spaces and places

We are all busy rushing around to work on our final presentation for our research findings. We are building a new story based on the various stories we have heard and shared throughout the research/synthesis process. The listening has taken all of us to different spaces and many places. We have been to shelters around Austin, parks, foundations, and church held under a bridge to name a few. We have been to new spaces as we have heard stories of isolation, hope and prejudice. Through all  of this I find myself asking what does “home” mean? There are the comforts and shelter that come with the place of home, but it seems like the intangibles are part of the emerging themes from our research. How does the idea of safety reach beyond the physical space as we think about home?  Is the space that it creates in our daily lives as important as the physical shelter—space to reflect, space to relax and let our guard down, a place to gather with our friends or family? What role do our homes play in creating community or belonging in our lives?

This leads to new questions. Can we create services or products that incorporate the qualities of safety? Do the physical spaces create a sense of belonging or community, are they welcoming? How can we empower individuals, so that they can develop more confidence? Can we facilitate opportunities for individuals to explore goals and share their dreams? What support do they need to continue working towards their goals? How can we empower individuals to help each other? What do individuals have to offer instead of what do they need? Where is the space in the day to escape the stress of coping with daily challenges?

These are some of the questions we are asking as we look back at all the information we have gathered, examine opportunity  areas, develop design criteria and explore new ideas for products and services. We are reaching the end of this research phase, but in many ways it feels like just the beginning…

What happens when lens shift

On Aug 27, 2009, CNN wrote this article about Zipcar:
Just a few years ago the notion that you could persuade upwardly mobile professionals to share cars would have seemed as far-fetched as being able to unlock a car with a telephone. But what started as a counterculture movement in places like Cambridge and Portland, Ore., has gone mainstream.

On July 1, 2010, Fast Company wrote this article about the Mango bank:
“There just wasn’t a better option,” so he made one from scratch. The Mango Store, which opened in Austin in April, reimagines the entire banking experience for this market. Tescher likens the store to “a cross between an Apple Store and a high-end yogurt shop,” which could confuse patrons. Yet once customers are inside, Sosa says, the warm, spacious interior is designed “to educate customers and encourage them to stay awhile.”

On Sept 20, 2007, New York Times wrote this article about

Couch surfing takes an ancient notion of hospitality and tucks it into a thoroughly modern paradigm, the social networking Web site. But, as its members say sternly, it is not a site for dating, or for freeloaders. “This is a generation that’s all about talking to strangers. And why stop there? Why not crash at their place?” For constant surfers, the couch becomes a new sort of home, redefining, in many ways, their own ideas about what a home really is.

Do you see what these three organizations have in common? Sure, they fill a market need, or a gap that is not currently being served. More importantly though, Alex and I think it’s their success in reframing, creating lens shift of what each of these experiences could mean. In each instance, people were not afraid to ask questions such as:
  • What if I own a car only on the weekends?
  • What if going to the bank is like going to the cafe?
  • What if I could hang out like a local in a foreign city?
Relating that back to our topic with the ARCH project on self-identity and empowerment:
  • What if the bulletin board is not just a source of information, but a source of inspiration?
  • What if the homeless are not being seen as helpless?
  • What if they can be teachers?
Far-fetched? Would never happen? We don’t know. What we do know is that something amazing always happen when you get those lens shifted.

Getting back on your feet again

This is not just a story about little ducklings. This is not just a test of your empathy and heartstrings—or of your sense of humor. This is a story about how people can lose their way, and how they can find it again.

After doing a lot of research, especially when you’re in synthesis mode, everything starts to relate to your research. But what made me do a double-take with this video was the fact that we heard young moms (who are temporarily homeless) say: “I hope to soon be on my feet again.” I watched the video again and realized it illustrates a lot of the themes we’ve been seeing in our research about women experiencing homelessness.

The story that makes sense of the research

We’re all trying to navigate this big wide-open possibility space that is life.

Life is great. You have a goal. You’re part of some kind of community.

Some kind of crisis knocks you off your feet. You’re disoriented.

You find yourself away from your support system. Or isolated—physically and/or emotionally.

You’re still struggling, and a friend or family member finds you. Maybe you don’t want to get help, or don’t want to go to the shelter for “directionless duckies,” but your friend/advocate pushes you to just apply. They hold your hand during the first step of the process.

You see that there are other people who are in your same situation to connect with. You start to help each other form a new family. When you see a new person in the same situation, you tell them, “I know how you feel. I was scared, too.”

You’re still a little off-balance. You can’t do things on your own yet, but you know you’ll be able to in the future. For a time, you need some strong directional leadership or authority in your life, leading you in the right direction. You see a map of where you are going because you’re following in others’ footsteps, and you regain your confidence and your bearing.

The research behind the story

Kat and I talked to some women at a local shelter for young moms. We were impressed by the space, their strong bonds, and their drive. Our talks focused less on homelessness and more on their goals and what they were doing in their lives. In fact, we both felt uncomfortable using the word “homelessness” when explaining our research because we didn’t want to imply that they were “homeless” or that they lived in a “shelter.” We realized afterward it was because they don’t perceive themselves as homeless, even though they technically are under the federal definitions. We think this is a strength of the program.

“It’s scary at first. I know exactly what you’re going through. When I first came, I was scared. I just didn’t know what to expect. I’ve never been in this situation, and I never expected to be in this situation. And then it got better when I started to talk to everybody, and them saying to me it’s going to be all right, telling me about the housing and the GED classes…[There’s support] because there’s people to talk to when you’re down. I’m making friends. When I was living out there with the youngest two’s dad, I just stayed home. I never did nothin’.” ~Miranda, 23, who hopes to soon be on her feet again.

These were some of the themes we observed:

  • Each needed an advocate to help them find or apply to the shelter.
  • For each, there was a barrier in their perception of what a “shelter” or “homeless” was in their minds. Once they saw the place, met the people, stayed a bit, they quickly saw that this place was nothing like what they had imagined.
  • There was some kind of isolation in many people’s past, and getting out of that was key.
  • Support from a group of peers going through similar life situations has long-lasting impact. Some of the moms who have moved out and exited the program often come back to visit or hang out.
  • Having a goal, and a roadmap, and constant checks to keep them on track helps people to navigate the larger picture.
  • They were all motivated, and they all had (or found) their drive once they were in the program. Oftentimes, their babies, their kids were a huge part of that motivation. Their youth didn’t hurt either.

Design Research Toolkit

She carries this black bag with her at all times. Day in and day out, everywhere she goes. But what does it hold? School books and art supplies? Secrets and lady things? Blueprints and wireframes? A change of clothes and a wig for quick getaways?

Do not be fooled!

One unassuming bag can contain a treasure trove of data capture for our keen young designer.

As they say:Always be prepared.

[Cue theme music.]

Importance of client experience

This week’s take away from our project was the importance of client experience. When we synthesized our data, we found that almost everyone we talked to emphasized the importance of client experience on some level. Further, it was interesting to note that people who were associated with administrative activities cared about external perceptions (community awareness) while the people who were line workers didn’t care about it much. On the contrary, the opinions were reversed when thinking about quality control.

Matrix showing synthesis results

One question I keep asking myself is on the importance of client experience. Why is it important for these people? Is it because it makes their lives easier or is it because they carry empathy with what their clients undergo? If a design solution makes client experience easier but does not the lives of the employees, does the weight of this perception change in the above matrix? Don’t know..but will find out.

More Architects, Not Firefighters

Throughout our ongoing research, Saranyan and I observed that successful teams are architects. They make plans. They lay the groundwork and build ideas. All too often we slip into reactionary mode- too busy putting out fires to realize that short-sighted focus of “getting things done” may be the biggest distraction from actually accomplishing meaningful actions. There is a degree of recklessness in following a bold directive through to the end. Goals are meant to inspire- to light a spark and orchestrate a conflagration of ideas and actions. An architect may see it through (or change course) but a firefighter will extinguish the momentum before it ever starts. Foresight gives way to formula.

Continue reading More Architects, Not Firefighters

Following the Money

When choosing the focus for our design research, Julia and I were torn between a client service like transitional housing or looking behind the scenes at the less sexy but ever important process of raising money for the organization.  Ultimately, focusing on fundraising seemed further out of our comfort zones as designers (which, after all, is what school is all about), so we dove into the difficult and often uncomfortable world of asking people for money.

When it comes to funding, the biggest challenge at Front Steps is well-known to them and will probably be quickly obvious to you:

Front Steps Current Funding Distribution

It doesn’t take much to understand the dangers of having a single source of funding dominate your revenue.  The problem is even more difficult when that source is the city:

Problems with City Funding

Restricted: Designated for ARCH and existing programs, making innovation difficult.Precarious: Dependent on political climate and funding priorities of the city.Dominates revenue: Unlikely as it is, it would be devastating to Front Steps if the funding were cut.

As I mentioned, Front Steps is well-aware of the issue and has recently hired a great new director of development to help them address the problem.  We spoke with him after he’d only been on the job for a couple of weeks and we were impressed by the firm grasp he had on the organization and his creative ideas for securing new funding.  He also had a clear opinion on what a healthy funding distribution would look like [more after the jump]:

Continue reading Following the Money

Reflection is required for impact

Some of the stuff I made when I worked at Project HOME.

When I worked at Project HOME, an organization addressing homelessness in Philly, I noticed a lot of things that I could design and improve. Better signage, better forms, nicer marketing materials, pretty menus at the cafe, improving training programs, an easier way to organize job listings for clients, etc.

I completed most of these things. I’m not sure they mattered.

I also wrote proposals and plans for larger projects; rethinking some existing services and creating new programs. However, none of those ever got done.

When an organization works with people in crisis, it’s very hard not to feel like every moment must be accounted for. It is exhausting just to maintain the existing processes and procedures, rarely is there time to think about improving things.

This is a pattern that we’re seeing while researching homelessness in Austin. Organizations that don’t explicitly set aside time for reflection default to crisis mode.

Looking back after four years, the only thing still in use at Project HOME is a tool that made it easier for the staff to submit and review incident reports.

So just like webkit won’t accept patches that make it slower, in order for a new program or approach to be successful it must reduce the workload of organizational staff and increase reflection.

After 5 hours of synthesis…

We’ve got some initial design criteria:

  1. Must make it easy to start
  2. Offer environment for peer support
  3. Offer environment to expand network
  4. Allow mistakes
  5. Inspire opportunities
  6. Encourage new interactions
  7. Must be fun
  8. Repeatable
  9. Create intentional lens shift
  10. Must have a new brand identity

Interactive Tools on Homelessness

Changes in Homelessness:

It’s hard to get accurate statistics on the exact number of people experiencing homeless in the United States.  The National Alliance to End Homelessness tries with their detailed estimates and state comparisons with the national average.

Children & Homelessness:

What about children?  Often the forgotten face of homelessness, children face a great risk of being on the street. Find out how children fare in your state.

Multi-Year Homeless Count Map:

Homelessness appears to be on the rise across the US.  Although Texas lacks updated data, the number of people experiencing homelessness in Austin, TX is around 9,000.   What does your city look like?