Design Research with APA!

Over the past month, our group has been engaged with Austin Pets Alive! (APA) in order to use design research (specifically, contextual inquiry) to learn in real-time how employees and volunteers log their activity and communicate to achieve consistent care for the thousands of animals that pass through their programs.

APA is a no-kill shelter, which they define as 95%+ life outcomes. Basically when the Austin Animal Center creates their ‘euthanasia list’, APA steps in and takes those animals into care with the goal of nursing them, fostering them, and ultimately getting them adopted. We learned in this process that Austin is one of a select group of cities that can boast the ‘no-kill’ label, which is really cool.

We would like to share the stories of three people at APA that we feel illuminate some of the major issues APA deals with on a daily basis.

First is Brent. Brent is a researcher for APA but has held many roles over the last 6 years. He started as a volunteer when he first moved to Austin, and through that experience learned of a full-time position with APA. He has stuck with APA through a Masters program and now a doctoral program because he believes in the shelter’s mission.

“I guess just the overall satisfaction with the job and what I would consider good work being done by the shelter is what kept me here as more of a career rather than just a placeholder job.”

(Brent line 146)

However, Brent is routinely frustrated in his capacity as a researcher, mainly due to a lack of consistency around the way information is logged and shared across the whole of APA. APA pays for a CRM program called ShelterLuv, which was supposed to be a way to achieve paperless operations and to centralize information. Even after years of having ShelterLuv, this is not the case.

“We switched to ShelterLuv hoping we would go paperless. We didn’t. I dont think that any department is even close to being paperless.”

(Brent line 30)

A while back, Brent recognized inefficiencies and did his best to make changes. However, his pleas fell on deaf ears.

“My boss, at the time, wanted everybody to be writing out paper prescriptions for all these animals. So what we would do is take pictures of them, email them to a data entry volunteer … I basically wanted to go over my then-bosses head because I disagreed … we were wasting tons of money. It was thousands of dollars that we were wasting over a year, just in the incremental time and amount we were paying [a data entry person] … [the CEO] was busy with other stuff so she was like ‘no,’ … so I got the ‘follow your orders.”

(Brian lines 61-64)

It’s hard not to identify with Brent – having a good idea that could save money, with strong supporting evidence – then being brushed off. The feeling of not being heard can be crushing and can cause people to lose passion for going above and beyond.

Next, we have Gail. Gail is the manager of the kitten nursery. It is a new role for her this year. Gail had been working at a legal services firm for 17 years, which equipped her with solid organizational skills. Gloria loves her job,

“I love saving animals. Love it. I had no idea. Growing up as a kid I thought when you take your cat to the shelter they just found a new home. Like I had no idea that counties killed so many animals. So being here being able to save so many animals is why I do it.”

(Gail line 5)

Gail loves the “one stop shopping” for data provided by the spreadsheets she inherited from the previous manager. Keep in mind that this spreadsheet exists outside of ShelterLuv; this is the exact problem identified by Brent in his workflow.

One of the challenges Gail faces in her role is Panleuk outbreaks in the nursery. Panleuk is a deadly and highly contagious disease that is easily spread through physical contact. Once a room is ‘Panleuk exposed’ it becomes quarantined and kittens cannot be admitted or moved to a different room. This is extremely stressful because it limits the number of kittens Gail can intake and could lead to kittens being euthanized elsewhere.

Panleuk is one of the worst things to deal with. It’s always a challenge, it’s probably the biggest challenge Panleuk outbreaks brakes. When an outbreak happens, the entire room shuts down. So we will have a room with cages that we can’t use because Panleuk is in there.”

(Gail line 10)

Gail’s job is further complicated because the nursery relies heavily on volunteers so anything not completed falls on her shoulders. This problem is two-fold. On the one hand, reliable volunteers are needed to help feed and keep kittens alive. Feeding for “bottle babies” must occur every 2-3 hours. On the other hand, Gail has no operating budget, which means she must lean heavily on the community for bare necessities – bleach, paper towels, Tupperware, towels, etc…

“We have no budget. None. Even if we really need something, it all has to be donated.”

(Gail line 113)

After following Gail for a couple hours during an influx of kittens, I can definitively say she is a superhero. She would process a litter, wash her hands at the other end of the nursery, walk back and check the feeding schedules, bark a couple orders, process another litter, wash her hands at the other end of the nursery, and basically do this all over again until all the cats were in cages. She washed her hands 9 or 10 times, about 50 feet away from the action. Then she went right back to dealing with volunteers that “called out,” meaning they are skipping their shift.

She does it because she loves animals and it really struck me how much of her success relies on help from the community.

Finally is Betsy. As training coordinator at APA, Betsy’s role is essential to keeping the kittens alive. The neonatal kitten unit is a specialized operation and it is essential for volunteers to understand the importance of their role. One of the problems Betsy has to overcome is educating the volunteers they are going to get dirty and be in stressful situations.

“We want to set the expectations up front that [volunteers are not here to cuddle cute and fluffy kittens. You’re not here to play with them. You’re not here to socialize them. And bottle feeding isn’t always easy and it’s not all bottle feeding. What it is, is always rewarding and fulfilling, and can always be fun.”

(Betsy line 92)

If bottle feeding volunteers do not understand the importance of their role, it halts the neonatal kitten unit because vet techs, managers, and other staff need to stop their duties of administering meds and in-taking new kittens in-order to tend to the most important need of the kittens, being fed.

Betsy not only trains volunteers at APA but is responsible for training vet-techs from other shelters across the country who are setting up neonatal units in their shelters.

Next Steps:

Following the conclusion of our Research Phase, our next step is to synthesize the utterances from our interviews into themes. Identifying themes will lead us to meaningful solutions that allow us to work towards finding ways for APA to optimize how they chronicle activity and communicate important information to provide consistent care.


Stories from Inside We Are Blood.

Last week, my teammates, Zev Powell and Catherine Woodiwiss, and I wrote a blog about a project we are working on with the local non-profit We Are Blood. We have spoken with a number of people at all touchpoints involved in making each pop-up mobile blood donation event happen. Setting up, servicing your community, and packing up requires an immense amount of coordination, organization, skill, and commitment on the part of all individuals involved. Impressively, this is done on a daily basis throughout the Central Texas area.

This week, we have taken on the task of breaking down all of the conversations we’ve had into bite-sized pieces in order to begin our team’s next task—to identify themes across the various conversations we’ve had and synthesize potential areas of opportunity.

Here’s a glimpse of the space we will be living in, literally and mentally, over the next few days:

Our Office

our office


While this is happening, we’d like to leave you with a few of the voices that make the incredible act of donating possible on a daily basis, and a few of the thoughts they’ve left us with.


Meet Jane.

Jane is a loving grandmother, mother, sister, daughter, and neighbor. She’s been a blood donor for the majority of her adult life. After her recent donation, she told us her origin blood donor story: In college, a friend had insisted that Jane go with to a blood drive that was on their campus. With persisting anxieties, Jane obliged and went along. It was when she was on the drawing table as she was actively donating that her anxieties reappeared. She witnessed a sizeable athlete on the table next to her complete his donation, get off the table, then collapse to the ground. Convinced that she would follow suit, Jane apprehensively completed her donation, hopped off the table, and was positively surprised to find that she is perfectly fine! It was from this day that she realized that this very special process of donating a piece of herself to save a life of someone in her community is very much something she can do; and is so special in part because not everyone can donate. While Jane has donated for a long time, the feelings of anxiety have recently cropped up once again, due to her age. Today, Jane struggles with balancing her identity as a blood donor with the reality that she may not be able to do this much longer. Not being able to give because she might not meet the health requirements as a donor is very much something she thinks about every time she makes plans to go donate again.


Meet Pat.

Pat is a long-time staff member of the mobile blood donation efforts. He’s worked at every touch point of the process, making mobile blood drives happen, from packing the equipment, unloading, to working directly with community organizers and donors. Naturally, Pat has developed a keen sense of empathy for the donors and staff alike. The staff that makes up We Are Blood’s mobile team, Pat says, are “the backbone of the company. That they’re the ones that are bringing in the blood, they’re the ones that are doing all the work to make sure that we meet our community’s goals. So having that understanding makes me know how to, take care of them a little bit better.” Treating others with care is key in all parts of the process. When speaking about donors visit, whether it is the first or the 100th visit, Pat says it’s an “important interaction when they walk into the room and see the blood drive for the first time. The first interaction with anybody is going to be when somebody greets them. That sometimes will determine their mood for the rest of the day.”

It does not escape him that there are limits outside of We Are Blood’s direct control. Not everyone can give blood, a sentiment echoed by Jane. While Jane spoke about individual physical limitations, Pat brought to our attention the regulative limitation. Prior to 2010, the FDA has placed a permanent deferral on men who have had sex with other men (MSM) who wanted to donate blood. The permanent deferral was revisited as the demands and need for donated blood supplies increased. In 2014, the FDA has updated their policy on MSM. “Based on the evidence now available, FDA has changed its recommendation from the indefinite deferral for MSM to a 12 month blood donor deferral since last MSM contact.”, While changes are happening, there are still regulatory reason that the size of potential blood donors is limited.


People Just Want to Give a Little Piece Of Themselves.

Throughout our conversations, everyone we spoke to expressed a similar sentiment, from donors to We Are Blood staff members alike.

Joseph, a long time educator says, It makes you feel elite, almost because not everybody can. I’ll ask students if it’s their first time. ‘How did it go?’ I’ll tell them it’s really cool, and I’m proud of them, and stuff.

Greta, who works in the tech industry and has been deferred several times says about donating blood, says I think it’s a good thing to do and it doesn’t cost you anything. There are lots of people who would like to donate and can’t. If I can, I should, because it’s one thing I can do. It’s community—everyone helps in the way they can.”

At the end of the day, a shortage for donor blood supply is a real issue that We Are Blood works tirelessly to address. The cost of not contributing to those needs is the life of a patient, a child, someone about to have surgery, a stranger, a neighbor, or a family member. If the thoughts we’ve shared with you feels very open-ended and full of complex human issues then perfect! This is the space and stage my teammates and I are at as we continue on our journey and work with We Are Blood, and immersing ourselves in these ideas over the coming days. Stay tuned.

Lettuce Tell You Stories from the Field

*vegetable puns intended


Over the past three weeks, we have been doing contextual inquiry interviews with the customers and staff of Lettuce meal delivery service. Contextual inquiry is essentially a way for researchers to get jalapeño business and observe your behavior and the context in which you interact with something. In our case, we wanted to visit the homes of Lettuce subscribers and conduct interview sessions to learn more about how the Lettuce service integrates into their lives.

Interview Recruitment


Our first challenge was to figure out how to get strangers to invite us into their homes for an hour-long in-depth interview session in which we would interrogate them about their lives and relationship with food. Fortunately, Lettuce agreed to lettuce place recruitment fliers in the Lettuce delivery bags for one round of deliveries in early September and offer Lettuce credit in compensation for participants’ time.

With our recruitment pitch effectively delivered to our target audience’s kitchen table, we set up a corresponding Calendly, a scheduling tool, for prospective participants to visit to learn more and sign up for what we called a “feedback session”. Calendly integrated nicely with our team’s calendar such that we were able to customize our availability windows and request location details for the sessions. As participants signed up, we sent customized confirmation emails to confirm the home address and frame expectations for the upcoming interviews.


Participant Interviews

After sending out flyers to 230 subscribers, we got a response back from about 30 people and then successfully scheduled a total of 13 subscribers for one-hour in-person interviews. The interviews were conducted at the participant’s kitchen or, if they preferred, a public space.

The interview started with a statement of consent, some general questions, and then a free-association exercise. Participants looked at 50 words and picked 12 words that they associate with meal prep then organized it into a positive and negative column and shared their thought. We started with this warm-up to give them time for self-reflection on how they interact with food. For some participants, this is the first time they are called on to give a detailed description of their behaviors about food; a topic which is routine and mundanely uninteresting. We want them to recall what their actual behavior is around food, not their ideal habits.

Then the second part was to reflect specifically on how Lettuce is integrated into their lifestyle and also gauge their home habits and tendencies. We showed them the ingredients from a Lettuce meal and asked them “what would you make if you did not have a recipe card?” We also asked about recipe cards and how they keep themselves organized. This usually transitioned naturally to the next part when we ask to look at their kitchen, recipe books, fridge, and pantry. The final two activities of the interview were to rank Lettuce’s seven principles and conduct a usability test of the Lettuce website interface.

Stories from the Field



To start off our interviews, we did a word association activity to get our participants thinking about which words they might associate with “food” and “meal preparation”. When we offered one participant, Nia, this prompt, she immediately honed in on the word “clean”.

Nia shared a story of a time when she and her husband had very demanding work and school schedules. They were eating poorly and for convenience. She decided to turn things around and start a strict program kaled the “Clean Diet.” Nia wanted to track her success by weighing and measuring her body.

“..then I found out at a certain point because I was doing all
these measurements that I was pregnant. And it turned out I was six months pregnant!”

These sorts of accounts are important to our research because we believe that human stories are immensely powerful. Through these in-depth conversations, we were able to observe more of the details and nuances of our participants’ lives and their interactions with food.



Pat is a longtime vegan and working father. We had plant for Pat a visual association activity to gain insights on how the subscriber feels about food and meal preparation. From Pat, we learned that routine is immensely important to keep life running smoothly for him, his wife, and their three-year-old son.

“After our son was born, I was like ‘oh my god, what do we do?’, because it was so chaotic. We were fine before our son was born, but now… we’re structured.”

One of the benefits of conducting these contextual inquiry interviews in participants’ homes of was that it made it much easier to learn about their lives and typical routines. Pat was able to show us his recipe books and meal planning artifacts that he and his wife use to keep themselves afloat as working parents trying to prepare healthy meals for themselves and their child.



We sat down with Margaret and did an “inspiration station” activity where she walked us through what meals she would prepare with a Lettuce delivery if there were no recipeas included. During our conversations, Margaret told us what her meal preparation used to look like:

“I used to go to the farmer’s market all the time. I used to plan meals for the week, look up all the recipes, write down the shopping list, go out and get what I needed… I used to do that all, but now I’m working in Lockhart. That’s an hour and a half of my day commuting every single weekday that I lost. How do I get that back?”

Margaret’s recent lifestyle change and new commute to Lockhart was what motivated her to become a new subscriber to the Lettuce meal delivery service. When she found out that there was a service that “#1 would do the planning for me and #2 would do the legwork for me?” She was hooked.



Valerie shared that the Lettuce plan that she is on is honestly too much food for her family. Her husband is more of a ‘meat and potatoes’ type of person and her teenage daughter prefers to heat up frozen “less healthy” foods, so Valerie shares some of her weekly Lettuce delivery with her neighbors. While Valerie would like to take advantage of the composting service that Lettuce offers, with her daughter’s frozen food taking up space in the freezer, it doesn’t leave mushroom to fit her own compost bin.

“They went above and beyond with the compost piece. Even though we don’t participate in it, that really impressed me and told me that these guys are for real.”

Since Valerie isn’t participating in the composting service and she has to coordinate with neighbors to make the deliveries work for her, we wondered what keeps Valerie around as a loyal Lettuce subscriber? What opportunity areas might exist to make the service work better for her needs?

Next Steps

These are exactly the sort of questions that we’ll be tackling next. Our team has been transcribing the audio and compiling the photos from olive our interviews because next, we will transition to the process of synthesis. Synthesis will allow us to identify patterns and themes from across our research with the goal of discerning opportunity areas for Lettuce. More on that later, loyal AC4D blog readers… until next thyme!

Let the synthesis begin

*vegetable puns intended

Buzz Mill Research: Stories from the Field

Research Team: Shelly Stallings, Sara Miller, Kay Wyman

Over the past three weeks, our team has been creating and executing a process of obtaining research data through contextual inquiry at the local business Buzz Mill Coffee Shop. And what a whirlwind it has been. This is an update on what that process has looked like and some of our discoveries after presenting some stories form the field to the business.

A slide form our presentation "Buzz Mill: Stories from the Field"
A slide form our presentation “Buzz Mill: Stories from the Field”

Our group partnered with Buzz Mill to conduct a service design study. Our first step was to understand a bit about the business. We did this by reading through content on their website as well as visiting and spending time in the space.

From there, we created a focus statement for our research, which centered around how Buzz Mill cultivates community through an organization they’ve developed called Lumber Society. We worked to identify individuals we planned to interview, developed a series of questions that would invoke an understanding of their experience, and reached out to them individually, through email, text (obtaining their numbers through friends at Buzz Mill), or simply approaching them at an event.

We began interviewing folks and realized through our conversations that a sense of community and its value to folks at Buzz Mill extended beyond the Lumber Society. At that point, we changed our focus statement to be a bit more broad, now focusing on how Buzz Mill cultivates community and how people at Buzz Mill experience that community. We also broadened the audience to whom we would reach out and adjusted our questions to have a less narrow focus.

This provided some wonderful data that we have been collecting over the past three weeks by spending many hours at Buzz Mill observing interaction in the space and interviewing 18 individuals. Those individuals were a mixture of patrons and staff (10 of which were patrons, 8 of which were employed by Buzz Mill) spread between their San Marcos and their Austin locations.

Today, we presented our progress to the owner and another member of upper management. Below is one of our stories from the field:

Meet – Olivia!

User Interview PresentationShe has a background in the service industry and has been working at Buzz Mill a few years.

User Interview Presentation copy

Olivia obviously likes her job and feels connected to the people there. 

When asked to describe Buzz Mill to someone who has never heard of it, she says:

User Interview Presentation-2


User Interview Presentation-2 copy

It’s clear that Olivia gets a sense of comfort and well-being when she is at Buzz Mill. When asked what her best moment at Buzz Mill was, she responded:

User Interview Presentation-2 copy 2

User Interview Presentation copy 3

Buzz Mill values and supports its staff going out and doing things that combine their passions and affecting positive change in the world, which they refer as a person’s Purpose Parallel. The owner, Jason, sits down with each member of his staff and has a long discussion to help them develop their unique strengths and interests.

We asked Olivia what her Purpose Parallel is and she had some difficulty articulating it. 

User Interview Presentation copy 4

User Interview Presentation copy 5

Later in our conversation, however, Olivia did open up on working towards an artistic passion and explained how the community at Buzz Mill was instrumental in furthering her personal goals:

User Interview Presentation copy 2

We can see that the Buzz Mill community positively influences Olivia’s life nearly every day.

After this experience, we have many learnings and are excited to get started on the next stages of our design process.

Presenting our "Stories from the Field" to the owner of Buzz Mill
Presenting our “Stories from the Field” to the owner of Buzz Mill

For our presentation, we decided on a format that presented personas for each of the 18 individuals we spoke with, and chose to focus on telling the stories of four. We found it difficult to par down the stories of these four individual’s into a couple quotes. We tried to choose quotes that captured the essence of an individual and were not taken out of context. However, because people most often speak from stream on conscious in interviews, this required making some judgments, of which there is not necessarily a “right” choice. This uncertainty of not knowing is something we each intend on getting more comfortable with over time in order to save time oscillating over “what’s best” and just try putting it together in a story or deck.

That said, we found working as a team in this process was invaluable. As we began to consider how to format our presentation, we printed out photos and all our transcribed utterances from the interviews we conducted and individually considered quotes and photos that captured the essence of an individual we spoke with. Once these were chosen, we shared with one another our thought process in choosing these moments in the conversations as valuable. In this, we were able to critique and challenge one another and were able to create stronger, more compelling and consistent stories because of it. Something a couple of us identified wanting improve upon is communicating our ideas and the reasoning behind our choices.

Human nature can make it hard to let go of personal ideas of how something should be done. While often we were able to talk through things in this process and come to a consensus, there were times, especially as time got short, that we each had to compromise to move the greater process along. This felt like an issue of both an attitude (one that needed more openness potentially) and time.

We also learned much from the reactions of the business leaders to our presentation. In this regard, the format appeared to be successful. They understood the depth of our conversations by the depth of the stories we told but also the breadth of our research as we presented all 18 personas to them.

In our process, we attempted to pull out quotes or part of stories that suggested a divergence from the way the business hoped people were experiencing things. While we may have been successful in that, the individuals we told stories about seemed to be ones they were familiar with, whether by knowing that persona or guessing the actual person. There was almost an expectation that they would hear stories that were brand new, even if there was knew information in the stories that we told. And in that way, we may have disappointed.

This poses two questions to consider: could we have done a better job of choosing stories? And could we have done a better job of choosing quotes that communicated the value of their experience?

Regardless, this is been a wonderful experience with much to reflect and iterate upon in the coming weeks!


(Group) Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recycled Reads: Stories from the Field


We are team of student researchers at the Austin Center for Design tasked with doing design research for a local Austin organization over the next several months. Our team is working with Recycled Reads, which is a used bookstore and part of the Austin Public Library system. Over the last several weeks, we have been shadowing our participants, watching their behavior, and learning from them. From this research, we have collected many interesting stories from our participants. Here’s a sample of the stories we experienced in the field.


Where Stuff Goes to Die

Mitch has been with the Austin Public Library for almost 30 years. He actually retired at the  beginning of this year, but was brought back on by his boss because they had not yet found his replacement and they needed his assistance during the renovation of some of the library branches.

Mitch is the Inventory Specialist at the Austin Public Library’s Warehouse. The warehouse is a nondescript building on the eastside of Austin. There is little signage outside and it’s quite difficult to discern how to enter the building. Mitch found us outside, knowing that we would not know how to get into the building.

Mitch stands in front of rows and rows of stuff in the Austin Public Library Warehouse.
Mitch stands in front of rows and rows of stuff in the Austin Public Library Warehouse.

Since we knew this was the warehouse for the public library, we assumed that we would be walking into a warehouse full of books. We were wrong. We entered into huge, open room, full of stuff. As soon as we walked in, Mitch said, “This is where stuff goes to die.”

The Austin Public Library Warehouse is overflowing with old materials from the library branches.
The Austin Public Library Warehouse is overflowing with old materials from the library branches.

We follow Mitch around rows and rows and rows piled high and overflowing with stuff. There are tables, chairs, old shelving units, desks, pieces of lumber, old banners, and even expired fire extinguishers. Mitch is overwhelmed with the amount of things that the warehouse has to store. He tells us that the warehouse gets all of the furniture and random things that the library branches do not want anymore. All of it goes to the warehouse while they try to figure out what to do with it.

Some of the things go back out to the library branches, but a majority is being held indefinitely at the warehouse. Mitch is frustrated because the city makes it difficult for him to get rid of anything. Since the materials are obtained with taxpayer money, there are specific ordinances that dictate where the material can go and how the city can dispose of them. Mitch is disheartened and finds it challenging to get rid of anything because of the constraints the city puts on the materials.

Not only that, but Mitch is dealing with the whole library department. He says,

“We’re such a big department and we have so many locations. Another department might be just one building, but we have well over 20 buildings that we have to deal with. It’s a constant, constant struggle.”

Drowning in Books

Regina is a branch manager in one of Austin’s twenty branch libraries. While she may be a librarian, in her words, “She’s not the reading-ist lady in town.” She describes herself as a “programs person,” and it was evident from following Regina through the library, there are many different programs she operates.

The main floor of the library was clean, tidy, and humming with patrons when we visited. But as we followed Regina to the management area of the library, shelves were filled with a random assortment of items: art supplies, snacks for community events, and carts filled with books. We sat down with Regina in the library’s mechanical room, which had been converted to a small meeting space. Dealing with the flow of large quantities of books, materials, and supplies is a significant part of Regina’s job.

Regina carries books that were pulled from the shelves due to damage, old age, or underuse.
Regina carries books that were pulled from the shelves due to damage, old age, or underuse.


Regina explained, “We’re drowning in books.” She was referring to her branch, but also the Austin Public Library system in general. Like all branch libraries, Regina’s branch has a limited amount of shelf space, and in order to serve patrons with the best quality materials, library staff perform “weeding.” Weeding is the action of pulling materials out of circulation. A book may be weeded because it’s in poor physical condition, or it hasn’t been checked out in recent years. Regina showed us carts full of weeded materials: books, audio books, and DVDs.

Regina shows us carts of books, DVDs, CDs, and other materials that the library has pulled from the shelves or that people have donated.
Regina shows us carts of books, DVDs, CDs, and other materials that the library has pulled from the shelves or that people have donated.

After materials are weeded, Regina and her staff mark materials to be delivered to Recycled Reads. Regina communicated a sense of relief and gratefulness when describing Recycled Reads’ purpose within the Austin Public Library System. She mentioned, “It wouldn’t take us very long, about a week, until we were tripping on stuff…with very limited resources [Recycled Reads] makes it all go away.”


Making it all go Away

That brings us to Recycled Reads. From the front, Recycled Reads looks like an unassuming storefront in a small strip center on Burnet Road in north central Austin. We walked in the front door on our first day of research, and stepped into the atmosphere of a calm, welcoming used bookstore. In the large, open center of the store, patrons were reading and working on laptops, while others browsed shelves filled with books.

People browse, read, and work at Recycled Reads.
People browse, read, and work at Recycled Reads.

We were greeted by the manager, Mary – a petite 62 year-old woman with a big presence and a lot of energy. She took us through to the back room, and we were astonished by the sight of boxes upon boxes of materials. Some boxes were stacked in huge cubes on pallets, while others, on carts, were being methodically opened and sorted by staff and volunteers to go to the retail floor.


Boxes full of books in the Recycled Reads backroom.
Boxes full of books in the Recycled Reads backroom.

Mary explained that it isn’t just the public library that sends Recycled Reads its unwanted books and media, but that 50% of the donations they receive are straight from public donations. She said:

“They drive up here in Uhauls and pickup trucks, and SUVs, and Wells Cargo trailers filled with books, you know? And they have no idea, they have no idea what’s gonna happen with this stuff. They’re just so happy not to have to deal with it.”

Half of all materials that Recycled Reads takes in are public donation. Here volunteers help bring in one of those donations.
Half of all materials that Recycled Reads takes in are public donation. Here volunteers help bring in one of those donations.

We’ve learned through our research that people have an attachment to books. However, at a certain point people feel overburdened by their accumulations of stuff, and their sentimental attachment is outweighed by the need to be rid of it all. They don’t want to throw these books away, but they want them out of their consciousness, so they take them to Recycled Reads.

Recycled Reads is not only the reuse, repurpose, and recycle branch of the Austin Public Library, but they’re also a place for the public at large to donate their unwanted materials. Recycled Reads takes in 60,000 – 70,000 items a month. That’s 2,000 items a day! Most importantly, they’re taking items that would otherwise go in the landfill, and redirecting them to streams of further use.


Mitch feels overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff in the warehouse he oversees, and frustrated by an inability to get rid of any of it. Regina is always just at capacity with books at the library branch that she manages, and is so grateful to have a place to send the weeded materials and donations that pile up in her space. Individuals with too much stuff want to unburden themselves of their unwanted personal books and materials, but can’t bear to just throw them out. Recycled Reads takes on the responsibility of accepting these donations and weeded materials, diverting them from the landfill, and gives them further life. In the words of Regina, the branch librarian we visited:

“If I didn’t have Recycled Reads to launder my donations and grubby books, we would be in a world of hurt real quick.”


We presented our stories from the field to two members of Recycled Reads staff. Their reaction was positive, and expressed that our stories were an appropriate introduction to Recycled Reads. The staff also saw value as a conversation-starter to an ongoing conundrum to the city— the inability to get rid of unused materials. The staff believed our research had potential to be presented to City of Austin administrators, other city departments, and other library branches.


We are just completing week four of sixteen, concluding our data collection portion. We will transcribe every interview, post them around our workspace and immerse ourselves in the words and drawings of our participants. From there, our team will uncover themes in order to synthesize our research into insights.


Stories from the Castle

Over the last few weeks, Jen and I have been conducting design research for our project with Castle Hill Fitness. At the beginning of this assignment we created a research plan on our own which focused on the green initiatives that the gym utilizes. The goal was to learn about the impact these may have on members and employees. After meeting with Castle Hill Fitness we updated our research plan to better reflect their interest in learning more about the new member on boarding process.

Focus Statement: We plan to learn how new members feel about and become familiarized with the products and services offered by Castle Hill Fitness.

Next we began conducting interviews. We have met with 15 participants including employees, former members, current members (new and old), and potential future members to learn about their gym experiences. From these interviews we’ve collected many hours of audio which we’re in the process of transcribing, and over 800 photos. We’re midway through adding all this data to our work space walls in preparation for the next steps of affinity diagramming, which we will use to group the data into themes based on inferences. We will explain more about this grouping process in a later post once we’ve done it.

Research data on the walls of our work space.

At this stage of the process we’d like to share some stories that came out of our research. These stories are not formalized themes, but give a general picture of what we heard in our time with participants, and may help convey a sense of the emotions and overall feelings that people had regarding Castle Hill Fitness and new gym membership.

One story we heard was how community is a big part of what people like about Castle Hill Fitness. Many of the participants we spoke to mentioned how Castle Hill Fitness has a family and community vibe to it, and that’s important to both the staff and members.

“When I turned 50 some of the people that are in Recess that I’ve been jumping rope with for 20 years, we went out to dinner in honor of my birthday. And it’s not about me, right? It’s about the connections that those people have with each other. And I was just the catalyst.”

We also heard the experience of a potential new member. We spoke to Renata, who’s looking to get back into fitness after recovering from some serious injuries. A friend had recommended Castle Hill Fitness so she went to check it out. When we spoke to her she’d done a 3 day free trial, but had not yet joined as a member.

“I loved the class and I was, like, glowing and I was so excited to keep doing Pilates. And the next morning I woke up so sore that I didn’t go back to Castle Hill, I didn’t go to my yoga class that I go to every Saturday. I’m an athletic person and I just felt wrecked. I think I was wrecked for like a week! So I didn’t use the rest of my trial in any sort of way.”

We heard from various gym employees about what it’s like working with new members. For example, Avery told us why she enjoys working with new members saying,

“I find new members exciting. Specifically, I really enjoy getting a new client and kind of starting to—I can’t find a more positive word—but starting to brainwash them. Kind of shedding all that stuff that they know about working out, what they know about gyms and their body … getting them into a deeper internal motivation based on how they’re feeling and how they’re moving.”

Lastly we spoke with a former Castle Hill Fitness member, Jane. She has recently decided to join the Townlake YMCA so we were able to hear about her experience as a new member at the Y and compare it to her time at Castle Hill Fitness.

“I know at Castle Hill they send a lot of emails to members, like ‘oh as a new member you get a free 15 min session with your personal trainer or da da da.’ Those are very helpful. I appreciate those, because I don’t know what’s going on. If you send me an email, I will read it, and be looking and researching what this gym has. If you tell me what you have, and that 15 minute thing or whatever then I’m more likely to act upon it than me wanting to ask what you have offered. At the Y, no emails yet.”

When choosing what to include in our presentation to Castle Hill we tried to select stories that would be interesting for the client to hear. We did this by using quotes and examples that might reveal something new, or convey the emotional impact/personality of the participant. In presenting personal stories from the research we hope to humanize the data and make it more relatable.


Week Four: Who’s With Me?

Four weeks into the AC4D program, and I am figuratively mud doggin’ my way through this week. For those who are unfamiliar, “mud doggin’” basically involves running a pickup truck or 4×4 vehicle through a flooded field of deep mud with total abandon and total uncertainty of making it out. Style points apply for making a mess of everything and making a damn fool of yourself. This week has felt like going with full abandon to the other side as fast as possible, but spinning wheels, kicking up high rooster tails of mess and mayhem, and looking like a damn fool.

One thing I did not look like a fool at was when my team and I gave a presentation of real stories and quotes from our design research project to the client on Thursday. This project began on August 22nd, and the interviews started on September 1st. Our client is involved in community supported agriculture, sustainability, and distribution. It has been a gratifying experience. The participants we interviewed each had interesting stories and personalities. I have rethought my assumptions about social norms. It’s pleasing to know how willing people are to share their stories.

I wish I had reserved more time to rehearse my theories class presentation. From my days of teaching, I have discovered I have a sweet spot between under preparing and over-preparing. I did not reach my sweet spot. I was enthusiastic about sharing the epiphany I had about the Le Dantec and Dourish articles, but I rushed my information, and the argument structure collapsed. My big takeaway was to assume (moving forward) that all our opinions will differ and it is so much more important to make a stronger stance. My mistake was thinking I didn’t have to sell my ideas so hard. I feel vindicated in the next set of readings that I’m on the right path. Designing with has deeper and a more enduring reach.

I have a classmate who confused the difference between giving feedback and giving advice. It was frustrating because I wanted the trust and opportunity to resolve a particular issue about our presentation on my own. Providing feedback is to design with. Giving feedback grants the listener a choice or problem to solve with autonomy. Giving unsolicited advice is to design for. Giving unsolicited advice grants the listener an assumed solution. It is inappropriate to design from a solution rather than to design to a problem. This person was determined to get me to accept their advice (under the guise of giving feedback.) I will use this experience as a learning opportunity.

Going to the Theater



Believe it or not, I actually found a spare moment today to go to the cinema with a couple friends. Austin Film Society was showing Akira, a 1988 masterpiece anime film directed by Katsuhiro Otomo. I am very apt to zone out and go cross-eyed at the animated detail of anime films. They are always visually dazzling and give me a chance to soak in moving art, and to relax. Today that was not the case.

Every frame posed a rapid fire snapshot of the drawing style and point perspective. How does the cityscape look on the horizon? Which characters are usually only shown from the waist up? There were a lot of stimuli for my sketching analytical mind to kick in. It wasn’t relaxing, but it was an exciting and peculiar experience.

This happens with almost everything now. Every service I use has an evident design behind it. I just notice more—The MacBook Pro keyboard is fascinating by the way, It has such a much louder ‘clack’ than previous models.

I find myself getting nosy, asking “why” when someone says “I like that,” or “that’s cool.” I ask myself why things around me matter, which has led me to filter the world more acutely.

I don’t think it would be a sustainable future to have my mind so alert all of the time. But, just like I’m looking for a good work/life balance I’m also looking for my mind/no-mind balance. Wish me luck.