The Ambiguity of a Focus Statement: Starting Research

Team members: Christina Davis and Kay Wyman

We’ve embarked on our capstone project we will complete over the next 24 weeks!

As a class, we are focused on the topic: College Persistence and Completion for Post- Traditional Students. We are partnering with Peloton U, a local organization dedicated to the mission of providing working students a pathway and support to graduate from college on-time and debt-free.

In the week following our first studio class of Q2, Kay and I have researched (and researched), created a focus statement, and crafted a research plan… with many iterations of the latter two in the last 7 days. Our research will focus on understanding how prospective post-traditional students make educational decisions to achieve a degree and what types of resources and information are used in the process. We are focusing our research on students who have taken active steps to enroll in college, including students who were previously enrolled and plan re-enroll. We chose to focus on people making decisions around attending school because, in addition to identifying resources future students access to inform their decisions, we can identify and gain insight into other life circumstances that influence educational decisions.

On Friday we set out into the field and had our first meeting with an advisory stakeholder, College Forward. During our meeting we learned about the support services they provide to students in the 11th grade thru college. Aside from the in-person support provided, College Forward is doing remarkable work to increase student success rates across the country through technology they have created for tracking student progress and outcomes, which is available for free.  I love that College Forward is focused on scalability as they attempt to solve student completion rates.

On Saturday we immersed ourselves at ACC Fest, an event at Austin Community College providing information on career paths. The entire experience was engaging and provided a handful of learning opportunities:


  1. Pay attention to your surroundings outside of class: As a habitual billboard reader, this event was screaming in my face as I turned onto Springdale Rd!
  2. Be ready to improvise: We arrived ready with a tape recorder, gift card incentives, and consent forms in case we found an immediate interview opportunity, although anticipated we would mostly set up appointments. Approaching people in a large atrium with a band playing proved tough and we took a minute to regroup next to a table, an empty table. Like lightning, we realized we had found the perfect opportunity to stand behind a table like all the ‘official’ information providers and the students/ prospective students began to come to us!
  3. Watch and wait: We were most successful when we observed people’s behavior and activities for a while before approaching. People who stopped at the tables to chat with representatives and people who were smiling proved most interested in providing us their contact information for follow up screening. This was also beneficial in helping us to determine which attendees seemed truly interested in enrolling in college as opposed to the crowds surrounding the table handing out rubber duckies.

Today, Kay and I had a notable experience that we felt captured an essence of why we are here at AC4d and the work we will be doing as designers. We had great discussions (in a team-ly fashion) and evolved our research plan together, including narrowing our participants from students and potential students to (very serious) potential students and past students seeking to re-engage. As we expressed our ideas around the pros and cons of the options, we both had hesitations to eliminate people we had met at ACC to whom we already felt a connection, shared empathy, and had a deep desire to help.




College Persistence + Completion Capstone Project Begins

We just began our second quarter at AC4D and were assigned new teams that will work together to carry out our capstone projects, which will continue through the end of the program in late April 2019. Our new team consists of Susi Brister, Catherine Woodiwiss, and Shelly Stallings, who will be working together alongside our classmates as a whole to research and address the broader topic of college persistence and completion.

Before diving into a project, it’s common to have a kick-off meeting with team members and stakeholders to discuss challenges, hopes and ideas. For Quarter 2, we are partnering with PelotonU, an Austin-based non-profit focused on providing post-secondary educational support, to investigate the changing landscape of college students and their needs.

Sarah Saxton-Frump, the Chief Operating Officer at Peloton U, visited our initial Q2 class to help us understand the challenges faced by current post-traditional students as well as how PelotonU serves these needs. While they are partnering with us on the first 8-week research stage of the project, we are encouraged to think broadly about this problem area, rather than considering them a client with strict business constraints.


Catherine Woodiwiss and Shelly Stallings work side-by-side to refine our team’s research plan.

As a small team of three, we had a project kick-off meeting and started with getting to know each other by comparing preferences for working styles and considering our various team roles, strengths, and personal challenges that we wanted to work on this quarter.

Next, we worked together to create a research plan, and to craft a particular research focus that we were all excited about. Because the topic college persistence and completion is so broad it leaves a lot of room for exploration, but also a lot of overwhelming ambiguity in terms of where to begin.

During the week’s team meetings, we defined three team roles – project manager, physical asset and environment manager, and communications manager. We want to ensure that communication issues and late deliverables do not quickly become the only conversation in regular status meetings and that we aren’t individually duplicating work or unknowingly letting tasks fall through the cracks. We also decided that we would shift these roles through each quarter of the remaining program, to give each of us the opportunity to fulfill each position.


Making sense of our research plan in the early stages.

At the end of the first week of the project, we have refined our research focus and created a work plan, which serves as a comprehensive document that outlines the scope of our research and exactly how we would conduct interviews with research participants.

After a few group discussions and feedback from faculty, we realized that we are all really interested in how culture, community, and family influence the choices young people make and the challenges they face when thinking about post-secondary education. We are also interested in the particular population of first-generation Americans, and their experiences with growing up in the US but with strong family ties to other ethnic backgrounds, and how that unique experience affects the role of post-secondary education in their lives. We intend to speak with first-generation Americans ages 18-25 to learn how individuals in this population feel about the idea of college, what role culture and family play in shaping expectations and beliefs about post-secondary education, as well as general motivations and challenges they face with pursuing education and/or their plans for the future. We hope to speak with young first-generation Americans from a variety of ethnic backgrounds to understand differences in cultural/community expectations, and are interested in stories from individuals who have entered into some form of post-secondary education and from those who have not.

When we introduced our initial research focus statement to Jon Kolko, he asked how to consider how we would define success for our group research. This was a key question to ask ourselves and has become a grounding force while facing the complexity and chaos of the ‘fuzzy front end’ of a major research project. For us, success for this portion of our capstone project would mean learning how first generation Americans starting out in their adult lives after high school feel about going to college (or not) and then being able to apply that valuable information to the broader context of college persistence and completion, or even more broadly, to providing services that meet the needs of that population, whether college is part of that equation or not.

Our research plan link:


The Murky Waters Leading to Research Clarity

For our 2nd quarter project (which will ultimately become the capstone of our program), we were asked to investigate the topic of college completion and persistence. Our group, consisting of Kelsey Greathouse and Sara Miller, has decided to focus our research specifically on how resource-constrained post-traditional students persist through post-secondary education in moments of struggle or hardship. We have decided to focus our research on students aged 18-24 who are working through school, who are the parent or guardian for a child, or who come from an underserved high school.

This week, we worked on creating a plan and process for the research we will be conducting over the next few weeks. To do this, we first sought to define the focus of our research. This was a murky process as we worked and reworked our interests. We went broad, then got stuck in the weeds, and finally, through many forms and drafts we found a hint of clarity.  We incorporated background research to understand how this question is being asked or answered in other research or practices currently. We learned a lot during our research and uncovered the term Social-Emotional Learning as something akin to what we are interested in learning more about in this research.

As we adjust to our new group of two, we found getting outside input was very helpful, so we reached out to our mentors. Using their feedback along with many conversations, we were able to move from a long list of biased questions to a couple of activities that we hope will bring out an in-depth understanding of what are participants are going through.

Our next step is to reach out to research participants this week and begin interviews!

Research Plan Research Plan

Jen, Laura & Vicky’s Capstone Project Kickoff

Last week we learned the topic for our capstone project that will carry us through the rest of the year: College Persistence and Completion. We met as a group for the first time a few days before our first class and brainstormed on topics that interested us and questions we had surrounding the project. During our first class, Sarah Saxton-Frump spoke to us about her organization, PelotonU, and their goals regarding this partnership.

We then broke out into our groups to form our Focus Statements. One thing that interested us after hearing Sarah speak is how shame and, more specifically, impostor syndrome play a role in students’ education decisions. We wanted to focus our research on women’s experiences because we’re interested in women’s rights and gender in/equality, e.g. the gender pay gap that still exists in the workforce today. So our focus statement is How imposter syndrome impacts women’s post-secondary education trajectory, from cultural background to employment.

One thing we have learned since crafting our focus statement is about how the educational landscape has shifted recently and there are now more females graduating than males. We find this especially interesting since impostor syndrome often manifests when people are considered successful, so focusing on women should offer us a rich data set.

Right now we’re finalizing our research plan, narrowing our selection of participants, and deciding whether to interview only women or both women and men to provide an interesting point/counterpoint. We start interviewing this week and look forward to learning about these humans’ experiences!


PeletonU & AC4D: Digging Deep into Education and the Workforce.

Another mystery to be solved

As the second quarter of the 2018-2019 Austin Center for Design kicks off, I am excited to share that the 2019 AC4D class will be working closely with PeletonU, a unique group of people who provide comprehensive support to help get post-traditional students through college.

In a team of three, Gerald Codina, Aaron Steinman, and I will be exploring one facet of a growing problem.

A Growing Problem

Growing up, we were often told that the path to a happy secure future is to go to school, work hard and the seeds you have sewn in your efforts will fruit. Sadly, this is not the system that about 44 million people experience. Collectively, student debt in the U.S. is over $1.48 trillion in student loan debt. Year over year, we witness this number grows exponentially. Clearly, something is amiss. Were we lied to as children? Or did we not work nearly as hard as we thought? The answer is a bit of both, or neither depending on how you slice the pie.

The system that has been set is a dated and broken one given today’s standards. Over the last 15-years, the average college tuition has steadily increased. Where tuition in this statistic represents the cost of only 1-year of education + room and fees. Keep in mind that while an bachelor’s degree is expected to graduate in 4 years (tuition X 4), but in reality, the typical student will take 6-years to complete college (tuition X 6). Depending on where you went to school, if you were in- or out- of state, how long you attended, it’s not impossible to imagine a debt number in the 6 figures. Even with the staggering collective numbers, the law treats education debt differently than all other debt. Under the provisions of Chapter 13, student debt is effectively like a terminal illness, you can try to treat it with blunt tools, or lose everything to discharge yourself of it, more on the topic here.

Elephant in the Room

We all have debt, but we don’t often talk about how we get there. This is not an accident. Debt has a negative effect on one’s psychology, putting up in a ‘scarcity mindset’ that has real implications on our decision-making process.

At junctures of complex problems like this, it is important to recognize that this is a man-made problem. In the spirit of optimism and practicality, we MUST talk about the issues honestly, to understand them deeply, before we can begin to pick apart the messy pieces.

Our Intent

My team and I will be working closely with PeletonU, Advisors, students and several designers to understand the decision-making process that financially independent students face while considering their current state and employment. We aim to understand, map and help navigate this complex environment and consider all the possibilities for a brighter future for all those involved.

AC4D at Austin Design Week 2018

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Austin Design Week is happening on Nov 5-9, 2018 this year. The lineup is incredible and we are so proud to be a part of this inspiring community.

Here are a few places you can find us at:

We are also particularly excited to attend and geek out at the following sessions:

Hope to see you all out there!

Slicing up our Lettuce research

Have you ever heard of “service slices”? We hadn’t either. Gerald, Cristina, and I have been working with Lettuce, a local meal delivery company, for the past six weeks with the goal of identifying key opportunity areas for the company. This process began with in-depth behavioral interviews with staff and customers alike and we’ve since been analyzing the research data that we collected through various lenses. We sifted through the data to identify a few key emerging themes and then refocused to start mapping out some of the behaviors that we observed during our research.
An overview of Lettuce operations from plant to porch
For the purposes of this assignment, our team would like to offer you a glimpse of how Lettuce operates from plant to porch. We mapped out a few of the key operations processes that culminate in the delivery of a Lettuce bag to the client: sourcing, assembly, and delivery. We examined several hours of our research data by creating what are called “service slices” in which we mapped out behavioral and informational interactions, inferred relationships of power and influence, and sketched out the location and objects involved in these interactions.

Lettuce strives to create a sustainable and hyper-local food ecosystem. In order to do this, Lettuce partners with a number of local farms and purveyors to source the ingredients that go into their weekly meal deliveries. By creating service slices examining this sourcing process through various lenses, we were able to identify a few bits of “low-hanging fruit” insofar as opportunities for Lettuce to streamline and make more dependable the sourcing process.

Once the ingredients have been sourced and delivered to Lettuce’s warehouse, they are ready to be assembled for delivery. During assembly, the packers are supervised by managers to ensure that all of the meal boxes are packed correctly into each delivery bag. We used the service slices to note a few key areas of frustration on the staff side during assembly. One manager noted that while Lettuce is striving to offer a variety of product lines for its customers and is ever-increasing the available meal options, this has a compounding effect on the efficiency of the assembly line.


After assembly, packers transition into the role of drivers for delivery. The delivery bags get divvied out amongst the drivers and routes assigned, and the drivers set out to make their deliveries. Similar to assembly, when things are running late or a driver calls in sick, this affects everyone’s delivery route. By mapping our data using these various service slice lens, we also noticed some really positive interactions between the operations staff which lend themselves to strong team cohesion.

Creating these service slices helped us to examine the operations side of Lettuce from a few different perspectives and glean observations which we hope will prove useful in the next step of our research process. We look forward to synthesizing insights and working towards providing Lettuce with areas of opportunity to enhance the services that they provide to the Central Texas area and beyond.

Service Slices – APA!


At this stage of our project with Austin Pets Alive!, Christina and I have created visual representations of our design research from the APA! kitten nursery. One of the major takeaways is that selecting valuable sections of the transcripts is key to creating an interesting narrative and identifying points of opportunity within our client’s organization.

We went line-by-line through our data and charted behavior and information exchange, power/policy/influence & emotion, artifacts, and the geographic environment.

As an example, here are the low fidelity sketches of the artifacts:


It stood out to us that we were spending most of our time focusing on behavior, which we felt was the most interesting section. This is due to the disconnect between perception and the reality of APA!’s adoption strategy. If you were to ask anyone at APA! how they go from intake to adoption for any particular animal, their answer would look something like this:

Austin Animal Center  -> Austin Pets Alive  -> Foster Home  -> Forever Home

However, we found that the process looks something like this:

Behavior and Info Exchange_Final._smaller

Clearly, there is much more at play under the surface. The biggest area of opportunity seems to be communication. Communication is especially important for the kitten nursery given that they a siloed from the rest of APA! – both operationally and geographically. This will be one of the main issues we address as we move forward in the design process.

Slicing the Service

We are deep in the heart of the of our client design research projects. With 9 weeks of project planning, interviewing, data collection, transcription, and theming behind us, we have just 7 weeks to go before we present our final product to our client.

The Buzz Mill team (of myself, Kay Wyman, and Shelly Stallings) has been hard at work at our next phase of synthesis. For the past two weeks, we have been working on what is called service slices. Services slices are an opportunity to visualize the process of experiencing a service. After presenting some of our themes to our client, we had the opportunity to have a very candid conversation with the business owner and his management team that allowed us to understand the mission and greatest value of the business even better. We did this by presenting the business owner with a sheet of paper that listed the various values we had heard communicated by him and his staff. Immediately, the business owner and his digital asset manager stated that their greatest value was getting people in touch with nature. They want folks who walk through their doors or speak about them to their friends to know that Buzz Mill is the place you should go to “log out.”

Since there is not one clear process for how this happens currently at Buzz Mill, our team decided to focus more broadly on instances where this is or where it seems it should be happening but is not and then visualize it.

To start, read back through all of the data we collected during interviews and observations and pulled out utterances and observations that were associated with actions. But, we were sure to only choose actions that were associated in some way with “logging out.”

From there, we read through each utterances in this new set, and, first began to pick out physical things that people had used while completing the actions referenced in this list. This helped us understand what is physically being used right now to help people “log out.” We found it particularly interesting that there were so many digital artifacts.

We first drew this by hand and then Shelly converted it to a digital format.

Artifact Artifacts

From there we pulled out utterances and observations that were associated with the environment. This exercise helped us see very clearly and visually how various environments come into play in the process of logging out, taking into account distance and associations between various environments.

This was also drawn and then converted to a digital format by Shelly.


This left us with pure actions and the people associated with them. We then began creating two diagrams that highlighted these interactions. One diagram documented any and every instance of behavior and information exchange. The other focused more on the driving impetus behind these actions as expressed in the utterances by documenting the power, policy, influence, and emotion behind each action. We drew these diagrams collectively as a team and were left with what look like the scribblings of John Nash in A Beautiful Mind. Except with not a much standardized equation behind it to be able to offer some explanation at first glance. Nonetheless, it made quite a bit of sense to use and helped us really identify areas where the process of “logging out” whether has a patron, a staff member, or a member of their nature survivalist club, the Lumber Society, may break down.

You can see the finished product of our drawings below.

B and information exchange PPIE

Clearly noticing the confusion and chaos of these diagrams, we decided to pick out three processes to present to our business owner. We decided to create a third diagram for each of these processes that tied in elements from the behavior and information exchange diagram and the policy, power, influence, and emotion diagrams. These new diagrams were to tell the story of the process and the greatest influences on this process in more clear and visually appealing way.

You can see these three final diagrams here.

In this diagram, we combined utterances from three members of upper management who very much create and refine the vision for the Lumber Society. We combined their vision for how an individual should be first hearing about and interacting with the Lumber Society into one visual diagram.
In this diagram, we combined utterances from three members of upper management who very much create and refine the vision for the Lumber Society. We combined their vision for how an individual should be first hearing about and interacting with the Lumber Society into one visual diagram.
This is the story of one patron's experience at Buzz Mill. You will notice that he has been upwards of 5 times and sees Buzz Mill very much as a coffee shop and has not understood the larger mission.
This is the story of one patron’s experience at Buzz Mill. You will notice that he has been upwards of 5 times and sees Buzz Mill very much as a coffee shop and has not understood the larger mission.
This is the process a Lumber Society Member went through to first hear about Lumber Society and then become a member. Each exclamation point is a moment of missed or a very closely made opportunity that could be solidified by more of a process at Buzz Mill.
This is the process a Lumber Society Member went through to first hear about Lumber Society and then become a member. Each exclamation point is a moment of missed or a very closely made opportunity that could be solidified by more of a process at Buzz Mill.

We chose each of these for the way in which they communicated the service slice process to our client. Presenting the service slice of the Lumber Society process as told by upper management and then contrasting that with an individual who interacted with the Lumber Society in a way less linear than the management would imagine, and then a patron who has been to the space many times and has not understood the larger mission of the business or at all understood the intention or value of “logging out.”

Service Slices from the Castle

It’s the start of the second quarter for us at AC4D, but Jen and I were busy working over the break on the next step in the process for our Castle Hill Fitness project. For this portion we learned about and created service slices. Creating these allowed us to examine the behavior we observed in person by drawing it out visually from a few different perspectives. To do this, we began by finding portions of our transcribed data that had a lot of action and behavior happening in them.

We used the following sections:

  • an employee showing us different tools that they use to train clients
  • two employees performing their roles communicating with and assisting clients
  • an employee moving through the workflow of connecting clients with trainers

After we chose these transcript portions we combined them into a single document, numbered the lines, and printed it out. We then worked through each line to document what was happening through four different lenses:

  • Behavior and information exchange – the physical activity or exchange that was taking place or what was actually said or happened.
  • Power, policy, influence, and emotion – the feelings or driving force behind the activity, or exchange.
  • Artifacts – the physical objects that were involved.
  • Environment – the space where this the action is happening.

To do this, we pinned four large pieces of butcher paper to the walls of our work space, and after reading each line we’d draw the relevant information on that paper panel. Below is what we came up with over the course of three days.


The next step was to digitize this data into something that we could present to the client. Before doing this we took some time to look at what we’d made. We picked out portions we thought would be most interesting for the client to hear about. In the behavior and information exchange section we chose processes that seemed a little scattered, and repetitive or tedious. For example an employee showed us the process of documenting membership changes. As you can see below something that sounds very straightforward is actually a multistep process that takes a lot of time and effort.


While that last process mainly happened in the virtual space, we also followed an employee as they assisted a client who called looking for a lost wallet.



Again, this process involved a lot more effort than one would think, and the client never received a response, and so had no idea about what was involved and if the employee even went through the act of searching. This lack of response was intentional on the employee’s part which is why we decided to symbolize it with a dotted line to show an intentional inaction. They went on to explain saying,

“I try to minimize chains of communication like that – it can go on forever so I’ll usually tell people if we find it or if I can get that rescheduled I’ll call you, but if not then I won’t say anything.”

(line 81)

This was interesting to us, because it sounds like minimizing chains of communication is being down for efficiency, but there are other steps in the process where efficiency might have a greater impact.

An interesting area that came up in the power, policy, influence, and emotion service slice was around the process used to match clients with trainers.


At the top we see Avery has power and influence over both the training team and the training leads (clients who have requested personal training). She is in charge of pairing clients with a personal trainer and likes to handle these thoughtfully and strategically through a color coded organizational system. After she pairs the clients to members of the training team she expects the trainers to follow up with them and schedule their training sessions on their own. However, despite this expectation we saw her check to see if leads were being followed up with. We mapped this as a feeling of mistrust, but it could also be a feeling of responsibility or policy at play that she make sure a follow up occurred. At the bottom of the diagram we see that the training team also displays some emotions around trust in valuing transparency in how leads are assigned, taking on the responsibility of following up on assigned leads, and meeting Avery’s expectations.

When we look at how this process played out on the behavior and information exchange service slice diagram we can get a better idea of how participant actions might feed these emotions and policies, or vice versa how the emotions and policies have shaped participant actions. For example we can see that other participant actions and processes often feed into MindBody which is the enterprise software Castle Hill Fitness uses. However, the training lead process is more isolated with Avery only shown using MindBody to check the schedule. With most of the actions in the process being direct or siloed, it’s not difficult to see how trust would play a large role.


Client Feedback:

Overall the reaction was positive and it made them think about some of their processes and potential areas of improvement.

We also received some helpful feedback that we can use moving forward in future presentations. For example, we included slides showing where we were in the overall project. The client said they liked this and it gave helpful context of what we’d previously done and where we were going.

We also included images of the hand drawn versions of our service slice diagrams on the large pieces of butcher paper. We used these to show them in their entirety before focusing in on selected portions. The client really appreciated this and wished that the images had been bigger to provide more context and allow them to examine them. They also suggested titles on the slides for the diagrams to help remind any wandering minds what was being shown.


Here’s what we realized worked and didn’t work for us when we were creating our service slices.

Next time we conduct our research we need to create more opportunities for observing actions and behavior. For example, our research was focused on understanding a new member’s experience at the gym, but when we began looking for observed actions in our transcripts we did not have much that fit this requirement from the customer side. We have plenty of data around participants explaining things and telling us how they feel, but not a lot that’s verifiable activity that we witnessed. Which is exactly what we need to do service slices.

The first day of going through the transcript data that we’d combined to create these service slices together was slow. When we left we decided to go take some time to individually go through the transcripts and highlight what we saw as the key things for each item that could be applied to the different slices. Then when we met again we were able to move much quicker through the process. It helped that we’d already done a portion of the work by building our own opinions and understanding around each line. This also made it easier for us to discuss and see things from different perspectives as sometimes we came to different conclusions or interpretations.

Next up we will be working on creating insights from the themes that we previously created. We are also really excited that our client will be participating by joining us as we do this.