The limits of our imagination

There’s so much that stifles our imagination — namely, someone’s concept of reality, and what they deem possible within that reality.

I think one of the saddest sentences is “That’s not realistic” — not necessarily the words themselves, but their impact. Certainly dreams for the future should consider limitations, but solely focusing on current constraints is incredibly stifling. More than acknowledging what obstacles lay in front of a particular idea, “that’s not realistic” shuts down creative thinking as to how some far-fetched endeavor may come to be.

I like science fiction for this very reason — it’s not supposed to be realistic, because it’s inherently a part of a different reality, whose rules are entirely up to the author. Moreover, it requires the audience to suspend disbelief, thus allowing them to consider an alternate reality, without the analytical mind interfering with what’s possible.

Fear also plays a powerful role in what we can imagine. How many more articles are there about how singularity will crush humanity than stories of how technology will enhance our capacity to communicate and love?

I believe the more we focus on the dark side of technology, the more we will create a dark future. The longer we can hang on to optimism in our imaginations, the more optimistic our future.

For example, here’s my concept of how we can improve the grocery shopping experience (I never know what I want to eat, and I even if I do, I never know where to find it!).

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Er. Whoops. That got a little dark… but the beginning was nice! I definitely treated myself to some ice cream after that project. You are not the boss of me!
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I guess I’m not so immune to imagining the downside of smart tech. Will robots really take over minds? Have they already and we just don’t know it?

Speaking of the Matrix, our teacher, Mr. Anderson exposed us to several different concepts of the future. One of which was illustrated in a talk by Argo design’s Jared Ficklin.

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If you haven’t watched this talk, you must. It tickled me. It details several examples of the kind of design I want to create — provocative, but most importantly, magical.

Mr. Anderson also showed us more bleak concepts, such as Strange Beasts by filmmaker, Magali Barbé.

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Talk about fear limiting imagination — I viewed several different opinions as to how the future could manifest, and my video concept was clearly influenced by this one.

It’s not that I don’t dream of how technology can improve or delight us, but the fact that I chose a more somber tone speaks to my humanity — the human brain is millions of years old (the oldest known hominid, or humanlike species, has been dated at 4.4 million years old). It is not designed to make us happy, it is designed to make us survive. So, it makes sense that the scary would captivate more than the ideal.

Perhaps, more optimistically, technology can help us finally evolve past these old reptilian brains.

 

What limits what we can imagine?

Sensibility & Passion

There are many things limiting our imagination. We have been ingrained with a set of varying beliefs and varying perspectives built on every experience we’ve ever had. In the game of innovation, evolution, moving society forward, what are the values to strive for?

Senseless passion is like a bull with a rope around his nuts trying to unseat the rider holding the rope.

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The passionate person has blinders on in a way that makes her/him have tunnel vision. “I can only focus on the motive I have at this moment, this is all that I can believe in and I can see it all working over there in the future.” This person, often, forgets about all of the things along the way, the important details that will deter or support his/her initiative.

Passionless sense is like a professor that has been professing for too long. She/he can kill anyone’s dreams with their sense.

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This is equally as dangerous as the bull because they have blinders on in the opposite way. Only able to see their periphery, based on what they have seen before, time and time again.  It is difficult for them to suspend disbelief long enough for a new idea to have a breath of fresh air and a chance.

““The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Health care, in its legacy form, is populated by noble, reasonable people trying their best to operate within the confines of an irrational system. To realize true progress, we need to adapt the world to our needs, to manipulate the system that surrounds us for our collective priorities. We need unreasonable revolutionists. Or maybe, just designers.” (-Stacey Chang, Health Care 2017)

We get stuck in a frame. Stuck in a way of thinking about a certain idea, thing, or system. It is often very difficult to move our “sense-liking” minds from this place. It needs to make even more sense, OR be vastly more enticing. Or both. While I agree with Chang’s statement of needing a radical view at the table, that view needs to be partnered with practicality. Whether that balance is inside of one person or collaboratively polarized, by members of the team, the bull and the professor need to work together to bring imagination into tangibility.

 

The Health Care System

Definitions

Health: the state of being free from illness or injury.

Care: the provision of what is necessary for the health, welfare, maintenance, and protection of someone or something.

Americans are spending billions of dollars on alternative forms of well-being each year. Dell Medical School in Austin, Texas is in the middle of a paradigm shift in health care. They are trying to change the very definition of healthcare. They are trying to provide an entirely new frame to think about the health care system.

“Self-management has always existed. Americans spend billions of dollars each year on health foods and diet programs. A doctor reported, “20% to 30% of my patients are into some type of supplements or ‘nutraceuticals’”. Deloitte reported that 20 percent of consumers used alternative therapies. Kaiser reported that 33 percent of consumers had “relied on home remedies or over-the- counter drugs instead of seeing a doctor” in the past 12 months because of cost concerns. Several factors have begun the process of reframing health as self-management. The U.S. healthcare system is out of control; managing costs requires a focus on what the medical profession calls outcomes. The public has a growing awareness that well-being is more than healthcare.” (-ACM – Interactions – Volume XVII.3 – May + June 2010)

This is a blatant alarm that our health care system is not administering health. And, even more importantly, it is not thought of as a place that can assist in preventative measures. Healthcare has positioned itself as merely a curer of acute disease based on the tendency towards a transactional experience between practitioner and client. The push towards tests and exams using big ticket machines and technologies alienates those interested in a well-rounded healthy lifestyle. How to reconcile a familiarization like this?

 

Familiarity

To defamiliarize from a very entrenched ideology or pattern of thought takes 1 of 2 things. Either the purest of sincerity to do a better job and a team to back it up;

“the established structures make change very difficult. “What we’re trying to do here [at Dell Medical] is to collect innovative thought leaders who are themselves determined to do things differently. That’s liberating for the kind of person we’ve been recruiting.” He believes the opportunity to build a new model from the ground up has attracted faculty, staff, and doctors who have the same ambition, along with the dedication to use that model to serve the broad Central Texas population.” (-Michael King, Future of Health Care 2017)

or introducing a new attribute into an ecosystem that serves as the first stage in a theory of change towards a new paradigm of familiarity. This often comes through changing the meaning or frame of technologies that already exist. Making good ideas digestible for the masses is the difficult and important part.

“Apple, however, did not invent either multi-touch interfaces or gestural control. Multi-touch systems have been in computer and design laboratories for over 20 years and gestures also have a long history. Moreover, several other companies had products on the market using multi-touch before Apple (Buxton 2007). Although Apple’s ideas were not radical to the scientific community, they did come as a radical, major shift in the world of products and how people interact with them and give meaning to them. Similarly, Edison’s development of the electric light bulb resulted in a radical, major revolution in home and business, but he did not invent the light bulb. Edison improved the existing bulbs, extending bulb life, and equally importantly, recognized the importance of providing all of the necessary infrastructure: the entire system requirements of generation plants, distribution systems, and even indoor wiring and sockets to hold the bulbs. Thus, his efforts did revolutionize the product space and the living and working patterns of households and businesses.” (-Don Norman & Roberto Verganti, Incremental and Radical Innovation, 2012)

 

Immersion in the Problem

To be a problem solver (or designer) do we immerse ourselves in the problem or not? Some live and die by yes, some vow no. Some say you must get close to users and problems to understand the nuances that are present. This would increase the designer’s capability for sense. Some say this makes designers’ thinking constrained by what currently exists. I believe it all lies in the way you use the information you have at your disposal. If you are somewhat familiar with a system and can see gaps in it even when it is running “ok”, you have enough context to attempt impact through innovation, no need to get closer. If you have just lived with a tribe for 4 months to understand their malnutrition issues, you are not too close, this is also not a problem, IF you can temporally zoom out and abstract what you’ve found. This is the essential piece. It is the difference between reactive design and responsive design. Reactive design says x=2 in the equation 2+x=4. Here, take the 2, it’s the answer. The responsive, abstract way to observe the problem is to say something like well what if I housed this problem in a framework that can solve this problem and any other problems that are similar? Here, take this framework, now you can solve this problem yourself and hopefully all problems that are similar.

“Shelley Evenson and others talk about creating conditions in which users become designers—creating spaces in which people can learn and grow. That means professional designers become meta- designers, designing open-ended systems, languages, platforms, APIs, construction kits, or kits of parts, which others con gure or re-con gure to their own ends. Wooden blocks, Legos, and train sets are classic examples, kits of parts with which we may play—and design. Herman- Miller’s Action Office is a kit of parts designed for others to design offices. (Sadly, it gives little design control to the office’s occupants.) Programming languages and code libraries like Java and Flash are kits of parts for others to design software. (How much design control can the resulting applications give end-users?) Even simple services like restaurants offer a menu of choices from which patrons may design a dish or a meal.” (-ACM – Interactions – Volume XVII.3 – May + June 2010)

 

Togetherness in Variance

Not everyone is like us. The abnormal for you is very normal for someone else. And along the same thought thread, abnormalities can always, easily, become normal. With these constraints, how do we even approach design for such complexity? Here lies the battle between strategy and trust. Again, both are needed. Strategic use of imagination, trustful use of sensibility, and trust when sensibility is not useful or imagination is too outlandish.

The point is that balance is needed with all of the above. Where sense and passion merge is where new ideas are founded.

“1) Incremental innovation: Improvements within a given frame of solutions (“doing, better, what we already do”) 2) Radical innovation: a change of frame (“doing what we did not do before”)” (-Don Norman & Roberto Verganti, Incremental and Radical Innovation, 2012)

When sense and passion are operating in unison is when innovation can manifest.

“Maninder “Mini” Kahlon, Dell’s vice dean for strategy and partnerships, is a whirlwind of big-picture conversation about how all these Dell programs fit together in the very large project of transforming the “ecosystem of health care” in Central Texas – from prevention at the front end to finances at the other. Wearing her “strategy” hat, she reiterates the school’s primary goal of changing the structural emphasis from “care” to “health.”” (-Michael King, Future of Health Care 2017)

Falling too far on either side of sense and passion is where limits in imagination or execution occur. This is when newness can’t fully manifest as innovation.

“Radical innovation brings new domains, new paradigms, and creates a potential for major changes. Incremental innovation is how the value of that potential is captured. Without radical innovation, incremental innovation reaches a limit. Without incremental innovation, the potential enabled by a radical change is not captured.” (-Don Norman & Roberto Verganti, Incremental and Radical Innovation, 2012)

Balance yourself. Balance your team. Balance your methods.

Objectifying Humanity Through Technological Advancement

Objectification is normally seen as negative in when applied to people, but through industrialization we became objects without even realizing. Nearly every one working within a system is objectified, and this is by design. Objectification is prevalent in every industry, tech, healthcare, politics, manufacturing, it seems to be a ubiquitous ideal. Healthcare seems to be a good example, on the educative side, future doctors are given an intimate knowledge of the interior of a human. Byron J Good explains it well stating “Within the lifeworld of medicine, the body is newly constituted as a medical body, quite distinct from the bodies with which we interact in everyday life…” A paradigm shift occurs in the students mind, from human, to patient. The idea of a patient comes with a problem solving intention. Interaction becomes tainted, shifted from looking at a person to looking for symptoms, for something to fix.

AprilStarr in a post after an experience in a hospital, she aired some frustrations. These all lead to show how our medical industry, one of the most intimate spaces, has shifted focus from working with humans, to working on them. She details and experience where “In one day, we had 5 different groups of residents and their arrogant leaders come by and wake my husband up to ask the same set of questions that have been documented in his chart (that 5-wheel car doctor seems to think everyone is reading).” She understands the needs of residents to learn, but having little decency to allow a patient rest shows the lack of concern for the “person” and more of a concern for the end of “helping.”

What this level of objectification truly leads to is the tactical nature of an object over a human. Objects are able to be used, humans on the other hand, are not. Kant’s categorical imperative in action: “So act as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in another, always as an end, and never as only a means.” This imperative should shape the way we understand one another in the world. Industrial culture has allowed this to fall under the line of importance.

There are organizations dedicated to beginning again, with a more human centered understanding. The Dell Medical School is attempting a new model for the healthcare industry, working to ensure the overall health of an individual, and not just seeing patients as a list of symptoms or problems to be solved. Hopefully their success is well-won and their model becomes the norm. Design is the word we use for creating experiences allowing people to feel comfortable, but seemingly, it is the process of creating something actually for a person, not just an object of utility.

The issue is then not a question of how does it happen, but why? When did we, as a people, allow ourselves to simply be used as means to an end. When did businesses decide to throw the ethical ideas of what a person is out, and deify profit margins and efficiency? Is it too late?Industrialization and technology seem to have caused this shift to be catalyzed and blown to epic proportions. These industries have boomed such in past decades there is no way for the world of policy, regulation, and true understanding of consequences to catch up. Like healthcare, but much worse, companies and governments are realizing this quickly. While some seek to protect their populations from the potential negative effects, others seek control for propaganda and to spread doubt among their populations. The bottom line is: they seek to control the objects interacting with their goods and services, but only enough to ensure loyalty or continued use. Those objects are you.

Our experiences with technology and the way it has been delivered shape our understanding of it, and control of this is never in the hands of a user, but always an interpreter of their needs. Sometimes things work out well, and others times they fail, but always there is a lack of understanding of the medium. Technology becomes a delivery mechanism for all of this, and technology is arguably out of our control. In his article “Why Nothing Works Anymore,” Ian Bogost talks about how “technology is becoming a force that surrounds humans, that intersects with humans, that makes use of humans—but not necessarily in the service of human ends.” Technology is becoming more and more powerful, and our “needs” are becoming more and more lofty.

Making more efficient chips, more efficient power supplies, smaller and thinner and better batteries the name of efficiency is the new game. So users can use their phones longer, or have a smaller profile in their pocket. But ultimately, technology is now in service to technology and users are simply a by product of this creation. Ray Kurzweil details how quickly technology is indeed expanding, which also highlights how little we know of the social and cultural impacts. He contends circuitry was created, it has been improving exponentially and soon, will well exceed the cognitive ability of the collective brains on Earth. Kurzweil shows by his math, by 2059, one human race of computing capability will be available for roughly one cent. Here Kurzweil is using objectification of the human race to show how insignificant out capability will soon be. Whether our physical manifestation is as necessary has yet to be seen.

Bruce Streling describes this problem well, saying:

“We have entered an unimagined culture. In this world of search engines and cross-links, of keywords and networks, the solid smokestacks of yesterday’s disciplines have blown out. Instead of being armored in technique or sheltered within subculture, design and science fiction have become like two silk balloons, two frail, polymorphic pockets of hot air, flowing in a generally tainted atmosphere.”

His point seems to be that design is now mingling with science fiction, because science fiction is our current reality. Just because our idea of what the future should have been do not match up with what it is, does not allow for a disregard of the lack of understanding technology has on our world.

As designers, what then can we do to tame this chaotic and shapeless landscape expanding exponentially beyond our control? We can reign it in. By constraining the interaction and guiding users through these chaotic systems in a manner suiting a human, design can become a sherpa leading into the technological age. Listening to people like April who had a poor experience during an exceedingly difficult time can provide incredible insight into what needs to be done better. Thinking you know better than her is not.

Gary Marsden tells a nearly cautionary tale of how human centered design has evolved. It’s inception was “to measure the efficiency and effectiveness of the interaction between the computer and the user…The results were analyzed to better understand the human cognitive process and better optimize the interaction between user and computer.” This presupposes two things: initially the human was not as capable, and second, the human does not know what is needed. This scenario shows how interaction design has grown from a practice of objectification and is shifting to understanding people.

Understanding technology and the impact it has is equally, if not more important. In his work “People are people, but technology is not technology,” Marsden goes on to explain how he and his team used real human centered design to help create working software for medical teams in remote areas. They completely changed the way doctors and nurses communicated, because they focused on the person, and worked within their understanding of technology. Delivering more power and more speed and the next best thing should not be the focus. It should be on delivering what people need, in a form that does not alienate us from the technology we use. Ian Bogost warns of the complacency of being uncertain whether your technology will work for you or not, and I feel this warning well. He says “It won’t take a computational singularity for humans to cede their lives to the world of machines. they’ve already been doing so, for years, without even noticing.” He seems to make us all out as slaves to the progress of technology. Our focus has to shift to the users of technology, not the spirit of technology itself. Design is our medium to do this, to create a cohesive world from the chaos in it now.

Health in Bite-Sized Increments

Conner Drew | Sally Hall | Elijah Parker

Bite-Sized is a digital tool for dietitians to expand their reach and impact by allowing them to have input and influence with their customers on a more consistent basis.

 

Project Backdrop

Diseases influenced by diet are at an all-time high — 27 million Americans have diabetes and 30 million Americans have heart disease. These are leading causes of death in America. This is an interesting contrast when considering the fact that the demand for health and healthy eating is, simultaneously, the highest it has ever been. The gap that exists between those 2 truths has a lot of niches to fill.

 

Product Introduction

Bite-Sized Health is aimed at making dietitians more effective in their work with their clients. The dietitian relationship to the client is a potent one. They are the point person helping people steer clear of disease. The problem is that, on average, dietitians meet with their clients once every 3 months. At best once every month. That leaves between 30 and 90 days of unaccounted for food consumption. Dietitians commonly ask for a food log of the intake in the last 72 hours. This log is not fully representative and potentially inaccurate. Therefore, Bite-Sized Client Relationship Manager bridges that gap by allowing dietitians to have consistent contact and influence with their clients.

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The in person check in to start off the interaction is key. This is what differentiates BiteSized from other leading competitors in 2 ways. There are some services that offer similar information but do not have the person to person interaction to ground the interaction. There are other services that are explicitly softwares for dietitians to manage client information, lacking the capability of continued support. The personal nature and continuous support creates a cultural awareness as well as a personal touch to an otherwise entirely digital service. It also creates a space for help with food support that users can depend on. Achieving a level of comfort that other dietary and nutrition based apps struggle to meet.

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Target Population

BiteSized will be marketed to dietitians to expand their reach and impact. Dietitians will be able to prove the boost in their effectiveness through the ability to tangibly track their clients food intake and measure the changes they are making. The price will be $39.99 per month per dietitian.

In total, there are 66,700 Dietitian and Nutritionist jobs in the United States. Of these, we will focus on dietitians and nutritionists who could benefit from our service, meaning, those who work in an organization that could effectively implement our tool. Such establishments include:

  • General Medical & Surgical Hospitals: 17,840 nutritionists/dietitians
  • Outpatient Care Centers: 6,870 nutritionists/dietitians
  • Specialty hospitals: 1,460 nutritionists/dietitians
  • Psychiatric & Substance abuse hospitals: 780 nutritionists/dietitians

Therefore our total target market is 26,950. We will reach 5% of this market by the end of the first year, and 5% of this market will adopt the product which is 162 dietitians and/or nutritionists.

Financials

The projected revenue from our first year is $49,303.94. We are expecting not to come out of the red and into actual profit until the 18 month mark.

Earnings:cash

Currently, we are thinking $200K in seed funding would suffice to go towards development costs, founder salaries, and overhead expenses.

We plan to establish ourselves, initially, as an LLC so that we can get off the ground and into action as smoothly as possible.

Attached is our written Business Plan.

HomeList – Business Plan

HomeList is a digital application connecting individuals experiencing homelessness with available private and public housing. Through a dialog with the user, the application gathers the user’s personal information, including any barriers to housing. Then the system matches the user with a housing program or private rental available to them. The system then contacts either the owner of the property for approval, or contacts the organization for availability. Once approved, the system then walks them through the process of signing their lease and moving in to the unit.

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Above are screens illustrating a small flow of the product. The first illustrates the the list of housing options a user would see; the second shows the process of becoming familiar with a private landlord’s lease, and the third shows how the application changes as the user progresses towards their move in date.

A key piece to HomeList is an initiative called the Landlord Outreach Program. This connects non-profit organizations seeking to end homelessness with Austin landlords and offers incentives to take in individuals who have or are currently experiencing homelessness. These incentives typically come in the form of higher than normal security deposits or guaranteed case management if there is a bad situation. These costs are paid for through a specific financial stream built to help individuals get back into housing. By aggregating these additional open units, there is enough available housing units to reduce the number of homeless individuals in Austin. This program is run by the continuum of care organization in Austin, known as the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO).

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Above is the expected journey an individual experiencing homelessness would take when using HomeList to find housing.

HomeList interfaces with the landlord outreach program and uses the list of available housing to allow people with lower barriers to rent from an understanding and accepting person. Optimally, this would cultivate stronger relationships with the landlords currently participating in the landlord outreach initiative, and gain further traction in the community as a whole. This also allows people experiencing homelessness to spend less time on the street, and less time worrying about where they will be staying. This allows a greater focus on self sustenance instead of worrying about find a place to live.

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Above is the Theory of Change diagram created to map the behavioral impact. It shows the activities performed, and the outcomes we seek to produce from them.

The promise of HomeList is to connect individuals experiencing homelessness to stable housing. Through this application, those who are living on the streets are given a direct connection to housing options accessible to them. HomeList will help to handle the transition from experiencing homelessness to stable housing.

In order to fulfill our value promise and further our reach, we plan to establish our company as a non profit. Charging the individuals who would be using our service is nothing short of predatory. As a nonprofit we do not have to satisfy a group of investors and instead can do what is best for those we serve. We also believe that as a non profit, we can better work with other non profits serving the same population. When working with other organizations, there will be less of a question of intention to do good, and no worry of maximizing profit to the detriment of the user.

In order to begin developing our product, initially we are seeking $250,000. The money would come from multiple sources: the Grants for the Benefit of Homeless Individuals (GBHI) and the McKinney Vento Homeless Assistance Grant, as well as city or state funds appropriated for initiatives ending homelessness. We would be requesting a grant of $150,000 from the Grants for the Benefit of Homeless. The GBHI is a federally funded general grant that works to tackle homelessness at the local level. They do not have a specific focus on who can apply for the grant. From the McKinney Vento Grant, we would request $100,000 to cover the organizational operating costs and infrastructure costs. The McKinney Vento grant comes out of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. This organization is the primary advocacy group at the federal policy level.

Right now we are still in the process of development estimation, but we are assuming a six month development timeframe with 3 developers, working on a client side and server side application. The main pieces of development will be the web app and mobile wrapper, as well as the integration with different types of HMIS software or Homeless Management Information Systems. All non profits who perform intakes or administer the coordinated assessment are required by HUD (the Federal Housing and Urban Development organization). There are many different companies who make this software, and integrating with their databases and information architecture can be complex. This sum of money also includes all fees for infrastructure, salaries, and grant applications. This original grant funding will allow us to perpetuate until the second month of our second year. At that point, our estimates show even with the rise of infrastructure costs, we would only require an additional $40,000 in grant money for our second year, until HomeList became sustainable. This dream of sustainability is contingent on having the buy in of 6 organizations by the end of our second year.

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Above is a financial for our first 24 months of business. This does not include the additional funding obtained at the beginning of year two for operating costs. It shows our first year with the funding requested, less the $150,000 for development costs.

To create revenue steams and achieve our vision of self-sustainability, HomeList would charge a licensing fee to the organizations who choose to buy in. Sold as an add-on to current HMIS systems, and being marketed as a cost saving initiative, HomeList would qualify for subsidy from HUD, who pays the majority of licensing costs for HMIS systems currently. At $2,000 per organization per month ($1,500 per organization if licensed by a COC) HUD contributes 75% of the cost of the system, leaving $500 per month as the cost to organizations. All profit from the sales and growth of HomeList will be used to research other markets, and expand to them if possible, as well as developing further tools to assist in ending homelessness. Our full business plan is detailed in a document here for viewing.

How to be an Ally

In all civil rights and social justice movements there are typically two groups who make up the side of the oppressed. First, there is the main population, those who are receiving the oppression. Secondly, there is a surrounding ring of supporters, who aline with the cause but are typically not a recipient of the direct oppression. This group of surrounding supporters are called allies. Allies do not take the lead in the fight for justice. They instead provide a platform for the oppressed population to speak out from. Allies know they are not the center of attention in the fight for justice, because they understand that they are not direct recipients of the oppressive force. This is what good design should look like, a platform for the radical empowerment of those who have no voice.

In the context of design, the oppressed population is the user population. They are the population that is unable to be their own advocates. In Jon Kolko’s article, Manipulation, he states that “design frequently serves people who otherwise cannot serve themselves.” Just as in social movements the allies’ of a cause serve the role of a facilitator for those who are oppressed, Kolko highlights that design plays the same role. Those who are oppressed do not have the tools or platform to speak out about their oppression, allies and design must give them that platform.  Kolko’s article continues to say that “design [is] rooted in a historical context of empowerment”,  this provides a direct link between design and its empowerment of the users. Understanding that design is a tool for empowerment and that designers must be allies for the user, the question then becomes “how do designers make something for the users that is empowering and supportive?” Within this article, I address three design practices which help facilitate empowerment for the user.

Empathizing-01

The first method for become an ally is through highly empathic design practices. In Kolko’s words this “means feeling what someone else must feel, truly finding a way to live their pain or wants or needs or desires.” When designers use a more empathetic mindset that is user centered, a product or service can better support the user in their goals. For example, “Designing for Democracy at Work” by Pelle Ehn is about a study and test of the dynamics between workers and employers in the ever developing technological world.  The researchers were looking at the challenge of meeting workers demands, which were more vague in the new age of technology, and satisfying manager’s production expectations. There were two hypotheses within this study; one focused on giving more autonomy to the workers and the other focused on giving more autonomy to the managers.

In the end the research group found that the best way to satisfy both the management as well as the workers was through a more autonomous worker method. The researcher stated that “the importance of the employees themselves having the right to determine the context of humanization by real and meaningful design” brought on a better overall output of production. The researcher understood that the oppressed group was the worker. They were the population which had no voice. So to be a good ally, the designers needed to build a platform for the workers to vocalize their issues. In this instance giving workers that platform was giving autonomy to workers to determine their own work environment.

The group of researchers also discovered “it necessary to identify with the ‘we-feeling’ of the workers collective, rather than the overall “we-feeling” that modern management.” Here just as Kolko stated, the researcher found in order to do good design work they needed to fully empathize with the workers in order to produce a successful design. The researchers highlighted the fact that workers have a sense of camaraderie that isn’t established in upper levels, and thus cannot capture what workers actually feel, only through identifying with the workers’ were these experiences known by the designers and thus able to inform the design.

Asking-01

 

The next mechanism for become the ally to a user is to ask them what they want. In design practices today there is a notion of superiority when excluding a direct question to a user about what they want. The notion states that a user does not actually know what would be an innovative revolution for their needs. As Henry Ford put it, “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they’d have said faster horses.” In some circle of design asking the user what they want is a waste of time, because users don’t know what they want. Though Richard Anderson asks, “does what you think you want never reveal something of importance about what you really want, something which can be fruitfully expanded via additional questioning or other types of research?” In asking this question, Anderson notes that a user’s response to what they want may serve a more immediate needs, but it can also be used to inform a more dramatic shift in the direction of the design. By asking a user what they want, the designer can listen to their needs as well as let that need inform their more long term and strategic product. This is what being a good ally is, firstly asking and listening to those who are overlooked, and secondly to take what they are asking for and letting it inform a more strategic point of view. Ford’s user may have said they wanted fast horses if he had asked, but if he were a good ally or designer, he would have delved deeper into their statements to understand that they wanted improved efficiency of transportation.

Designing-01

The final mechanism needed to be a good ally for a user is to have the intended audience reflected within the team. There is no greater empathetic method in a design than to incorporate individuals who are part of the intended audience within the team and thus part of the decision making process. Mike Monteiro arguments that when designing for the “social sphere”, making sure your team “looks like the audience you’re trying to reach” can be paramount “where trust and safety” are needed. Monteiro explains that to build trust within an audience you not only need empathetic designs, but someone who actually can pull from their experiences. When designing alongside users, the designers can gain a deeper sense of empathy since the valued opinion is the primary driver in the decision making process. Kolko mentions a similar notion that “Participatory design places a heavy check on manipulation by including the people who will use or live with the design in the process of its creation.” Again this emphasizes how including those who are the users allows for a key pieces of manipulation to be included or removed from the design. When looking back to the ally’s role of providing a platform for oppressed population to speak, this practice of partnership design allows for those who are voiceless to be asked and included on the conversations that will directly affect them.

Designers have a responsibility to align their designs with the users they are creating for, but not just to satisfy their general needs, but to create products and services that advocate for the betterment of users lives. Allies do not join the cause to be the leaders of the movement, they join because they be live in the betterment of our society and of their fellow human. Designers must look towards being an ally to the user, we must design for the strategy of a better world. To pull in a final reading, Liz Hubert a user experience designer never thought of herself as having a negative effect on users, she saw herself rather as “fighting the good fight, ensuring that the products and services my teams were creating supported users as best they could”. Though when she stopped to review what the goals of projects were, she found that they didn’t align with the users needs they instead followed goals around “increase clickthroughs, to get the user to stay on the site for longer, to gamify a process and bring the user back into the app again and again.” Liz tells a tale of how she realized she had stopped designing as an ally for the users, and instead she was designing for business goals. I believe Liz fought a good fight for users, but she didn’t question if her goals were aligned to what the users wanted. She stopped being a good ally to the user, and instead was an ally for the oppressive system. Design must give affordances for those who are oppressed in order for us to believe design should exist at all.  Full Graph-01

Inherent Power and Responsibility in Our Day-to-Day

Designers wield an immense amount of power, whether they realize it or not. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like that power is present, especially in conditions where designers may lean more towards the side of implementation rather than the creation of something new and original.

Design is mostly manipulative. Jon Kolko states, “Interaction design is largely about removing cognitive friction or producing a happy path — in order to manipulate someone into realizing a goal. That type of manipulation is typically called ‘helping,’ and it is often, actually, helpful.” Manipulation generally carries a negative connotation, but as Jon points out manipulation doesn’t have to trick someone into doing something they didn’t want to, but rather a designer can guide them towards something they do want to accomplish.

Design is most successful when it allows an experience feel so frictionless the end user barely even notices it. One example where positive manipulation comes into play is TurboTax. Yes, I know this example is used quite a bit, but there’s a reason. TurboTax takes a task of consolidating what feels like never-ending amounts of paperwork that is very confusing to begin with and manipulates the information in a way where many people can actually digest it. TurboTax makes it easy to submit your taxes, but they also make it easy to know what to actually submit. Their approach gives me the confidence that I can do my own taxes, but also that I’m doing them correctly.

 

TurboTax

 

I wish all examples of manipulation in interaction design were as elegant as this one, but unfortunately there are people and companies out there that do manipulate data in a way to trick the user into doing something he or she did not want to do, such as incorporating a dark pattern. A dark pattern is an interaction model where the user is deliberately tricked into doing the opposite of what they actually want to do. One of the more malicious examples I can think of is phishing for private information, such as passwords. People will create an email or webpage which looks like a legitimate version of a service such as Facebook, Google, or a bank account in an attempt to trick the user into giving them their username and password. This manipulative action leads to private information being accessible. Here is an example of someone trying to get access to an individual’s amazon account:

Amazon Phishing

 

Facebook uses a less malicious dark pattern when trying to persuade someone from deactivating his or her account. They utilize attachment anxiety, defined by Brian Cugelman, PhD, as the “uneasy feeling you experience when you’re feeling insecure about a relationship, and uncomfortable about a potential breakup.” When you proceed to deactivate your Facebook account the user is presented with five pictures of their friends with the claim that each one of them will miss you. Facebook has no idea that this is the case and probably simply uses an algorithm to surface people you’ve either recently interacted with or interact with the most.

They take it a bit further and give you a call-to-action (CTA) to message the individual and navigate away from deactivating your account. I’m assuming their hope is that you do so and forget you were deactivating in the first place getting sucked back in to the extremely addictive, and even compulsory, timeline.

 

Facebook Deactivate Page

 

I don’t think utilizing anxiety attachment to retain users is necessarily wrong, but the way Facebook utilized is unethical. Primarily by the claim they make of “Zoha will miss you.” The big problem I have with this example is the fact that Facebook is making an /*unsubstantiated claim*/ using someone else’s supposed opinion to manipulate users’ into staying on their platform. This isn’t based on facts but rather assumptions.

My partner deactivated his Facebook account about 4-5 years ago, but quickly realized the primary method of seeing updated pictures of his Godson, Colin, was in fact through Facebook. This led him to reactivating his account. If Facebook had changed the phrasing to something along the lines of, “you will no longer see pictures of Colin posted to Facebook,” I’d have much less of a problem with this tactic being used here. Primarily due to the fact they wouldn’t be making a claim that was unsubstantiated, especially in regards to an emotional relationship.

Dropbox uses the same type of strategy when a user tries to cancel his or her paid account, but doesn’t make any claims they can’t back up. Because of the way they approach their messaging and what they’re displaying I have much less of an issue with it.

 

Dropbox Downgrade

Although, Dropbox still treats the primary CTAs in a way that your attention is drawn more towards their goals to keep you as a paid user as well as forces you to scroll through descriptions of the features and information which you’ll no longer have access to, which is definitely a fact. They show you the amount of online storage you’ll be losing. The descriptions include the number of backed up photos, and the collaborative files you’ll lose access to.

Their presentation still approaches the feeling of breaking up with a service, but they show you the exact features and benefits the user will no loner have if they continue down a path of cancelling their service. To make this particular example less manipulative I think Dropbox could make the bottom right cancel CTA a little more forward facing, but I understand that’s not in the best interest of their business goals. Does this mean that need to optimize this page for their business and not their user, no. I actually like the way that Dropbox reminds me of the features I would lose connection to, especially if I had forgotten about those collaborative folders, but I don’t like how the design of the CTAs draws my attention more towards their goals, rather than mine. Albeit, I’m hesitant to say this choice is malicious.

Designers have the power to influence and make these design decisions from a strategy standpoint (using anxiety association) to a micro-detail execution. I believe someone once said, “with great power comes great responsibility.” As cliche as this quote may be it doesn’t take away from the truth to it. If designers are the people executing on decisions like this, even if directed from a superior, we have the responsibly to speak up and make ethical decisions on a day to day basis. That also doesn’t negate the fact that people who have less of a design role within their company are void of this responsibility. Any decision maker should be taking this into account and the implications of these decisions.

You don’t have to work at a non-profit with a mission to change the world to do good within the world of design. Mike Monteiro proposes and then answers the question, “Where can you do good work? The answer is so obvious as to be painful. Right where you stand. That’s where you do good work.” No matter the level of experience a designer holds within a company, nor the type of company a designer may be working for, a designer has the power and therefor responsibility to make ethical decisions every single day.

Jon Kolko made a statement in his article regarding manipulation which reads, “I fear there are practitioners who are competent or even extraordinary craftsman, yet have learned no real ethic, no guiding set of axioms in which to ground their work. I don’t mean that designers are lacking morals, or are even bad people. I mean that many practitioners seem to have no consistent set of values that they automatically fall to when doing their job.” This made me realize I haven’t defined explicitly my set of values on my day to day job. I like to think of myself as an ethical person, but without having concretely laying down where my ethics stand I don’t have a way to keep the decisions I made in check. Here’s what I came up with:

 

  1. Make decisions based on the best interest of the users.
  2. Avoid creating patterns or a system that will inherently afford unnecessary compulsory behavior.
  3. Never use a design that is intended to trick the user into something they don’t want to do.

 

These guiding principles do not limit my responsibility as a designer, and will no question mature over time, but the fact that they now explicitly exist makes me pay even closer attention to my design decisions than I did previously. Having power comes with the ability to affect change, and therefore is not limited to designers. I urge everyone to create their own personal set of principles to drive decisions because our decisions affect others whether we are aware of it or not.

The Dark Side of Design: Using Anxiety to Manipulate

Design reflects humanity: it’s wildly complex, and contains at one end, lofty ideals that can better society, and at the other end, dark tools that can manipulate and exploit.

This is why, as designer Mike Monteiro states, “ethics can’t be a side hustle.”

Despite the pull of the dollar, and the seductive nature of power, designers must think about the implications of their designs, and why, as human-centered designers, we need to put the benefit of the human first.

Unfortunately, more often than not, many prioritize the dollar, manipulating consumers by capitalizing on anxiety . 

Capitalizing on the Anxiety of New Mothers: Nestle’s Baby Formula Controversy

The power of money is no better illustrated than through Nestle’s baby formula controversy. In the 1970s, mothers in the U.S. and Europe began choosing breast feeding over baby formula. To make up for losses, Nestle, a major manufacturer of baby formula, aggressively marketed their product to mothers in developing countries, preying on new mothers’ anxiety to do the best for their children.

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A 1975 Nestle ad in South Africa

The key issue with this campaign was that baby formula requires clean drinking water, something of short supply in many developing regions. The result was a significant increase in infant deaths due to diarrhea, dehydration, and intestinal infections.

Instead of truly caring about their consumers or understanding their needs, Nestle saw an opportunity to make money, and proceeded with no regard of the consequences.

Events like these prove that Designers must “have a seat at the table,” meaning, they must have a voice in key decisions. Human-Centered Design inherently puts the customer’s needs above all else, which is both good for the person and for the business. After all, your service will ultimately fail if it doesn’t serve the customer’s needs, or worse causes great harm.

However, while I’d love to posit that had designers been a part of Nestle’s process, things would have been different, designers are still human. They are just as vulnerable to the pressure to make money, to “hit those numbers,” and just as susceptible to fear, anxiety, and group think. The very existence of Dark Patterns is a case in point.

Dark Patterns & Attachment Anxiety

Dark Patterns are design strategies to manipulate people into taking an action they don’t originally intend.

One dark pattern is taking advantage of attachment anxiety.

According to Dr. Brian Cugelman, “attachment anxiety is that uneasy feeling you experience when you’re feeling insecure about a relationship… It’s that heightened awareness that you experience, when you sense that someone is threatening your relationships, such as someone making a move on your business contacts, or even more devastating, your social media friends.”

I recently left Facebook (I recommend it!), and like many companies, Facebook uses “attachment anxiety” to keep you from leaving, showing you a list of friends who will “miss you.” (Featured second to the left in the line up is my sweet brother, Joe.)

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This is harmless enough, but an obvious strategy to elicit fear that I will lose love and connection by leaving this virtual community. God forbid that I have to call my brother and actually connect, instead of falsely connecting by mindlessly scrolling through his photos.

While creating anxiety can help a corporation profit, it can also stifle its ability to innovate.

Turning the Tide: Using Design Thinking to Combat Anxiety

Anxiety and the fear of failure are powerful reasons why so many businesses resort to desperate manipulative practices as opposed to entertaining new strategies that actually put the user’s needs first.

When developing new ideas, many look to what worked historically, as opposed to creating the future, regardless of the past.

From the past, we can find data to support our idea, and, as Roger Martin states, “logic plus data provides proof, which generates emotional comfort, which leads directly to commitment.”

On the other hand, “for a new idea, the equation is likely to be: logic without data produces speculation, which results in emotional discomfort.”

Unfortunately, many times, the logic we use to understand the world as it is can keep us from understanding the world as it could be.

Thus, we over-exploit what’s worked in the past and under-explore other opportunities. 

Design Thinking provides a powerful bridge between the known and the unknown, providing a mechanism which creates data while building a new idea.

design thinking

In Design Thinking, an idea results from rigorous ethnographic research, during which the designer gathers data and develops empathy for the people she wants to help. The designer then prototypes that idea and tests it with the user, gathering feedback and continuously iterating, ultimately building data, logic, and emotional comfort, which then rallies commitment to the idea.

Conclusion

The practice of Design Thinking gives designers a framework that generates confidence and provides data towards something new, as opposed to using it for the same old calculating measures. Perhaps, instead of using fear and anxiety, designers can build a new business framework driven by empathy, creativity, and compassion.

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As an experiment, I played with the idea of using Facebook to present this material:

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Building confidence and the evolution of Love Intently — an interview with AC4D alumni Sophie Kwok

In this interview, Sophie Kwok (AC4D 2016) and I discuss her evolution as a designer and founder of a service, Love Intently, that empowers couples to build stronger and deeper relationships by taking the guesswork out of showing you care. Sophie credits the Austin Center for Design community for playing a key role in both her personal and professional growth — specifically by always providing a sounding board for ideas and critique, as well as being a source of unwavering encouragement. She possesses boundless positivity, a desire to nourish community, and a down-to-earthiness, can-do spirit that I admire greatly and know will always contribute to her success.

How did you find out about Austin Center for Design?

Randomly, I had a developer friend come into town, and he was talking to me about UX designers and Interaction designers. He explained to me how needed they were in the industry and the demand for them. The more he talked about what they did, the more I realized, ‘holy crap, that’s exactly what I want to do!’ So I started this rapid Google search and AC4D got on my radar. I was trying to scheme how to check out the school, and then ironically, a Creative Director in my office came by and dropped off AC4D Boot Camp tickets on my desk and was like, ‘Hey, I got some of these, I think you’d enjoy this, you should go!’ So, I went and realized, ‘This is exactly what I want to do!’

Toward the end of undergrad, I heard about IDEO and Frog. I was immediately interested and initially made an internal goal to scheme to get into Frog or IDEO through Interior Design and the spatial interaction piece of things. I knew they were hiring for architects for that, but as soon as I found out about AC4D I knew my ROI was almost 100% from an interior design salary to an interaction design salary, so I made the jump!

Tell me what you majored in during Undergrad and what you were doing before AC4D — and perhaps why it was the right time to make a move.

So I studied Interior Architecture with a minor in Sustainability, so I had exposure to all of these Wicked Problems. Coming from a small town in Houston, I just wasn’t exposed to a lot. I had no idea that two-thirds of the world live off of two dollars or less a day. Or the environmental crisis we were in and the lack of basic necessities so many people suffer from today. So during undergrad, I got exposure to what was going on in the world, and I just knew that was something that I wanted to impact in some capacity, whether it was in my work, or outside of my job. Then after undergrad, I worked at a large firm in Austin, and to be frank, it wasn’t a logical time to make the jump. However, I did anyways because I knew I didn’t want to be an interior designer forever. This was something I knew before I even graduated from undergrad.

Interaction design was something that I already wanted to do without knowing there was a title for it. For me, the fact that I found AC4D and then my Creative Director came by and dropped off tickets to the AC4D boot camp; those were signs that I couldn’t just ignore. After going through the Boot Camp, I knew it was something I had to do, and I would regret not doing. In short, I ran out of excuses not to take the leap. I am still single, young, with no kids, had very low-risk but extremely high ROI.

Tell me about your time at AC4D and your greatest challenge related to the program.

My biggest challenge was learning how to do Ethnography and Synthesis because it was just so different from what I was taught to do and what the Architecture industry allows for. The traditional education system trains you to have the right answers but doesn’t empower you to ask questions. When I think about it, being able to ask the right questions and handle ambiguity is critical in creating impact or entrepreneurship.In Interior Architecture, we never went and talked to people who are actually going to be in the spaces that we design, which is incredibly sad. The larger firms are trying to hire design researchers and become research-based, but the interior designers who are actually designing the spaces rarely have that knowledge.

Ethnography and design research was really difficult for me because it became extremely emotionally taxing. Empathy is something I felt strong in previously. AC4D takes practicing empathy to a whole other level, to the point that I actually take on participants’ emotions in an unhealthy way. I had to learn how to separate that and learn to process those emotions on my own. For me, my research topic in Q2 was extremely close to home — I was pretty much a research participant — because of that, by the end of Q2, I wasn’t even sure what was true of my life or the lives of our participants. I had been living in their world, emotions, and stories — the good and the bad — for so long.

Sophie in the midst of a synthesis process at AC4D.
Sophie in the midst of a synthesis process at AC4D.

As cliche as this may sound, another major challenge I think we all learn to overcome during AC4D is ourselves. You’re forced to ask “why” against every part of yourself and what you believe. None of it is easy, but if you’re willing to do the work, the outcome is invaluable. You learn how you work, your patterns, your triggers, strengths, weaknesses, and how to leverage all of it in the most impactful, productive way.

Can you tell me more about your Q2 research and how it led to your final project?

The initial research topic was mental health, and we were assigned the task to find a population to focus our research on. We chose to focus on second generation Asian Americans with refugee parents. This was a population that people would say, “they don’t need help.” We knew this was a population that didn’t get very much attention and if we didn’t do the research, it was likely no one else out there would. We had this opportunity where we knew we would get phenomenal stories and could generate powerful, meaningful insights. However, we knew there would be difficulty breaking down cultural barriers since these stories aren’t commonly shared.

We approached our research differently by inviting our participants to cook a meal with us that reminded them of home. During that time of making a meal with them, we got to ask them about their lives and relationships. From there, we naturally went into a lot of topics around family dynamics and family conflicts, dug into solutions around conflict resolution but recognized that conflict resolution within families is highly complicated because there are multiple people, personalities, none of which actually choose each other. They are just born into each other’s lives.

We kept running into problems and knew that we needed to pivot. Around Q4, we pivoted to romantic relationships since it was a relationship they chose. We believed it was a relationship we could create a meaningful impact in and it would overflow into their other relationships. We took a step back and started looking at the steps and build up before they ever get into conflict. Rather than a reactive approach, we wanted to create a proactive approach. Our focus shifted to what helps couples build strong and deep relationships daily, rather than concentrate on fixing relationships at their last thread.

Sophie and Meg working through a service mapping activity at AC4D.
Sophie and Meg working through a service mapping activity at AC4D.

What does your research show about what it takes to ensure a successful partnership? I’m sure a lot of people will be interested to know!

That’s a loaded question, and it wouldn’t be a wicked problem worth making an impact on if there was a simple answer! Most people will say good communication is the key, but I believe it’s mutual respect. Communication will break down at some point no matter who you are but once you lose respect, it rarely comes back. Two people who don’t respect each other have an extremely difficult time loving or communicating to each other well. You can always work on building communication, but it’s near impossible if mutual respect isn’t there.

Additionally, it’s not enough to love; you must choose to show it daily. Our generation is obsessed with making an impact in the world, which is amazing and we should be… however, it shouldn’t be at the cost of our personal lives and relationships. A lot of the time, people will work up to the big moments — like their anniversary and birthdays and think, ‘Oh, I’ll just make it up to them then,’ but it’s the everyday interactions that matter most. When we get busy, it’s so easy to forget to do the little things for each other, as simple as giving your partner a hug; people forget that. Love Intently empowers you to bring your intention back to your relationship. When you have time together, protect that time and give each other undivided attention. It’s also important to learn how your partner best receives love and show them in that way, not necessarily the way you best receive it. Humans are forgetful, so we frequently need to be reminded we’re loved. Lastly, it’s not always about the quantity of time you spend together but the quality of the time. I’ll bet you’d be better off if you spent less time together but intentionally made it special quality time.

Sophie walking fellow students through initial pilot concepts at AC4D.
Sophie walking fellow students through initial pilot concepts at AC4D.

Are there any differences in ages — as far as expression that you’ve seen? For example, many of my friends use Snapchat as a way to connect and share moments. Could Snapchat be the savior of relationships?

I think it works for some people in a lot of ways, and social media has helped, but there are a lot of things in social media that have caused strain on relationships too. For example, some girlfriends get mad that their boyfriends don’t post on social media about them. Little things like that, come out of insecurity and doesn’t have any true reflection on how someone feels about a relationship. I think Snapchat works well for someone who receives love through quality time. It’s impossible to be together all of the time, so Snapchat allows them to feel like they spent time with you or know what is going on in your day without having to physically being there. I also know some people well into their 60’s who love the heck out of social media and Snapchat, completely redefining how they connect with their kids. On the contrary, I know some people who can’t stand social media but that doesn’t change how healthy their relationship is.

What did you learn in Q4 about your idea that gave you enough confidence or desire to try to take it beyond AC4D?

In Q4, students are asked to pitch every single week. For us, it was really rough the first couple of weeks, because we legitimately did not have an idea — we were pitching what felt like nothing! We were trying to create a business model around an idea that didn’t even exist yet. But around week 3 the idea around Love Intently started to get some traction. Before we knew it, people started saying, ‘Hey, this really makes sense! Are you going to do this after school?’

I remember we immediately got wide-eyed and freaked out a bit. We were both planning to get interviews post AC4D, and I was starting to line up my network to do so. Prior to that, we hadn’t even considered taking the idea further, but different instructors and mentors at AC4D came in and sat us down. They asked us why we weren’t considering moving forward with the idea, that they thought I should, and that they believed we could. It was truly a community of people that believed in me and the idea, way before I could ever believe in myself. That’s something that I will be forever grateful for and what is so great about AC4D. Yes, we do critique each other and try to make things better, but at the end of the day, it’s about building each other up and creating meaningful things in the world. Everyone advocates for each other at the end of the day. While you’re going through AC4D, it’s the most uncomfortable refinement process that everyone goes through — it’s about pulling out the gunk that’s stopping you. In many cases, it’s ourselves.

Is there an explicit connection between your previous research and your concept? Our did your current concept come out of additional research?

There is definitely a connection. The insights and lessons from our research I will never forget is that everyone wants to have meaningful relationships and conversations, they just don’t know how. Secondly, everyone wants to talk about the harder things in life; they don’t think they have the permission to do so or know how to start. The connection between strong, healthy relationships and mental health is undeniable. Love Intently’s mission is to empower people by giving people tangible ways to excel at loving their partner. We want to help people create more meaningful moments with the people they love most. I believe that the stronger you are in your romantic relationships, the better you will be in the other relationships in life. Our focus is to build on emotional intelligence and self-awareness which helps in every relationship in addition to empowering us to become a better human in general.

How does the product or service concept work?

Love Intently empowers couples to build stronger and deeper relationships by taking the guesswork out of showing you care. We give you daily suggestions based on your partner’s personality type, love language, personal interests, how long you’ve been together, whether they have kids, whether they live together and other factors of your relationship.

We take away the stress of trying to figure out what to do so you can spend more meaningful time together. For instance, Eric would love a massage today, or five minutes of your undivided attention, or would love help cooking dinner tonight or his favorite band is coming into town surprise him with tickets. Something simple like that, that you may not necessarily think of otherwise, but would be super meaningful for your partner if you did.

Where is Love Intently at now, about a year out from AC4D?

I just got into a pre-accelerator program called DivInc, which is a pre-accelerator that empowers diversity in tech, so they take on minority and women founders. It’s an awesome opportunity with an incredible community of brilliant people that want to build each other up. The program starts in April, in Austin, and lasts for three months. I think it will empower me to take things to the next level. An important part of starting a company is learning how you work best. I realize that I needed accountability and people around me. This is one of those ways I’m building that in for myself and hopefully I’ll have a team soon.

Also, I launched officially to the public January 10th, and I had 11 couples come on, and test the first iteration — and paid for it. That was the first time I had ever experienced individuals paying for a service I crafted, and it was exhilarating.

Most recently, I got the opportunity to do a casting call for Shark Tank which was an affirming experience. To think back on where we were this time last year with a half-baked idea to being invited onto a casting call with Shark Tank is surreal to me. I feel confident about my pitch, and we find out in a week or so whether I move forward. Either way, the experience alone was a huge confidence booster.

I remember Jon (the founder of AC4D) saying to us that someday we would present so much it would just become another one of those things we did. I thought he was crazy because I was pretty awful at presenting, but he was right. I’ve pitched Love Intently countless amounts of times in a vast number of environments that none of it really scares me anymore. Melissa Chapman (fellow AC4D alum and mentor) mentioned last week how bizarre it was to think back on my very first presentation to now hearing about me pitching to Shark Tank and owning it. But that’s what AC4D is, a true transformation if you’re willing to put in the work.

What did you learn from the pilot?

There’s a huge learning curve in learning how to launch something successfully; what that looks like and all the phases of launching like pre-pre-launch, pre-launch, launch, and post-launch. They all require different strategies and content. This is also on top of building a website, figuring out recurring payment systems, integrating automation as much as possible and the list goes on. There are about a million things I would do differently now, but it’s OK. The last launch was the first iteration, and I know that there will be future ones. I’m working with people right now to make it an even better experience. Because right now, as an interaction designer, I know the experience can be greatly improved. There are problems that I know are there, so now it’s working to fix them and put the next iteration of Love Intently out into the world again. However, as Steve Jobs says “If you’re not embarrassed with your first launch, then you launched too late”. I also had a hard time asking people to pay which is a common occurrence for creatives because we all have imposter syndrome in one respect or another. However, as humans, we value things as they are priced. So by asking people to pay, Love Intently empowers more couples to build stronger relationships in a sustainable way.

Is there anything else you want to share about your AC4D experience?

I feel the biggest reason I almost didn’t apply was because I thought I was too young and inexperienced. When I entered AC4D, I was only 23 years old and had only worked for a year, which I think is the youngest out of anyone that has gone through the program. I thought I didn’t have enough work experience and I was worried I wouldn’t bring in a valid enough experience. Of course, I was also worried about taking on an additional financial burden — I know there are some programs out there that last 3 months and are the same price. However, understanding human interaction isn’t something you can “crash course” into. Gaining the ability to create wireframes but not to have a process in creating meaningful products is a steep trade-off.

AC4D was by far, the right choice for me because one, I think the “being young” thing is just bogus and is something people need to get over. If anything, I think I was easier to mold because I had less experience and ideas around exactly how design education should be. I was open to everything, in comparison to some approaches or concepts that some folks in my cohort struggled with. Secondly, the money — your ROI is high- you’re going to get a return. Ask any alumni; I think across the board we’ll all agree it was worth every penny. The community is amazing, the alumni network is incredible, you are guaranteed to get a position that pays decent, and it’s a matter of how picky you are after the program of what type of job you want to take. The alumni I know who are unemployed have been picky in finding work they care about, and they should be!

Whatever experience you have — just apply. Make it an option for yourself. If you’re accepted that means the faculty sees something in you that they want to sew into, and that you have something they want to empower and build up. They’ve already taken the commitment to invest in you. After that, you can make a decision to see if it’s right for you. You can always say no but if you don’t apply it’s an automatic no.

Austin Center for Design is a not-for-profit educational institution on the East Side of Austin, Texas that exists to transform society through design.

Power & Manipulation: How to Wield Design Thinking

One thing has become abundantly clear in these first two sections: design is manipulative. The last theory post talked about how the intention of a design does not necessarily match to the outcome. Design is unique in how it subtly changes thought patterns and impacts culture and ideology to their base without an overt statement. When designers create without thinking about the long term ramifications, they set loose an unknowable force. Sometimes these forces create good outcomes, sometimes bad. Or sometimes they are both as in Mark Manson’s article where he tells us the internet was supposed to be this beautiful thing, and kind of still is, but it’s buried beneath garbage.

How then can a designer ensure their intention is realized? How can designers coerce the change they wish to cultivate? Design holds coercion as a main delivery mechanism to the consumers of the design. In the article “Manipulation” by Jon Kolko, he talks about how the power of design lies within the manipulative ability designers have. He also talks about the duty of the designer to design for good, but qualifies that it is not to simply want to do good. “I intended to do good, so of course it was good that I would do.” Followed by “It is not enough to intend to do good. …That intent must be qualified, and the qualification happens at a micro, detailed, tiny level of design specificity.” He expresses how a designer should wield their power, using it to respect the user and respect the design as an artifact capable of making waves beyond your imagination.

When we normally consider the idea of manipulation, it comes with a certain connotation of deceit, or use. Manipulation through design is not manipulation of it is manipulation for. This qualification is slight, but meaningful. Manipulation of is when you manipulate people for selfish intention. For instance, the article talking about democratization and design in the workplace by Pelle Ehn, highlights the way design is able to be used to manipulate people into feeling more powerful, while robbing them of the little power they held. Another example of this comes in Assai Lamzah’s article “Urban design and architecture in the service of colonialism in Morocco.” Assai explains how “the French colonial regime used space, urban design and architecture in Morocco as means of power and domination.” The French built new infrastructure around cities in Morocco keeping the nationals in the city center and halting the growth and proliferation of their culture, and instead forced the French culture, architecture and bureaucracy on the indigenous population. The Moroccans were fed the French ideology from the mouths of their community leaders. In using the Moroccan population to their advantage, Assai states “This policy of association was designed to prevent Moroccan resistance to colonial rule,” meaning essentially, by integrating into the culture instead of overpowering it—as they had tried and failed doing in Algeria—they were able to more effectively control the population.

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Design here is not overt, it is an accepted practice used by government structures still today to control and cull their populations. The design of these systems are not regularly vetted or designed for their users. They are designed to empower those designing. More contemporary and applicable examples of this are viewed as “dark patterns.” This are used to manipulate people into clicking on the wrong action, or unintentionally opting in. A great example of this is Facebook’s farewell page. It not only is difficult to find the way to deactivate your page, but they use emotionally charged tactics to make a user question their decision. Telling a user their friends will miss them, or that they will be missing out on updates from their friends.

Using social anxiety and emotional pain to control your user base is becoming more and more commonplace. In Brian Cugelman’s article “How companies use social pain, to stop customers from leaving,” he talks about how companies are using attachment anxiety to wield power over their users. This is a designed mechanism. There was testing done, probably A/B testing, to see which option proved more effective. Facebook, from the earlier example, employs psychologists whose role remains a bit of a mystery, but it seems this is at least one tangible example of their impact to the site. Cugelman states “The brand’s not sorry to see you go, nor is the website, as these are non-human things. They don’t have feelings. However, there’s no shortage of research that shows that people still feel the effects of human-like interaction, even when expressed by technology.” So tech companies are obviously using dark patterns like this to manipulate users into feeling bad or anxious about leaving a site. According to Jon’s ethical argument, the designers creating these mechanisms either were not aware of their impact, or simply did not care and are moving towards the side of unethical treatment of other people.

A question that comes to mind here is: What is a designer to do when in a situation such as this? Pressure from all sides mounting for you to increase the amount of users saved by the landing page. Having psychologists tell you to play off of their emotions and cause discomfort. In this situation, saying no isn’t going to create a systemic change. It has to be adopted by all designers for a better experience across the board. This is a lofty call to action, and it seems almost counterintuitive to the wants of a business. It seems almost easier to capture users like this on their way out, then to captivate them continuously through good design and UX. What does this all amount to?

In her article “The World that UX is Helping Create,” Lis Hubert talks about her realization that UX is creating a negative impact on human end users. She presents a call to action in the form of a question; asking “ Do you, dear UXer, like the world that you are currently helping to create?” Following it with her final question: “Are you ready to accept responsibility for the way your designs change the world?” She qualifies all of this with guidelines for designers to follow when creating. Nicholas Carr compares the users Lis is describing as compulsive and addicted. The devices were designed to do everything, including snare us and enslave us to the interaction of the digital realm. He states part of the problem is the data analytics we have, and their focus. Companies want data helping them to sell more, not the information of what a user needs. User needs are often contrary to what many would consider things to move a business forward. Investing in infrastructure or redesigning pages to be less confusing and allow users to spend less time, not more, on their product.

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This is a screenshot showing what it’s like to try to leave Facebook. It’s confusing and they use family and friends to try to pull you back in.

But money rules the world, and companies like Google, according to Nicholas “[were not founded] with the intent of spreading social anxiety and then capitalizing on it through surveillance systems—but it is now sustained by design…Rewards now flow to the competitor that is best able to maximize consumer anxiety in a way that spurs more compulsive behavior…” Nicholas highlights here how designers are missing the mark in standing up for the user on the grand scale. Designers are exercising their power, either with or without the knowledge of the ramifications (which is not an excuse), to the detriment of the public. News organizations pop off articles about how millennial are the least socially secure generation, and it is not a wonder in a world where there is so much manipulation of the emotions and considerations of this group, that they would be so unsure of the world they live in.

Making sure the work created is not contributing to the problem of the masses, that it is not a dark design. Lis makes a great point, similar to Jon’s, about how designers must think beyond the standard area of effect of their work and look to see what waves their single drop could create. Designing for the details is what becomes important; not holding to the values of the company, but holding to the values of the user. How then do we do this?

According to Jon, to move from the trend of manipulation of to manipulation for, designers must begin taking the ethical questions of their projects to the forefront, and ensuring they adhere to a set of qualities defined by user research. In Mike Montiero’s piece “Ethics can’t be a side hustle” he brings into question of what good work is. His contention is a designer has a responsibility to ask the ethical questions like: Is this for the good of the user? Does this hurt or disenfranchise anyone? How will this effect the people who use it? His example of designers working on Uber’s Greyball program, a tool used to help avoid run-ins with the law for Uber drivers, shows how people can create something without worrying about the true result, thinking “I know better than them.”

This mentality has moved down a path of the reification of user populations instead of supporting them with design. Montiero does not simply blame designers, though. He calls out anyone who touched the product. He places blame on the lack of ethics of all involved parties for allowing something like Greyball to be implemented. It’s similar to the Facebook designers who created the exit pages. They knew how their designs effected users, they knew the intention was tainted with greed and impure motive, but they made it and implemented it anyway. Probably blaming a greater “they” in power pushing for the change, only making the problem bigger.

Behavioral change has so long been used for nefarious purposes in business, government, and other sectors, it is seemingly a hard tradition to break. These examples of manipulation of a group of people illustrate how not to wield the power of design; but what of the other side, manipulation for? Now manipulation for is a simpler way of saying using manipulation for the benefit of the user. For instance, making changes to grocery lists with healthier items, gradually pushing a user to adopt a healthier diet with little to no overt change in habit. Or manipulating people to spend less time on their phones, making websites smarter and simpler, easier to navigate with less clicks and more time spent elsewhere. Is it difficult to think of things that are meant to empower a user for everyday life because there aren’t many things made in that manner?

In Richard Anderson’s piece “Go ahead—ask people what they want” he makes a case for designers to listen to users, and to hear them. he states “…users actually do often know what they want and need, and when they don’t (completely) know, answers to such questions often contain important clues.” With near certainty, no one told the Facebook designers they wanted to feel bad when they were leaving, and no one told Apple to make something so addicting there is no separation from self and technology, but they created these things with an unexpected, and potentially catastrophic, consequences.

Design is powerful, and the potential for manipulation is great. Many people believe if design thinking were a more prevalent school of thought, these issues would be eradicated. All people in a business would understand the emotional impact of their products and become more conscious of the effect they are having on their user population. In David Dunne and Roger Martin’s article “Design Thinking and How It Will Change Management Education: An Interview and Discussion” they speak about the necessity for change in the MBA program from the ground up. Their claim is MBA graduates should be learning about design thinking and empathizing their their users instead of being the numbers guys looking to crush constraints and opposition. A main point of their article is that the “analytical, quantitative, number crunching, deductive-inductive, self-oriented” typical MBA grad would be “weeded out in the application process” of this new program. This is based off of the idea that MBA would no longer be focused on business in so far as numbers and profits go, but instead on designing their business to serve customers the best.

From this conversation of the manipulative powers of design, and the ability to manipulate in a bad way unintentionally or without thought, what then happens when people utilizing design thinking choose to explicitly manipulate their users or customers? Things like the Facebook account delete screens, or other emotionally punitive options similar to this. These things are very superficial at this point, they are simple modules expected to elicit a visceral but general emotional response. If they were designed with the specificity afforded to design thinkers to be manipulative of someone, how would this be beneficial.

There are a lot of necessities for Dunne and Martin’s world to become true, so if a slow incremental integration is what happens, then do we not give the traditional MBA, someone who is part of the problem in enforcing dark patterns, enforcing number goals, and enforcing strict needs for profit margins, does this not give them more power to further exploit the user? Instead of having a designer as a mediator, the MBA would have the power, and arguably due to their logical and profit-forward views of the world, the motivation to wield design as a tool for their purpose?

The answer to this question will only be answered once the first wave of designer-businessman hybrids come out. Criticism of this is obvious, that design thinking, at it’s core, takes the user into consideration and holds their need above the other pieces. This is true, it is a current definition, but as with all things, it can be tainted and turned against it’s original purpose. Hopefully a strong ethic will emerge and push the design thinkers of the world to act with ethics in mind, but from our history, it seems ethics can be in short supply.

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All of these examples show how design is used as a tool of manipulation of people for a selfish purpose. Design should not be used in this manner. It should be used to empower and support, not to isolate and instill anxious compulsions. The power of design should be wielded benevolently and carefully. In Jon’s words, comparing each decision to a set of values, and taking responsibility for what we create. Keep the principles of your users in your mind and ensure you fulfill them. In this way, manipulation for becomes the guiding hand of a mentor, forming your experience to foster talent and drive away insecurity and anxiety. No agenda beyond making the experience better.

 

My final question will be left for you to answer, because I do not have the answer. There are arguments made very persuasively for design thinking to permeate every aspect of the world, but should design thinking be applied to everything, given the opportunity for corruption and manipulation inherent in it’s power?