New Earth and Why Designs Fail

This is a story about Earth, what’s happening, and why it can’t be fixed. 

Earth Full

The trouble started with the invention of the internet.

People began to spend more and more of their time online in front of screens. The amount of information, especially contradicting information, was so overwhelming that people didn’t know what to believe and they began to mistrust most of what they saw. They sought solace in the echo chambers of online communities that reinforced existing belief sets, as this environment was much more reassuring. However, this caused extreme polarization to grow as sub communities fed off themselves and ignored other viewpoints. The result was that the political landscape became irreparably polarized and damaged as trust declined.

The government was actually the first thing to go on Earth. Youth especially, didn’t trust it, and instead they gave their attention to the commercial world, to new flashy companies with new flashy technologies. The best and the brightest minds graduated and went to work for these companies and used their creativity to get people to click on ads and spend even more time in front of screens.

Dead Interfaces

It was the divide between the rich and the poor that was most potent. The tension between the two sides, the haves and the have-nots, spawned resentment within communities and war between nations.

Simply put, the rich were too rich, the poor were too poor, and no one knew how to create balance.

Screen Shot 2018-03-15 at 10.52.34 AM

The rich, tried to give their money away constantly, to charities, to individuals, but the money never seemed to actually help. Transferring money alone didn’t bring liberation or stop suffering. Money just disappeared into the ether not creating any real change. Screen Shot 2018-03-15 at 10.53.16 AM

Charities worked furiously trying to help those in the greatest need like the homeless, those living on less than $2 a day, and victims of a natural disasters. They ran successful fundraising campaigns, received huge donations and launched initiatives to build new communities and help as many people as possible. But even if they looked promising at the onset, after some time, all their efforts fell flat. Their solutions weren’t used by the beneficiaries. The communities they built turned into ghost towns, and they couldn’t understand why.

The world looked to it’s youth and it’s designers, those would-be saviors charged with creating positive social impact. Students were given money, shown the problems and told to pitch the best solutions – help! But none of the students really understood what they were dealing with in the first place. All their designs were destined for failure because they were designing within already broken system. 

broken system.001

Earth was finished.

Depression was rampant, plaguing almost every human on the planet. Humans had given up on each other, and given up on trying.

People lived secluded lives, trusting no one, and venturing out only through digital interfaces and virtual realities.

Virtual Reality

However…..

Not everyone had given up, and there was one interesting technology that was being developed.

People had finally figured out how to safely transport humans away from Earth, and there was a plan to colonize a new artificial planet, called New Earth.

New Earth Travel.001

New Earth gives was an opportunity to start over; it was a clean slate. And this time, they weren’t going to fuck it up.

Before launch a select group of extraordinarily altruistic and intelligent people were designated as Stewards of the new planet. These Stewards were trained extensively on the human psyche, what’s best for human kind and how to help manage people. On New Earth, each Steward was assign a group of people to look after and care for.Stewards1

There were two brothers in particular that were selected as Stewards for there kindness, intelligence, and upstanding characters. 

Brother 1 was diligent in planning out the colony. He created parks, rivers, lakes and little walking paths that wound around beds of exotic flowers. He avoided the mess of money all together. He gave everyone assigned jobs, and if anyone needed money, they could just come to him and ask for it. He was happy to give money! But he wanted to make sure they were spending their money on the right things and not making poor decisions.

Each day he walked around and asked,

“How’s it going?”

“Good, expect…” a colony member began to reply.

“Great! See you later!” as soon as he confirmed things were good, he continued on with his rounds.

He saw his colony as perfect, and was very proud of himself. No one was homeless, no one was in poverty. Life was good.

But before too long, people became unhappy, and Brother 1 didn’t understand why.

Screen Shot 2018-03-15 at 4.19.11 PM

Brother 2 took a different approach to planning and creating the colony and it started with a conversation.

“How should we build our community?” he asked.

Brother 2 listened to the people and helped them organize and understand themselves as they moved towards a shared vision of their colony. It took time. They played out multiple scenarios, and helped each other see why some decisions were more promising than others, and eventually there was a consensus.

New Earth Colony.002

Brother 2 was happy and proud of his colony as well, but he knew it wasn’t perfect. He understood the power of time. Time changes even the best designs as people grow and change within a system. Brother 2 was diligent in monitoring the system they had created. The people paused regularly to reflect on micro changes and to course-correct if necessary.  They practiced mindful reflection both as individuals and as members of the community. They became stewards of each other and the colony they had co-created. Conflict did arise of course, but people were taught to express their concerns and struggles and make time to work through conflict before resentment could be imbedded.

If designers hold any merit in taking on social impact work, it should be for their awareness that they don’t have all the answers nor all the domain knowledge required to address the problems of humans. It should be in our awareness of the power we have (or dont’ have), and our ability to transfer that power. We must design with humility and a willingness to learn, experiment and diligently course-correct. An agency model of design work is troubling. Can we really hand over the design after a month of work and then wash our hands of it? We will never be able to anticipate the all the implications or future outcomes of a design. It’s negligent to think our work is done when the project contract ends.

The world is not static, people are not static, and designs are not static. We must be able to intercept a failing or warped design before it’s too late, and give the people that use our design the tools to see the larger system and adapt it to their own needs as they will inevitably change.

Wireframing: Iterating on visual design and workflow

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

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

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

Improving visual design

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

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

newvsold-02

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

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

Revising wireframes

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

Test documentation 5-01

 

Improving workflow

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

Revised screens

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

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

Next steps

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

 

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

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

What I learned last week

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

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

Users, scenarios and storyboards

 I wrote about three potential users:

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

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

Users and goals
Users and goals

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

 

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

Scenarios, screens and scenes
Scenarios, screens and scenes

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

Storyboards
Storyboards

Storyboards to wireframes

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

Wireframe sketch
Wireframe sketch

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

Wireframes in sketch

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

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

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

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

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

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

Louis pays his friend.
Louis pays his friend.

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

Stephanie checks her balance.
Stephanie checks her balance.

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

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

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

Stephanie deposits a check.
Stephanie deposits a check.

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

Stephanie transfers funds.
Stephanie transfers funds.

Next steps

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

My evolution as a design researcher

As I am halfway through my first quarter of Interaction Design Research class, I am reflecting on my evolution in terms of what it means to do design research as well as how my current project researching the animal product food chain has evolved. As a budding design researcher, I am beginning to grasp what it is I need to practice and learn – how do I step into a world I’ve never lived in, feel comfortable with uncertainty, capture data that reflects how people really live their lives, and gain empathy for all of my participants. I am beginning to understand the complexity of this task and am finding that I as I fumble through my first research project how much work it is going to take on my part to embody the methods that will lead to deeper and more meaningful insights.

At the beginning of the quarter, my teammate and I decided to focus in on how food is distributed from farm to restaurant since it was a topic we were both intrigued by. Our initial research question was to understand how Austin area farmers and ranchers get products to market. Our research started by talking to subject matter experts and doing secondary research. As we began to feel more confident in this brand-new problem space, we practiced contextual inquiries – we tried our best to be able to bear witness to the ways farmers, food distributers and restaurateurs lived their day-to-day lives.  We tried engaging our participants in questions that would reveal the gaps between how they wanted to live their lives and how it was actually unfolding. As we heard stories about how farmers would get their products to restaurants, we heard time and again how important communication was – from building trusting relationships between stakeholders to farmers consistently updating restaurants about what crops they currently have for sale to restaurants making requests and staying updated on all of the farms in the area.  Almost every prompt my teammate and I came up with returned to how important clear and consistent communication was to each stakeholder. Therefore, we narrowed our focus to gain additional rich insights into how individual farmers and restauranteurs feel about their daily communication.

 To begin to unearth how our participants feel about their daily communication, my teammate and I developed several participatory activities. Before the interview, we asked our participants to keep a record of who they spoke with. During the interview, we worked with our participants to create a map of all of their interactions that encodes different information like frequency, importance and method of communication within the map. We then used this map to stimulate stories. At the end, we asked our participant to design their ideal communication.

It was amazing to see how using this kind of activity facilitated storytelling. A powerful moment occurred while my teammate and I interviewed the chef of a well-established farm-to-table Austin restaurant. As he described his relationship with one of his food distributors, he segued into talking about a meaningful relationship he has with a new local restauranteur. At first he was talking about ordering an animal product, how he predicts how much he needs, and what it is like working with this particular distributor. Next, he described challenges he has.

This led into a story in which he recounted a moment last week when a new chef did not have enough fish to serve his customers that day and texted our participant to ask if his restaurant had enough to share. Our participant took out his cellphone to show us the text exchange. He walked us through what happened and how the text moved him to reach out to his other chef friends for the fish. In this moment, I felt like I got to peer into the lives of a network of chefs and how they managed to support each other. In the end, the new chef was supported by his network (who are also his competition!). I believe that entering into the interview with a mindset that my teammate and I would co-create an interaction map with our participant facilitated this meaningful finding.

Of course, as mentioned above, I am a budding researcher and just now learning about how much I still need to learn on how to be an effective design researcher. In my next interviews, I have a few things I want to improve. First, I really need to be prepared for anything. The night before, I should make sure my cellphone can take hours of video (because I found out that it can’t in the middle of an interview), my computer is ready to take notes (after I had typed 8 pages of notes in the field, Word would not let me save the document – something that has never happened before) and I bring several different kinds of notebooks depending on where my participant takes me (small and large notebooks that open in a way that I can carry them one-handed since I need to be ready for anything). Second, I want to modify my participatory methods to go deeper. I see how powerful participatory research methods are at getting participants to open up, share stories, and reveal insights I could not predict. In my next iteration of this kind of interview, I want to ask questions that help me to understand who are the influencers in the participant’s business as well as what the real impact communication has on day-to-day operations. I want to delve into their sense of ideal relationships so I can learn what may currently be broken. Third, I want to internalize possible models I will eventually develop from the data my teammate and I are recording in the field. I believe this will help me to record the right data for future use in the synthesis process.

Design research: a reflection on field research and project work

Our team aims to learn about the factors and actors that influence school menu planning. We have an interest in animal-based food products, such as meat, seafood, pork, and dairy. At the start of the course, we learned from an expert with Greenfield Project, whose work includes advocating for sustainable livestock programs, the humane treatment of animals, and working to promote related government policy changes.

We chose institutional food services because it represents a significant opportunity to influence food purchasing and we thought that it might be a meaningful area for Greenfield Project. We narrowed our focus on K-12 school menu planning because of its connection to wicked problems (such as hunger, poverty, and education), and our desire to use design research to immerse ourselves within a specific cultural context.

Why design research?

The primary goal of design research is problem finding. Throughout our fieldwork, we’ve strived to:

  • Understand the various people involved with school menu planning and what they do, why they do it, and how they feel about it.
  • Cultivate empathy with our participants. This is an important component for me: as a married man who has chosen not to have children, as a professional who has spent 20 years in marketing and spending the majority of my time with other professionals, etc. So I have not spent much time before now thinking about school menus, childhood nutrition, etc.
  • Curate stories from our research findings and data to share with others.
  • Document data, artifacts, photos, etc. that will enable us to move into synthesis (problem understanding) at the appropriate time in the course so that we can make meaning from our research.

Our design research has been generative, and we have approached it with a beginner’s mindset. Our research methods in the field included:

  • In-depth and ad hoc interviews
  • Subject matter expert interviews
  • Contextual inquiry
  • Participatory
  • Secondary research

While we are still recruiting and completing interviews, I have a sense that the design research fieldwork has given us: insights to better define the problem and opportunity with school menu planning; inspiration to identify potential areas of opportunity for school menu planning; and, information assembled over a short period so that we can intelligently talk about school menu planning.

About a boy and his baked potato

Throughout our fieldwork, we’ve heard a variety of stories about creating, testing, and managing school menu programs. There are many constraints and limitations (such as federal, state, and local regulations, budget, facilities, staffing, software applications, nutrition, etc.) that people must manage with school menu programs. And of course, a component of school menu planning is children—their food desires, habits, and nutrition needs.

Working within those constraints can be a challenge. Laura (not real name) has been a chef for more than 18-years and has spent most of her career in restaurant and catering kitchens. After starting a family a few years ago, her interests in childhood nutrition took root and grew into her current role as the food services director for a large network of charter schools. She’s responsible for feeding thousands of children breakfast, lunch, and snack, and she manages an annual budget of more than $4M.

Laura loves to develop creative menu items. And for her, creativity means delicious and nutritious food that children will eat, that her staff can prepare within the allotted time and that her kitchen facilities can accommodate. One of her best resources for ideas is the student. It can be a challenge though—sometimes the ideas of students sound simple, but because of constraints she has a difficult time implementing their suggestions.

Once a young boy in first grade had an idea to share with Laura. She could tell that he had been thinking about this question for days (and perhaps weeks) as he mustered the courage to walk up to her and say, “Hi. You work in the school cafeteria, don’t you?” Laura leaned down to make eye contact as he went on, “I love baked potatoes. Why don’t we have them for lunch?” Laura was moved as they discussed the merits of baked potatoes and she learned more about other foods that he likes.

Laura went back to her office and set out to solve a problem: how might she add baked potatoes to the school menu? She goes on to tell us about the quandary: “It’s complicated. Let’s see, first I’ll need to source 2,000 whole potatoes, then wash the 2,000 potatoes, the staff will need to place 2,000 potatoes on cooking trays and bake them for the required time, and then the front of the house needs to keep them warm for serving,” and this list goes on.

It appears too complicated and time-consuming for the school kitchen. Laura seems crestfallen that she’s not able to include the beloved baked potato on her menu. After all, here’s a young student that wants to eat a vegetable and she’s faced with numerous constraints.

Laura’s still thinking about it months and months later: “how can I serve that brave little boy a baked potato?” There were wins along the way. She was able to add another of his suggestions (pizza fingers!). And yet, she’s still thinking about the little boy and his baked potato.

Lessons learned

  • Daily debrief. In class, we learned that daily debrief sessions allow team members to share early observations and highlights from the work they’ve done. During our planning stage, we committed to day-of and worse case, next day debrief sessions. With competing demands and the challenges of time management, we find ourselves with a backlog of debriefing sessions. The next time I will make daily debrief sessions a priority.
  • Preparation, preparation, preparation. We knew that we wanted to talk with students to learn about their experiences with school food programs and knew it would be difficult to get interviews. When an unexpected opportunity presented itself, we had not thoroughly prepared, so we improvised. Improvisation can be our friend and our worst enemy. The next time I will endeavor to be more prepared and practiced.
  • Show me more. During our planning and throughout fieldwork, as a team, we wanted to make data come alive with visual images to help us better understand the problem area and to share with others. We’ve completed several visual images (such as a model of the various actors involved with the problem area and sketches of the school cafeteria), and yet find ourselves with fewer images than we’d like as we near the completion of fieldwork and prepare for synthesis. The next time I will make creating visuals throughout fieldwork a priority.

School Lunch Menus: Future à la Carte

There’s this special kind of feeling when someone hands you over a brief for a design project. Personally I can describe it as a mixture between anxiety and excitement. You read the topic and you already start thinking about what you’re going to do – products, tools, materials, interactions, branding? But, when you’re learning how to conduct design research, you need to remember to take a step back – your experience is not the only one that counts, therefore, your solutions are probably lacking some serious intervention from the outside in.

Set the table

And then your mentors hand you over your research topic: “Animal Food Value Chain” – think about it. So simple and yet so complex. We could even say that our lives have evolved around and thanks to this topic, and therefore, so many systems have been created due to the need and demand of animals and food.

To narrow down the possibilities and create our focus, each member of the team raised the questions that immediately came to mind, and with affinity diagramming we created patterns that slowly started taking us to a potential area of focus:

What are the factors and actors that influence school menu planning specifically around animal based food products.

The interest was there, we all consider that a healthy diet is key to a good academic performance. But we’ve also learned that various perspectives of what a healthy diet should look like differ from context to context, priorities to priorities. But after we discussed enough about what we know or what we think, it was time to hand the microphone to humans in a school setting.

 

Tell me about yourself…

When conducting a contextual inquiry, you approach someone and your intention is to know how to talk to them, so that they can tell you their story as it relates to a subject in particular; they’re in their space (be it work, home or car) and you’re there to learn from them. Your conversation has a goal – you want to know what a person in particular has experienced that will guide you closer to uncovering a problem.

So we went on a Contextual Inquiry adventure and approached an Austin charter school’s food service staff – that was Laura, or the coolest Food Service Director that I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing- and believe it or not, we didn’t talk about food half the time.

So far, we have discovered that school food staff not only works with the common goal of feeding children healthy and delicious food to warm their hearts and give them energy. Their goal is to instill them good eating habits and taking them away from potential metabolic diseases that are related to bad eating practices. Their goal is to empower students at a young age, and guide them towards reasonable decision making so that they can continue pursuing good choices and do so all their way to college and adulthood. They think about the children’s future and they cook with that in mind.

What about the beef stroganoff?

Creativity is the fuel of makers, artists, designers, performers, chefs, etc. We’ve learned that cooking might sound fun for some, but it can become quite complex and can even inhibit your creativity when you have to work under so many constraints and government regulations. Laura and her staff seem deeply passionate about what they do. If they could improve the service, they would buy all locally sourced food, they would have more vegetables and fruits for children, and make the serving bar lower so that the little kiddos can have a good look at their bright colors and choose the one they like.

So far, exhaustive and tedious processes make Laura’s job less enjoyable than she would like it to be. We wanted to uncover what were the factors and actors that influence school menu planning specifically around animal based foods? We have gotten our answer fairly quickly. Now the question is, who are we designing for?

Reflections on Race

I’ve spent the last couple of months trying to understand how life is different for 2nd Generation Asian Americans. I spent weeks showing up to stranger’s homes and asking them what being Asian American means to each of them; I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about race. How do I–as a six-foot tall, red-headed ,white woman–show up to someone’s home with the explicit intention asking difficult questions to understand experiences that are impossible for me to have? I’ve had to acknowledge that I might not always get it right. Right now, I’m working through how I can share what I learned with others in a way that speaks to the specific experience of the (rather diverse) people we talked to. I am constantly thinking of ways to make this topic resonate with a mostly white audience without people having a defensive or dismissive reaction.

I have to admit, it’s the first time I’ve actively had to worry about an audience connecting because of ethnicity. I recognize that many people have similar thoughts every time they walk out their door. Last week, a classmate’s colleague talked to our Research class about White Privilege. She talked about taking cultural expectations other than White America into consideration when designing anything. I thought that was an important conversation to start. In the time since, I’ve had a couple of conversations with classmates about White Privilege, and I realized when reflecting on those conversations, that “White Privilege” was being used synonymously with “racism.” Each individual, human or otherwise, has advantages and disadvantages in their life. Each individual has challenges in their life. You can understand that and treat people in full equality and that can be a wonderful thing. But if you look at things macroscopically, there are patterns in those individual experiences. Why are black people more likely to be in debt? Why are white people more likely to have someone in their lives that they can borrow money from to cover small debts? The answers are complicated, but it’s part of Privilege. Systematically, there are biases that help people who look like me, probably because people who look like me built the system. As we go forward as designers, I do think it’s important to think about how we present ourselves to our research participants. How do we honor diverse experiences in our design?

Asian Americans, as the highest educated and highest earning minority population in the country, have an interesting relationship to the Privilege framework. There’s a diverse group of people who are lumped into the category of “Asian American” who’s only shared language is English. There’s a whole lot of pressure put on Asian Americans to “succeed:” to have high earning jobs, live out the American Dream, be the “Model Minority.” One pattern I’ve noticed in our research, is that when fitting in means financial success, and money is synonymous with whiteness, people of color don’t have a clear idea of where they fit into American society. I’m thinking a lot about how we can tell stories about our participants, giving our audience context, without falling into outlining “The Asian American Story.” Whatever that is, it’s varied, it’s complicated, and I’m really not sure that it’s for me to tell.

Letting go to gain control

This week, two people told me to focus on what I can control. In both cases, I said “ok, sure” and kept on working on a ridiculous amount of things all at once. Mid-week, I was forced to take a breath, and when I did I realized that I was thinking of what I can control as what I can get control over, instead of actions I can take right now. That was an uncomfortable realization for me. I haven’t been making as much progress as I could be, because I’ve been letting outside forces influence my productivity.

I’ve decided to look at everything, especially my shortcomings, as opportunities to learn. I may not always succeed in the way I plan, but that doesn’t mean the experience is a failure. I’ve started asking more questions of myself like: How do I make myself heard in this situation? What do I need to ask for to make this work?

Hearing “focus on what you can control” has given me permission to let go of perfection, to have an opinion, to be wrong, to speak up for what I need. By naming the things I cannot control, I’m able to look for opportunities in them, and find confidence in myself.

Week 1/32

“The only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing” is a famous translation from Socrates, made famous-er by Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. I won’t give AC4D quite the status of Socrates, but I will admit that I am in a distinctly new place. My current job involves imagining and implementing very real places/experiences and I have a pretty good idea of how I feel about it. This week has not redirected my “how”, but it has greatly impacted my “who”. I have little doubt that the “how” will be on the carving board soon.

Socrates was trying to say something about quantity of data in versus data out. I realized this week that I was designing A LOT and doing little to connect with others- including my coworkers. The process of getting into class work has had an immediate impact on the kind of person I hope to be at 32/32. People are really great if you take the time to pause and listen. Pk

Whole body.

My introduction to AC4D came 3 years ago when I met David Gottlieb. Dave was a student then and we were both new to Austin. Adventures abound in the live music capital but there was something electric in the conversations shared between his cohort. I was drawn to them and spent hours entrenched in discussions around community, entrepreneurship and politics. I have a fashion and sales background and it didn’t enter into my mind that AC4D could be a part of my journey. Our conversations existed in outer orbit, far from my center, and I felt lucky to enjoy them for a short time.

Two and a half years forward, I am still struggling to understand my place in work. I work for a brilliant start-up in Oakland, CA, attempting to unravel the perfume industry. I believe in our mission, methods and people but navigating the organization of our office and others before it is exhausting. I come in inspired and leave frustrated, feeling that I have so much to contribute and learn but that the communication channels are broken- each crack invisible to the naked eye. I can spend hours illustrating, drafting paper patterns and constructing apparel in solitude. I want to be able to feel that same flow at work, or as close as possible. I apply to AC4d, full of wonderment but also doubt- not in the school but in shifting my path again. I want to be grounded in one direction and ask myself over and over if this is the one.

A few months later, all paths converge in one place on the first day at AC4D. I am surrounded by an inquisitive, intuitive and kind cohort- all of us connected by a single thread. The teachers are here to open us up, share process, to shed light on questions previously unanswerable. I was privy to conversations around experience design and design research with the 2013 cohort but I never really understood that we are not expected to have the answers. It begins with talking to people- listening. Through empathy, patterns will reveal themselves and provide a map for work.

Emotions spill over as I realize how lucky I am to be here and also that this will be one of the most challenging undertakings in my life. Every step in the process will be exposed- posted online and critiqued by my peers. My mother is a Montessori teacher and empowers me to explore my environment, to experiment with the unknown and to reflect on my experiences- openly. I approach AC4D with that openness and willingness to unearth my previously built constructs in hopes of breaking them down and building a stronger foundation.

We dove in whole body last week in Design Research & Synthesis as we selected topics for research and began inviting strangers to share their intimate experiences with sexual education. Each conversation exposes the fragile state of our social construct and spurs further conversation. In Design Theory readings, we discuss consumerism and design and it forces me to review my position on product design and consumption. Closing the week is Studio where I feel most relaxed. Visualizing soft ideas is something I’m naturally good at. The challenge comes with the formation of a new idea or personal position then illustrating those points clearly.

And so the journey begins.