Colored post-it's help with synthesis

Kat and I have been talking to a lot of people about jobs—some are working day labor jobs, some aren’t worried about looking for work, some are planning on furthering their education, some are in job training programs. Trying to make sense of our research data, I mapped our interview participants along a spectrum of process stages:no desire — desire — prep — search — unstable — stable — permanent or independent

For 3 variables:Blue = HousingYellow = IncomePink = Jobs

Each row is one person’s story.

I didn’t see it until after I finished grouping them and took a literal step back from the paper, but no wonder we’ve been having trouble finding a focus in our research! Once you separate out income from jobs, you see that people are all over the place in terms of jobs. Even if my spectrum is debatable, the power of colored post-its in synthesis is clear.

Some emerging groups:

  1. People with steady income either from disability check or stable job, who tend to have more stable housing.
  2. People staying with other people (church family, friend, girlfriend).
  3. People staying at ARCH either through lotto or case management trying to find income in other ways.

This is just the beginning, first attempts at making sense of data. Our class is currently working through a lot of brown paper and sketches and post-it’s as we move from research to synthesis. I like seeing all the messiness.

2 weeks into research on homelessness, have some thoughts, no answers yet, and lots of questions still

On “people are people”

Alex and I spent a Sunday morning filming at Church under the Bridge. Inspired by Fifty People One Question, we thought it’d be an interesting way to learn more about the people that are experiencing homelessness. So we put up a sign and asked, “What would you like to have happened by the end of the day?” As it turned out, what they want aren’t all that different from what everybody else wants: health, $100 bill, my dog to stop barking, a back massage, good Mexican food, etc. At the end of the day, people are people, which is what we have been hearing from staff at ARCH, as well as designer researcher like Jan Chipchase who presented at his TED talk on how people across the world all carry 3 of the same things.

On play + service

I thought in order to not disrespect or offend anyone, humor and play should be out of the question when working with problems as heavy as homelessness. But I think I have completely underestimated the power of having fun. For the longest time, we have wanted to but struggled with just sitting down and talking to people that are homeless and ask them about their stories. Until one day when we decided to just lay down some stickers in the middle of ARCH and see what would happen. As it turns out, everyone wanted to play with the stickers and tell us about their days. It was fun and people were excited, which got me thinking about Jon Kolko’s TED talk on products having their own personalities and characters. Can we design something (product, service, or a program) that showcase each of their unique personality, and also make it fun for them to want to keep doing it? If people are people, at the end of the day, despite their economic circumstances, would still love to entertain and be entertained. Thanks to Alex for reminding me that there isn’t such thing as “what does fun mean for people that are homeless”. Because, if people are people, fun is fun. How do we design something that combine play + service?

On support network

We also attended the Annual Homeless Memorial Service at Townlake the other day. Then I heard someone said, “A lot of us are 4 paycheques away from being homeless. We work twice as hard but get half as much.” That comment stuck with me as I recall the many conversations Alex and I had around we are where we are today because of our support network. I thought back to when I first moved to Austin – and how if I didn’t find a job in a few months, I could be homeless. I never thought of it that way, and of course I haven’t, because at the end of the day I know I always have a support network to rely on. And if I didn’t, the decision to take the risk and quit my old job wouldn’t even have occurred to me. There is such a stigma around people that are homeless, where they are often perceived as having mental disabilities, some sort of addictions, or criminal background. A percentage of the homeless population certainly fall in those categories, but what people don’t realize is that many of them are just like us, working as hard as they can, living within their means, then something happened and suddenly they had no choice. If my support network doesn’t exist, I could be in the same situation. And I’m still chewing on that thought.

On cultural shock“Why can’t they just stay at their jobs?”, “Why aren’t they showing up for their appointments?”, “Why aren’t they helping themselves? Don’t they want to get out of this situation?” I hear many ask those questions about people that are homeless. I am pretty sure I once asked those same questions. But Kat has rightly pointed out that perhaps there’s simply a cultural shock that needs adjusting to. Dawn from ARCH has mentioned that one of the biggest causes of homelessness is growing up in poverty, with single or no parent around. Now, if you were never taught about being punctual, following up on tasks, goal settings, etc, over and over again when you were a kid, perhaps you wouldn’t be taking all those “common sense” for granted also. We all seem to understand the concept of cultural differences amongst different countries, why aren’t we more accepting about the cultural differences amongst different demographics, and more importantly, upbringing? As a start, I recommend the Women’s Bean Project video.

On self-worth Every single person we talked to mentioned something along the line of helping another person. The need to bond and craving to be of use to others are definitely universal. I have been extremely blown away by this insight as I can relate to it with another personal anecdote of mine, where I’ve seen first hand of how empowering it can be for someone to be able to offer advice, share resource, or even just make another individual smile. It’s so powerful that I think it fundamentally changes the way people see themselves and their reasons of being. I heard Jon Kolko and Suzi Sosa were having a discussion around whether the Maslow hierarchy is true in the sense that basic needs like shelter is more important and must be achieved before self-actualization can happen. I used to think yes, but now I’m not sure anymore. I want to hear more of what other people think.

A service, not a place

As we research and design (and live), we are always throwing out “what if” ideas. A couple of the more (seemingly) “far-fetched” ideas that have been thrown out in conversation around the topic of homelessness: Let’s get rid of ARCH the building altogether. Instead of corralling all of the homeless people in one place, let’s adopt them out to various churches around the community. Let’s deliver case management services in one of those food trucks.

These ideas may seem odd because there are obvious advantages to providing many resources in a centralized location. For instance, even with many services for people experiencing homelessness localized around downtown, clients are still spending (wasting) a lot of time traveling from place to place—often by foot or by bus.

But there are also disadvantages—and opportunity areas.


All of this reminded me of some ideas from a past class about differentiated education for students with disabilities. In the history of “special ed,” students with disabilities have moved from segregated special education classrooms to inclusion in general education classrooms (although the issue is still contentious among some). This chart (from this book by Smith, Palloway, Patton, Dowdy) shows the four phases that have occurred in the last fifty years or so.

  1. Relative isolation (residential programs, or no schooling)
  2. Integration (considered special education students who were placed in general classroom part of the time, primarily for socialization)
  3. Inclusion (in all school programs and activities. students belong in the general classroom)
  4. Empowerment and Self-Determination

“While the changes in special education of students with disabilities during the past twenty-five years have been dramatic, probably the most significant change has been acceptance of the idea that special education is a service, not a place.” (P.5)


Instead of separate special ed classes, schools today usually offer a mix of inclusion and resource room services (either pull-out model of taking students out of the class for parts of the day or a special ed resource teacher will come into the classroom to help the student for part of the day). Inclusion benefits both students with disabilities and those without, as it increases the diversity and the learning/teaching opportunities for all within a general ed classroom.

Here are some reasons to support inclusion written back in 1984 by Stainback and Stainback (included in the same book mentioned above):

  • “Special” vs.”Regular” Dual systems assume that there are 2 types of children. “In reality, all students display a variety of characteristics along a continuum.”
  • Inidividualized services. Everyone benefits from individualized educational programming.
  • Good basic instructional programs can be effective for all students.
  • Competition and duplication. Competition between professionals as well as duplication of effort.
  • Classification. Dual systems require extensive, time-consuming, and costly efforts to determine which system students fit into and then which disability category they fit. “Unfortunately, classification often is unreliable, results in stigma, and does not lead to better educational programming.”
  • “Deviant” label. “A major negative result of the dual system is the requirement to place ‘deviant’ labels on students. To determine that a student is eligible for the special system, a clinical label must be attached to him or her. To routine reaction to the labels ‘mental retardation,’ ’emotionally disturbed,’ and even ‘learning disabled’ is an assumption that the student is not capable of functioning as well as other students.

Hm, sounds familiar to some of our research around homelessness.


We all came into this with some pre-conceived ideas about who a “homeless person” is. One of my major personal insights as I talk to more and more people who are experiencing homelessness is that the term homelessness applies to a broad range of people. It’s such an obvious statement to make, but it’s hard to truly know it, it’s hard to get past the stereotype. There is a stigma around homelessness and ARCH. It’s true that many of the people who use ARCH’s services also have addictions and/or mental illness, but there are also people who you would never think to label as homeless. They are smart, funny, coherent, worried, stressed, angry, confused, depressed, hopeful, happy—just like you and me. They check email, have cell phones, bake pies, ride bikes, are looking for a job that is a good fit for their personality—just like you and me.

Every person has a story, and I would have never heard these stories if I hadn’t been in this class doing this project because I never would have wandered into ARCH on my own. Because ARCH is a separate place for “homeless people.” And going there would put me into a certain category of people. Just like a student with a learning disability would be seen under a certain light if s/he were put into a special education classroom rather than in the general classroom. ARCH is associated with only one segment of the homeless population, and it’s unfortunate (to say the least) that everyone who uses ARCH gets lumped into one category in the public’s mind. And there is this artificial separation between people who use ARCH’s services and the wider community.

Classification is also a common theme. We’ve seen the time and effort that it takes to figure out where an ARCH client should go for help. If someone wants help with job training, he needs to navigate the system to figure out if he should go to Texas Workforce Commission, Texas DARS (people with disabilities), or Goodwill. And within Goodwill, they have to qualify for either the track that works with people who are disabled, the track that is for fathers only, or the track that works with people who have barriers to employment.

Each program has its own specific grants and funding. Organizations are “competing” to work with the same clients, and their efforts overlap. Some try to specialize in certain areas, so they don’t overlap with other organizations’ services and funding streams. This often results in supply not meeting demand. Yet all of these organizations working with many of the same clients have a hard time communicating with each other. Clients often have to give the same personal information over and over again (even under the same roof), and they’re probably getting multiple messages in their a la carte system of support services. Just as with students who may have multiple teachers, coordination and communication among everyone is crucial.


That quote came from someone Alex and Ruby interviewed, but it’s the biggest thing Kat and I have been feeling this past week as we talk to more and more clients. “People who are experiencing homelessness” sounds like a mouthful and may be too PC on the surface, but I truly believe it’s the only accurate way to describe the people we’ve been talking to. They aren’t “homeless people,” because once you hear their story, you quickly realize that they are not defined by their homelessness. That is just a subset of conditions that they’re currently dealing with in their lives ri
ght now.

Kat and I are researching jobs right now: what barriers homelessness present in someone’s job search and job stability, and what job training programs exist for the homeless. We’ve talked to people at Goodwill, Texas Pie Kitchen, Church Under the Bridge, and in the computer lab and waiting areas at ARCH. In the following weeks, I hope we can introduce you to a man who knew he loved to cook since he was 11 watching the Food Network, a young woman who has found support at her church and is really good at making pie crust, a Philadelphia native who carries his “office”/laptop around whereever he goes and who knows where all the good coffee is, and someone who is new to Austin and who has a steady day job at the Governor’s mansion for the next few months.

We’re in the stage of our research where we’re inputting and collating and sorting through all of our data right now. My gut says…no—I abduct that the processes of finding a job, and of finding the right job for you, and of keeping that job…they may be complicated if you don’t have a stable home or a physical address, but there are similar processes all of us go through in trying to find a job.


I want to leave you with two terms that are used in talking about educating students with disabilities.

  • Continuum of services: The specific placement of students with disabilities falls along a continuum, and placements may vary from institutions to full-time general education classrooms—depending on how much individualized attention they need and how well they would thrive or not in an inclusive environment. I’m sure the services for people who are either currently experiencing homelessness or who are at-risk of becoming homeless fall along a continuum as well, and it’d be instructive to think about (and model) their options in this way.
  • Least-restrictive environment: In education, this means students should be placed in the least-restrictive environment  possible. If they can get assistance added into their general education classroom, they should stay there instead of being pulled out for a resource room hour or totally pulled out into a special eduction class. Which services for people experiencing homeless could be moved into less-restrictive environments? Into more general public environments? What different design challenges does that then present?

Project Kickoff: ARCH&AC4D

I’m pleased to announce that Austin Center for Design has kicked off a 24 week investigation into homelessness in Austin, Texas. We’ll be working with the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (facilitated by Frontsteps), and will be coordinating research, building design solutions, and implementing those solutions in order to drive behavioral change and impact. Students have already kicked off their efforts through immersive ethnography, working directly to learn from the homeless, case managers, government employees, and other stakeholders. We’ll work through 8 weeks of research and synthesis, and then proceed to 8 weeks of design activities; these designs will focus on a depth of impact, addressing opportunities uncovered during research. Finally, in spring of 2011, we’ll launch the various design solutions – hypothesized to be in the form of systems, software, and services – and begin to evaluate success of our efforts.

These efforts indicate a unique designerly approach to mitigating large-scale complex problems that face our culture. Instead of approaching these problems through policy or through traditional forms of individual case-worker interventions, these design students are attempting to understand the qualities of behavior that lead to and exacerbate the condition of homelessness. Then, artifacts – physical objects, digital systems, or supporting services – are introduced into the ecosystem in order to provoke change. Through the power of design, we can begin to identify opportunities and create immediate change, and continually evolve our impact through a “fail early and often” method of informed trial and error.

You can follow our progress on this blog, and learn more about individual student efforts on each students’ page.

Stay focused&talk to more people

We’re tackling a GINORMOUS social issues: homelessness. Within Austin, the system of organizations and the diversity of the populations they’re trying to serve is HUMONGOUS. And we’re working with a LARGE and COMPLEX system at ARCH/Front Steps.

You can’t research all that. You have to choose a focus and dive in. But a focus means you’re narrowing in on a sliver of a sliver of life. They’re as narrow as: the lottery system for single men at ARCH. Access to computer lab for people searching for jobs in the Austin downtown area. Communication between front desk staff and clients during the day.

We’re really lucky in that we don’t have client constraints driving our design ideas and design solutions. And we’re also really unlucky in that we don’t have client constraints driving our design ideas and design solutions.

I think all of us at AC4D have wide swaths of interests, and that’s why we’re here, and that’s why we’re drawn to design. It’s really difficult because once you get to the point where you have to narrow your focus, you can’t help thinking about all the other parts of the system that you’re still interested in that you won’t be able to focus on now. You sense this rabbit hole of “this focus, and this research, is going to lead to this kind of design idea.”

So you lose interest. You’re tempted to start over, or to RE-focus. It’s the scary, messy part of research where you’re not sure where you’re headed.

Some of the conversations we had in class today made me think of this article about “idea-to-idea syndrome”:

Idea-to-idea syndrome is the tendency to launch new ideas while still executing other ideas. As soon as an idea becomes an active project, we become burdened by the minutia of execution. Long days and late nights cause us to get lost in what I have come to call the “project plateau”—the part of a project when excitement and energy run low and the end is still out of sight. The quickest escape from the project plateau is simple. Conceive a new idea. Immediately, when you get excited about something new and shiny, your hopes lift as your creative juices kick in. But, as a result, your previous idea is left stranded in the project plateau amidst other carcasses of abandoned ideas.

I have to say that I’m definitely being enticed by the other research areas my classmates are looking into as well as tangential research at this point.

But of course there are ways to build up immunity to idea-to-idea syndrome: and sometimes you just have to follow through, have faith in the process, and keep going. That also means ignoring the nagging voice that your research focus will lead toward certain solutions. It’s never that straight of a path anyway, and your research will yield valuable design criteria regardless.

Anyway, after some debates about whether to re-focus or not, our team’s plan was to keep talking to people.

The more you zoom in on a product or service, the more details you’ll unearth, and the more you’ll understand—and that’s where the opportunities and innovations lie. And with a “wicked” problem space, the more you zoom in, the more you see that it’s people at the heart of things. To understand a wicked problem, you have to talk to people first and foremost.

frog + UNICEF = Lauren's headed to Africa

Photo courtesy of Merrick Schaefer, UNICEF Project Manager.

As a major step in the new frog Mobile Mandate, we have announced our collaboration with UNICEF as the organization’s lead design and innovation partner on Project Mwana, a major mHealth initiative to improve maternal and infant health and welfare in peri-urban Malawi and rural Zambia.

Our first engagement in this partnership involves sending Kate Canales, Desmond Connolly and myself to travel to Africa for two weeks of contextual research in and around Mansa—a town in Northern Zambia.

Words cannot describe how timely this project is – for the school, for frog, for UNICEF and for me personally.

The team will be blogging for frog’s Design Mind while on the road, sharing our observations, learnings and curiosities. I will be syndicating/summarizing posts on the AC4D blog.

Read more about the project and what we’ll be doing on frog’s Design Mind blog, frogs on the road.

Visual storytelling tip: Shoot B-Roll

Here are some of my “B-Roll” shots from this past weekend’s “Art From the Streets” art show and sale at St. David’s featuring work by people who are currently or formerly homeless.

As we work on researching the “wicked problem” space of homelessness, we’ll be collecting stories of real people. We’ll also want to share their stories because that human connection is what starts to foster empathy. Since we won’t be able to share their faces or their names, it becomes important to think of other ways to capture the humanity in these stories in ways that are still visually impactful.

I’m borrowing the term “B-Roll” from TV news production. B-Roll is the footage you shoot to put under newscaster voice-overs or to cut in-between shots of a person’s interview. In TV news, you don’t want the same video to be playing for more than a few seconds, so you have to get a lot of different angles of the same scene to mix things up. So for example, if you were shooting a 30-second story about new security measures at the campus library, you’d get shots of:

  • the library from afar
  • people walking into and out of the library door
  • students studying in the library
  • close up of a book on a table
  • feet of students walking
  • the metal detectors
  • the red light that flashes when the detector goes off
  • students walking on campus with backpacks
  • etc.

If you have an interview with the Head of Security, in addition to the footage of his three-quarter profile interview, you also take close-up shots of his hands while he’s talking, his nameplate on his door, his office, his badge, him showing you the metal detector, etc. to intersplice into your story.

After learning the formula for putting together VOs (voiceovers), VO-SOTs (voiceover + sound-on-tape), and packages (2:30 minute “feature” stories), I became pretty disenchanted that no one ever broke that formula. If you watch local news anywhere in the country, it’s exactly the same, and they all sound the same. It drives me nuts, but I’ll include one here because it is instructive in thinking about B-Roll and getting into the habit of shooting from multiple angles and multiple zooms. There are swimming babies in this example:

Good documentaries also use different camera angles and zooms to their advantage to keep your visual interest. The second half of this montage of clips from Waiting for Superman is a great example. See how many different kinds of footage he was able to use to set the tone of kids + school without showing any faces.

As we work, I know we’ll be blurring eyes and faces in videos. But I also want to push us to think outside that box. Here are some images from artist and recent TED prize winner J R that features eyes only.