Stories from the Field: PeopleFund

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For the past three weeks, my classmates Zina, Vickie, and I have been working with a nonprofit called PeopleFund. PeopleFund is a nonprofit that creates economic opportunity and financial stability for underserved people by providing access to capital, education and resources to build healthy small businesses. Inspired by their mission statement, we wanted to learn more about how they are helping entrepreneurs and small businesses succeed.

Through contextual inquiry, we learned about the experiences of both PeopleFund’s clients and the employees of their Education team. Through interviews ranging from one to two hours, we learned about what brought them to PeopleFund and their experiences working there. These interviews helped shape our research focus: to understand how PeopleFund guides and educates entrepreneurs who are looking to start their businesses. Our goals were to 

  • understand how PeopleFund’s culture supports entrepreneurs’ growth,
  • understand how PeopleFund helps entrepreneurs make sense of and navigate the business landscape, and
  • understand clients’ expectations and how the service aligns, challenges, and influences them.

We spoke with six PeopleFund employees and four users. Our users ranged from Jonas, a software developer and IT expert who is launching his own franchise, to Agnes, a UX designer working to help low-income populations eat healthier. Each user was unique, and sought out PeopleFund for different reasons, but all made use of PeopleFund’s Bloom Lab, which is one of the cheapest co-working spaces in Austin.

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Jonas is one entrepreneur who works with People Fund. They have helped him prepare for the grand opening of his business, sending out marketing emails and promoting on social media. They even designed his flyer. He is glad they can help him in these areas, because, as a self-proclaimed introvert, he knows that networking and connecting with people will be his biggest challenge.

Jonas works regularly out of the Bloom Lab space. “When I come in and start working, I am able to get my things done, no problems. Facilities are pretty good, so I never have problems with coffee or microwave, water or anything,” he told us. And the staff is very responsive. “It’s very easy to access them,” he says. “If they’re not here physically, they respond very well to emails pretty quickly… I get responses right away.” Granted, the space isn’t perfect—he laments the lack of privacy for phone calls or one-on-one meetings. This is a complaint that we heard from many users. In addition, he often wishes he could enter the building outside its 9:00-6:00, Monday-Friday hours. He finds that he often wants to work on weekends—a common attitude among the entrepreneurs we spoke with.

“I was like, oh my god, dear god, people show up,” Brandi told us, recalling in fear. “I don’t know if we had any workshops that had zero people, but we definitely had some that had like, two or three.”

Although the space is only open during those hours, many PeopleFund employees work long after the doors close. “If I could have my cats here, and a slightly less formal dress code, I would just live here” an employee named Gina commented. Work-life balance, like at many nonprofits, can be a struggle, but there is a genuine desire to help people, no matter the costs. “I care about that [these] people,” said another employee, Lena. “So if they want to stick with it, and they’re willing to work, and they don’t make themselves really unpleasant to work with along the way, heck, I’ll stick with them forever.” Many entrepreneurs are referred to the organization by the city of Austin, and PeopleFund provides them with six hours of free business coaching. However, if a client is making progress, they can provide more hours, and they often do. “They typically can’t go over the six hours, but we might still work with them anyway. And for some people, we’ll just ask and vouch and say they’re still making progress,” another employee tells us. “We still want to meet with them.”

In addition to one-on-one advising services, PeopleFund hosts workshops across the state. They offer various educational curricula, and they frequently partner with banks to promote financial literacy and help small businesses get off the ground. Running these workshops can be challenging, as there is often limited lead time, and conflicting priorities sometimes lead to what one employee described as “oversaturation” of workshops. This, combined with limited time for promotion, sometimes leads to poor attendance.

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“I was like, oh my god, dear god, people show up,” Brandi told us, recalling in fear. “I don’t know if we had any workshops that had zero people, but we definitely had some that had like, two or three.”

Balancing between the demands of events and clients’ individual needs can be tough. We learned that city of Austin clients are asked to rate PeopleFund’s services, which leads to a culture of fear and makes it difficult for staff to prioritize their time. “If I’m not as responsive as they’d like me to be, they can rate me a 2 versus a 10,” Marcia informed us. “So it’s like, you have to really be on it at all times.”

As at many nonprofits, responsibilities blur, work hours can be long, and limited finances add stress. Space is limited at the Bloom Lab, and this causes scheduling difficulties for both clients and employees. However, these pains are common for organizations that have seen such rapid growth. As Gina remarked, “When I started here, we all worked downstairs in the bottom corner of one building. We didn’t even heat or air condition parts of our building, because we were so small. And to see what this has become…” Her pride was unmistakeable.

We presented our finding to PeopleFund this morning. Many of the insights were not surprising to them, but they were pleased to see their users were happy with the facilities and the services they receive. They acknowledged a potential need to be more proactive with clients in offering services, but the difficulty of balancing that with their other demands is a challenge that will need more nuanced consideration. They also acknowledged the space constraints, and hoped we might be able to provide some insights at a later date to better address the situation.

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Most of all, they were pleased to hear the stories of their users. When we told them how Jonas had started his business as a way of giving back, they nodded in agreement. PeopleFund provides critical services for those looking to start small businesses, but its ethos and culture fosters a particular audience: one that aims to help the underserved. PeopleFund supports those who don’t otherwise qualify for lending from major banks, helping all who are interested in pursuing the “American Dream,” no matter their financial background. Many of the employees who work there have seen business failure firsthand and felt the effects of failed businesses on their parents and families. And many, like Jonas, have come from modest beginnings and now have the ability to start businesses that aim to help others.

PeopleFund’s Education team is critical for providing the information necessary to find business success. “You know, a lot of people are like, ‘Oh, I could do business,’ because that’s like the American Dream, right?” Marcia told us. “I can own a business. It’s so easy,” she said, explaining a typical client’s rationale. “But I don’t think people realize the maintenance that you [have to] have on how to sustain yourself.”

More information on our interviewees can be found here.

What Does a Designer Do? A Rumination on Magic

Ask what a designer does, and you’ll get a million different answers. This is apparent every time someone asks me what I’m studying here at AC4D. Is it like graphic design, or UX? What are we designing, and for whom? I tell them I perform research into human behavior and provide insights into how to improve systems, interactions, and general human experience. Their eyes glaze over.

The public writ large may not know what we do, but designers working in the field do—right? Well, it depends who you ask. There is general consensus that designers should work with users, and the field of interaction design rests on this tenet. But what does it mean to work with users, and how?

Jodi Forlizzi writes that “Designers understand, explore, and create based not only on data in the world, but also intuitive judgment.” This is a common belief among designers, but her approach to gathering data is unique. Her Product Ecology framework encourages designers to study products and how users interact with them to understand human motivation and behavior. This demonstrates an archetypal “designing for users” mindset. Her research may involve users, but, ultimately, it is the designer’s “intuitive judgment” that reveals new methods to better serve the user’s needs.

This “intuitive judgment” is something like magic, and Forlizzi embodies what I call the “Designer as Magician” approach. Many designers believe that we should interview users and test our solutions with them, but that  designing should be done by those who wield the magic. Jane Fulton Suri, who espouses corporate ethnography and experience prototyping, adheres to this notion. Don Norman, who believes designers mostly add incremental improvements to existing technology, adheres to this approach (he just doesn’t find the magic to be very impressive). And Chris Le Dantec, who understands the importance of designing with users, nevertheless holds the designer at a remove. His understanding of different publics, a concept he borrows from John Dewey, belies the idea that the designer can flit between communities at will and impart their magic skills.

On the other side of the spectrum is the “Designer as Organizer” approach. In this view, everyone can and should be involved in the design process, on a more or less equal footing with the designer. It is the designer’s job to bring those people together and help them organize their creativity and insights. This will allow them to direct the design process in a way that truly addresses their needs and values.

Liz Sanders is a strong proponent of this approach. She assumes that all people are creative and, given the chance, can contribute to the design process. Thus, she supports co-creation, especially as a means of generating social value.

Paul Dourish takes this one step further, arguing that, because every user’s context is unique and in constant flux, we must create tools that allow for user input and individual user design whenever possible. Bill Gaver, meanwhile, has his own approach wherein he gives participants creative prompts to generate insights into their attitudes and behaviors. This process, which he calls “Probology,” is used to generate unique designs that are more the result of creative play than research.

Finally, we have Jon Kolko, the founder of AC4D. His book Exposing the Magic of Design lends its name to the dichotomy presented here. Does Kolko believe that design is a form of magic? And when you expose the magic, does it cease to exist?

What Does a Designer Do? diagram

In the above diagram, I’ve placed Kolko in the “Designer as Organizer” category. He certainly believes that designers have a special skill, so it was difficult to place him here. Input from our class discussions—specifically his advice to continually solicit feedback and invite users to evaluate our themes and insights—has inspired me to place Kolko toward the “Designer as Organizer” pole. In addition, by arguing for the strategic incorporation of stakeholder buy-in, he shows attention to the need to organize public opinion (and corporate opinion) around a designer’s work.

Still, Kolko’s approach to design, despite incorporating users’ feedback, bears the hallmark of some of our other corporate-minded designers, including Norman, Fulton Suri, and Forlizzi, who ultimately argue that a designer must create something for someone at the behest of someone else. This mental hierarchy inspires me to place him toward the “Designing for” position—a somewhat surprising conclusion, given the fact that we are taught at AC4D to design for social good.

But I guess we’re not taught to design with social good, are we?

What is the designer’s responsibility to society?

At AC4D, students are taught to design for social good. The ethics of designing in practice, however, can be complicated.

To learn more about ethics, we read the work of five theorists. Not all practiced in the field of “design,” but all expound design principles and their impact on society. Edward Bernays wrote about manipulation of public opinion, for example, while John Dewey wrote about education. Both discuss the importance of shaping attitudes and behaviors and techniques for doing so, and their theories are critical to the practice of design. Both also wrote about the importance of working for social good, although they touch only lightly upon the subject.

These theories have been incorporated into the field of contemporary design and are reflected in the writing of designers like Maurizio Vitta. Vitta takes the conception of design and melds it to the theories of Jean Baudrillard to discuss the importance of the object for mediating social relations. Objects are not just used for practical purposes, he writes, but are used to convey status and convey meaning that undergirds societal interactions. Vitta expands the scope of design and accordingly expands the sense of responsibility for the designer. Therefore, he holds greater importance to the study of design ethics, encompassing a broader understanding of the ramifications of the work.

The final two theorists we read were Victor Papanek and Neil Postman. These two represent two polarities of our understanding of design’s impact on society and the designer’s consequent responsibility. Papanek understands design to be all-encompassing and the designer’s responsibility therefore to be of utmost importance. He believes ultimately in the power of design to improve society. Postman, on the other hand, believes that design creates winners and losers and that our focus on relentless improvement has led to an incoherent society that does not actually make people better off. He does not seem to believe that design improves society.

Social responsibility scale

I have created a social responsibility scale to capture each theorist’s conception of the scope and ramifications of design and their explicit commitment to social responsibility. At one pole is Papanek, who believes most in design’s power and most understands the designer’s responsibility. At the other pole is Postman, who, through his cynicism, advocates a near abdication of responsibility. In between lie Dewey, Bernays, and Vitta, who each present different components of design theory, with concomitant commitments to social responsibility and, consequently, importance.

AC4D Orientation: Complete

Today marks the last day of AC4D Orientation. I entered the week thinking things would start off nice and slow—we’d get to know each other, talk about the courses we’d study, some overview of topics, maybe a brief introduction to the skills and techniques we’d be learning. We did do all of that, but it wasn’t slow. It was a deluge.

On Tuesday we went out and spoke to ten food truck workers to learn more about the process of cooking in a food truck. We only barely put together a focus statement, so our interviews felt somewhat aimless, although we took in lots of interesting information. I thought for sure we would have trouble getting food truck workers to tell us about their jobs for 10 minutes during peak lunch hours, but everyone was surprisingly open. A German man named Karl sat down and told us all about his experience cooking doner kebabs for Americans. Alejandra invited us into her kitchen to show off her Honduran food, and Jose gave us some free samples as he told us about his Puerto Rican cuisine.

Afterward, we transcribed our interviews, separated our utterances (interviewee quotes) by idea, and looked for inferred likeness between utterances that we would use to create connecting statements that illustrate underlying themes in the nature of their work. This was difficult work! All of our interviewees talked about similar things, but many of our connecting statements felt like “red trucking”—making obvious statements based on similar facts that were mentioned by multiple parties (e.g., “space in food trucks is constraining”). Jon let us know that these statements were, as he put it, weak. He was right.

In the end, we managed to put together four themes, and were then tasked with creating 300 insights—statements including an inferred observation and, most importantly, a provocation. The provocation is key: a suggested course of action that, if our inferred observation is true, could upend typical behavior and result in new ways of working that are more efficient or more beneficial for those involved.

Creating provocations is hard. Not all of our not-quite-300 insights included provocations. A lot of them felt like suggestions to do things that smart food trucks already do. But a few of them, such as our rental system for cooking equipment, felt like it could genuinely improve food truck workers’ lives, eliminating hours of work from their day and reducing the capital needed to get their business off the ground. Everyone uses equipment. But does everyone need to own and maintain their own equipment? After so many hours of painstaking thinking, the insight felt revolutionary and rewarding.

We then received introductions to drawing and the Sketch tool. I will need to brush up on my skills with both to ensure effective communication of ideas. As a writer, I know that visual communication is both extremely important and something that I have weakness in, so I look forward to developing this ability.

Having taken a couple interaction design courses previously, much of this week’s activity felt like an in-depth refresher as opposed to something brand new. However, I know there is still much to learn—and argue about. While brainstorming insights, Jon pushed our group to hold divergent ideas simultaneously in our heads, pushing us to explore extremes so that we can best come up with new perspectives. In one instance, this involved exploring some very uncomfortable possible “solutions.” I look forward to further studying the ethical dimension of this work, as it’s clear that it will be of key importance if we are truly to use design to transform society for good.