A+ Federal Credit Union Mobile App: Mapping the current system

In my first attempt to visually map the interactions of a mobile application – in this case, my A+ Federal Credit Union mobile app – I was astounded by the number of interaction possibilities embedded in what otherwise appears to be a simple banking app. Doing multiple iterations of the drawings allowed me to have a better understanding of how the user moves through the app, as well as provoking thought on how I might go about redesigning the app to make it more intuitive.

A+ FCU Mobile Banking App Navigation Structure
A+ FCU Mobile Banking App - Detailed 'Transactions' Navigation
A+ FCU Mobile Banking App – Detailed ‘Transactions’ Navigation
A+ FCU Mobile Banking App - Detailed 'Services' Navigation
A+ FCU Mobile Banking App – Detailed ‘Services’ Navigation

Recycled Reads: Mapping Service Slices

THE MAPPING PROCESS

Our design team – Susi Brister, Adam Niederpreum, and Kelsey Greathouse – has been working with Recycled Reads, a used bookstore that’s a branch of the Austin Public Library system. They sell both ex-library materials and donations accepted from the public. In the early stages of our research, we interviewed 24 research participants in various roles at Recycled Reads, the Austin Public Library, and the City of Austin, and accompanied them while doing their daily jobs. From this research, we recorded approximately 25 hours of audio interviews, which we then transcribed.

From the total hours of transcription, we selected 2 hours across 6 participants to map into service slices. The purpose of creating service slices is to focus on what happens within a service during a particular moment in time, but intentionally separate that moment out into 4 separate diagrams – one diagram each for:

  • Behavior & Information Exchange
  • Power, Policy, Influence, & Emotion
  • Artifacts found in the environment
  • Diagram of the environment

Mapping actions, feelings, objects, and environment separately allows us to separate each from the other, and examine how these interact and affect each other. The service slices allow us to make sense of a complex system by pulling layers of that system apart.

SETTING A TEAM LEARNING INTENTION

We’ve had the feedback that as a team (and individually), we tend to be product-focused rather than process-focused. This has been beneficial to us because we have been working toward the goal of crafting our client presentations alongside the methods and research that support that presentation.

But has also caused, at times, less emphasis on the process itself – so the underlying work and synthesis itself has been minimized in favor of the presentation of a small portion of that work, rather than flushing out the research more fully before starting on the presentation.

This time, our assignment spanned the week break of school between Quarter 1 and Quarter 2. Since we had no classes to attend and no other assignments due, we challenged ourselves to take the necessary time and attention to focus on a more thorough, rigorous process and think less about any final structured outcome.

To accomplish this, we worked together in conjunction as a team, making sense of our data, but also making sense of the new methodology, leveraging each other’s perspectives to work through the complexity of the assignment.

SERVICE SLICE DIAGRAMS

Mapping the service slices was time-consuming and challenging, particularly  teasing apart what people were doing (Behavior & Information Exchange) and what they were feeling about what they were doing (Power, Policy, Influence & Emotion), largely because the latter required a degree of interpretation. While what people were doing was somewhat obvious and factual, the power, policy, influence, and emotions that surrounded those actions were not directly expressed.

Although we only used 2 hours of transcription for our maps, they became complex and chaotic very quickly. With one glance, it becomes clear how interconnected behaviors and emotions are within an organization. We made several iterations of our diagrams to help us better understand those connections, while retaining all the data from the transcripts.

IMG_20181019_125531508

When we finished mapping our environment diagram, we realized that most actions within Recycled Reads happen at the front desk, and in the very back room of the store. This is represented visually by a huge absence of artifacts in the blank middle space. For our final iteration of our service slices to present to our client, we decided to reintegrate some specific interactions from all four maps, effectively collapsing them again to a single diagram, but with much greater simplicity and focus on a few key areas. To reinforce the two discrete areas of action within the store, we mirrored that spacing visually in our final composite service slice diagram to present to our client.

Our 'Environment' service slice diagram of Recycled Reads
Our ‘Environment’ service slice diagram of Recycled Reads illustrates most actions taking place at the front desk and the back room.
Our final hand-drawn iteration of the re-compiled service slice diagram visually echoes the interactions in the physical environment.
Our final hand-drawn iteration of the re-compiled service slice diagram visually echoes the interactions in the physical environment.

FINAL DIAGRAM: INTERACTIONS AND AREAS OF OPPORTUNITY

When presenting our service slices to Recycled Reads, we wanted to focus on two key opportunity areas that we uncovered through this process, one in the front of house and one in the back of house. Although we aren’t going deep into problematic issues at this stage in our overall process, we wanted to bring up these two areas for initial discussion and to lay the groundwork for our next presentation, when we will be discussing problem areas in more depth.

The main artifact we identified in the front of house as an area of opportunity is a scale located at the front desk that is used to weigh customer book purchases when they leave the store. Because Recycled Reads’ primary purpose is to divert used library materials from the landfill, they keep track of the weight of those materials as they leave through the front door, and report that to the administration at the Austin Public Library. What we discovered through mapping out service slices was that even though the scale performed a very important role in their service, it was not addressed in the customer interaction in any way. Customers weren’t aware of what was happening with the scale, nor of its importance in the role of carrying out Recycled Reads’ mission. Moreover, we discovered that several other side tasks are undertaken by staff at the front desk that may be disruptive to their role as the primary customer-facing staff member of the store.

In the back of house operations, we also identified an artifact that was influencing behavior in different ways, depending on the individual staff member or volunteer. Ex-library books and public donations are sorted in the back of house into books that are kept to sell in the store, and those that are sent downstream to another repurposing partner. A major part of this sorting process is a set of criteria determined and revised as needed by the manager of Recycled Reads, which is referred to as a sorting chart. The chart defines, by category (or genre) of book, how recently published a book must be and what condition it must be in to be kept for resale or not.

A volunteer points out the sorting chart in the back room at Recycled Reads.
A volunteer points out the sorting chart in the back room at Recycled Reads.

Through our service slice mapping, we discovered that one staff member was aware of the sorting chart criteria, and sometimes used it to determine what books he kept and what books he didn’t. On many occasions, though, he would override those criteria and instead base his judgments on his own personal criteria, whether that be personal preference and censorship, or a knowledge of current book-purchasing trends. An air of autonomy in one’s job is present at Recycled Reads, and this particular staff member embraced that with gusto.

On the other hand, a volunteer doing the same sorting job used the chart very differently. Not only did he rely heavily on the sorting chart criteria but expressed that he felt he would always do so. Moreover, there were times for him when the chart wasn’t specific enough, and he required the input of the manager or other librarian staff members for an ultimate decision. Where the staff member sorting books reveled in his ability to make autonomous judgments, this volunteer felt more of a struggle with some of the ambiguity.

CLIENT REACTION

The three full-time staff members at Recycled Reads that we presented our service slice diagrams to were impressed by the complexity that the initial, chaotic maps illustrated, and commented that they couldn’t believe so much was happening in their space. They appreciated the more focused version that illustrated the single front of house and single back of house areas of opportunity.

The issue that emerged with the scale at the front desk was appreciated but did not have as much impact as the map showing the varying usage of the back of house sorting chart, which was discussed with enthusiasm. The manager mentioned that she had begun to recently pick up on a few hints that there was something to be addressed, but our diagrams brought some clarity and definition to what was just beginning to be recognized. We discussed the dichotomy between autonomy and structure and she expressed a burgeoning reflection that she herself may have moved away from the sorting chart and was not being an appropriate role model for staff and volunteers.

NEXT STEPS

We have completed our service slices and are working to finish up identifying behavioral and attitudinal patterns from our collected transcription data. In combination, these patterns and our service slice diagrams will point us toward creating insights – provocative statements about behavior – that can be presented to our client as the basis for addressing distinct areas of opportunity at Recycled Reads.

More Talking, More Doing

LESS TALKING, MORE DOING

Less Talking, More Doing has become a de facto school motto here at AC4D. At some point early in our first week, an alumnus mentioned that we would hear this during the year frequently from our teacher Jon Kolko in the course of our group work. Although I have yet to actually hear the command directly from him or any other faculty member, it is nevertheless referenced persistently in our space as if gospel from above. Like other dogmatic expressions, it is now both overused and misused out of context, much to my dismay.

The phrase, as told to us by the alumnus, was uttered originally by Kolko as a directive intended to keep team dialogue from spinning into unproductive territory. There is a propensity in group work of all kinds, particularly when dealing with a multiplicity of viewpoints, to become stuck in a back and forth volley of ideas, leading to inefficiency and wasted time. The answer to this, as the motto would suggest, is to stop the vicious spinning in place and either visualize something concrete or find another way of moving forward – usually by undertaking some form of task (making something, however small). I wholeheartedly agree with this situational need and use of the phrase.

VERBALIZATION IS VALUABLE

However, there has been some misuse of this phrase outside of this original context. The problem with less talking, more doing is that it introduces a hierarchy in which talking is less valuable than doing. While there are times that is true, as described above, it’s not an appropriate or applicable value judgment all of the time. For example, in our theory class, Design and the Public Sector, we read theoretical texts and then discuss them both in small groups and as a class. This is beneficial because it helps to clarify one’s own understanding as well as opening up a dialogue of possible interpretations by others, leading to a broader appreciation and perspective on topics as a whole.

Additionally, anyone who has ever taught anything, whether formally or informally, or has had to give a verbal presentation knows that at the point where you have to present your knowledge to someone else, you quickly discover how much you actually know about that topic. Being able to verbalize something clearly reflects one’s own understanding. This can be a useful tool in the learning process, in which the attempt to verbalize something can shed light on the gaps in personal knowledge.

There are applicable parallels to be found in a collaborative team context. Collaborative verbalization can bring up valuable alternative viewpoints, as well as indicate gulfs in understanding. Unfortunately, what I’ve observed and experienced in group work recently is that verbalization has been shut down, using the less talking, more doing motto as a justification to undermine dialogue. I’ve also witnessed classmates remove themselves from fruitful discussions in order to ‘do’ something on their own, despite it fracturing the momentum of group progress. The more doing part of the phrase  in this context is interpreted as the idea that doing something individually is more valuable than talking about something all together as a group.

MORE TALKING, MORE DOING

Healthy discussion deserves an equal place at the table. I don’t reject the value of visualization or the act of making, but I caution the blanket dismissal of dialogue in favor of making in every situation. The most productive group work sessions that I have experienced have married the two; when dialogue can include some form of externalization of ideas, be it lists or drawings, I’ve seen the most progress take place. We need to be cognizant of the roots of the phrase, less talking, more doing as an instruction intended to combat inertia and to instigate forward progress, and to change the phrase in other contexts to the motto more talking AND more doing.

When visualization of ideas and group dialogue meet, the most valuable progress is made.
When visualization of ideas and group dialogue meet, the most valuable progress is made.

 

Practicing Drawing People

As part of our coursework for Quarter 1, we have a studio drawing class that meets weekly on Saturdays. It’s important for us as designers to learn to visualize ideas and scenarios quickly and accurately. There will come moments where time is limited and we’ll need to present an idea that is immediately comprehensible, and the best way to do that is by drawing it.

The problem is, drawing is hard if you haven’t done it, and even if you have, it’s a skill that must be maintained like any other. We are supposed to draw every day (which I admit that I fail to do), to build up our fluency. While it’s difficult for me to put time aside to draw, I definitely see improvement when I’m more diligent about practicing and making multiple iterations of the same thing.

A first draft of drawing people in a space.
A first draft of drawing people in a space.

This week we’re focusing on drawing people, including bodies in space and motion, and individual faces. For this assignment, we’ve been asked to draw people in 5 different locations of our choice, using the perspective skills we worked on last week to complete a somewhat realistic scene. Most of the scenes that I chose were based on photos from Recycled Reads, a used bookstore that’s part of the Austin Public Library system, and the site of my current design research. I’m intentionally practicing drawing the people within the space so that when I need to communicate the research in the near future, I’ll have some experience to draw (!) from.

A second draft of the same scene.
A second draft of the same scene.

REFLECTIONS ON PROGRESS

What’s Working for Me:

I can see improvement from my first iterations to my second. I wish I had done a third, and fourth, and fifth, but I let time slip away from me. I also think you can get a sense of the people within the space, and the general action that’s happening, even if the perspective and proportions aren’t entirely accurate.

What’s Challenging Me:

The accuracy of hands and faces, particularly eyes and mouths. I’m trying to find a style that’s not too cartoonish but it’s not coming to me easily. I get the proportions wrong. I also overwork things. I draw a line I don’t like, so I draw over it darker. That’s worse. So I erase it. Even worse. So I draw over it again, still not right. It’s hard to move on. It’s frustrating to know what I want it to look like, especially since I’m using photographs as source material, but somehow my mind-eye-hand connection betrays me. I tend to start off a drawing session with pretty poor results, then get better within a few minutes. After a while my eyes and hands get tired and I start getting worse again. I know everything will get easier with practice but the progress is incremental. I think my main challenge, in drawing as in everything else we’re doing, is that I get lost in the details, and more often than not, the details don’t matter. I’ve just got to stop judging everything as I do it, and move on to the next iteration, where I can try again.

 

Examining Perspectives on the Role of Design Research

In our theory course, Design Society, and the Public Sector, we have been investigating the role of design research through a variety of perspectives presented in the following texts:

Designs on Dignity: Perceptions of Technology Among the Homeless – Christopher A. Le Dantec, W. Keith Edwards

A Tale of Two Publics: Democratizing Design at the Margins – Christopher A. Le Dantec, et al

The Product Ecology: Understanding Social Product Use and Supporting Design Culture – Jodi Forlizzi

What We Talk About When We Talk About Context – Paul Dourish

Cultural Probes and the Value of Uncertainty – William Gaver, et al

A Social Vision for Value Co-creation in Design – Liz Sanders & George Simons

Going Deeper, Seeing Further: Enhancing Ethnographic Interpretations to Reveal More Meaningful Opportunities for Design – Jane Fulton Suri & Suzanne Gibbs Howard

Experience Prototyping – Marion Buchenau & Jane Fulton Suri

Technology First, Needs Last: The Research-Product Gulf – Don Norman

The Value of Synthesis in Driving Innovation – Jon Kolko

CREATING A 2X2 MATRIX

After reading and discussing the authors’ perspectives, we were to plot their positions on the axis of designing with to designing for. Designing with refers to working with users directly and integrating their input and ideas into the design process, whereas designing for refers to using research to inform the designer’s solution without direct participation with the users themselves.

In addition to determining the authors’ perspectives along this single axis, we were to determine an additional axis of our choice, creating a 2×2 matrix to further examine their relative positions on the role of design research. For the additional axis, I’ve chosen the continuum of problem finding to problem solving as a way of illustrating how design research is integrated into the overall design process – whether research is used very broadly to understand an opportunity for design, or whether it is used more narrowly, to solve a definitive, pre-determined problem.

Theory Assignment 3

OUTCOMES

What I discovered from this exercise is that 6 of the 8 texts present an approach that is more designing with than designing for, illustrating that most of these authors integrate research methods that assume the need for direct input from users in the process of design. The matrix also reveals that 6 of authors place the role of research towards the beginning stages of the design process, allowing research to help focus the what and how of the solution, rather than starting research with a strict, predetermined design goal in mind.

I also find the two outliers on this chart, Donald Norman and William Gaver, interesting counterpoints. While Gaver fully embraces the approach of designing with users, he does so in order to create a guiding attitude of familiarity with users, but doesn’t expect that research to be interpretable for a specific design solution. Norman, on the other hand, sees research as a tool for modifying existing products and services in order to make incremental improvements, and relies on observation of users rather than direct participation with them.

Using Photographs to Prompt Responses from Research Participants

This has been a full week – we’ve been reading and discussing design theory, practicing drawing objects in perspective, and conducting research activities for our team projects. As with last week, when I wrote about my experience sorting books in the back room of Recycled Reads, the most exciting and personally fulfilling aspect of my week was talking to and learning from real people in the context of our research.

Something new to me this week that had a profound effect on the way that I approach research with participants is the activity of using photographs to elicit participants’ feelings and stories about their experiences. My team is currently researching the operations of Recycled Reads, the used bookstore that is part of the Austin Public Library system, and we were moving from working with staff to talking to customers. We were discussing with Cristina Suazo and Vicky Pridgen from another research team how to approach getting meaningful insights from people we have no rapport with, and they suggested this method that had worked for them.

We selected ten different stock photographs that we found by searching broad terms such as ‘knowledge’ and ‘community,’ making sure that the images we chose were not too literal in the context of Recycled Reads – for example, we didn’t want to include any photographs of books or a bookstore. Our intent was to provoke association with images that could have various interpretations. An example that we chose is this photograph of people sitting in a sunny landscape:

In our short individual interviews with three customers and a volunteer, we laid the photos out in a grid in front of them and asked them to select one or more images that described their relationship with Recycled Reads.

I was really surprised by the responses to this activity. All four participants engaged with the exercise, and the prompt opened a door for them to think about and express something personal to them that I don’t believe we would have discovered through questions alone. I was also surprised that they all chose images that I couldn’t have predicted and then told us very individual stories explaining what the images represented to them.

A young business student volunteering for Recycled Reads selected a photograph of a mother and baby, telling us, “This image is a caregiver and a child…and it goes back to the idea of volunteering as a whole, as an idea in itself. It’s a symbiotic relationship. I’m getting personal enjoyment from [volunteering] but I’m also giving back to this establishment and helping them function, as well as giving back to the consumers that come in here…It’s like a mutually beneficial experience in the sense that we’re nurturing each other in some way.”

Another participant said that he couldn’t select an image from those set before him because, “The image I was actually looking for was kind of a treasure-hunting image…” He explained that the exercise immediately conjured up a mental image for him, and then went on to explain how that image applied to his relationship to Recycled Reads. Even though the participant didn’t actually select one of our printed photographs, the goal of the activity was attained because it sparked the type of emotional, meaningful response from the participant that we were seeking.

As we continue our research this week, I’m excited to use this research activity with more participants and to add their responses to our growing understanding of how Recycled Reads operates and its impact on the community.

 

 

 

PRACTICING EMPATHY: JUDGING BOOKS BY THEIR COVERS

During a contextual inquiry at Recycled Reads this week I had the opportunity to work with one of their staff members to literally judge books by their covers (along with a few other criteria).

As part of the Austin Public Library system, the primary mission that Recycled Reads undertakes is to accept ‘weeded’ books and materials from APL branches as well as direct donations from the public and resell them at a drastically reduced cost (usually 50 cents to 2 dollars) in order to keep them in circulation and avoid putting them in the landfill. When materials arrive at Recycled Reads, there is a fundamental process that occurs in the back room in which materials are sorted into those that will get resold in the store and those that will go on to another destination, either to a partner reseller or to a material recycle/recovery service (for example, if they receive an empty plastic CD case) depending on certain criteria. Out of the approximately 20 tons of materials that RR receives every month, only so much is appropriate for being shelved on the (re-)sales floor. In order to understand this process of sorting, I asked to do it. I pulled on a pair of latex gloves, and under the guidance of a staff member, I got to work.

Going through the process of sorting these used materials myself was so much more involved and illuminating than had I just watched someone else sort them. I was the one actually making the decisions about what would stay and what would go, and it gave me a strange sense of power and responsibility to judge the value of books in that way. It lent a sort of gravitas to a situation that I don’t think I could have understood had I just watched and asked questions. I experienced a range of emotions besides feeling responsible for the fate of the individual materials: liberation (as someone who reveres books I found it strangely freeing to literally toss those that didn’t make the sales floor cut into a giant box for downstream donation), attachment (I didn’t want to let a lot of books go, and wound up purchasing 8.5 pounds at the end of the inquiry session), and pride (in doing a good job, and in knowing that I had a hand in saving books so that others could enjoy them).

I happen to love books, so I felt really close to this research activity. It’s probably bad that as a moderator, I lost myself a little. I admit that I got consumed in the job of sorting and even though I was still asking questions and learning from the experience, when my teammates said, “Okay, I think we can wrap up now,” I was jolted back to reality because I had forgotten that I wasn’t there to work all day, that it wasn’t in fact my job! I’ll need to work on keeping the balance between the empathetic experience and keeping in touch with my role as researcher, observing the experience as well as doing it.

I know that in other circumstances I’ll be researching something that I have no prior understanding or knowledge of or that may not seem personally interesting to me outside of my research. But I hope that I can connect to the experience of walking through other types activities in the same way, regardless of what it is, to learn from others about their lives, and find an empathetic understanding by doing what they do.

Enjoying the satisfaction of tossing a book that doesn't make the cut.
I enjoy the satisfaction of tossing a book that doesn’t make the cut.

A Comparative View of the Role of Design in Society

Theory assignment v4

This diagram illustrates the relative positions of five authors – Edward L. Bernays, Victor Papanek, Neil Postman, John Dewey, and Maurizio Vitta – regarding the role of design (or design-related fields) in society, based on importance, from the following texts:

Manipulating Public Opinion: The Why and The How by Edward L. Bernays

Design with a Cause and Creativity vs. Conformity by Victor Papanek

Informing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman

The Need of a Theory of Experience by John Dewey

The Meaning of Design by Maurizio Vitta

Although there are only five authors, I have identified eight separate positions, as Papanek, Postman, and Vitta infer that while the role of design (or technology, for Postman) is unimportant, superficial, or downright detrimental to society at the time of their writing, they also assert the need for conscientious use of design, technology, and education as an instrument for social good.

Postman is the most vehement of these authors in his renunciation of technology for causing an overload of information, leading to uncertainty of knowledge and modern society’s loss of a guiding moral compass. Although he doesn’t explicitly state it, I believe he would be equally as fervent in the belief that technology’s singular purpose should be to support a sense of human connection and moral centering, which leads me to also position him at the far right-hand side of the diagram axis.

Following Postman, Papanek also condemns designers for contributing to the physical destruction of our planet and a faulty design education system for producing these careless designers. He demands the need for design to respond to social need, and calls for a reform in design education that would embrace a mentality of experimentation.

Vitta connects the designer with his designed object, inherently positioning the designers of superficial status-objects as unimportant (though not necessary detrimental) to society. At the same time, he identifies the social responsibility of the designer, positioning him in an important role in society, one capable of shaping daily life.

Bernays discusses the value of public persuasion and asserts that the manipulation of public opinion could be enacted by any and all to sway others towards any particular idea in a democracy. While he clearly expresses the value of public relations, he does not imply that the future of society depends upon it.

Lastly, Dewey’s opinions on the importance of crafting meaningful experiences and education reform underscore a belief in the need for and power of design to shape society’s future.

 

A Constant Progression Towards Improvement

“PRACTICE, PRACTICE, AND ALL IS COMING”  – Sri K. Patthabi Jois

In 2004 I started practicing a type of hatha yoga called ashtanga yoga, which was developed in India in the first half of the 20th century by Sri K. Patthabi Jois. Ashtanga is characterized by a codified series of postures that are practiced without stopping, in the exact same sequence every time, which usually takes about an hour and a half. It’s both physically and mentally challenging, and in its ‘pure’ form, known as Mysore-style after the home of the practice in Mysore, India, there is no instruction; each student executes the series on their own while a teacher moves around the room providing individual adjustments.

From the outside, it sounds like a tedious, exhausting, even boring exercise to carry out the same (often extremely difficult) physical movements and regulated breathing every practice, and, if you’re up for it – to figure it all out on your own with only a little bit of individualized assistance. It sounds intimidating, but if you try it, and keep trying it, over time you start to gain an understanding that it’s not about arriving at a certain moment of perfection. Within the rigorously structured framework of the system, the value is in the practicing itself, which allows you over time to recognize the sometimes great and sometimes subtle differences within the same poses and movements, day after day, in an onward progression towards improvement.

As design students at AC4D, we’re encouraged to draw on past experiences as a source of knowledge. I’ve been thinking about my former experience as a practitioner of ashtanga yoga and particularly Patthabi Jois’ advice to his students, “Practice, practice, and all is coming,” as it relates to the service design project that we started this week.

For our course, Interaction Design Research and Synthesis, we were assigned a 16-week design research project in which we partner with a local organization to research the inner-workings of their business in order to identify opportunities for improvement. We’re to provide this research as a service to our chosen organization and to ask for $1000 compensation in return. Sound simple? Not so fast. There are additional criteria to meet: the business must have at least 2 but less than 20 locations, they must employ at least 10 people, and they must operate in a humanitarian context, providing something that contributes to the greater good. But it gets even more interesting. In newly formed teams working with people we hardly know, we had to visit at least 5 such businesses to pitch our project, secure a partnership with one of them, draft a 5-page detailed research plan, and present that plan to the class as a formal presentation – all in less than 48 hours.

With so little time to accomplish so much, my team – Adam Niederpruem, Kelsey Greathouse, and myself – set to work immediately to pursue the path of least resistance by leveraging our existing contacts in Austin-area organizations. We contacted 6 people from a wide variety of organizations that (more or less) met our criteria – an affordable vet care organization, an interfaith organization, a performing arts venue, a compost resource business, a tree planting organization, and a community food center. We threw a wide net quickly, in hopes that we would get a quick lead and move on. Of the businesses we initially contacted, 3 didn’t get back to us and another turned us down outright. But the remaining 2 agreed to a meeting in person to discuss our proposition.

Our first formal presentation, which took place 18 hours after we received our assignment, was a little nerve-racking. It’s difficult to sell an organization on a project that we haven’t yet learned how to conduct, and even more so to convince them to give us money to do so. Kelsey, Adam, and I met in a conference room joined by 3 representatives from the affordable vet care organization, presented a brief slideshow presentation, and fielded numerous questions, many of which we hadn’t anticipated. It was far from the perfect pitch, but we represented ourselves well and made a good case. They left us with an optimistic ‘maybe’ and said they would get back to us as soon as they had made a decision.

With just over 24 hours left, we still needed a solid commitment, so we changed tactics. We already had a 2nd meeting scheduled for the following morning with the performing arts venue, and decided to start drafting a research plan for the affordable vet care business so we would be ready when they (fingers crossed!) got back to us with an green light. We were out of personal connections to use as a conduit, but we identified an additional 3 businesses to visit in person the following day in order to pitch our project.

On Wednesday morning, Adam and I met with his performing arts venue contact at a coffee shop. We revised our presentation to include the things we learned from our initial meeting, such as the specific number of anticipated hours we would be dedicating to the project (to indicate the depth of our engagement and to justify cost), the inclusion of a request for a contact liaison, and the liaison’s anticipated time commitment to the project, broken down by week. We also printed out our presentation this time, both to fit the more casual setting of the coffee shop, and to present as a takeaway to our prospective client.

Again, we were met with enthusiasm for the project – so much so that we were provided with a spontaneous preliminary explanation of the organization’s internal structures and operations. Unfortunately for us, the organization turned out to be more complex than we had counted on and belongs to a much larger institution, which meant practically that agreement and clearance could potentially take a while to happen. We were asked for some clarifying information, such as a what a professional design firm would charge for the type of project we are proposing (in order for the venue to understand the relative value of our research), and we were left with a promise to advocate on our behalf, once the requested information was received. As before, the meeting helped us to get a better sense of what a potential client would want to know, which in turn helped us clarify our own goals and value proposition.

Still without a confirmed partnership, and with 8 hours left until our research plan presentation was due, Kelsey and I hit the streets to pitch our project on the fly while Adam remained behind to draft our provisional research plan for the affordable vet care organization. We had to have something to show to the class, and we decided that should we need to change it later to suit another business, it would at least serve as a starting point for revision.

Because we had already reached out to several organizations, had 2 very thorough meetings with potential clients, and revised our presentation multiple times to include information we realized was important to those clients, by the time Kelsey and I set out to ‘cold approach’ businesses, we all had a much better understanding of what our proposed research project really would entail and were much better prepared to present it. We had also grown a we-have-to-get-this-done attitude coupled with a sense of confidence borne out of positive responses and supportive teamwork that served to propel us forward.

Of the 3 businesses we visited, one was no longer in the location advertised on their website or social media (though we were able to connect with them later via phone), one was cautiously open to the idea but had pressing deadlines that would prevent them from talking to us on the spot, and one had already been contacted by another AC4D team and was unable to entertain our project due to their own time constraints (although we took a sort of pleasure in the fact that the program director whom we talked to saw enough value in our proposition that she offered to help us by leveraging her own contacts in the non-profit world).

It turned out that we didn’t have a solid commitment by the time the 48-hour deadline rolled around. While we waited for our multiple leads to get back to us, we presented a provisional research plan, knowing that it would be ready if they said yes and would serve as a point of departure for an alternative research plan. The next day, the affordable vet care business turned us down, and although we had already followed up with the performing arts venue, we had little faith that they could get back to us with any speed. So we reached out and scheduled a meeting with yet another organization – a used bookstore that’s part of the Austin Public Library system – and when Adam and I presented our design research proposal to her in a meeting on Friday, the manager agreed to our proposition on the spot.

We wound up securing our partnership with the bookstore a day and a half after the deadline, and we have to rework our 5-page research plan completely to suit that business, but I’m glad it worked out that way. I learned a lot about keeping up momentum, about not stopping to wait for someone to get back to us, how to keep casting out the line, and to always be working in pursuit of our goals. We never felt a moment of static pause, even in the window when we were pretty sure that the affordable vet care organization would take us on. We not only learned to be constantly negotiating the workload, breaking up to work in parallel when a task didn’t require all of us, but also that every step toward a goal requires constant refinement. Each email, phone call, meeting, and impromptu pitch got better and quicker to deliver, and we grew increasingly more confident approaching strangers as our understanding of the project became more defined. Throughout this week, we clarified our goals, needs, and value to ourselves, which made our presentations to others more direct, concise, and confident.

In early December, at the end of our research project, we’ll turn over the insights and discoveries generated from our design research to the bookstore and let them act on the opportunities we identify as they see fit. It will be an end of the project for us, but not an end to the project’s potential for the business. Just as an ashtanga yoga practice never culminates in a single perfect expression of poses, there is never a perfect solution to a design problem, because the world is always in flux and there are always improvements to identify and act upon. Nobody’s going to suddenly reach nirvana doing backbends in a yoga studio and as designers we’re not going to single-handedly solve the world’s problems. But we need to keep moving, keep pushing ourselves, and remember that there is something to be gained from the constant iteration, even when the progress seems subtle and incremental, because the commitment to keep working through it is the key to an effective design process.

 

 

 

 

DON’T TALK TO STRANGERS

There were insights upon insights to take away from this week, ranging from insights about our specific design proposals, to insights about the process of design, to discoveries of a very personal nature about each other and ourselves. We are all a little weary from absorbing and processing the layers of insightful information from the week.

A crucial insight to highlight, from today in particular but also the week as a whole, is the importance of getting out in the world and involving real people in the design process. At the beginning and end of our mini design sprint we got out of our headspace and our physical school space and out onto the streets of Austin to talk with bus riders about their experiences, behaviors, and desires surrounding bus transportation. Today we interviewed people waiting for buses at major bus stops downtown in order to validate the primary assumption we had made about our design – that earning free rides by riding the bus will motivate bus riders to ride more than they already do and by extension, motivate them to ride different bus routes than they normally take. What we discovered, after testing our assumption with about 30 bus riders, was that was absolutely not the case. It became evident, very quickly, that our assumption was invalid.

What was surprising to me was what great relief the ‘failure’ brought (and I question the term ‘failure’ here because a definitive invalidation is also a successful outcome of a test). The sense of relief was borne out of the clarity that our assumption was false, and therefore our value innovation would not in any way, according to those we sampled, motivate a change in behavior. Knowing this wouldn’t work in the way we had hoped provided a definitive stopping point. While the bootcamp ended with this test, if we were to pursue this project, it’s evident at this point we would be plunged back into the ambiguous space of deciding “where do we go from here?” and go back to iterate on our design idea. If we hadn’t spoken to real people whose lives we would affect and just plowed through with our design idea, it’s clear that we would have actually failed by making something that didn’t bring value to the riders or solve the problem we were tasked with.