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Category Archives: Design Research

It takes two: Convincing clients of the value of design research

I’ve spent the last two weeks mulling over five readings that were presented under the umbrella of “participatory design”. The readings come from academic to pop-industry publications. What they all have in common is they address the user’s roll in the design process, and its value. The diagram below explores the implications of these reading in the context of participatory design and the influence of user input. Based on this exploration, I have good news.

First, all of the authors believe that the user has some valuable role to play in the design process—none of them advocate that the user’s only role is to buy the product. The “designing with” to “designing for” axis is relative, not absolute. Don Norman, who falls the furthest toward the “design for” end of the spectrum, still maintains that user input gathered through design research has value for improving existing products. Second, none of the authors suggest that the designer is not necessary and can be replaced by user input. The model presented by Liz Sanders, who is furthest toward “designing with”, is still in fact designing with. The designer has an important role to play as partner to the user in the co-creation process.

The third piece of good news is that when each author’s position is plotted on an x-axis of designing with to designing for and a y-axis of the influence of the user on the product, the points can basically be described by straight line. On one hand, this is obvious. The more the user is involved in the design process, the more the user influences the final product. On the other hand, this often the first hurdle to overcome in convincing a client of the value of design research. Yes, it will actually affect the outcome in a way that other data does not!

It takes two


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Useful Solutions vs. Interesting Observations – or, Research.. hmm, what is it good for, absolutely nothing? Wait say that again??

Let us begin out story with a man named Bill Norman. Bill is an academic who believes that inventors invent because they are inventors, creators create because they are creators. Not out of need, desire for social standing, or to make the next big technological gadget breakthrough that might one day define a persons identity through its shiny silvery exterior. Research is for those who are not these people; that no true groundbreaking innovation has ever come from the tedious expenditure of one man, or a team of individuals who have to seek out the reason for innovation in the first place. This statement is not just provocative and to some people, well, just plain offensive, but also just, well… shallow.

To think that the innovator, the creator, the silent socially awkward genius living in his mothers basement is not in a constant mode of design research, thinking, tinkering, trying and failing… and failing some more until EUREKA, alternating current is born, to me is absurd. Sure this may be true for more product-based iterations, the iphone4, the iphone6? The iwhatever fill in the blank. But what about the first telephone, the first telegraph. The first innovation that allowed a person in one place to audibly communicate with someone on the other side of the world.

This audacious claim inflamed the one Bruce Nessbaum (of Businessweek) who says no way, no how, is Norman correct. That ethnographic research, especially in todays society of crowdsourcing this, and input and opinions from everyone whether deemed to be educated enough to even be an opinion worth taking, sill exists. And certainly not only drives innovation but demands it. How else is one supposed to know what the next world breakthrough will be? AND in that case what constitutes a world altering breakthrough to begin with??

So let’s talk research for a second then. I know this man; some of you may be familiar. Last name Kolko… lots of opinions, and lots of experience to back them up. Research is an interesting and important topic to Jon Kolko from what I gather from reading and speaking with him, but there are really definitive lines to be drawn from this “research” umbrella. There is marketing research, design research, scientific research, and on and on. Lets focus on the design research for now. Jon states that design research is necessary for finding inspiration. That there IS a method to the madness, that from information gathering, fact gathering really, to inference derivation from those facts, to then making an educated yet purely opinionated provocative solution to the problem, or opportunity discovered through the design synthesis process, that the inspiration for innovation is conceived. You find the problem, and you then attempt to provoke an idea to solve it, right?

Well then comes in a man name Bill Gaver. Bill uses a method called cultural probes to gather information and insight to drive the innovation process for design solutions. This is an interesting process because it involves actually giving a user an artifact to interact with, without the implied influence of the researcher, and then receiving back that artifact to then study and either do something with the information, or in Bill’s case, because he is an academic… do nothing but revel in the knowledge that the world has now gained a bit more insight into human behavior.

Artifacts that he notes include things like a disposable camera. What happens when you give someone a disposable camera, say go to town and shoot away at whatever you want, then I am going to study these results and interpret from your active creative process what you are thinking at that time as a human being. Now Bill calls these subjects “non-designers” and the interpreters are the “designers”. What validity do we even get from methods like this if there is no even ideal for creating something to come out of the product of the research? Can you even then call yourself a designer if you make nothing but ideas and inferences? Is this what this what the designer Liz Sanders then calls the process of co-creation?

I don’t think so.

Liz has a different take I think. Rather that completely separating who she considers the “consumer” from the “designer” she instead suggests that we may all kind of be a little of both. Are we all creative? Are we all then, designers because we pin something to pinterest? Is design then just the process of making something that did not in fact exist before whether it is an original idea or not? Pinterest is in fact just a collage of other peoples artifacts collected by an admirer who then claims ownership over the organization of said artifacts which is laid out is a creatively and unique to the individual account owners page. And is this even valuable? What’s the point?

Going back to Nessbaum’s idea, then sure. It is valuable because the masses say so. The social media says so. The masses dictate the innovations of the future, and the innovators need to be listening.

Probably the most well, confusing and sesquipedalianesque of the readings come from the on Paul Dourish, who plots design research into 2 theories. One of the Positivist, in which everything can be traced back to a mathematical derivation, that patterns can be predicted by statistical analysis taken from past experience. And then one of the Phenomenological; that all is a matter of interpretation, of natural progression and is not predictable but organic. My opinion leans towards a little of both, the phenomenological approach, where we are the agents of our future, and yet are inherently influenced by the actions of the past. And that we may actually be able to in some way predict through studying the statistics of the past make assumptions of the actions in the future. I believe both of these research methods should be touched upon if used in order to create a truly effective design solution.

Of all this, this wealth of opinion and information I must say I have to side with Dourish the most. I appreciate the idea that yes we are agents of our own future, but perhaps the positivist approach in research may even be able to dictate how we might react in that free will of agency. This is in conjunction with Kolko’s emphatic and I believe completely accurate and necessary method of synthesis in which to derive a design solution.

But that’s just me

IDSE102-PositionDiagram - Research-01

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(East) Austin Food Guide: Challenges and Opportunities in Urban Nutrition

A few weeks ago we shared our research plan (here).  Since then my team, Eugenia Harris and Lauren Segapeli, and I have been out talking to people and collecting data to fuel the next stage of our design process.  We began our research with a focus on how people living in food deserts budget for, shop for and prepare food. Exploring particularly people’s beliefs around nutrition and food availability and the priorities and constraints that govern their choices. A food desert is an urban area where fresh food and produce are not easily available to residents who do not have cars.

Over the course of two weeks we conducted ten interviews with people in three basic groups: People grocery shopping in East Austin, people working to improve food access and nutrition and patrons of  Austin area food banks.

The purpose of our research was to help us, as designers, to build an empathetic understanding of the people we hope to serve and to steep ourselves in a rich and varied data set that will provoke new insights and design ideas. As we mentioned in our research plan, one of the methods we used to get this data is called Contextual Inquiry. Contextual Inquiry focuses on watching, learning about and perhaps participating in the user’s tasks and activities. The researcher becomes the apprentice and the user becomes the master, sharing his or her expertise in his or her own life. It is a way to tap into the tacit knowledge that we all have that allows us to do the work of living our lives but that we are not consciously aware of or which seems too low level to be worth mentioning. It is exactly these quirky, specific details, these workarounds and new uses that provoke new insights and ideas.

For example, one of our participants is a patron of local food banks. In our first interview he told us all about how going to the food bank works. The information he gave us was all useful and true, but no where near as rich as the data we got the following week when we went to the food bank and he taught us how to do everything from arriving early to save a place in line, to signing in and selecting food.

As we conducted our research we kept the focus intentionally loose because we were aware that the concept of food desert might not ultimately be the framework that was most useful for understanding the situation in Austin. That flexibility served us well.  We found that geographic location wasn’t the major constraint on most of the people we spoke to. Many people, even if they were struggling financially did have cars, although not always money for gas. We also saw that people rely on family and community networks that stretch across neighborhoods to help each other access food and to share food resources. We are interested to see how these informal networks might connect with the type of support people in the government and community are providing and explore other connections and disconnects between these different groups.

We learned a great deal doing this research and were constantly reminded that our interviewee’s point view is not our own. It has been a privilege to meet these people and have them share their lives with us.

Our presentation deck is attached below. Next we will launch into to the synthesis phase of the design process. Look for an update on that in the next few weeks.

East Austin Food Guide-Research Presentation


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IMPOSITION TO INFLUENCE: The designers role in affecting a system of beliefs

The dictionary defines a value system as being an open set of morals, ethics, standards, preferences, belief systems and world views that come together through self-organizing principles to define an individual, a group or a culture.

So what if the organization of these principals is not so self defined?

What if these principals are molded, formed and influenced by ideas and objects that surround the self whether intentionally or not, influencing the belief systems and preferences that define a person as the person they are.

In the past couple of weeks we as a class keyed in on 6 author’s writings. Some being recognized designers, some design historians, some design thinkers. Through reading and re-reading and analyzing the scanned pages of 6 very different theories and experiences, notated with dialects from the translated Italian version to very straightforward literary magazine articles; I couldn’t help but notice that each author, whether they were a working designer or not, all had a sense of there being some sort of behavioral shift that came out of the end product of a design experiment or idea. As if the designer was given a power to control the thoughts and actions of their subjects through manipulation, experience, product, or education. Some I found a little off putting I have to admit. To be a designer to me is not to revel in the idea that you can puppet a community into jumping off the commodity cliff, but ideally perhaps educate thorough innovation, or aid in a person or communities hardships through easily accessible tools.

Although it seemed that my final conclusion was just more questions about “how do you know if you are doing it right??” I was at least driven to put down on paper my thoughts on how the 6 authors we studied fit on a simple, and very biased scale of a designers role to either manipulate and impose a value system into a public, work to adopt and understand the value system of their public, or to try to gently influence and broaden a public already established value system.

So here you go, my own personal version of a scale of importance that the role of design has, as I see it, through the ideas of Bernays, Le Dantec, Vitta, Pilloton, Dewey, and Margolin.

Click to Enjoy

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Research Plan: Teenagers’ Food Choices and Eating Habits

Design research team: Crystal Watson, Lindsay Josal, Laura Galos.

In our Interaction Design Research and Synthesis class, we’ve learned that the design process starts with research. Specifically, we are learning to use Contextual Inquiry to gain understanding and empathy for people who may be quite different from us. Starting from a shared interest in nutrition, we were curious about how younger people navigate decisions around food, especially when they are away from planned meals with their families. Our team has created a research plan to guide our inquiry into the food choices and eating habits of teenagers. For more information, you can download our research plan.

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Family Matters: Addiction

For this first assignment, our team (William Shouse, Jeff Patton and Maryanne Lee) developed a research plan that was focused around the impact of addiction to drugs and alcohol on families and how it alters the family dynamic at various stages of addiction. We started by coming up with a list of all the people and contexts we could talk to and explore. Thinking about people in different contexts revealed the different topics that our team thought we could learn the most about. These topics included relationships, recovery, the cycle of addiction, consequences, support structures, environment and safety.


One of the biggest challenges we faced in doing this for the first time was crafting a plan that could stand entirely on its own without any supplemental clarity from our team. In trying to balance the complexity of access to participants in the contexts we wanted, the team also struggled to determine what the right level of detail and specificity should be.

Like the rest of our peers, we were a new team that had never worked together before. Building trust in each other quickly was a direct result of the respect we had for one another’s time and personal boundaries. Should we be the team executing this research plan, we strongly believe that the trust we have established in each other would be translated into the quality of the quick relationship building needed in order to be invited into the lives of the research plan’s participants.

Click here to view our full research plan.


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Eating in a Food Desert

In our Interaction Design Research and Synthesis course, we’ve been discussing Contextual Inquiry as a method of gaining understanding and empathy for people affected by wicked problems. Contextual Inquiry facilitates learning through immersing yourself within the context of the problem and inviting participants to teach you about their daily life.

Starting with the theme of nutrition and the prompt, “eating healthy in a food desert,” our team (Samara Watkiss, Eugenia Harris, and Lauren Segapeli) began by exploring possible people and contexts where we could learn about this theme. We debated how to incorporate the notion of nutrition without presupposing we know better than our participants what they should eat, and how explicitly to address the issue of poverty. After a period of discussion and workshopping we modified the focus to reflect those concerns, and now agree that the next step is to put it to the test. We’ll use this focus to set up and conduct contextual inquiries and then evaluate it based on the data it allows us to collect. Here’s our starting point:

The focus of our research is how people living in “food deserts” budget for, shop
for, and prepare food. We’ll explore people’s beliefs around nutrition and food
availability and the priorities and constraints that govern their choices.

So what is a food desert anyway?

We are working from an understanding that a food desert is an area where affordable fresh food and produce is not easily accessible to residents who do not have cars. This may be characterized by the absence of supermarkets, and the availability of convenience stores and fast food outlets.

Although there are important intersections between the availability of fresh food and poverty, and we are curious about the specifics of these intersections, we are not attempting to screen interviewees based on income level.

In both our decision to use a loose definition of ‘food desert’ — not attempting to define a certain radius without grocery stores or other metric — and taking an open approach to the role of poverty, we are attempting to really jump into qualitative research. For now what we care about is the experience of the people we will be talking to. If an individual feels like he or she can not access fresh food because of what is available in the neighborhood, however he or she defines neighborhood, that is a point of view we want to carry into our design process.

Research Plan

From our focus statement, we have crafted a research plan by outlining the people we will talk to, the context in which we will interact with these people, and the types of topics we hope to discuss. We have tried to imagine and troubleshoot some of the difficulties associated with getting into these situations. After all, “can I watch you grocery shop and ask you to explain to me what you are thinking at each moment,” is not a typical request! However, as with the focus statement, we expect this plan will change as we actually begin to implement these strategies.

Check out our full research plan here »

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Ux for Good: Hidden Patterns In Rwanda’s Reconciliation

This post is my fourth post in a series on the UX for Good design challenge. Check out the first post: UX for Good Introduction to get a better understanding of what the UX for Good design challenge is about.

Writing throughout the challenge posed to be a bigger challenge than I thought; given the time spent traveling and doing actual work.  But I plan on continuing these posts as this project progresses.



“Simplicity is reached on the other side of complexity.”

My former manager Frank Lyman often uses this metaphor to describe a pattern he’s observed when people work through complex problems. After reciting the pull quote, he often states something to the effect of:

“Imagine a bell curve.  At the left side of the curve is a blissful state of unaware.  As you move from left to right, the level of complexity (and often anxiety) goes up and up and up.  Just before the pinnacle of this curve, we often find ourselves in the most chaotic state. Everything is conflicted, none of the parts make any sense, and it’s really unclear as to where everything is going. Then you realize what needs to be done and you arrive at a state of simplicity; a state that could only have been achieved by going through the complexity.”


I’d like to think that the point at the top of the curve is a moment of ephiphany.  Sometimes it’s your own doing, but more often than not it comes from a rigorous process or a casual observer; who simply notices the right thread to start pulling on. Not to say that our team in Rwanda wouldn’t have discovered the “right path” if left to work through it – but we would have lost a significant amount of time (needed to do good research) if left to our own devices. Three days on the ground in a place that takes 12 hours to access leaves little time for error.

The three days of research conducted in Rwanda fell into this pattern, but with the steepest logical and emotional upswing toward complexity I’ve ever experienced. Our entry into the curve started with the Kigali Genocide Memorial.

The Kigali Genocide Memorial (KGM), crafted in partnership by local Rwandans and Aegis Trust, was built to commemorate victims of the 1994 genocide; giving Rwandans a place to bury and remember their loved ones and document their history. The center itself is a museum that sits next to a series of mass graves, where over 250,000 are buried.


Walking past the graves, it’s extremely hard to comprehend the number of people that lie within arms reach.  Each one, a person, with a family, a story.  Each person with hopes and aspriations just like any one of us. But no longer. One of the Aegis employees tried to give us a sense of scale.

He said, “picture a stadium.  A large one – say the Dallas Cowboys stadium – holds 50,000 at best?  Now multiply that amount of people until you get to around 250,000.  That is how many rest here.”


So I stood there thinking about the sheer mass of 250,000 people – and how they managed to fit all of them into a space that really isn’t much larger than a 1 acre backyard.  “How big are these graves if they hold that many people?”, I asked.

“Most of the bodies aren’t completely whole..  We know they are different people because of the size, shapes and placement of the bones, but each coffin is filled by the bones of multiple different people. We don’t have most of the names either, because there are no written records – and anyone who would have been alive to note a missing person was also wiped out.”


As hard as it is to summarize the feelings you have while standing there – it’s even harder to capture them in a manner that can be conveyed to others. You feel sick – yet emotionally detached.  You know what you are hearing is awful…  Yet you are unable to truly understand it. It wasn’t until our first Contextual Inquiry that the feeling really sank in, and the team moved up the curve of complexity.


Prior to going into the museum, I had the chance to do an interview with a survivor. He must have noticed my “absence of self” expression that lingered for about an hour as I sat on a bench just outside the main entrance.  A face I noticed on almost every one of my fellow designers during the first day of research. The man sat down and began to talk to me about the memorial gardens and the city of Kigali. After some brief back and fourth, he gave me an entirely different perspective on what this place meant to him.

“This place is home to me.  It has the bones of my mother and my father… I’m still looking for the bones of my brothers, my sisters, my cousins, aunts and uncles… Someone out there knows where they are, but they just aren’t saying anything… But my parents rest here. Here, they are no longer in the bush.”


As a design researcher, you are rarely caught off guard during an interview.  Your job as a facilitator is to feel out potential avenues of exploration in real time – responding to the participant’s statements, actions, and reactions – such that you might uncover their perspective in a particular context. The interviews that we did over the course of 3 days in Kigali were exceptionally difficult – not necessarily because of responses like the one above, but because of the way a person’s demeanor would change throughout the interview. Each person we talked to would drift away at some moment while they were telling us stories, or politely answering our questions.

Their eyes would shift in such a way that you would swear they were watching something horrible happen just over your shoulder.  They didn’t frown.  They didn’t smile.  They just watched. Watched something you could feel but never come to understanding yourself. Watched something they have probably replayed over and over for the past 20 years since the genocide, and all the while, attempting to do their part to make us feel as comfortable as possible. This was heart wrenching.

These experiences moved the team further up the complexity curve.  In addition to not having a direction to start aiming our research, we were now emotionally invested with the people who were kind enough to share their stories.


While some members of the team spoke with locals and visitors, others moved through the museum portion of the memorial.  The museum itself is 4 – 5 stages of audio and visual walkthrough of the historical markers that led to the genocide, personal accounts of the 100 day event, a brief overview of the international response, subsequent actions of recovery, and finally remembrance and dedication to lost loved ones.

While the memorial seeks to serve as a point of education for the Rwandan people, the customer journey has quite the opposite effect. Many visitors, both local and foreign, described their emotional state as “broken” upon leaving the exhibit.


“What did I expect?  I just totally got smacked. [crying] I just got hit…. I watched readings, I watched tapes [of the genocide] but it was so distant. They were not useful… I could not understand [until I came here]. I came for someone who lost about 34 members of their family.  I couldn’t understand how 34 people can be killed.. It was people cutting and hacking.. It was your next door neighbors, people you grew up with, people you lived with…”


Our own design team even struggled to come to terms with the profound sense of loss that immediately follows a visit to the KGM. At some point during our second day of research, while gathered to plan our few remaining hours on the ground, we reached the pinnacle of complexity.

In recapping the days activites, doing a mental inventory of the research opportunities we had left, and feeling the pressure of the ticking clock, one of our team members opened up with frustration. He said, “How are we supposed to research this if we can’t get over it ourselves.”  We are supposed to document as much of this experience as we can, yet we are paralyzed by the immense amount of pain and loss.


What happened next was our moment of epiphany.  Jeff from insight labs connected the dots we were unable to see.

“Maybe this is the point..  If you all are so conflicted as a result of being here, that you can’t get anything done, how do we expect someone who isn’t going to be here for this many days to be able to reconcile the feelings into some form of sustainable action?”


The design brief suddenly made sense – “The problem we’re trying to solve isn’t just genocide and isn’t just museums.  Rather, it’s the gap between the way we remember the genocides of the past and how we act to prevent the genocides of the future.”

We’d been so focused on the types of actions someone can do to identify and prevent future atrocities that we missed the real problem. Experiences like the KGM leave you so broken that you are unable to act in any capacity, much less one that requires empathy and some form of critical thinking.

Aegis Trust partially recognized this deficiency when they created a traveling education exhibit, based off of the original narrative in KGM. On our 3rd day of research, the team drove out into rural Rwanda to see this exhibit and speak to the community educators. The tone and narrative of the education exhibit was almost the opposite of its predecessor at KGM. While it told the same initial story, this exhibit ended with stories of people working together as a means to emulate model behavior.


“Have you seen the exhibit at KGM? Yes?  Then you can see the difference.  At KGM, you get to the end and just go ‘poof’; but with this one [educational exhibit] that happens very quickly.  Users go through the hard part, but then also the uplifting part; realizing some of the possibilities that are there.”

- Morley Hanson, Aegis Trust


The groups of school children who arrived from nearby villages left with renewed compassion toward their fellow countrymen and a motivation to correct wrongdoing in their own lives.  The traveling exhibit not only transferred the values of critical thinking and empathy, but it was able to contextualize examples of supportive behavior that rural villagers could emulate every day.

After seeing this, it became obvious to the design team that one key to generating action was to provide examples that locals and visitors could see in their daily lives.  We would need actions that ranged from easily achievable to aspirational. This would provide “humanitourists” the ability to gain confidence that they can affect change and the realization that there is more that can be done.


Our final 24 hours of research in Kigali was focused on interviewing visitors of the museum and observing education workshops conducted by Aegis Trust.  One of our first participants, a youth leader on his 4th return to Rwanda, gave us another clue into the recipe for creating sustained action. He described an interaction with his grandmother upon returning from his first visit to Africa.

She asked him, “Did you get that Africa out of your system?”
“No..  In fact, it’s just starting… A missionary had started a school here and they needed someone to run it.  So I came, moved my family, and ended up having my son here.”

The youth leader had just described his trigger for action. A pattern we noticed in multiple people during our final day of interviews.

Upon hearing moments of “triggered action” from dissimilar participants, the design team began to wonder if it would be possible to manufacture trigger moments within the memorial?  Or at the very least, be in a position to provide resources for action when “primed” individuals reach a moment of potential action after returning home.

The youth leader continued to describe another key to his continued involvement.

“I have a friend here named Erik [his name has been changed to protect his identity].  His entire family was killed in the genocide.  He was called to be a witness against the guy who killed his entire family. So he went and said – this is what happened – but he forgave him. He said, ‘he’s done something horrible to me, but if I do something horrible to him, I’m no better.’”


The youth leader was describing a second pattern for sustained action. Motivation that was sustained by a connection with a real person.

“I no longer run the school here in Kigali, but I do bring groups of students to Rwanda.  This is my 4th time back.  We talk about this trip as being a series of contrasts – ups and downs.  We are here this morning, reviewing the history, and then we are going to drive out to a school to see kids that are so full of hope and life.  I think that Rwanda is a story of growing redemption and hope.  If we just have one side of it, we are missing the full picture.”

The youth leader had hit upon another pattern we discovered in multiple western groups who were touring Rwanda.  Each group had modeled a tour that included multiple moments of “ups and downs”.  They had independently discovered that balancing turmoil with hope created opportunities for connection within each of their participants.


There seems to be an underground culture of “humanitourism” taking place in Rwanda.

While it’s fair to say that people who make it to Rwanda to visit the genocide memorial are already predisposed to some type of action.  Rwanda itself isn’t a very large tourist destination.  Most visitors have to go out of their way to enter the country to see the gorillas or to go to the genocide memorial.  Very few happen to stop by as part of a day-trip to other sites within Rwanda or it’s bordering countries.

The design team began to wonder if we could amplify this concept of humanitourism.  Is there a market for people who are looking to be inspired by the acts of kindness and reconciliation that are taking place in this small African country?  If so, would we be able to model a series of experiences that activate people to participate?

These were just some of the questions we had upon finishing our research in Kigali.  In my next post, I’ll talk about how we took these data points and synthesized them into design recommendations for Aegis Trust and the Kigali Genocide Memorial.

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Intent vs. Practicality: On the desire to develop Research Insights Databases

Many of the faculty have been in the position before: a client wants to maximise their research ROI by having you simultaneously conduct design research AND help them develop a means for efficient knowledge-sharing of your (and all future) research insights. I just wrote a little diddy on some of the reasons this is tough, and why asking for a more efficient means of sharing insights is missing the point.

Commentary welcome.

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UX for Good: Meeting the team

A group in Kigali marches toward the memorial

This post is my third in a series on the UX for Good design challenge. Check out the first post: UX for Good Introduction to get a better understanding of what the UX for Good design challenge is about.


Today I watched part of the team visit the grounds of the Kigali Genocide Memorial.

It dawned on me that we externally worked through an issue that many observers & participants of the design process also have to work through: Just because you are studying X problem, doesn’t mean that your end output will be directly attributable to this problem.


I.e. – just because our design focus is “creating action that stops genocide”, doesn’t mean our design solution will be directly attributable to stopping a genocide.


Yesterday I asked a man at the memorial the following question, “What is this place to you?”

His response, “In one way, it is a home.  The bones of my mother and father are here… But in another way, it is hope.  Hope that the people who come here will be moved to see the hatred and intolerance that generated this – and take it upon themselves to say something when they see it happen in the future.”

He’s not stating he hopes people stop mass killings (not that it needs to be stated).  Rather, it would seem he observed a different problem altogether; that hatred and intolerance between individuals set the stage for the event to happen.

This is different than the problem that most of us perceive.

When you visit KGM, and other holocaust memorials, you will see a single statement at both of them – “Never again”.  Someone in our group made the observation, “this statement feels hollow… what makes this feel so hollow?”

We’ve had this decree since the Holocaust. Yet somehow there have been multiple instances of massive atrocities since then.  It might feel hollow because our awareness of these atrocities conflicts with our belief in the statement – in effect, exposing the facade.

When I reframe this concept within the context of our mission statement – I can’t help but ask a question.


“Never again”…  Never again what?


One answer might be that we find a way to generate a swifter response to future instances of foreseeable atrocity.

If there is mass killing on any scale, we should make a concerted effort to mitigate it as soon as possible.  But this is an obvious statement that everyone already largely agrees upon. And yet, history has demonstrated this isn’t enough.


What if killing isn’t the problem “we” should be trying to solve?  I.e. if the killing has started, “we” are already too late.


An alternative answer is that we find ways to design counter measures to the subtle forbearers that set the stage for an atrocity to flourish.

Design concepts in this problem space are difficult to craft.  More often than not, our “business minded” culture doesn’t permit taking action unless it is directly attributable to the end result.

I.e. If you can’t show that doing X will stop a pending atrocity, no one will take any action.

The result, as history has continued to show us, largely inaction.

This is the same type of thinking the plagues the companies I worked with every day as a consultant @frog design.  Business leaders want imperial evidence that making a move will result in all of the return.

“Guessing the future” doesn’t work like this. 


Edison knew this during the development of the light bulb. When asked about all of his failure, he responded, “I have not failed.  I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Edison would not have lasted in our world of quarterly returns.

Changing the future requires rigor, iteration, and sometimes a hopelessly optimistic attitude about reaching the end state.

I have hope. 

As a designer and systems thinker, my value to a team often lies in reframing a given situation.

Consider the following: if the subtle forbearers to a major atrocity are largely cultural undertones that have potential to evolve given the right circumstances, they inherently happen over time. Thus, they may have a higher chance of being noticed by someone who intimately participates in the culture in which they exist.

Designers often make reference to a potential solution as abiding by specific design principles.  They are a way of saying, we can create any product, system, or service; but if it is to be successful, it must do the following.. Design principles are the result of research, reflection, reframing and rigorous iteration. They guide us in crafting meaningful solutions that are not always directly attributable to the initial perceived problem.


It may be that the design principles for this particular problem read as follows (Note: this is purely a hypothesis that will change):

  • In-order to be successful, the person must be able to identify the undertones that led to a particular atrocity (any given person who visits an existing memorial).
  • In-order to be successful, the person must then be able to reframe these undertones within the context of their own culture; identifying similar patterns of action or behavior that act as a single block in an overarching foundation.
  • In-order to be successful, the person must then be able to generate concepts that have a purpose to achieve a more ideal outcome; and be able to execute upon these over time.


The solution we could then create would reframe the action we hope to generate as:

  • - a “thing” that is contextual (a person can apply it to their own cultural circumstance)
  • - a “thing” that is sustainable (the visibility of their action generates more action)
  • - a “thing” that may or may not be an external creation by the person doing the reframing – but solicits action towards the achievement of a positive outcome (Focus on crafting / executing small steps to the ideal state).

Tomorrow, we officially start research.  We will ingest the perspective of visitors, survivors, and hopefully perpetrators over the next 3 days.

These raw data points will be combined with our own understanding of the world around us, allowing the team to generate design principles that guide our creative thinking.

I hope to have another post sometime in the next three days.

Posted in Design Research, Interaction Design, Reflection, UX For Good | Leave a comment