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.

is designing for children different?

Recently, I listened to Radio Johnny: Debra Gelman on Designing Digital Experiences for Children to hear her point of view on designing for children. The interesting outcome is that many of the concepts discussed could apply to designing for adults as well.

  • Kids are not great readers, which encourages designers to use other means to communicate—images, icons, information graphics. Adults often do not have time to read everything when visiting sites or browsing information.
  • Storytelling is important in design for the children’s market. Here is a book about using storytelling in interactive pieces Storytelling for the User Experience.
  • Other ideas were discussed as well such as creating a safe environment and opportunities for the kids to “create” something of their own. This idea of the individual having an opportunity to do more than simply participate brings me back to the idea of building frameworks and opportunities for users. Does it help the user become more involved with the material?

Could some of the ideas being used to design interactive for kids be applied to adults? Would it change the way adults interact with information?

Is the data pure?

ew days back (at AC4D), there was a discussion about field studies for design research and synthesis. We talked for a bit about contextual inquiry. In a nutshell, this is a process of going to “the research field” and observing the subject and environment first hand to gain insight about the problem that is being investigated. We were talking about an example of doing contextual inquiry for a tooth brush company who want to understand the benefits of using an electric brush and in turn, use that data to design a near ideal tooth brush. While formulating the steps for doing the contextual inquiry, the following steps were outlined/discussed as a guideline –

  1. Introduce yourself
  2. Get familiar with the field (in this case, home of some participant)
  3. Ask to see the place where action takes place (in this case, bathroom)
  4. Observe the action (brushing)
  5. Observe the surroundings to make meaningful inferences
  6. Talk, rinse and understand.
In general, I understand the value of doing field work. I think it is the best way to observe somebody in action and understand the hows and whys of any problem. For instance, if I am designing an information portal for some farmers in India, I need to be there to understand the needs so that I can solve the problem for them. However, the process of doing contextual inquiry is something that I don’t entirely agree upon. Apparently, the process involves shortlisting candidates for participatory research through some screening and then schedule an appointment with them for a field study (contextual inquiry). Then, at that fixed time, you go and observe. I think this procedure works only well in some cases like
  1. It does not make people conscious
  2. It does not induce any disruption in their activities
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. 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. In general, I think this “text book” definition of contextual inquiry ticks me off. It cannot be this procedural. 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. 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? Well, isn’t eliminating biases by talking to more people a method in contextual inquiry and participant research?


How will social enterprise unlock the $120 billion market opportunity for impact investment?

The Social Capital Markets Conference (SOCAP) is “a gathering of investors, entrepreneurs, and innovators at the intersection of money and meaning.”

I was first exposed to the idea of social finance by Acumen Fund, and got increasingly interested when I learned about the social stock exchanges that are being developed in Toronto, London and Singapore.

With $1195 being the fee to the conference, I simply cannot afford to go at this point. So when SOCAP posted a challenge asking for blog submission on the topic “How will social enterprise unlock the $120 billion market opportunity for individual impact investments?” for winning a ticket to the conference, I decided to write something. 

I am not expecting to win with this entry as I am still new to the space. But I remember Jon said to have an opinion on everything (even if you later realize it’s wrong) and Justin said to “think make” (turn an idea sitting in my head into something people can see). And hey, I might even get a couple comments for feedback. So here was my attempt, which I submitted last night: “Making it part of daily banking“. My favorite post is ““Build Human Capital for Social Investing” by Daniel Kreps, which is also ranking #1 on the list so far. For the Money for Good report released by Hope Consulting on the $120 billion market potential for impact investments, here’s a good summary

[Sidenote: Jon Kolko will also be speaking at SOCAP 10!]

Understanding Twitter…

Hi all, I am starting on Twitter; it turns out that after Justin’s class on Saturday and Ruby’s post, I finally got really curious about it. Yes, I resisted against it for a while, I didn’t like the idea of sharing lunch scoops. But, there are obviously other ways to use it.

Most of you are already familiar with Twitter. So, I am playing the role of the “apprentice” by wraping up what I learnt and please feel free, as experts, to correct me and contribute (thanks Lauren for the metaphor, I like it).

Here are the basic ideas and steps that I understood by looking at tutorials and articles on the web.

So, once you get an account :

1. Fill in your profile so people can find you more easily:

  • add a photo
  • put your real name in your settings so you can refer people to your url: www.twitter.com/juliamoisand

2. Decide what you want to say as long as your messages are no more than 140 characters. You can write:

  • questions
  • opinions
  • tasks

Alternate messages where you write content (tweets) and messages where you forward content (retweets). Be generous, write information, don’t only forward it.

3. Build your network by choosing et finding the right people.

You can look for :

  • individuals
  • groups
  • organizations

People that you follow will start following you.

4. Tweet. Real-time et frequency are important because Twitter is all about:

  • sharing information in real-time
  • building anticipation
  • making you a reference in a topic
  • dragging traffic

The more you are feeding the system, the more you will take advantage of it.

5. Search. Twitter gives you the opportunity to search in your network and to give you appropriate search results

  • type a topic in the big Search box on your right
  • browse in trending topics

Twitter is all about language and links so there are basic rules:

5. If you tweet is intending to one one user in particular, type the @symbol followed by the username, for example: “@rubyku, what do you think of..?”

Or you can just hit “reply” to a tweet and your message will start with “@rubyku”

6. Use and make #tags

A #tag is a way for people to search for tweets that have a common topic. For example, if you search on #LOST (or #lost or #Lost, because it’s not case-sensitive), you’ll get a list of tweets related to the TV show. What you won’t get are tweets that say “I lost my wallet yesterday” because “lost” isn’t preceded by the hash tag.

Before you create your own tag, search for a few variations to make sure they don’t already exist. Since the tag will use up some of your 140-character limit, you want to keep it fairly short, while still making it precise.

What is the best tag for Social Entrepreuneurship ? “SocEntr” ? I think Ryan had some ideas about that.

Leveraging social media: Tips

I’m not exactly clear on how we’ll be using social media for rapid prototyping just yet, but first we must set up all our accounts, engage with the social media communities, start creating a public voice, and work on cultivating a following. For better or for worse, in this day and age, and especially as social entrepreneurs, we are our own brands.

Good brands are:

  • simple
  • bold
  • opinionated

There’s no wrong way. You have to try things out, figure out what works for you, and be consistent within your own personal framework. Every time you think “I should do this.” or “I shouldn’t have done that.” Try to squash that voice. Easier said than done, I know. (For instance, I probably shouldn’t post three AC4D blog posts in a row on the same day. Hmmm…)

Find your cadence. This will probably be the most difficult for me. Because I am also struggling with organizing and wrangling my internet usage overall. When it comes to tweeting or blogging, I tend to push a lot out at once and then have periods of silence. Because:

  • No smartphone. Limits my ability to stagger social media check-ins throughout the day. (good and bad)
  • Sick of screens. Periods when I don’t want to spend my free time looking at another screen. (good)
  • Internet binges. A result of the aforementioned factors. (bad)

Sometimes it’s hard to see our own patterns and whether they’re effective or not when communicating within social media. Question for Petro: how are you going to give us feedback as we build our brands and social media presence? Question for classmates: how can we give each other feedback on useful/ineffective patterns of communication we exhibit through our social media usage?

We are creating our own living portfolios. I love that idea, particularly as a designer. You set up systems where you’re constantly updating and showcasing your design work, photography, writing, and thinking. And so your portfolio evolves as you and your ideas evolve. And you don’t have to spend that painful time re-finding everything to update your static portfolio when an occasional need arises.

Work smart, not hard.