Austin Center for Design’s director Jon Kolko has a new article in Rotman Magazine’s latest issue. Titled “Unveiling the Magic of Design: The Role of Synthesis”, this piece offers a quick glimpse into the work present in his latest book. You can read the piece in the HBR archive, or subscribe to Rotman Magazine, here.
Does anyone watch our “Personal Growth Videos”? Our “Peaks of the Week”? Our reflection videos? The idea behind the videos is that learning requires reflection. This week, Ruby tried to redesign the format of the videos, and ask new questions because the videos were feeling staid.
You can’t force reflection, but it’s an interesting interaction design challenge to note how the structures of the new school you’re designing affect the way your students behave.
We’re all super busy balancing work and school, and when we get super busy, we tend to:
- go into default modes of interacting with the world and the people in it.
- go into crisis mode: reactive instead of proactive.
- feel like there’s no time to think, so reflection becomes optional or bonus.
Why not iterate ways to get better reflection and feedback from the class? Why not iterate the ol’ personal growth video hormone?
Some food for thought, some unfiltered brainstormin’:
- if a faculty member runs the videos, it automatically means we take it a little more seriously. plus they can call b.s. on any cop-out answers (to our annoyance.)
- what if a different student were in charge each week, and also in charge of asking a different question?
- instead of video, some kind of regularly-scheduled stand-up
- some kind of regularly-scheduled “circle time” or “family meeting” that includes story sharing or reflection questions
- visualization of the week / gamestorming activity that probes reflection
- specific questions for the blog that probe or seed reflection
- regular happy hour with faculty
- public vs. private to the school vs. private individual reflection
- filming video at the end of the week at the end of the long studio class = certain results and certain emotions
- the perils of introspection vs. usability testing/talk-aloud method
Design constraints: easy, quick, consistent…does that lead to the kind of reflection that leads to learning?
I was explaining our work with Frontsteps to a good friend of mine last night, and I used the phrase ‘people experiencing homelessness’ to describe the clients at Frontsteps. Curious, he asked me if that was the politically correct term for homeless people. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but it felt like the phrase was important for a reason beyond being politically correct.
This morning it hit me: using ‘people experiencing homelessness’ is not about being politically correct, it’s about being empathetically correct. We know that the language we use both reflects and shapes how we think about the people and world around us, and these two terms have very different implications.
The term ‘homeless people’ suggests a changed identity and lends a sense of permanence to the state. This change in identity immediately puts them in the category of ‘other’ and makes it more difficult to empathize.
While more cumbersome, the term ‘people experiencing homelessness’ emphasizes that they’re going through a temporary situation. I also like it because it stresses that they are people first and after all, people are people.
Posted from Ryan’s blog.
While doing design research I try to listen to myself as much as I do everything else.
How do I feel about this situation? Anxious, awkward, excited, satisfied?
This week Scott and I did some quick and dirty testing by giving away McDonald’s gift cards to people panhandling along the road with signs. We then tracked their balance online to see if the cards were redeemed.
It was satisfying to give something away that you knew could not be misused. We were excited to constantly check to see if the cards had been used yet. A couple of times there was traffic behind us so we just had to hand out the card without any conversation, which felt very transactional and inhumane.
How can our final design incorporate those positive emotions and avoid the others?
So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.” – Ben Franklin
In the 1930’s a researcher named Norman Maier  conducted a curious psychological experiment. He brought people into a room with two long ropes hanging from the ceiling, and instructed them find as many ways as possible to tie the ropes together. The ropes were separated from each other by just enough distance that you couldn’t simply grab one and walk to the other, but the room also contained a variety of objects like a length of clothesline and a long pole. Most people quickly discovered that they could tie the clothesline to one rope and walk to the other, or that they could use the pole to reach out and draw one of the ropes to them. Once they got through the obvious solutions, however, everyone was stumped.
After they had been confused for a while, Maier, who walked around the room throughout the experiment, would casually brush one of the ropes with his shoulder, causing it to sway. Within a minute, most people would then solve the puzzle by tying something heavy to one rope and swinging it like a pendulum to get to the other.
The curious bit came when Maier asked them where they got the idea for the swinging. Almost invariably, they would say something like “I just thought suddenly of a grandfather clock,” or “I remembered reading Tarzan as a child.” Not one of them mentioned Maier brushing the rope with his shoulder, even though they had the idea immediately after it started to sway.
These people had no reason to lie and indeed had no clue that they were. The idea came to them subconsciously and they honestly weren’t able to understand its origin. The tricky part, though, seems to be that we are hardwired to make up (and believe) plausible reasons for our behavior, even when we don’t know the real answer. Psychologists have a name for this combination of our inability to articulate our internal motivations with the tendency to invent reasons. It’s called the Perils of Introspection.
So what does this have to do with evaluating design solutions? Everything.
Every time a usability tester asks the user why they clicked the left button or a focus group facilitator asks a customer why they prefer red over blue, we have to be aware that the person quite likely doesn’t know and are almost certainly (though unintentionally) going to make something up. Even worse, researchers Wilson and Lisle have shown that if you’re asked to explain a choice before you make it, you might end up picking the option that’s easier to explain, not the one you would have chosen in the real world.
There are numerous examples of successful products (like the Aeron Chair) that almost didn’t happen due to bad reviews resulting from the perils of introspection. Malcolm Gladwell gives a good overview of the problem and some great examples in this talk from PopTech in 2004:
So now that we know there’s a problem, what do we do?
The solution can be found in one of the most important things we know from design research, which is that you cannot just talk to people but also must watch them in action. In research, we understand that what people say and what they do often don’t line up, and it’s in those inconsistencies that some of the most interesting insights are found.
So if apply this same understanding to evaluating designs, then the next time we have a great idea and start to pull together a roundtable focus group, we might think twice. We might instead remember the Perils of Introspection and devise a way to sketch or prototype the idea and watch how people interact with it.
Your participants will give you much better data if you observe their interactions. Just don’t ask them why.
 Story adapted from Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. Maier’s 1931 paper: Reasoning in Humans. II. The solution of a problem and it’s appearance in consciousness.
Posted from Ryan’s personal blog, Back of the Envelope and Big Ideas
“Design with” is definitely newer, and therefore less documented than “Design for” (within the already hard to talk about messy design process). But there are some trailheads on the internets.
- Article written by Carl di Salvo about Public Design Workshop at the Georgia Institute of Technology called growbot workshops. They presented technology to local organic farmers and worked with them to build robots that solved their unique problems. Very much digging this process (which is well described in the article) and want to try this sometime this quarter! What happens afterward with the prototypes?
- Liz Sanders, a pioneer of participatory design. Lots of papers up on her site, MakeTools.
- Chris Le Dantec has done collaborative design with different publics (and has worked with homeless populations and service providers before) has articles about such on his site.
- Alex Gilliam and Public Workshop “helps individuals, organizations, and schools achieve great things through design.” Lots of case studies and reflective blog posts on the site of working with middle school students on design.
- On that note, does teaching design and co-designing with K-12 students increase the creative capital of a community (and our world)? Emily Pilloton’sStudio H is testing that out in Bertie, NC. Local organizations around the U.S.—such as UpLift Austin or Project: Interaction or others—are doing similar things. (Related to “A case for design literacy” by Chris Pacione in Interactions magazine)
- There’s this history of community design movement by Mathias Heyden in An Architektur magazine (that I can’t find a digital version of so haven’t read yet, but it was recommended by Gilliam.)(Official title — An Architektur 19-21: Community Design. Involvement and Architecture in the US since 1963)
- Susanne Hofmann with Baupiloten does architecture in collaboration with university students and their clients. Case studies in the projects section. She’s designed some cool schools with participatory design input, among other things.
- Sunni Brown, Dave Gray, and their gamestorming crew offer activities and ideas for bringing design methods and visual thinking tools to “non-design” folks.
Outside of Design
- Theatre of the Oppressed pioneered by Augusto Boal (my blog post about TTO)
- Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paolo Freire (Chapter 1)
- “Biliteracy, Empowerment, and Transformative Pedagogy” by Jim Cummins. The last section summarizes Alma Flor Ada’s critical literacy framework whose phases (descriptive, personal interpretive, critical analysis, and creative action) parallels Liz Sanders’s four levels of creativity (do, adapt, make, create) to some extent.
- “play/game theory, early childhood development (creativity and collaborative learning), neuroscience, animal behavior and even military battlefield research more useful” (via Alex Gilliam, who also suggests teaching something complicated to middle school students)
Now the tricky part
Actually doing this stuff. Which takes more time (we only have 6 weeks). And is less structured. And is more difficult to get people to buy into it and involved. And whose value is less tangible.
Goals this semester include being more visual and getting things out of my head and onto the internet. In the spirit of that, here are some of my notes from our class discussion last night in Jon Freach’s Theory of Interaction Design Course.
Posted from Ryan’s personal blog, Back of the Envelope and Big Ideas
AC4D is thrilled to announce that our students Kat Davis and Ruby Ku have advanced to the second round of the IxDA’s Student Competition; the second round will be held in Boulder during the IxDA national conference.
Kat and Ruby submitted a quick video of the work they’ve been doing throughout the quarter; you can view it below:
Congratulations, Kat & Ruby – great job!
We are proud to announce that the Director of Austin Center for Design, Jon Kolko, has published a new book with Oxford University Press. Exposing the Magic of Design: A Practitioner’s Guide to the Methods and Theory of Synthesis is the first book to focus on the exciting part of the design process that lives between ethnographic design research and form giving – the ambiguous spot where innovative ideas come from.
There are three goals for this text. The first goal is to present a theory of design synthesis in a simple and concise manner. This theory is based on academic research and discourse, but presented in a way that is clear and valuable to a practicing design manager, designer or design researcher. This theory of design synthesis can then be used to substantiate single methods of synthesis.
The second goal is to offer a rationalization of why design synthesis is important, both in a general sense (“why should I care about this at all?”) as well as in a more immediate sense (“why should I care about this right now?”).
The final goal is to present a set of actionable, learnable methods for design synthesis that can be applied to any design problem. Practicing industrial designers, interaction designers, interface designers, and designers of other disciplines can use these methods to make sense of complicated design problems and to move seamlessly from various forms of research to design. The methods can add a systematic sense of rigor to an otherwise subjective, often introspective process.
When working on wicked problems, what one does can directly and powerfully affect lives. While this opportunity for impact initially drove me to AC4D and to work on wicked problems, I soon discovered the complicated ethical challenges of conducting research in the social space.
During classes at AC4D, we learned contextual and participatory research techniques and discussed the necessity of participant consent. However, the examples we discussed in class involved consumer products like toothbrushes or razors, not people in crisis. As I began research on homelessness, I realized that I was not probing into someone’s life habits but into someone’s life. Homelessness is not caused by any one thing but by several bad decisions or unhappy circumstances, and I asked people to tell me about these mistakes or unfortunate events. Research forced me to walk a delicate line because the stories people told me were so personal. Some people refused to answer my questions. For those that answered, sometimes, I probed too far. Other times people opened up to me too much and told me things I didn’t know how to respond to. A good researcher can lead a conversation toward information they want, but many times, I found myself just simply listening. I felt like I constantly walked a fine line between what I was supposed to be doing as a researcher and what I felt like I should do as a compassionate human being. At times, I felt more like a counselor and less like a researcher, giving out hugs instead of business cards. Other times, I simply didn’t know how to respond and found my hands in my pockets awkwardly not knowing what to do or say.
Many professions have codes of conduct when dealing with people in vulnerable situations. Psychiatrists never make physical contact with a patient and never talk about themselves. Social workers engage their clients only in the context of their job, not outside. These professions establish clear boundaries between practitioner and client. While conducting research over the last eight weeks, I’ve wondered what exactly those boundaries are for the designer. Are there situations where a designer should just walk away? Is it okay for a designer to make physical contact with a client? Is there an ethical responsibility to share information with authorities if law-breaking activity is talked about? There must be a certain amount of trust between the designer and client, but how far does this trust extend?
These questions are important in any design research situation, but even more pertinent in the social sector, where the line can easily blur between researcher and empathetic human being.