Writing a narrative on User Research

This is the second project for theory class, and it feels like it’s the tenth. The pace at AC4D has been exhilarating and exhausting, and without a doubt it’s been educational. In theory class we’ve dived deep into several readings, and after each set of readings, we’ve been tasked to create a comic to illustrate the concepts learned. This has been a fantastic device as it forces us to read for understanding, synthesize the concepts across a range of authors, and exercise our creative and communication skills through developing an aesthetically pleasing and rationally sound argument through narrative. For the rest of this post, I’m going to unpack just what this all means and what I learned along the way. I hope it’s helpful to you.

The first set of readings or which we made a comic was due early September, and we read six pieces by six different authors’ all along the theme of a designer’s responsibility in society. The assignment was our first, and the learning curve was pretty steep, as Jon, our instructor, often chose to be more enigmatic about defining requirements rather than prescriptive about how to do the assignment. I for one failed miserably on the presentation given I talked about the process of designing the comic much more than I mentioned anything about theory or the narrative itself. This time around, I incorporated most all of the feedback and wish-I-hads into my project. More about that later.

Luckily, our second assignment was more or less the same as the first but with a different set of readings.

  1. Do the reading
  2. Write and illustrate a comic that both tells a narrative (replete with conflict and resoution) and ALSO communicates clearly each of the author’s positions.*
  3. Develop the final draft of the comic in Adobe Illustrator
  4. Post the comic with a blog post of about ~1000 words online.
  5. Present the comic in class for critique.

*In particular, Jon requested that we explore how each author would engage users in design research. Since the writings could be interpreted to cover a much wider range of topics than just design research, this bit of focusing criteria helped define a clearer choice of paths to take.)

As I said, this is essentially the same project as the first, and, in a school where there’s another new project every other day, I deeply appreciated the opportunity to iterate and improve on a particular project, especially one that utilizes so many important skills like theory analysis, drawing, illustration, visual communication, story-telling, presentation, and finally writing (this blog post right here in fact.)

The readings we did this time around included:

  • William Gaver – Cultural Probes and the Value of Uncertainty
  • Donald Norman – Technology First, Needs Last: The Research-Product Gulf
  • Jon Kolko – The Value of Synthesis in Driving Innovation
  • Liz Sanders & George Simmons – A Social Vision for Value co-creation in Design
  • Paul Dourish – What we talk about when we talk about context

The theme was more than anything about user research, though each writing touched on several other topics. Kolko’s article argued for gaining access to the boardroom for designers, Dourish discussed the depths of phenomenological and positivist world-views and their impact on contextual definition in computer science, and Norman spoke largely about innovation rather than user-research in detail. Nonetheless, the common thread was there, and it made for a rich set of articles.

In approaching the assignment, one of the greatest difficulties is both in synthesizing the author’s arguments so their perspectives can be lenses for the same conversation. The assignment is to develop a narrative, and what’s worse for a narrative than incoherence. Developing a sense for how these authors could dialogue together without talking about separate subjects was therefore the first challenge I set out to do in my own process.

To do this, I used a mix of mind-mapping and affinity diagramming. My version of affinity diagramming in this sense was to review my notes and highlight what I felt were the most important points each author made in their article. I then reviewed the different authors’ points side by side and started discerning themes and grouping.

On the other hand, once I had some themes written down, such as “Creativity of the user”, or “Role of innovation”, I wrote each author’s initials in a circle around that theme and wrote down each thing that author said about that point, if anything was said at all. This activity was more like mind-mapping or brainstorming.

After I had my author’s points synthesized and clarified around several themes, I tackled the question of narrative. This was somewhat easy for me. Ever since we started at AC4D, I’ve heard people talk about the challenges of convincing those with power to invest in user design research. With this in mind, I decided I would write out a narrative about a company that experienced challenges in the marketplace and decided to pursue user design research for the first time. In this scenario, a single person would be the advocate for design research, and they would both be inspired by the many arguments for it and also have to make the argument themselves to their board.

This approach both helped me learn the readings and also helped me prepare to make a case for user research investment in a boardroom.

Next, I needed the details of the narrative. After some brainstorming, I started mixing and matching ideas that I liked including educational settings like a school district (not a boardroom at all, I know, but it was a contender for winning narrative), and the corporate boardroom. I “compromised”, though really it feels like a total win, and decided to write about an education technology corporation. I personally love languages, and so I made it even more interesting for myself by making this company focused on language learning software.

Thus was born my comic strip.

Over the next 48 hours, I spent about 35 of them working on the story, deciding which drawing style I’d use, storyboarding, script-writing, hand-drawing, doing digital illustration in Adobe Illustrator, and finessing the format and composition. It’s been grueling.

That being said, I’m very proud of my work. I know that it could be better. It can always be better. But I invested so much effort, and I have pretty much only worked and not slept for the last 24 hours.

I love the theme of language ed tech that came to the surface. I love that I worked so hard to make my pretty amateur drawings at least a bit more polished. I love that there’s so much detail and there’s even a couple plot twists in such a short story. I love the character, Sarah, who came to the surface – she really seems striking to me. She’s courageous, compassionate, and dedicated, and she embodies many of the values I admire. It’s no surprise of course given she’s my creation, but then again, sometimes we don’t let those values come to the surface, and luckily they did here.

I learned a lot from this project. I learned about great theory related to user research, co-design, using cultural probes, and the intersections and implications of philosophical world-views in computer science. I’m well over 1000 words now, so if you want to know about those topics, you’ll need to look those articles up yourself, (or read my comic.) What I perhaps have valued the most from this project was the learning developed through rigorous creative work. Creative works requires the most varied and highest level of skills and cognitive skills, and it’s been taxing to say the least to fit about 100 pages of dense theory into a comic strip narrative. Nonetheless, I look forward to the next time.

Note: I set up my comic below as a gallery. Click the first image, and it will open in a black box on the screen. There are navigation buttons that appear on the bottom of the slide when you hover over the bottom. Use those navigation buttons to scroll from page to page rather than going in and out of the media files. Thank you for reading.

Design Research

These past two weeks, we have been learning about different methods of design research and the theoretical underpinnings of those methods. After considering readings from five different authors, I’ve walked away with limited respect for Don Norman’s belief in the limitations of design research and distaste for William Gaver’s conception of cultural probes. On the other hand, Paul Dorish’s idea of designing for a more phenomenological conception of context has value, and so does Jon Kolko’s faith in ethnographic research and synthesis as sources of design criteria. Likewise, Liz Sanders’s practice of co-design from start to finish appealed to me. But let’s go explore these ideas more deeply through the magic of Adobe Illustrator.

In the comic I created to illustrate my understanding of and thoughts about the latest readings, our protagonist is a young king. When we first look in on him, he is driven to madness by the repetitious “helpful” hints of Peppy, a side character in the N64 Game, Starfox 64.



Being an empowered and surprisingly design-oriented young man, he summons five designers to help him come up with a new game, the first of whom is Don Norman.





After engaging in ethnographic observation, Don Norman offers the perfectly reasonable if uninspiring choice to upgrade Starfox 64 and make it Starfox 65, a better version without the annoying character Peppy. This plot point reflects the actual Don Norman’s belief that design research is not good at finding hidden unmet needs, but is rather best used to observe the small annoyances and workarounds people use with existing products. One can then in a low-risk way incrementally improve upon previous works. Norman does not believe design research can lead to innovative leaps, so best for him to stay with a safe choice. In this case, however, the king, like me, finds Norman’s offerings inadequate.

The king’s next visitor is William Gaver, he of the cultural probes. Cultural probes, despite their somewhat menacing name, are just ambiguous activities research participants complete in the absence of the researcher. Gaver assigns the king a few characteristically odd tasks.

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A reluctant king completes Gaver’s tasks, and then Gaver goes off and, embracing ambiguity and subjectivity, makes up a story about the king’s life given the meager evidence his probes reveal. Gaver then creates a game based on the, in this case wildly false, assumptions he made based on his cultural probe. This storyline reflects my frustration with Gaver’s methods, specifically with how we lauds the extra mystery and creativity that arises out of forcing oneself to make up narratives about one’s research subjects. This seems silly to me. Humans are pretty good at gaining insight from observing other humans. Why would you cut yourself off from that source of insight? Anyway, the king is likewise unimpressed and gives Gaver the boot.

Next, the king sees Paul Dorish.




The real Paul Dorish believes that context is constructed by people moment to moment and that it depends both on the environment and the activities taking place there. Consequently, he favors designs that go beyond mere co-design (which produces a fixed end product) by making the context of the design transparent to and modifiable by users. In this case, those qualities are represented by Minecraft, which allows users to create Mods and Servers that fundamentally modify the rules of the original game. While I believe having that level of control in every designed product would be overwhelming to users, it could be pretty cool in some situations.

Next,  the king meets Jon Kolko.

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Jon Kolko is a great believer in design research that produces design criteria. Furthermore, he believes that synthesis can lead to uncovering unmet needs that users might not even realize they have (in this case, the king wants to see the elderly duke it out). Like the real Jon Kolko, our comic Jon Kolko thinks that the measure of innovation is the value ascribed to a product by normal people. This jibes with my impression of the world and the ability of most people to see beyond the face value of others’ words. Kolko’s ideas seem applicable to every design research scenario I can envision.

Next and last, the king meets Liz Sanders.

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Liz Sanders believes in co-designing with participants from the fuzzy front end all the way to finalizing the product. As such, she acts more as a facilitator than a researcher, using her skills to elicit ideas from the king that he might not have been able to articulate on his own. In this way, the king and Liz Sanders form a true partnership.

Like the king, co-design seems pretty great to me, if resource intensive. I can imagine that many projects have budget and time limitations that would prevent co-designing a product from start to finish. I also believe there are some projects for which the designer is already so familiar with the problem area that co-designing would be a misuse of resources. However, it is nonetheless a good ideal to shoot for.

Ed & Sofia Creating Value

Ed is a popular musician. He’s written songs that have touched millions of people all over the world. People love his music but, after so many years of fame, the inspiration isn’t there anymore and he has yet to write a new song this year.
Ed’s manager, Rick, comes to him one day and tells him that the label is thinking of dropping him because he hasn’t written anything good in a long time. Rick says, “They’re going to drop you at the end of this month unless you come up with a song geared toward the female audience. Their market research says that most woman like upbeat songs so try to do that.” “But that’s only 7 days away!” Rick says, “Well you’re going to have to come up with something. My hands are tied, bro.” Ed says to himself, “What do I do now? I don’t know what songs girls like! I need to find some way to get inspired!” After two days of working and coming up with nothing Ed has an idea! What he needs is to get away from the city and go somewhere he has never been in order to be inspired to write his new song. “I’ll go to Italy. That’ll make me come up with something good!”
The next day he arrives in Rome, but even though he is in this beautiful city it might be too late. Ed only has 5 days left to come up with revolutionary song that female audience will like.

Day 1 (Liz Sanders)

Ed wakes up early and ready to get to work. “I think I’ll bring my guitar down to the cafe downstairs and play the tune I came up with while drinking an espresso. That should get the juices flowing.”After sitting at the cafe for two hours Ed begins to think that he will never find any inspiration for this song. He starts to hum the tune he has for the song but he can’t think up any words. Just then he hears a girl behind him singing words to his melody.
“When your legs don’t work like they used to before…”
“That was amazing how’d you come up with that?” Ed says. “I just came up with it.. I don’t know.” “Aren’t you Ed, the famous musician?” She asks. Ed nods and they start to talk more in depth. He tells her that  he’s working on an upbeat song for girls but he’s having trouble coming up with the perfect lyrics. He then has a thought. “What if we wrote the song together?” He asks. “Are you serious?” “Yeah I read in this article that rather than creating for people you should be creating things with them.”

Ed goes on to convince her that “Co-creation” as Liz Sanders puts it,  “…puts tools for communication and creativity in the hands of the people who will benefit directly from the results.” Ed remembers that he had bookmarked the article on his phone and he pulls it up to show her. Ed says, “Liz Sanders would say that If we work together to create the song rather than me just creating a song for you we can potentially accomplish three things:

  1. Monetary value: My song will be way more successful because more girls with relate to it, so therefore I’ll make a lot of money.
  2. Use/Experience value: Creating the song with you will make it a great sounding song than if I had just written it for you.
  3. Social value: We could potentially create a song that really helps people coping with love and the feelings of heartache. We can create something together than helps people handle those emotions.”
The girl agrees to work with him but she owns the cafe they are at and she can’t go away. So  comes up with the idea that he could help her out around the Cafe while he is visiting and in exchange she will help him create this song. She agrees and they shake hands on it. “I didn’t catch your name.” Ed says.
“It’s Sofia.”

Day 2 (Jon Kolko) 

Ed comes down to the store early the next morning. Sofia is busy helping customers so rather than asking what he needs to start doing he goes into the back and looks for an apron. In the back room there is a woman sitting down reading the paper and drinking coffee. He introduces himself and she tells him that she is Sofia’s sister, Greta. She asks him why he is helping them. Ed tells her about the arrangement that he and Sofia had set up the day before. He tells her about what they are doing. and how they are going to create a song for girls. They will be talking to the girls that come in and getting feedback for the song as it gets better during the week. Greta seems intrigued and wants to know more as to why he decided to have Sofia create the song with him instead of just interviewing her or something. Ed talks about co-creation and the value it has in his process. This is makes Greta think about a designer she met once named Jon Kolko and how his points on design research and the value of design synthesis very much pertains to this subject of creating music. Ed asks, “Tell me more about synthesis…maybe it’ll help us in the next few days.”
“Ed, you are a musician and just like many designers you have a boss or a group of higher ups that make strategic goals for the company you work for. Your boss is expecting you to create a song for girls based on the strategic goals of your label. They decide that it is best that you create a song for girls because that’s what will sell or that’s what will allow them to reach into different markets. You still need to write a song for girls, because you’ll get fired if you don’t, but what  if, instead of just writing a few notes and scribbling a few words, you actually figure out what woman want to hear and how they want to hear it.
Maybe you’ll figure out that girls don’t want an upbeat song, maybe they want something different. I don’t know and you don’t know but you should find out. It’s not enough these days to be a great artists, you have to think like the label does by doing one on one research and synthesizing that research in order to create music that not only is revolutionary but also is done is such a way that people can be ready to hear it.”
She suggests that Ed focus on Sofia and really try to get to know her. Then together they can create something amazing.

Day 3 (Don Norman)

Ed is working with Sofia at the coffee shop and is getting frustrated because every time he starts to bring up the song she gives him tasks to do and pretty much ignores him. Near the end of the work day Ed finally confronts Sofia.
“I thought you promised to help me! I figured we would have the song done by now, but instead we have wasted an entire day!”
Sofia says, “Ed, I don’t know if it’s a good idea to strive to create this revolutionary song that you are so desperate for. because I don’t think it’s possible to do that in 5 days.”
“Back at University we had a guest lecturer come to speak during one of my classes. His name was Don Norman. Contrary to what my sister told you yesterday, Norman believes that revolutionary breakthroughs do not come from research at all they come from scientist and engineers in labs. They do it because they are just looking to create, they aren’t trying to fix some need of the public. Design research is more helpful in producing incremental innovations which are slow, small enhancements improving upon these revolutionary products or services.”
 “He was talking about technological innovations, obviously, but I believe it applies to writing musical lyrics.” You are wanting to create the next top song and you think you’re going to be able to do it through getting to know me and creating it with my collaboration, but most often that’s not how great songs are written. They are written in the moment and not for a group of people but for the personal reasons of the artist.”
Ed says, “well what was the song you were humming when I first met you?” “That was pretty revolutionary to me!” Why don’t we just incrementally innovated to create a better, longer, and more pleasant sounding version of that song?”
Sofia agrees!

Day 4 (Bill Gaver)

It’s day 4 and Ed and Sofia are making progress on the song but they’ve gotten writers block. Greta mentions to Sofia that it is the day usually go to the market to buy bread and spices for the cafe shop. Ed and Sofia decide to use this as an opportunity to use a technique that Ed saw at the University of London in a lecture by Bill Gaver a few years back.
Ed goes out and buys a disposable camera for Sofia’s sister Greta. He tells her to take pictures of things she likes and things she dislikes at the market. Sofia ask him why he is asking her to do this? Ed says, “It’s a technique I learned awhile back from this design professor. He calls it, “Cultural Probes.” It’s an approach that stresses empathy and engagement for participants. It’s meant to elicit inspirational responses from Greta.
When they both meet up back at the Cafe Sofia asks Ed. “Are we going talk about why she chose to take these photos?” Ed says, “No.” Bill Gaver says that when you try to interpret these cultural probes scientifically they lose their value. They are simply meant to make Greta think creatively and engage her in our process.
Sofia and Ed then spend the rest of the evening talking with Greta. They then stay up all night writing the rest of the song and in the morning they finish.

Day 5 (Paul Dourish)

Ed and Sofia realize it’s their last day together and they are really happy with the song they’ve created. Sofia asks, “Do you really think your label will fire you if it doesn’t get popular?” Ed says, “I hope not. Luckily I know the main guy that make those decisions.He used to be computer scientist. His name is Paul Dourish.
He told me about a band he just signed named Capital Cities that wrote a really beautiful song years ago called Safe and Sound. They were dropped from their last label because the song didn’t do well when it was first released. But now that Paul signed them it’s one of the biggest songs in America. Sofia asks him,“Why didn’t the song do well back when it was first released?”
“Paul told me once that he believes it’s all about context and there are different ways of viewing these scenarios. There are:
  • Positivist who think in technical notions i.e. software developers (if, then)
  • Phenomenological thinkers that believe the the world as we perceive it is essentially a consensus of interpretationHe said that Capital Cities style of music was not famous at the time it was released because there were not that many bands at that time that sounded like them and thus audiences were not ready to hear their sound. He said that each year the music industry is rapidly shifting and changing. Preferences are changing and bands that once were famous are dying out and bands that were unpopular are now beginning to emerge as stars. Those that continue to survive are those that adapt and change based on the changing context.”
Sofia says, “So Capital Cities’ song Safe and Sound was kind of like a revolutionary innovation and the audience wasn’t ready for it when it was first released??” “Exactly!” Says Ed.
Ed kisses Sofia goodbye and the next week “Thinking out Loud” was the #1 song in the world. The end.
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When in darkness, follow the light


For our Design, Society and Public Sector class, we read articles by Donald Norman, Jon Kolko, Paul Dourish, Liz Sanders and Bill Gaver. The articles provided perspectives on the place design research has in innovation, and the importance of including end users to be – not only the subject of the research – but also a key collaborator in the activities that make part of the research methodology.

For this second assignment, we were tasked to illustrate in the form of a story, the key points of view of these five authors.



Norbert is a mechanic from the quiet and small village of Middletown. One day, right after dinner, he was working on his truck when he saw something fell from the sky.

He walked a couple of miles and reached a big crater. A huge meteorite had crashed and, with the impact, had burst into thousands of pieces. To Norbert’s surprise, around the crater left by the impact, he found a few pieces of branches and trunks that appeared to light up as if they were lamps, odd sound waves were also transmitted right when Norbert approached one of the branches. It appeared like when in contact with a piece of meteorite, a piece of wood would become energized and made it emit light and sound.

After a few tests and experiments, Norbert thought of designing some cool, never before seen musical instruments. He was convinced that the village would love his new inventions. He announced the news to the rest of Middletown and everyone seemed excited for his discovery but, much to his surprise, they had no interest in acquiring any of these instruments.



Donald Norman claims that technology comes first, designers and users assign meaning and use to it after, therefore, technologists are indispensable and drive revolutionary innovation. In the other hand, designers only drive incremental innovation by engaging with users at the end.

Dorbert, the village’s electrician and philosophy teacher was one of the few people that felt truly intrigued by the discovery – He was certain that a source of power like the one Norbert discovered could be of great use only if it was applied in a way that corresponds to the needs of the people in Middletown.

Dorbert decides to reach out to Kolbert, the village’s private detective.

Kolbert, the detective – throughout his lifetime, has learned that by immersing himself in a particular context and understanding the people’s struggles and motivations can, not only help define problems in a particular space, but also, help detect opportunities and potential areas of improvement. It is by doing this immersion and synthesizing his findings, that Kolbert discovers a particular insight that he had not been aware of: A large part of the Middletown population have to walk across the woods every night when coming back from the factory outside of their village. This made villagers feel anxious and paranoid.


Paul Dourish claims that it’s challenging to translate observations from participatory research into technical requirements, but elemental to adapt to an ever changing environment. Participatory research is helpful to get a sense of what should be taken into consideration when designing for a person’s context.

In “the Value of Synthesis in Driving Innovation”, Kolko claims that it is by immersing oneself into an end user’s context, and focusing on gathering data related to the user’s behavior and emotion, that makes design research so valuable for innovation.

Inspired by Kolbert’s findings, the village’s government representative, Gabert, decided to reach out to several villagers. He asked 10 of them to draw and describe the favorite and least favorite part of their routine for one week. The results were interesting, and consistent with detective Kolbert’s findings, most of the villagers’ least favorite part of the day had to do with their commute back from the factory . With these artifacts the villagers handed to him, Gabert was able to familiarize himself better with the people from Middletown and get a bigger understanding of needs that were not being met involving their commute to their village from work.


Designers engage end users to participate in activities that help them visually document their environments, interactions and relationships. With these probes in hand, designers gain empathy for their users and, according to Gaver, are able to “predict with confidence which systems (their users) might prefer”.


During his immersion, Kolbert was able to empathize with the villagers as they walked back from work every day for a week. Listening to ominous sounds and screams, and darkness so absolute, no torch could light up more than a couple of inches out. On the same note, with his artifacts, Gabert was able to get a sense of what the villagers inherently hoped and wished for: a feeling of safety when walking back home from the factory.

With all of these findings at hand, Lizbert, the village’s architect, brought 10 other villagers together for a creative session. By having everyone ask themselves “How can we improve the commute experience for Middletown villagers when walking back home from work?” Lizbert tasked the villagers to describe how their ideal commute to the factory looked like. “Safe”, “light”, “comfort”, were just a few of the words that villagers came up with when describing their ideal road.




According to Liz Sanders, people are creative beings and seek an outlet to express their creativity in diverse ways.Continuously involving end users in the design process gives room to uncover problems that users didn’t perceive as a need or opportunity before. This makes the collective design process more engaging and precious.

Dorbert, who was part of these creative sessions, suggested how these findings could be addressed by Norbert’s newly discovered source of light. By applying an array of purple meteorites to the roots of the trees surrounding the walk to the factory and back, the trees will light up the path, providing a sense of security for factory workers, and the beautiful music coming from the trunks will numb down the ominous sounds coming from the rest of the forest.



Creative collaborative techniques and a deep analysis of a community’s way of life, which are methodologies used in design research, helped Middletown villagers improve an aspect of their daily lives that they were so used to, they forgot it was a daily nuisance. This is how Middletown used design to follow the light while being in the dark.



Value and participatory research: only love and creativity can save the world

Value. It’s a word found across businesses, governments, and other organizations. Everyone is looking to create value or to find hidden value. There’s the value chain. And some industries, such as healthcare with a movement called value-based healthcare, are rebuilding their business models on the concept of value. The top three definitions of value from Merriam-Webster are the monetary worth of something; a fair return or equivalent in goods, services; and money for something exchanged, and relative worth, utility, or importance.

Value has been explored in depth recently in the Interaction Design, Society, and the Public Sector course taught by Jon Kolko at Austin Center for Design. Focusing on the role of research, Jon facilitated discussions centered on value (based on articles by Donald Norman, and Kolko) and participatory design (based on articles by Paul Dourish, William Gaver, and Liz Sanders).

On assignment

Our assignment was to identify the author’s point of view for different ways of doing research and engaging with users. From there, we were instructed to sketch a storyline that explains the positions in a story.

At the end of a recent blog post I asked a simple question: are designers the new superheroes? Since joining AC4D and learning more about the designer role and opportunity, the idea of designers as heroes has come to my mind. Heroes are an interesting archetype and in a world filled with wicked problems, it’s not too far of a stretch to imagine a need for the Justice League—with Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Aquaman, Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter, and Flash—as designers.

Based on feedback from the last assignment, my objectives for the assignment were to go into more depth about the author’s intentions and, importantly, to improve the aesthetics of my Illustrator drawings.


Much like the word value, in chapter four of Exposing the Magic of Design, Jon Kolko recognizes that the word innovation has “crept into the vocabularies of executives….” It’s worth noting Jon’s definition of innovation for product development: “an innovative product is not simply new; it must be new and successful in the marketplace.”

He presents the pressing need for design research (problem finding) and design synthesis (problem understanding). Jon makes the case that design research may describe what to make, how to make it, and how it should feel or look. Jon argues that design research should focus on experiential, emotional, and personal aspects of culture. The goal of design research is to find inspiration for a design project. The goal of design synthesis is to describe the situation and ultimately translate opportunities into specific design criteria.

Jon also speaks to the challenges that designers face. The designer role is multifaceted: a designer should be able to think strategically and to design visuals or other tangible assets that evoke emotion. Designers are now expected to solve a problem and also to decide which problems should be solved. Sounds like a job for Superman!

In Donald Norman’s article, Technology First, Needs Last: The Research-Product Gulf, he puts limitations on what one can expect from design research. Norman contends that the significant technology innovations of civilization came from inventors who invent—not designers who research. “Design research is great when it comes to improving product categories, but essentially useless when it comes to breakthroughs.” As technology is invented and progresses, people discover value and products come second, and later needs.

That’s where Norman sees an opportunity for design research. He argues that ethnographic research can lead to an understanding of human behavior and that leads to uncovering human hacks that will suggest product modifications and improvements. While this limitation may seem narrow, history tells us how “flush toilets, indoor plumbing, electric lighting, automobiles…” were invented—technology revolution led by engineers, scientists, and inventors.

This doesn’t sound like a superhero opportunity!

Norman might not agree with that last statement. He recognizes that small, incremental innovation is the bread and butter of product management and organizations since they can lower costs, add features, make a product simpler and easier to use, solve user problems, and so on. Design research can lead to novel innovations and market success. Incremental innovation can be a slog because new ideas for product innovation are viewed as strange, can be politically unpopular, and they compete for scarce resources within an organization. Designers can help overcome these hurdles by telling stories and promoting value from the participant’s perspective.

Sounds like a job for Wonder Woman after all!

Participatory design

Liz Sanders, a co-author of A Social Value for Co-creation in Design, makes the case that all people are creative and seek outlets for creativity. What if we tap into that creativity to co-design with participants?

Sanders boldly positions that designers should do just that: move from the role of designing for users, to one of designing with users. She argues that co-design should exist across the life of the design process and describes four levels of creativity: doing, adapting, making, and creating. Sanders aspire to a design process that is for the longer-term, more humanistic, and more sustainable.

William Gaver, a co-author of Cultural Probes and the Value of Uncertainty, takes Jon Kolko’s goal of design research, to find inspiration for design, to new heights by embracing interpretation, emotions, uncertainty, and subjectivity. Probes are “evocative tasks meant to elicit inspirational responses from people” that provide designers with inspiration, fodder for storytelling, and hidden information that may or may not be true.

And unlike the superhero Martian Manhunter who can read minds, Gaver’s recognizes and embraces that fact that even with Probes a designer cannot get inside of someone’s head. That’s okay by Gaver. It’s almost as if storytelling and inspiration from Probes activities may have the ability to transform a designer to an artist as they go about creating products and services.

In What We Talk About When We Talk About Context, Paul Dourish argues that context is more than a setting—it’s something people do. As an international computer scientist, he presses the case for ubiquitous computing, also known as context-aware computing. The idea is that “ubiquitous computing proposes a digital future in which computation is embedded into the fabric of the world around us.”

Dourish states that context is critical for understanding activity and information. He goes on to write, “…context and activity are mutually constitutive.” So for the designer, recognizing that context is a feature of interaction is central to our opportunity to understand the meanings that people find in the world and the meaning of their actions.

One last superhero reference. It sounds like Batman must have embraced context-aware computing when he developed his bat suit, the Batmobile, and more!

Designer tips

  • Use immersion perspectives focusing on human behavior to learn about opportunity and potential (Kolko)
  • Watch people (Norman)
  • Design with participants (Sanders)
  • Get inspired by participant’s subconscious (Gaver)
  • Understand context, the connections between context setting and activity, and how it’s constantly changing (Dourish)


As I reflect on the readings, several comments and questions come to mind as I take steps to becoming a designer.

  • Creativity as a high-wire act. Quantitative + qualitative + creative thinking = new and interesting ideas (Kolko). I’m inspired by the idea of designer as artist and research as inspiration for the artist (Gaver). If designers find problems, understand problems, and then take these insights to make things… How will I know when my artistic-side has jumped the shark? When does a designer transform from being a talented artist to one that cuts his ear off? How do I maintain balance?
  • Tell me a story. Throughout the articles, the importance of storytelling and the role of the designer kept coming up. And not just stories to sell ideas, gain empathy, etc. From gathering fodder to create stories, to being effective storytellers, and so on. How might I work to become a better storyteller (and writer of stories)?
  • Technology and design research. I don’t take too much issue with Norman’s argument about the history of civilization and technology. What if inventors and designers worked more closely together? If the goal of design research is to understand culture and human behavior, how might that put technology innovation on steroids?
  • Something new. Valuing co-creation is a shift in my thinking that occurred over the past few years. Before that, I was the typical business executive that thought he knew what our customers wanted… After all, I had been in the business for over 20-years, had worked alongside customers at the beginning of my career, etc. Co-creation is a rich area for design insights and inspiration. How might I include co-creation within my design practice?

Story: Justice League Designers

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The Land of the Underlings

After reading 5 assigned articles in IDSE 102, our theory class, I spent some time pulling out ideas from the authors and pairing them with my own thoughts and questions surrounding their theories. From there I attempted to make connections between various statements and sentiments as I worked towards synthesizing all of this information. The result was the story you’ll find below, which is a highly interpreted children’s book style tale that reflects on value, innovation, models of thinking about the world and models of researching for design.

You’ll find my notes in red that point out some specific thoughts sparked by the authors, but I encourage you to create you own meaning from the story based upon your own understanding of design.

The Land of the Underlings

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Here are the articles referenced in the story:

The Value of Synthesis in Driving Innovation, Jon Kolko http://www.ac4d.com/classes/102/2A.kolko.pdf

Technology First, Needs Last: The Research-Product Gulf, Donald Norman http://www.ac4d.com/classes/102/2A.norman.pdf

Cultural Probes and the Value of Uncertainty, William Gaver http://www.ac4d.com/classes/102/2B.gaver.pdf

A Social Vision for Value Co-creation in Design, Liz Sanders & George Simons http://www.ac4d.com/classes/102/2B.sanders.pdf

What we talk about when we talk about context, Paul Dourish http://www.ac4d.com/classes/102/2B.dourish.pdf

*Please note you’ll need the AC4D log in to access the articles

-Kaley Coffield


The designer I want to be

As a student in his first quarter at the Austin Center for Design, I am beginning to develop my own philosophy for how I want to be a designer when I enter into the professional world. In the course titled Design, Society and the Public Sector, I read foundational texts written by design practitioners and academics that are reflections of what it means to them to have impact as an interaction designer. In the most recent cycle of readings, we focused on the meaning and development of value as well as the underlying principles for creating value for consumers and citizens of the world. In order synthesize the articles, I created a short comic that I will present below. First, I will provide some context for the story I wrote.

As a basis for understanding my perspective, I start with two of the readings (written by Jon Kolko and Don Norman) that introduce differing perspectives of innovation and that pushed me to ask the question: “Where does/should the concept of innovation live?”

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As expressed in the diagrams above, the authors focused on two kinds of innovation. Innovation from the perspective of new technologies can lead to conceptual breakthroughs and eventually change how humans interact. Examples of this are the automobile, the computer and the cellphone. On the other hand, innovation can be seen from the perspective of the consumer. This kind of innovation is subjective and defined by individuals – in the ways they see their own lives and how they use or do not use services and products.

As a future designer, I am interested in focusing on innovating from the perspective of users. Thus steeping myself in the human centered design process makes sense.

Comparing the positions of each of the authors we read (Norman, Kolko, Sanders, Gaver and Dourish), I am beginning to build a framework for thinking about how to develop innovative solutions to wicked problems (as they are experienced on the human level). At its core, the human centered design process is, “…an approach that values uncertainty, play, exploration, and subjective interpretation as ways of dealing with [the limits of knowledge].” (Gaver, pg. 1) This pushes against the dominant belief in the value of quantification, predictive models and a positivist methodology for understanding how to design innovative solutions. However, humans do not experience the world in predictable and rational ways. Instead they are constantly creating the world they live in. The context that people operate in is embodied. Context is, “…something that people do. It is an achievement rather than an observation; an outcome, rather than a premise.”  (Dourish, pg. 22)

Since I want to be a researcher and designer who wants to innovate from the perspective of users, I have to be able to get at the lived experience of humans. I need to figure out methods for capturing that data and making sense of it. It is not as simple as coming up with all the variables that need to be quantified, making objective (context-free) observations, and asking people to respond to surveys. It requires getting at how people really behave, think, and feel. In order to do this, I need a mindset in which I believe I can co-create with my users so that I can access my users’ experiences. Co-creation is an “…act of collective creativity that is experienced jointly by two or more people…where the intent is to create something tis not known in advance.” I believe this loops back to the quote I presented from Gaver. An act is only creative if it is playful, uncertain, and leads to subjective interpretations. As a human centered designer, I need to embody this mindset in order to capture rich data on how my users think, behave and feel. I can do this through creative activities or presenting them with cultural probes wherein I capture reactions to unexpected and irrational stimuli. Of course, just as any positivist scientist would tell you, you need to process lots of data. In the qualitative research world, we do this through synthesis. As Kolko states, “…Synthesis is a sense making process that helps the designer move from data to information, and from information to knowledge.” (Kolko, pg. 40)

Now that I’ve laid out some of the thinking I have been doing on what kind of designer I want to be, I will speak about the story I will present below. As I reflected on the articles, the idea of play stood out.  When humans play, they are doing, creating, and revealing truths about themselves they would not in a rational state of mind. Thus, I centered my story on three individuals, Marvin, Kolko and Sanders. Marvin is lonely and wants to play. Kolko shows up and stimulated by an artifact (a stick), their unconscious desire to fight is acted upon. Sanders shows up and stops them. She works with the boys to co-create another solution to helping them all feel included. They synthesize this information and come up with an insight: they all want to play in a treehouse. I believe within these simple interactions I summarized the above points: the kids innovate changing their lived experience, co-create, play, imagine, and act as a designer should.

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Fascinating Findings of Food Value Chain Research

“The one unusual thing I eat is Liver Pâté on bread because it’s something all children in Norway grew up on.  All kids in Norway eat liver Pâté.” 

Lene, immigrant from Norway


During the past few weeks, my team here at AC4D has been performing research on Animal Food Value Chain, focusing in particular on undesirable meats and other parts of animals.

It is incredibly fascinating to learn how, and why, people choose certain kinds of meat to purchase and to eat, and the reasons why certain parts of animals are not used in American cuisine.

For every interview, we tried to choose people from different cultural backgrounds to get richer data from different perspectives, since food is always something very culture-related. Cultural difference was never the main focus of our research, but it is something that gave us some really interesting and fascinating data on our topic.

Lene was born in Norway and lived there almost whole her life; she used to work in a restaurant back there. She told us about her experience buying and eating animal products when she just moved to the US. “When I moved to Houston and I went to HEB, I saw these big trays of chicken breasts, and they were so big and so cheap! I thought: “Wow! I can buy that tray and we’ll have dinners for a week! We can share one chicken breast with my husband, it’s enough for both of us. And then I started to realize that it’s not normal, the size of the chicken. They are too big, something is wrong with them, they can’t be 3 times bigger than chickens in Norway. And of course! I started to do some research and watch documentaries, it’s growth hormones they put in. It’s not good for anyone: not for your body, not for the chickens. I saw a documentary which showed how chicken can’t walk because their breasts are too big, they are falling forward. It’s crazy. It shouldn’t be allowed. It’s not allowed in Norway. And now I buy only organic and grassfed meat and only at Whole Foods.”

Something to think about, right?

We’ve talked with people with different backgrounds: second-generation immigration from Mexico, who spent his childhood in a Mexican part of LA; an owner of a food truck serving halal food – he moved to the US with his family to avoid the Iraq War; a recent immigration from Norway and was a cook back home, mentioned earlier…. Every time we come back from an interview, we say: WOW!

Having a chance to see different points of view on a problem, from Americans and immigrants, we see how some things that seem very obvious in one culture, can be very unusual in another. It helped us to find problems we would never see or think about if we talked only to long-time locals.

Accepting applications for the class of 2018-2019 now!

Austin Center for Design is now accepting applications for the class of 2018-2019. Admission details can be found here. Application deadline is January 15, 2018.

For those who are hearing about us for the first time, you can learn about our curriculum, type of student projects, and what our alumni are up to after graduation – Check out this three-min video about us! There’s also an entire book about the designerly approach to wicked problems you can read online for free.

Can I experience what it’s actually like in-person?

There are three ways to join us in person to learn about our pedagogy and approach:

  1. We will be hosting our annual Design for Impact Bootcamp on October 21, 2017, on our campus. This one-day workshop is the very best way to experience our curriculum and determine if it’s the right fit for you.
  2. If you can’t make it to the Bootcamp, you can find us during Austin Startup Week and Austin Design Week. Sign up for our newsletter to get the latest updates.
  3. You’re welcome to sit in on classes anytime you’d like. They run every Monday to Thursday from 7pm-9:30pm, and Saturday from 9am-3pm. Reach out to admissions@ac4d.com to set up a visit.

Can I speak to the alumni to find out more about their experiences?

You bet! You should also know that they all love talking about Austin Center for Design – so be prepared. They have recorded a couple Q&A videos for you to watch (here and here). If you prefer to read, they share their journeys pre- and post-ac4d in these interviews. You can also find all of them here and reach out directly, if you wish!

How do I follow along to get a glimpse of what life is like as a student?

We regularly post to Instagram, share happenings in the space of design and social impact on Twitter, and live stream our students’ presentations on Facebook. Our students also post their assignments and reflections on the ac4d blog.

What else do I need to know?

Even though the application isn’t officially due until January, we highly encourage anyone considering applying to reach out to admissions@ac4d.com. We want to get to know you!

Re-Framing Sustainable Farming

“How do intermediate livestock farms and ranches impact the environment and public health?”  For the past two weeks, Nicole Nagel and I have thrown ourselves into this subject as part of a class project for Interaction Design Research and Synthesis (IDSE101) at Austin Center for Design.  We’ve talked with a wide variety of stakeholders, including policy makers, non-profit executives, academics, restaurant employees, governmental regulators, and, of course, livestock farmers.

When contemplating the environmental and health-related impacts of livestock farms, most people would likely point to some common themes and ideas.  Methane emissions from animals, negative externalities of pesticides and herbicides, and food poisoning due to improper raising and processing of livestock are a few that you could likely learn about through a simple Google search.  All these ideas have certainly surfaced in mine and Nicole’s research thus far, but the one thing we learned right away is that this issue encompasses a vast, infinite network of issues, research, opinions, values, and daily lives.  Design research is not like a Google search, where you can deliberately pick and choose what to focus on.  The point here is not to explore pre-determined problems with an issue, but to find new ones.

Slowly but surely, we got lost in an avalanche of data, and we seemingly got pulled in a thousand directions at once.  Utterances pertaining to education, psychology, white privilege, and food distribution all came into the fold.  This multiplicity of subjects made it difficult to retain our initial focus as our primary lens through which to see the issue.  Every time we tried to narrow it down to our initial focus, we would inadvertently uncover yet another issue that was inextricably tied into a growing web of problem spaces, of which livestock farms and ranches were one just thread amongst many.

For example, when it comes to environmentally conscious livestock farming and ranching practices, the stakeholders we interviewed kept falling back on one thing: no matter how refined the model for sustainable farming is, its practicality is in large part at the mercy of the consumer.  The food culture of the United States is such that we have become wholly accustomed to extremely cheap food.  This places an extremely tight market constraint on small, “sustainable” family farms that often pride themselves on environmentally friendly farming practices and wholesome, healthy products.  The idea of limiting the impact of livestock farming seemed to be inextricably tied to this constraint.  It was both frustrating and problematic, not only because all the farming models we were coming up with economically inviable, but more namely because they were tied into a several socio-economic systems that extended beyond the farms themselves.

Then we interviewed Dr. Megan Clayton, who works as an associate professor and extension range specialist at Texas A&M.  A large part of her job is to provide resources, information, and education to ranchers in Texas.

As with most of our interview subjects, we asked Dr. Clayton how farms could limit their negative impact on the environment and public health.  In response, Dr. Clayton essentially said this was the wrong question.  The essential issue, in her mind, was not how to limit the negative externalities of ranching, but how to preserve the intrinsically positive ones.  As an extension specialist, she was much less concerned with manure run-off, factory farming, greenhouse emissions, and the like, and much more focused on simply preserving the farmland from urban and suburban development.  This is because maintaining green, open land in Texas is critical for maintaining clean air and preventing flooding.

Dr. Clayton’s expertise thus provided an interesting re-framing for our research.  Whereas we had been focusing on the negative effects of livestock farms, we had largely overlooked the positive impacts that themselves must be preserved.  All of the sudden, all of the issues that seemed stubbornly tangled into our research focus became much more seamlessly interconnected.  For instance, whereas market constraints had beforehand appeared to hinder any and all models for delimiting the negative impacts of livestock farming, now that we can view ranching as a net positive for the environment and public health, what once seemed like market constraints now also appear as market opportunities.  The ideal models for environmentally-friendly livestock farming are no longer simply a matter of suppressing negative impacts, but also of encouraging the positive ones, leaving much more room for innovation and growth within our models.

Design research is about problem-seeking.  In this case, we found that the problems with respect to livestock farming are not only caused by the industry status quo, but also in large part solved by them.