new hero? If so, what are the pitfalls and how to avoid?
  • How do I manage manipulation that is inherent in design?
  • What degree of empathy is required to be a successful designer for humanitarian causes?
  • What does it mean to identify with a community and maintain objectivity?
  • What are the limitations of proximity and empathic investment constructs?
A fairy tale comic strip about ethically positioning design in society.
A fairy tale comic strip about ethically positioning design in society.