Tell us about your projects using design to tackle social problems

Interaction design and wicked problems banner

As you know, at the Austin Center for Design we’re focused on learning how to apply the tools and processes of interaction design to wicked social problems like homelessness, education, social isolation, or international development.

Most of this blog is about our projects, but we’d love to hear about yours.  If you’ve worked on anything in this space, or just heard about a cool project, please comment on the post or tweet a link @ac4d or @ryanhubbard to tell us about it.

Or, if you’re here with us in Boulder at the Interaction’11 conference, join us for a conversation over lunch on Saturday to share your work or tell us about a cool project that you heard about.  We’ll meet at one of the tables in the back of the main auditorium (Glenn Miller Ballroom) at 11:50.  Feel free to come by to share a story or just to get some inspiration from the great work that folks are doing.

Second peer-led class, plus some think/make

Sunday. We had our rescheduled boxing conditioning class by the Auditorium Shores. Beautiful weather, fun company, awesome tacos for lunch = great time. Until we all woke up sore this morning. Thank Phill for a great class – we shall do it again!

Thinking and Making

In last week’s studio class, we were pushed to think about ingredients and friction – essentially what makes something work and what stops it from working. Our learnings were captured here.

In this week’s studio class, we were pushed to have a Point of View (POV) – essentially our opinion on how to solve a problem. Or in other words, things to do that will fulfill our Design Criteria. Here are some POVs 1.0:

People are more likely to teach something when someone is interested and asked them to teach it.Our POV: Make your interest known publicly. Poke the person who you think can teach it.

People are more likely to make time to do something if it’s with people they like hanging out with.Our POV: The person initiating the class must bring a friend. Class must start or end with some sort of social activity (lunch, bike ride, BBQ, etc)

People are generally interested in doing stuff. But finding a time that works for everyone is hard.Our POV: Every person must pick 3 times that work. Teacher has the final vote of when class will be.

It’s awkward to pay or rate the teacher when it’s your friend.Our POV: Students have to check-in to classes and pay for a cover charge (think when you go to a bar to watch your friend’s band play). Rating will come in the form of how often the class is being requested again.

Our customer journey map:

Our initial wireflow sketch:

2 weeks ago, we said, “We believe people learn by teaching, so our mission is to provide people with a platform to teach.”

Last week, we said, “We envision a world where everyone recognizes they have knowledge to share.”

This week, we said, “We are building a website where it lets you post what you want to learn, and it figures out who in your network can teach it.”

We’re all at the IxDA Conference in Boulder this week. We will be sharing our idea with people, getting feedback, and testing our POVs.

So what are the things you’ve always wanted to learn? Post a tweet with “#Iwanttolearn”!

Our first peer-led class, and some.

Our goal: Last weeks goal was to hold our first peer-led class.  In essence, a prototype of the analog portion of our idea.  The place where people meet and share their knowledge.  This will then be book-ended with digital tools to help facilitate the class, aid in the continuation of the class, and encourage students to become teachers of their own classes.

Co Creation:  Our first teacher, Phill, was interested in teaching a boxing conditioning class.   We sat down with Phill on Wednesday to talk about how he planned to run the class and to talk about ways of using our networks to get students.  He had a very good idea of how he wanted to teach the class, and broke down for us the different parts of the class and how he would use the hour.  We walked through the different aspects of the class, and had a great discussion about how to find, engage, and retain students.

We then pushed out the details of the class via Twitter and FB, and called a few friends around town who we thought might be interested.   By the next day, Thursday, we had 5 committed students, and we thought we were ready to go.

Then it snowed and we had to cancel the class.

What we learned:

1.  Scheduling was difficult.  Phill works nights as a cook, so he was only able to teach the class during the day.  Many of the people in our networks worked during the day, so they couldn’t attend the class.

2.  We didn’t have a bad weather backup plan.  The weather in Austin is crazy, it was 75 last weekend, and snowing this Friday.  Our classes need to have backup plans and or clear communication to all involved what happens when the conditions for a class change.

3.  It’s hard to get people to show up on their own if they don’t know someone there, and people are much more likely to show up with a friend.  How can we leverage that and encourage people to bring friends?

Quick backup plan. What other classes could we hold with only a few hours notice?  Christina (@s0delightful) was nice enough to offer to teach a photography class on Friday night.  We met at her house around 8pm. There were 5 of us total, 2 people I’d never met before, but all people that Christina knew.   We ate some food, got to know each other, and then Christina started the class.  The class lasted an hour, and the time flew by.  We all had fun and learned some new things about photography.

What we learned:

1.  It was a very social event, starting off with some food and hanging out was a good way to begin.   Friends enjoy doing things together.  How do you continue to encourage social behavior before and after class?

2.  Christina had a lot of props to use while teaching.  This was a great way to engage people, and to let us try different things for ourselves.   Would a takeaway have also enhanced the experience?

3.  Teaching is a scary word.  After class when we asked the other students if they thought they could go and teach a class about something they knew, the reaction was – at first – very tentative.  After some more questioning, we realized that most of the apprehension was due to the perception of the word teach.  When we re-framed the question to be about sharing knowledge with a group of peers, suddenly everyone thought they had something to share.  What’s another way to frame “teaching”?

4. Christina mentioned that photography wasn’t the first thing that came to mind when deciding what to teach, but she remembered that Ruby had asked her to show her some tips and tricks about photography a while back.  The fact that there was a need present made it easier to pick a subject.  How do we encourage people to share what they want to learn with their friends?

As we move forward we will continue to prototype more and more classes.  We’ve rescheduled Phill’s boxing class for Sunday 02.06.11 at 11am.  Send me an e-mail alex.pappas@austincenterfordesign if you want to come get fit and learn how to throw a mean left hook… from this kid.

AC4D Presenting at ARCH: When It's About Them

On Feb 1, AC4D was invited to present our research findings at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless’s All Staff Meeting. We truly appreciated the opportunity to be the catalyst for a rich discussion. For those who couldn’t be there, here’s what I found to be the most memorable:

  1. From what we heard, it sounded like their board sees the importance of staff members needing to be more like architects and less like firefighters. ARCH will likely be dedicating more planning time for their team in the future.
  2. The staff members agreed that the intake process has room for improvement. While they understand it may not be possible to revert all old habits, they also recognize that there are plenty of opportunities to improve for the future.
  3. Lots of staff members volunteered to form a committee in order to rethink strategies on how to engage clients in a meaningful way that allows them to feel a sense of purpose. We are all in agreement that the clients have a lot to offer, and now we need to create an environment to allow those interactions to happen.
  4. Staff members realized that as they better understand their needs and can articulate specifically the resources they require, they can begin engaging their individual donors and truly treating them as advocates rather than ATM machines.
  5. ARCH invited us back to present to their board, as well as keep working with them to bring these ideas into implementation.

As I reflected upon this extremely rewarding experience, I found the following to be true:

First, it did not feel like a presentation. It felt like I was telling stories that needed to be told, to the people that needed to hear them. I didn’t feel the nervousness I normally feel during a presentation because, as it turns out – this is not about me, it’s about them. I cared less about how well I was doing, but more about how well the stories resonated with them. We were there to work with them to find better ways to achieve their vision, rather than to judge our presentation skills. It was different, because it mattered.

On a personal level, I am proud to have been able to step up when Alex couldn’t be there. Obviously I was not Alex and we all missed his presence and energy. But the fact that we were able to back each other up, tell the same story, with the same emotional attachment – solidified the idea of what it means to be a team.

ARCH, thank you for having us. AC4D, thank you for being supportive. I am honored to have been a part of this.

Austin Center for Design Welcomes New Faculty Member Randall Macon!


We are pleased to welcome a new addition to our faculty; Randall Macon will be joining AC4D, teaching IDSE401 Interaction Design and Social Entrepreneurship. Randall is dedicated to the creation of durable viable businesses that can generate profits with a strong eye towards ensuring long term value to society.

Randall is currently developing a set of interrelated projects with the goal of cultivating a thriving and durable social enterprise ecosystem in Austin, Texas. The ultimate goal is to create a tightly integrated community of conscious consumers, social entrepreneurs and social venture capitalists. The beginnings of this ecosystem include My Entrepreneurial Journey (, participation in Innovation +, a set of local leaders seeking high growth investment opportunities within the social sector and a business plan competition that focuses on addressing long term and large scale social challenges at the local level.

Randall has 17 years of experience in early stage and rapid growth organization in both the non-profit and for-profit worlds. Randall was the Director of Innovation at the Lance Armstrong Foundation leading the creation and launch of the LIVESTRONG brand that catapulted the organization from a $10MM organization to a $65MM organization in less than two years. He has a B.A. in Journalism and Design from Baylor University. His greatest joys are hearing his children giggle and running around Lady Bird Lake with his wife.

Welcome, Randall!

In the 4th Dimension We're More One-Dimensional

While theoretical physics continues to struggle with string theory, and, thus, unify space and time, technology, is already in the process of the space-time unification.  No, an individual cannot literally travel through time, but the digital footprint gathered by most babies born in western society today, carries enough residual facts, moods, and moments, to simulate, if not entirely digitally recreate, the major events of their lives.  In fact, given the current speed of technological innovation and the advancement of computer animation, a future of digitally recreated, life-like memories is more plausible than not.  One can imagine “traveling in time” to a memory in one’s past. Couple this digital memory potential with the future of embedded technologies and an ambient environment, and Rob van Kranenburg warns that the consequence just might be that “there are no more humans, only information spaces.”  Technophiles imagine the future as a space more rich and meaningful, but according to van Kranenburg, backed by Suchman’s insights into human computer interaction, the future looks more and more one-dimensional.

The idea that a human could lose their humanness sounds absurd to anyone who grew up in an analog world.  However, the generations growing up in today’s digital world are integrated so intimately with technology that many see it as an extension of self and means of self-expression.  Turkle’s experiments and analysis of teens’ cell phone usage reflects this idea.  When their cell phone is taken away, teens speak of the loss as an “anxiety of disconnection.[1]” It’s almost as severe as the loss of the companionship of another human being.  The current trend in programming languages toward more characteristically human structures only contributes to the complete acceptance of technology integrated into all aspects of life.  Indeed the computer seems more human as it “employ[s] terms borrowed from the description of human interaction – dialogue, conversation, and so forth” (Suchman).  Computer languages themselves are so abstracted that almost anyone can guess what the Ruby line ‘print “hello world'” will do. As the computer is perceived more human, and “demonstrate[s] some evidence of recognizably human abilities, we are inclined to endow [it] with the rest” (Suchman).  Humans are inclined to see themselves in the computer and therefore more likely to accept it into their lives without questioning its role.

Van Kranenburg recognizes a continued lack of critical thinking around technology through his observation that machines trend more and more toward complexity and less and less toward understandability.  Van Kranenburg sites the fact that a car manual that used to be one-hundred pages is now more than a million, unintelligible without the aid of a computer.  When the parts are unintelligible, human’s natural inclination is to “to ascribe actions to the entity rather than to it’s parts” (Suchman).  Technology is no longer seen as something made and put together, which inherently implies it can also be taken apart.  Rather, technology is seen as a whole, functioning on its own.  Because of this, its acceptance comes more easily into the fabric of everyday life.

A new world of integrated technology promises safety.  It promises that we know more about the world, but also, that more about the individual is known to the world.  Van Kranenburg claims that this results in a loss of privacy where there is no more public, but only audience.  People are only data streams to be analyzed and observed and reduced to a predictable number.  However, it is in acquiescing to these norms the very nature of humanness, with all its fallibility and unpredictable is indeed lost.   Not only are individuals reduced in this ambient world, but the mystery of Nature herself succumbs to the illusion of control.  An abundance of data creates a false sense of understanding, for it is only with mystery taken out of life’s equation, that one can also find the beauty and meaning.

While it’s easier to reduce van Kranenburg’s arguments to some Orwellian warning fit only for Luddites or science fiction enthusiasts, his assertions are backed in the history and progression of human computer interaction.   Without further intervention and an open debate about how and when technologies should integrate into everyday life, humans might are in great danger of losing their form, their essence, their three-dimensionality.


The one thing I took away

Last week was full of inspirations and reflections. We’ve heard and spoken with individuals that continue to shape our thinking around our approach, attitude, and actions. If there was one thing I took away from each person, here they are:

“You gotta get good at the banal so you know what to do when something meaningful comes along. Good opportunities don’t come into the room and announce themselves.” Mark Rolston

“If you expect business people to care about impact, you should learn to care about the bottom line too. And not many people care if you’re giving appropriately and effectively, but do it anyway.” – Jessica Shortall

“Humor is important if you’re doing the kind of work like fighting for human rights.” – Esra’a Al Shafei

“The term non-profit is a tax code – it should not define what you do nor who you are.” – Doug Ulman

“All my best conversations were when I made what I was doing very public. Instead of sitting there where you’re the only one drawing – go outside, make what you’re doing public, and let people participate. Design publicly.” – Alex Gilliam

“Humans will do a lot for stickers. You need to create a sense of accomplishment that’s not monetary.” – Suzi Sosa

“Scale and impact can only be achieved if you can make it repeatable. Knowing that it works is not enough, you need to know the ingredients that made it work.” – Justin Petro

Director Jon Kolko in Fast Company

Director Jon Kolko recently contributed a three-part series to Fast Company. The series explores the nature of design synthesis from a number of perspectives, and offers both tangible and conceptual advice on exposing the magic of design within a given organization. Explore the series here:

  1. How Do You Transform Good Research Into Great Innovations?
  2. Cultural Values That Will Make Your Office an Idea Factory
  3. When Trying to Invent, Being Objective Can Cripple Your Process

An update after some shifting and zooming from biased perspectives: our process, our finding, and our plan

Photo credit: by Alex Pappas, at Art From the Streets, on Jan 25 2011

When we were two weeks into our research on homelessness last quarter, it began to occur to us that the Maslow hierarchy might be in the wrong shape. Our hypothesis was that people need their emotional needs fulfilled at the same time as their physical needs, rather than after. That led to one of our major themes in the final research presentation: people don’t just need help, they need to help.

We hung onto that idea and kept exploring. Three months after our project kick-off, here’s where we are at:

We believe that when people are given an opportunity to share their knowledge and teach other people, they are actually helping themselves by gaining a stronger sense of self and increasing self-esteem. We don’t have data that is of statistical significance to support this view. However, it is a view that is built directly upon our personal stories, experiences, and world-views. We know to be conscious about the biased perspective and continue to seek feedback from various individuals in the design, business, and technology space. So far, everyone seems to share the same sentiment.

Our 5-hour working sessions typically involve constantly asking ourselves “what if” and “what would make it really fun“. For example, we talked about what ARCH would look like as a co-working space, where clients are encouraged to host sessions like at an unconference. We also think our belief holds true whether it’s for the homeless, retired professors, vulnerable teens, or stay-at-home moms. The continuous lens shifting has become our most powerful tool to cross chasms and connect ideas that are seemingly unrelated in order to formulate new design ideas.

We’ve also committed ourselves to making a physical artifact after every working session: “If it isn’t modeled, written, drawn, and otherwise solidified in an artifact, it never happened.” Concept mapping out our envisioned ecosystem and customer journey map helped us in clarifying what we want to do. More importantly though, it helped us in identifying what our Theory of Change is: When a person begins to see him/herself as a teacher rather than a student, we believe that’s when change happens.

We start building and testing this week. So one good thing to keep remembering: Trust the Process.