Design Juniors + Start Up! Kids

Last week I was concerned about the progress of the summer academy program I’m starting, called Design Juniors. Not only did people not understand what design thinking was, they kept asking the question, but what will the kids be doing?

Very valid question, and my answer was that, I didn’t know! I knew we would do some “design thinking” activities, but I hadn’t defined the challenge the students were going to work on yet. Last week, I held several meeting with people at different non-profit organizations around town, and they all seemed to have potential. One conversation, however, stuck with me the most.

Start-Up! Kids Club began just a year ago and is essentially a one-woman show with a growing program in 6 locations around Austin. The woman that founded the non-profit program has been getting requests for a summer camp, but she doesn’t quite have the capacity to do put it together and run it on her own.

This is where I step in. “Why don’t we just partner for the camp?” I asked, “We will teach kids how to launch their own businesses, and design thinking will be the underlying methodology we use.”

She was in, and now I’m working on putting together an outline for a two week course in the summer that blends design thinking and entrepreneurship.

IMG_2302

Next steps include tightening up some partnerships that are in the works and ironing out details like location and pricing so we can start selling spots for the camp.

In April, we are planning to run a retreat for students out at a place near Dripping Springs. This will be a teaser for the program and a way for us to test out some of the things we will teach.

In the meantime, there’s lots to do. Next week you can look forward to hearing what it’s like to run an ideation session with 9 year olds.

 

Thinkers of the Future

The future is unknown.

Prior to AC4D, I spent a lot of time working with students of all ages, from pre-school through high school. My most recent role was at Eanes Elementary School in Austin where I taught 3rd Graders. I taught all subjects, but was lucky enough to have a supportive administration that trusted me to create my own projects for my students. It was in these projects that I saw my students come alive. We took on big, messy projects that allowed them to “figure it out” for themselves, and they simply oozed with enthusiasm, often wanting to skip recess to work.

When I asked myself the question, what’s a problem worth solving? I couldn’t let go of that special joy I feel when teaching. And I can’t let go of my fear that the school system is spoiling a young person’s chance for a bright future.

What I mean by this is, students are wildly unprepared to do just about anything upon graduation from high school and even college. But the problem is, we no longer know what we are preparing our students for. The future is unknown. The young people of today will be asked to solve problems in the future that we have yet to fathom. So how could a teacher possibly prepare her students for the unknown?

It’s clear that we no longer need to create students that can perform well on tests, and memorize facts. Really, we don’t even need to focus on preparing students for college.

We need to prepare students to be the thinkers our future will demand. We need to give them the skills and confidence to take on unknown challenges. And we must give them the courage to solve problems not only creatively, but earnestly and with reverence for the complexities of our world.

I propose a program for design thinking that gives students the opportunity to explore human centered design principles as it applies to complex problems. The problems will be both real and imagined, and students will learn skills such as sketching, ideation, prototyping, testing, and iterating. That’s right, it’s AC4D for young learners.  

Asset 6@2x

What I Learned

There are many schools in Austin that have taken on initiatives to incorporate social emotional learning (SEL), STEM, and design thinking. The importance of these skills is gaining traction, but teachers are so strapped with meeting state requirements, that doing a deep dive into the world of Design + Empathy is close to impossible. We need another way.

Schools could adopt the Design + Empathy program as part of their curriculum. It could be an after school program. Or it could a summer camp. After considering restrictions and running the numbers, I’ve decided that they best way to test a program like this is through a summer camp model offering a 1 week day camp.

The working name for this camp is Design Jrs.

Design Jrs Sketch 2-01

The age range the program will focus on is 9-13 year olds. This is the age in which students have enough cognitive ability to think outside of their own selves, work independently as well as on teams, and whose parents still need to find activities and camps for them during the summer break.

Most summer day camps in the Austin are a week long and range from $250-$350 a week. By running a quick calculation of costs, revenue model looks sustainable.

I’ve also learned that my customers for this model are not just the students, but that the parents are my key customer.

What’s Next

Moving forward there are many parts of this plan that need to be validated. Will parents pay for this program? Will they understand it’s value? Will students be excited to sign up?

The first step in testing this plan is to conduct customer interviews with parents to understand how they go about finding and selecting a summer camp for their child.

I’ve been around parents and students enough in the past to have a vague idea, that I believe looks something like this:

Artboard 1@72x-100

If this decision making process is true, I’ll need to dive in more to developing a plan for helping Design Jrs. become a no-brainer camp decision.

Additionally, I plan to validate the enthusiasm of students. To do this, I’ll run short sessions in the classrooms of some of my past co-workers. The development of the curriculum will be an on-going process, but at this stage I’ll start by testing the concept and get feedback from students on the parts that excite and resonate most.

Other important steps forward include securing the location to host the camps out of. For this I plan to do some research and have conversations with schools that are already equipped with the types of space requirements this program will need.

Areas for Support

Have you yourself taught design thinking workshops or lessons? I would love to hear your approach and learn what resources or methods you found most valuable. Do you have ideas of possible locations? Do you know of similar programs in Austin I should be aware of? Do you know of any design organizations that would be interested in a partnership or contributing to this venture?

How I built a system to help users save money

This week, I had a whole new experience when the bank I have been building wireframes for chose to integrate a new core product as fast as possible. The new product has four key features: user financial trends, analysis of specific transactions to see if they are historically anomalous, a “what-if” financial modeling system, and an ability to figure out when it is safe to spend at any time. The last time I wrote, I said I was going to build out my screens, do usability testing with 8-10 people, and build out my flows. Though I did accomplish this, I am going to focus on how I developed the new product, how I tested it, what I learned, and present my new screens.

In this week’s post, I am going to discuss

  • my process,
  • revised information architecture concept model,
  • testing,
  • testing outcomes,
  • screens and
  • next steps.

My Process

Since the new product I have been tasked to incorporate in the mobile banking application is about financial analysis, I decided that its fundamental purpose is to help a customer save. Thus, at its core, the mission of the new product is to help users save money. After doing some background research, I found out that Americans are not saving a lot of money at all. To me, this means the product should help Americans move from living paycheck-to-paycheck to a state of financial stability which I will define as having saved three times the amount of money you spend each month.

So now, I have framed the challenge in a new way. I am not longer trying to fit four different products into my banking application. Instead, I am going to determine how can a banking application help a financially illiterate person gain the confidence to begin saving their money and get out of the situation where they are living from paycheck to paycheck.

This led me to ask questions like, “Why don’t people save money? What are barriers to financial planning? How can a mobile application support decisions that lead to long term saving?”. There are products out there that help a user budget. So why isn’t America jumping on board and living within their means, putting away a little bit every month, learning to invest and take on other habits that will lead to long term financial stability? Of course, there are many factors a banking application has no control over. It can’t change the very real circumstances that Americans live everyday. What can it control? How can it help users to change their behavior in simple ways?

Thus, I started to reframe the challenge again. I asked myself, “How can the banking application create a situation in which the user feels like saving’s support is invited? What circumstances would a user be in, in which a he or she would more likely value a little nudge that would lead to better financial health?” This was a fruitful line of questioning because I recognized that though a user may intellectually recognize that saving money is better, he or she may not emotionally be able to grasp it. There are many barriers to behavior change and there’s no way a banking application can help a user to become better at saving if it does not take those into account.

To help me systematically think this challenge through, I built a service blueprint using sticking notes. Along the vertical axis in purple sticky notes, I wrote the headings: triggers (data), system triggers, triggers (user), system’s response, customer service response, and next steps. By triggers (data), I am referring to all the data a banking application can track including frequency of a kind of purchase, location of purchases, the collective spending habits of users in a similar location and income bracket, and individual user spending habits. By system’s response, I mean what is the frequency, quantity or time that will lead to a moment in time a user may want help. By triggers (user), I mean what will the user be doing in the real world as well as in the banking application when the system is stepping in. By system’s response, I mean what will the system say to invite the user into the interaction. The rest of the terms are about how the user will go about accomplishing the new goal instantiated by the system’s response.

For example:

Triggers (data) – system is tracking how much the user is typically earning each month (biweekly paycheck) as well as when bills are usually paid

System triggers – a user does not get a new paycheck for 1 month

Trigger (user) – user logs in to the banking application

System’s response – a modal pops up and makes a friendly comment in which it says it has noticed that something isn’t okay and ask if the user would like some help figuring out how to make sure they have enough savings to pay a bill coming up in two weeks. Sign up for our new service.

User response – sign up later or sign up now.

serviceblueprint
A visual representation of how I thought systematically thought about Safe to spend

In the end, I built out the product with a few use cases in mind. I specifically focused on a person who is living paycheck-to-paycheck. I wrote a few stories to figure out what the user may be doing and what his or her goal may be. I used this to help me revise my information architecture map. Then, I sketched my wireframes and built them. Finally, I ventured out into the field to do my usability testing.

Revised information architecture map

In order to revise my information architecture map, I first tried to incorporate feedback I’ve gotten that the original map was unsightly and seemingly disorganized. Though I’ve used the map for my own sensemaking, it also needs to be something I could hand off to a developer so that way they can understand the lay of the land, so to speak. After I revised its appearance for clarity, I added in the new feature I developed called Safe to Spend.

Revised information architecture map
Revised information architecture map

Testing

I attempted two forms of usability testing this week. First, I tried usability testing as I have always done. This was super pertinent since I am just at the beginning stages of building up my idea. It is important to get other people’s perspectives – to see if they can make sense of the flows. Getting to hear someone think aloud as they attempted to figure out the new feature, I learned about what I did not consider, about how I displayed information, and the copy I wrote. Getting a handful of people to test my screens, I get to learn about where I need to make design considerations in a rapid and cheap way. I was able to get really actionable feedback.

A user tests Safe to spend with a paper prototype
A user tests Safe to spend with a paper prototype

 

I learned a lot of important ways to revise. I chose the top three. They are visualized below in the next section.

The second way I tested my application was through cognitive walkthrough. This involves trying to use the application from the perspective of a first time user to try and understand if he or she can achieve their goal. I tried to figure out if the user wants to save money, would they understand how to move their way through Safe to spend. You can see how I visualized this process below. Using this method, I was able to reflect on cases that I had not previously considered including user states of mind and cash flow.

Cognitive walkthrough visualization
Cognitive walkthrough visualization

Testing outcomes

Below, I have visualized the top three errors I revised in my screens.

Test documentation 5-01 Test documentation 5-02

Test documentation 5-03

Safe to spend screens

Below are the Safe to spend screens. I labelled each flow with the task that it accomplishes plus indicating which of the requested features it addresses.

A flow for how a user turns on Safe to spend
A flow for how a user turns on Safe to spend
What if I want to cut down on spending - flow
What if I want to cut down on spending – flow

 

What if I delete subscriptions? - flow
What if I delete subscriptions? – flow
What if I spend less frequently - flow
What if I spend less frequently – flow
Get a snapshot of my trends- flow
Get a snapshot of my trends- flow
Intercept messages that tell me when I've spent more than usual, can save or how many more times I can do something during the week.
Intercept messages that tell me when I’ve spent more than usual, can save or how many more times I can do something during the week.
What happens when the system doesn't recognize your transaction
What happens when the system doesn’t recognize your transaction

Next steps

For my next steps, I want to develop my banking mobile app into it is fully complete, revise my information architecture map so that it is both clear and consistent, as well as build out the safe to spend feature. My hope is to create a full product that I can use in my portfolio.

Wireframing: Iterating on visual design and workflow

This week, I took what I learned from last week’s critique and applied the numerous suggestions to my wireframes. In last week’s blogpost, I discussed how I’ve been evolving my visual design skills. I went deeper into this aspect of my flows as I tried to also figure out how to make my workflow more efficient. I also said that I would build out more flows that a user would experience and see if there would be any new features I would want to add. I added flows but did not add in any features.

In this week’s post, I am going to discuss

  • Improving visual design
  • Revising wireframes
  • Improving workflow
  • Revised wireframes
  • Next steps

Improving visual design

As I discussed last week, I am not a trained visual designer. I am learning one significant aspect of visual design is training my eye to see details. Before entering AC4D, I rarely spent time thinking about how to evaluate graphics from the standpoint of readability and accessibility. I certainly didn’t ask myself how one document may be more attractive than another. Since practicing this kind of detailed evaluation, I have only begun to realize what I don’t know and that the most valuable way to getting better is by getting feedback from others (especially those who have more training). I am hoping that I start to develop my own aesthetic so that when I leave the program I can be more independent and assertive when it comes to my own graphic design decisions. For now, I am working at a snail’s pace trying to modify what were once ugly screens to slightly higher fidelity screens.

This week, I spent hours modifying old screens so that they are less “chunky” and “amateurish”. Below is an example of how I modified the hamburger menu so that it looks more realistic. You will notice that in the new screen the typeface is less harsh, there is more white space, and that there are clear breaks between categories represented by faint lines.

newvsold-02

You can see another example below. It is an example from the Bill Pay flow. I made all elements left aligned, the typeface smaller and as well as changed the text from a regular weight to a light weight. I am beginning to understand the subtle grace a wireframe (or document or form…) one can develop by using weight and size.

newvsold-01I also made my wireframes more consistent by making sure that all buttons looked the same, affordances were set up in the same manner from screen to screen and all hamburger menus were on the right hand side of a screen.

Revising wireframes

In addition to modifying the visual design of my screens, I revised the Alert flow based on user feedback from last week’s testing. I have been challenged by the alerts flow and seem never to get it right. I will be testing this flow during critique (again) as well as during usability testing.

Test documentation 5-01

 

Improving workflow

A huge part of my struggle this quarter has been getting better at visual design. Another is being able to work more efficiently and accurately. This week I was more intentional about trying to improve my workflow. I spent time creating groups, symbols and writing down key information that I needed to repeat across each flow. I also tried to time box more effectively. Honestly, I am not sure how much this all helped because in the end, I found out that Sketch, the application I use for wireframe design, is a little buggy and when you copy and paste symbols, it will make a new symbol instead of copying the instance. This then sent me on a rabbit hole to try to fix the work I tried at first. Though I have been told that symbols ultimately will slow down a team of designers, I want to figure out how to use them because it takes so much time to make one small change to each screen!

Revised screens

Below, you can see my revised screens as well as the new flows I have added.

Login flow
Login flow
Bill pay flow
Bill pay flow
View bill flow
View bill flow
Check balance flow
Check balance flow
Alerts flow
Alerts flow
Deposit a check flow
Deposit a check flow
Quick pay flow
Quick pay flow
Transfer flow
Transfer flow
Settings flow
Settings flow

Next steps

Next week, I plan to do usability testing with twice as many people (8-10) so that I can make up for not doing it this week. I also plan to add into in the edge cases and error screens.

 

My wire framing process: from lo-fidelity to slightly higher fidelity

Last week, I built concept models of banks, the current state of the TD bank mobile app, and a future state of the app so that I could build background knowledge, make sense of complexity, and envision how to create a more usable application. This week, I began the process of redesigning the TD bank mobile application. The first step was to imagine how real people use the banking application. I imagined users with goals inspired by real people. I wrote scenarios that fleshed out their stories, and then drew storyboards that illustrated how they could use the app to fulfill their goals. The second step was to design wireframe flows that illustrated a journey a user could would take to fulfill their goal using the banking app.

What I learned last week

After immersing myself in the TD banking mobile app and imagining a better system, I knew that moving forward I wanted to keep a few key design principles in mind:

  • Keep the app simple – the current app has too many buttons that lead to the same place. This is unnecessary and confusing.
  • Keep the app visually minimal – there are screens in the current app that are too heavy with color and information. It is hard to know what different key screens are used for because my eyes don’t know where to look.
  • Make core functions more easily accessible – functions like check balance require 4 taps. There should be fewer taps to find this information.

Users, scenarios and storyboards

 I wrote about three potential users:

  • Louis, a junior in college who is living on his own for the first time;
  • Stephanie, a working mother who is also her household’s financial manager; and,
  • Clark, a freelance UX designer who has to manage many clients and subcontractors.

I brainstormed all the goals they may have and prioritized which goals were most important. Starting the app redesign here helped me to humanize the experience that followed. Whenever I got lost in the details, I could remember who I was designing the experience for. On a tactical level, it helped me to fill in fields with realistic data. On a systems level, when I had a question about hierarchy in terms of interactions and information, I could think back to my character and imagine it from their perspective.

Users and goals
Users and goals

I also believe that having clear character journeys in mind will help me to make sense of the critique I will be leading this evening. Though I will be asking my classmates to give feedback on how to make interactions more usable and hierarchy clearer, the core of my decision making will fall back on questions like, “What would Louis, a newbie to financial management and adult life decisions, need?” or “How will Stephanie use the features in the banking app to facilitate uncomfortable conversations with her less fiscally responsible husband?”

 

Once I had each character’s story written in detail, I made a spreadsheet with scenes and screens. It helped me to essentialize all of the details. What is the most salient idea I am expressing? What image would communicate the idea to a viewer? This helped me to narrow in big ideas. (So much of this design process is going from detail to big idea to detail!)

Scenarios, screens and scenes
Scenarios, screens and scenes

Then, I moved to storyboarding. This started the process of first, imagining how characters would realistically be using the banking app. How would they be standing? Where? And then, it served as a bridge to thinking about the interfaces. What would Stephanie want to do if another mother pays her back in the middle of the park with a check? What interactions would be fast and convenient for her?

Storyboards
Storyboards

Storyboards to wireframes

In the process of storyboarding, I started to build out wireframes. So much of the design process is working in the right level of fidelity for the stage of process you are working in. While storyboarding, I would draw a storyboard with less detail but would have the big idea. This would prompt moving to another sheet of paper where I would sketch the interface with more detail. It’s a cycle of fidelity. Storyboards have low fidelity but are filled with big ideas. They moved me to start thinking about all the details I needed which prompted me to think about details, spacing and hierarchy of the interface. So, I would sketch the interface and then the flow at a higher level of fidelity on a separate sheet of paper. But then I would return to the same (or different) storyboard to think about what the user would do next. What would help Clark keep his records most organized when transferring money to a subcontractor’s account?

Wireframe sketch
Wireframe sketch

Once I had one complete wireframe journey complete, I moved to designing my wireframes in sketch.

Wireframes in sketch

Below you will see each of the flows that I have developed so far.

The following flows are inspired by Louis. In the first flow, he starts a recurring bill pay to help manage his stress. He feels overwhelmed with all of the new ways he needs to “adult”.

Louis sets up his first recurring bill.
Louis sets up his first recurring bill.

Louis finds out he made a mistake when he set up his bill because he missed a payment. So he has to view what he did and change when the bill is set to pay.

Louis views and changes his recurring bill.
Louis views and changes his recurring bill.

Louis is out with his friends. They want to see a movie but he doesn’t have any cash. So, he sends his friend money electronically.

Louis pays his friend.
Louis pays his friend.

The following flows are inspired by Stephanie. In the first wireframe journey, Stephanie is notified that she and her husband have overdrawn their checking account. She checks her balance.

Stephanie checks her balance.
Stephanie checks her balance.

Stephanie wants to set up a notification for her and her husband so that they know when their checking account will hit $500.

Stephanie sets up a notification.
Stephanie sets up a notification.

Stephanie gets a check from a friend in the middle of a party. She wants to deposit it.

Stephanie deposits a check.
Stephanie deposits a check.

Stephanie wants to transfer some extra funds into her daughter’s college account.

Stephanie transfers funds.
Stephanie transfers funds.

Next steps

First, I need to finish making every screen in my system. Second, I will go out into the field and get feedback from real users. I can’t wait to hear what they say!

Why Design Thinking Ability is more than an Auxiliary Skill

The above video is a story simulating the beneficial outcomes of design thinking being taught in school. But the implications of increasing design literacy carries far more weight than just solving problems at an amusement park.

What if design thinking was a subject available to everyone? It would be taught in schools and treated as a discipline in it’s own right with it’s own set of skills – those of prototyping, creative thinking, ideation, inquiry, evaluation, and sketching. Everyone has the ability to learn these skills and the world would be better off with a more design literate population.

The ability to use design thinking to solve contemporary problems is incredibly important, because the types of problems design thinking works best for are the same ones the world suffers from the most. Disparity in education, poverty, and healthcare are examples of the complex, systemic problems we face and they are riddled with interwoven root causes.

The designer is perfectly positioned to solve for these types of problems, for she has been trained in the ability to think laterally and cut across patterns to develop solutions.

Each one of these systemic, or wicked, problems encompasses a unique situation, and must be approached artistically. The designer layers her knowledge of multiple subjects across the situation, blends in her intuition, and begins to define the problem as she solutions.

Let us not forget, these problems are human centric and necessitate input from the recipients living within the problem space. These large societal problems have no correct solution, but in order for a designer to devise a good solution, she must rely upon the experiences and knowledge of the situation’s human experts.

Additionally, the fact that these problems are human centric means that all proposed solutions will constantly need to be adapted to account for unexpectedness or change in human behavior. Solutions will require iteration and continual re-solving, so the designer will never run out of problems to solve for.

If we were to devise a world in which design ability was taught as a primary liberal art, then the master designer could more easily be assisted by the insights and experiences of a design literate populous. This would create stronger, more powerful solutions to the wicked problems that beset us all.

Teaching Theory at AC4D

“Great timing,” I think to myself yet again. As I was preparing the deck I would use that evening to facilitate a discussion on the opportunities of (social) entrepreneurship, I discovered that a vote by the Texas House of Representatives the previous day had “set the table” for Uber’s return to Austin. (Uber stopped providing rides in Austin a year ago in protest of required driver background checks.) Already in the deck were quotes I had taken from “The sharing economy is a lie: Uber, Ayn Rand and the truth about tech and libertarians,” one of the readings I had assigned for that evening. Also already there were tweets and (other) references to other articles about Uber, some positive, most negative. Into the deck went the headline about the legislature’s vote and a few words from the online article.

Serendipitously encountering tweets, articles, and other information pertinent to a class shortly before the class was typical for me, since I follow people on social media who care about the things I care about and teach about. And I often took advantage of that. I had previously added to the above-referenced deck — which I’ve made available in its entirety here — images from two recent articles I encountered via Twitter about Walmart, including one entitled “Business Exists To Serve Society,” words somewhat surprisingly uttered by Walmart’s Chief Sustainability Officer during a recent interview; we watched that interview during class, since it was of great relevance to arguments made by Michael Porter and Mark Kramer in another of the readings I had assigned for that evening, “Creating Shared Value.” That same day, I noticed on Facebook that a former colleague of mine, David Rose, was in town; I had shown a video about David and read a bit from his book, “Enchanted Objects” the previous week in class during another section of the course, and since David was a serial entrepreneur, a guest appearance would be a nice fit for this section of the course as well, so I made it happen.

All of this (and much more) was for an advanced theory course on interaction design and social entrepreneurship that I taught during March and April of this year at the Austin Center for Design (AC4D). Assigned readings included articles — often long and sometimes complex — by renown authors on theory about or of relevance to design and entrepreneurship as well as articles — often more recent and shorter — facilitating the understanding of theory and its relevance to design and entrepreneurial practice today. (All of the assigned readings are listed in a deck you can access here; they might also — depending on when you are reading this — still be listed on the course’s webpage.) The course is one of three that all students take during the final quarter of the AC4D educational program.

Teaching this course was a wonderful experience due in large part to the wonderful students. Each class featured great and often impassioned discussion, and student presentations, each synthesizing designated readings in a personally meaningful way, were always special. One of Sally Hall’s very creative presentations consisted largely of a board game she designed that “follows the development of a non-profit organization working to increase access to education among low-income individuals in Managua, Nicaragua”; the game (being played in the photo below) was designed to help players understand and “explore the complexities of social impact.” One of Kelsey Willard’s presentations was a scary story about the impact of the coming singularity told, appropriately, over a campfire (see photo below). Our examination of power relationships prompted Elijah Parker to share information about his life he had never before felt comfortable sharing. The same examination prompted Conner Drew to explicitly formulate a set of personal design ethics and to call on others to do the same. And repeatedly, Garrett Bonfanti effectively highlighted just how important the role of the designer has become.

blogphoto2

I’ve taught lots — inside of companies, via educational institutions, and at professional conferences — with much of my teaching focused on practical skills. General Assembly — where I taught the 10-week, full-time User Experience Design Immersive course several times — is among the up-start organizations claiming that intensive programs focused on teaching practical skills in the context of multiple, real-world projects prepare students for the workplace much better than much longer, more traditional, and much more expensive academic programs. While that is often true, AC4D Founder Jon Kolko has articulated the importance of teaching theory:

Our curriculum at Austin Center for Design is rich with design theory. Students take theory classes that focus on the social and political relationships between design and the culture of society. Students learn theory and discourse related to designing for the public sector, specifically as it relates to ill-defined problem solving and the ethical obligations of designers. They read complex articles from computer scientists, psychologists, and sociologists, and they build arguments that synthesize these articles into new ideas.

Yet the program at Austin Center for Design is a practitioner program, and these students go on to be practicing designers, not academics. They work for big brands, for consultancies, and in startups — and increasingly, they start their own entrepreneurial endeavors. They aren’t pursuing a Ph.D. path, so why teach theory? Why waste precious class time on academic discourse, rather than practical skills?

I’ve thought a lot about what makes a great designer. One of the qualities is craft and immediacy with material. That’s sort of obvious — someone who makes things needs to be good at making things. I’m convinced that theory is also a key ingredient to greatness, a key part of claiming to be a competent, professional designer, but it’s less obvious than methods or skills and is often ignored during design education. There are at least three reasons I think students need theory as part of their foundational design education:

  • Theory give students the basis for a “process opinion.” …
  • Theory give students the ability to think beyond a single design problem, in order to develop higher-order organizing principles. …
  • Theory give students a sense of purpose, a reason for doing their work. …

We’re seeing an influx of design programs aimed at practitioners, programs that intend to increase the number of designers available to work in the increasingly complex technological landscape. I’m skeptical of programs that don’t include theory in their curriculum. It has been argued that vocational programs should focus on core skills and ignore the larger academic, theoretical subject matter. I would argue the opposite. It is the vocational programs that require this thoughtful context the most, as graduates from these programs will have a direct impact on the products and services that shape our world.

I agree with Jon (and with the students who voiced additional benefits from studying theory), and whenever I taught for General Assembly, I made sure to include some theory. However, I was delighted to have the opportunity to dive more deeply via teaching at AC4D.

My thanks to: Jon and to Kevin McDonald who, before the course, shared invaluable information with me about when they had taught the course in the past; Lauren Serota, Adam Chasen, Mini Kahlon, Ed Park, and David Rose for their guest in-person appearances; Daniela Papi-Thornton, Paul Polak, Harry Brignull, Anne Hathaway, Meryl Streep, Jake Solomon, Ricky Gervais, Brian Goldman, Jeff Benabio, Don Norman, Sean Follmer, David Rose, Jared Ficklin, Stephen Colbert, Sally Hall, Pelle Ehn, Kathleen McLaughlin, John Battelle, Jess McMullin, The Police, and a few others whose names I don’t know who appeared on video; and the many authors of tweets and of articles other than those I assigned that I referenced during the course.

The course ended just last week, but I greatly miss teaching it already. I am very happy to have become a part of the AC4D community.

Theory Final – Larry the Lobster

For our last project in theory we were asked to read 6 articles from a variety of designers that discussed what is involved with being a designer as well as the process of design.

We live in a time where design is maturing into a discipline which is being recognized to stand alone. Design is gaining more of a seat at the table if you will and influencing companies and organization from the ‘C’ level. This is partially due to the fact that design is being recognized as a universal and flexible solution to a number of problems. Design firms such as IDEO and Frog are helping push this understanding into the public.

Richard Buchanan argues that “design problems are ‘indeterminate’ and ‘wicked’ because design has no special subject matter on its own apart from what the design conceives it to be. Subject matter is potentially universal in scope, because it could be applied to any area of the human experience. But in the process of application the designer must discover or invent a particular subject out of the problems and issues of the specific circumstance.” This brings up an interesting topic of whether or not design is its own discipline due to the fact that it is 100% dependent on other subject matter. I would side with the fact that this argument facilitates design being it’s own discipline even more so since it can be so ubiquitously applied.

Jocelyn Wyatt take an approach to explaining design thinking targeted towards those who don’t have much exposure to design. To break it down to assist these individuals to get on board with design thinking she describes it as three spaces to avoid direct linearity: inspiration, ideation, and implementation. Inspiration is the space of identifying an opportunity where a potential solution could be applied to improve a problem. Ideation is the process of generating, developing and testing ideas. Implementation is the path that leads from the project stage into people’s lives. The primary purpose of breaking down the definition of design thinking in this way is to prevent process focused individuals from picking apart the fact that design thinking is not concrete.

Chris Pacione takes a similar stance as Jocelyn in the fact that by breaking down complex topics, in this case design thinking, into a digestible format that it affords the idea of establishing design thinking to be as ubiquitous as mathematics. He states, “design is too important to be left to designers.” I wholeheartedly agree with this statement. By having a basic understanding of design thinking it would allow people to thrive in a day to day experience. This is due to the fact that the skills design thinking would provide would allow people to step back and ask why more consistently. They would start to pick apart why the way things are and inherently want to improve them.

Nigel Cross explains that a level of intuition is how design research can make broad generalization with a small sample. After all design research isn’t trying to predict behavior, but it attempts to empathize behavior. Along these lines the intent of the design process is to make something new, and by doing so you help change the problem, not just solve it. He also discusses the idea that design has to happen in real time, you can’t read it but you have to do it. This provides an incremental build up into something “magical” that doesn’t happen instantly. This is the reason why it’s called a process.

Edward De Bono primarily discusses process and acknowledging the default way the brain operates does not afford creative thinking, which is where this magic can happen. This creative thinking is also referred to as lateral thinking, in contrast to linear thinking. The logical part of the mind is based on what it’s seen before which prevents opportunity. One of the more simple ways De Bono proposes to get around this limitation is the use of a random word. The idea is to apply a random word into the problem space, regardless of how crazy it feels or how it doesn’t make sense. This generates a new frame around the situation that normally wouldn’t have been explored. The random word works because it is genuinely abductive. After the application of lateral thinking he argues that a valuable idea will be logical in hindsight, but needs a catalyst to arrive there.

To summarize these points of view around design thinking, I’ve created a video. Please enjoy.

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.

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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. 









 

Iterations & Ideals

I want to introduce you to a story of the last 24 weeks of my life, introduce you to the individuals that I have met along the way, show you the places I have visited and how I learned the most powerful lesson of the entire year was the power of THE story and the ability and genuine curiosity and bravery to ask each individual tell me their story… to please keep talking. 

My focus was initially on the dealing with the issues surrounding healthcare, but through contextual inquiry found that access and the stigma surrounding mental healthcare was a much bigger problem, as it has been defunded completely by the government and left to individual philanthropist and donors to open facilities to help those who actually need help. 

I found AC4D as my opportunity put something good out into the world. My final product was inspired and dedicate to my father, whom I had barely a relationship with at all really. My father suffered from a depression that I don’t think anyone could understand, was truly stubborn, and never received any help for his condition. 

Looking back and having conversations with my mother I realized as an adult things that I completely did not acknowledge or understand as a child. How does an impoverished family of 5 living in a town of around 1000 people located 60 miles to the nearest hospital where you can birth a child deal with healthcare, let alone mental healthcare? 

That was the question and I went to find the answer. I initially went back to my hometown to do some detective work on the issues surrounding mental health in rural text. The last 24 weeks I’ve been interviewing, researching, building and creating life long friendships all with the purpose to create a “thing” that would help low income or non insured individuals living in extreme rural areas. My product first and foremost had to not rely on any individuals personal access to technology. Then meet the design insights and pillars I had established from my research. 

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When it was time to begin actually producing a thing, I knew it would be a “journey kit’  of sorts that included both stories from individuals dealing with similar situations living with a mental illness, as well as a 2 week starter pill pack or holder. 

In interaction design iteration is the heart of everything you do. You create, test your creation, then iterate on the feedback to make it better. 

Do date my product has gone through I believe 6 iterations now. 4 of which I prototyped out

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Placing all these iterations against my design pillars and user testing responses, I found that the power of the human story plus a plan of attack for medication regimen would be the most effective tool. But something that is very easy to understand, inexpensive to produce, familiar enough to not be foreign or strange but interesting enough to insight curiosity and interaction.

My thoughts went back to one of my home interviews where this woman had 3 separate pill boxes, the Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday types, and in a brain storming session one of professors threw out an idea – what if it’s a dip can and eureka. I could craft a round pill box  that includes a small mp3 player in the center with headphones.

Each time the “wheel” is turned exposing the medication, the user can put on the headphones and press play to hear the story that identifies with that days progression in the 2 week cycle.

Click to watch animation and hear sample audio

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I tried to stay true to my design pillars, and to the core values that I tried to keep true to. My idea is that these would be distributed to MHMR centers, the centers that give psychiatric council and prescribe medication to individuals who are on medicare, medicaid or no insurance at all. 

I stayed silent to long in dealing with facing the difficult issues surrounding a low income family members mental health, so hopefully going forward my product may inspire behavior change to even the most stubborn individual. 

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The Final Presentation.

AC4D set up the final presentation as a sort of museum situation where the public was invited and it was an interactive experience where people could see your entire process from start to finish.

My station included my research, my insights, my design pillars, ALL my prototype iterations. And the actual final functioning prototype, as well as a listening station where people could hear various short stories that went along with the program.

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