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Category Archives: Methods

Another Way of Looking at It

Work Modeling

The most recent synthesis techniques introduced in our methods class this quarter are centered around the creation of conceptual models of our research. These models act as separate lenses to look across the entirety of the interview and isolate information about the layout of space, cultural influences, or the flow or activity in a way that is not possible in the linear format of a transcript. Our team created one of each type of model by going through the transcript from one of the contextual inquiries we did at a food pantry and indicating on the corresponding model actions, the flow of activity, influences, objects, physical location as well as listing moments of difficulty and opportunities for improvement.

We created one of each type from the transcript of an interview conducted at a food pantry, with a single individual receiving food aid. The models include:

Physical model- a plan showing the layout of the food pantry

Flow model- a diagram of activities between people and things

Cultural model – a diagram of the cultural influences operating on the participants

Sequence model – a textual list of activities focusing on why each one occurred

Artificat model – drawings of the physical artifacts or things involved

Breakdowns & Design Ideas – a list of places where some kind of breakdown or problem occurred, along with ideas about how those might be addressed

It was difficult to go back to a transcript of an interview we had conducted weeks ago and construct the models, but it proved to be very thought-provoking. The process of creating each model pointed out things to which we should have paid closer attention or documented more thoroughly.

Also, we could see how creating these types of models immediately after an interview, and then comparing them or consolidating several participants’ experience into one model, could reframe the situation in a new way, and perhaps open the door to valuable and unexpected insights.

A subset of the models is included below, and all of them can be accessed here.




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Research & Synthesis: Society Thrives on Addiction

Over the last 4 weeks our team has been researching the impact addiction has on families, and today we are presenting a preliminary synthesis of our research.  To help us illustrate what we’ve uncovered, we need to first introduce you to a family we have spent time with and interviewed who are currently dealing with addiction.

Patrick is 19 years old.  He’s a bright kid from an upper-middle class neighborhood and doesn’t at all fit the stereotype most people have of a drug addict, but he has been in and out of treatment centers for the past 6 years struggling with heroin addiction.  His father Phil and his step-mom Gwen, are well educated & successful in their professional lives.  The last 6 years have been torture for them.  Getting calls that their son has wrecked cars, been arrested, and even been shot, they live in fear that the next call they get might be the one telling them that Patrick has died.  There’s absolutely no getting around how difficult and tragic addiction is for the whole family, but as we spoke to them we started to pick up on themes that we could use to inspire design solutions for this wicked problem space.

Before we cemented our themes, we also wanted to talk to non-family members who deal with addiction on a daily basis.  We spoke to the executive director of a non-profit that provides counseling and support to teens and families dealing with addiction;  We rode along with a police officer who showed us one of the highest drug crime areas in Austin; and we spoke to an addiction specialist who has been working with addicts for over 20 years.  Through these interviews we gathered more information and more perspectives on the problem of addiction.

Upon conclusion of the research phase of our design project, we transcribed our interviews and mapped specific utterances onto the wall of our design studio.  In order to keep these quotes ‘alive’ we also hung artifacts and pictures we had taken of our participants on our walls.  Our goal is to take the empathy and understanding we gathered to gain insights we can use to design solutions.


What at first just seemed like quotes on a wall, soon started to take shape into the three insights we are presenting today. Those insights all fit broadly into one main theme, “Society thrives on addiction” and specifically are:

  • Society uses addiction to avoid dealing with issues & emotions
  • Traditional approaches to treating addiction are obsolete and ineffective
  • Economic forces continue to perpetuate addiction

Our major takeaway from this whole process is that society is built to be one of addicts.  The addiction specialist we interviewed said “this is a very insecure culture we live in.”  This insecurity and fear of not being good enough is built into the features of our society:  long work days, being judged on monetary worth, being judged on appearances, macho-ism… Our culture rewards those who are constantly striving, and has very few mechanisms for rewarding those who are mindful, thoughtful and whole.

We are also a society of quick fixes.  Instead of dealing with our emotions, we look for pharmaceutical solutions; Instead of treating addicts, we lock them up; Instead of looking for root causes, we treat symptoms.  Through our research we started to see how ubiquitous this is.  We found that this quick fix approach has even taken hold of the treatments we offer to addicts.  The models we use to treat addiction are the ones we have used for decades, and they have been shown to be seriously ineffective.  Despite how ineffective they are, these antiquated models are the ones that continue to get funding and are the ones that are still most prevalent in our society.  The reason we continue to use these ineffective models is that they are easy and one-size-fits-all solutions.  It’s easy to determine what to do with an addict when there’s only one option for treating them.  While it makes more sense to treat each person individually and to admit not all addicts are the same, our quick fix culture doesn’t allow for that amount of complexity, so we continue to use the same old system.

We also found that there are myriad economic forces at work that create a clear economic incentive to perpetuate addiction; Prisons, pharmaceutical companies,  and the alcohol and tobacco industries are big players in addiction and they all turn a blind eye to their part in it.  Treatment can be expensive, and people without the economic means to afford treatment are basically condemned to continue their usage.  The cycle of incarceration and drug use and drug sales is also something our culture continues to sweep under the rug; People who get arrested for drug offenses end up unable to rejoin regular society because their criminal record keeps them from being able to get jobs that pay a living wage, so they turn to drug sales, which creates a cycle of addiction.  There is no economic incentive to deal with addiction, and so it continues to be ignored.

As you can see, these major issues come together to form a bleak picture for our society, but as addicts say “The first step is admitting you have a problem.”  Through our research it is clear that there are major problems, and it is our hope that we can use these insights to spawn design solutions that can make an impact on this wicked problem.

To see our full presentation deck, click here.

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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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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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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: Immersion

This post is my second 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.

At AC4D, we are the evangelicals of ambiguity.  Time and time again I’ve pushed people out the doors of the school with a single mission – go and explore the world around you.  Immerse yourself into the cultures and problems to which we remain largely blind. Not by choice, but generally by habit.  It’s our nature to become so comfortable in our routines that we don’t even realize what they are. I am no exception to this.

These moments of “motivation” are often met with disbelief & fear from the people we are forcing them upon.  “What do you mean I have to go out and talk to people?  Right Now?  I just learned how to do this?”
We try and provide words of encouragement, but you can see the fear in their eyes.
They are participating in a process that is forcing them out of their comfort zone without any clear understanding of the outcome. They are required to blindly trust us.

I attempt to remain aware of this problem in my own life; occasionally making adjustments in my patterns as a means to discover the unexpected. Like many of the design researchers I know, I think to myself  “You understand aspects of the world that others do not”, “you are so informed”.

But my first 20 min in Rwanda as part of the UX for Good design challenge generated a realization that my “informed state” has largely been one of false enlightenment.

What I thought were the boundaries that defined my perspective – those that I attempted to subvert in the name of “immersing myself in problems & cultures”, were not even close to the boundaries I’ve come to identify as a result of traveling here.
Our initial decent into Kigali was in the evening, just as the sun started to set & the area moved into twilight.  As we passed over the roof tops of small towns and villages, I couldn’t help but think they looked the same as the villages we saw while taking off in Brussels. Small clusters of white walls and red clay roofs that travel along the roads that connect them.

From 8,000 feet in the air, everything looks the same.

But as we approached the ground, an extremely unexpected difference in these clusters of homes stirred a panic that I have not felt in a long time.

There were no lights.

No visible lights in the street.  No visible lights on the homes. Or so few that I could actually count the number of them between each village we passed. For anyone reading, this detail might seem like an expected observation.  It does fall within the western narrative I’ve heard from friends and family before coming here; That Africa as a tarp ridden collection of unsafe villages. A narrative that is never explicitly stated, but always inferred. One of thousands of sweeping generalizations that I’m guilty of as much as the next person – and just as afraid to admit.
For me, the concept of limited electricity wasn’t what gave birth to paralyzing fear. If my computer dies, it’s not the end of the world.  If I have trouble charging my phone, it’s not really a big deal. These are the first world problems that I’ve grown largely accustom to solving on a daily basis.

Rather, this small detail pushed me into a state of awareness, and sheer panic, that only comes with the realization that you are completely out of your element. That you are entering into a state of un-retractable ambiguity.

My irrational internal monologue went something like this:

  • You are alone.
  • You have just been dropped into a culture in which the behavioral norms and customs are completely unknown. You are exposed.
  • You don’t speak the language.
  • You have no local currency; as the Rwandan Franc wasn’t offered at any of the exchanges so far.
  • You are an American – so the association with your government’s foreign policy decisions are just one of many lenses in which you expect to be judged (In Rwanda, this history is particularly unkind – Read about the US & UN response to the genocide if you are unfamiliar with what I’m referring to).
  • You are the first to arrive in your team. A group of people you have never met.
  • Your transport may or may not be waiting for you. (I arrived early. So for 20 min I stood by myself outside in the dark)
  • It’s 7pm at night and you have no choice but to press on.  There is nowhere else to go.

I just crossed a boundary I was unaware of and I was letting my capacity for irrational narratives take charge.
 As a designer, the goal is to cross these boundaries.  To be immersed into a particular context, gain some form of empathy, and use that to create momentum towards solving a problem. 
Ambiguity is the hallmark of a good design project. In lacking an understanding of the end state, we are awarded the opportunity to craft it.

But until this point, my experience with these “moments of unknown” have been supported by elements of familiarity. The invisible support structures I’ve unconsciously relied upon were suddenly gone.  I have no team of trusted designers. I am not retiring to the safety of my home after a few hours of contextual research. I am not the facilitator who can choose to end the interview if things take a turn for the negative.

All I have is trust; to trust in the process I preach & the people that I meet.

I am now one of the growing number of student’s I’ve kicked out the door with a call to action to “embrace the unknown”, and I can once again empathize with the fear associated in doing this.

As I embark on this project, I hope the unexpected remains constant. I hope to exercise my capacity as a creative thinker in ways I have yet to imagine, and to maintain this state of ambiguity for as long as possible.

However uncomfortable, this process creates moments of reflection, clarity, and opportunity that provide me with the motivation to keep doing it.


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

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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Building a pragmatic definition for sensemaking.

The one-year course at the Austin Center for Design is aimed at helping students build a framework for approaching interaction design in a way that builds autonomy for the designer while helping them address problems worth solving.  For me personally, some of the sharpest spikes in learning and independence have occurred when I am able to see how the practice that we are learning is also embodied in the design of ac4d itself.  Typically, we have already been applying a technique for a while in the program before the theoretical underpinning really makes sense.

Most recently, we have been exploring the role of perception and abductive reasoning in the sensemaking process.  After already going through sensemaking in a variety of different ways in the last seven months, I’m starting to develop my own ethic and practice as an interaction designer.  And so while the theoretical readings around perception were very dense, abstract, and seemingly unrelated… my tacit knowledge of the sense-making process made it possible to delve into them a derive my own meanings.

I think one question central to the question of design practice (of which sensemaking is at the core) is why it has largely eluded definition or refinement in the past.

So our understanding of design is in many way inhibited by our lack of understanding of the mechanisms of the creative process.  Because we see a linear causal chain, we are fooled into thinking that the decisions made along the way were the result of deductive reasoning or else just a spark of randomness that can’t be defined.  What we lose in this sort of retrospective is the context of each decision and how a pragmatic consideration of context results in a kind exploratory reasoning called abduction.  What we think of as creativity may in fact only be the result of practicality in the right context.

If it is possible to highlight some of the mechanisms that push us toward new insights, then of course it’s also possible to build a methodology that refines and enriches those mechanisms.  I tend to think of abduction not just as a lateral thinking process, but actually as a sort of filter that helps us select from all of the ideas in our subconscious from moment to moment.

And so the sorts of problems that are the most difficult to navigate–ones with complex external dependencies and incomplete information–are also the problems where a rigorous sensemaking methodology will differentiate itself as most useful because it’s the sort of sensemaking that puts the highest premium on a pragmatic, integrative approach to exploring new ideas.

Pragmatism is, of course, highly dependent on intuition.  And in order to be pragmatic in a way that is mostly likely to be relevant to a problem, designers must make their intuitive understanding of a problem space rich with of the context that is most likely to make their ideas relevant.  Perhaps most importantly, context can’t be abstractly understood, it is inherently informed by activity in the problem space with the affected people.

And while ethnographic techniques are widely used in design research today, I think there is a lack of definition around the sensemaking process that follows research.  Just as a perceptual layer exists between the interactions that users have with systems, there is also a perceptual layer that exists between the designer and the system they are designing.  In order to create an effective dialog with a design, the designer must externalize their ideas as often as possible in the form of iconic artifacts that allow for new projections and subjective reactions.  During our course on rapid ideation and creative problem solving, our class had a shared experience around the need for this sort of dialog as we rapidly prototyped and iterated on designs of thermostat systems.

Externalizations create a kind of relationship with a system and the system itself starts to impose its own constraints and shapes the designer’s understanding even as the design shapes it.  Resilient traits survive this dialog and a solution eventually emerges.

This articulation from the designer isn’t the solution it’s a solution: it’s an argument through a rigorous and methodical creative process.



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queery: “Is it working…?” and Our Ponderous Process

Hey everyone!

Alex and I have been touch and go on the blog posts, and I do apologize—today I’m making up for it by posting some progress shots to show you where we’ve come from, and what we have so far.

As Alex mentioned, we’ve come out of the end of this developer hole that we put ourselves through trying to build the application from scratch. Not a good idea, and I’m sure that the lesson Alex learned from that is when prototyping, build fast, and then iterate.

I’m pleased to say that our Google Forms, while perhaps too argyle, is working well:

So far we have a few responses, and enough to pair folks together via interest, so I’m looking forward to having folks meet with one another and gauge their feedback on the meetings! Functionally, it is doing what we want it to do, on a low-fi scale, and in the next four weeks, I want to bring up the fidelity of this bit by bit.

So about that argyle…
Currently, queery is lacking in visual design. Google Forms can only do so much, and in order to change the argyle pattern in the forms, we would have to host the form somewhere else and dig into the CSS. While it is possible, it’s not something I’d like to get into in the first version of our prototype, so Alex and I mutually decided that the next phase of queery will be built on top of a WordPress framework, which allows for decent customizability.

As a teaser, I’ll show you what we have in store for queery.

Our logo has shifted slightly, but has gone from this:

…to this.

We’ve shifted from charcoal and turquoise to navy and teal; our color palette is currently this:

We wanted to take the idea of the transgender pride flag and modify it slightly from baby blues and pinks to stronger, more mature teals and corals. We’re hoping that this palette conveys the friendliness and encouragement that we desire in the application while still maintaining a sense that this is a trustworthy, safe process.

What I’ve learned so far is to trust that we will probably not get it right the first time.  I have a lot of anxiety about how the coffee meetings will go because I so badly want to make a positive impact in the community that piloting this is a big deal for me. I also know that the designing process is an iterative one, and that through the stumbling and falling, we’ll pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and keep going.

Incredible thanks to the folks who are currently using queery—we wouldn’t be able to do this pilot without you. And to those of you who are in the LGBTQIA community in Austin, if you want to pilot queery, get in touch with me via chelsea (at)

I’m looking forward to seeing what the coming weeks will hold.

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New Quarter, New Queery

Welcome to Quarter 4, everyone!

Alex and I last posted, Queery was a fully fleshed-out design concept that we presented to a panel of entrepreneurs and designers. The initial response we received was very positive, and overall, we’re pleased to see that Queery is resonating not only in the hearts of trans* folk, but in people who are interested in being allies to the trans* community.

As a reminder, Queery is an invite-only safe space for trans* and gender variant folks to discover their local community through face-to-face meetings. Queery aims to create a community around get-togethers and fuel connections through matching folks by common interest.

Where are we now?
For the past two weeks, Alex and I have been working on developing a pilot program that we can work with the community. We are looking to test out Queery with people who want to provide feedback on the service so that we can make it better. It’s one thing to test folks with paper prototypes, but another to test with a working website.

Below is a peek into the finalized wireframes for the Queery website.

Since we have started our piloting, Alex has been hard at work setting up an EC2 instance and a GitHub repository to make sure that we have all the development tools we need for future coding work. I’ve been working on making sure that we have all the pages and styling we need to match the wireframes.

Going forward, we are seriously thinking about our business plan and how Queery will sustain itself. Will we be receiving grants from LGBTQIA organizations for assistance, or will this be powered by its amazing users? We are hoping the latter.

Want to Help?
For any of you who identify as trans* or gender-variant, we would love your help in piloting Queery. Would you like to meet new people in the Austin area? We can set you up with one on one meetings with other folks based on interest. Please reach out to us at if you are interested.

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