News and blog posts from our students and faculty

Category Archives: Methods

CapMetro App Revamp: Iteration 1

Quarter 2 has begun! This first blog post comes to you courtesy of our “Methods” course which is entitled “Rapid Ideation and Creative Problem Solving.”  For this class we will be presenting a new iteration on the same design each week.  The design we will be iterating on each week is the existing CapMetro App which is the official app of Austin’s public transportation system, and allows bus/rail/shuttle riders to buy passes, plan trips, view maps & schedules and see when buses will be arriving. This week we are creating two concept maps:  A concept map of the existing CapMetro application and a concept map of our revised iteration.  A concept map is a visual representation that simplifies the parts of a system in order to allow for a better understanding of the  organization and boundaries of the system as a whole.  To start this process, the first thing I did was take screenshots of every screen and print them out.  I labeled each screen with a unique name and then pinned them up on the wall in a logical order.  See here. From this I created an “As-is” map of the current system (click image below for a closer look): CapMetro(AsIs)10.29.14

After completing this map, some things started to stick out to me that could be improved upon:

  • The Route Maps and Schedules should be combined since both options take you to the same place and the toggling mechanism (allowing you to switch from Maps to Schedules or Schedules to Map) should be more obvious.
  • Planned Trips should automatically be saved in a history instead of requiring the user to manually save a trip as a “favorite.”
  • Tickets should automatically be saved to the “cloud” with the option to save to a device instead of making the user choose between two “Save to the cloud? or to your device?”  which is probably confusing to many users.
  • The online ticketing system is overly complex;  Requiring the user to manually activate a ticket prior to use (in order to start the clock on the expiration date) is confusing and unnecessary; The ticket should activate when it is first used.  Requiring the user to activate the ticket, tap the code, and then present the code to be scanned by the driver is way too many steps for people in a rush to get on a bus.  If and when technology permits, this system should utilize nearable technology so a user can pay their fare just by tapping or waving their phone near a reader.
  • There is confused terminology on the app.  The words “Tickets” and “Passes” are used interchangeably, and “Terms and Agreement” takes you to a “Terms and Conditions” page.
  • Having written turn-by-turn directions of every route is unnecessary, and better presented in map form.
  • The Index menu presents options that already exist on the home screen.  To simplify it makes better sense to remove the duplicate options, and just provide a clear path back to the home screen.
  • All pathways need a clearer path back to the home screen.
  • Pressing the back button should move the user back one level, not ask if they want to quit the application.
  • The Settings and More Info menus feel like catch-alls instead of meaningful buckets.  Many of the “Settings” could be nicely combined into one “Account” screen.  The “More Info” should combine “Phone numbers” and “Contact Customer Service” into “Contact Us”.

These realizations lead me to create my first iteration in the form of the revised concept map seen below (click image below for a closer look).


Thoughts?  I’m specifically looking for feedback on the clarity of these models and the revisions I chose to make/not make.

Posted in Classes, Methods | Leave a comment

Map this app

Some things are complicated. Take the CapMetro app, for instance. The CapMetro app is presented by the CapMetro public transportation system here in Austin, and is responsible for communicating vast amounts of information to CapMetro riders, including bus routes, schedules, ticket prices, ticket purchases, detour information, and much more. In order to understand the CapMetro app in its entirety, our Rapid Ideation and Creative Problem Solving class is working on creating Concept Maps. Concept Maps are visual representations of systems that simplify the system in such a way as to make it more comprehensible, more quickly. This is important for us as designers as we begin to think about constructing systems, and important for the people to whom we show our ideas, so that they can make sense of this complex information, too.

We’ll be mapping this app several times over the next few weeks. The Concept Maps here are first-pass iterations, done rapidly over the past 48 hours. The first two represent the system as it exists today. [Continued after the maps, click to view larger.]



The last Concept Map represents my ideas for optimizing usability at a conceptual level. These ideas will continue to improve over the next iterations. [Continued after the map.]


As early observations, I think that trip planning, schedules, and next-bus information all share the goal of getting riders information on the optimal route and time for their travel. That commonality leads me to believe there are ways to consolidate that information, as you can see around the “Find a Ride” bubble. Secondly, the current CapMetro app uses phone numbers to handle any problems or breakdowns in the app or in service, which necessitates leaving the app to dial. A chat function within the app could streamline customer inquiries, and I think would probably take up less time for CapMetro than fielding phone calls. Lastly, while an overview of the system and route maps are necessary, they are difficult to read and comprehend on a small phone screen. I think there is a potential to use the stops themselves to better handle large-format route information, perhaps in conjunction with the app. Going forward, I also would like to consider the app payment structure to make it easier and more enjoyable to use. If you have thoughts on optimizing this app, please feel free to comment, especially since this is an ongoing project!


Posted in Interaction Design, Methods | Leave a comment

Wash, rinse, repeat

Our second quarter methods class is called Rapid Ideation and Creative Problem Solving and rapid it is. We started Monday night; were informed that we would iterate on the same assignment 7 times over the the 8 weeks of class; and told the first iteration was due Wednesday. The project is to redesign the smart phone app for Austin’s public transit system known as Capital Metro.  Each successive iteration will tackle a finer level of detail and require a higher level of fidelity. For the first iteration we are not focusing on screens or specific functions at all. Rather we are creating two concept maps: one of the system in its current state and one of our vision of how it could be improved.


Based on mapping the current system I identified the following high level problems, questions and opportunities I would like to explore in my proposed redesign:


Schedules and route maps are treated as separate sections when in fact they are just two different ways to view information about the transit services.

Notifications, service alerts and latest advisory all seem to present the same information.

Treating all intents the same

The Capital Metro app currently caters to three different intents. The first is a slower paced intent that involves browsing available services to plan a trip or look at a schedule and route. The next is a more focused information-finding intent, when is the next bus coming to this stop? Finally, is an action oriented intent, I want to purchase a ticket. It is easy to imagine a narrative where these intents lead from one to another or narratives in which each exist independently.

What if each of these intents was supported by its own app that integrated seamlessly with the other two, but could also be used on its own for a more streamlined, uncluttered experience?

Not integrating with other tools 

Do users want an other trip planning tool or if they want to use whatever they have been using (in my case Google Maps) and have it connect to Capital Metro’s database and applications? What if you could use google to plan a trip in the public transit option and instantly compare it to the the database used for Next Bus (which uses real time data tell you when the bus will actually arrive rather than just what the schedule says) to improve the fidelity of Google’s projected time and transfers? What if after finding the route you want using Google I could go seamlessly to the buy a ticket for the route? What if Capital Metro could access the locations you have saved in Google Maps?

The Capital Metro app is already using GPS for the users current location in some cases. How can this be better utilized?

Other possible points of integration: On your calendar to see when your week or month pass expires?


PDF of concept models: CAPMetroReDesign1

Posted in Interaction Design, Methods | Leave a comment

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.




Posted in Methods | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Methods | Leave a comment

(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


Posted in Design Research, Food, Methods | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Design Research, Methods | Leave a comment

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 »

Posted in Design Research, Methods | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Classes, Creativity, Design Research, Interaction Design, Methods, Strategy | Leave a comment