News and blog posts from our students and faculty

Category Archives: Design Research

Coupling between thinking and actuation

As part of the creative problem solving process – designers research to understand a problem space, apply their own subjective point of view or intuition and create provocations to make sense of incomplete information.

In Organizing and the Process of Sensemaking, Karl Weick states, Sensemaking is not about truth and getting it right.  Instead, it is about continued refracting of an emerging story so that it becomes more comprehensive, incorporates more of the observed data, and is more resilient in the face of criticism. 

In Discovering Design Ability, Nigel Cross states, some of the relevant information [in a design problem] can be found only by generating and testing solutions; some information, or ‘missing ingredient’ has to be provided by the designers himself ... this extra ingredient is often an ‘ordering principle’. These ‘ordering principles’ give people access to new information on the whole and can take on various activities, such as the diagram below for example: 

In Theory of Interaction Design, we read 10 articles and discussed the relationship between creativity, knowledge, perception and strategy. The diagram above is an overview of each author’s summary along with my own position.

Thoughts? Make sense?  Your perception of it?  Can we design for an individual’s perception? Stavros Mahlke, in Visual Aesthetics and the User Experience, thinks we can and should by integrating ‘non-instrumental qualites’ like aesthetic, symbolic aspects and emotional user reactions with traditional user experience interaction design.   

In summary, it is in our thinking and activity where solutions are created and make sense.

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AC4D Speaker Series Graphic Recording: “Aging in Place” by Jon Freach

At AC4D’s last Speaker Series, Jon Freach spoke about his research around Aging in Place and taking the design research he did into concept.

I did a graphic recording of the talk for your viewing pleasure, and I hope you enjoy it!

If you haven’t already, go check out the AC4D Speaker Series! This Wednesday is Leah Bojo talking about Policy Values and Getting Results. And if you want to see more of my graphic recordings, check out my site at

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Charting Times of Change: Money Practices and Behaviors in Myanmar

Earlier this week, GigaOm published an introduction to some work I’ve been a part of in Myanmar, exploring money practices and behaviors in rural and low-income households. Conducting design research in other countries, especially those in development, is a reminder of the applicability of the design process and of the work we do. So few people (or institutions) strive to understand “why,” and despite a heightened foreign interest and influx of opportunity in this newly opened market, so few products and services have been designed appropriately, or adapted from other markets to consider the needs and values of the people they serve.

I hope you enjoy the read.
We’ll be sharing out our findings in early April.

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Design in Healthcare: Improving Support During Recovery

Final Q3 Presentation slide 01.001.png

Over the last four months, as students at the Austin Center for Design, Jacob Rader, Bhavini Patel, and Scott Gerlach have been designing around healthcare.  As a result, we are now in the process of developing Recovery Text: a text messaging service to support patients as they recover.   It’s a simple, direct idea but one that we are confident can make an impact based on the understandings we have developed through research and testing.

At ac4d we apply a rigorous, human centered design process and we focus it on wicked social problems. And so as we are developing our craft as creative problem solvers, we are also learning how to address worthwhile subject matter.


Our Research

In research, we put ourselves into context and attempt to quickly build rich mental models in different aspects of a problem space.  By connecting with people and engaging in activities that facilitate empathy and understanding with their behavior, we inform our intuitions much more richly than we would through statistical models, abstract principles, or academic exercises.  Design research is meant to provoke new ideas and creative problem solving.  And it’s in the complex, interwoven, and often self contradictory nature of specific human interactions that we are most likely to provoke ourselves toward innovative understandings.  So the drive to relate to people isn’t just an empathetic exercise, it’s a practical primer for building new mental connections.

Our research into Healthcare focused on how documents, artifacts, and medical records affect at-risk patients as they interact with the Healthcare system.  We sought out perspectives from patients as well as medical professionals.Final Q3 Presentation 01-5-all.014.png


One of the things that stood out in talking to patients was the contrast in perceptions.  We spoke to a number of homeless veterans who were happy about the care they have access to.  And we tried to unravel what the factors are that lead to that positive relationship.  Final Q3 Presentation 01-5-all.015.png

Over and over we saw that when healthcare felt most successful for patients was when it was reaching out to them and meeting them on their level.  The VA does things like help patients schedule appointments and arrange transportation.  When people didn’t have access to healthcare that reached out to them, they felt much less stable and supported.

We came to understand that a patient’s perception of care has a significant impact on how engaged they are and consequently on their outcomes from healthcare.  And these perceptions are often tied most strongly to the extent that their healthcare is able to meet them on their level and communicate with them.



In professionals we saw a group of people who are constantly working near the limits of what time will allow them.  They have to interact with a high volume of patients.  And for each patient, professionals must perform rapid problem solving and significant documentation. Final Q3 Presentation 01-5-all.016.png

So it’s in parallel with this high frequency application of their technical know how that medical professionals must also attempt to convey as much pertinent information to patients in the brief time that they have with them.

In high volume hospitals that serve at-risk populations the gap between patients and professionals is the most challenging to bridge.  When the demands on professionals and greater needs of the patients are layered over one another, it becomes almost impossible to prioritize a patient’s understanding of their situation and facilitate a stronger  perception of their own care.


Hospital Discharge and Readmission

We had the opportunity to spend time with the medical records department at a large volume hospital. Seeing the processes that support the flow of documentation was like gazing into the circulatory system of a vast, incomprehensible beast.  And although it’s impossible to align all of the complexity in a large team of individual motivations such as a hospital, we came to understand that the hospital has been adapted to–above all–create legal, billable records of the care it provides.

From the moment a patient arrives at the hospital, the hospital is preparing for their departure; it has to be.  But as the volume and complexity of the care provided by hospital has rapidly dilated, the confluence of information, instructions, and paperwork directed at patients in the discharge process has become overwhelming.Final Q3 Presentation 01-5-all.009.png

The way that hospitals attempt to convey information as patients are leaving care and the lack of support during the recovery process create an obvious opportunity for design to make an impact.  We believe that many of the complications that patients experience and the resulting hospital readmissions are preventable.Final Q3 Presentation 01-5-all.013.png

Underpinning the idea of a text message service is a frank understanding of the constraints on patients and professionals during the discharge process.

Professionals are conveying too much in too little time to each patient.  And patients are in a compromised state during the interaction that is supposed to inform much of their recovery process.

Final Q3 Presentation 01-5-all.019.pngFinal Q3 Presentation 01-5-all.020.png

Recovery Text is an opportunity for mutual benefit for both patients and professionals by changing the flow and timing of this information.

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Small, digestible pieces of information delivered to patients at the times when they have the most relevance will improve the chances of patients avoiding preventable complications as well as creating more opportunities for understanding and reflection during the recovery process.  This will help patients avoid reaching back for access to professionals in order to get redundant information during their recovery.  And professionals will be able to concentrate on only the most immediately relevant information during their interaction with patients.



Good design is tested and iterated early and often during the prototyping process.  Recently our design team has been testing and validating the idea of a recovery text messaging service with patients, professionals, and healthcare decision makers.



From patients we have learned a good deal about the tone and content of text messages.Final Q3 Presentation 01-5-all.027.png

We’re developing heuristics for the text messages in order to give them the best chance to resonate with patients over the course of their recoveries.



With professionals we wanted to ensure that the concept of a recovery text messaging service made sense and seemed like something they could see as part of their workflow.

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We tested wire-frames with hospital nurses and social workers and found that not only did the idea feel useful to them, but they had specific advice about how it could fit into the hospital workflow and be the most useful.


Decision Makers

Finally, we’ve had the opportunity to put Recovery Text in front of decision makers at large medical providers.  Our goal was to gain an understanding of how this service might fit into the current trends of healthcare landscape that large healthcare providers operate in.

We found that many large healthcare providers are rethinking the way they provide care.Final Q3 Presentation 01-5-all.030.png

While many minds in healthcare have recognized that the fee-for-service model is at odds with the some of the underlying principles of medicine, the Affordable Care Act has helped hasten an impetus for change.Final Q3 Presentation 01-5-all.031.png

In our conversations with large healthcare providers here in Austin, it’s apparent that many of them are looking to interaction design as a means to help them find innovative ideas.  They are actively seeking new approaches to improving hospital readmission and expanding outpatient support.  Recovery Text has a good opportunity to fit into this overall initiative by addressing preventable readmissions and establishing a new foundation for communicating with patients during recovery.


Next Steps

Over the next eight weeks our team will look to pilot the most important aspects of this service.  We recognize that at the heart of Recovery Text are recovery timelines composed of meaningful messages.  We’d like to develop a deeper understanding of these timelines by embedding in a professional environment.  We’re going to closely study the discharge process to understand how Recovery Text could best integrate into workflows.  Our team also would like to run a pilot program with a handful of patients so that we can better understand how specific text messages affect their recovery process and perception of support from their healthcare provider.


Contact Us

If you’re interested in more details about our project or discussing opportunities for meaningful design in healthcare, please contact us:

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The Spectrum Project Update 6 : Getting specific

Last week, my design partner Chelsea Hostetter introduced Scenario Validation, where we allow the user to read through and imagine particular uses of our application.

In particular, Chelsea highlighted the core of our application which we believe works well:

CoffeeRoulette’s best features include:

  • a curated community of trans*friendly folks, initially seeded by the alpha testers in the trans*community.
  • a no-hassle 45-minute timed meeting to meet with others (but not feel bad if your time runs out and you don’t want to meet them again)
  • a way of connecting others in a generally anonymous, one-on-one way to protect the privacy of individuals.

Having these fundamental concepts of the structure of our community and the ground rules of a time constrained meeting between anonymous participants, we were able to rapidly try various permutations of the meeting mechanics, continuously refining our concept along the way.

After a certain point though, if the design idea is to become real, you have to prune your options and make some lasting decisions.

With that said, we have landed in a pretty solid place and have decided that the way we would like to go is to ditch the games, focus on the trans* and gender variant community, and give people the most direct path from invite to first meeting.


After receiving a lot of feedback, we changed the name one more time. ‘Queery’ plays on two concepts, the primary one is that this is for a nonconforming community, the second being that so many of our participants have questions and would like to find some friends with whom they could explore these questions.

From the image above, you can see the first few screens a potential user would encounter. The very first is an email invitation from a current member.  We believe that this social vetting mechanism is a great way to keep the community safe and to keep the quality of the interactions high.  After clicking on the link, the user is sent to a web app (see via your smartphone for our inspiration) where the user is given a carousel of discussion topics. Most of the topics are rather broad and inclusive of the broader community, some are very specific to the trans* and gender variant community.

The user has to make 2 selections, create a password, then they are given an option to confirm the meeting. We decide the location and discussion companion, but the rest is driven by the user.

Our goal is to help introduce members of the community to one another in a safe manner. We hope that these meetings will help our members forge friendships and build out healthy, supportive social circles.

So how do we know this idea is useful for our community?

More testing!

Our mission this week is to complete a series of usability tests which allow our potential users to give us feedback on not only if the app feels easy to use, but also if is it useful for their needs.  Preliminary feedback is certainly looking good.

Would you like to help us test? It takes an average of 30 minutes, you’ll get free coffee, a sneak peek at our design, and the chance to help the community. Please email us at

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Testing Our Concept through Scenario Validation

When we last left off, we illustrated how we used the power of storytelling to elaborate on our design idea Inner Circle: the Birth Plan for Everyone Else— a smartphone app that guides expectant mothers through a series of questions regarding their impending birth, empowering them to have authority over their birth experience.

Over the weekend, our group tested some of the features of Inner Circle through a user-testing method called scenario validation. Scenario validation acts as a litmus test for whether the intended features and functions of our application are viewed as needed and useful by our intended audience. To do this, we create multiple short stories with accompanying visuals in which a fictional user would use our application to help solve a specific problem at a specific time. These sketches contained the minimal flows needed to communicate the feature in order to test the idea.

To validate the concepts, we held one group session with a total of 4 expectant and recent mothers, some who had hospital births, and some who had homebirths. We read aloud one scenario and had participants fill out questionnaires about each scenario. We then held a group discussion with participants about the features and usefulness of this tool and how they had perceived it.

As we expected, this type of concept validation proved to be invaluable. The feedback we received about the core concept was overwhelmingly positive:

“I think [Inner Circle] would be helpful for somebody with their first pregnancy. It seems to ask questions that I wouldn’t even think to ask. It feels like it really fills a void.”

“There’s something nice about having a birth plan for everyone else. It’s something that’s needed and I didn’t know that I needed it.”

“Every pregnant friend that I had, I would tell them, this would go into the package they need to prepare for their birth.”

Most importantly, scenario validation allowed us to see what features might need a clearer value proposition:

“I don’t think it would be that difficult to just send two different emails. I don’t know if I need an app to facilitate that for me.”

The discussion and feedback from participants informed us that a tool that creates communication hierarchy should be secondary to a tool that provocates the creation of a birth plan for friends and family.

This week, our team will be concentrating on constructing the wireframes which prompts the user to answer questions related to the planning of their birth–the location, people involved, communication boundaries, and tasks which need to be delegated. This feature will be complimented by the communication hierarchies which will disseminate information to the appropriate people–all people will receive opt-in links to tasks such as food prep whereas other people will also be able to volunteer to pick up an older child from school (inner circle only).

At the same time, we will be reviewing previously conducted research with mothers to make sure our design addresses the issues they wished they had known to prepare for. Our goal is to present this information in creating a birth plan for future mothers in their planning stages so that they know what to expect and will be feel more confident and assured entering into motherhood.

“This empowers you to be the boss lady, which is an important way to feel going into becoming a mother.”

Look for another update within the week. As always, if you have any thoughts about Inner Circle, please don’t hesitate to comment here or email me at


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The Spectrum Project Update 4 : CoffeeRoulette

As Chelsea and I mentioned in our previous post, we made a pivot to focus on getting strangers to come together over common interests. As we came to a consensus on our vision, we needed a way to externalize this and test it with participants. So we made the analog version of our ideal service:

Initially,  we had imagined a site where users could be matched based on their common interests and exchange their knowledge.  After receiving some feedback from the community, we decided that the stress associated with being a mentor as well as the number of steps between a user signing up and getting to their first meeting were unnecessary barriers.

We believe that at the core of this iteration there were some fundamental assumptions and issues which needed to be addressed. The initial interaction between two strangers can be harrowing, so how can we make that first meeting go more smoothly? Even more fundamental than that, can we get two strangers together for coffee?

So we tried it out! We grabbed some friends and participants and had them meet in a coffee shop. We recorded the session and took notes on the participants’ feelings of how they felt about how the meeting went and any shift in the feeling of trust they had in the other person before and after the meeting.

Two of the key takeaways from this test were that trust started high and remained high if both participants had a reliable third party to vet the relationship, and that the meetings, while pleasant, were lacking something. Our intuition guided both Chelsea and I to believe that what was missing was purpose. A common purpose can unify disparate groups and peoples. For our purpose(promoting safe relationships within the trans* and gender variant community), we chose to have our participants play games as they are lighthearted, social, and fun.

Games can be useful for so much more than idly passing time. But don’t take my word for it, Jane McGonigal, author of Reality is Broken, had this to say about what games do to build trust between strangers during her TED talk :

There is a lot of interesting research that shows that we like people better after we play a game with them, even if they have beaten us badly. … Playing a game together actually builds up bonds and trust and cooperation and we actually build stronger social relationships as a result.

With that in mind, Chelsea and I have decided to make a few tweaks to our design which take this into account. Instead of forcing users into mentorships which they may not feel comfortable with, while providing for a common purpose which builds trust, we are now having users select which games they would like to play.

We’d like to try this new idea out and have participants share with us their feelings on the experience. While we’re lining up participants for live testing, we are also looking for participants to join us in a group study where we share scenarios with you and get your feedback.

Following Chelsea’s storyboarding process, we have illustrated a few scenarios which we would like you to critique.

If you can donate an hour of your time, please email us at and we will contact you with a list of sessions to choose from.

Thanks for following our project and we hope to hear from you soon!

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The Spectrum Project Update 3: three4three

Hello everyone!

Chelsea here, with the third update for the Spectrum Project. As Alex talked about in our previous update, we were due for a pivot in our idea based on the direction we were going and the critiques we received.

After a long talk on Sunday, and mapping out our next steps in a handy GANTT chart, which broke down for Alex and I all of the individual tasks that we needed to accomplish for the week, we arrived at the conclusion that the box itself was not necessary—it was the connection between two humans we wanted to foster.

The service that I would like to present to you now is called three4three—a skill swapping service that allows people of all gender identities to trade skills with one another locally. It is called three4three — people trade the three most important points about the skill that they know for the three most important points of a skill that they are interested in learning.

We created a storyboard and initial wireframes around this; three4three would be a website where folks input the skills they want to know, and the skills they are willing to trade.

When a user performs her search, the website would locate people in her local area willing to swap skills. The user would then use three4three to set up a meeting with the other person, where the skill swap happens.

We presented on Saturday our storyboard and wireframes, and we received some helpful critique, specifically about the fact that we were suggesting in-person meetings. If, indeed, we were suggesting in-person meetings, how could we guarantee the safety of our participants? How can we create a safe space that protects our participants’ identities and doesn’t accidentally “out” them while still facilitating the human bonds that we all need and crave?

Alex and I are still working out these questions. Also on Saturday, we performed a test with some of our trans* participants to see what their response would be to two questions:

  • What are three things that you are good at?
  • What are three things you wish you were better at?

The results were wonderful, and confirmed our assumption that in-person meetings, or at least meetings that facilitate a human connection, would have the most benefit to the community. The community that we are working with to design this product are highly motivated, sometimes mentoring others for little more than a tank of gas. The strength that our participants find in connecting with one another is astounding and inspiring.

We also found that a lot of the folks we were talking to were less beginners, and more on the intermediate scale of learning skills. They felt that they were good at their preferred skills, but they also wanted to improve. That was something Alex and I hadn’t considered before in our thoughts.

In short, we pivoted, storyboarded, wireframed, and tested—and now we are off to the next iteration!  Stay tuned until next week, where we will be talking about user tests and tackling the puzzle of safety online and offline.

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Our Continuing Adventures at AmbiguityC4D: Q3 Progress Report Post 1

It has been a month since we presented our research, top insights, and the three design ideas at our final presentation for quarter 2. Since then, our group has been trying to settle on one idea to push forward to wireframe and test with.

This has proven to be harder than we had anticipated.

To get to the three ideas we presented at end of quarter 2, we used a 2×2 matrix to evaluate which ideas we felt passionate about against which seemed feasible. Daddy Doula, My Birth Coach, and the Doula Marketplace each originated from the intersection of high passion and feasibility, but were all so amorphous as to what they could do that we weren’t able to settle on one over another.

We revisited our insights and thought a lot about what we saw as the goals of our final idea.

On Wednesday, we made a breakthrough and came up with this idea:

The Peach Project is tool that enables the user to share information about her pregnancy journey with curated communities of her choice, while building a visual history and journey of her pregnancy experience. Through provocation, this platform will prompt her to externalize and articulate her feelings and then share them with her chosen community and the peach community at large.  Sharing tacit knowledge and stories also allows for feedback, support, and empathy from others, strengthening the mother to be’s feeling of confidence around her impending birth experience.

We finally felt we were on the right track and were pretty amped up about the numerous possibilities when we met with Matt Wednesday night. He pointed out to us that while certain aspects of the idea hit home, once again we were trying to incorporate too many features into one product. “What does this platform really do?”


Yes, ideas are free. But ideas that we were excited about seemed to be few and far between. We were spinning our wheels on the same thought avenues time and time again. We needed a new framework to view our research through.

Jon suggested we chart out a few main phases of pregnancy and then think through the value proposition, emotional value proposition, and incentive for each of our participants through this framework. For example, we thought about Lily’s experience with pregnancy and asked “what was she probably thinking when she first found out?”, “what about when she started to tell people?”.


This exercise was immensely helpful in getting us out of our rut. It enabled us to really understand the changing needs of soon-to-be parents throughout pregnancy and what specific areas are most stressful/have the biggest area of opportunity. While each phase includes a certain amount of stress, finalizing plans and the actual labor and delivery periods stood out as an especially tricky time.

From there, we zoned in on these two goals for our idea:

  • The mother-to-be feels connected to and supported by her chosen network of friends and family by assigning communication responsibilities to her closest friends
  • Soon-to-parents are able to easily create boundaries around communication with wider circle friends and family, enabling the mother to better focus on the process of labor and delivery.

One of the provocations for this design idea is that historically, women were supported through their pregnancy and birth experience by a network of women relatives and friends. The introduction of hospitals into the birth process has led to a deterioration of this system. The internet allows us to use social media as a way to manifest a new kind of support connection. Although this connection is crucial, the ability to create boundaries with family and friends is equally important in being able to focus on the labor and delivery process.

Inner Circle will help mitigate the overstepping of boundaries by friends and relatives who mean well but cause anxiety to the mother by being overeager or over-communicative.  Minimizing these distractions and concerns will allow the mother to better focus on the hard and long task at hand.The app will also act as a tool to delegate and manage tasks such as child and/or dog care easily and clearly, further allowing peace of mind and focus.

We are now in a user-testing phase, meeting with participants and verifying that our assumptions about the usefulness and incentives we saw for this new idea are correct before we start wireframing possible manifestations of this idea.

If you have any thoughts about Inner Circle, please don’t hesitate to comment here or email me at

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Design Ideas For Disaster Relief

Natural disasters, and the interrelated social aftermath they cause, present an ever-expanding social plight. Through my research, the complexity of this issue has become increasingly clear. As a designer, I plan to solve for these solutions through methodical testing anditerations. The two avenues through which I will begin seeking these solutions are by examining, first, the effectiveness of the intake process of evacuation centers and, secondly, the effectiveness of volunteer readiness.

All survivors of natural disasters go through an intake process in order to receive assistance and aid. The purpose of the intake process is to collect information for agencies to report on. The Red Cross is the main point of contact and oversees the intake process for most natural disasters. While researching at the Onion Creek Evacuation Center, I was able to get a strong understanding of the intake process. I found that success of this process can be compromised by a variety of variables most commonly logistics, language barriers, lack of volunteers, loss of paperwork, and basic disorganization. In an effort to help mitigate the problem of access and outreach, mobile registration services is one design idea that would benefit both survivors and volunteers. This alternative to the intake process would allow for survivors to preregister and schedule meetings with case managers more efficiently. Mobile registration can provide information on needs before volunteers arrive and allow responders to estimate the numbers for supplies more accurately and more quickly. This format for registration, and the increased access it would provide, would be able to promote the idea of a safety ground and next steps for recovery. Mobile registration also provides a platform to educate survivors on the next steps available to them for recovery. See below for a story board that outlines a mobile app that can help families recover faster.


My second design idea involves finding new and different ways to engage volunteers in order to alleviate the havoc of natural disasters. A city’s best way to help its citizens alleviate the devastation of natural disasters is to provide preparation and information ahead of time. My research indicates that it is difficult for most community members to find out how to volunteer and help their community during these times of crises. One way to resolve this problem is to establish a website that provides information about disaster relief and matches users with volunteer opportunities. For individuals who find volunteering unchanging and predictable, the website would engage and challenge them with opportunities to expand on their preexisting skills and experience. Additionally, this platform is a great way to get high school students more involved in volunteer opportunities and ultimately bolster their college applications. Another benefit of having centralized volunteers via a website is that it allows nonprofits outreach opportunities and a way to greater inform their communities. Ultimately, immediate access to a volunteer base would greatly change the nature and efficiency of recovery when disaster strikes.  See below for a storyboard of how a service like this can work and create a community of change.

To see how I got to these as design ideas view

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