Thanks AC4D and Mr. Miyagi

After 3 months of a dry patch where blogging disappeared into the horizon, I am back with a personal post about my AC4D journey and answers to some personal questions about why I am in this program. My break from blogging was a conscious decision resulting from some chaos and confusion about my expectations from the program, the divergence, the convergence and sense-making. I contemplated for a bit about posting this as this was more personal than being ac4d related. But, maybe, just a small maybe, it will help someone coming into the program when the number of questions prevail the number of answers.

When I started the program, I wanted to change the world. The passion was intense. I could see myself going out and doing several great things. I had figured out the mental visualization part of achievement. Thus, I began my journey with AC4D, hoping to change the world the way I saw it. The journey was sentimental and passionate. There is a great quote by Mary Aster –

“It's not good to make sentimental journeys. You see the differences instead of the sameness.”

I realized this very late. But, with every step I was taking,  I started seeing things were different than my expectations. I wanted to work on “information” because that is where my passion is. I did not get a chance to work on that. I was working on a different problem. The frustration caught me unaware. I questioned my reason for being in the program. I thought whether I was doing the same thing that led me into the program in the first place. Was I working on something that I didn’t want to be working on? Ah, the peril with a sentimental journey! I argued with my professors, my project outputs varied in quality. Not that I was bad or anything. It was just that, the sentimental journey was telling me that my goals were different than what I was being taught at school. It was chaotic. At some point, I started doing the assignments and projects because they were part of the curriculum. It had to be, because the emotion of not being able to work on what I wanted to work on, overpowered me.

Life was turbulent and chaotic. I had quit my full time job and was excited to work on some neat ideas. It just wasn’t to be. The Karate Kid story comes to mind. The Miyagis at AC4D were teaching me to wash dishes and scrub floors. I was not there for that. I wanted to learn Karate. There were moments where mind was messing with me and telling me that this was not what I was here for. Struggle and chaos had become part of my everyday project at AC4D. My biggest strength through this process was that chaos has always been my friend and I was familiar with it. There is another nice quote I read from ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’ –

“One must still have chaos in one, to give birth to a dancing star”

I never ever realized how true this was. I persisted with chaos, stuck with my schedules and did the best I can. There were multiple epiphanies which gave a great insight into flaws of my own thinking, which could never have come if I had not questioned everything. I never stopped questioning the things I was doing but not for one instance I let the questions completely over power me and take a wrong step. And eventually, things started falling into place over numerous conversations (with Kat, Justin and Jon – thanks guys!). Today was one such moment. After a great guest lecture from Gary of Union Square Ventures (@gcsf), I went into Justin’s office and asked him what I was doing at AC4D. There were things I cared about that I wanted to work on, and I wanted to find out why I was not doing that. Then came the Miyagi moment. For me, Justin will forever remain as  Mr. Miyagi. He showed me how scrubbing floors (not literally) has made me a better person and entrepreneur. He gave me the famous talk about “leap of faith”. It was a great conversation that brings me back to my original quote that I referred to…

“It's not good to make sentimental journeys. You see the differences instead of the sameness.”

At AC4D, one is taught to be a better entrepreneur. The emphasis is on making you a better person. That is all it is. Every student works on this. It is not the project or idea that matters. It is the spirit. The biggest thing I have gained out of this experience is that, there is a great person (teachers or students) sitting at the other end of the table, listening with attention because they want you to succeed in your dreams. I learned more about myself. Like Steve Jobs said in his famous Stanford speech, “You can only connect the dots looking backwards”. There might be frustration and chaos but if you change the lens with which you view,  you will see a friendly Miyagi teaching you to become a zen master in Karate.

Any future student reading this blog post – Do apply for next year’s program. I guarantee that it will change your life. It has changed mine.



HourSchool is a website that lets you post what you want to learn, and it helps you find someone in your network who can teach it.

Click on the video below to watch us live draw our way through HourSchool!

We’re just starting to get our website up and running… and right now we’d love to hear what you would like to learn.  Please visit and let us know what you’d like to learn.  E-mail us if you’d like to be included in our private Beta.

Thanks!  Ruby and Alex.

Design Synthesis is a process to Be Intentional

I’ve always stated my love of being in design synthesis land. It’s also where some of the most defining moments of HourSchool occurred.

Back in January, we were still thinking that there would be two types of audience using our site: the student and the teacher. We wanted to understand what the student and the teacher would do, respectively, before and after signing up to take/teach a class. As we stepped back from the whiteboard after we were done, we realized we did a temporal zoom. And in that, we found our theory of change. The student and the teacher aren’t two separate personas. They are the same person. Our mission is to transform current students into future teachers – and there is a very specific point in time during the process when that happens.

As we prepared for our final presentation last week, we spent hours trying to find the right balance between talking about problem (our research) vs. solution (our product). After multiple iterations, we ended with a story we were happy with. We stepped back again, and this is what we saw: People’s best part of the day is when they get to teach their peers + old school model does not provide avenue to do that = we will build a platform that allows peer-led social learning.

My original thought was that we used these synthesis methods accidentally. We were simply sketching out what felt right in our heads, and only noticed afterwards that we had used the methods. But as I began blogging and reflecting upon Q3, I concluded that there is nothing accidental about our synthesis.

Insight combination is a method that helps generate design ideas by combining what the designers gathered from research with knowledge from their own past experiences. The method suggests writing down all the data points and design patterns on color post-it notes, move them around, and force relationships between them in order to generate new design ideas.

By constructing stories together, asking hard questions, and walking each other through hypothetical scenarios, we were gradually building our “insight bank”. In particular, I found our impromptu mini-research sessions with others have been the most inspiring, and almost always connected some dots for us. No, they do not replace the rigorous approach of design research. Rather, I think they are one of the most essential parts during design synthesis, as the designer slowly put the various pieces together.

So here’s my new thought: although synthesis may happen unconsciously, it does not happen accidentally. To Alex‘s favorite saying of the year, “Be Intentional”. There’s nothing accidental about our idea, our theory of change, our product, and our business. Our brains constantly drew from the insight bank that we intentionally built.

Design Synthesis, as it turns out, is a process to be intentional.

OneUp and Q3

This quarter was all about synthesizing, making and revising. It is a familiar process to designers, but we were introduced to the concept of business as a layer within the process. We were asked to consider the building blocks of a business as we were iterating our design ideas. This became an integral part of our conversations for research and testing. This led to a more detailed and holistic definition of our design ideas, which came through in the presentations last week and our ability to answer questions from the audience. The audience definitely gave us useful feedback to incorporate as we move forward. Once again this highlights the belief that it is important to go public with design throughout the process.

In the spirit of that idea here is some information about my specific project. The research that we did the second quarter highlighted the invisibility of the fastest growing homeless population, women and children. We learned that there is a connection between homelessness and foster care.

  • Roughly 30-40% of the entire homeless population was in foster care at one point in their life and many young women exiting foster care need government assistance to meet their basic needs.

This was of particular interest to me given my history of working with youth organizations. I wanted to design something that would empower the youth to make choices and recognize their achievements. I believe helping them build confidence will lead to future success. I wanted to build on what we learned has been working—positive feedback and choices that allow the youth to establish their independence.

This led to the development of a new online tool that provides action plans for youth as they exit foster care to learn about financial ­planning. The plans help the youth build their confidence while gaining skills. OneUp offers support by providing options to connect with peers and experts.

This is based on the model pictured above. This model builds on current behavior as this is the generation of digital natives. The youth have grown up using computers—chatting with friends online and playing games. The new model removes some of the challenges that current programs face—fear of not meeting expectations, scheduled meetings and no formal way to involve peers.

Keeping this model in mind I began to design the online tool and share it with some 18-25 year olds for feedback. One of the screens is pictured above and highlights the key pieces of the tool.

  • choice—youth are choosing action plans based on the level they are on and their personal goals
  • easy—steps are kept short to encourage participation
  • support—the youth are empowered to reach out for the type of support they want when they want it including online chats with experts for questions that might be embarrassing to ask in person, the ability to invite friends to cheer them on and tips and warnings for more facts
  • community—share achievements with social networks, invite friends to participate with you, see what your peers are accomplishing in the feeds
  • tracking progress—see progress as steps are completed with the tracking bar at the top
  • achievements—earn badges as steps are completed, gain points as entire plans are completed that can be redeemed for real world rewards (ex. itune gift cards), complete enough action plans and move up a level exposing new opportunities

Continue to follow the blog to see how all of us work this quarter to refine our ideas and develop business plans around them. More making and revising….

Pocket Hotline Pitch – AC4D Q3 Recap

The impetus for Pocket Hotline lies deep within the research Chap and I conducted at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH). After 8+ weeks of observing, interviewing, listening and testing, we learned that there were a few breakdowns in the ARCH client service system. One particular breakdown centered around the front desk. It was always busy, no- swamped. Homeless clients were repeatedly asking the front desk staff the same group of questions over and over. As staff were repeatedly answering these questions and the phone kept interrupting the conversation with similar repeated questions. The staff was spending its time doing the same rote tasks while preventing themselves from accomplishing the tasks in which they were highly trained.
“Getting that information when you are the only one sitting at the desk and there are five people yelling at you is tough.”

Questions to think about when developing your startup pitch


I was at the RISE conference tonight for the Social Entrepreneurship Keynote and Non-Profit Fast Pitch. 15 non-profits from Austin were selected to pitch to a panel of judges for 1.5 minute + Q&A session. Congrats to @LemonadeDayATX for winning, and congrats to everyone else for doing a phenomenon job.

As we’ve experienced at AC4D, pitching about your story and idea in such a short amount of time and capturing the essence of what you’re trying to do is not an easy task. So I particularly appreciated the Q&A sessions after the pitches that allow the entrepreneurs to offer deeper insights. The judges asked no easy questions though. I captured them so as our class starts to build our stories and pitches over the next 2 months, we have a good reference of things we should keep in mind about:

  • What’s the single metric you use to measure success?
  • What’s your funding model?
  • What traction have you gained?
  • How do you find your taget audience?
  • How long is the engagement of your participant during and after?
  • How do you measure overtime?
  • What’s your biggest challenge?
  • Who are you and why do you care about this?
  • How are you leveraging technology?
  • Which cities are you expanding to and why?
  • What are your top priorities for the next 12 months and how are you planning on achieving them?
  • What’s the impact so far and how do you know?
  • Where are you getting your funding?
  • Is there a revenue generating component?
  • How do you showcase your success so people know where their money is going to?
  • How did you get this idea?
  • What guidance do you give to your donors in choosing what to give to?
  • How have you achieved impact already?
  • How are you planning to take this off the ground?
  • How far along are you in development?
  • How are you going to prove your concept and deserve this investment?
  • What is the most innovate way you’ve raised money?
  • What would you change?
  • How far along are you in your campaign?
  • What program do you have in order to support your mission?
  • What are the barriers to your growth?
  • How do you plan on people knowing about your website?
  • How do you maintain a lasting impact?
  • How much capital do you need over the next 3 years, and how are you going to get that money?
  • What have you achieved so far?
  • How are your participants sourced? How do you pick?
  • How long is the mentorship?
  • What is the fundamental innovation?

Thoughts on studio learning

The last week of our Q3 studio class was much more informal than previous weeks. It was open work time as we prepared for our final presentations with no structured check-in’s with Justin, though everyone ended up chatting with him throughout the day.

Because of those small changes, I realized a few things about the way I learn:

  • I learn through eavesdropping. Because Justin was walking around to groups in their workspaces or meeting with people in his office with the door open, I was able to pick up on various bits of advice throughout the day (including, “if you want people to pay attention to it and remember it, write it down on a slide. Don’t just talk about it.”) I could integrate what I wanted, I ended up learning more, and he didn’t have to repeat himself over and over again.
  • I’m nosy and want to know what other people are doing. Because of the structure of scheduled one-on-one’s between groups and Petro (which I’m glad we had because we had given feedback during Q2 that we wanted more of that time with professors), groups ended up presenting and preparing for their meetings with Justin behind closed doors. And the feedback was in some ways trapped in that room because 1) we just integrated our feedback into our own process/project and went along our merry ways and 2) we didn’t have the time or discipline to reflect and share that feedback back via blogging, and 3) we simply didn’t realize what we were missing in not sharing all of that back. We spent the rest of our class times working in our teams (often in separate rooms or corners). While we did catch bits and pieces of what others were doing, notably when someone (inside or outside the class) asked a group about it, there could have been a lot more.
  • I wanted coaching about the design process. This clicked for me when I read this in an Edward de Bono article: “I am not suggesting that [lateral thinking] is easy. It requires a lot of careful practice and coaching. But the deliberate steps can be used.” And then when I saw this happen because Kat asked for Jon’s help in walking her through an insight recombination exercise:Feedback is an important part of coaching when you’re trying something new. One net result of the structure of the quarter was that we got a lot of feedback on whatever we managed to pull together to present of our projects, and less feedback on our processes. Coaching is tricky when the process is so messy, but there is value in walking through the methods we are new to in the specific context of the project we’re currently working on—often when the need arises, and in the middle of our individual worktime. It helps gel the individual methods we learned previously floating around in our heads with the context and roadblocks of our current project floating around in other parts of our heads.

Of course, hindsight is much clearer than foresight. It takes a change, reflection, an outsider, and/or the ability to step back to see how things are currently working. Because we’re usually too caught up in the actual work, and we fall into habits and routines, and things just go unquestioned. It’s a struggle new organizations also have to deal with after a few years of operation—how to best use the people and the space that you have to work with.

As interaction designers, we can look at the “touchpoints” of a studio learning experience:

  • meetings: open vs. closed, location, formality, who’s invited, who can sit in.
  • do you go to the higher-up or does the higher-up come to you?
  • do people feel free to come up to you while you’re working and interrupt and ask questions?
  • where do people actually work? what’s the space like?
  • where are the closed doors? (the physical ones and the assumed ones)
  • how public is your process? how visible is it?
  • what are each person’s expectations about the space, the time together, the process?
  • how do people keep each other updated on each other’s work?
  • what’s the dynamic of teams within the larger organization?

Reflections from Q3

It’s a shame we didn’t do POW reflection videos the last week of Q3, because a lot of things clicked, and I learned a lot during that last week. What you get is a long thoughtful blogpost instead.

Design Research is integral to the Design Process

In my last post, I wrote about our cycles of research/synthesis/design as we worked on Nudge. The stages in the design process were definitely not clear-cut, nor were they scheduled. They flowed one into another, as they should, and they were often overlapping.

This past quarter helped me clarify my belief that design research should be an integral part of the design process. It can’t be segregated to the beginnings and ends of a project with a neat hand-off—or the possibility of facing the chopping block if the team doesn’t have enough time or money. Earlier in the quarter I had lunch with a local designer who didn’t believe design researcher should be its own role. He believed the “design researcher” runs the risk of becoming lazy about not having an opinion about the research findings because they can just hand the findings off to the “designers” who then have to deal with them. When the roles are segregated, I would also argue that the designer also runs the risk of not feeling responsible or empowered to do additional fieldwork on their own during the course of a project—especially when they need those gut checks, and especially if we are to keep people at the core of our designs.

Going Deep

I think continued research/synthesis/prototype cycles are more apt to happen naturally if you are working over a period of time within one specific social issue that you feel passionate about. You will continue to learn more, talk to more people, and have experiences within the relevant field, and the insights you’ll accumulate from following your curiosity will continually inform your design work.

It reminds me of our discussions about social impact during Q1, when we read Emily Pilloton’s take on going local and going deep to have any meaningful social impact.

After two years of tackling design projects for measurable social impact, the one piece of advice I would give to other designers who seek to apply their creative skills toward activism and community engagement is to sit still and focus on one thing.

I mean this not in a cubicle context (”sit at your desk and return emails”), but rather as it pertains to approaching huge, high-stakes design for social-impact projects and enterprises. To sit still and focus on one thing means to commit to a place, to live and work there, and to apply your skills (your “one thing”) to that community’s benefit.

This idea of deep engagement makes me question the consultancy model of design—where you come into something, work for a predefined amount of time, and then leave. It’s what rubs me the wrong way about the recent surge in design “competitions” that call for submissions from creative citizens to solve problems that are remote to people’s lives—physically and emotionally. If you are going to be tackling maternal health in Africa, I may be able to contribute my ideas from Austin, but I am lacking 1) context, 2) skin in the game, and 3) responsibility in the follow-through to what happens to those ideas. It feels more productive to me to either engage a curated group of people (including designers) who have an invested interest in the issue or to co-design with the mothers in Africa themselves.

Commitment to the consequences is important when we’re tackling social issues where our solutions will have real impact (positive and negative). There is a role for the designer, but we must be willing at some point to throw ourselves into an issue space for an extended period of time and to partner with real experts and actual stakeholders. Commitment to anything is difficult in my 20’s when I don’t want to plan beyond next week, but I think it is a step I must take if I want my work to have social impact.

The Role of Technology

I recently read a revealing article by Kentaro Toyama questioning technology’s role in solving social issues. Technology is an amplifier of human intent and capacity. If we don’t nurture human capacity in any specific region, rushing in with technology (best case) doesn’t stick or (worst case) does more harm than good.

Academic observers have deconstructed telecenters and other ICT4D projects, enumerating the many reasons why the initiatives fail: ICT4D enthusiasts don’t design context-appropriate technology, adhere to socio-cultural norms, account for poor electrical supply, build relationships with local governments, invite the participation of the community, provide services that meet local needs, consider bad transportation infrastructure, think through a viable financial model, provide incentives for all stakeholders, and so on. These criticisms are each valid as far as they go, and ICT4D interventionists sometimes focus narrowly on addressing them. But this laundry list of foibles ultimately provides no insight into the deeper reasons why ICT4D projects rarely fulfill their promise, even as their cousins in the developed world thrive in the form of netbooks, BlackBerrys, and Facebook.

…In every one of our projects, a technology’s effects were wholly dependent on the intention and capacity of the people handling it…In our most successful ICT4D projects, the partner organizations did the hard work of real development, and our role was simply to assist, and strengthen, their efforts with technology.

If I were to summarize everything I learned through research in ICT4D, it would be this: technology—no matter how well designed—is only a magnifier of human intent and capacity. It is not a substitute. If you have a foundation of competent, well-intentioned people, then the appropriate technology can amplify their capacity and lead to amazing achievements. But, in circumstances with negative human intent, as in the case of corrupt government bureaucrats, or minimal capacity, as in the case of people who have been denied a basic education, no amount of technology will turn things around.

For me, the amazing potential of design is when our ethnographic research unearths opportunity areas where people have the intentions and capability yet aren’t following through with actions. To find areas where human capacity exists and build on it. A prime example is environmental sustainability: we all know we shouldn’t be driving or buying that bottle of water or using yet another plastic bag…but how many of us live actively green lifestyles? I believe that design and technology can bridge that gap.

Thus, the search for ‘elegant’ solutions

One of my ultimate goals for my designs is elegance. After I present a design solution, it would be awesome if the feedback was “why hasn’t anyone already done that?” I realized this after I watched Ruby’s and Kat’s participation in the student design competition at Interactions 11 conference. Through their research they found that hotels in Boulder were already housing people when shelters overflowed during the cold winter (and off-season) months for a discounted rate. Their proposed solution was a website that would make those booking connections easier between shelters and hotels. An additional public display and text donation system helped draw in awareness and participation from the citizens of Boulder, most of whom probably don’t know this is going on in their own city.

Actually, before they presented SafeBed, part of me thought they might not win because the end product of a website to connect the shelters and hotels seemed so obvious, that it might not be perceived as that innovative. (Of course, they did win!)

Edward de Bono of the “six thinking hats” system puts it best when he laments that:

…every valuable, creative idea will always be logical in hindsight. If an idea were not logical in hindsight, then we would never be able to appreciate the value of the idea.

When design works well, the solutions merge seamlessly into our lives, and we stop thinking about their inventiveness (possibly controversial nature) at the time. But we can only arrive at elegant solutions that will integrate into people’s lives if we have empathy for how people behave and a sense of what they’ll be willing to adapt.

It seems pretty simple to arrive at elegant design solutions: use design research to discover existing behavior and intentions that can be amplified by design and technology, and then design! Simple yet difficult. Yet exciting.

Reluctant innovators

The idea of a reluctant innovator has been stuck in my head since I read this blog post on kiwanja (via Erik Hersman’s tweets). These are “people who found themselves in the midst of a problem they felt compelled to solve.” They became innovators, and eventually entrepreneurs—and reluctantly. They weren’t looking for problems to solve; the problems found them.

I think one of the strengths of AC4D’s program is that we have all come together around this social issue of homelessness, and we’ve been able to learn together, share together, and bring our own points of view into the design process. At the same time, I don’t have a good sense of where people’s hearts really lie. I’m sure there are specific social issues nagging at each of us, problems that we want to tackle after school.

I’ve been able to pretty easily put the two social issues I feel most strongly about—living sustainably and improving public education—onto my professional back burners. (And no, I’m not going to combine them for the sake of combining them.) Haven’t really thought through personally or professionally what it means to apply a design methodology and entrepreneurship model to tackling either of the two. Partly because I’m scared to leave the consultancy model of design that I know and love. Good time to start thinking!

Mommy's Corner Pitch

Last Saturday, Saranyan and I pitched our idea for Mommy’s Corner (think the craigslist of trading).  We got some great questions around the legality of our site and the logistics of making a trade.  Stay tuned for solutions around how to make a trade run smoothly.

Here’s the deck for our pitch.

Here is the current version of wireframes for the site:

The evolution of Nudge

Nudge is a communication service to connect case managers and families experiencing homelessness in-between face-to-face meetings. We believe that strategically increasing the amount of low-key communication will enable case managers to serve clients better, enable clients to reach out for help, save time on both ends, and increase the support available to families. This increased support will help families stay on-track as they move toward achieving their goals.

My biggest takeaway from the quarter:

Research is no excuse to delay designing.Design is no excuse to stop researching.

Ryan and I have been through multiple, overlapping research/synthesis/prototype cycles during the process of Nudge. Part of this was due to logistics: since the beginning of the quarter, we have been wanting to partner with a local organization who works with families experiencing homelessness, but our ability to meet with one only came through during the last week of the quarter. After procrastinating for a few weeks at the beginning of the quarter waiting on interviews that kept getting rescheduled, we plunged in and started designing in the spirit of rapid prototyping. After all, we did have all of our knowledge from the class’s 8 weeks of research, my previous conversations with teen moms in shelter, and Ryan’s discussions with people in AA to inform our best guesses. We had gotten to a point where we had a framework for a theory of change—help people strengthen support networks to increase success and prevent return to homelessness. So we stopped talking, and we started making.

And we kept talking to people. We were doing many steps in the design process simultaneously: research, synthesis, design, development. During the process, I felt like we were getting sidetracked, and I questioned whether we should still be doing “research” and scheduling interviews. For instance, we couldn’t talk to any families, so we talked to some people at ARCH and in transitional housing. This confused us for awhile because these clients—who have experienced chronic homelessness, addiction, and intensive case management—have very different needs than families who are temporarily homeless. But we wouldn’t have figured that out without having done those interviews. Each time, we came out with more “clay” to work with. True, we needed more time to synthesize those experiences, but the culminating insights were valuable. And when things started clicked during the last week of the quarter, and I was finally able to fit our Nudge product into a compelling story framework that made sense with our research and the needs of the people we’ve been talking to, it felt pretty magical.

Each time we did anything—whether that was an interview, moving forward with our coded prototype, or drafting our story—it felt like we could get deeper and more specific. At one point or another, our project has evolved through the following themes: co-design, safety nets, asset protection, stress release, support systems, mood-tracking, and communication. Our focus has now landed on the specific need of “communication of case managers and families experiencing temporary homelessness in-between face-to-face meetings.”

It reconfirms for me the value of rapid prototyping—even if it’s oftentimes difficult to just start. Also, the quick cycles of research/synthesize/prototype feel akin to agile software development. Lastly, it reminds me that the design process is messy, individual, and unique to the needs of each project and project team…I’m starting to embrace that messiness and have to keep reminding myself that there is no right “answer” to where we should be in the process. The only wrong answer is to do nothing.

Up next for us:

  • Talk to and co-design with families
  • Pilot Nudge with case managers and clients (or some other group: high school teacher and students maybe?)
  • Answer lots of really hard questions as we try to wrap a business model around Nudge
  • Talk to people in the mobile space or who have worked on mobile projects. Please email us if you have any suggestions.