Giving Life to The Pulse of Austin

Picking Up from Last Week

Last week, Kaley wrote about our new direction: a platform for Austinites to voice their feelings on civic topics, which then empowers their voices through a collective display of the city’s voices. The feedback loop for residents who engage was still a lingering piece, and our current vision for this is to connect users with opportunities to take action and seek resources.

This week, we collected a larger data set to start playing with and worked through the details of our platform to bring the idea into higher fidelity.

Call for Voices


Essential questions we needed answered this week:

What kinds of things will people say when asked what in Austin they care about?

Will people’s responses start to fit together when we collect a large enough sample size?

Will people be motivated to contribute their voices in the first place?

To address these questions, we created both an online survey, a call/text option, and an in-person activity. We posted the survey on our respective Nextdoor and Facebook accounts, where we received strong traction. For the call/text option, we designed and posted flyers in libraries, parks, and coffee shops across Austin. Finally, we designed an in-person questionnaire that we worked through with 3 strangers. In total, we collected 100 responses, 96 from the survey, 3 from the in-person interactions, and 1 from the posters.

In-Person Questionnaire Activity
In-Person Questionnaire Activity
Public Poster Call for Voices
Public Poster Call for Voices


  • On social media, where people know us, people were more inclined to participate. Strangers were more hesitant –  who wanted their thoughts and what were they using them for? Valid questions. We need to be more explicit with our intentions to help establish trust.
    • One action item for building trust and reaching engaged Austinites will be to go through already-formed groups, such as PTAs, neighborhood organizations, and Facebook community & interest groups. Getting one advocate within each group will enable a transference of trust and increase participation with The Pulse.
    • The poster’s call to action was not easy to find or very clear. Simplify the graphics and the message.
    • The posters failed – we got one response from a library manager for multiple hours of our time. Social media had a good return, but this is only within our network. A big challenge will be reaching a more representative Austin. While this is our ultimate goal, we have decided that we will first focus on people who are already active in local issues. Have them spearhead the platform and bring others on board.

Digging into the Data

To gain insight into how our platform would work, we simulated the categorization of voices by printing and grouping all the collected responses. We read each one out loud, then proceeded to place it near others that addressed the same topics.

What the Data Showed

  • Transportation and Housing are the strong top categories where the people we reached have concerns to voice
  • People generally selected the most relevant category for their thought. However, some people covered two separate issues in one response.
  • Most of the Other categories fit nicely into our larger category groups – some people just like that specificity.
  • Some specific subgroups emerged, but many responses remained at a higher level.
A Snapshot of the Survey Responses
A Snapshot of the Survey Responses


  • There’s a wide range of specificity with open-ended responses. Ex. “affordable housing” vs. “I was lucky enough to buy an affordable home that has become unaffordable because of taxes. I am approaching retirement, and can not see how I can remain in my home with the reduced income of retirement. I imagine it is even worse for people who are renters.”
  • Some people’s voices may fit within others’ as we categorize them.
  • There’s a certain level of conjecture that we have to make at this early stage in deciding where to place opinions.
  • Some people were thinking more on a national scale. We corrected this by emphasizing Austin in the messaging.
  • Some people’s responses don’t necessarily take a stance – we must prime them to do so.
  • Rather than “what about that topic is on your mind?” We are considering phrasing the prompt as “what change do you hope to see?” – Making it more actionable and making them take a stance.
  • Some people’s responses felt vague because they had already indicated their category prior. We decided to remove the category because:
    1. One less click for them.
    2. They will be more specific in their free text and we will be able to tag it more successfully.
    3. 19% of respondents selected their own category rather than selecting a preset.

Service Blueprinting

We carried our takeaways from this experiment into creating a service blueprint. The blueprint draws the user’s path through interacting with Pulse of Austin, as well as maps out the other factors at play during their experience.

The activity of creating the service blueprint highlighted steps and connectors between aspect of the service which we had not yet considered. It also clarified our conception of the Pulse’s system requirements, helping us to see what we are getting ourselves into on the technical side. This blueprint also inspired new features and pushed us to make decisions on elements of the user’s experience.

Kaley + Nicole Charting Out Our Service Blueprint
Kaley + Nicole Charting Out Our Service Blueprint

Decisions and Revelations

  • We need to decide from what sources to pull updates, events, and resources.
    • We can let users contribute to the listed resources to help prevent things from falling through the cracks, but a lot of this will need to be moderated for legitimacy and usefulness.
  • We have moments where moderation would be needed: confirming that a submission should be in its assigned group and reviewing both thought and resource submissions for appropriateness and accuracy.
    • We can have our power users (early adopters, advocates, activists) lead charge on the page(s) connected to their focus area.
  • Categorizing someone’s voice: We planned on having the user select the category or group they think their concern belongs to. How many options do we give them and what steps do we take them through to ensure the proper match?
    • Instead of putting the categorization burden on the user, our system will make the decision itself. This also removes the friction of the Yes-No-Try Again process that would push some users to exit. This of course, relies on a “smart” system to tag words appropriately.
  • We have two main types of visitors to the site: those who have a specific concern to voice, and those who want to explore and maybe come across an interest.
  • We want to make sure people can visit the site and take action right away, whether by contributing their voice or by viewing what others have said. To reduce friction, login intervention needs to happen at different, distinct moments in the journey for our two main types of users. It’s really only when they are taking an action that needs to be linked to a human (themselves), that they should be prompted to log in or create an account.
The Pulse of Austin Service Blueprint
The Pulse of Austin Service Blueprint

Next Steps

One of our riskiest assumptions is that any software or data algorithm we develop will be able to effectively tag and categorize people’s voices in a way that they feel properly represented. Not being experts in this field, Kaley and I plan to spend this next week researching just what it will take to create this capability and where we may have limitations.

Additionally, we haven’t had much opportunity to run a simulation of this platform by users. We need to measure responses to the part that comes after submitting their voice. Will they be interested in reading what other people say? Will they feel satisfied if given programs or shown ways to participate? This is particularly critical at this beginning stage, because, as of now, the Pulse of Austin has not matured to the level of making an impact. How do we encourage Austinites to engage with a platform that only has the promise, and not yet the proof, of making an impact?

Building a Service Blueprint for KeyUp

The last week of Q3 approaches, but we (Adam, Mary Hannah, and Mariangela) continue to validate our service idea: KeyUp, a digital solution that aims to connect young adults to training programs and supporting services, with the mission to have them attain a well-paid, mid-skill level career, improve their quality of life, and subsequently, increase their level of civic participation.

While conducting experiments, we finished putting together our website (check it out! which we have shown to a couple of young adults from whom we gathered and implemented feedback. We’ve also been spending some time on building our online presence on Instagram (  and Facebook (coming soon).

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This week, these were the hypotheses we tested in order to de-risk the development of our service:

  • If we manage to get 30 young adults interested in our product, we will get 5 people to participate in co-creating paper prototypes for our digital solution.
  • If we pitch our service idea to 4 stakeholders working in community outreach and also those that specialize in connecting individuals to job opportunities, they will agree to support us in our endeavor.
  • If we create social media accounts on Facebook and Instagram, we will be able to attract attention from key target audiences.

Experiment 1: Testing platform UI

The digital piece of our solution will be the main point of interaction between young adults and our service, so we wanted to make sure that the interface efficiently communicated information that is of relevance to them. In order to do this we created a paper prototype that we intended to use in a co-creation activity with young adults.

Success criteria:

We will get the contact information of 30 young adults, of whom five people will be willing to attend a participatory activity.

Actual results:
We only managed to get 3 individuals to agree to do a participatory research activity.
Reaching out to young adults that will actually follow up with us continues to be a challenge.

Experiment 2: Creating partnership with stakeholders

By speaking to an array of stakeholders, experts in the areas of continuing education and supporting services, we hoped to confirm that they supported and would use an app that would connect young adults with training programs and services to get them into middle skills jobs.

Success criteria:

We talked to four stakeholders hoping that we could detect opportunity areas to partner with them.

Actual results:

The services that we’ve reached out to have been extremely responsive and have started introducing us to other interested parties. We have now had meetings or scheduled meeting with almost every stakeholder that we identified or that another stakeholder has recommended we look into, indicating that we are approaching a comprehensive understanding of the actors in the youth workforce space. Our conclusion as a result of these interviews is that despite their active efforts to coordinate with each other, many of these communities and programs are working in silos. No one we spoke with had a list of all training programs and services available in Austin for people trying to reach middle-skill jobs, and few would even hazard guesses. Therefore, KeyUp would be filling a gap in the efforts of current stakeholders.

Next steps

UI paper prototyping

This week we focused on the researching and refining content for our digital solution.
In order to prove validation of our solution, we need to be sure that the information that we’re providing actually is valuable to the young adults we’re trying to connect to programs and services that will guide them through a sea of educational options.

After having put together a first paper UI kit in order to test it, we realized that we were dealing with an extensive amount of data about existing training programs, careers, and supporting services. The challenge lies in the fact that we can’t just google training programs and make a list of our findings; we need to actually do the due diligence of scrubbing data and provide information about programs that are legitimate and have a good reputation.

Paper prototype for UI participatory activity

Pivot: We decided to choose three industries that we would like to be “subject matter experts” about so that we’ll be able to provide the best information out there for prospective users. These areas are: health care, tech, and skilled trade jobs, all industries identified as well-paying and high growth in Austin.

Service blueprint

KeyUp potential end users

After the research we conducted, we realized that there are at least four types of users that could interact with our service. We decided to focus on the user that is in an “exploratory” phase while searching for jobs and that suddenly stumbles upon “KeyUp” through Google or social media. The reason why we decided to choose this user is because they will be following the full KeyUp journey from beginning to end.

Screen Shot 2018-02-16 at 8.29.25 PM
Iterations of Service Blueprints

We will continue working on defining what our service consists of by iterating on our service blueprint as we keep on conducting interviews with stakeholders and potential end users. We’ll use our service blueprint to prompt conversation about our service in order to receive feedback and refine our solution.

Screen Shot 2018-02-16 at 9.01.19 PM
Last iteration of Service Blueprint


The Value Of The Comedian


The main assignment for this week was to map out the concept from start to finish in a service blueprint that included all key customer touch points and the players involved. However, in addition to that assignment, we needed to accomplish some things from last week that we did not successfully run through. We still needed to know pricing and availability for the venues we were interested in, and we needed to connect with the comedians we had in our pipeline to see if they would be interested in participating in our event. We also wanted to test our assumption that these local civic issues could be made funny by co-designing with a comedian and performing in a live show.

Connecting With Comedians

Scott took point on contacting the comedians this week and did a great job of setting up interviews and phone calls to gauge the interest for bringing them on board. Two artists we have been in close contact with lately are Dana: a popular comedian here in Austin, has been doing stand and hosting gigs for several years; and Craig; another well known comedian that not only performs stand but also co-hosts a monthly showcase and a comedy podcast. We are looking to bring both Dana and Craig on board as potential host or comedic acts. Scott managed to connect us with three other comedians this week and we have two interviews setup for next week. In an interview we did Friday night we spoke with a comedian that expressed great interest in the event and wants to be apart of it. We set up a co-design session to go over the service blueprint with him on Monday afternoon.

Co-Designing With Dana

Dana did come into the school to look over our service blueprint of the event and gave us tips on how to optimize it based on her professional experience. An idea that we were thinking around the acts within the show was to have improv or sketch artists come up and perform, as a way to mix it up from just stand up comedy. Dana informed us that this had some drawbacks and among those was the overwhelming fact that because improv artists usually worked in teams, that would mean we would need to pay several improv artists instead of just one comedian.


We have not yet decided on whether we will include improv or sketch artist into the show but at this point with our current service blueprint we only have a host and four comedians performing.


Our goal is to find a comedian that can host the show for us and to have at least four comedians that are willing to perform for our first show. We have discussed payment for the comedians and host as a group and at this time we have decided that it is in our and the talent’s best interest to pay them monetarily. We are also currently discussing the possibility of filming the acts for our website, so that could serve as a non-monetary currency for the talent as well since we have learned that many comedians are seeking well produced videos of their segments.

Understanding Their Art

One point that Dana made during our co-designing session that I wanted to mention here was that she is really pushing for comedians to get paid for their work. She told us that many comedians nowadays are eager to get gigs and some are willing to do it for free. The problem is that then it is more difficult for comedians to ask for money to perform their acts and thus it continues this cycle of devaluing the professional. Scott, Maria, and I agree that we need to pay our host and comedians something other than just free beer, or exposure because the comedic talent is something that leverages our business concept.

20180205_212053 (1)

We are realizing just how difficult and time-consuming it is to write and perform comedy. We understand that in order to provide value to residents by hosting an event to encourage civic participation we need great comedians that can make our night special and memorable.

Failing To Onboard

The one thing we did not set out to do was successfully convince Dana to help test out our hypothesis that jokes with local civic themes can be funny. After our co-design session we asked her if it was something she would be able to do and she mentioned that it would probably take a lot of work, due to that she would not do it without compensation. We agreed to her suggestion and sent her some information about what she should include in the act. We are still waiting to hear back from her at this point so I might be jumping the gun by saying we did not accomplish this goal, but it has been a few days and we as group are preparing a back up plan to quickly test the assumption in other ways.

Mapping Out The Event

This week’s primary assignment was to have a service blueprint of our business concept from start to finish. In our case the concept is an event held at a comedy venue, bar, or brewery.


Customers will get free food with the price of admission and be able to purchase beer and wine at the bar. The event will be civically themed with facilitated interactions pre-show in the forms of videos, conversation cards, civic night hashtag photo mirrors, etc. The show itself will consist of a host, four comedians, and an organization/speaker that introduces and briefly discusses a civic topic (affordable housing, CodeNext, registering to vote, etc.).

Watching The Show

During the acts, customers will sit and listen to the comedians and the host. Only when the speaker is finished giving their lecture will customer have a quick 3-5 minute to ask questions on the topic. Then, after the show ends, the customers have the options to stay and chit chat, leave, or approach the booth(s) that we set up set up with ways to be involved in civic topics. These topics will range from the topic that the speaker will address to broad civic themes like registering to vote.


Post Show

During the experience we encourage customers to view our website to find out more about how to be involved. We give calls to actions at every touchpoint with our facilitators (coordinators, speakers, greeters) that give customers the push to be civically engaged and provide the website as a safe alternative to biased news-sources. The customer go the website or instagram page after leaving the event and it is there that they become informed and engaged in local politics and community issues in a way that is non-committal, non-biased, and light and fun.

Going To Market

This week we learned the value of our comedians and that it is important that we treat them with the same level of professionalism as you would any artist or specialist. We found new ways to introduce our civic topics into our event using the service blueprint as a sense making tools, and we were able to understand exactly how the event is shaped. However, there are things that we did not accomplish; We still need to test whether this material can be funny. The plan for the coming week is to develop our go to market plan which will consist of the actions and resources we need to acquire in order to make this concept into and actual thing that we put on. Our group is confident that we will be able to put this event on. We are hopeful that this type of event will provide an important starting point for residents of Austin who are otherwise disengaged from their community and government to become civically involved.
Come back next week to read about our go to market plan.

KeyUp: A recruiting service for young adults to find middle skill careers

This week was a turning point for our project. After last week’s flurry of stakeholder outreach , our experiments this week laid to rest the last of our concerns about the fundamental desire on the part of working young adults to connect with training programs and services to help them get through school. Our meetings with stakeholders in person or over the phone also confirmed their interest in a digital service to help training programs and non-profits to connect with young people. With that out of the way, we created paper prototype interfaces and continued to develop our landing page.


This week, these were the hypotheses we tested in order to de-risk the development of our service:

  1. If stakeholders believe there is a need for our service and will support it, then they will express that in our meetings and follow up with us afterwards.
  2. If our target users are interested in our product, they will agree to meet with us to co-create an app interface for our product.
  3. If our target users attend recruitment meetings for Capital Idea (a non-profit that gives people scholarships to get training for middle-skill careers), they indicate robust interest in getting to middle skill careers and using programs offered by local non-profits to do so.

To investigate those assumptions, we conducted the experiments detailed below.


Experiment 1: Stakeholder Outreach, Meetings, and Follow-up

To address the risk that stakeholders in the job training/employment community might not support our project or see how it could integrate into their own processes, we decided to request meetings, speak with them, and then see if they were willing to follow up with us afterwards

Success Criteria

We hoped to schedule meetings with at least five stakeholders,  and then meet with two stakeholders who would then follow up with requested information afterwards.

Actual Results

As of the afternoon of Friday the 9th, we had scheduled four new meetings for the next week. We also met with two stakeholders this week, a professor at the Ray Marshall Center for the Study of Human Resources at UT and the executive director of the Austin Youth Chamber of Commerce. They both expressed enthusiasm for our product and offered to follow up with more information and contacts to support us. Alyssia Woods of the Austin Youth Chamber then actually sent us an email afterwards offering to introduce us to people at several relevant local organizations with whom we had not already talked.

In summary, stakeholders continued to be interested in our product and see a need for it after meeting with us, sharing their expertise, and hearing our plans.

Experiment 2: Intercept Interviews

Success Criteria

We hoped that at least 5 people would inquire further about our product after hearing about the concept and being asked to cast their vote for what the product’s name should be.

Actual Results

We briefly interviewed 16 working adults this week at the Barton Creek Mall. From those interviews we learned that our participants found our original working title, “Sidestep,” confusing, often responding that it sounded like a dance move or like a job you could have on the side.

The most popular proposed name was “KeyUp,” which participants thought sounded catchy. It also reminded them of the actual purpose of the product, saying, “it makes sense for what you would want to do,” and “it sounds like an improvement.”


Transcending Neighborhood Boundaries to Connect Voices

At the end of  last week,  Nicole and I felt very unsure of where we were headed.

We had wanted to find a way to bring voices to the city, and take the pulse of the people (see our original concept of the Austin is Me truck). We felt it was important to bring Austinites together, but our experiments were forcing people to act unnaturally. When invited to come chat on the street, people didn’t answer their doors, and didn’t really want to be interrupted. The our aim was to allow people to recognize commonalities and feel empowered within their city. We thought that since neighborhoods had always been such a source of community for people, we should reignite this interconnectivity. But many people don’t seek to find community in their neighborhoods any longer. So how else might we do this?

Back to the research boards.

Having a second look at the research there were some strong themes that called to us. Voices from people like Ellen. She once tried to reach out to her councilman, but never heard back from him and became angry and discouraged. “Did he think I was just bugging him? Do they actually even care?” Ellen’s questions are echoed by citizens all over the city. This feels like the real issue. Instead of asking people to engage that normally wouldn’t, a good starting point might be to help the people that are inclined to engage with the city to feel successful.

The Feedback Loop

However, one of the biggest challenges to feeling success is  the current feedback loop. It works like this:


The way government works is obscure. Residents don’t understand what is happening at city hall and this lack of feedback causes them to lose confidence in the system, and even in themselves. Residents that do reach out to city government and don’t see any results start to think, Maybe I’m not very important.

The Success Stories

So where do we see success?

Nicole and I found success stories in people like Diego. A man that was once very anti-government, found early success when personally invited to participate in a petition against a local issue. He joined, and later spear-headed, a coalition that has gained traction and influence in the city. The difference in Diego and Ellen? He joined forces with many voices, and Ellen’s voice stood alone.

Engage with City copy@72x-100

However, Diego works to make his voice and opinions heard full-time. Engaging with the government can turn into a full-time job, but it shouldn’t be this way.

Our Concept

These two stories and what we’ve learned over the past two weeks, has led Nicole and I to some hone in on a slightly new direction with our concept. We are working with a couple of new design principles:

Our design should…

  1. Make participation feel open to everyone
  2. Require minimal time and energy commitments
  3. Include a feedback loop
  4. Help residents see that they are not alone in their struggles, viewpoints, or concerns
  5. Allow people to engage on their own time
  6. Lastly, it should give an easy to understand view of what Austinites care about

The last point moves towards our secondary hope for this platform. Our hope is that it can exist as a map that portrays the thoughts, feelings, and concerns in a snapshot that the city can use to better understand it’s residents.

Platform Collection@72x-100


The idea is that people’s voices will be joined together and a visual will be created that tracks trends, giving more weight to individual voices. It might be something like this:

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This new concept isn’t perfect of course. We face the problem of collecting an adequate data set to start with.

We attempted an experiment this week.


The thought was, we’d have to draw people in and collect data from them, so we needed something intriguing enough to compel people to want to tell us what they care about. Maybe we could get data by making it feel like a fun personality quiz, or by pulling residents in with off-beat facts about Austin. Then we could use this information to start building the “Pulse of Austin” platform.

Question: Could we survey people at a coffee shop and use qualitative responses to create an interesting data set?

We set off asking people about their neighbors:

What do your neighbors think about you?

What do you think about them?

How many of your neighbors names do you know?

We heard some good stories but after speaking to 8 people, I’m not sure we were seeing any useful trends yet.

So I started to wonder, could we just build a data set from something that already exists? And then would residents come to use the platform, not because it’s fun but just because they care? After all, our early adopters will be people that want to make their voice heard anyway. People like Diego and Ellen.

Next Steps

Moving forward the biggest piece of the puzzle that is still missing is the feedback loop.

Our goals for this coming week are to:

  1. Gather data either through something that already exists, like at, or straight up ask people through a survey that we can then compile into a visual.
  2. Figure out the feedback loop part (!).
  3. Sit down with people and see how they respond to answering “what’s on your mind?” or “what do you care about?” and follow their thinking process to see how they phrase concerns or find alignment with the concerns of others.

It’s a lot to cover, so check back here for updates next week.

Civic Night: when you laugh, you’re listening

As we dig further into Civic Night, we’ve had the challenge of immersing ourselves into Austin’s comedy scene. Nice work if you can get it, right?

On Monday evening we went to see a monthly comedy show called All In: Stand Up at The Sidewinder. On Thursday evening we saw QueerTowne’s Super Gay Valentine’s Day, a show featuring queer-inclusive storytelling, stand up, and improv at Coldtowne Theatre in East Austin. On Friday evening, Esther’s Follies entertained us with political satire, comedy sketches, magic and musical numbers. And firsthand we experienced some of Austin’s venues and bars, like The Historic Scoot Inn in East Austin.

It’s fun and serious work for us. We are building from a design research insight about perception being an essential factor determining if and how a person engages civically. How might we leverage the power of perception to increase meaningful civic participation?

We’ve combined the insight and opportunity with a powerful form of art: comedy.

We’ve gotten some quizzical looks. Comedy? We’ve seen it play out nationally with politics–Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Saturday Night Live– and much success. And numerous secondary sources are extolling the virtues of comedy as a means to shape what people think and even what they do.

In addition to learning about the scene firsthand, we’re there to talk with patrons about their experience and interest in comedy. What if we changed one or two things about a production–a heavy dose of civic life–will they be interested in a show like that and why.

Like many before us, we discovered that Austin’s comedy scene is alive and thriving. It’s a diverse mix of young and experienced talent, performing stand-up to improv to sketch shows every week.


In addition to immersing ourselves in the scene, we ran three experiments this week to test format, venues, and comics.


We believe there are three potential formats for Civic Night: civic comedy show, civic salon, or civic 101. We developed high-level journey maps to test with people to determine if there is a preference for one over the other. We anticipated that a majority would prefer one format over the other.

Civic Comedy Show - Journey Map

Civic 101 - Journey Map

Civic Salon - Journey Map


Results: the majority preferred the comedy show format. A common theme we picked up on was that many of the people spoke with thought the comedy show format would meet people where they are and introduce political and community topics in a fresh way.

“I like that after the show, people go and talk…”

“The population is not self-educated about topics. This gets you there.”

“This is an interesting idea. Cool.”

We spoke with 20 people to complete an experiment about a preferred format for Civic Night.
We spoke with 20 people to complete an experiment about a preferred format for Civic Night.


We believe there are venues in East Austin who will host Civic Night for little to no cost since there is an opportunity to make money on the drinks sold. We made outreach to six potential venues (including bars and traditional comedy show venues) to learn about availability, logistics, and atmosphere.

Results: inconclusive. We have not been able to speak one-on-one with enough venues yet to complete the experiment. We anticipate ending the test early next week. If we decide to pursue a traditional comedy show theatre, we learned that there are two on the East Side.


We believe there are diverse comedians In Austin, including Hispanic and African American, who will be interested in Civic Night as a potential event where they would perform. We made outreach to six diverse comedians to discuss Civic Night, and we expect that at least 2-3 of the comics will be interested in Civic Night as a potential event where they would perform.

Results: inconclusive. We were not able to speak one-on-one with enough diverse comedians yet to complete the experiment. Phone and face-to-face meetings are scheduled, and we anticipate completing the test early next week.

What’s next

We plan to continue work to understand the customer’s journey. We will further explore the front of the house, back of the house, stakeholders, and partners. We plan to explore a digital extension of Civic Night as an essential part of our service offering, co-design with a comedian, and develop additional experiments to test Civic Night.

Visit us online to signup and stay up-to-date with the latest news about Civic Night.

Joshua Browning, Scott Reed, and Maria Zub


Design Juniors + Start Up! Kids

Last week I was concerned about the progress of the summer academy program I’m starting, called Design Juniors. Not only did people not understand what design thinking was, they kept asking the question, but what will the kids be doing?

Very valid question, and my answer was that, I didn’t know! I knew we would do some “design thinking” activities, but I hadn’t defined the challenge the students were going to work on yet. Last week, I held several meeting with people at different non-profit organizations around town, and they all seemed to have potential. One conversation, however, stuck with me the most.

Start-Up! Kids Club began just a year ago and is essentially a one-woman show with a growing program in 6 locations around Austin. The woman that founded the non-profit program has been getting requests for a summer camp, but she doesn’t quite have the capacity to do put it together and run it on her own.

This is where I step in. “Why don’t we just partner for the camp?” I asked, “We will teach kids how to launch their own businesses, and design thinking will be the underlying methodology we use.”

She was in, and now I’m working on putting together an outline for a two week course in the summer that blends design thinking and entrepreneurship.


Next steps include tightening up some partnerships that are in the works and ironing out details like location and pricing so we can start selling spots for the camp.

In April, we are planning to run a retreat for students out at a place near Dripping Springs. This will be a teaser for the program and a way for us to test out some of the things we will teach.

In the meantime, there’s lots to do. Next week you can look forward to hearing what it’s like to run an ideation session with 9 year olds.


Civic Night: Expectations and ideals

Go and talk to real people. This statement is the credo of UX designers and researchers. GO AND TALK! So we did. This week we were validating the format of the event that is supposed to bring people with different socioeconomic backgrounds together to talk about local issues. We call it Civic Night. We created a flyer for the event and put it in front of people on the streets of the East Side of Austin.

PrototypesHere’s what we heard right away:
– “What is it going to be about? Donald Trump of course!”
– “Stop right there. I don’t do politics.”
– “This is an interesting idea. It’s like Saturday Night Live.”

Ok, maybe using the word “politics” twice in such a small flyer was too much. It conjures up negative feelings in some people. Other than that we got a lot of interesting comments on the concept from participants and heard some amazing stories.

One of the participants took a special place in our minds. He inspired us so much to realize this concept in real life! We met him in a parking lot of Sonic. Well, first we met four young guys sitting at a table and eating corn dogs. We asked them to participate and heard “Yeah, sure, but we don’t know anything about politics, but our boss does!” They pointed at the black pickup truck just a couple of feet from us and we saw a man sitting in the driver seat. We thanked the guys and went to the boss.

Let’s call him Omar. He wasn’t excited to talk first, but when we briefly described the idea, he started to open up. He is a construction trainer and leads a group of students on construction projects. Omar used to live in East Austin, but can not afford it anymore, so he moved outside of the town. He told us how he met Steven Adler once – he and his group were building houses for homeless people, and the mayor just showed up one day! He said then he and his wife are just starting to get into local politics, so he liked our concept because it promises to be fun. “I didn’t participate before because it is too serious. Your idea sounds like fun”. Omar is Mexican American. When we asked him who he thinks is going to be the audience of an event like this, he said: “I don’t think minorities will come. A lot of Caucasian people will”. When we asked why, he said: “Because minorities are just trying to maintain, you know: eat, drink. They don’t worry about things like this.”

When we come back to the school to debrief on the first day, we were pretty excited. We knew we need to redesign the flyer, and we hoped it will communicate the idea better so more people will be as excited as we are. We changed the title from “Party. People. Politics” to “Community Central” and “local politics” to “local issues”. But talking to people on the next day, we didn’t see much interest either.

interview Drea
We spent a lot of time analyzing WHY we had a significant success on NextDoor and very little on the streets of the city. We started to talk about the potential participants. Who are they? Where do they live? What race are they? What economic class do they represent?

27 participants. And there is a trend. A socioeconomic class divided people into two groups pretty clearly.

The results of the experiment with middle-income people indicated that a majority are interested in the concept; they prefer a live show over a recorded show; they prefer a comedy show with an interactive component that sparks community engagement. They were willing to exchange contact information and learn more about the project.

The results of the experiment with lower income people in East Austin (a big part of them were representative of minorities) were inconclusive because most of them did not find value in the concept. “Nothing is going to change” – we heard. “I’m not into all this politics”. Changing a prototype did no change their reaction. Not interested.

The main goal of Civic Night is to bring people together. To make change together. We know there is a very specific situation in East Austin – complicated relationships between new transplants and long-term residents. But how can we bring them together if they don’t see WHY should they do that? This question keeps being unanswered in our heads. We believe that COMMUNITY is a necessary element of change in Austin. Talking about hot topics is the only way to empathy and productive relationships. Unfortunately, we have not yet found the appropriate language to describe the concept and the benefits of the concept to all potential participants of the event such as it. We will explore the ways to gain this understanding.

But we got support from the other, very important players of this project – comedians. The SME interviews with them validated the value of the concept and the fact that comedy is such a powerful human interaction that can influence what people think and do. We were cautioned about the difficulties of politics and humor and identified a well-established comedian who is interested in working with us and connecting us to the comedy scene. We showed up on a comedy-show hosted by her to feel the atmosphere of comedy and get a better sense of how exactly it might work with community building and discussing local issues. We will explore this opportunity more.Comedy

These were the experiments and developments of this week, but we are still getting results from last week’s experiment, which are pretty exciting and give hope!

Even though we didn’t promote our landing page online since the very first post on NextDoor, we are still getting subscriptions! The amount of email addresses we got has doubled since the last week! (so far we have 50 people signed up on our website, 24 of them were signed up in last 6 days, 3 days after our Next Door promotion). It does look like our tear-off flyers worked! The most popular flyers were put on in Austin Bouldering Project building that also gives us a tip on who is the audience who is interested in an event such as Civic Night.


Next week we are going to develop an experiment that outlines/explains Civic Night concepts that have been discussed this week by the team, e.g., comedy show, trivia show, salon format, and media platform and also develop a new experiment with target customers to better understand expectations and interest.

We highly appreciate any thoughts and comments on the topic and would love to discuss it with anyone who has something to say. Please, feel free to contact us and we will happily talk over coffee and move some stickies around with you.

To learn more about Civic Night visit our website!

Testing the Podcast Process

This last week has been enlightening as we’ve tested new aspects of our idea’s likelihood to succeed in the market. It’s been similar to a plane in the blue sky landing on the hard tarmac – I’m relieved to be on firm ground, but part of me misses the view and floating in the air. This is where the rubber meets the road.

This blog post is a continuation in a series that tell the story of our Studio class project. We are working together with the City of Austin to develop solutions to improve civic engagement in Austin. For more details, read my one of my previous post’s on the civic engagement project.


This past week I tested more assumptions about my project, a public storytelling initiative called Soul of the City. You can read more about it in the previous Soul of the City post. In summary, the goal of this project is to improve civic engagement by creating more empathy and understanding between individuals of higher and lower socio-economic status through storytelling. Stories about a diverse group of Austinites will reveal the authentic, common, human experience that we all share.

My current plan is to tell these stories in the style of “This American Life”, where regular, themed podcasts provide intriguing frames through which individuals’ personal stories are told. I have not decided yet which frame to use, but examples include “A night at the Taco stand” or “East Side in the 80’s”. Through these themes, the listeners get a new view of Austin through the stories of diverse Austinites.

As described in last week’s post, I thought this podcast would be exciting to produce in a crowd-sourced fashion, however I’ll explore in the rest of the post what I’ve learned about the feasibility of this model and why it may need to shift.

Prototyping – Round 2

I mentioned various assumptions in last week’s post. Will residents feel compelled to share their stories? When, where, and how would they be most likely to share their stories? Will people feel drawn to be “producers” ? What kind of platform would enable producers to review, edit, and weave stories together? What about the sound quality? And how would all this be marketed?

My goal for this week was to make a prototype podcast to better understand the process and thereby assess it’s feasibility.

Podcast 101

The podcast I want to model is “This American Life”, since it is very successful in retaining a large audience through telling heartfelt stories of individuals’ lives. It just so turned out that a friend and former AC4D alumna, Bethany Stolle, recommended an online workshop about podcasting and it was taught by the producer of “This American Life”, Alex Blumberg. Thank you Bethany!

I completed this 10-hour course during the week and used it to inform my methods for interviewing and developing the story. I’ll reference these methods throughout the rest of the post. They were invaluable.


Will lower- and upper-income Austinites want to participate in the Soul of the City podcast about the people of Austin when given the chance through social media?


If I post to Facebook that I am making a podcast about people of Austin, at least 5 individuals who I do not know will agree to be interviewed, even if they did not meet me first in person.

What Happened & Results:


I decided to start with a theme called “New-comers” and posted in a Facebook group called “New to Austin”, telling them about the podcast and inquiring if they wanted to participate.

As a result, ten individuals I did not know Liked the post, and I reached out to all of them asking if they would like to participate.

    • 6 said they would like to;
    • 1 said she is not “New to Austin”;
    • 1 declined;
    • 2 no response

One lesson I learned from Alex’s course is to screen individuals in order to identify those people who a.) have a story to share related to your topic, and b.) have the personality and demeanor to tell emotionally resonant, good stories. Without authentic emotion and revealing stories, this podcast wouldn’t be attractive enough to retain listeners much less move them to develop empathy for other people.

That being said, I next screened the interested individuals for the podcast through online messaging and phone calls. After reviewing all the individuals, I determined for this experiment that I would focus on one person’s story and chose to interview Derek for the podcast.


To prepare for the interview, I followed Alex’s methods and identified moments, twists, and turns revealed in the audition conversations which could explore during the interview. I then developed a list of questions aligned to those moments, closely following Alex’s suggestions on what kinds of questions will best elicit the emotional depth and narrative detail that makes for great podcast storytelling.

The time had come, and we recorded the interview over the phone. For ninety-five minutes, we talked about Derek’s journey from Kansas to Austin. Through Boston, Utah, Los Angeles, Thailand and back to Kansas, Derek has journeyed a long way to get here. It was a conversation that at times had me desperate for action, detail, and depth, and then surprised with me more than I knew what to do with.

After the interview, Derek thanked me and I thanked him. He said that the experience was special for him and that he enjoyed it, and I took that as a good omen for the podcast’s likelihood to succeed.


At this point, I have not yet created a produced version of the podcast in the style of “This American Life”. I will finish the production of the podcast script and then edit the clips together in the following week. For the purpose of this experiment, I arrived at a point that clearly articulated some of the key challenges the Soul of the City storytelling project will encounter. I’ll keep you updated on the prototype podcast’s release with a blog post when it’s ready.

For now, here’s a link to the uncut interview..

Measure of Success:

As far as eliciting stories from strangers through Facebook, the most commonly used online channel between lower-income and higher-income individuals, the experiment was successful. I had more interested participants than my desired quota.

The rest of the experience, which was more of an immersion experience than an experiment,  taught me many other lessons, however, that made me question my model. I’ll discuss those in the next section.


Learnings & Next Steps:

This week taught me that there are too many high risk assumptions in my prior model. My prior model assumed that stories would be crowdsourced by users uploading content to an online platform where eager individuals would contribute by voluntarily producing the stories into podcasts. It was then assumed that at least one of those produced podcasts would be quality enough to attract and retain listeners each week.

I believe that the greatest risk here is of quality. It simply takes too much skill in coaxing stories, weaving them together, and producing a quality podcast to create content that will draw, retain, and create deep empathy in the listener for the storytellers. Also, a crowd-sourced creation engine will be more challenging to get going than one where a few skilled individuals interview residents and produce a podcast.

As such, my current plan is to greatly simplify this podcast and use the methods employed in “This American Life” production.

  • Set a theme
  • Find & Screen participants
  • Interview at most a handful of individuals
  • Produce the podcast

There is one assumption that I believe is more risky than any other at this point, and that is the assumption that lower-income individuals will listen to the podcast. According to research by Neilsen and the Pew Research center, podcasts are much more popular with higher-income, more educated individuals than with lower-income, less-educated individuals. Are podcasts the right medium? Though the rate of monthly podcast listening is increasing at a rate of 20% each year, with 50% of US homes considering themselves “fans” of podcasts, if lower-income individuals aren’t listening to podcasts often, this may not be an effective medium to effect change. In the coming week, this will be the assumption that I need to test in order to move forward with the project as planned.

Engaging with Austinites

Charting Our Impact

This past week has been a test in tenacity for Nicole and I. Uncovering and articulating opportunity areas for Austin’s civic engagement was an illuminating challenge last quarter, and charting a path to meaningfully address one or more of those areas is an entirely new challenge this quarter. Constraints of size (we are just two people!), city government’s bandwidth, and supporting people’s current philosophies have pushed us to cast new molds for how our idea might take shape.

This post takes you along the week’s journey of inspirations and experiments.

Experiment A: Spontaneous Street Conversations

What we tested

We started off by testing the next important assumption for our Pulse of Austin vision: will people, without prior notice, leave their homes to join a street-side discussion?

Hypothesis: Five neighbors from one street will join us for a ten-minute discussion.

How we tested

On Sunday at 4:30pm, we placed a table and chairs in the street at 4th and Pedernales, with beer, tea, and snacks to share with neighbors. As a conversation starter, we set up our board from last week that reads “Austin makes me feel… ____ and ____”, and we left last week’s responses posted below the whiteboards. Once we had the station set up, we knocked on each door on the street.


Participation: 7 people total – 4 who live on the street.

  • 9 doors we knocked on did not answer at all.
  • Only four doors we knocked on opened, and three people from two of those households joined.
  • One neighbor walking his dog crossed the street to join.
  • Three men riding by on bicycles circled back thanks to the promise of snacks and beer.
  • Many cars drove by slowly to check out what we were doing, but we had no engagement with any drivers.

Hypothesis result: failed. We only engaged with four people who live on the street, rather than our five anticipated participants. Additionally, we were not able to get everyone to convene at once for a group discussion; instead, conversations happened sporadically as neighbors came and went.


For those that did come out, nmeighbors spoke to us about their relationships with other people on the street and Austin at-large, and what connections they would value.

Event Interest

“If there were an event with the other neighbors on the street, I’d go. I like to feel like part of a community.” – Kara

“I probably wouldn’t [join for a mediated neighborhood discussion]. There would need to be a time limit on it

…I see people shoot heroin around the corner and people walking on the street talking to themselves. I don’t know what to do about that. Is there someone I should tell? I think if you got people together over an issue like that, I’d come out for it.”– Adam


“I meet people when walking my dog, since I work from home. Not having an office to go into makes it hard to meet people.” – Shawn

“Since I walk around a lot, I meet most people in the neighborhood that way.” – Kara

“I mostly only know people from work or from before moving to Austin. Actually, my New Year’s resolution is to get out and meet more people.” – Emily


  •      People often do not answer the door when you knock. They do not feel comfortable, or they do not want to be bothered.

  “I won’t answer the door if I am here by myself, especially if it’s a man”. – Kara

 “You get some weird people knocking on the doors during the day.” –Adam

  •  Since door knocks do not work, we need to change our concept of an invitation. What format should it take, and how much prior notice would optimize turnout?
  •  Having a follow-up mechanism is important. People like to share, but they are not always ready to in the moment; giving people time, space, and flexibility is important. We witnessed this with Shawn, who left a note in Kaley’s mailbox the next day answering the “Austin Makes Me Feel…” prompt and offering to host an event.


  •       We need to craft a clear exit point for any type of in-person engagement we host. People lingered when they did not understand if the experience had ended.
  •       There is a strong desire for stronger neighborhood communities – at least among the people we spoke with. We recognize that there is likely some selection bias here based on who decided to come out and speak with us.

Experiment B: Structured Civic Coffee Chat

Building off what we learned in experiment A, we wanted to test our new hypotheses.

What we tested

  1. When given advanced notice and a clear 15-minute time commitment, how many people will join for a moderated discussion around civic issues?
  2. When hearing others’ opinions and stances on civic topics, will people account for those perspectives and perhaps change their stance? We believe that the more conversations people have in a safe environment, the more likely they are to become open to new perspectives and start thinking with a collective mindset.

Hypothesis 1: We will invite 15 people, and of that group, five will join us for a discussion (33% engagement).

Hypothesis 2: We will see at least three instances of people changing their answer after hearing someone else’s point of view.

How we tested

At 4:15pm on Tuesday, we handed out invitations at Lazarus Brewery for a 15-minute chat in the living room area. We held the chat at 4:30pm, giving 15 minutes of advanced notice.

Talk Invite-03

With our participants, we facilitated a discussion-sparking game of A vs. B. First, guests voted on what topic they cared more about: housing (A) or transportation (B). That vote then segued into 4 “this or that” style questions related to transportation (the category that won round #1).


Participants used their lettered placards to vote, and then people optionally discussed why they chose their answers. Finally, everyone was given the option to change their answer based on what they heard.


We ended up inviting 25 people, rather than 15. Of these invitees, we received five participants (20% engagement).

Hypothesis 1: Semi-Failed. While we got the five participants we anticipated, the engagement percentage was 13 points lower than we hypothesized. This is the metric that will truly matter as we scale our idea.

Hypothesis 2: Failed. Three people changed our answers to one question after hearing people’s opinions, but two of the three were us. All of our participants kept their responses, but there was some verbal concession to other people’s points of view.



  • People like to share their opinions – we have seen this across all our platforms we have tested.
  • Most people’s top policy consideration is what will most benefit their personal situation.
  • Our participants were intrigued about where we had performed this activity and where we were going next. Isolated events do not work on their own – again, we need follow-up with an easy path for continued engagement.
  • As it stood, this experiment was an activity. How might we make it a product?

The Lingering Questions

What is our sustained impact? What change are we driving?

What kind of change are we expecting people to make? The city to make? Ourselves to make?

Currently, we are reconnecting with the research. We want to push this project further, and a philosophical approach of connecting neighbors to each other is not the only way to create change. How might we provide value in a more concrete manner for the residents we spoke with during our research that experience real and immediate challenges?