Strange Bedfellows: The social human factors of distance learners and the homeless, Part 1

“It is in social situations that most of the world’s work gets done.”Erving Goffman

I have an odd job. I watch what people do, ask what they think and how they feel and then try to make sense out of it to design a better situation for them. Recently, I found myself studying two different groups of people who share a condition – students who get their degree online, and the homeless; both are unable to gain access to communities they desperately need.

After completing research for a distance learning client at frog, our project team discovered that most of the student-participants are lonely and lacking confidence. They think they are the dumbest ones in their class and trudging behind everyone else and yet they don’t know who their classmates are or whether THEY are good or bad students because, well, they can’t see them! Lacking the social meter that actual classmates in a classroom provide keeps them from calibrating their own progress. We also found that low self-esteem was widespread among the diverse group of students we interviewed and it affected their motivation, confidence, and performance in their studies. As we prepared for our AC4D Design for Impact Boot Camp last Saturday, I was curious to see if there was a parallel between those students we talked to and the homeless people we would be studying because both seemed to be held in a captive and disheartened state by their circumstances.

Walking to work a few days later, I passed by some homeless men and women and wondered why many of them talk to themselves in public (and, presumably in private). Is it mostly drugs and mental illness or are there other social factors in play such as the loneliness that results from lack of companionship? Could it also be a reinforced rejection of social norms? Like, implicitly, “Fine – if you aren’t going to treat me like part of your society, then I’m not going to behave like I’m part of your society.” Although our day-long work session at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH) didn’t quite get to the bottom of this issue, it did show me that homeless people, similar to distance learners, take a hit to their sense of self because they lack a normal volume of everyday interactions that us social creatures need to stay emotionally stable, such as chance encounters with people we know, eye contact, ordinary talk and conversation, glances, and posturing. We take this “sense-data” for granted because it is usually transmitted to us through our own impressions of very subtle, everyday exchanges but it is deeply felt and directly informs our actions. For example, if I was having trouble understanding Professor Kolko’s lecture on design frameworks, I might look around the class to see if others appeared as perplexed as I was before raising my hand to ask a question. And, if I were waiting to cross the street on a nice day at lunch time I might make eye contact with the person standing right next to me and nod my head in order to graciously acknowledge his sharing of street corner space. Erving Goffman refers to this behavior as “the slightest of interpersonal rituals, yet one that constantly regulates the social intercourse of persons in our society.”

So, what social human factors, tactics, and technologies should we consider to help the homeless improve their bearing and relations with others? And, could these same methods also help those distance learners who are held captive and home alone? In my next post, I’ll talk about personal skills, engendering community, establishing “co-presence”, setting and meeting small milestones, the role of affirmations, and the importance of gradually building social capital. Stay tuned.

Design for Impact Boot Camp

On April 24th, a multidisciplinary team of 22 designers, technologists, and students took part in an all day Design for Impact Boot Camp. Co-sponsored by AC4D and frog design, the day-long educational experience was intended to introduce a high level process for approaching large-scale social problems, and the challenges associated with these types of problems. Additionally, the Boot Camp provided a framework in which to experience the research, synthesis and ideation processes as related to design for impact, and introduced the vocabulary necessary to speak about strategic design work, in the context of designing for impact.

    The boot camp was held at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, and with the generous facility support of Front Steps, the group was able to perform guerrilla ethnography with the homeless, the shelter security, the various volunteers, and the staff that work at Front Steps.

    You can browse through some of the lecture material that was introduced during the day:

    An introduction to Designing for Impact, by Jon Kolko. In a group conversation, participants examined the precedents that have been set in the social innovation space, discussed the holistic process of design, and began to understand why the methods of design are most appropriate for tackling these complex social problems.

    A Process for Seeing: Guerrilla Ethnography, by Lauren Serota. In the first session, the group talked about how to practice guerrilla ethnography, by using sketching visualization methods, rapid photography, and in-context conversations in order to engage with target audiences. Then, in groups, the participants tackled a design problem related to the context of poverty in Austin, Texas – and engaged the community by practicing the guerilla ethnography methods just discussed.

    Understanding Insights and Themes, by Jon Freach. As the group began meaning-making,  insights and themes began to emerge. Jon described how to capture high-level takeaways from research, and how to form actionable design directives out of these conceptual frames. Then, participants extracted insights and themes, and positioned these elements in the context of the initial design brief – designing for impact, and producing new products, systems and services.

    Externalization and Rapid Modeling, by Matt Schoenholz. The group focused on how to externalize this data and form visual representations of it. We modeled the data gathered, and created representations to capture the high level takeaways from the streets in order to build frameworks for creating new idea.

    Rapid Ideation, by Justin Petro. The insights and themes that have been extracted were then visualized. Justin introduced a structured form of ideation in order to focus on a new ideas, and described how to connect these new ideas to potential sources of funding, in order to understand their feasibility. [worksheets here]

    Here are some pictures of the day:

    We’ll have the actual design ideas presented on the site in a few days – and we’ll be sure to post when the next Design for Impact Boot Camp is coming up.

    Creative designers typically produce stuff – toasters, websites, airplanes, and cell phones – for mass production by large, for-profit corporations. These designers frequently bemoan what they observe to be a misappropriation of their talent – that their creative efforts are misguided, and the hard work and energy they are putting into product development is lacking integrity or honesty. Rarely does their work have a humanitarian element to it; the corporations that hire designers are fundamentally interested in appeasing their shareholders.

    Designing for Impact is an overt redirection of these creative design efforts, in order to tackle the large-scale humanitarian problems that plague our country and our world. The design process is purposefully applied to issues of poverty, access to clean drinking water, equality of education, and other large problems, and the outcome is a combination of products, services, and systems that are intended to better the human experience.

    After taking part in the boot camp participants will have:

    Acquired a high level process for approaching large-scale social problems, and understanding of the challenges associated with these types of problemsExperienced the research, synthesis and ideation processes as related to design for impactGained empathy with a target, at-risk populationAcquired the introductory vocabulary to speak about strategic design work, in the context of designing for impact

    Changes in Design Education

    Andrew Maier recently posted a thoughtful essay on the changing nature of design education. It’s similar in criticism as a piece I ran a year ago in interactions magazine by Meredith Davis, who speaks of the need to reinvent design education; unlike Meredith, however, Andrew comes to the conclusion that designers need to take responsibility for their own career. Implicit in his article is that a graduate program isn’t going to build a career for you – and that money spent in grad school may be better spent on books with similar content.

    For students who have a background in design, experience in design, and raw skills, Andrew’s totally right: they can drive their career any direction they choose. One soon realizes that a career is a narrative, and it’s one that can be completely designed and controlled. Want to do the speaking circuit? It’s easy – find a compelling story to tell, and practice the speaking skills to support it. Looking for the corporate job driving brand resonance? It’s an easy position to get, and there are pretty tactical ways to formulate a portfolio to attract the right recruiting efforts. And the content in the $70 textbook Andrew writes about [presumably Beyer and Holtzblatt’s Contextual Design]? Yeah, you can read the book and learn the “right process” [which is, of course, never actually done the way it’s written in the book].

    But there’s two main contexts where a formal graduate program makes a ton of sense, is worth the money, and plays a critical role in the advancement of our profession.

    The first is in attracting adult talent to the intellectual process of design. This talent likely already has “experience” in the world, and so a four year degree with foundations studies isn’t going to cut it. For people in the middle of their career, a structured set of classes and a rigorous process is necessary. The rigor of the engagement drives personal “realignment” and the formal structure – and the simple fact that there’s a substantial financial investment at stake – seems to make people take the education seriously, where reading a book might not be as quickly absorbed.

    The second is in opening new doors to new opportunities, those that are too big to be studied in isolation and too complicated to be processed implicitly. These are the problems that are tackled at the HCII at CMU, and at Austin Center for Design, and at most graduate programs – and they are tackled through project work, in groups, with real stakeholders, in a supportive environment. I don’t think that one can fundamentally leapfrog these educational settings, as it’s tremendously difficult to simulate project-based design work.

    I recently authored a piece for interactions that won’t get printed for a few months, but touches on this very issue. In the piece, I describe five predictive recommendations about the evolving nature of education, and how to best structure both pedagogy and content to succeed in the coming educational shift. I’ll share two of them here:

    • Reject the technical delivery limitations prescribed by technology. The majority of software intended to support online learning is abysmal [Blackboard, one of the most popular tool for online delivery, is described as a “a horrendous monstrosity and the people who created it should be ashamed” [http://ask.metafilter.com/17980/Do-you-use-Blackboard], and as a result, the experiential qualities of online delivery may suffer for reasons entirely out of the control of the educator. During the educational revolution, we’ll see educators actively refuse to use subpar products, and we’ll witness an increase in hybrid approaches to teaching – models that combine a digital component with in-person, collaborative sessions augmented by traditional tools like whiteboards and post-it notes.
    • Create a safe environment for learning experiences to occur within. Perhaps the most important aspect of successful education is the idea of empowerment: of creating an environment where failure can be explored, instead of simply trivialized, and where students can learn to be more effective learners. The educational revolution will bring a change of project-based learning, where the cycle of [rote memorization – test – pass/fail] is replaced by an iterative approach of informed trial and error.

    I think the point Andrew is making is sound – that education needs an overhaul. I’m pretty excited to be a part of that revolution.

    Another Attempt at Design Certification

    Conversations of official design certification have come and gone over the last few decades, with little traction. There’s another attempt to organize designers – in this case, graphic designers, who seem to focus exclusively on logos and static websites – and the attempt seems exclusively focused on the fly-by-night $200 website shops that deliver precisely on their promise: pay $200, and get a website that’s worth approximately the same.

    I’ve always had an immediate and negative reaction to the idea of some official certification board – similar to the process of AIA certification that an architect must achieve – but I’ve never really tried to analyze why. I think I’m at a point where I can formulate several reasons why it’s a non-starter.

    1. The conversation almost implicitly reduces design to aesthetics, which is increasingly the least relevant and appropriate use of design talent. The “bad design examples” provided on the site are gratuitous looking, and that’s where the conversation starts and ends. There’s no mechanism to judge the interaction design, the functionality, the cultural need, the benefits to users, the value provided to the company, or any of the other facets of a design problem. And while design aesthetics aren’t entirely subjective, the resonance of visual design is obviously in the eye of the beholder: Not ironically, I found the design certification site itself to be poorly thought out, with an ugly information hierarchy, a sophomoric use of type, and silly clip-art icons added without clear rationalization.
    2. The idea of certification is presented as a method of protecting those who purchase professional design skills. I’m not aware of any data – qualitative, quantitative, or otherwise – that indicates these people need protecting. It’s far-fetched to assume that one who purchases a $99 logo has a deep and passionate need for a strong, well thought out mark and identity package. When you buy a car for $400, you don’t expect it to last very long or be very effective. This idea of “protecting the purchaser” seems like a ruse to protect the fragile aesthetic sensibilities of designers who just don’t like ugly design work.
    3. The one reason that might be appropriately provided FOR certification is almost never considered: that design has a cultural resonance of equal or greater weight than law or policy, as design decisions are reproduced in mass and permeate the visual and semantic landscape of our world. And even this is mitigated at both a federal and a local level, through the use of bans on billboards and requirements about misleading advertising.

    It feels like those clamoring for a professional body of certification are trying to protect a profit margin on a skill that may have already been commoditized. The rallying cry to “empower business” isn’t necessary: designers are empowering business through intellectual, strategic and appropriate design work.

    Big Buckets of Money

    I met with Justin Petro yesterday to do some final logistics planning for the bootcamp, and we were discussing the part of design process – ideation – where ideas start to build and evolve, and new ideas form. He described how important it was to tie these to “a big bucket of money”, even at this early stage, in order to explicitly shift the focus of social innovation from altruism (and likely unsustainable) to profitable (and therefore able to take a long view). I started thinking about what big buckets of money are actually available for social innovators to tie their ideas to, and came up with this list:

    1. Direct sales profit, product. Someone directly pays for an artifact.
    2. Direct sales profit, service. Someone directly pays for a service.
    3. Indirect sales profit, service. Transactional fees are extracted from a third-party exchange.
    4. Venture capital. Private equity, with an expectation of 5-10x return on 3M+ in 3-5 years.
    5. Angel capital. Start-up financing, with an expectation of a 10x return on <2M in 3-5 years.
    6. Foundation grant money. Large grants coming from private foundations, usually spooned off the top of an endowment.
    7. Private-sector grant money. Small grants coming from wealthy individuals, with an implicit expectation of some form of organizational control.
    8. Government grant money. Small to large grants, coming from agencies like NSF or the DOE.
    9. Government contractor money. Small to large contracts, coming from agencies like DOD or DARPA.
    10. Long-tail internet grants. Micro-grants aggregated through a service like Kickstarter, FundableIndieGoGo or ChipIn.

    What other big pots of money am I missing?

    The Strange Connection between Entitlement, Social Innovation,&IxD

    A new post about AC4D is up at Johnny Holland, a magazine focused on interaction design. An excerpt from the post:

    Students would contact me and describe how miserable they were with their jobs, asking for advice on new career paths or even entirely new professions. It wasn’t that their bosses were mean, or that their working hours were awful; it wasn’t even the larger issues we’ve all dealt with in the business context, like the misappropriation of designer as stylists, or the prioritization of technologists over designers. Instead, I began to hear how the benefits of ‘flow’ and ‘being creative’ and ‘solving really hard problems’ were being grossly outweighed by feelings of insignificance and irrelevance. My alumni were at the forefront of design, working at major consultancies and the heart of the Fortune 500 – and they didn’t feel like their work was meaningful.

    Read the whole post here.

    AC4D Q&A with Jon Kolko on core77

    A Q&A with director Jon Kolko is posted at core77, the premier design magazine and resource for all things progressive and intellectual about our field.

    An excerpt:

    Core77: We are excited about the new school you’ve started, the Austin Center for Design. Can you tell us more about it?Jon Kolko: The Austin Center for Design [AC4D] is a school intended to teach interaction design and social entrepreneurship. I have some lofty goals for the school: to transform society through design and design education. My vision is that the hard work and dedication that designers put into making physical products, digital artifacts, and strategy work for the Fortune 500 can be redirected towards large scale social concerns, and that new business models can be created to make this redirection of talent sustainable for all involved.

    Check out the whole Q&A here.

    Design for Impact Boot Camp – sponsored by AC4D&frog design

    frog design and Austin Center for Design are pleased to announce and host a one day Design For Impact Boot Camp. This free event will be held on Saturday, April 24th, 2010.

    After taking part in the boot camp participants will have:

    1. Acquired a high level process for approaching large-scale social problems, and understand the challenges associated with these types of problems
    2. Experienced the research, synthesis and ideation processes as related to design for impact
    3. Gained empathy with a target, at-risk population
    4. Acquired the introductory vocabulary to speak about strategic design work, in the context of designing for impact

    This aggressively-paced boot camp is intended for designers, technologists, marketers, and other professionals who are interested in extending their skill set into the realm of social innovation and design for impact. All levels of design ability are welcome; the only pre-requisite is passion. There are limited participant seats, which are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

    Learn more at http://www.austincenterfordesign.com/bootcamp/

    Austin Center for Design to host virtual open house

    Come join us in a virtual open house on Thursday, April 1st, at 6:00pm central (4:00pm pacific / 5:00pm mountain / 7:00pm eastern). Through a live webcast, Director Jon Kolko will present information about the school, discuss the philosophy of learning, and walk through the curriculum.

    We’ll cover an Overview of Austin Center for Design, the Theory, Philosophy, and Pedagogy of the institution, describe the various learning modules, and have plenty of time for Q&A through live-chat.

    Please visit http://www.austincenterfordesign.com/contact_virtualOpenHouse.php to register for the open house.

    ** Edit: You can watch the recording from the event at http://www.austincenterfordesign.com/prospective.php