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Technology: Strange v Familiar

This few weeks we have focused on the concept of technology being strange, yet familiar. Technologies and it’s rapid growth in conceptualization to market, far outseeds the Moore’s law already.

Is this a good thing? Is it a bad thing, does higher access to civilians make our lives more like a sci-fi film? Or make us better or smarter human beings? Or dumber… or have no affect at all?

Through all the readings I got a sense that the authors had also thought about this, and from one extreme to the next, one author Bell, felt that we should chill out on getting gadgety with domestic technology. Such as the internet tv in the refrigerator, because there could possibly be a place in your brain that could come up with a design solution to not have to have the user completely loose touch with the reality that makes us, well – human.

Not that technology is bad by any means, but choose wisely is what I got from her article. The power the designer has to influence those who interact with our “stuff” can be good, bad, or perhaps even worse, indifferent.

To illustrate this I used a 2×2 with the axis being: y axis – user controlled v technology controlled, and the x axis being the designers intent to make humans use more cognitive skills and become more intelligent, or less cognitive skills and become perhaps not dumber, but not any more intelligent by any means.



Our Authors:strange&familiar.002

The base for my discussion of the writings:strange&familiar.003 strange&familiar.004

I believe Bell fell between the technology being in control (if the future of design were to go the way she had explained) and this technology not making us human any smarter. But perhaps just making our lives easier by default of not having to think for ourselves.
strange&familiar.005 strange&familiar.006

I put Sterling right in the middle of not learning or getting dumber, but at least having more user control over our situation. Although our cultures may be different it doesn’t mean we wish to have different outputs in using the technology given to us.
strange&familiar.007 strange&familiar.008

Marsden was interesting to me for the sheer fact that his article dealt with such a real life situation. I placed him in an area where yes actually the user was getting more tech savy by shear means of having to learn to use the broken platform that was provided, but the user was still under the thumb of the reach of the technology provided, limited, yet aware.strange&familiar.009 strange&familiar.010

And then there is Kerweil the futurist whom I believe threw out Moore’s law a long time ago and believes that humans will actually be controlled by the robots we built in 200 years. He may be right. You never know.

Lastly I would like to leave with one thought that persisted throughout these readings. That we can not stop the progression of technology and how it impacts each person in each culture differently for better or worse. But as designers, we have the obligation to not only fulfill the need of the consumer, but also not go so overboard that we are actually making them less intelligent. There is a difference between a Roomba and an Internet ready TV screen on a refrigerator. The Roomba makes my life easier by keeping the floor clean, but it doesn’t solve my math homework, or tell me how to cook my grandmother’s recipes. 

The world has enough fluff widgetery. Let’s make some real design. 


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User Centered Design & the Imaginability of Future States

This week we read four essays surrounding the future of technology.  We read “Making by Making Strange: Defamiliarization and the Design of Domestic Technologies” by Genevieve Bell, “Design Fiction” by Bruce Sterling, “People are people, but technology is not technology” by Gary Marsden, and “Accelerating Intelligence” by Ray Kurzweil.

Today I’m focusing on how each author perceives the driving force behind technological advancements and also their views on whether future states are imaginable.  I’m also looking to see if there might be a correlation between driving forces and imaginability, and how that information might be leveraged by designers looking to make positive impact.

Below is the position diagram with Human v. Technology driven design on the X-axis and Imaginability vs Unimaginability on the Y-axis.  (Click on image for a closer look)



Genevieve Bell lands in the Upper Left where humans are the drivers of design & the future is imaginable.  She warns us that there are hidden assumptions within technology that can constrain the design space and she gives us the process of “Defamiliarization” to use as a tool to break free of these familiar assumptions.  She is clearly aware that technology is capable of driving design, but believes that root human needs and desires should be the ultimate driving force or else we may remain tied to the outdated modes of living that live within our technological artifacts.

In the Bottom Right is Ray Kurzweil who believes that computing power and computer intelligence (which I would argue are not equivalent) are accelerating at an exponential rate, and that even this exponential growth is growing exponentially.  He believes that paradigm shifts will occur with rapid succession as this growth rate continues to ramp up.  He states that the capabilities of future technologies are unimaginable, but throws out some sci-fi worthy ideas like the integration of computer intelligence into human biology.  Thus, he lands in the zone of technology leading design & the future being unimaginable.

In the same quadrant, but slightly closer to Genevieve Bell, is Bruce Sterling who talks of technology — specifically the internet — being something that was neither designed nor predicted by science fiction.  Thus, it is clear that technology is driving the design, and people then figure out their place within it.   He states that both science fiction & design lack a grand narrative to effectively imagine or produce a desired future and so he lands closer to the future being unimaginable.

Finally, Gary Marsden ends up in the same quadrant as Genevieve Bell though closer to Sterling & Kurzweil.  It is clear that he believes that solutions can be designed to help people — that is to say that future states can be imagined and produced — though his use of Human Access Points shows the difficulties of imagining solutions alone, and how the designers should seek out help from people within the actual context of the problem.

As you can see the authors fall into a diagonal line within the position diagram, which I believe points to a correlation between Imaginability and the Driver of Design.  That is to say, the more we focus on the human side of design — the needs and desires of users — the more imaginable the future becomes.  Conversely, the more we allow technology to drive design, the less imaginable our future will be and the more we will be subjected to the “will” of the undesigned.

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Defining Problems

The world is changing fast. There is a lot of pressure to innovate quickly, especially in terms of technology. However, technology-led innovation arguably does little to solve many of the problems facing humanity. While useful technologies are developed every day, much of technology is developed for the sake of the development of more technology–for added features that help products stay ahead of the market. Yet, there is another driver of innovation, which is human-centered design. This approach takes human needs as the impetus for innovation, ensuring that the solutions address existing needs and not unfocused technological progress. Either way, innovation begins first and foremost with how problems are defined.

In our Theory of Interaction Design and Social Entrepreneurship class, Laura Galos and I participated in a discussion around a series of articles focused on the subject of the uses of technology in innovation. Each has a perspective on innovative solutions, but also on the definition of the innovation problem. The readings were as follows:

Design Fiction, by author Bruce Sterling, introduces “design fiction” as a way to imagine and think about the future. Sterling is a science-fiction writer, speaker and professor at the European Graduate School in Switzerland.

Genevieve Bell, Mark Blythe and Phoebe Sengers wrote the article Making by Making Strange: Defamiliarization and the Design of Domestic Technologies. In this text, the authors describe defamiliarization as a strategy for exposing new opportunities by reframing our understanding of the intent and purpose behind things that already exist. Bell is a cultural anthropologist at Intel Labs where she leads a team of researchers. Mark Blythe is a research fellow at the University of York and Phoebe Sengers leads the Culturally Embedded Computing group at Cornell University.

In People Are People, But Technology is Not Technology, authors Gary Marsden, Andrew Maunder and Munier Parker underscore the importance of designing by understanding what a human needs technology to do, rather than working backwards from technological capabilities to address a human need—which may turn out not to be a need at all.

Ray Kurzweil, author of The Law of Accelerating Returns presents an argument that the relationship between the pace of technological change and human progress as it relates to the future is largely misunderstood. He says, “When people think of a future period, they intuitively assume that the current rate of progress will continue for future periods. However, careful consideration of the pace of technology shows that the rate of progress is not constant, but it is human nature to adapt to the changing pace…”. Kurzweil is the Director of Engineering at Google.

In each of these readings, problems are the basis of innovation. Problems may be defined as the need for technological progress, or they may be defined in ways that describe human needs first and foremost. We believe that the latter is a more useful viewpoint which empowers designers to solve for human needs above technological progress for it’s own sake.

Technology-Led Problem-Solving

Where “progress” is the goal, problems are defined as technological issues. Additional features and capabilities are seen as the solution to problems, and so the process with which to solve these problems becomes a feedback loop: from demand (whether from corporate, marketing, or pressures to outdo the competition) to creation, spurring new demand. In this context, technology takes the lead, resulting in rapid short-term changes that prevents designers from learning and iterating throughout the problem-solving process. This often manifests in feature-heavy innovations that are not centered around the humans who will use the product. Kurzweil illustrates the dystopian end-result of technology-led change. Technology is changing at an exponential rate, and will soon exceed our realm of understanding. He says, “As exponential growth continues to accelerate…it will appear to explode into infinity, at least from the limited and linear perspective of contemporary humans. The progress will ultimately become so fast that it will rupture our ability to follow it. It will literally get out of control. The illusion that we have our hand “on the plug, “ will be dispelled.”

tech for blog

What happens when designers lead change, not technology?

When benefit to human users is the goal, problems are defined differently. The authors of the texts we have read in class put forth several techniques for problem-finding and problem-defining that help keep human needs, rather than technological progress, at the center of innovation. Human needs are complex, and require a more robust framework around problem definition to ensure focus and useful outcomes. The following are three techniques the authors put forth to find and define problems:

Sterling: Introduce constraints

Sterling draws parallels between science-fiction and design as beneficiaries of more clearly defined constraints. It’s the recognition and acknowledgement of where boundaries lie that allow writers and designers alike to push past them and imagine new future states for their craft. He says, “These two inherently forward-looking schools of thought and action do seem blinkered somehow–not unimaginative, but unable to imagine effectively. A bigger picture, the new century’s grander narrative, its synthesis, is eluding them.” As it relates to problem definition, constraints focus a problem enough to allow designers to work in a small enough “box” to make an impact on a given need, or course-correct as necessary to find the boundaries of a problem worth solving.

Bell, Blythe and Sengers: Defamiliarize and reframe

By defamiliarizing, Bell, Blythe and Sengers teach us to disassociate from our existing understanding and reframing with new meaning to arrive at new and innovative opportunities. They describe this as an act of “analyzing a kitchen sink in terms of its cultural or social significance…by questioning the assumptions inherent in the design of everyday objects that HCI [human-computer interaction] has always opened up design spaces, pointing towards better and more innovative designs.” Defamiliarization allows designers to acknowledge the assumptions they come to a problem with. Focus on assumptions allows designers to avoid them or challenge them as they define the problem they will solve.

Marsden, Maunder & Parker: Contextualize culture

When problem definition begins first with the technology that could be used, designers introduce risks associated by omitting contextual understanding of the user and their environment. However, from the perspective of these authors, this means that constraints in technology don’t necessarily need to be understood by the end-user, but by those the individuals within a community that can use their understanding to imagine alternative solutions. They say, …”we realize that, within most communities, there are people with a vision for how technology can best be used within their context.” Defining problems that take into account the needs of individuals and community in their context leads to solutions that are relevant and impact real human needs in culturally-appropriate ways.


Human-Led Problem-Solving

Ultimately, designers are certainly equipped to solve describable problems, but they are even more well-suited to solve and lead problems that are ambiguous and difficult to define. Being able to iteratively introduce constraints, defamiliarize and reframe and contextualize culture allows designers to parse through complexity and solve problems that arrive at innovations useful for people. The goal of design from beginning to end is human-centered, long-term change. When design takes the lead on innovation, the problem-solving process invites the application of technology for the sake of humanity, not just technology for the sake of demonstrating speed to change. In order to truly have a positive impact on society people in society, ideas must be born of empathy and human understanding before they take they are shaped by the application of technology.

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True Story


We are only a few weeks away from our final AC4D presentation, and we’re excited to share with you where our exploration of designing for family discussions around aging has led us.

Currently, our team (Laura Galos and Maryanne Lee) is working on both piloting and creating ideal-state artifacts for our project, which we are calling “True Story.”

True Story is “the get-to-know-you game for people you’ve known your whole life.” It’s a card game for families in which the object is to collect stories from one another, in particular, between intergenerational players.

What Does It Do?

While collecting stories is a worthy goal for families on its own, True Story is designed to do much more. Stories provide a window into the past, but they also provide insight into the way people think, make decisions, their values, and their fears. While family members are collecting stories in the context of a game, they are also collecting perspectives from other family members about topics that might never come up in ordinary conversation.

How Does It Work?

True Story cards each feature a question about a situation that has come up in the past. Some examples are, “Tell me about a time you met a celebrity” and “Tell me about a time you went on vacation alone.”


Other cards ask for stories around topics that our research has shown to be difficult for families to broach, such as finance, health, living arrangements, and driving. For example, a question that gets family members to talk about ill health is, “Tell me about a time you did something to improve your health.”


Once the player has told the story, other player(s) guess whether the first player has told a true story or a fiction story. Correct guesses are awarded a token to acknowledge the collected story, and the first person to 10 tokens wins.

Why Did We Make This?

Why do families need to collect stories, perspectives, an intuitive understanding of one another’s values and ways of making decisions? Why do uncomfortable topics need to be surfaced, if only in a game setting? Why make a game of this at all?

The Making of True Story

To recap some of the thinking that went into the creation of True Stories, we returned to our last blog post about our project, written at the end of Quarter 3. At that time our goal was to develop a design solution to help facilitate the difficult conversations seniors and their families have around the major changes that come with aging. Specifically, we wanted to help start conversations about aging transitions—such as limiting driving, or looking at assisted living—between adult children and their aging parents.

While the core of idea has remained the same, over the last several months it has manifested in so many ways—from an iPad game, to a website that helps adults send letter to their aging parents, to a communication tool that uses cards to start the conversation—that amid all the changes it is affirming to look back and see how closely our current product adheres to the principles we set out at the end of Quarter 3. Based on our research and testing with families, caregivers, and aging individuals, we had developed the following criteria to which anything we made had to meet.To help families address difficult aging-related conversations, our product must:


Design Principles: Mission Accomplished?

Use a medium older individuals already enjoy

Success! To get to True Story, we started by piloting a product we called “Playffle.” Playffle was also card-based, but felt more like a communication tool than a game per se. In our initial research back in Quarter 2, we saw that our older participants, such as Anette, 84, strongly associated cards with being social. She told us that she “love[s] to play cards. I have different groups I play with—some play more complicated games and some play less complicated ones […] It’s a good time, a lot of camaraderie there.” Our pilot participants, upon trying Playffle, greatly appreciated that the cards were non-digital. One participant, aged 82, was under the impression we were going to make a website out of our cards, was elated to hear that we intended to produce a physical product. Furthermore, even younger participants who we spoke with exhibit a wide spectrum of comfort with digital technology. Using a non-digital medium allows everyone to come to the table with a degree of certainty and comfort—a positive start to productive conversations.

Feels non-threatening for older individuals

In piloting Playffle, we explicitly created cards with questions about difficult topics, including driving, living arrangements, and daily tasks. However, we thought that by introducing these topics through hypothetical scenarios, there would be less of a sense that older individuals’ behaviors are being singled out by these conversations. In reality, declining health, trouble driving, etc. are problems that anyone can face, regardless of age. By creating scenario-based questions, we hoped to open up the dialog from one of intervention to one of mutual conscientiousness and preparedness amongst family members. For example, one of our cards looked like this:

Pilot Card for Blog

Our testing showed that hypotheticals are a great way of getting older individuals to open up about facing difficult situations. One pilot participant was very honest about how she could identify with one situation—about buttons and zippers on clothing becoming difficult to manage—and sharing with the other card player how she manages those difficulties. Another participant mentioned that she would like to use these cards with her daughter, who was making financial decisions our participant was worried about. In sum, older individuals not only felt comfortable with these cards, they identified them as useful for addressing difficult topics with their younger family members as well.


Feels approachable to family members

In our discussions with adult children of aging parents, we found that there was a great deal of fear around broaching aging-related topics. That fear stemmed from angering their parent. One participant we talked to, aged 61, with a father in his 80s, said, “If you bring up the subject of driving, Dad will terminate the conversation. He will become extremely angry and stop talking. Particularly as your parents age, you don’t want to alienate them at the end.” We think that by providing a product that is comfortable and approachable for older individuals—something that will probably not make them feel threatened or angry—we increase the approachability to younger family members. When we introduced the idea of playing cards to another participant, she saw them as “Something I would do day to day with my Dad. My Dad would think its fun finding out about each other or the solutions to problems.”

Leads to solutions, not just fun bonding moments

Our pilot iteration, Playffle, was geared toward adult children and their aging parents at a very specific stage—one in which the adult children were already concerned about the changes their parents would have to make due to aging, but before a crisis had yet occurred. These adults are understandably feeling a lot of pressure and seeking quick, sure solutions that would alleviate their anxiety and make their parents as safe and well-cared-for as possible. Playffle was pretty direct about coming to solutions, not just fun bonding moments. However, the cards felt clinical—a major reason we moved toward our current product iteration. We doubt that Playffle was an enjoyable enough product for people to want to use on their own without us sitting beside them. So we made a decision to broaden the possible usage of our cards. Our current iteration, True Stories, is less direct. It is not meant for adult children who need answers immediately. It is meant as a game different generations of a family can play together to hear stories they would not otherwise have known, get a sense of how the other person/people think and make decisions, and bring up “taboo” topics, such as health and finance, long before a crisis forces the issue. However, in exchange for directness, True Story offers an enjoyable experience that increases the likelihood people will actually use it. One participant in our early testing is caring for her father, who has dementia. Increasingly, she must make decisions about her father’s care on her own without her father’s input. She told us that she wants to make decisions based on “what would my Dad do?” By creating a game that families like to play—and as a secondary benefit, helps family members get to know each other, how they think, and what they value earlier—they can help each other make aging-related decisions together later.

Includes a way to follow-up on conversations

One of the strengths of True Story is that by playing it, the game ensures that taboo topics, such as health, are aired before a crisis happens. A question such as “Tell me about a time you had a health scare” means that families will have heard a story about ill health and have some perspective on the thoughts and feelings around that topic. Later, if and when tough situations arise, each of these stories acts as a tiny window through which the conversation can be re-introduced. By the time a serious conversation about these topics needs to happen, the silence around the subject has already been broken.

Takes into considerations families who live far apart

Many families today live far apart. Partnerships, job opportunities, and geographical preferences can result in families members that live thousands of miles away from one another. In our research, many families we talked to see each only for visits on special occasions. We know that the time spent together under these conditions is valuable. True Story honors the family time together by focusing on the collection of family stories. Additionally, it’s portable—not a small consideration in cases where families must travel to see one another.


Based on the design principles we laid out at the end of last quarter, we are confident that True Story can help families set the stage for open communication based on mutual understanding as they face major transitions, including those that occur with aging, together. Please feel free to explore our pilot version, Playffle, in the clickable prototype below. We will continue to pilot and evolve True Story until pencils down on May 2nd, so we welcome any feedback you have on our project in the comments section. Thanks!

Playffle Clickable Prototype


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Summit: Pay it down while you live it up

“I’d like to pay off my credit cards as soon as possible because it is a cloud, it is something hanging over my head.”
–Jennifer, 32

Debt can be intensely anxiety provoking and yet we saw over and over again in our research that although the young people we spoke with recognized that their financial situation was causing them stress, and that it was going to be detrimental to their future, they continued to struggle to change their day to day spending behaviors enough to pay down their debt. Why is it so difficult for people to change their behavior when it comes to money? Why aren’t all of the myriad of existing tools addressing this problem?

Satisfaction Happens Now + Fear of Missing Out

Over the last six months, through a dozen in-depth interviews, intercepts and prototype testing, we’ve gained a deeper understanding of how young adults think about their finances, how they feel about their debt, and how they manage their current financial situation.



Through our research two things became very clear:

1. There is no satisfaction in future benefits. We need to feel immediate value to be satisfied.

2. We want to make good decisions but fear sacrificing more than necessary.

“In the moment of choosing to buy something or not, it’s really easy to make that decision– yeah fuck it, I don’t care– I want this now, and then, oh I have to rein it in now, I have to pay this off.”
–Carl, 24

People will make a budget at the beginning of the month in order to get their spending under control, but are not able to bridge the gap between the abstract goals, considered once a month, that the budget represents and their day-to-day spending decisions.


Designing a Solution

We believe that we can reduce the overwhelming anxiety caused by credit card debt and empower young adults to change their behavior and achieve a better financial future.


Introducing Summit:

Turn paying down debt into a daily activity, just like spending.
Summit is a financial app that bridges the gap between long term financial goals and daily spending by allowing users to send a little extra from their checking account to the card they want to pay off. Summit sends users contextually appropriate messages inviting users to put small amounts of money toward their debt while they are spending money on the activities they enjoy, bringing long term financial goals to top of mind.


Summit Gets Personal
Summit learns the user’s spending habits and chooses the best times to invite them to put some money towards their debt. After all, doing something good for yourself always feels good.

Summit Reduces Anxiety
Looking at a large credit card balance can be overwhelming. That’s why Summit breaks down the user’s long term goal of paying down your debt into small manageable chunks. All while helping decrease the amount of time they’ll be paying their debt.


Experience Summit: Click on the image below to get a preview of how Summit will work


But…will it work?

We launched a pilot to find out. Summit promises its users to reduce the anxiety caused by credit card debt and empower them to change their behavior and achieve a better financial future. In order to find out if our service could do this, we hacked together existing technologies to test how behavior changes over time.

How the Pilot Worked

Relying on existing technologies, we created a process to test Summit’s core interaction: sending users daily messages that allow them to put money toward their debt. We used Square Cash (link) to send requests for money to our participants. Whenever a participant transfers money to Summit via cash, we use an online banking bill pay service to make a payment on that participant’s credit card.

Here’s an overview of how the pilot worked:


Understanding our Participants:

After recruiting individuals we took them through a setup that mimicked how Summit would actually work. Like we said before, Summit has a personal element to it so that it can fit into people’s lives in a manner that is empowering and supportive. To best mimic this, we sat down with participants and had conversations around their spending habits, their debt, when they pay their bills and even how they feel during the week and on the weekends. This helped set the foundation to better integrate Summit into their daily lives.


(Click below to experience the pilot)
Screen Shot 2015-04-17 at 11.45.09 AM


What we wanted to know:

Would people stick with their goal or would they drop off? Does the service reduce anxiety of debt or does it increase it? These are questions that we can’t answer without testing with real people.

With one more week left in the pilot, we are looking forward to making sense of all the information we’ve gathered so far. We’ll be interviewing our participants to gain a full understanding of what it was like to use Summit. In these interviews we will focus on feelings around the use of the service, why they responded to certain requests with an accept or a decline, and if the amount of debt paid down was significant for them. These interviews will be pivotal in helping us decide on our next step.

Stay tuned!

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Design Ethic: Connecting Intent, Method & Result

All of the authors we read for the section of our theory course entitled “power” agree that design is powerful social force. They vary however in how they view design, whether it is simply a collection of methods that can be applied regardless of intent, as Martin suggests, or it is fundamentally defined by its intent as Kolko argues.  As is often the case, I argued vehemently, that design is defined by its methods, in the process of arriving at the conclusion that design is, at its core, about the intention to humanize, support and empower. Unfortunately, that does not mean that the methods of design are not very powerful in service of less noble intentions. For this reason it is crucial to develop a way to connect intention and method, which borrowing from Kolko, I am calling an “ethic”.

In the attached document, I briefly summarize each article and diagram the author’s position with respect to the intent, method and result. Additionally, I present a diagram which synthesizes the various arguments and puts forward my own interpretation of how to align the intentions, methods and results of my design practice.

Intent, Method & Result

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The Role of Design

Design is a set of tools and a process. Like all tools and processes, it can be used in the service of good or bad intentions. It can also be powerful, and so requires people to make decisions about where it is appropriate to apply design process or design thinking, and in what manner.

In our AC4D theory class, Laura Galos and I participated in a discussion about 4 readings this week around the subject of “power.” Pelle Ehn, Professor of Interaction Design at Malmo University who wrote Designing for Democracy at Work, describes this as “the degree of strength in the workers’ collective com[ing] from the ‘we-feeling’ created by shared experiences. The basis for this ‘we-feeling’ is physical nearness at the workplace – which makes interaction possible.”

In Innovation and Entrepreneurship: Schumpeter Revisited, John Hagedoorn from the Maastricht Economic Research Institute on Innovation and Technology writes about the influence Joseph Schumpeter, an economist and political scientist, had on the role entrepreneurs have in innovation. Hagedoorn quotes Schumpeter on the entrepreneurs’ loss of power by saying, “He pictures the diminishing importance of the entrepreneur who loses his/her function as the agent who changes existing routines. Economic development gradually becomes ‘depersonalized’ and ‘automatized’. Consequently, innovation is being reduced to routine.”

We also read Design Thinking and How It Will Change Management Education, co-authored by Roger Martin, former Dean of the Rotman School of Management and David Dunne, Adjunct Professor of Marketing. In this reading, Martin and Dunne make the claim that “the idea of applying design approaches to management is new and, as yet, largely underdeveloped,” but critical for the future professional power of MBA graduates. Finally, a short paper, Manipulation, by our teacher Jon Kolko, describes how the power wielded by designers can be put into check by involving the participation of others. He says, “participatory design places a heavy check on manipulation by including the people who will use or live with the design in the process of its creation.”

Each paper referred to design at a level of scale, whether it is the practice of adding design thinking broadly to MBA programs (as in the case of Martin and Dunne) or creating methods through with laborers could arrange and control their working conditions in Sweden (as in the case of Ehn). In each case, the role of a designer fits within a nebula of other roles in an organization, including management, labor, and in some cases users.

Traditional Work

Hagerdoorn, in speaking of Schumpeter’s theories, sets up a view of the traditional work organization, a top-down hierarchy with decisions flowing from management at the top to labor at the bottom. He positions the “entrepreneur” figure, a sort of proto-designer, as part-labor (but “creative labor” which is of a “higher order”), part force-of-disruption that upends market equilibrium and drives market evolution—at least temporarily. Eventually, as “innovation” becomes the norm, the designer/entrepreneur is absorbed into the management-labor balance. Generally speaking, work organization took on a simple structure:

IDSE402_Traditional for Blog

Schumpeter may be right. As “innovation” becomes the norm, designers are absorbed within the management-labor arrangement, in which case they cannot effect larger changes that really are innovative, and have less influence over whether the output of their work is beneficial or harmful. So the question is, where is the designer most effective in an organization?

Design Work

Based on the perspectives represented by each reading, we came up with this diagram to illustrate the position of the designer within an organization.

IDSE402_New for Blog


The writings of Martin and Dunne inform the left portion of the diagram. Martin believes that design thinking should become a part of any MBA training. The outcome of this may be that management also functions as the design team in an organization. However, Martin and Dunne leave out an important part of the designer’s role, which is listening to, understanding, and empathizing with users. Therefore, while designers have a reciprocal relationship with management, they must be separate and accessible to other groups of people who the designed product or service will impact. We have re-named “management” as “operations and strategy” to reflect this 2-way relationship, in which the designers are not “managed” but are partners in the organization.


Sometimes, “users” are laborers, who traditionally are positioned in opposition to management. In the reading by Pelle Ehn, designers explored the concept of democratizing the workplace. In a conscious decision to empathize with the laborers, rather than management, they established the idea that while designers must establish two-way connection with labor, they must also be outside of it. By being outside of labor, they are free to reject the “harmony view of organizations” that management puts forth to keep management in control, and conduct their research in the interest of the “emancipation” of labor.


“Users” not participating directly in a particular management-labor dichotomy are the people who use the products and services that are the result of an organization’s production. In Manipulation, Kolko writes that “design is supportive,” and “frequently serves people who cannot serve themselves.” Because designers cannot avoid inserting their bias into their designs, they can at least put checks on themselves and on other powers within an organization by engaging in participatory design, where the people who use the end products have a say in the creation and direction of the product. Therefore, designers also need to establish a two-way relationship with the people who will live with their output.

Designers as Interpreters:

In conclusion, the role of the designer within an organization must be that of a translator between each piece of an organization. They must understand and “speak” enough of the language of the thinking (strategy and operations), making (labor), and participation (users) to be able to integrate and meaningfully represent the disparate interests of each part of the organization to the other in a way that makes sense to all in order to use their influence to ensure the output of “good” products and services into the world.


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User Centered design gone wrong

This past week we read 3 articles, by three different authors. Jon Kolko’s: Our Misguided Focus on Brand and User Experience A pursuit of a “total user experience” has derailed the creative pursuits of the Fortune 500., Michael Hobbes’: Stop Trying to Save the World Big ideas are destroying international development, and Aneel Karnani’s: Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: A Mirage How the private sector can help alleviate poverty.

In each article I believe that each author was trying to tell the story of how true user centered interaction design went wrong. Whether it be by big business basically creating their own definition for user centered design to appease their unwillingness to change, or as Karnani did, calling out an actual individual name CK Prahalad for trying his hand at user centered design and failing.

I decided to create an infographic artifact to illustrate my take on these three articles.


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Impact is Personal

When it comes down to it, there is a problem with our current culture of development. We have the best intentions to create change and drive impact but the culture of scale, numbers and metrics and immediacy get in the way of actually succeeding at this. While I agree that it’s really difficult to continue to get funding for projects that don’t have a concrete method of showing progress, or any guarantee of success, I believe that there needs to be a cultural shift of expectations. Expectations that are built around honoring the personal, local nuances of the individual communities we are trying to help.

Impact through Behavior Change

To help set the stage, I want to talk about how Jon Kolko describes experience in his article, Our Misguided Focus on Brand and User Experience A pursuit of a “total user experience” has derailed the creative pursuits of the Fortune 500.

“An experience cannot be built for someone. Fundamentally, one has an experience, and that is experience is always unique.”

It’s very personal. As designers, we can design the scaffold around the experience but the actual experience is completely out of our control. So essentially, the affect of what we put into the world is fairly unpredictable. Which can be kind of scary.

It’s important to note that even though the outcome is out of our control, this does not relinquish us from responsibility. While Kolko’s article gives a nod to large scale, his emphasis is on the importance of recognizing the role we play in shaping human behavior, from the individual and how that scales to an entire culture, organically. What we put into the world has an impact. Whether the thing is adopted or rejected, people adapt and therefore culture changes.

If we take a moment to think about how personal an experience is for an individual, and that individual is connected to a community of people who have their own personal understandings of the world, we can begin to see the intricacies that make up a culture, and even more importantly the intricacies that any kind of impact will need to consider.

Impact through Iteration

In Michael Hobbes’ article, Stop Trying to Save the World: Big ideas are destroying international development, he begins the discussion of how we handle aid development is broken. He has a couple of different examples of how we have developed this pattern of one-size fits all– Where one type of aid works in one community so let’s scale it and put it in all the communities that need aid. It’s almost like a commoditization of aid.

Nothing is one size fits all– you have to test it, test it again, then test it again. This is not sexy by mainstream standards. This is where our culture of impact is broken. There’s a viral component to sexy which breeds scale. It’s easy for the masses to wrap their head around a solution that is simple and has the story of big impact. It’s much more difficult to be counter culture and to paint the picture of how change really happens– over time, is dependent on so many factors that are complex and interconnected, and we don’t know if it’s going to work, but we sure as hell are going to try. (Which is sexy.) This is where our culture of impact needs to change.

What happens after deployment is just as important as what happens in the design thinking phase. If we connect Kolko’s article to Hobbes’, one thing becomes very clear: We must execute with intention and build in space for reflection and iteration. We should respect the bigger system that is in play here and be humbled by the absolute fact that there is no way we will get it spot on, and that we will have to take our time and work at it.

Impact through Emergence

In Annel Karnani’s paper, Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: A Mirage completely refutes Prahalad’s stance that by expanding economic reach to the untapped market of the poor, not only can businesses thrive, but including the poor in market strategies might help “end economic isolation”.

Karnani emphasizes that the real fortune at the bottom of the pyramid is allowing growth to come from within, that the place for outside markets is to create producers out of the poor rather than simple consumers. Allowing the space for the emergence of local change and progress. Which could be about helping meet basic, fundamental needs, or working with local governments to make change as a way of empowerment from within rather than impact from without. And yes, this would take some time, this wouldn’t be fast, and it would be local and personal.

All three to some degree or another argue that no solution can be one size fits all, we must understand that experience and therefore impact is personal, and we cannot control outcomes. Because of this, when we put something into the world, the follow up is just as important as the design phase. We must create the feedback loop.

The impact we have may not have a red bow tied around it. We need to take time to understand the real problem and not allow ourselves to get caught up in the story of scale or profit. If we acknowledge that impact is personal, we can begin to create change that scales in a way that is sustainable and truly lasting.

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Re-Prioritizing Scale to Achieve Cultural Impact in Design

In our Theory of Interaction Design and Social Entrepreneurship class, the first set of readings we were presented with are three viewpoints on how having the best of intentions to help can still lead to the introduction of consequences into the world that don’t leave people better off as we had hoped. With this being our fourth and final quarter as students at Austin Center for Design, understanding the influence we have on people and society as a whole is an important reality for us as designers to grasp.

Michael Hobbes, author of Stop Trying to Save the World uses the example of PlayPump International. This organization came up with the idea of PlayPumps, which are merry-go-rounds hooked up to a water pump that would “harness the energy of children to provide fresh water to sub-Saharan African villages. While the potential impact was extremely compelling to donors and the media earning PlayPumps significant financial support, an unintended consequence of the design made the pumps installed reliant on child labor.

Jon Kolko, author of Our Misguided Focus on Brand and User Experience addresses how marketing and design efforts have emphasized gaining control instead of encouraging behavioral change. The intent to build a relationship with customers is overshadowed by the draw of “gain[ing] efficiencies by producing…exactly as perscribed, in mass.” In applying this mindset to the design of user experiences, we prevent people from being able to “participate and contribute in a meaningful way.”

Finally, Aneel Karnani, author of Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: A Mirage makes a case for reducing the costs of the goods sold to them or making these individuals producers of the goods themselves in order to affecting the people living in poverty in a positive way. Otherwise, he says, “The only real way to alleviate poverty is to raise the real income of the poor.”

In other words, these three authors present points of views with the metric of success along a spectrum.


Success over time begins first with Hobbes and the novelty that comes with having an idea that attracts a following. He says that it is “a narrative we’re all familiar with by now. Exciting new development idea, huge impact in one location, influx of donor dollars, quick expansion, failure.” From here, the expectation for continued success is to scale the idea up to more people in more locations as quickly and as cost-effectively as possible. In order to garner public and financial support, the viability of a socially impactful idea is met with the pressures to scale. Only then is your idea recognized for its potential to drive behavior change. “PlayPump International…seemed to have thought of everything. The whole package cost just $7,000 to install in each village and could provide water for up to 2,500 people.” They were not addressing behavior change specifically, but were evaluating the idea’s ability to scale from a quantitative perspective. For designers, Kolko addresses this by saying that “Every design decision…contributes to the behavior of the masses, and helps define the culture of our society.” If success continues to occur over time, going down this path, we would expect the output of scaling an idea and driving behavior change to achieve cultural impact. This is where the breakdown occurs. Karnani’s point made here summarizes this breakdown: “Markets of the rural poor are often geographically and culturally fragmented; this combined with weak infrastructure makes it hard to exploit scale economies.”

Should we re-prioritize the notion of scale as the determinant of success over time?

Effective social impact is attached to the perception that an idea must ultimately achieve massive scale in order for it to be determined viable as a success. In other words, the challenge is changing the perception that success is directly proportionate to one’s ability to increase the number of people an idea touches. If we can begin to understand that cultural impact is affected over time by ongoing user testing and feedback followed by iteration, the concept of scale becomes an output of driving behavioral change. As a result, success is achieved by driving cultural impact over time.


What is the value of having user input in a design solution before you determine how an idea will be scaled?

When the novelty that surrounds the potential for making a difference quickly wears off, you might be left with something no one wants to use. You have now invested time and resources into something that you thought would make things better, but actually do not work at all. Re-prioritizing where the scaling of an idea should take place over time allows designers to more effectively shape culture through their work by focusing first on and foremost on behavior change by getting things in front of users, incorporating feedback (or not) and iterating.

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