Grounding the future of The Pulse: testing, refining, testing…

Taking a step back and appreciating the journey

With two weeks left of AC4D (!!), Kaley and I had a bit of a retrospective on our last 6 months of working towards The Pulse of Austin. We traced our journey from research, initial insights, ideation, and then the months of testing and iterating on our concept. We have been told countless times during our school to “trust the process,” which can feel obvious, yet abstract at the same time when you’re in the thick of it. It’s when you look back at it all that you achieve that clarity: our idea has progressed immensely, and we’re excited to say that we’re in a place where we feel great about it.

Reviewing and cleansing our outdated boards.
Reviewing and cleansing our outdated boards

That’s not to say our vision is set in stone; we are still questioning and shaping our platform almost daily. However, those changes are feeling more like refinements. The foundation is solid, and our scope has narrowed. Now, within that more narrow scope, we have a new set of decisions to make.

Balancing development and testing

This week, The Pulse progressed in two tactical ways: backend iOS development and content development.

iOS development

We met with a developer through Open Austin, who set up the push notification element of The Pulse this week, and who plans to build the screens for our key weigh-in flow next week. We are thrilled to have development power on board, and it has also pushed us to consider what is properly vetted vs. what needs more validation before building. Our teachers emphasize not rushing into building, so we are being conscious to pull back on the reigns and test features at a lower fidelity before taking our developer’s time.

Our platform can be broken down into the following primary features:

  1. Educative and compelling content
  2. Structured opportunities to weigh in early on city planning initiatives
  3. A personal and editable map of the user’s locations and happenings

Content development

Our content development aimed to test different ways to educate and elicit input – addressing features 1 and 2.

Each day from Tuesday through Friday, we sent a different type of SMS-based engagement to our pilot testing group of 23 Austinites. We tried the following:

  • An incremental reveal of a narrative thread
  • A choose-your-own-info menu with a prompt
  • A narrow A vs. B vs. C vote
  • A “good-to-know” piece of content that did not elicit a response

We learned that we get a good quantity (~70%) of responses when we ask for participants to text back a simple letter. However, this prompt did not ask for the ‘why’ behind their selection, which we know is an important component. We plan to have an optional rationale entry in our platform, so next we need to test how many users will provide that rationale when given the option.

The incremental reveal that asked specific questions along the way elicited the largest quantity of thoughtful responses. People enjoy responding to structured prompts when they feel informed.

The responses to our A vs. B vs. C vote - sent out the next day
The responses to our A vs. B vs. C vote – sent as a follow-up the next day


Two of our testers expressed an interest in the text format of the interaction. It’s easy, simple, and conversational. As we move into an app, we must keep these qualities in mind. Does perhaps a chat-based platform make more sense than a poll-based platform? While our heads our in our app, we cannot ignore the results of our pilot.

Additionally, how valuable was the human, conversational element of the pilot? We cannot easily scale when we provide personalized responses to our users, so what will users think of an automated reply instead?

Building Off Our Pilot

Testing Next Steps

Next week, we plan to measure the level of need for human intervention in our platform, as well as test the value of location-based content.

We will also be taking our concept into a more robust set of wireframes, working out our developer to prioritize our MVP’s features. Our goal is that, at the very least, users will be able to learn about and weigh in on an issue posted to The Pulse.

Looking Beyond AC4D

Kaley and I feel energized by the response we have received within the city. We plan to continue building relationships with city departments who share our mission of a citizen-led government. We feel confident in finding support and a home for The Pulse, so our planning has extended beyond the next two weeks. It feels great to continue looking towards the future, and we are excited to provide another update next week.

Sharing the vision and future of The Pulse of Austin with City Council
Sharing the vision and future of The Pulse of Austin with City Council

KeyUp joins Impact Hub!

Since we last week’s post, team KeyUp has been out in the field building partnerships and testing different hypotheses.

  • First, we have some exciting news. On Wednesday, we joined Impact Hub’s Workforce Accelerator. We are one of 9 amazing ventures developing solutions to Austin’s workforce issues. In our first session, we listened to a panel discussion on workforce issues in Austin at the Central Library, got to know the members in the cohort and participated in a fishbowl discussion on the current workforce landscape.
Mary Hannah getting to know one of the members of our cohort.
Mary Hannah getting to know one of the members of our cohort.
  • Second, we tested our messaging through google, facebook and instagram ads to see if we could acquire customers through our landing page. We learned that men responded to tech jobs and there were higher response rates from people between the ages of 25 and 34. This reinforced some of our earlier findings which was that people between the ages of 18 and 24 are less likely to be searching out careers. We also trekked out to Barton Spring Pool to do usability testing. We met several people who were older. Our message really resonated with them. However, this does not mean we will give up!
An example ad we posted on facebook
An example ad we posted on facebook


  • Third, we tested our MVP in a workshop with young adults attending a local alternative high school. We led them through a session in which they explored their hopes and fears about the future and then, made life choice recommendations to a fictitious character in an interactive case study. We wanted to see if we could inspire a magic moment in which young people would say, ‘Yeah! I can go into a training program even if it is risky.’ We learned that though young people are interested in exploring stable careers, it is not such an easy decision. We heard stories from them that matched our initial research: they want stories of past successes, guidance and support. They feel enormous pressure to have it all figure it out, yet: “I fear being an adult because I recognize adults really don’t know shit, and now I am an adult that doesn’t know shit.”

We learned we need to get better at being able to talk about what value KeyUp provides young people to young people.

A moment from our workshop at the high school
A moment from our workshop at the high school

This week, we asked: how might KeyUp inspire young people to choose a new pathway that will lead to a middle skill career?

This week, we learned that there are two clear groups of people we could be targeting: those who are between 18-24 and those who are older. We need to focus on one group. It’s challenging because on the one hand, we are hearing from organizations in the Austin workforce community that they want support in working with young people between the ages of 18 and 24, yet the people who seem to be saying they are ready are older.

Now, we’ve got to…

  • revise our landing page and test it with Austinites
  • Revise our MVP and test it
  • develop our story for our final AC4D presentation and for our target population

One way you can help right now is…

  • send us anyone you know who doesn’t have a 4-year degree and wants to figure out their next career step

Designers Are Just Doctors With Different Tech

What limits what we (as designers) can imagine?


To answer that we have to defamiliarize ourselves from the constructs of profession and what a “Designer” truly is. I’ll do this by focusing on a separate but equally relevant profession. Doctors.


Far back to when doctors first came around they didn’t start off by calling themselves doctors, they were just people that healed other people. The idea that someone would call themselves a doctor was far fetched. They served a purpose and they identified by that purpose.


It was through that overwhelming purpose and identity that these people started to think up new ways to better heal people. They started to think outside the box and they invented new tools and technology that allowed them to perform healing practices much easier. These radical innovations changed the field. People began to view these people as miracle workers. They became saints ordained by holy means to do things that normal people couldn’t comprehend. However, in actuality they were the same type of people that came before. They were just people who healed other people. It was only through the innovative technology that they were able to transcend this identity and become more than that.


“I don’t believe that new needs have been created,” says Charles Purdy, senior editor for “We’ve just created new ways and adopted new technologies to get them done.”


Fast forward to healing becoming a global industry. The rise of these innovations create power and influence and these once called healers become what we know as doctors and with the adoption of this new identity comes a sense of tribalism. These “Doctors” stop identify as people who heal people and instead become people who use these radical forms of technology and procedure to heal people. They start to lose their human centered approach and stop creating new and innovative ways to heal.


“The problem with healthcare is that doctor’s are a stage 3 (of 5) tribe, a group of people who think, “I am great and you are not.” -Dave Logan


The profession begins to be more about being a doctor than it is about helping people. These once radical innovations couple with adoption have poisoned these people into thinking they are so powerful, and none of them want to give up that power by taking a risk to think laterally. Instead, most doctors nowadays are taught how to do something a certain way and anyone who tries to think or do it another way is deemed as unfit or unqualified. So we are left with an industry full of people who claim to heal people, but are actually just relying on past healers innovations and methods. They are not adapting as healers did in the past, and eventually our culture of medicine with outgrow them. Meanwhile the patients will continue to suffer.


“If you’re and outside the box thinker this doesn’t last long in medical school or residency. The egos of your superiors are too threatened.” Rethinking healthcare, Jay Parkinson M.D.


Now take that same narrative and apply it to Designers. Designers started out being people who created experiences. Only recently, within the last fifty years, has the name Designer been used to define this role. IN actuality, anyone can be a designer. Just like anyone can heal people, we as human have untapped knowledge and creativity that allows all of us to create for others. Yet, somehow in the last few years Designers have stopped identifying as people who create things for people and instead focus more on creating things to impress other designers.


IDEO, Frog, Google, Apple, are all huge companies that started thinking about how they were going to create something to improve our experiences. However, as we’ve seen with Doctors, success and power from radical innovations in digital technology creates tribalism among designers. Designers may not like hearing it, but we have become just like Doctors, full of ourselves and out of touch with our roots. There are exceptions, yes, but we can see that young designers (like myself and my classmates) are getting out of schools and ultimately ending up at these big companies. We like to think that we aren’t like designers because as Robert Sterling states in his articles Design Fiction, “Design is busily inventing new ways to blows itself up. Taking more risks.”


This quote should be changed to, “Design WAS busily inventing new ways to blow itself up.” Now that we’ve  got Chief Design Officers and Creative Directors making big leaps for big companies you’d think we’d be in the perfect place to make actual change. But we’re not. No, we’ve fallen victim to the same hubris that Doctors have. We think that because we have been taught by Designers new ways to think and find problems that we know how  to solve them. We don’t. We could, if we weren’t so busy trying to impress other designers with flashy visuals and high paying jobs with fancy Creative Director titles. What happened to being people that create experiences? When did it stop being about people and start being about us?


In 2017 there were over four million apps on the App Store and Google Play combined. In April, 2018 over 24,000 apps were added to Google play (


Why then are designers telling us that we need to have a digital component in our portfolios? Why, when we present ideas like our civic comedy show MVP do people tell us that it’s not design and it needs to have some digital component? A likely answer is probably that we are not doing a good job at explaining our vision and conveying how much testing and development has gone into the minimal viable product state. However, it often feels like designers have a way of doing things that works right now. Digital products are a radical innovation that came out recently and everyone of us is trying to harness that power while it’s still ours. Yet, most of us are identifying as these digital products. We live in a world of digital decks and presentations where the pretty presentation wins. We identify as our macs, our illustrator, and our digital products because that’s what gave us power. We have take off these blinders and start to imagine new ways to create meaningful experience.  


So, what limits what we as designers can imagine?


Power. Tribalism. Technology.


How do we remove ourselves from these limitations?


Get back to the basics. Defamiliarize ourselves with what it means to be a designer. Start using our natural skills and stop relying solely on our digital tools.  


What limits what we can imagine? One more take on it.

In the past 10 days, we were trying to find an answer to that important question in multiple articles. We were talking about today’s hospitals’ issues, incremental and radical innovations, more and more complicated relationships between people and technologies, education, empathy and much more.

However, none of the articles were giving or even trying to give a simple answer to that question – What limits what we can imagine.

So, I looked up this exact question on Google and here’s what I got:

Screen Shot 2018-04-12 at 1.04.20 PM

The first article is actually on AC4D blog written by Elijah Parker (which I highly recommend reading).

Second is an announcement of speech that happened a year ago – Are there limits to what we can imagine? I got very interested in this question because the answer for me is obvious – YES – but if she gives the speech on it – there’s likely more to it. Unfortunately, there are no details.

Last three links are all in relation to the same book – “The Innovation Killer: How What We Know Limits What We Can Imagine”. Ha! Is it the thing – what we know – that limits what we can imagine? I decided to take a closer look at the book.

I read the description and started to get the point, but this 3 stars review did it for me:

Screen Shot 2018-04-12 at 4.55.09 PM

This resonates very much with what I believe in: a fresh outsider perspective can bring the creativity into the companies. Makes a lot of sense to me, and to most of my peers at AC4D as well, based on everything we learned so far.

But I saw something else here. So, I decided to check my hypothesis.

During the class, I asked my colleagues (who know about cars not more than everybody else) to draw a “vehicle of the future”. The drawings turned out to be beautiful – and very interesting.


According to the theory from Innovation Killer what you know limits what you can imagine. So, it looks like than less you know that more you can imagine?

Children are known to be extremely creative creatures who don’t have so many limitations as adults do. They’re “not limited by what they know”. So here are some children drawings of “vehicle of the future” to compare.


Yes, kids got colorful pencils and probably more than two minutes to draw it – but whose vehicles are more creative?

Here’s what’s in common between all of these pictures: the ones that kids drew, and the ones that my adult colleagues did. They all contain the “inventions” that are based on things that have already been known to the individual. It’s a combination of components, often very diverse components. We create new things based on other things we’re familiar with. The bravest – science-fictionists – do the same.

But… According to the point above, knowing less should help us be more creative than when you know a lot. Kids, knowing less, and having fewer limitations baked into their heads, are creative in their own way. However, their imagination is still limited by how narrow their perception of the world still is.

Does what we know limits what we can imagine?

Yes. But when applied correctly, it becomes a strong foundation for imagination.

What really matters for highest creativity is the breadth of knowledge. If your view of the world is very narrow, it’s hard to get “out of the box”.

The depth matters too: dive deeper into what, out of the wide array of fields and topics, makes the most sense for the creative concepts that come from the breadth.

This is what design thinking helps us achieve. Depth + Breadth.

We often can hear these days: “We don’t need to remember things, there is Google for this.”

I don’t agree.

The more we know, in different fields, from different perspectives, the more elements we have at our disposal to bring together to create something new and then more empathy we have.

What higher spatial dimensions mean for imagination, design, and singularity

The enormous, limiting machine in our society

Fundamentally, what we imagine, as designers and as people in our society, is limited by money. Money fuels the massive, intimidating systems that continue to perpetuate the status quo. Money constrains businesses to act on behalf of shareholders. Money incentivizes us to act within the scope of our role for our employer. Money influences whose words get published and publicized, shaping our shared vision of the world. Money also gives people the luxury of making decisions without always fully evaluating what the outcome of those decisions may be.

This post is not going to be about money (or overthrowing capitalism) or anything like that, however. Drawing out all the connections to money made me feel frustrated and stuck in this enormous machine. I think we’re all stuck. So, let’s abstract a bit.

Stepping back from the massive machine running our existence

Designers are praised for immersing themselves in the worlds of the people for whom they are designing. At the same time, taking a step back from those worlds can be essential for finding clarity. Care to take one – maybe a few – steps back with me?

When was the last time you questioned what you see as your complete reality?

Today, we are stepping back from our 3-dimensional world, evaluating it as one piece of a larger whole. In doing so, I hope to inspire new paths to pursue in addressing our state of being.

Our reality as a slice of a greater existence

Let’s visit the 1884 classic Flatland, a cautionary tale of sorts. The story is told from the point of view of a square, named A Square, whose 2-dimensional world receives a visit from A Sphere. A Sphere arrives to introduce A Square to the 3-dimensional world of Spaceland, but he is not able to communicate this message in Flatland. Here, A Sphere’s 3-dimensional shape registers as a 2-dimensional circle. By moving up and down his third axis, A Sphere demonstrates his changing size as an indicator of a different spatial existence. He is, in fact, an infinite amount of circles.

Abbot, Edwin. Flatland (Illustrated). Corundum Classics.

It’s not until A Square is pulled into the 3rd dimension, however, that he believes this larger reality A Sphere describes to him.

Similarly, there could be a whole other existence in a higher spatial dimension, which we are not able (or perhaps willing) to recognize as such; of which our world could be but a section or a shadow. We could be living in a singular cross-section of a body of infinite worlds, all bound a 4th dimension.

But humans want to “see it to believe it,” just like A Square.

I believe what is truly limiting what we can imagine is our society’s collective conception of reality as this world we perceive around us.

Liberation in rejecting our perceptions

When the X-ray was first invented around 1875, it created a revolution for artists and mathematicians alike. The X-ray was proof that there are parts to our world that our eyes cannot register on their own. Following the X-ray were the discoveries of radioactivity and electromagnetic waves: more invisible reality. Given these discoveries, what else are we possibly not seeing? These were catalysts for the movement of the spatial 4th dimension.

Up until this point, artwork was very traditional and was expected to adhere to perspective. Now that our eye’s interpretation of the world was considered incomplete, artists were free to explore what our complete world may truly be. Art became more theoretical, notably with cubism, a movement led by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque.

Screen Shot 2018-04-12 at 11.12.16 PM

Picasso and Braque called themselves Orville and Wilbur, because, like the Wright Brothers, they were inventing something new. To them, cubism was the new realism.

“It is to the fourth dimension alone that we owe a new norm of the perfect.”- Guillaume Apollinaire, poet and writer, 1912

Picasso famously described his goal in cubism as “paint[ing] objects as I think them, not as I see them.” His 1910 portrait of Kahnweiler, a German art dealer and writer, explores ideas of transparency and a more fluid interpretation of space. It starts to evoke a 4th dimension, because it’s so determinately not the 3rd dimension.

Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Kahnweiler
Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Kahnweiler

A tool to transcend our perceptions

Charles Howard Hinton, a mathematician and science fiction writer, explored how we might achieve a cognitive understanding of a spatial 4th dimension in his 1912 publication The Fourth Dimension. Linda Dalrymple Henderson, PhD, explains his theory that, “by memorizing the relative positions and color gradations of cubes within large blocks, Hinton’s readers were to develop their mental powers and transcend self-oriented perception (eg. the senses of left/right and up/down or gravity).”

Frontispiece from Charles Howard Hinton, The Fourth Dimension (London, 1904)
Frontispiece from Charles Howard Hinton, The Fourth Dimension (London, 1904)

Charles’ pieces start to get us thinking about how the objects in our world might amount to something larger; a tessaract of infinite cubes. They challenge our brains to record new sets of information with seemingly familiar objects.

In The Fourth Dimension, Hinton wrote, “The merit of speculations on the fourth dimension… is chiefly that they stimulate the imagination, and free the intellect from the shackles of the actual. A complete intellectual liberty would only be attained by a mind which could think as easily of the non-existent as of the existent” (pages 573-574).

Imagining the non-existent just as easily as the existent is no easy feat. Hinton offered one tool for us more than a century ago… it’s our turn to design some more.

Technology and the fourth spatial dimension

Author and computer scientist Ray Kurzweil writes about the exponential rate of growth of technology in his article The Law of Accelerating Returns. He predicts that singularity is near; in calculating the amount of neurons and neuron connections in a brain, he estimates that in just 5 years (2023), we’ll be able to achieve the human brain capability with technology for just $1,000. Even more wild is his long-term estimation that, by 2059, we will be able to achieve human race capability for just one cent.

What might happen when we combine this computational power with our robust formulas and calculations of greater spatial dimensions? Might our technology be able to reveal to us an entirely new world?

Will our technology adopt even more elements of divinity as it becomes the keeper to a higher awareness? Transcending to higher dimensions is also related to transcending to a higher consciousness in some Eastern religions. This makes me wonder…could our technology itself achieve enlightenment?

If our technology does reach enlightenment, then will it leave us behind, or will it take us along?

Given this power, could our technology ultimately rule humanity?

How might we, as designers, create technology so that humanity is incorporated into technology’s trajectory? I do not have the answer, but the first step to arriving at that answer is to imagine this greater world. So, let’s train ourselves to move beyond three dimensions and conceive the future.


Note: a lot of this material is drawn from a course I took at The University of Texas with Linda Dalrymple Henderson, PhD. I dusted off my old notes and used her work The Image and Imagination of the Fourth Dimension in Twentieth-Century Art and Culture as guides for the “liberation” section of this post.

Henderson, L. D. “The Image and Imagination of the Fourth Dimension in Twentieth-Century Art and Culture.” Configurations, vol. 17 no. 1, 2009, pp. 131-160. Project MUSEdoi:10.1353/con.0.0070


Shaping Reality

“Reality” is the way that we experience the world, and as such, there is no one reality. There are as many realities as there are human beings, and we all construct our own whether we are conscious of it or not.

I believe there are four main things that shape reality.

4 reality shapers@3x


Let’s start with education. Education is a reshaping of the way people think (and therefore behave). We are trained at a really young age on how to see and interact with the world. More often then not, we are trained in non-integrative thinking, which philosophizes that the boundaries of the world are set and we must accept unattractive tradeoffs when resolving conflict. We tell young children, “life isn’t fair” and “that’s just the way it is”, but we don’t often ask them to imagine how might things be. 

At other times education is focused on retraining the brain and getting us to see the world in a new way. Byron Good speaks about how medical students start to see people as a compilation of anatomical parts. This is really useful for someone learning to be a doctor, so long as they have the ability to switch frames and see people as people.

Design education retrains the brain to see and understand new realities. We ask that question that wasn’t posed to us often enough as children – “how might we reimagine the world?” In design training, we are given the tools of empathy building, design research, and defamiliarization so that we can see the world with new eyes. It’s essential to understand the realities of the people we are designing for. But much like how doctors must see humans as both anatomical parts and as people with feelings and fears, designers must dance between the realities of those we serve and those in which a solution lies. We are warned by Don Norman and Roberto Verganti to not become trapped in the current paradigms of a problem space, and lose your ability to see new ones.

Language and thought also shape reality.

Authors Dubberly, Mehta, Evenson, Pangaro give an example of how education reframes language. “The way we usually think about healthcare is bound up in the language of our healthcare system.” Which means the way we approach healthcare is limited by the paradigms of the system. These authors advocate for a shift, a reframe, in the way we think about and approach healthcare. They advocate for giving the responsibility of healthcare back to the patient, and have the patient envision themselves as the healer.

Language is another construct of the world we are taught at a young age. Keith Chen’s study on language tells us, “Languages that don’t have a future tense strongly correlate with higher savings.” Which means Eastern languages see higher rates of saving money for the future. This is as simple as saying “I will save for a house” versus “I save for a house”. The omission of the word “will” reframes the way the speaker thinks about their actions and in turn correlates with higher savings. 

future Tense

Steve Rathje says, “Metaphors can reframe the way we think.” He gives the example of a recent Stanford study, in which half of the participants were told that crime as a “virus infecting” the city. For the other half, crime was described as a “beast preying” on the city. The two different groups had very different ideas on how crime should be dealt with. Those with the “beast” metaphor thought that crime should be dealt with by longer jail time. Those with the “virus” metaphor thought crime should be dealt with using more reformative measures that addressed the root causes of crime.

Language and metaphors don’t just reframe the way we think, they reframe the way we behave.


Keith Chen wonders, “Why is it that we allow subtle nudges of our language to affect our decision making?”

I believe that we allow this to happen because we are not conscious of it. Rarely do most people monitor their thoughts and take the time to understand the outcomes of their thoughts.

Sunni Brown, is the author of the Doodle Revolution. She talks about we can use visualization to create new imagine realities. She says, “I believe that we contribute to our current situations more than we’re often comfortable with accepting.” 

She is referring to the fact that our thoughts dictate the way that we experience the world. That we actually create reality through the way we construct our thoughts.

As designers, it’s important to remember how we are shaping and reframing the world through design. Ian Bogost warns that technology has it’s own purposes. He says that humans are ceding their lives to the world of machines and that human goals are now being influenced by technology’s goals. 

This is dangerous because it steals from us our agency as humans. As designers, I believe it’s our responsibility to help people become unenslaved from the realities that have been created for them, and to be given the power to see the world in new ways. To see the world how it might be.


Thoughts World


What subtle nudges are shaping the way you behave?  How might we take control over our realities?

One Person’s Dystopia

Reporters, satirists, and observers of all kinds have been commenting for years about the tendency to insert tech into situations for which we already have perfectly decent, cheap, analog solutions. From the Vessyl cup, which told you what liquid was inside it, to the $1,500 June Oven that figures out what food is placed inside it and (maybe, sometimes) cooks that food to perfection, technologists and businesses are putting a lot of effort into figuring out how recent advances in technology could improve every task we encounter in our lives. 

The Vessyl Smart Cup, courtesy of
The Vessyl Smart Cup, courtesy of


And why wouldn’t they? Contrary to some thinkers out there, I don’t have a big problem with new products that seem like ridiculous, impractical, “smart” non-improvements of older products. New technologies almost never appear in highly usable forms right from the get-go. At Home, by Bill Bryson, shares a few particularly delightful examples of this historical tendency. For instance, Alice Vanderbilt (of those Vanderbilt’s) came dressed as an electric light to a costume ball in 1883 to celebrate that she had just had electricity installed at her Fifth Avenue home.

Mrs. Vanderbilt in her Electric Light costume (complete with an electrical torch)
Mrs. Vanderbilt in her electric light costume (complete with an electrical torch)

But she later had it all ripped out of the walls because it was suspected to have started a fire. Problems with early electricity were not isolated things: Franklin Pope, an inventor and former partner of Thomas Edison, accidentally electrocuted himself while working on the wiring of his own home in 1895. Nevertheless, the vast majority of people on earth today choose to live, work, and play in electrified environments, and there are a lot of compelling arguments for why this has genuinely improved their quality of life.

All of this is not to say that the Vessyl cup, June Oven, or (more sinisterly) the Alexa that is listening to all your conversations right now are not problematic. They are. But they’re also an inevitable byproduct of evolutions in technology or even stepping stones on the way to better applications of current technology. Just because they are not yet more useful or secure than older products doesn’t mean that future iterations one day won’t be.

As an aside, I think it’s dangerous to assume that everyone buying these “smart products” is a dupe suckered in by the siren song of ever more efficient tech. Early adopters are early adopters in part because they tend to fall in love with the idealized possibilities of new tech, and they want to be part of the change. Through their purchasing power, personal influence, and (now) data, they help to shape the future even if they do not invent new products. In other words, they’re valuing something else over efficiency or usability.

Thus endeth the aside.

My optimism aside, tech doesn’t get better by magic, and human history has shown us often enough that dystopian scenarios are very possible. As designers, we do have an obligation to try to craft a better world out of the mess of possibilities afforded us today by the burgeoning expansion of tech capabilities. So, how can we make that better world, and not just a useless Internet of Things piece of crap?

Certainly one starting point is recognizing the limitations created by existing cultural norms. Everyone from sci-fi writer Bruce Sterling to scholars such as Steve Rathje, Byron Good, and Deborah Gordon has pointed out that the realities of how current systems are constructed necessarily limit the lenses with which we view the world. Whether it’s medical reimbursement structures disincentivizing doctors from listening to patients, or current tastes among the reading public limiting what gets written, we all reside within structures that shape our every thought and decision. And so inequitable power structures recreate themselves again and again. All well and good. Given that, how does innovation happen anyway?

There are so many strategies out there. While I confess that Ray Kurzweil’s (and many other’s) idea of just changing humans themselves by replacing our current brains with some superior iteration (whether biological or not) holds a certain charm to me, that is a bit out of reach to this humble designer (at least this decade). That said, humans have been innovating forever using more mundane strategies. You can be inspired by the way things were done in the past, or the way they’re done in other cultures. You can imagine a Bizarro version of reality and then design something to fit that world. You can do any number of provocation strategies to deliberately force your mind to think differently about problems.

I tested out one of these strategies with my fellow AC4D classmates tonight: Worst Possible Idea

Austin has famously bad traffic, and despite numerous efforts to fix this problem over the years, it is just getting worse. No one has had any particularly successful ideas about solving Austin’s traffic problem, so I thought I would ask my classmates to come up with some terrible ones. I presented my classmates with the following prompt:

The Problem Statement and How Might We
The Problem Statement and How Might We


And here are some of the ideas they came up with:


Go-carts for all! Cannon commutes!
Go-carts for all! Cannon commutes! (Nicole Nagel)


Roads drawn much more creatively (Maria Zub)

Roads drawn much more creatively (Maria Zub)


New Austin residents carry long-time residents (Josh Browning)
New Austin residents carry long-time residents (Josh Browning)


Trampoline commutes (Mariangela Marin)
Trampoline commutes (Mariangela Marin)


Though these ideas may not be the best ones out there, or even physically possible, they are innovative in that they break out of the current mold limiting what we often imagine as fixes to our traffic problems. And if we were to continue developing interventions to address the traffic situation in Austin, parts of these ideas, or the opposites of these ideas, or completely new ideas sparked by these weird ones could fall into that magical category of solutions that are both feasible and useful. Dystopian pieces of garbage on sticky notes or (to return to the beginning of this essay) in our homes can lead to more utopian futures. You just can’t stop at the first, second, or hundredth iteration of an idea. Radical innovation is not a thunderbolt, a scream of “Eureka!” from a full bathtub. It’s a process that takes years.

I don’t know how exactly the world will become a better, more equitable place. But I have an atheistic faith that it will, and that technology will be part of that transformation.

Or maybe we’ll slingshot babies to daycare.

Baby Slingshots (Noah Ratzan)
Baby Slingshots (Noah Ratzan)




Designerly Imagination: Fencing Us In

What limits what we can imagine? That’s the provocative question and theme we explored the past two weeks with Richard Anderson.

It’s a more complicated question than it might appear on the surface. After all, who hasn’t been told at least once (or been the person imparting the wisdom) that the only limitation is imagination? As if imagination can be tapped into if only we try hard enough.

The readings impart several barriers to what we can imagine:

Language. The word we use matter and shape our perception of the world. In healthcare, individuals are patients (even when they’re healthy), and providers are health care professionals.


Context. We must look deeper to understand the meaning and the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea. In science fiction, despite imagining worlds that have never been seen but later became a reality, “one limitation of the past and current science fiction communities is that they disproportionately feature the contributions of a particular author demographic (i.e., white men). If we admit that visions of the future are influenced by the present context of the author, this is an important point to consider when adapting ideas from science fiction narratives.”


Education. Professionals, from doctors to MBAs to designers, are taught to think a certain way and to becomes masters of specific tools and processes. This embedded way of thinking frames how we view the world.


Trends. Trends tell us where the world or the market are heading. There are smart reasons to jump on a trend. It’s often a recipe for success. But patterns can have unintended consequences, such as convenience and efficiency which has become the hallmark of technology and design. Trends are not inherently bad. What if we refreshed our hot trend more regularly?


Perseverance. Stick-to-it-ive-ness is often a good thing. But knowing when to walk away is a good thing too. The answer to lousy technology often adds more technology. What if there’s a different solution?


Objects. Physical objects offer limitations of their own. For a writer, it might have been a typewriter or pen and paper. For a designer, sharpies, and post-it-notes?


Fencing Us In

People of all stripes are subject to these limitations of imagination. And it seems there are endless limitations. Culture. Religion. Empathy. It goes on and on.

Design Limitations


For designers, a common trap is thinking that we’re the innovators and saviors. Everyone should think like a designer. Literature can learn more from design than design from literature. Got a wicked problem? Get a designer.

Designers are taught to embrace constraints when working on a project. Constraints are our friends. So perhaps we need some limitations to what design is capable of imagining.

Just like ego can affect our ability to receive critique and to collaborate, it can affect our ability to be open to creativity. Design and humility are a good match. It leads to an understanding that design works best when partnering with other disciplines and taking every opportunity to learn and leverage other talents. I’m all about design, but even I am growing tired of headlines that tell practically every profession to think like a designer.

What if these were our limitations?

At the start of the quarter I wrote that design is human and in another post I wrote about the need for design agency, a distinctly human ability. I thought they were simple, yet provocative statements. It’s also complicated.

In an era of artificial intelligence and exponential growth of technology, what it means to be human is up for debate. Faith Popcorn, a leading futurist who has worked with some of the most significant companies in the world, said that “we already live in a world with self-driving cars soon taking to the roads and a robotic citizen.” Faith thinks that “things will become even more sci-fi. We’re on the bridge from the past to the future. It’s going to be even faster than we think. People must move forward and redefine what work means, whether we must work, and consider what it means to be human.”

The Road Ahead

That’s going to take a big dose of humility and a multidisciplinary team to prototype, test, and iterate. Grab the post-it-notes and let’s get to work!


What limits what I can imagine?

In this week’s theory blogpost, I am reflecting on the question “what limits what I can imagine?” To me, this is the heart of the dilemma of a human centered designer. I believe that design is all about tensions – tensions between what can be and what is, what I want to express and how I am limited by the tools around me, what I believe to be right and what I can be paid to do, what will liberate humans and the products that are currently on the market…the list can go on ad infinitum. Ultimately, as an idealistic human-centered designer, I am always thinking about how I might use design to build a better world. If there’s one thing that has been a theme throughout my experience at AC4D is: that’s a freaking hard task. There are many impediments to (re)designing human made systems to be more inclusive, humane, and equitable. In theory class, we’ve been focusing on developing a knowledge to explain why that might be. (While in our other courses, we are finding out about the practical challenges.) In this blogpost, I am going to focus my attention on thought-systems and how knowledge is shared.

As a baseline for a definition of design, I am going to borrow from Norman and Vergannti’s article on Incremental and Radical Innovation. In it, they state that design is, “ [t]he deliberate and reasoned shaping and making of our environment in ways that satisfy our needs and give meaning to our lives.” From this, I can begin to reflect on a significant challenge baked into the design process: designs made for and by humans will always fail since we are limited by our own knowledge. Here, I am defining knowledge as anything that I believe to be true AND I have a warrant to believe it to be true. This means, that I simultaneously imbue the knowledge with my own faith while also look for external validation from a community of people to have any certainty in my knowledge.

Now, as a reframing technique, imagine if I lived in a world with no more than 100 people. In this world, I depend on a small group of people for everything from food to health to education. There would be collective learning, of course, but knowledge would be transferred primarily through face-to-face interactions. I would probably have an apprenticeship and hear stories of my neighbor’s ancestors. I would get direct feedback about what I did right and wrong from the very people who were creating the knowledge and I could spend hours just observing how they accomplished their tasks. I imagine that much of the knowledge I acquired would be classified as embodied. This is tacit knowledge that cannot be transferred outside of its context. Tacit knowledge is the kind of knowledge you can only learn through shared experiences like rock climbing, pottery throwing or dog training. There would also be narrative knowledge, the kind of knowledge spread through story. Though stories can travel further than embodied knowledge, they lose richness and nuance of context as they spread. Though the systems that sustain my small village could be complex, I would like to believe that questions of how to scale our knowledge wouldn’t be an issue. There would be less need to have a formal system of communication that is abstract and codified. How much time would we spend writing manuals on how to farm if you could just walk down the street and watch how we have always farmed?


Of course, this is not the case. Our collective learning is co-created across space and time. How to scale knowledge transference is an awesome (both in terms of magnitude and interest) problem to attack. The simplest kind of knowledge to spread is abstract, codified, formal knowledge. It can be diffused easily. I reckon that is one reason why formal knowledge is so highly valued. From an academic standpoint, it is also an object of affection because it has been agreed upon by a community of “experts” (at its best). But, as I wrote in the paragraph above, formal knowledge is only one kind of knowledge. How can humans share (context bound) embodied and narrative knowledge? (If there is any value in it?)

There is a framework for how to think about how knowledge is created across organizations (and civilizations?) called SECI. There are four dimensions: socialization, externalization, combination, and internalization. Socialization explains how tacit (embodied) knowledge is transferred. Externalization explains the process that goes from tacit to explicit knowledge – whatever enables tacit knowledge to be shared. Combination is when explicit knowledges are combined and integrated. Last is internalization. This is where an individual has received new knowledge and applies it, thus making the knowledge tacit again. And on it goes again. Of course, this model has limitations. Knowledge transference isn’t so linear. It also prompts me to ask questions about how to locate users in this process and whether the experience is authentic or not.


Now, a big issue comes up here: this cycle is presented as if new knowledge is created as information travels through the cycle. Supposedly, new knowledge is created as it goes from tacit to explicit. I question this presumption. Of course, this framework is a model and thus must simplify a complex situation, thereby leaving out the nuance of the lived experience. However, at each stage, there are political, economic, and cultural systems constricting, molding, and influencing what knowledge is allowed to be transferred.

First, knowledge is built upon previous knowledges. Ways of seeing and doing are normalized by the institutions they live in.

Second, if we peer more closely at each one of the phases, we can start to imagine ways power influence the outcomes at every point. In the socialization dimension, we learn from others who have been trained within a knowledge system. We observe their behavior, what they pay attention to, how they move and interact with their environments. We share stories and choose how the story is told. Where we should focus, what metaphors we decide on, and how to classify our success and failures. In the externalization dimension, the data that gets translated is filtered through political, economic and cultural constructs. We highlight the details we think we should. We connect data that we are trained to. We communicate to create value. In the combination dimension, knowledge is limited by what has been produced, by the means we have to share knowledge (mostly likely abstract and formal), and by the selection principles at play. In the internationalization dimension, what we get to practice is constrained by the systems that we operate in. And then, the knowledge becomes socialized again.

I am not saying that there can’t be “new” knowledge creation in this cycle, though I do claim that what can be created is highly limited by the echo chamber built by this cycle. But how can there be a radical departure from this cycle? How can this kind of knowledge creation not just lead to an incremental evolution? I think about the articles we read on American medical education and the impact this system has on the patient experience. How might the cycle be broken?

I am again going to borrow from Norman and Vergannti to define radical and incremental innovation. Radical innovation is “doing what we did not do before”. Incremental innovation is “doing better what we already do.” As a designer, how can I step in and change this pattern?

As has been reinforced by my experience doing human-centered design research, my experience as a teacher for over a decade, and many of the readings selected for us in theory, human-centered design will not lead to radical innovation. As Norman and Vergannti state: “The more that researchers study existing human behavior, activities, and products, the more they get trapped into existing paradigms. These studies lead to incremental improvements, enabling people to do better what they already do, but not to radical change that would enable them to do what they currently do not do.” What human-centered design does do well is to help designers figure out where there are current breakdowns in information flow, gaps in systems, system work arounds, how to make technology fit in more seamlessly and more… What it does not help designers build something that makes humans do something that they did not do before. This requires a different set of tools.

It is my hope that through research I can identify patterns that would point to a human desire for meaning change. This could lead to a new way of being/doing. However, if it weren’t already challenging enough to step outside of the constructs our knowledge sharing patterns have established, if I can find new meanings hidden within our culture, how might I test this to see if I have a valid hypothesis? How might I actually innovate and design an intervention that gets people to adopt this radical new meaning? It seems that incremental innovation can be employed. If there can be a theory of change that inspires people to adopt a new way of solving their problems and that, over time, crosses a magical threshold into a new way of being/doing/relating.

Shifting Focus: Stand Up, Austin! A Civic Comedy Show

Stand, Up, Austin! A Civic Comedy Show Stand Up, Austin! exists to bring laughter and civic inspiration to Austinites. Laughing and listening are essential to our lives as active citizens where we all stand up for the community we want to be. We’re non-profit and non-partisan.

Nikita - Instagram Photo@3x

To test our concept, we’ve identified our magic moment as the intersection of comedy and civic life. It’s taking something viewed as boring and an obligation, and making it fun and entertaining. Ultimately that’s what our customers are paying us to do: to laugh and learn about the local community and political life.

Our minimum viable product (MVP) is Stand Up, Austin! A Civic Comedy Show. The show will take place Wednesday, April 11, at Spider House Ballroom. We are promoting the show across Austin, and our goal is 75-100 attendees. The show is recommended in the Chronicle, a top pick on Do512, there is a brief write-up in The Villager, and posters on 130+ bulletin boards (typical public event boards where live shows usually promote and East Austin recreation and community centers). We’re on a diverse mix of 15+ local event calendars such as Soulciti, 365 Austin, and Austin 360.


Our team set out this week with the goal to design interactions within our pilot that would get customers to interface with our informational booths and use our interactive concepts. Our assumption was that by inspiring actions in civic activities in the moment rather than for a later time, our customers would gain more value and behavioral change.

By actually performing some civic action (registering to vote, signing up for volunteering, signing up for email updates) during the show, they would take that first step needed in becoming more civically engaged. We set out to create artifacts that would help us test this assumption in our pilot.

Specific Tasks For This Sprint:

  • Create a digital map of the ballroom area to visualize what touchpoints customers would interact within various scenarios
  • Finish designing and testing our interactive concepts so we can understand what is needed to iterate for our new strategy
  • Craft customer survey for before and after show to measure the success of the pilot
  • Iterate customer journey map and expand on experience post show
  • Bring on customers to make contextual inquiries before, during, and after the pilot for measuring success and iterating future experience designs

Mapping it Out

Our team mapped out the layout of the show from pictures and video we’ve taken throughout the past several weeks. High-level insights that we found were that the booths needed to spaced throughout the space to accurately reach all customers during the night. We also found that we needed to set up our chairs differently than previously anticipated due to our recent ticket sales (32 pre-sale) higher than expected. This new seating change, rows instead of cocktail tables, caused us to iterate our conversation card interactive concept from a simple card deck to seat placeholder card.

Conversation Cards

Initially, the idea was to have cards at each cocktail table that prompted users to interact with strangers, promoting community and engagement, and thereby actionably engage customers in civic participation. With the recent insight that we couldn’t have cocktail tables since our ticket sales were much higher than we anticipated at this point, we needed to switch chairs in a row format.

Now that customers wouldn’t be able to sit around a table and discuss these cards our thought was that they should be placed on the chairs. However, we assumed that people wouldn’t use them with other members of the audience pre-show in fear that they would love their spot. Based on this assumption our team decided to redesign the cards to include a seat number on the back. The idea is that when audience members arrive they can go over and find seats, take the card to reserve their spot, and then they are free to walk about before the show. By taking the card with them, they are more likely to use it to interact with new people.

We plan on testing these assumptions by doing a dry run in the next couple of days. Our findings from that test with determine whether we include this redesign in our pilot.

Measuring Success

One way that we plan to measure whether we were able to increase the likelihood of civic participation in future interaction is a pre and post-show survey. We plan that around 50% of the people there would take a survey at the beginning and the other 50% would consider a post-survey. The pre-show would measure their political efficacy, community efficacy, and civic life intentions, and the post-show survey would ask for the same feedback as well as their evaluation of the show.

We received help on this concept from Ori Tanuimbam: a journalism Ph.D. from the University of Texas who has performed research in civic events similar to ours. The idea is that by splitting the room and gathering data before and after we can tell if the event affected political intentions and knowledge.

We’ve started designing the survey but still have questions as to how we can incentivize customers to participate in the study. We are asking ourselves how we can have it remain thorough while remaining light, easy to understand, and fun.

Customer Journey Map

About halfway into our sprint we received feedback that we needed to think more about the customer experience after the show. At that point, we didn’t have a plan for follow up or continued interactions. We realize that it is paramount that our journey maps and design strategy account for these follow up actions. Our new design journey map accounts for this post show experiences, as well as has been iterated to include our updated interactive concepts.

At this point, we plan to take the emails we receive from our booths, our website, and ticket sales to create a follow-up email that prompts customers to further their interaction with civic resources. We plan to design a digital component to our concept that allows them to reach numerous resources to get involved in civic activities.

Contextual Inquiries During Pilot Experience

We are currently reaching out to people that have bought tickets to see if they will allow us to perform contextual inquiries with them during the night to observe and understand their behavior during the event. We’ve confirmed two participants, and we are awaiting a response from a woman that, in the early stages of testing our concept, we performed a research session with.

Next Steps

In the next few days, our team will be in overdrive mode finalizing our concepts and making any last minute iterations for our pilot. Our event is set for this Wednesday, April 11th at Spider House Ballroom. If you are curious about the work we’ve been doing and want to see it in action, please stop by, we would love the chance for you to experience it and give us feedback. To buy tickets click here. See you there!