It's just the beginning

Reflecting on the first quarter over the weekend made me realize how much we have done in a short time. There have been great discussions, papers, research and lots of making as well as presenting in our studio class. This video is a short recap of the work I did in our studio class. It was great to experiment with all the methods and mediums throughout the quarter. I can’t wait to apply some of it to new client projects and our work with ARCH.

Check out the video and follow the blog to see what is next.

Systems Thinkers Needed

Been doing research on different kinds of “design” processes, how designers work vs. engineers vs. social workers vs. computer scientists, etc. (which is conveniently proving to bridge my thinking from IDSE102’s wicked problems to IDSE202’s systems & service design.)

Found this video of Don Norman who says we need more “systems thinkers” who can think broadly across a variety of specialized disciplines to help them talk to each other and to orchestrate their collaboration.

YouTube: Don Norman on Engineering Design Education

I think the same critique applies to Design Education as well, since we train “graphic designers” or “industrial designers” or “fashion designers.” We’ve had some debates in class about generalists vs. specialists, T-shaped designers, etc.

While I think there is value in specializing in something, and our culture definitely values it more (you get paid more if you are a specialist), I’m wondering if you can specialize in being a generalist? if you become a good systems thinker, does that become your specialty? Even though a systems thinker works and knows across a broad range of fields?

In other words, can I get paid eventually to be a generalist? Or do I still need a value-added specialist knowledge silo?

Here’s more Don Norman talking about systems thinking: “A product is more than a product.”

In reality a product is all about the experience. It is about discovery, purchase, anticipation, opening the package, the very first usage. It is also about continued usage, learning, the need for assistance, updating, maintenance, supplies, and eventual renewal in the form of disposal or exchange. Most companies treat every stage as a different process, done by a different division of the company: R&D, manufacturing, packaging, sales, and then as a necessary afterthought, service. As a result there is seldom any coherence. Instead, there are contradictions. If you think of the product as a service, then the separate parts make no sense–the point of a product is to offer great experiences to its owner, which means that it offers a service. And that experience, that service, is the result of the coherence of the parts. The real value of a product consists of far more than the product’s components.

…the most important aspect for the delivery of a cohesive experience is systems thinking. It is amazing how few companies understand and practice this.

And any product or service in the social sector (shelter for the night, free books for kids, mobile Care-A-Van) is a part of a larger system. And we need systems thinkers to coordinate the delivery of cohesive experiences (home ownership, education, healthcare).

How do you train/educate systems thinkers? And/or how do you focus the systems thinkers that do exist in the world toward social issues? And how do they then make a living doing important work?

Where do all the leftovers go?!

Below is a glimpse of what Julia and I researched on for Lauren’s design research & synthesis class. The central topic we were given was recycling. But as you see from my classmates’ blog posts, we all went on different route for our research topics, ranging from farmers’ market, to community bike shops, to water reuse at restaurants.

How it all started: Julia, new to Austin from Paris, experienced culture shock when she saw the massive amount of food available at these gigantic supermarkets that we have here in the US. Julia asked Ruby: “where does all the food go at the end of the day if they’re not sold?!” Ruby responded: “No idea. But hey, let’s do our research on that and find out!”

Our challenges: Scheduling for our contextual inquiries and participatory interviews was a bit of a nightmare. Also given the fact that our research touches on business practices only made it that much harder. We had to change our plans a few times but in the end it all came together. Our research participants also seemed to have enjoy the [prime, dream, create] exercises.

Our epiphany moment: Based on our previous conversations with some individuals, we were led down the path of thinking that good food management system is for a supermarket to reuse their food as much as possible. We also simplistically viewed the world as a matter of right vs. wrong: compost program = good practice, no compost program = bad practice. But as we spoke with more people who work at the front of house, dealing with the food and interacting with customers, we slowly reframed our questions. Instead of thinking about reuse and recycle, the bigger opportunity actually lies in reducing the amount of food unsold.

Synthesis and design criteria: Synthesizing the enormous amount of data we gathered was not an easy task. Tagging the quotes, grouping our notes, drawing them out in work models, recombining insights in concept models = many hours of work. After all the synthesis, it became apparent that the two key strategies that could lead to less leftover is being able to forecast demand better and improve internal communication workflow.

To protect individual’s confidentiality, here’s a slightly modified version of our final presentation:

[slideshare id=5573760&doc=idseresearchfinalforweb-101026222952-phpapp01]

An Inquiry Into Water Usage

As a final deliverable for Lauren’s fantastically useful Design Research class, we presented findings for our self-directed projects that focused on recycling. Our team (Alex Pappas, Saranyan Vigraham & Scott Magee) chose water recycling due to the fact that it is often overlooked when thinking about recycling in the general context and it is an issue of active consciousness in Austin due to our water supply and occasional droughts. While our initial interest centered around greywater systems, we readjusted our focus to include water usage at restaurants with and without attached gardens.

Throughout the quarter we applied our newly acquired research techniques from affinity diagramming to contextual inquiries to participatory interviews with our participants. Afterward we transcribed hours of video and immersed ourselves in all the glorious data. We visualized our findings with work models and synthesized new ideas via concept models as we developed solutions for conserving water at Austin-area restaurants. Everything Lauren taught us made sense and this was a real world assignment to prove it.

The following PDF is a slightly modified version of the deliverable we presented in class.

An Inquiry Into Water Usage


I know I tend to draw connections between seemingly-unrelated arenas of my life anyway, but the synchronicity of the following thoughts and musings leading up to tonight’s class felt more than a little serendipitous. (Maybe even a little eerie.)

Any time I sit at the window seat on a flight, I ponder scale and perception: How when we are up high, a house or a car can look so small and insignificant, yet when we are on the ground, that room / that driver seat / our front view is our entire world…how perception changes the object…and how hard it is to pull back and keep in mind your more complex surrounding contexts (your impact on it, its impact on you, your role in it). Me-centered view versus something more global or community-based.

On top of that, this past week, I’ve had a bunch of discussions with AC4D classmates and other design friends about how you scale any local human solution, and what the trade-offs are to get a larger reach and impact. Part of solving a wicked problem is being able to look at the larger picture. But part of the definition of a wicked problem (Horst Rittel/Richard Buchanan) is also that you can never see all the impacts your solution will have–yet you are still responsible for those impacts. So that added a layer to my airplane musings of whether we as human beings are even able to look at the larger picture, since things are so complex now. Even the seemingly small parts are beyond my comprehension, like this airplane wing: I don’t know how it works or what went into making it—let alone the impact of how it was made, or how it’s being used.

Additionally, after we watched How to Train Your Dragon this past weekend, we sat through and marveled at the scale of the various teams as the credits rolled by. In my head, I was wondering how do you even start to put together these teams, who is managing all of this, who is directing it all, who is responsible for it all, or are people just working in tandem on their small parts of the project and somehow it all adds up to a motion picture? A big question for me in terms of wicked problems is where the accountability resides. How do you start to organize and design for such a complex system that involves so many people?

And thinking about scale usually makes me think of Twyla Tharp’s book, The Creative Habit. Because she mentions identifying your “creative DNA” and part of that is identifying which scale you work at. Doesn’t mean that’s all you do, but you are most likely either drawn to micro or macro: short story or epic novel, sonata or symphony, small relationship focus or societal themes, etc. When I look at my creative writing and artwork, it trends toward micro, and I’m not sure yet how this plays out in my design work, particularly design work for social sector and wicked problems. How can I wrap my head around very large, complex, interconnected, wicked problems?

So anyway, this is all floating around in my head as I fly from LA to Austin, and drive from airport to AC4D, first class of Quarter 2: Rapid ideation and creative problem solving with Jon Kolko, and one of his first slides says:

“This quarter is about conducting research in the field, thinking about complex, large-scale systems, and solving problems in new ways.”

And one of the goals of the class: “Be able to model complicated systems and services through the use of diagrams.”

Okay. Game on.

Intro to Rapid Prototyping: Q1 Recap

This is my recap and reflection post about what I have accomplished, learned, and learned I need to work on in Justin Petro’s Interaction Design Prototyping class.

My biggest takeaway from the class is highlighted in the above short animation about how to tell a good story! (I actually made this video by just typing–using this super easy-to-use text-to-animation tool called Xtranormal. Try it out; it’s pretty fun.)

STORY ended up being the thread that tied together all the methods and techniques we learned and tried out these past 8 weeks. No matter what medium we were using to present our ideas, our goal was always to tell a compelling story.

Week 1: Social Media

I will continue to tweet @s0delightful, blog here at AC4D, blog on my personal site, post photos to my flickr, and videos to my vimeo.

Takeaways on creating a good brand:

  • Be bold, be simple, have an opinion.
  • Make/Think. Share/Reflect.
  • All beta all the time. Create a living portfolio.
  • Cadence and consistency are important.

Next steps:

  • Figure out a quick and effective process that I can use for uploading and tagging photos on a regular basis.
  • Participate in more targeted Twitter conversations, perhaps around #SocEnt.
  • Blog more resources and links in short posts here, so they’re not lost in my Twitter stream.

Week 2: Visual Problem Solving aka 100 post-it notes

Takeaways from class:

  • Iteration and practice with sharpie helps work muscle and brain memory.
  • Though we were supposed to be building a library of visual symbols, throughout the semester, I found it was easier to create new customized sketches for each new story I told.
  • Seeing others’ people work in a studio or online space would have helped free up my imagination and made my sketches less boring/less standard.

Next steps:

  • Keep drawing analog.
  • Learn to love the Wacom = quicker to get into digital form.
  • Still wish we had done a better job of gathering resources on how to visualize often-used business terms.

Week 3: Storytelling Through Time (Guest Lecture: Ahmed Riaz)

Takeaways from class and from making NetLib poster:

  • Stick figures can be expressive.
  • Being able to visualize something helps get people on board with an idea because it fosters a shared understanding.
  • SimPo: Simple yet powerful.
  • Tell stories collaboratively and visually to brainstorm possible solutions.

Next steps:

  • Keep drawing from observation of how people move.
  • Keep working on concept models that incorporate sketches.

Week 4: Creating Valuable Arguments aka Pitch Decks (Guest lecture: Josh Baer)

Takeaways from doing Rain Juice pitch:

  • Focus on the problem.
  • Tell a story. About people.
  • Use slides as visual support, not wordy.
  • Putting together a pitch deck really forces you to think through the business value of your design idea, so creating the deck can be a good iteration tool.

Next steps:

  • Practice, practice, practice, practice, practice…
  • Practice some more. Video it, share it, get feedback.
  • Don’t be afraid to create less wordy slides.

Week 5: Web Presence and Frameworks

Takeaways from creating website wireframes for Rain Juice:

  • Stick figures and storyboard sketches (above) help you figure out the main user(s) for your site and what they need it for.
  • Small, quick iteration (more than you think you need. 100’s) of homepage hero element is actually fruitful.
  • No more Lorem Ipsum. If you don’t have a product yet, the site and its brand are your product.

Next steps:

  • Look into leveraging APIs.
  • Be more consistently rigorous about the brainstorming/iteration/sketching process instead of jumping straight onto the computer–because it works!

Week 6: Mobile Frameworks

Takeaways from creating wireframes for Research Buddy iPhone app:

  • Competitive research is important.
  • Take into account established standards for apps.
  • Storyboarding through user experience useful here, too.

Next steps:

  • Figure out if Research Buddy is doable, write out the specs for it, get a quote of how much it would take to develop it.

Week 7: Video/Over Time Frameworks Some overlap here with Lauren Serota’s lecture about storytelling.


  • Animation makes it more real. Can communicate the user experience better to non-designers than static series of unconnected screen shots.
  • Combo of photo + sketch = awesome.
  • Can animate in Powerpoint, Keynote, Flash, or in-camera.
  • Music + voiceover add polish.

Next steps:

  • Try it! I’ve done animation/movement stuff before, but not in a quick, effective “rapid prototyping” way.

So yeah:

Tell a good story. Keep your audience in mind, so you can tailor any presentation to their interests and goals. And practice/experiment with these different types of prototyping, so that you can 1) think through your ideas by making things, 2) get ideas out of your head and into physical forms so you can get feedback, and 3) employ a spectrum of fidelity and medium to visualize ideas, so that you can turn them into
compelling stories.

Why do we sell ourselves short?

It frustrates me when others preface their presentations or opinions with caveats or apron strings that lowers or alters our expectations as listeners. But I’m also guilty of doing the same thing. In response to a classmate’s feedback that I tend to sell myself short, I started thinking about the reasons we’re conditioned to do this kind of thing.

Immediately, we both thought “it’s a girl thing.” That is true and there’s a lot to say about that in terms of different types of feedback, different channels of reflection. But then I started thinking about how it’s also a “society thing,” which is a lot more interesting to me. What of MY past experiences have led into this habit of downplaying my own accomplishments and strengths?

It’s a School ThingBeing the goody-two-shoes straight-A nerd student is not easy. It is not cool. When you win end of the year awards in fourth grade, and they make you walk up to the front of the class again and again even though you’re super shy, and the other kids are all rolling their eyes, you do not want to keep getting acknowledged for those A’s. When your friend says to you in 6th grade “I hate you” with a smile on her face and as a “joke” because you’ve gotten an A on a home-ec test and she didn’t, you still feel the sting of those words.

What are we instilling in our kids if the structures set up in our schools creates stratospheres of winners and losers, so that nobody can celebrate each other’s learning, the actual process instead of outcomes, or their collective accomplishments?

The world needs strong thinkers who can also honestly reflect on their strengths and growth areas—without feeling overly congratulated for simply making the grades/test scores, yet able to find ways to celebrate and expand on real improvement, growth, learning, and success.

It’s a Creatives ThingI spent most of my college years feeling as if (on some level) I wasn’t doing as much (or as valuable of) work as my engineering friends who were cramming for calculus and systems analysis tests…even though us design/art students had three or more 8-hour studio courses a semester.

This is probably compounded by Asian-American second-generation immigrant-parent expectations. You’re supposed to study STEM and play a musical instrument. I did neither, and I was constantly reminded of this during Saturday Chinese school classes during high school. While other students often missed class for recitals or concerts, I only missed one class—and that was for a Beach Clean-Up with the Art Club. (I didn’t tell them I was president.)

It’s also harder to share your accomplishments, when there’s a language gap. I don’t know how to talk about design in Chinese to my family, and I don’t know how to talk about design in plain English to my friends in a way that they understand its value. Lots of times, if you talk about it at all, it’s to show an end product instead of talking about what you learned during the processes.

It’s a “Success” Thing

All of the above holds true when you move from college into the “real world” and start working full time. It’s pretty depressing to compare creatives’ salaries with pretty much anyone else. Even if you don’t care about money, you still feel it on some level because it’s a measure of how much society (doesn’t) value your skills set.

There’s more value—and you have an easier story to tell at family gatherings—if you have a stable job (even if you hate it), are working toward home ownership, and are on track to make grandbabies.

Additionally, I’ve quit and switched jobs/industries a bunch in the past couple years, I don’t feel like I have the same specialist experience that other peers of my age who have stayed put in one field have (notwithstanding ongoing debates about value of generalist/specialist/various-shaped designers).  I don’t fit any of the job descriptions I see on job boards, and since I don’t know who would pay me for my special mix of skills, it’s hard to reflect on the “strength” of any single one of my skills.

If we as a society need more creatives, more designers, and more cross-disciplinary thinkers, we need to figure out ways to nurture and support and celebrate them without making them feel (even if unintentionally) like outcasts at holiday dinners.

It’s a Design ThingWe foster a culture of judgment and critique because we have high expectations of ourselves and of our work. Because of this, every time we present, every time we send something off to a client, we hold our breaths and brace ourselves to be skewered, to hear rejection, or to at least get back a ton of change work to add onto our plates.

Design schools need to provide guidance on how to give effective and valuable critique. Additionally, a lot of times during design school, we only get present to be critiqued at the very end of a project–when you can’t do anything to change what you’ve just presented. So you’re naturally on the defensive. Might as well throw in some qualifiers to lower expectations, to let them know that I also know that this is not perfect.

Throw some traditionally-trained designers who like to present fine-tuned “final” work into some rapid-prototyping everything-is-beta-all-the-time presentations, and it’s definitely a learning curve of what “presentation” and “critique” mean.

We owe it to ourselves to StopWe owe it not only to ourselves, or even just to our classmates, but also to AC4D to stop downplaying ourselves. I know we all believe in our collective awesomeness, but news flash–that also means your individual awesomeness has contributed to that. We can also spend all the extra energy and brainpower back on the work itself.

Quick ideas of how to do that on a practical day-to-day AC4D level:

  • Just start the actual presentation! No caveats, qualifications, apron strings. Save em for later, other channels, or not at all.
  • Focus on what feedback you’re looking for to keep being awesome or to keep getting better next time instead of dwelling on what went not-so-perfectly this time.
  • Bite your tongue if you feel yourself starting to self-deprecate. Ask a question instead.
  • If you find yourself starting off emails or writing with caveats or apologies, go back and delete them before sending/posting to the world.

We also need to share our stories, so others know it’s okay to be cross-disciplinary and awesome and smart and strong and overachievers. The world is in sad shape, and we don’t have time to apologize for trying to make it better.

And while we’re at it, let’s figure out ways to celebrate (real) achievement in K-12 schools as well as higher ed, so that we don’t lose those engaged, creative smarties — or any of their classmates — to either the peer pressures of underachievement to fit in or to the dehumanizing one-size-fits-all path toward “success.” This could mean anything from mentoring one child to restructuring the traditional  grading system to teaching design as a liberal art…

2010 Edition Design Theorists – Collect'em All!

By popular demand, here are the Design Theorist Cards I presented today in class. Feel free to use it as a learning tool or the worst party game ever.

My original intent was to pair quotes with the authors, but I also liked the fact that the cards became an affinity model where I could group the the quotes into commonalities and themes I didn’t see previously. I’d really like to find out how to transcend my low-fi prototype into an interactive framework like we talked about in class. Adding the extra layers of context would really make the experience have depth and a perspective. Where should I start? Chap?