Narrow Focus, Broad Applicability: How a focus on wicked problems can benefit everyone

I’ve noticed an interesting pattern in my students’ work, and it’s one that I wasn’t expecting. Because of the process we’re using – a process where we identify insights related to a wicked problem and use them as scaffolds for a new business – we’re aiming design at problems that matter, which helps to serve an underserved population. That’s by design. But what’s unexpected is that each business that has been created has resonance for “regular people”, too: in each case, students have developed solutions that support their target audience, but have a much broader appeal. The writings on Universal Design describe the same principle: by designing for those with special needs, your solutions will be usable by those with average needs, too. Oxo is the quintessential example: while the original handles were designed for those with arthritis, it turns out that peeling potatoes is uncomfortable for anyone, and so the narrow focus actually has broad resonance.

I’ll explain how this is working at AC4D by way of three example companies we’ve launched or are in the process of launching.

Pocket Hotline creates a way for volunteers to support non-profits by answering calls to those who are in need of a direct, personal and human interaction. The main social goal is to empower a community to support at-risk individuals.

The Pocket Hotline idea was developed after the founders, Scott and Chap, observed a general state of anxiety and chaos occurring at a local homeless shelter. There was a need for more personal interactions between the staff and the homeless clients, but there was an obvious lack of human resources available and a disproportionate amount of clients to staff. Additionally, while the case managers could schedule meetings with the clients, these acted as “strategic” interactions – intended to plan for the future – rather than “tactical” interactions, which would be useful in the moment of a crisis or a question.

But it turns out that there’s broader appeal for voice conversations and one on one interactions, and one of the most successful applications of the hotline has been in Ruby on Rails Software Development (the Rails Hotline). Although the subject matter is drastically different, the main premise is the same: “I need to speak to a person that can help, right now.”

Feast For Days creates a way for low-income families to cook in a communal setting, to eat home-cooked meals, and to increase their knowledge of the importance of healthy and natural ingredients.

Jonathan and Ben, the founders of Feast For Days, observed low-income families at food banks passing over healthy vegetables because they didn’t understand how to prepare the food. During shop-alongs, they learned that many of the people they were trying to help had never learned to cook, and few actually had the required infrastructure to legitimately cook a meal. As a result, most turned to prepared meals or fast food, which are notoriously high in sodium and low in food value. There was a need for a low-stress way to gain access to home-cooked meals in order to introduce new behavior and norms around preparing meals from scratch.

The main social goal is to lower the economic and emotional barriers to healthy eating while introducing new knowledge and techniques. It turns out, those same emotional barriers exist in higher socio-economic contexts, too, and communal cooking has a large social appeal irrespective of demographics. While those in more affluent social contexts may have once learned how to cook from their parents, they find themselves too busy or without the emotional drive to prepare a home-cooked meal.

HourSchool creates a way for the homeless to act as teachers, earning money and gaining self-worth in the process. The main social goal is to establish a more democratized view of who can and cannot teach. By immersing themselves in the culture of homelessness, founders Ruby and Alex identified that many who are homeless have skills or knowledge that they can provide to other people, but lack the setting in which to begin teaching. Additionally, many of the homeless described feelings of self-worth when they taught things to other people and helped other people; it was, for many of them, the most empowering feeling they had experienced. HourSchool gives them a platform upon which to teach, and a way to experience this feeling of empowerment in a more regular and predictable way.

It turns out that there’s a large appeal to teaching and learning in informal situations, as evidenced by the variety of subject matter offered via HourSchool; based on the breadth of topics on the site, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to identify classes taught by the homeless. And, many of those who teach their first class describe the same feeling of personal empowerment and value that comes from helping someone: it’s an extremely positive moment of growth.

In all three examples, students started by focusing on an at-risk population and targeting their solutions just for them. But because our focus is on a mix of psychology and emotion, rather than technology or utility, we find ourselves playing directly with the material of behavior. And it’s starting to seem like we’re all a lot more similar than we are different, at least when it comes to our influences and aspirations. There’s a pattern here, although I don’t really like implying that this is at all formulaic:

  1. Start with deep immersion in an at-risk population. By literally embedding yourself in the population, you begin to better realize the nuances, needs, and culture.
  2. Identify several insights. These insights are provocative statements of truth related to human behavior, and they act as core assumptions. This is the stuff of abductive reasoning: the inferences that create the initial design scaffolding.
  3. Build to support the target population, based on the core assumptions. Consider the unique emotional and incentive-based qualities of the population.
  4. Generalize the design language to support a broader audience. This might mean changing the literal words and images used, or it might have to do with the core product offering and feature-set.


I like that this works, mostly because it implies that the barriers of “us” and “them” are pretty artificial. We’re all just people, and once you start poking at culture and behavior, you get to some pretty poetic places. These are based on big words like identity, community, self-worth, and meaning, and these big words are relevant for any population, irrespective of socioeconomic standing.

A/B Testing Ourselves To Death

There’s a great article on A/B testing in Wired today; if you haven’t yet read it, you might read it now and then come back. I feel like somehow, I keep finding myself in a contrarian position related to Things That Are Going To Change Business, and I don’t do it on purpose, honest. But I’m skeptical of A/B testing, just as I’m skeptical of most experiment-driven behavioral economics research, just as I’m skeptical of the use of surveys to prove anything. And in all three cases, the reasons are the same: behavior is complicated, the method is overly reductive, and the approach ignores the magic and the soul.

Behavior is complicated.
I consume every book on behavioral economics and decision making that I can get my hands on, and while I can’t claim to understand all of what I read, I can make a few generalizations.

First, we have two main systems of decision making, one that’s historically and impulsively driven by an urge to stay alive, and one that’s reflective and considered. They both operate, all of the time, and they often contradict each other. That means that, depending on the broader circumstances of use, the same person will respond differently to a stimulus, and so attempts to consider causality related to A/B testing need to correct for things like the ambient environment in which the user is using the system.

Additionally, discrete behavioral rules are compounded by the world around you.  For example, there’s something called the mere exposure effect, where, as Daniel Kahneman explains, “repetition induces cognitive ease and a comforting feeling of familiarity.” Seeing a word, face, shape, or other design pattern over and over increases the likelihood that a person will view that word, face, shape or design pattern as “good.” You have control over your own web property, but none over the rest of the internet, and that’s where this exposure is going to happen. In other words, it’s likely that visual precedent set by other sites will change the way a user feels about your site. That’s just one of hundreds of discrete psychological effects that exist – discrete in how it was tested and observed, but when played out in real life, there’s nothing discrete about it.

Additionally, the way people act on the internet is highly irrational, and anyone who has ever observed a usability test realizes that many people seem to be in a state of chaos when using technology, clicking, quite literally, everywhere. A/B testing almost implicitly assumes a rational agent, one who is taking actions based on a logical assessment of what they see in front of them. My experience tells me that simply isn’t a good assumption, and so the results of your test are likely to be inconclusive (even when the data tells you otherwise).

The method is overly reductive, and we never learn why.
A scientific approach attempts to isolate one thing in order to predict causality. That’s the basis of A/B testing. The problem is, one thing isn’t being “isolated”: the human using the system. Statistical models can start to make predictive assumptions about the likelihood of the human using the system, fitting into various profile types, but it’s going to take someone a lot smarter than your average bear to produce these models. A well respected startup in Austin, Vast, employs David Franke, a brilliant mathematician, as Chief Scientist. A big company like Google has hundreds of people to do this work. But I’ve found it rare that the small companies most likely to engage in A/B think about this at all, much less employ someone with a background in statistics who is qualified to model it correctly.

There’s a great anecdote that I heard from Ron Kurti, also at Vast, and repeated at Luke Wroblewski’s site: putting forms in a mad libs style increases conversion by 25-40%. It’s safe to say that, immediately following this observation, mad libs style forms started appearing all over the internet (if you haven’t heard this yet, you are probably thinking the same thing: how can I change my site to have mad libs forms?). But we don’t know why this works, and because behavior is complicated, we have no way of creating generalized rules for where it works best. And yes, we can A/B test it on our own sites to know if it works for us, but again, we won’t learn why. I don’t want my products, systems, or services to be black boxes; I want to understand how they work, why they work, and I want to have some degree of control over the things I’m introducing into the world.

The approach abdicates responsibility.
The same problem I have with “Lean UX” is evident here: we’re throwing things out in the world without really thinking about the implications these have on real people. As Wired describes, “But with A/B testing, WePay didn’t have to make a decision. After all, if you can test everything, then simply choose all of the above and let the customers sort it out.” Your customers aren’t there to sort it out. They’re real people, with real emotions, and your test is having real implications on their real lives. This may not matter, depending on what it is your company does. It’s hard to argue that, on a site where people rate restaurants, it’s ethically irresponsible to change the color of buttons to determine which has a higher transaction rate. But I would make a much more adamant case that, in a system used on a daily basis by an at-risk population, your customers can’t be your guinea pigs.

The approach ignores the magic and the soul.
I understand the value of data and a rational approach to things like engineering. I would like someone who is designing an airplane to use a rational, data-driven, scientific, rigorous approach to understand how much weight that plane can hold. But in the same example, we find an obvious illustration of what happens when we only use an analytical approach. Flying sucks, and it sucks because it’s been engineered to death. Using Google is starting to be a lot like flying, probably because it’s being engineered to death. An emotional approach has value, because it provides things that are unexpected, sensual, poetic, and things that feel magical.


Good design crafts a story, and I can’t think of anything more powerful than a good story. Brian Christian wrote a great piece for Wired, and I’ll be damned if he A/B tested multiple versions of it to find the one with just the right level of engagement. I don’t want to live in a world where things are optimized, much less optimized for transactions and consumption. I want up and down, and high and low, and things that are absurd, and things that have personality, and things that react in unexpected ways.



Designers and A/B Testing

Why A/B testing of web design fails


Leveraging Analogous Situations: Looking for Precedent In The World Around Us

For some startups, identifying what to build can be emotionally difficult. You may have identified an initial topic area, conducted research, and even synthesized the research into meaningful insights, but may be having trouble identifying a preliminary set of features or capabilities. I’ve seen technologists wary of building the wrong thing and having to rework code, and product managers who aren’t yet confident in their product decisions, and designers who aren’t done synthesizing research, and all of this can culminate in a culture of inaction. I suppose, in many ways, various things like “Lean” and “Agile” are a way of getting over this hump, by trying to build something super-small and super-fast and “fail early and often.” There are other ways to identify a set of features with resonance, though, and I think these are sometimes less troublesome and more effective. These include identifying an analogous emotional experience, and mapping the interactions over time.

By identifying an analogous emotional experience, you can understand and leverage emotional inflection points.

First, think about the insights and goals you’ve identified through your research. If you are working in the space of medicine, you might have described insights like “People want to stay healthy with minimal effort” or “People don’t understand or trust scientific terms for medical conditions”. You might have identified goals like “Safely treat a disease” or “Understand treatment plans.” As Alan Cooper describes, “when technology changes, tasks usually change, but goals remain constant”, and so these goals will be true irrespective of the medium of your solution.

Now, based on the goals and insights, describe the uniquely human interactions and emotions that are typical when people try to achieve their goals. Some interactions and emotions related to safely treat a disease include “Remember to take a pill each day”, “Feel confident of progress being made”, and “Check in with a professional once a month”. Some interactions and emotions related to understand treatment plans include”Read about the treatment plan in plain language”, “Discuss complexities with other people”, and “Feel in control”.

Now, think about a comparable and analogous situation that has nothing to do with health care. What are other situations where all of these qualities are true?

  • Remember to do something each day
  • Feel confident of progress being made
  • Check in with a professional once a month
  • Read about the situation in plain language
  • Discuss complexities with other people
  • Feel in control

I see an analog in things like gardening, doing an executive MBA, and training for a marathon. All of these situations require daily interactions, have a long and slow sense of progress, require infrequent but regular professional interactions, have lots of jargon that can be described in plain language, and require a feeling of control.

Take one of them – say, training for a marathon – and begin to describe how the process happens, over time. Sketch a timeline of it, and describe the main artifacts that are used to support people as they train. For example, there are devices people wear to track their progress through the day. There are calendars that coaches prepare, to remind people of their training regimen. There are groups people attend, in order to receive encouragement and help. And there are magazines people read with inspirational stories of people just like them, succeeding.

All of these artifacts become prompts for your brand new product in healthcare, offering initial touchpoints and pointing at potential features for your new product. Ponder the calendar idea, the group idea, the magazines, and the devices, and think about why these are so effective in the analogous situation. And then, steal the ideas liberally, and re-appropriate them in the new context.

This method of looking at analogous situations works, but requires a rich view of the world, one where it occurs to you to think of marathon training or gardening. And so in addition to this technique as a prompt for sparking momentum, consider how you can more generally broaden your view of culture and society. That might mean reading new blogs, that have nothing to do with software or startups, and going to conferences that are two or three times removed from your comfort zone.

Big Education Is Not Better Education

An article in Forbes, from a few days back:

“The University of Florida announced this past week that it was dropping its computer science department… The school is eliminating all funding for teaching assistants in computer science, cutting the graduate and research programs entirely, and moving the tattered remnants into other departments. Let’s get this straight: in the midst of a technology revolution, with a shortage of engineers and computer scientists, UF decides to cut computer science completely?”

All jokes about Florida aside, it does seem strange, and the response from the University doesn’t really make it any clearer. I don’t think the issue has anything to do with computer science. Instead, it seems like a typical, and poor, financial decision made by administrators of a public university who have the operational luxury (in most cases, mandate) to extract themselves from the reality of those their decisions affect. It’s actually quite similar to the recent move by California State University to completely eradicate financial aid that was already promised to close to 20,000 students: a decision that seems made with a cold focus on numbers and budgets, rather than “the right thing to do.”

It’s strange that we’ve allowed ourselves into a situation where “cold logic” and “the right thing to do” don’t align. But I see this sort of thing – seemingly arbitrary decisions based on an unsustainable financial model – happening in nearly every public campus across the country. It’s all a flavor of the same unsustainable economic model borrowed from the Fortune 500, a byproduct of a goal to scale, where somehow “bigger” has been equated with “better”. There’s been no meaningful reflection on the repercussions of growth for growth sake. I get that, at a mission-level, public universities may feel the need to offer their services to as many as possible, but a thin education for many at the expense of depth for a few seems a particularly bad decision in an economic environment that’s drifting towards a service economy and trying desperately to find broad sources of innovation. Not everyone needs to go to college right after high school, and it’s time we acknowledged that skipping college does not equate to failure.

I’m skeptical of the amount of the buzz around “disrupting higher education”, because I haven’t actually seen any examples of true disruption occurring. Moving your existing curriculum online, providing videos of fact-based learning, or making education free are all nice, but are only tiny examples of change. We’re still stuck with a factory system that has thousands of students sitting through introductory classes in chemistry or statistics, learning little from the professor who doesn’t want to be teaching in the first place.

And, I’m not entirely convinced that the academic focus of higher education needs to be disrupted, because there are many, many things that work well about Universities. At its best, attending a University is a time for boundless cross-disciplinary exploration, personal reflection, and, perhaps most importantly, mentorship. This isn’t some fake nostalgia; there are many of us that were truly changed by our experiences at school. I had the opportunity to learn from both Herb Simon and Richard Buchanan in one place, and that’s something that, without the existence of a formalized research institution, would never have been possible.

But I have a feeling that what attracted them to CMU, and what continues to attract people like them to great schools all over the world, is not the size or scale of the institution. Instead, it’s the promise of doing meaningful work with brilliant people. It isn’t the content of the University that needs to be disrupted, or even the delivery mechanism, at least in the upper levels of specialization (where class sizes are small and the focus is on depth). Instead, disruption needs to occur in the operational areas of higher education. Reconsider the core assumption of growth, and you begin to question if freshman should act as a subsidy for the upper levels, or if massive operational budgets, coordinated by faceless administrators, are needed, or if massive high-school recruitment efforts are worthwhile, or if standardized testing is actually necessary. Instead, offer a commitment towards affordable education, and a commitment towards small and focused schools. A school that is small and 100% operationalized around tuition can eliminate overhead, lower the cost of attendance, allow teachers to teach, allow researchers to research, change quickly to adapt to changes in the world, be selective in admissions, and act as a self-sufficient entity. It’s not nirvana; it’s just a simple model that makes sense.

Unicorns Exist: A Good Designer Can Do A Lot Of Things.

To be a good designer, you need to be able to design things. That wouldn’t seem controversial, except when you start to poke at “able”, “design”, and “things”, you encounter the unicorn problem. A unicorn is, of course, a magical and non-existent creature, and the metaphor implies that a designer who can research, sketch, code, crank out wireframes, put on a public song and dance, take out global executives to delicious sushi without saying something stupid, and wear a black turtleneck without looking absurd is also a magical and non-existent creature.

I think the unicorn problem is actually intertwined with the problem of failure, which – in order to continue the mystical animal metaphor – I will call and hereby claim copyright over as the Duckbill Platypus Problem. Design is iterative, and we need to continually learn in order to improve a design. Most of us have realized that one of the richest forms of learning comes from experiencing and reflecting on personal failure, and since we’ve all seen that silly shopping cart video a hundred times, the idea of “fail early and often” has become embedded in our brain as a Good Thing To Do. We should all be the Duckbill Platypus, a failure of an animal if ever there was one. I could have selected Camel, but I feel like the Camel already realizes it’s a bit obtuse, while the Platypus is hopefully naïve.


Not everyone believes that unicorns are fake, and not everyone believes that failure should be our goal. Andy Budd, who ran the recent conference I attended called UX London, set off a small Twitter firestorm by first stating that “I’m staring to get annoyed by all the design pundits championing failure. There’s something to be said for doing it right first time round” and then qualifying this with “Failure is a form of waste, so Lean start-ups should really try to minimize failure if possible rather than use learning as a handy excuse.”

And about a month ago, Cennydd Bowles described that the Unicorn label “reinforces silos, and gives designers an excuse to abdicate responsibility for issues that nevertheless have a hefty impact on user experience.”


Design ability means something, and increasingly, it means a broad something, because we’re both codifying existing practices and constantly identifying new medium in which to manifest this process. The rough process looks like this:

I realize it’s overly reductive, because there’s really no clear delineation between phases. But I would expect anyone calling themselves a designer to have competency in this process.

When you compare the process with the medium, you begin to see a lot of complexity:

This is where our unicorn shows up: should we have expertise in all mediums? That would be hard, but “hard” isn’t necessarily a good reason not to do it. We could look at how science is applied in medicine as a precedent, but I’m not sure I like looking for precedent from areas that are so completely broken. If all you have is a hammer, everything is a nail, and if all you have is competency in print design, everything becomes a brochure and a campaign.

As an aside, I think the most exciting part of design is not in gaining expertise in these axis, but instead, realizing what happens when this is applied against the external subject matter:

One of the things that, I think, intimidates new designers is that they feel an expectation to know all of these things, too. Which is, of course, ridiculous, because all of these things means all technology humans have ever created, as the discipline of design is about humanizing technological culture.

And so back to Andy’s post about failure. It seems to me that a failure from which we can learn is when we apply a competency in process [x axis], and a competency in medium [y-axis], to a new and novel context [z-axis]. If we fail, it should be because of our inability to fully understand the new context, but not because of our inability or inexperience with our process or medium. When you have people in senior and director roles with four and five years’ experience, there’s no doubt that you’ll end up with failure in these areas, and that’s unfortunate, because that really does indicate the “bad kind of failing.”

Ultimately, you can have ability as a designer, in sort of a flat, broad, and generic sense, and you can have ability in a medium, in a rich and deep sense, and to be able to design things, you need both. You need to be a unicorn, and the bigger your horn, the better your work will become.

Incidentally, as I drew this, I couldn’t help but feel like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, when he encounters his students plotting the “greatness” of a poem on an x and y axis. Seriously? A chart of design? Maybe I’m the Camel..

The Ethics of Disruptive Innovation in Wicked Problems

Academics frequently conduct research as an end in itself. Practicing designers (sometimes known as “design researchers”) attempt to “use” the research to provoke new ideas. These practitioners have formalized a process of design-led innovation, where this applied ethnography is followed by reframing (looking at a situation in new or unexpected ways) and iterative ideation (trying things with real people in an effort to see how well these new and unexpected ideas work) as a way of driving disruption in tired or conservative industries. A formal or traditional approach to ethnography requires a researcher to remain impartial and attempt to intervene as little as possible, but the observations extracted by a design researcher are frequently driven by direct participation and active intervention. A design researcher may stop a participant and ask them to explain what they are doing, why they are doing it, or if they always do it that way. One of the “best practices” of a form of design research called Contextual Inquiry is to establish a master and apprentice relationship with a participant, where the design researcher literally learns from the participant by trying things, much like a master craftsman shows an apprentice how to use a tool. The design researcher’s intent is to engage in rapid and active learning, and to gain empathy. This is sometimes called (affectionately by designers, and with disdain by academics) ethnography light or guerrilla ethnography, and is used in contexts as varied as understanding how people purchase perfume to how the workflow of vehicle assembly can be streamlined.

In academia, the phenomenon of “informed consent” plays a major role in determining the scope, scale, and approach of research that is conducted with these at-risk populations. The use of human subjects in experiments has a tainted history, and so governance boards (called IRB, or Institutional Review Boards) have been established to ensure these populations are not targeted in unethical or problematic ways. In the United States, researchers who receive funding from government agencies (such as the National Science Foundation) are required to have their research reviewed by an IRB, which is regulated by the Department of Health and Human Services. The Belmont Report – the document that established a majority of these research rules – was adopted in1978. This is one of the first attempts at defining informed consent. A critical component of the report is duplicated below, in full:

Respect for persons requires that subjects, to the degree that they are capable, be given the opportunity to choose what shall or shall not happen to them…

Injustice may appear in the selection of subjects, even if individual subjects are selected fairly by investigators and treated fairly in the course of research. Thus injustice arises from social, racial, sexual and cultural biases institutionalized in society. Thus, even if individual researchers are treating their research subjects fairly, and even if IRBs are taking care to assure that subjects are selected fairly within a particular institution, unjust social patterns may nevertheless appear in the overall distribution of the burdens and benefits of research. Although individual institutions or investigators may not be able to resolve a problem that is pervasive in their social setting, they can consider distributive justice in selecting research subjects.

Some populations, especially institutionalized ones, are already burdened in many ways by their infirmities and environments. When research is proposed that involves risks and does not include a therapeutic component, other less burdened classes of persons should be called upon first to accept these risks of research, except where the research is directly related to the specific conditions of the class involved. Also, even though public funds for research may often flow in the same directions as public funds for health care, it seems unfair that populations dependent on public health care constitute a pool of preferred research subjects if more advantaged populations are likely to be the recipients of the benefits.

One special instance of injustice results from the involvement of vulnerable subjects. Certain groups, such as racial minorities, the economically disadvantaged, the very sick, and the institutionalized may continually be sought as research subjects, owing to their ready availability in settings where research is conducted. Given their dependent status and their frequently compromised capacity for free consent, they should be protected against the danger of being involved in research solely for administrative convenience, or because they are easy to manipulate as a result of their illness or socioeconomic condition.

There’s very little in the report that’s controversial, because the report takes a very common-sense, humanitarian approach to research. The majority of researchers doing work in academia are already well aware of this ethical conversation; it’s a standard consideration in formulating a research approach, and it’s part of the culture of the academy.

But this same process of design research is used outside of academia, by practitioners: design research is considered one of the keys to disruptive innovation. Design research, followed by reframing and ideation is increasingly being adopted by practicing designers at companies like Nike, Starbucks, and Procter & Gamble. In these contexts, this design research is positioned as a form of market research, aimed at identifying latent needs and provoking new product and service ideas. And, the same process is used by social entrepreneurs in the context of humanitarian problems, known in circles of design as “Wicked Problems”. Broadly, these problems are the systemic issues of poverty, hunger, education, drug abuse, and so on – the large, interlinked, and societal issues that stem from our public policies, our use of technology, and financial inequality. Designers who engage in tackling these problems realize the potential of design as a tool for affecting positive change, and so they immerse themselves in the cultures they are hoping to effect. They utilize a number of different design research methods, such as Contextual Inquiry, Participatory Design, or Bodystorming, all in an effort to gain empathy and understanding with a target audience. Design researchers, coming from academia, professional practice, or acting as social entrepreneurs, may live on the streets with the homeless, volunteer at shelters, engage with case workers, and otherwise explore the phenomenon of homelessness.

The same process of looking at behavior is used in academic research, in for-profit commercial research, and in both for- and non-profit contexts of social entrepreneurship.  This presents a problem, because the safeguards put in place by law to protect at-risk populations are largely ignored by those doing non-academic research. In my experience, I’ve found that design research, applied outside of academia, is nearly void of a formal ethical process. And there is a cruel irony in this, because these are the same innovators who are likely to actually produce new products and services. The results of their work will be more prevalent and impactful, and the positive and negative repercussions felt more broadly than academic research stuck in the confines of an academic journal. It is in a commercial or entrepreneurial setting that ethics are more important, as the potential for manipulative practice is more likely.

Some (very few) design researchers may make rudimentary efforts to simulate the intent of the IRB. They may have their participants sign consent forms, or the researcher may go out of their way to articulate the research process and the compensation a participant may receive for their participation. They typically describe to the participant that they can quit the research process at any time and will still receive the compensation offered to them. But these efforts are minimal and inconsistent. And the lack of informed-consent form is just one of the problems we encounter when we apply design research in commercial contexts.

Some of these problems are listed below; these are all problems I’ve actually observed, and I’m sure there are many more.

Forming a Non-Sustainable Relationship. Designers, intent on learning about a particular situation, form a relationship with a member of an at-risk population, such as a homeless person. They learn about this person, understand their wants and needs, and learn to empathize with them. In doing so, the participant becomes either emotionally, physically, or socially dependent on the researcher. When the research phase of the project is over, the designer leaves.

Safety. Designers (and particularly, design students) find themselves in unsafe situations, such as sleeping on the streets or participating in drug purchases, in an effort to learn about a particular culture or empathize with a specific audience. The richness of these experiences is alluring, and it’s difficult for the student (and the professor) to identify appropriate boundaries. This is compounded by popular celebration of this behavior (for example, Sudhir Venkatesh’s research work with inner-city gangs, popularized in Freakonomics).

Broad, Impromptu Research Activities. Designers depend on a fluidity of action in the field, where they observe actual behavior and can respond to the activities they observe. This is hard to plan – the entire benefit to the research is in its fluidity and reliance on actual behavior as a prompt – and so the research plan that is produced is broad and vague. An IRB may be unwilling or unable to approve such a broad set of activities. This is echoed by academic Michael Schmidt in a thread on the PhD Design mailing list, “…  the review boards are often comprised of people who know very little about qualitative research and who in some cases even hold a bias against anything outside a conventional quantitative study, randomized trial, or a rigorous mixed methods approach. Ironically, low-impact, non-invasive studies like carefully constructed interview protocols can be the hardest for which to receive approval.”

Equitable Compensation. In order to engage with a population, a design researcher typically offers compensation in response to a particular set of actions. One of my former colleagues at frog design, Jan Chipchase, describes that “Defining ‘equitable compensation’ can sometimes be tricky for the simplest of design research activities (e.g. a home interview), but is especially problematic when researching highly financially constrained communities where the gulf between the wealth/power of the participants and the researchers can be considerable.” He’s exactly right. Unfortunately, I’m not convinced teams have the necessary experience that Chipchase has to make this assessment, and what’s worse, only very rarely do teams even have this conversation. For those in at-risk populations, inequitable compensation may provoke negative consequences, such as the purchase of drugs, a competitive or violent reaction from peers, or the inability for a participant to end a research engagement when they feel uncomfortable.

Use of Research For Questionable Means. Research conducted outside of academia is used to provoke new products and services. There is extraordinarily little conversation in industry as to the responsibility a design researcher has in translating observations into product insights. In the Epic 2006 conference proceedings, Stokes Jones describes a fascinating body of work related to homeopathy remedies in South Africa. As an anthropological study, it sheds light on the unique bottom-up approaches to innovation in developing countries. But it’s not just an anthropological study: this research was funded by Procter & Gamble with an explicit ambition, to “design new preparations specifically for Southern Africa (to fit Africans’ tastes and habits) as well as to target ‘lower income consumers’ (low for P&G’s targeting but average for South Africa).” I don’t fault Jones at all, as his presentation and description of the research indicates a thorough reflection on the ethical complexities of this research. But I also wonder what happened at P&G after this research was presented, and based on my experiences with big-brand consumer insights teams, I can only assume the response to South Africans putting Vaporub in their hot drinks was met with giddiness at the new financial potential. This is the “design imperialism” argument, which I frankly view as less critical and more of a red-herring than the other four points above.

The summary of these points is that, first, there is no IRB for professionals or for social entrepreneurs, and there is no understanding of the role of such a board. While there exist independent review boards, it is safe to assume that the vast majority of practicing design researchers are not aware of them and do not engage with them. Next, there is little shared understanding of the ethics of design research for professionals or for social entrepreneurs, and the degree to which design research activities are examined in a particular context is extremely inconsistent. And finally, there is a larger conversation around ethics in design research that is only happening in the periphery (there are a few small journals and respected individuals talking about this, but only a small number.)


And so presents a strange, albeit complicated and extremely textured problem. Well-intentioned designers hoping to learn about an at-risk population with the intent on helping that population must become a part of that very population, learning the language and the culture, understanding the workflow and broken policies and procedures, and trying their best to feel the emotions of that population. And in doing so, these well-intentioned designers may be forming important relationships, acting in life-saving capacities, learning the private and intimate details of people’s lives, and otherwise disrupting the status quo. They are frequently performing these activities on behalf of for-profit companies, and in the context of finite projects. There is a tension between the selfish and the responsible. Research in creativity and innovation increasingly describes the need for iterative design, the ability to fail and learn from failure, and the importance of playful, divergent thinking as a way of sparking new and unexpected ideas. This presents a problem for those engaged with an at-risk population, because these qualities are at odds with accepted behavior about at-risk interventions.

This tension and problem is exemplified by a recent experiment at South By Southwest, an extremely large technology conference in Austin, Texas. At the 2012 conference, one of the strangest stories to emerge was that of the Homeless Hotspots – a project coordinated by the non-profit Frontsteps and the for-profit advertising agency BBH Labs. The premise of the project is simple, but the implications are extraordinarily complex. Homeless individuals in Austin were given technology that allowed their physical presence to act as a 4G hotspot, and wore t-shirts that announced the presence of the hotspot. Nearby individuals could utilize the free bandwidth, and if they wanted, they could donate money to the homeless individual for providing the service. The project received the following feedback:

It sounds like something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia

The digital divide has never hit us over the head with a more blunt display of unselfconscious gall

It has to do with digital divides, haves and have nots, and the idea that a fellow human being is of no more use to you than as an Internet jack

One way of viewing and considering the Homeless Hotspot project is through a lens of disruptive design, or design thinking. This is the process by which a designer examines a situation and then attempts to reframe it by challenging, reconsidering, or outright rejecting existing norms. A traditional way of thinking about helping the homeless is by fulfilling their basic needs, such as food, water, and shelter, and then providing case management skills to help them find a job. An innovative way of thinking about helping the homeless is by combining their geographic independence with technology, and giving them a service to offer those around them. This argument describes the Homeless Hotspot as a successful design approach, because the designers were able to learn from the activities of the prototypical situation and can now improve subsequent ideas based on these findings. What’s more, this argument paints the process – “try crazy things that question and disrupt our standard way of viewing a situation” – as fundamental for affecting innovative change.

Another way of viewing and considering the Homeless Hotspot project is through a lens of ethics and empowerment. From this stance, the homeless are unable to adequately assess the financial and social implications and repercussions of acting as a mobile hotspot, and by definition, their socio-economic status precludes them from objectively and knowledgably consenting to such an intervention. The work is dehumanizing because it leverages a group that is in no position to appropriately assess the mental or social harm that might come from such an intervention. This argument describes the Homeless Hotspot as a harmful failure, because the designers took advantage of a population that was unable to properly assess the tradeoffs of a decision to participate. What’s more, this argument paints the process of iterative reframing and disruptive design as harmful and exploitive.

The situation is not a simple one, and there is no easily supported, one-sided judgment of the project. What is clear is that there exists no real depth to the conversation of design ethics in the context of wicked problems. The population of design researchers is small, disparate, and without a shared language or set of ethics to ground their important activities.

There are academic design researchers like Chris Le Dantec, who study at-risk populations, design interactions and interventions, and then describe these in written, peer-reviewed journals. Typically, these design researchers are constrained by the rules of their university, which strictly comply with the IRB rules. Graduate students and faculty who conduct research in these contexts submit their research plan to the IRB well in advance of their actual research plan, and revise the plan according to feedback from the IRB committee in order to ensure an ethical and responsible approach to research.

There are practicing design researchers at for-profit companies, who study an at-risk population for a paying client, design interactions and interventions, and then monetize these. Typically, these design researchers have no professional constraints on their behavior, and so they proceed as they have been trained through prior experience. If they experienced ethical oversight of their research in a University or educational setting, they may advance those ethics in their work. If they work in a large corporation, they may have a corporate policy that they must adhere to. Or, most commonly, if they work in an agency or design consultancy and developed their skills without formal training, there is no oversight or formal consideration to the ethical implications of their work. The question of “What are the implications of this research on our target population” is never asked. For all of its positive qualities, IDEO’s Human Centered Design Toolkit – funded by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – fails to even mention ethics at all.

And there are design-led social entrepreneurs, who study an at-risk population and attempt to build double-bottom line services to support that population while simultaneously generating profit. Because of the bootstrap, rapid style of entrepreneurship, research in these contexts is usually conducted in a “quick and dirty” fashion. In some evolving methodologies, the entire point of the research is to test a small, ill-thought out idea before investing a great deal of time in planning or reflecting.

Ultimately, I agree with Chipchase that “The real design imperialism comes from those people who assume that the world’s poor are not worthy of the attention.” But I think the ethical considerations of design are being largely ignored by many practicing designers, most of whom are fully intending to do good and have only the best of intentions.  And so I encourage these folk to engage in the conversation, evaluate their own work, and further examine not the intent, but the actual mechanisms and potential repercussions of their actions – and to realize that the power of design demands an ethic of design, as well.

UX London

In reflecting on the last three days of UX London, I can identify at least one core theme. Our discipline is growing up, and we’re starting to have a more refined and advanced conversation around topics like synthesis, meaning, and impact.

Bill Buxton began with a conversation around ideas. We should stop thinking of design as a “flash of insight.” Instead, it’s a process that’s about continuous, incremental change based on a creative recombination of the new and the old in unexpected ways. He’s right; it’s a constant integration process, as we make new knowledge and try to appropriate it into our work. A wider set of raw material (“knowing more things”) can lead to a wider array of new ideas.

Anders Ramsey described how, when design is involved in an Agile process, it should happen continuously, in short, collaborative bits (like Rugby) rather than in long, individual run (like a Relay Race). I don’t agree, and I’m tremendously skeptical that the output of a process like this can be successful, if success is about anything other than “shipping a product.” Yet that Anders is proposing a way for design to be more effective in an interdisciplinary setting is refreshing.

Luke Wroblewski described that our design paradigms for mobile need to adopt to the qualities of context, related both to mobility and to a small form device. This means being more selective in the content we select to show in mobile software, which implies a more judgment-drive role of design.

Kristina Halvorson gave a series of pragmatic tools for beginning to consider content as part of the larger process of design, and poked at the organizational issues that may creep up when trying to manage content as a living, breathing thing. I’m a big fan of content-driven design, and I’ve always had trouble with the development best practice of separating form, function, and content; it seems like an efficiency gained for our production teams at the expensive of “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”

Jared Spool described how four forces are converging to describe a perfect storm. Market maturity, the “emergence of experience”, Kano’s model, and Sturgeon’s Law (90% of anything is crap) are colliding to raise the awareness and respect of our field. I agree, and although I’m not sure I would have picked these four forces as the major scaffolds to make the argument, his larger point is correct: there’s a lot happening, and it’s hard to stay aware of it all and understand how it all connects.

For me, more than ever, a form of constant synthesis through writing and sketching is required to integrate the seemingly absurd, extreme events of the world into a framework for understanding design.

Raw Conference Notes – UX London – Leisa Reichelt

Strategic User Experience
Leisa Reichelt

I’ve had people come up to me and say, that’s not UX strategy. There’s a big difference between strategic UX and UX strategy. I don’t really know what UX strategy is. I don’t know how you have that in vacuum. For me, the only way it can happen strategically ,is if it happens in the organizational context you are working in. It can’t be its own thing.

For the purposes of definition, UX is about digital touchpoints. There are all kinds of discussions we could have, but I define it as the digital side of things, and then there’s CX, the customer thing. And then there’s strategy, which is a sequence of tactics executed in order to achieve a goal. It’s simple, isn’t it?

But reality hits, and sitting in your team talking about UX strategy, and then you get out into the world, into your organization, and try to execute, and it all just falls apart. What seems like a really great plan hardly ever happens, and you end up on the mat bleeding.

There’s lots of hand-waving about UX strategy. Writing and talking about it, that’s easy. The hard part is actually executing on it, and very few of us are having luck on that.

There’s two sides of this. Top down strategic UX, is about creating environments where you can actually practice good user experience. That’s a design challenge on its own. I want you to think over your last 12 months of doing your UX work. Think about how many days of that work were days spent doing really good work, working productively, on projects that actually materialized, that were worthwhile projects, that made your organization better, the world better; how good would that be? Or that felt like you were doing what you were supposed to be doing, and was building towards something good. Do you have more than 100 days, working in that environment? Let’s assume everyone has roughly the same number. Think about how many days of work, of amazingly talented people, really care about it; how many days of this effort has been completely wasted.

I think this is a really big problem, and the reason is a top-down problem. We aren’t in a position to influence that immediately, and so before we go give up and become front-end developers, there’s bottom up. This is stuff we can do to infiltrate strategy into the existing system and move it towards where we think it should be. We’ll spend the majority of our time on this, giving you tools to move things in the direction they should be.

I hope we’ll be talking to each other on how to work in our organizations, and I assume you’ll be familiar with Chatham House Rule. You can tell them things about what you learned here, but they can’t be able to identify the people from your examples. Feel free to share your information, and no one will be ousted saying mean things about their clients or their companies.

Grab some post-it notes and a pen. Take a few minutes and think about the top 3 things in your organization that are blocking you from doing really awesome work. Let’s see what some of the top issues are.

Legacy systems; too much focus on bottom line; constraints; clients.

Copy-cat syndrome; focus on features; budget restrictions; getting our stakeholders to do more than listen, but to actually change.

Is it worth the money; not used to working with users, something you can add at the end; re-education.

The design people are the skin that mediates the rest of the world and the inside of the organization. Our ability to navigate well is completely defined by what’s on the inside, the leadership, the product, what it is, how well it fits to the market, our strategy – how to get from where we are now to where we want to get to. If that’s not aligned with the experience we want to create, you can’t rescue it from the outside. You can put a nice veneer on it. But a good logo doesn’t make a bad product any less shitty.

There’s a great TED talk called Simon Sinek, the Golden Circle. People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. Companies that get it right start at the beginning, at Why Are We Doing This. What is the output. An obvious example is Apple; they are all about converging the liberal arts and technology and getting them to converge in a beautiful way that makes you want the technology. They do it by having a small product range and having design lead the way. What comes out the other end is computers and music machines. Who knew that we needed an iPad before it existed? Anything Apple sold; if Apple came out with a washing machine, how many of you would buy it?

Think about Dell. Dell’s in computers. They do it cheaply. Why do they do it? To make money. If Dell put out a washing machine, what would you think? It doesn’t make any sense.

How can Apple go that way and it would make sense? Think about the company you are in right now. Can you clearly define their why? Do they even have a why?

Let’s go on to our second exercise. Think about some of the problems you just had in your groups.

The way most business works is that it makes it hard to do our work. Short term focus; there are accounting systems that are based on functions, or silos, and not on customers. We have silos, which are good that they let us work with people like us and get better at our craft, but bad, because essential parts of the company aren’t having the conversations they need to have. They aren’t making decisions around a focused goal. Management that’s far away from their customers. Is this the biggest design challenge we face?

Forget UX strategy. We need to have a sense on how to get our organizations to go in a particular direction, and think about where we’ll have the best potential to do the work we want to do. We aren’t thinking about this enough at the moment.

I’ve put together this model. Some people look at this and say “that’s just strategy, right?” Yes, it’s absolutely business strategy. But you can’t do user experience strategically unless it’s integrated into what the company is trying to do. You need to be in alignment. The idea is that you are not in charge of everything. No methodology will replace a vision, and the guts to back it. Lean, agile, if we do this, that will save us. But what’s really required is the kind of thing that Bill Derouchey is talking about; taking a stand that’s a little, or even a lot, different, and having a vision of how the world will be different if you manage to achieve that. And understand that the people working for you understand that. I try to ask people at organizations I go into, what’s the point? Why do we come to work?

Most of them just look at you; don’t you know who we are? We’re a big brand. We’re famous.

But then, if you ask them to humor you, tell you more about the point of the organization; I guarantee you the first six people you stop will have no answer, or completely different answers than one another.

How will the world be different if you pull this off? People would rather be mediocre, than wrong, and that’s a big problem.

You need to start at the top with value proposition, target audience, business model, and customer experience.

Peter Drucker is my best friend when it comes to business strategy. If you haven’t started adding him to your reading material, you absolutely should. The customer defines the business. The value for the customer is anything but obvious. It’s really difficult to work out the value of what you’re selling. The really easy one of this is that the customer doesn’t buy a drill. They buy a hole. They buy a solution. All of the things we do should come from the hole, not the drill.

I create an elevator pitch sentence structure, and have organizations describe their value proposition. For [target customer], who has [customer need], [product] is a [market category] that [one key benefit].  Unlike [competition], the product [unique differentiator].

I think a Business Model is something we tend to shy away from, we try to stay away from the hierarchy and the money stuff. I think it’s kind of, obviously, another good thing for us to be doing. I don’t think you need an MBA to do it. It’s something you hear a lot of people suggesting. You really need to be able to understand where the money comes in, and where the money goes out; that’s at the core of what a business model is. The business model canvas – something you see in lean startup a lot – is a really great framework for connecting all of the things that you are interested in. Customer relationships, value proposition, cost structures, revenue streams. This is a great framework to have a conversation with people in the organization. We can show how intertwined they are.

It goes back to something maybe Einstein said; if you can’t describe something simply, it might be a clue that you don’t understand something. Sometimes, when I have these conversations, you can’t help but feel that the other person just wants you to go away and wireframe something. If it is as clear to them as they are suggesting it should be, they should be able to articulate it very quickly.

No business model should be incredibly complicated. A complicated business model is a bad sign. It should take them ten minutes. If they can’t do it in 10 minutes, you have the opportunity to start having important conversations. A lot of the times, the issues are around customer relationships, and segments; it’s the way to have these conversations.

Customer Experience. As I was reading Steve Baty’s definition of experience strategy, it struck me that it’s just like a value proposition. And then you have this, via Peter Merholz – and then I’ve seen a reference in every single document, ever: Kodak’s “you press the button, we do the rest.” I don’t like how we can abstract this enough so we can come up with one of these for every single customer we ever deal with. And I don’t like that the example we go to is Kodak. And Jesse James Garrett says “it’s a star to sail your ship by”, and what does that mean? That’s not a strategy.

I’ve never read any of this stuff, customer experience: I heard Forrester talk about it a bit. But actually there’s a lot of good stuff in here, and it’s stuff people don’t talk about that much in our community. They don’t have UX at Forrester at all, and you would expect that you would find it there, and in these books, I don’t know if I found maybe two or three references to usability. I don’t think, on the whole, we don’t know they exist and they don’t think we exist. Chances are, there are a whole lot of you who say “yeah, that’s probably just service design, it’s a fancy word for people who don’t understand what we do.” And I think I was wrong, and I’ve completely changed my view. They are doing a lot of work that makes what we want to do possible. There are these CX responsibilities, about systems and infrastructure. These guys are running the things we’re doing, the integration projects. So we can have a single view of the customer.

It’s a really big job, and it doesn’t really exist in more organizations, and it’s something I don’t hear any of us talking about. I don’t think you can outsource this, I think it needs to be a core competency. It’s about getting the knowledge and experience, and that’s challenging. When you go back to that model, having it in at the highest level of the organization is absolutely critical for it to be done strategically. You can work with agencies to get that knowledge in there, and make the decisions you need and get the infrastructure in place, but it’s not something you can outsource.

I want you to believe that CX and UX are not the same thing, and there are lots of things outside the realm of our job title. We need them.

I don't get it

While Ben is busy building version one of the Feast for Days product, I’m trying to meet with anyone who will listen and get feedback on our business idea. I reason that if I can make enough people fall in love with me (and our idea) prior to having a product, we’ll have the beginnings of a solid community of participants and advisors by our launch.

Even though I’ve given the Feast for Days speil a million times, I’m always terrified of hearing those four words that feel like a flaming arrow straight into my esophagus.

“I don’t get it.”


This past week I met with a chef who had successfully started and sold several restaurants. Because of some last minute shifts in schedules, we only had 15 minutes to talk. As I’m sitting there waiting for him to show up, I’m going over how to structure the conversation.

1. He tells me about what he does.

2. I tell him what I am doing and ask him three specific questions

3. He answers my questions.

4. I compliment and thank him

5. We shake hands and leave

Feeling confident, I sip on my espresso. The chef soon sits down next to me. He has tattoos and an edgy buddhist prayer necklace, I’m wearing pleated light blue slacks and a polo.

Me: “Thank you so much for meeting with me! To make the most of our time, I’d love to first learn about what you do, so I don’t go into detail about things that do not matter.”

Chef: “You tell me what you do first.”

Me: “Uhh…”

Being thrown off my plan, I launch into a quick explanation of AC4D and our business. When I finished, I look at him waiting for some sort of response.

Chef: “I don’t get it.”

I quickly try to gain an understanding of the aspects of our idea that he did not understand, but sure enough he had to leave and I sat there alone in my light blue khaki pants sipping on a cold espresso.

Lessons learned:

1. Always have a one sentence business objective or goal.

2. Always have a bulleted list of no more than three tactics your business employs to accomplish that objective or goal.

3. In order to mitigate the effect of discouraging experiences always have a discreet list of no more than 3 hypothesis that you are trying to prove or disprove. When feeling discouraged, look at those hypothesis. If you still do not have answers to them do one of three things.

-Continue doing what you are doing

-Change what you are doing to get answers faster

-Change the hypothesis you are testing

4. For times when looking at hypothesis do not help. Beer is always good :)




Collateral Damage: The Ethics of Lean UX

Some techniques that are gaining respect in design and development attempt to decrease the potential for failure (in projects, big companies, or startups) by testing work with real people early and often, in order to validate (or, as is more likely, invalidate) assumptions. A process called the Lean Startup is, as Janice Frasier described at UX London, about “hypothesis recognition”, ”experiment design”, and “smallification.” It’s about creating low fidelity interactions with people called, in this process, “experiments”, and understanding if your assumptions around purchasing behavior are true. Janice encouraged designers engaged in this Lean Startup process to quickly identify a way for testing an assumption about how well a product fits in a market, “smallify” that test by making it even more concise and quick, and then run an “experiment” with real people to understand if you were right. It’s only after this process is done that you can move on to the next stage of adding features or functions to a product.

It’s a process that appears sensible when you examine it as a broad reaction to two different ways of launching a startup that many of us have encountered: either a process with multiple constituents (both founders, advisors, and directors), all competing to have their opinions and requirements heard, or a process driven by engineering of “rip it and ship it”, where engineered ideas are thrown out into the world with little thought for the customer. This lean approach was first created by Steve Blank, a professor at Stanford, and called Customer Development in a book called “Four Steps to The Epiphany” which, according to Janice, is “a terrible read. No one finishes it.” If you do read it, you learn some new language to describe your process. By calling your design a hypothesis, you change the nature of the conversation with other members of your organization. By releasing only the smallest necessary unit of design (usually, as Janice described, a landing page that describes what your company is going to do), you can move quickly. And by engaging in these “experiments”, you can learn if your assumptions were right, most notably, if people would actually be willing to pay for a particular product or service. This is judging product/market fit.

Something about the technique rubbed me the wrong way, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until I was discussing it with some folks at dinner. And then, another designer summarized my reaction to it, by describing the way users were treated during these “experiments”: as collateral damage.

In this Lean Startup approach, people are treated like guinea pigs; literally, subjects of an experiment. But unlike usability testing, or a true scientific experiment, these people aren’t giving informed consent for your experimentation, they aren’t learning of risks of engaging with your product or service, and they aren’t considered to be on equal footing with the design team. For most product contexts, this probably seems like splitting hairs: if I release a poorly designed version of a restaurant finding app in order to check my assumptions about a particular audience, and it causes discomfort through poor usability, or I abandon my user-base halfway through when I find out it doesn’t work quite right, it might be thought of as no big deal: it’s just a silly restaurant finding app, and the negative implications on these users is just the necessary cost of learning.

But if I’m working on products and services that are explicitly intended to shift negative behavior, change the fabric of society, and serve an at-risk population, there’s a pretty dramatic ethical question related to this collateral damage. It seems irresponsible. The tenor is quite similar to the idea of centralizing our business workflow to make it easier for our accounting department, rather than our users, or optimizing our website for our developers, rather than our users: our focus has shifted from serving people to using people.

And I think this begins to describe my concern and negative reaction with this idea: as Janice described, “this is a reinvention of user-centered design practice, from a different point of view. There’s a little skew on it. Instead of asking questions about needs and what people do, [Steve Blank] is more interested in finding out what marketing messages would be best.” The whole technique is about marketing, and not about people. And for all the conversation about “get out of the building” in order to talk to users and validate your ideas, the tone of the process seems to force us back to the smarminess of marketing, but under the guise of science. It’s co-opted language that seeks to prove that people will pay for things, and while these may be important for all sorts of various reasons, they don’t mesh with design.

Although there are lots of different ways of framing and defining design, I’ve found that the commonality of nearly all definitions is the focus on people, and in making life better. Usability is about reducing our propensity for errors or increasing our efficiency; aesthetics contribute to powerful emotions; even discursive design is about raising awareness and making people think in new ways.

I’m concerned that the methods we’re beginning to discuss in our community are misguided. They may work, or they may not; but if they work and produce collateral damage, are they really successful, and are they really in-line with the human-centered qualities of our work?

My raw notes from Janice’s talk are below.


Janice Frasier
UX Practice for Lean Startups

Lean startup machine is one of the leading educators in startup methods, organized around these ideas and experimentation. They say “Get out of the building!”

I founded LuxR, and was previously a founder of Adaptive Path. On March 2nd, 2001 we launched a company that helped define what user experience would become. I was the first coo of the company for 6 years. Before that, in the distant past, I was at Netscape, and was there 6 months after the IPO. I realized how much it feels like right now. Right now, there’s a sense of permission and obligation to reinvent things. To reinvent the world as we see it. We all have this opportunity, because of the problems our world is facing, economic, or employment, environmental, there’s a sense of permission and obligation to change everything. All that’s limiting us is our courage and imagination. I would love to see every single one of you quit your shit job and get a better one. Great jobs are ones that you make yourself.

There are startups that are commercially viable to satisfy every personal need. If there isn’t one, go make one. Be it social, environmental, technology.

One of the companies in our program reinvented the Texas Instruments graphing calculator. Why does that matter? It turns out that there’s a worldwide community of people drawing pictures with a web based graphing calculator. They made valentines. It’s putting joy into the act of making math happen; these are high school kids. They come on day one, do their homework, come back to finish what they imagined, not because they have to but because they enjoy it. If we can change the stupid graphing calculator, we can change anything.

All that’s missing is you. The startup industry, that segment, is missing the wisdom of the user experience community. I get regularly asked for an introduction to a rock star designer, that can do front end production, and information architecture, and everything, and that will be there design department, and my job is to tell them that they’re missing the point, and I help educate them. My purpose is to create fertile ground, so when you partner with them as co-founders, you have a ready environment where you can make the most impact that I know design can have.

At luxr, we’re educating entrepreneurs. Netscape led me to design, and I’ve gotten here through the design world.

I’m an advisor to some startups; foodspotting, diaspora, mingly, taskrabbit.

Today we’ll do a bunch of stuff. A talk about Lean Startup, and then, I chose three parts of what a lean startup means; what are the new skills in the toolkit? These new skills change how designers think about their work. We’ve had 35 companies in our 10 week program, and they have had seasoned people, and they’ve told me time and time again that they will never go back.

The focus is on hypothesis recognition, experiment design, and “smallification.”

Lean Startup.

Eric Reiss; he’s the guy who came up with the idea of lean startup. He made it to the cover of Inc magazine; he wasn’t always that well presented. I want to talk about a few things that lean startup isn’t. it is not cheap startup. There are lean startups spending truckloads of cash, but they are spending it efficiently. It also doesn’t mean fast. It’s not the easy way to do a startup. The easy way is to get money and build an idea. And then it sucks, and everyone’s unhappy. The best way is to run experiments to find out if I deserve any more. You find out that your original idea was wrong, but in interesting ways, and you find your way to the best product market fit.

It’s also not shortcut startup. It requires that you get out of the building, and do user research. It’s mandating that you do user research, and you do it continually in the cycle. And that you do it over and over and so it becomes a way of life. Isn’t that what we always wanted?

It’s not low ambition. It doesn’t say I’m going to make a little thing, and be OK with that little thing. The little things are in service to a higher vision, and that will create massive global change, with economic value on the other side.

It’s not the opposite of fat startup. It’s about efficiency, and innovation accounting.

This is Steve Blank. He’s the guy that created customer development. Steve says “Get out of the building.” It’s his mantra, and what’s amazing about this is that you shouldn’t rely on your own gut idea. Go learn about humans, and develop empathy. It’s generative research, it’s contextual inquiry. Out there you have acolytes who are following Steve Blank and Eric Reiss, asking if they are doing customer research. When I found out there was a business community that evangelized research with stupid t-shirts? Those guys get it, and they get it in a way I’ve never seen in 20 years of working in industry. I’m on fire; the opportunity for change and impact is greatest when you have alignment in the belief systems in your companies.

You no longer have to persuade people of the right way to do things. I want to get the people that want to do this to the people that are really good at doing this. Get out of the building.

Steve Blank introduced Customer Development in, uh, 2006. He’s a professor at Stanford, and he’s a very warm and wonderful man. Epiphany was a big hit; he realized why his companies failed. He called it four steps. Customer discovery, customer validation, customer creation, and company building. The first two phases are about finding product/market fit. This is a reinvention of user-centered design practice, from a different point of view. There’s a little skew on it. Instead of asking questions about needs and what people do, their more interesting in finding out what marketing messages would be best. Suddenly, everyone’s talking the same language, and you’re all valuing that. Let’s talk more about what he means.

4 Steps to The Epiphany was a collection of his lecture notes, and so it’s a terrible read. No one finishes it. I asked a room of 500 people, and like 7 people read the whole thing. So Patrick Vlaskovitz and Brant Cooper rationalized it and made a shorter, more useful book. They laid out these ideas in a more accessible book, at What I want you to note about this is how similar it is to what we do for a living.

Problem solution fit is “understand people and their needs.” Proposed MVP is sketching. The proposed funnel is the onboarding process. These are things we’ve spent decades learning to do well.

The thing to know is that as designers, we can say “I’ve been doing that all along, none of that is new.” And we’re right. Everyone tells Eric the same thing. No matter who he’s talking to, he says “None of them knew about it…” Now everyone else can come along too. The words customer development, there’s nothing I can do to get rid of the phrase. People you work with will call it this, even if you call it UCD. All we have to do is connect the dots so our language matches. Customer development, as if I could develop customers. Steve used this language because he was trying to challenge “product development” being software. You also have to develop your customers; he meant “develop empathy for your customers.” He was presuming there would be a department called a customer development department. It hasn’t worked out that way.

When I first encountered this, I went out to lunch with a few VC colleagues, coincidentally, they asked me to figure out a design program for their portfolio companies. Design is increasingly realized as being important. I was introduced by a mutual friend, and I had always poo-pooed lean startup. Pivot, whatever, we called is changing strategy. MVP? You mean, a prototype? Shut up. I was really eye rolling about it. Boy, was I wrong. I was wrong, wrong, wrong.

During my exploration, after being prompted by Rob and Mitch, I was introduced to this kid, who was 18, deferred Stanford enrollment, and was thinking about all sorts of other things. We were going to lunch so he could advise me. He laid out what customer development meant; his name is max marmer. From then on, it was like. “Holy crap. This changes my life.” It was very humbling. I like to think I’m a little famous? Turns out, not really.

I can’t draw, just like other people, but I had to understand the idea, so I had to make a drawing of it.

Customer development demands that, when you have an idea for a startup, ask who is it for? What can they do with it that wasn’t possible before? What features do they need? How do those features fit together? I mapped them to things I knew. Personas, design targets, concept drawings, 2×2. This is what we do.

It says fake it, and then make it. This means usability testing. Awesome, still on the same page.

How do you know if you’re right? This is one of the things we can work on today. Designers are culturally, subtly, told that they need to be right the first time. If you aren’t right the first time, your design sucks. It doesn’t suck. It’s probably fine for a situation. How does the person casting judgment know? We’re all judging these things from our gut, and what we need to do is judge them based on evidence. We change the role of design from “selling in” and “managing stakeholders” to solving the more important customer problem to identifying if the thing you made solves the problem enough.

We’re making attempts to solve the most important problems. It’s a really different way to think about the problem. I would bring a wireframe to a client and say “This is a hypothesis I’m working with right now.”

And then you have a different kind of conversation about it.

You are looking for product/market fit. Once you start collecting evidence through qualitative and quantitative means, you realize you have to go through this a few times before you get it right. Now we have permission and the requirement to do iterative design. Then, you finally get it right and move on. But you also ask other questions. People say “I want to have a seat at the strategic table.” Problem solving. You have to decide if you are solving a high value problem. Will someone pay? Who are the market stakeholders, and the other players in the market? How does the money flow? This is all strategic, and it’s all design. This may not be about optimizing an interface or making it beautiful, but I think it’s core of design.

All of this says, it doesn’t matter how beautiful it is, let’s solve the right problem first.

So the catch with lean startup, this is what makes it not fast startup; you’ll find that the answer to these questions is sometimes no. Maybe there’s no way to make money off it. Maybe it’s Napster and you are stealing someone’s idea. It can be an awesome thing, but if it’s not viable, you have to go back to the drawing board. A pivot is where you change your tactics without changing your vision.

A pivot can set you back a year. But that’s OK. It’s unassailable logic. It’s absolutely rational. You prioritize their needs, and solve for their highest value needs, and you make sure money flows in the situation comfortably. I can’t think of any flaw in that process. It demands the talents we have as designer, and embeds them in the highest levels of decision making. If you want permission to launch your solutions into the real world, and you want to be a strategic player in the player, become a designer co-founder of a startup. Full stop.

I talked about product/market fit a few times. There’s kind of litmus test that is an approximation of this. It means when you’ve created a product that represents a high value problem and the product you’ve created is beloved by the people you’ve made it for. The test is, say you have a small number of users. If half of those people would be very unhappy if your product went away, you can claim to have product/market fit. Relatively small number, really unhappy. We aren’t talking about a perfect product. That gives you permission to move into optimizing, making it perfect, delivering on the bigger vision. What you are asking for at each stage is permission to move to the next step. And until you have permission to move to the next step, you keep working on.

There are little stop signs at each stage, and you stop until you have the stage right. And then you move on. And you stop there until you get it right. And if you don’t have it right, you may have to go back and start again.

Eric Reis’ first blog post was three and a half years ago. He took four steps. Make products customers want, and combine it with agile development. It tells you why agile works and what it’s for. It’s a very important book for us to read, because we need to develop empathy for our developer colleagues. It’s a brilliant book. Reduce the batch side. The Toyota Way, fundamental to the lean manufacturing movement: it’s about eliminating waste.

Make something customers want, release in small batches and do experiments, and remove waste. It’s unassailable logic.

The lean startup book debuted at #2 on the New York times best seller list. He’s an EIR at the Harvard Business School. He costs $30,000 to book for a keynote address at a conference; it’s the real deal, it’s really happening. And he now has a much better stylist.

Build, Measure, Learn. It’s a cycle, and then build the next thing. Optimize for cycle time, not on-budget, on-plan delivery. This is really similar to the UX cycle of think, make, check – which I was taught by Mike Kuniavsky, 12 years ago. But Eric, being a developer, started with build. And Mike, being a designer, started with think. Developers who don’t write code feel unproductive. Designers who work so fast feel unfinished. We want to optimize for cycle time. The principle that I emphasize is flow.

I don’t care where you start; we want to flow through the cycle again and again, and it’s by going through the process of making a hypothesis and testing it, adapting based on our learning, it’s this kind of build/measure/learn, or think/make/check.

The work we’ve done is invalidated effort. Time is across the x axis. We do thinking, and we make things, and then we revise them, and then we release it, and we do usability testing, and we release, and so on. We never pay down the risk, because we never know if it’s a successful launch. We make things without validating if they are the right things to make.

The alternative is to pay down the risk of think/make/check; you pay down the risk with a measurement. I’m going to imagine a feature my customer will want. I’ll make the smallest thing to validate it, and I’ll do the evaluation to know if it works. I never build risk. We’re constantly de-risking; we move forward with lots of confidence. On-time, on-budget delivery of a project plan; we’re just guessing.

Make the right product. User, leads to Needs, to uses, and to features. Then, we get to user stories and themed releases. I always want whatever code is being written, pixels being made into prettiness, to have a rational story back up to humans in the real world with real needs. I know the ten points in pivotal              tracker connect to the most important customer problem to solve, and I know it because we’ve been talking to customers all the way along.

Victory is measured in learning. If you learn something important about customer needs and who will pay for what, you’ve made progress. This will change about how you think about your role, your work, your team, and your process.

I get asked for a mythical unicorn who can do UX, visual design, research, and development. I want a rock star designer. The answer is no you don’t. You want the beginning of a department, or a person you can build a department around. You want a curious person who will develop new ideas. We’re at the beginning of the evolution of our discipline. We’re bringing experimentation into the practice. You want a curious person to help create the processes to solve world problems.

“You need to think like a scientist”

7 habits of highly effective startup designers.

  1. Ideate with friends. Exactly three friends, not four, because four doubles the talking you do.
  2. Go broad. Come up with ten ideas, so you have thirty. Get more, better ideas. It doesn’t matter if the idea comes out first or last.
  3. Say “Tell me about this one.” I’m not rejecting your idea; I’m committed to understanding what you mean.
  4. Ask “Who has the decision”?
  5. Make informed, albeit arbitrary decisions. Get as much information as you can, but accept that you just have to decide. Inaction will kill your company. Not launching will kill your web company more than anything else. I know this because I did it. It’s embarrassing.
  6. Prove it. Ask how we know this. Do we need to prove it? How risky is it if we don’t?
  7. Question perfection. I think it is awesome that when a designer is asked to launch something that is imperfect, it makes them a little nauseous. It makes them physically ill, and it’s a good thing. It’s wonderful that you care. It’s a good thing. But know when it’s the right time. There’s a humility, and there’s a good time for perfection and a bad time. The reason I lost 800,000$ of my investors’ money is because it was never good enough. I was too embarrassed. If you aren’t embarrassed by your first product release, you waited too long.