Want to follow the progress of our students?

We’re starting the third week of classes, and our students are knee-deep in project work and design theory. You can follow their individual blogs to see a bit about the work we’re covering. Design education isn’t just about knowledge acquisition, though; emotional growth and a deep reflection on cultural significance is critical to learning how to think and act like a designer. To formalize this reflection, we ask our students to answer two questions each week: What did you learn? How do you feel?

You can view some of the most recent answers here:

Process Manifesto #1: How to consume, digest, generate and share content using social media

This is my first attempt of a process manifesto. It’s a diagram of how I consume, digest, generate and share content online using different social media channels and tools. This is by no means perfect, but it has worked for me more or less. I’ve tried my best to break it down and include what I think are the most important. Fellow classmates, please:

  1. adopt it, modify it, add to it and make it whatever would work for you
  2. let me know if any of you can help me make this look better (whether a better sketch/diagram, or in Illustrator)
  3. make me explain anything that doesn’t make sense and help all of us refine the process

Here’s a bullet version explaining the diagram: 

  • I primarily use 4 tools/channels: Google Reader, Twitter, Posterous, and Delicious to manage my “social media” life.
Consuming content: 
  • I consume information from 2 places: Google Reader and Twitter. If I like a link I found from Twitter, I add the blog RSS feed to my Google Reader. If I see a blog post that I like, I follow that blogger on Twitter. I usually spend no more than 5-10 minutes scrolling through feeds each time. But I do go back and check often (every ~4-6 hours has been average for me).
Digesting (and sharing) content:
  • When I see an interesting article, it generally falls into 3 categories: “too long to read now”, “worth sharing”, and “want to blog about later”. Each follows a different work flow. 
  • If it’s too long to read, I bookmark it to delicious using my chrome extension and tag it with “read later”.
  • If it’s worth sharing, I do shift+s to share if I’m reading in Google Reader, and RT if I’m on Twitter/Tweetdeck (also see Lessons Learned below).
  • If it’s something I want to blog about later, I bookmark it to delicious using my chrome extension and tag it with “future post”.
Generating (and sharing) new content:

  • With retweeting and sharing, you are only redistributing the content to a different group of people. Whenever possible, you should generate new content to put in the ecosystem.
  • My content generally comes from 3 places: 1) discussions from AC4D classes, 2) daily observations, and 3) opinions and thoughts after reading other articles (where the “future post” tag comes in handy).
  • I use posterous to share my content because: 1) I can post to it using gmail, 2) it lets me cross-post to other channels such as the AC4D blog, twitter, flickr, etc with just one click, and 3) It also auto converts all links, documents, photos, videos, etc into the appropriate formatting. 

As far as lessons learned go, here are my top 3: 

Lesson Learned #1:
I’ve learned that it’s better to post something real-time (whether it’s photos from a conference, a half-finished thought, half of a discussion, a link you intend on expanding later..etc), then add the rest of your thoughts when you have time as a second post. If you wait, it might be another day or two before you get to it. By that time, the content will feel old and you probably won’t end up posting it after all (which happened to me many, many times).

Lesson Learned #2: 
Use browser plug-ins, keyboard shortcuts, and autopost services. They will make your life so much easier. If you have to choose one browser plug-in, install delicious. Learn to close tab (ctrl+w for chrome) and share articles (shift+s for google reader) quickly. Make your Google Reader shared items autopost to Twitter (twitterfeed.com), because it’s much faster. Make your URLs on Twitter auto-bookmark to delicious (packrati.us) because it’s close to impossible to find the links again after a few hours.

Lesson Learned #3:
Create tags such as “read later” and “future posts”. I have them in gmail and delicious. It helps to prevent information overload and makes it easy(or easier) to revisit something later. Clean up and reorganize the tags often – I’d suggest weekly (which I am very behind). Your repository will grow over time and it’ll make a really good resource library for your blog.

When your customers have ideas for new products…

By night I’m a student here at AC4D, however, by day I design toys for a company called Wild Planet Entertainment.  One of the perks of the job is that our customers often submit ideas for new concepts.  These come mostly in letter form, often hand written, in pencil, crayon, or marker.  This past week I received one that I thought I would share:

Dear spygear,My name is Isaac and I am 8 years old and I have an idea for a product that my friends and I would like like to play with.  It’s a pack of 8 walkietalkies.  Each one has 5 buttons, 1 up and 1 down,1 left,1 right and a keyboard that you unfold and a censor, and when you press the censor the letter or space appears on the screen like a normal keyboard. Up or down means go up or down in your inbox.  When you turn it on you have to enter in the time, just like the watch, and at the side there are the buttons that the watch has, and it’s even got the grey button that turns on the torch light.  The spymaster has a radio with 2 buttons, a not send button that gets rid of the message and is not sent, send is sent. you can even make an ID to make spys know what spy sent it!

In a funny way, it is specifically this kind of letter that grounds me, and makes me hungry to design.  We’ve been talking a lot about process in the last few weeks at AC4D, and this is a fantastic example of one of the most important aspects of the design process.  The simple fact that we are designing products for people, people with vivid imaginations, people who see the world differently from us, and people who also have visions of the future.

It is our job to help them articulate that vision in ways far beyond their expectations.  Issac, I’m doing my best buddy, grey buttons and all.

The Universal Traveler: A great resource for creative problem solving

The Universal Traveler” – A soft systems guide to creativity, problem solving, and the process of reaching goals.  By Don Koberg and Jim Bagnall.

This book does a good job of walking you through a creative process from ideation to implementation.  I’ve found it works great to unblock your mind when you find yourself stuck somewhere along in your own process.  The book itself is full of tools and exercises that can help you get moving again.  In my mind, however, the best thing about the book is that it has intentionally huge margins.  This allows plenty of space to note and comment as you read, and as you reference the book later on.  I love the idea that the authors are presenting their process while intentionally leaving room for you to modify, adapt, and change that process to make it your own.

An excerpt from the introduction:

“Caution!! If you believe you are behaving creatively and your behavior is readily accepted in normal society, one of two conditions is probable: either you have conditioned society to accept your abnormal actions or your input is really not as unique as it seems.”

I think that quote ties in nicely to the discussion we had today in class today about the notion that we might learn more if we fail fantastically than if we simply plod along and do our assignments as we’re told… or at the very least we’ll remember more.

I’ll bring in my copy for tomorrow’s class.

Where does your info live?

Time to start thinking more consciously and more conscientiously about both where our data lives and who sees it.

Tech guru Leo Laporte wrote about his frustrations with Google Buzz when he realized his internet sharing had been for naught. Two points: 1) if all your links live on Twitter, Facebook, Google, they don’t belong to you and aren’t archived. 2) sharing on social media doesn’t guarantee eyeballs because everyone’s busy shouting their own news.

I’ve been saying to a lot of people, “You should blog about that.” Because I want it to have a home. I want it to be out of your brain and onto our shared think-write-make space. And I want to be able to search for it again later.

Social media

Tweet it if you don’t mind it getting washed away by the stream in a few hour’s time.

Tweet it if you are directing it at one or two people specifically, and it’s unlikely to start a long conversation.

Tweet it if you don’t want that conversation recorded for posterity’s sake.

Tweet it if it adds dialogue to established communities/hashtags.

Blog it if you think you or your classmate will want to be able to search easily for it again in the future.

Blog it if you think people interested in the program will also be interested in those resources or links.

Blog it if you think it will start an interesting conversation, esp. if that conversation might engage others besides AC4D folk. If you have any links or comments to add to the conversation, add it in the comments section on the blog. (You can tweet it also, but if anyone ever looks back on the conversation, they’ll see comments and not your related tweets.)

Bookmark it if…we have to establish our communal bookmarks sharing first.

Email it if it contains an action item or has a super targeted audience.

Working files

(Ironically) in terms of sharing files and working on ideas together as a class, it’s not real unless it’s online. For instance, we wrote down a potential file-naming structure on the board. Not everyone saw it, and it’s gone now. Things like this—which are collaborative and which will need to be referenced in the future—need to go into Google Docs.

Likewise, if you email something to the class for opinions, it gets washed away in the stream. It’s hard to find again. It’s not as easy for people to give feedback or add/delete/edit items. Put the stuff that needs to get worked on in a Google Doc, and then share it with an email message if need-be to solicit opinions. Especially if it’s a database or a compilation of ideas.

Did I miss anything?

Does this make sense? Is it too much?

Turn Bricks into Bucks

Illustration: Rafael Macho for Wired

Considering our assignment for Research Methods covers recycling, I though this article in Wired was perfectly timed. A company called ecoATM has applied the ubiquitous Redbox/Coinstar presence of a box in every grocery store into recycling old mobile phones. I’ve noticed other retailers with mobile phone donation centers (Target, Best Buy) but this model may succeed where the donation kiosks failed – with the intrinsic motivation of money. That’s right, our disposition to consume more stuff (or just trying to salvage every last dollar from less fashionable/functional doo-dads) can make the ecoATM model succeed. I am also pleased to know that you can donate the value as a charitable contribution and the batteries will not find themselves in a landfill. No haggle swaps of junk for cash is tapping into consumers’ need for value with automated (and disguised) altruism.

Chicken or Egg? User-Education or System-Implementation?

I talked a bit about this in my video from last week.

What comes first: the chicken or the egg?

What comes first: a more aware user or the implementation of a new system?

Before, I was all rah-rah-rah for education: creating critical thinkers and influencing people’s habits by changing their minds and teaching more awareness around sustainability to create demand for new systems.

Now I’m not so sure. Even if you ingrain “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” into kids’ brains at an early age, if they grow up and go to an outdoor concert where they buy a drink in a plastic cup because that’s the only container option and there’s no recycling bin at the venue, then they’re going to throw that cup away.

If there’s no system in place to support user awareness, then it is (usually) wasted. We rinse out cans and save plastic bottles at home only if our neighborhoods has a recycling system in place. We may put paper into the bin provided at work, if the office has a system in place to get that paper to a recycling facility. If the restaurant we eat at uses real silverware, we automatically don’t generate plastic waste. If the grocery store we visit doesn’t offer paper or plastic, we automatically have to invest in reusable bags. If the toy we buy has no packaging, we are automatically generating less waste.

I also think the systems can create awareness that can’t exist before. These are the two-tiered flushers in the toilets in my rented “green” townhouse in the Meuller Development:

As Victor Papanek points out in Design for the Real World, Americans have cultural blocks that prevent them from talking about the taboo subject of body wastes. Yet, if a designer creates a toilet with this kind of flushing system, and it is bought by housing developers who are trying to certify their buildings sustainable under LEED, then the end-users are presented with a new way of thinking about saving water.

Even if people were educated about conserving water all their life, they never would have proposed this solution and picketed manufacturers for new systems. That’s our job—as designers—to create the systems that enable people to practice what they’ve been preached…and to practice what they don’t yet know they need to do to save the earth.

And the examples in this post are very small and aren’t even very forward-thinking. Imagine if we thought bigger, about the foundations of our existing systems. I’m coming to terms with the fact that I might have more impact on the world as a designer than I could have had as an educator. As interaction designers, we use design tools to drive behavior change. As a designer, I can create new systems that have built-in expectations of more sustainable behaviors and thus mindsets.

Where does education fit into all this then? Emily Pilloton of Project H “believes the best way to design for social impact is to grow design thinking from within communities, rather than importing talent and dragging-and-dropping solutions.” Hence, her new work with Studio H in a North Carolina high school.

I don’t know where I land on all that yet, but I do know this will affect my preference about our potential clients, as one seems to be supporting an education-geared system, and others seem to have more potential to create new systems.

The Double Bottom Line

The Double Bottom Line is a short (9-minute) documentary about social enterprise and two companies (LifeSpring Hospitals and D.Light Design) who are trying to:

  1. Change the world
  2. Make a profit

One is providing quality maternity healthcare at a price lower than the government hospitals; the other is selling solar latterns that are cheaper and safer than kerosene lanterns.

I have to admit that the idea of “marketing to the bottom of the pyramid” leaves a bad taste in my mouth. But I also have to admit that I don’t know much about marketing, and I probably have to reframe its purposes and methods in my head to separate out the tools from the context in which they are currently used. (So please school me, business majors.)

When Tricia Morente, head strategy and marketing at LifeSpring Hospital, talks about making the hospital a sustainable business rather than relying on a one-time cash infusion, it makes sense in the long run. What resonated with me was when she says turning it into a mutual business transaction not only empowers the customer (in this case a new mom) with choice, but also increases the responsibility of the hospital to provide quality service. They are working for-profit, but not for profit maximization.

Seth Godin (relation to Alex Godin who made the video?) writes about marketing to the bottom of the pyramid:

Change the world? Sure. Because capitalism and markets scale. If you can make money selling someone a safer item, you’ll make more. And more. Until you’ve sold all you can. At the same time, you’ve enriched the purchaser, who bought something of her own free will because it made things better.

Not only that, but engaging in the marketplace empowers the purchaser. If you’ve got a wagon full of rice as food aid, you can just dump it in the town square and drive away. You have all the power. But if you have to sell something in order to succeed, it moves the power from the seller to buyer. Quality and service and engagement have to continually improve or the buyer moves on.

The cell phone, for example, has revolutionized the life of billions in the developing world. If you have a cell phone, you can determine the best price for the wheat you want to sell. You can find out if the part for your tractor has come in without spending two days to walk to town to find out. And you can be alerted to weather… etc. Productivity booms. There’s no way the cell phone could have taken off as quickly or efficently as a form of aid, but once someone started engaging with this market, the volume was so huge it just scaled. And the market now competes to be ever more efficient.

He also points out that marketing here is difficult because the consumerist mindset to upgrade or buy innovative doesn’t exist in certain parts of the world.

Let me add one more easily overlooked point: Western-style consumers have been taught from birth the power of the package. We see the new nano or the new Porsche or the new convertible note on a venture deal and we can easily do the math: [new thing] + [me] = [happier]. We’ve been taught that an object can make our lives better, that a purchase can make us happier, that the color of the Tiffany’s box or the ringing of a phone might/will bring us joy.

That’s just not true for someone who hasn’t bought a new kind consumer good in a year or two or three or maybe ever. As a result, stores in the developing world tend to be stocked with the classic, the tried and true, because people buy refills of previous purchases, not the new.

I guess what makes me uneasy is if we start swooping in on this “untapped market” and start treating it like any other business deal without regard to the people, the environment, or the impact of what we’re selling (literally and figuratively). This is where ethics starts to play a role, and yet we don’t have a code in place to follow. Because how do you build a code that will be large enough to make sure the world isn’t screwed in the process?

Value of Data from Contextual Inquiries

Saranyan, thanks for posting about the contextual inquiries and the questionable data they may provide. I started to leave a comment, but it turned into a blog post. You asked:

Doesn’t me observing somebody brush his/her teeth make them conscious? If I am using this as a datapoint to derive information to provide to my client/use in my research, this data point has a level of uncertainty and no longer pure.

I think there are a few different types of data that design researchers can glean from contextual inquiry. One type of data is how a person acts or uses a product. You are probably right that the presence of another person during some acts will make them self-conscious, and this would skew the data. Perhaps in these instances, additional research techniques (like video camera or observation in the field) may be necessary. Another type of data is the story or mental model that the person has about the product/act/system, and I think the self-consciousness of the user during the act itself does not change their internalized stories they will be trying to tell you. There is also value in hearing these stories during the actions because people may have new insights themselves as they are trying to explain to you and externalize something that may have become habit. Another type of data is the context of the environment, and the connections between things within an environment requires the “new eyes” of a designer in the space or for the flow of stories to be revealed.

For this study, I would rather go to an airport or hotel and engage into conversations in the restrooms with people who are brushing their teeth by connecting with them in the angle of a fellow traveler. I think there can be more information from that exercise.

I brought this up in the discussion and the counter statement was, “well, if you just watch people, your understanding of the problem is based on only your view points”. Why? I ask. If I observe enough people, then can’t I find patterns and generalize?

I don’t agree that if you observed enough people, you would get enough relevant data. Because you may start to see patterns and generalizations. But these patterns would be based on your own mental models and frameworks (esp. if the research had to do with technology, since you are already tech savvy and work on the implementation model side of things). When we are talking to people during contextual inquiries or participatory interviews, we’ll be looking for patterns in the things THEY are saying or how THEY are acting, not only for patterns in what WE think is important.

For instance, if you were watching some video of how someone is using an Adobe program, and they always toggling their windows, you might assume that it is part of their efficient work flow. If you were there observing them in a contextual inquiry and asking questions, you may also find out that it’s annoying them because it’s the hypersensitivity of the new mouse they’re using and they’re not meaning to do that, but they’ve stopped showing annoyance because they’re so used to it. Similar to how each person and each group affinitizes their sticky notes into different patterns/categories/groupings, we can’t assume users see or think about things the same ways we do. We need to hear their sides of the story first and synthesize from there.

I’m curious to hear a continuation of this dialogue when we start talking about “designing for” vs. “designing with” in Kolko’s class.

For instance, if my trying to understand the life of a potter, I should become potter and spend time with him/her making pottery rather than asking that person to make pottery in front of me.

In this example, becoming a potter yourself would put you in the position of the “expert” (and also a designer with a lot of time on his hands), instead of honoring and empowering a master potter who has been throwing clay for 40 years as the true expert to show you how s/he works. I think there is a lot of value of acknowledging that we are experts in very few things, and that the people around us can teach us and tell us and show us a lot. Even if that means making them slightly self-conscious for a bit at the beginning of a contextual inquiry.