Teaching Theory at AC4D

“Great timing,” I think to myself yet again. As I was preparing the deck I would use that evening to facilitate a discussion on the opportunities of (social) entrepreneurship, I discovered that a vote by the Texas House of Representatives the previous day had “set the table” for Uber’s return to Austin. (Uber stopped providing rides in Austin a year ago in protest of required driver background checks.) Already in the deck were quotes I had taken from “The sharing economy is a lie: Uber, Ayn Rand and the truth about tech and libertarians,” one of the readings I had assigned for that evening. Also already there were tweets and (other) references to other articles about Uber, some positive, most negative. Into the deck went the headline about the legislature’s vote and a few words from the online article.

Serendipitously encountering tweets, articles, and other information pertinent to a class shortly before the class was typical for me, since I follow people on social media who care about the things I care about and teach about. And I often took advantage of that. I had previously added to the above-referenced deck — which I’ve made available in its entirety here — images from two recent articles I encountered via Twitter about Walmart, including one entitled “Business Exists To Serve Society,” words somewhat surprisingly uttered by Walmart’s Chief Sustainability Officer during a recent interview; we watched that interview during class, since it was of great relevance to arguments made by Michael Porter and Mark Kramer in another of the readings I had assigned for that evening, “Creating Shared Value.” That same day, I noticed on Facebook that a former colleague of mine, David Rose, was in town; I had shown a video about David and read a bit from his book, “Enchanted Objects” the previous week in class during another section of the course, and since David was a serial entrepreneur, a guest appearance would be a nice fit for this section of the course as well, so I made it happen.

All of this (and much more) was for an advanced theory course on interaction design and social entrepreneurship that I taught during March and April of this year at the Austin Center for Design (AC4D). Assigned readings included articles — often long and sometimes complex — by renown authors on theory about or of relevance to design and entrepreneurship as well as articles — often more recent and shorter — facilitating the understanding of theory and its relevance to design and entrepreneurial practice today. (All of the assigned readings are listed in a deck you can access here; they might also — depending on when you are reading this — still be listed on the course’s webpage.) The course is one of three that all students take during the final quarter of the AC4D educational program.

Teaching this course was a wonderful experience due in large part to the wonderful students. Each class featured great and often impassioned discussion, and student presentations, each synthesizing designated readings in a personally meaningful way, were always special. One of Sally Hall’s very creative presentations consisted largely of a board game she designed that “follows the development of a non-profit organization working to increase access to education among low-income individuals in Managua, Nicaragua”; the game (being played in the photo below) was designed to help players understand and “explore the complexities of social impact.” One of Kelsey Willard’s presentations was a scary story about the impact of the coming singularity told, appropriately, over a campfire (see photo below). Our examination of power relationships prompted Elijah Parker to share information about his life he had never before felt comfortable sharing. The same examination prompted Conner Drew to explicitly formulate a set of personal design ethics and to call on others to do the same. And repeatedly, Garrett Bonfanti effectively highlighted just how important the role of the designer has become.

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I’ve taught lots — inside of companies, via educational institutions, and at professional conferences — with much of my teaching focused on practical skills. General Assembly — where I taught the 10-week, full-time User Experience Design Immersive course several times — is among the up-start organizations claiming that intensive programs focused on teaching practical skills in the context of multiple, real-world projects prepare students for the workplace much better than much longer, more traditional, and much more expensive academic programs. While that is often true, AC4D Founder Jon Kolko has articulated the importance of teaching theory:

Our curriculum at Austin Center for Design is rich with design theory. Students take theory classes that focus on the social and political relationships between design and the culture of society. Students learn theory and discourse related to designing for the public sector, specifically as it relates to ill-defined problem solving and the ethical obligations of designers. They read complex articles from computer scientists, psychologists, and sociologists, and they build arguments that synthesize these articles into new ideas.

Yet the program at Austin Center for Design is a practitioner program, and these students go on to be practicing designers, not academics. They work for big brands, for consultancies, and in startups — and increasingly, they start their own entrepreneurial endeavors. They aren’t pursuing a Ph.D. path, so why teach theory? Why waste precious class time on academic discourse, rather than practical skills?

I’ve thought a lot about what makes a great designer. One of the qualities is craft and immediacy with material. That’s sort of obvious — someone who makes things needs to be good at making things. I’m convinced that theory is also a key ingredient to greatness, a key part of claiming to be a competent, professional designer, but it’s less obvious than methods or skills and is often ignored during design education. There are at least three reasons I think students need theory as part of their foundational design education:

  • Theory give students the basis for a “process opinion.” …
  • Theory give students the ability to think beyond a single design problem, in order to develop higher-order organizing principles. …
  • Theory give students a sense of purpose, a reason for doing their work. …

We’re seeing an influx of design programs aimed at practitioners, programs that intend to increase the number of designers available to work in the increasingly complex technological landscape. I’m skeptical of programs that don’t include theory in their curriculum. It has been argued that vocational programs should focus on core skills and ignore the larger academic, theoretical subject matter. I would argue the opposite. It is the vocational programs that require this thoughtful context the most, as graduates from these programs will have a direct impact on the products and services that shape our world.

I agree with Jon (and with the students who voiced additional benefits from studying theory), and whenever I taught for General Assembly, I made sure to include some theory. However, I was delighted to have the opportunity to dive more deeply via teaching at AC4D.

My thanks to: Jon and to Kevin McDonald who, before the course, shared invaluable information with me about when they had taught the course in the past; Lauren Serota, Adam Chasen, Mini Kahlon, Ed Park, and David Rose for their guest in-person appearances; Daniela Papi-Thornton, Paul Polak, Harry Brignull, Anne Hathaway, Meryl Streep, Jake Solomon, Ricky Gervais, Brian Goldman, Jeff Benabio, Don Norman, Sean Follmer, David Rose, Jared Ficklin, Stephen Colbert, Sally Hall, Pelle Ehn, Kathleen McLaughlin, John Battelle, Jess McMullin, The Police, and a few others whose names I don’t know who appeared on video; and the many authors of tweets and of articles other than those I assigned that I referenced during the course.

The course ended just last week, but I greatly miss teaching it already. I am very happy to have become a part of the AC4D community.

Breaking Out of Our Own Limitations

As children we are told many cliches such as, “the possibilities in life are endless. You can do anything you want to do.” These statements may have become overused, but there’s a truth to it, with the right tools. As we get older, we generally tend to forget this sentiment. I believe this frame of mind comes from becoming more familiar with the way things are, which limits us to seeing the way things could be. Being able to see past what is known is how true innovation happens.

 

This is where applying techniques of defamiliarization becomes beneficial. In order to be able to see how things could be, we need to defamiliarize ourselves with our own current perception and understanding of the world. Genevieve Bell, et al., argue that, “defamiliarization is a useful tool for creating space for critical reflection and and thereby for opening up new possibilities for the design of domestic technologies.” Defamiliarization can manifest in a variety of techniques such as journaling, conducting ethnographic research, or learning about an opposing viewpoint. I think as long as the method produces reflection or allows someone to ask why beyond face value, then progress will be made.

 
Let’s take a look at healthcare for a minute. If we take the term for face value it implies a positive relationship. Who doesn’t want to be cared for, especially in regards to their health? Then we look at the typical interaction between a healthcare professional (HCP) and “patients” we realize that the relationship feels pretty surface level. Dubberly, et al., explains that HCP’s, “proposals are not just suggestions, they are prescriptions or literally ‘physician orders.’ Patients who don’t take their medicine are not ‘in compliance.’” This description of a healthcare professional doesn’t give me much confidence in regards to being cared for, especially in a medical scenario where the patient has a life-threatening condition. I think it speaks to how medical education can turn caring for a human being into a job void of emotion with a focus of efficiency and accuracy. The impact becomes lost in this frame. Don’t worry, there is hope.

 
Clay Johnson, the Dean of Dell Medical School in Austin, TX is employing a mentality to address this exact issue. He says that, “they’re determined to build the new medical school… on the ‘value-based’ health care model, treating patients and rewarding doctors on the basis of actual ‘outcomes’ – how healthy they keep their patients, and ultimately, how healthy they keep whole populations in Central Texas.” This mentality came from challenging the norm and looking beyond the current frame to see what is possible. The outcome is a new program driving innovation within the healthcare industry by challenging current measurements of success and encouraging to look at the whole patient, not just a current symptom they have for a particular condition.

 
I would argue this approach to medicine is radical innovation within the industry. Donald Norman and Roberto Verganti explain how incremental innovation and radical innovation differ through the hill-climbing paradigm.

 

Change Map

 

Don Norman argues that Human Centered Design (HCD) can facilitate in incremental design and improve the current frame, but radical design occurs outside the world of HCD. Radical innovation occurs once a new hill is seen by changing the frame or by introducing new technology to reach another hill. Then HCD can improve upon that new perspective. Clay Johnson saw another hill, and is now climbing towards the top.

 
When this shift happens it doesn’t mean that it will take effect right away. Norman explains how the acceptance of radical innovations take time. He gives an example of Thomas Edison and the light bulb.

 

Thomas Edison

 

Edison didn’t invent the light bulb, but improved on the existing technology and infrastructure to allow widespread adoption. This is where I think the line between radical innovation vs radical effect could be clarified. Edison’s development aided in incremental innovation which allowed a radical effect to occur. I feel our society leans towards the encouragement of radical innovation when both radical and incremental innovation models are important. Taking into account that true radical innovations occur once every decade or so, we should celebrate looking at incremental innovation, but through the lens of the how we can allow incremental innovation to have a radical effect.

 
Opportunities for improvement and impact exist all around us, but we limit ourselves without branching out of our own bubble. As designers, we have the skills and knowledge to be able to zoom in and out of our own limiting mindset in order to recognize these opportunities. Let’s not limit ourselves by only focusing on climbing the hill, but also keeping an open mind as to other hills we could climb instead.

Inherent Power and Responsibility in Our Day-to-Day

Designers wield an immense amount of power, whether they realize it or not. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like that power is present, especially in conditions where designers may lean more towards the side of implementation rather than the creation of something new and original.

Design is mostly manipulative. Jon Kolko states, “Interaction design is largely about removing cognitive friction or producing a happy path — in order to manipulate someone into realizing a goal. That type of manipulation is typically called ‘helping,’ and it is often, actually, helpful.” Manipulation generally carries a negative connotation, but as Jon points out manipulation doesn’t have to trick someone into doing something they didn’t want to, but rather a designer can guide them towards something they do want to accomplish.

Design is most successful when it allows an experience feel so frictionless the end user barely even notices it. One example where positive manipulation comes into play is TurboTax. Yes, I know this example is used quite a bit, but there’s a reason. TurboTax takes a task of consolidating what feels like never-ending amounts of paperwork that is very confusing to begin with and manipulates the information in a way where many people can actually digest it. TurboTax makes it easy to submit your taxes, but they also make it easy to know what to actually submit. Their approach gives me the confidence that I can do my own taxes, but also that I’m doing them correctly.

 

TurboTax

 

I wish all examples of manipulation in interaction design were as elegant as this one, but unfortunately there are people and companies out there that do manipulate data in a way to trick the user into doing something he or she did not want to do, such as incorporating a dark pattern. A dark pattern is an interaction model where the user is deliberately tricked into doing the opposite of what they actually want to do. One of the more malicious examples I can think of is phishing for private information, such as passwords. People will create an email or webpage which looks like a legitimate version of a service such as Facebook, Google, or a bank account in an attempt to trick the user into giving them their username and password. This manipulative action leads to private information being accessible. Here is an example of someone trying to get access to an individual’s amazon account:

Amazon Phishing

 

Facebook uses a less malicious dark pattern when trying to persuade someone from deactivating his or her account. They utilize attachment anxiety, defined by Brian Cugelman, PhD, as the “uneasy feeling you experience when you’re feeling insecure about a relationship, and uncomfortable about a potential breakup.” When you proceed to deactivate your Facebook account the user is presented with five pictures of their friends with the claim that each one of them will miss you. Facebook has no idea that this is the case and probably simply uses an algorithm to surface people you’ve either recently interacted with or interact with the most.

They take it a bit further and give you a call-to-action (CTA) to message the individual and navigate away from deactivating your account. I’m assuming their hope is that you do so and forget you were deactivating in the first place getting sucked back in to the extremely addictive, and even compulsory, timeline.

 

Facebook Deactivate Page

 

I don’t think utilizing anxiety attachment to retain users is necessarily wrong, but the way Facebook utilized is unethical. Primarily by the claim they make of “Zoha will miss you.” The big problem I have with this example is the fact that Facebook is making an /*unsubstantiated claim*/ using someone else’s supposed opinion to manipulate users’ into staying on their platform. This isn’t based on facts but rather assumptions.

My partner deactivated his Facebook account about 4-5 years ago, but quickly realized the primary method of seeing updated pictures of his Godson, Colin, was in fact through Facebook. This led him to reactivating his account. If Facebook had changed the phrasing to something along the lines of, “you will no longer see pictures of Colin posted to Facebook,” I’d have much less of a problem with this tactic being used here. Primarily due to the fact they wouldn’t be making a claim that was unsubstantiated, especially in regards to an emotional relationship.

Dropbox uses the same type of strategy when a user tries to cancel his or her paid account, but doesn’t make any claims they can’t back up. Because of the way they approach their messaging and what they’re displaying I have much less of an issue with it.

 

Dropbox Downgrade

Although, Dropbox still treats the primary CTAs in a way that your attention is drawn more towards their goals to keep you as a paid user as well as forces you to scroll through descriptions of the features and information which you’ll no longer have access to, which is definitely a fact. They show you the amount of online storage you’ll be losing. The descriptions include the number of backed up photos, and the collaborative files you’ll lose access to.

Their presentation still approaches the feeling of breaking up with a service, but they show you the exact features and benefits the user will no loner have if they continue down a path of cancelling their service. To make this particular example less manipulative I think Dropbox could make the bottom right cancel CTA a little more forward facing, but I understand that’s not in the best interest of their business goals. Does this mean that need to optimize this page for their business and not their user, no. I actually like the way that Dropbox reminds me of the features I would lose connection to, especially if I had forgotten about those collaborative folders, but I don’t like how the design of the CTAs draws my attention more towards their goals, rather than mine. Albeit, I’m hesitant to say this choice is malicious.

Designers have the power to influence and make these design decisions from a strategy standpoint (using anxiety association) to a micro-detail execution. I believe someone once said, “with great power comes great responsibility.” As cliche as this quote may be it doesn’t take away from the truth to it. If designers are the people executing on decisions like this, even if directed from a superior, we have the responsibly to speak up and make ethical decisions on a day to day basis. That also doesn’t negate the fact that people who have less of a design role within their company are void of this responsibility. Any decision maker should be taking this into account and the implications of these decisions.

You don’t have to work at a non-profit with a mission to change the world to do good within the world of design. Mike Monteiro proposes and then answers the question, “Where can you do good work? The answer is so obvious as to be painful. Right where you stand. That’s where you do good work.” No matter the level of experience a designer holds within a company, nor the type of company a designer may be working for, a designer has the power and therefor responsibility to make ethical decisions every single day.

Jon Kolko made a statement in his article regarding manipulation which reads, “I fear there are practitioners who are competent or even extraordinary craftsman, yet have learned no real ethic, no guiding set of axioms in which to ground their work. I don’t mean that designers are lacking morals, or are even bad people. I mean that many practitioners seem to have no consistent set of values that they automatically fall to when doing their job.” This made me realize I haven’t defined explicitly my set of values on my day to day job. I like to think of myself as an ethical person, but without having concretely laying down where my ethics stand I don’t have a way to keep the decisions I made in check. Here’s what I came up with:

 

  1. Make decisions based on the best interest of the users.
  2. Avoid creating patterns or a system that will inherently afford unnecessary compulsory behavior.
  3. Never use a design that is intended to trick the user into something they don’t want to do.

 

These guiding principles do not limit my responsibility as a designer, and will no question mature over time, but the fact that they now explicitly exist makes me pay even closer attention to my design decisions than I did previously. Having power comes with the ability to affect change, and therefore is not limited to designers. I urge everyone to create their own personal set of principles to drive decisions because our decisions affect others whether we are aware of it or not.

The Outcome, Regardless of Intention

As designers, everything we do from the type of problems we work on solving to making the choice of using a radio button or a check box stems from intention. Without intention, choices are made blindly causing an arbitrary execution. I believe intentions are important within design, but where the conversation becomes a bit muddy is when we began considering the outcome of our intentions. There are examples where, despite the best intentions, the outcome is less than ideal, and vice versa. This leads me to ask the question, “how important is intention when the outcome is what creates impact?”

 

One space where this question applies is when developing for the emerging world. Most people are familiar that there is a good amount of effort in assisting developing countries who are less fortunate than our own. There was an effort to provide clean water to people who did not have easy access. Michael Hobbes explains, “It seemed like such a good idea: A merry-go-round hooked up to a water pump. In rural sub-Saharan Africa, where children are plentiful but clean water is scarce, the PlayPump harnessed one to provide the other.” In theory this is a fantastic idea, except when the outcome is examined. After implementing the PlayPumps, Frontline returned to see the impact that had been created. They, “Discovered pumps rusting, billboards unsold, women stooping to turn the wheel in pairs. Many of the villages hadn’t even been asked if they wanted a PlayPump, they just got one, sometimes replacing the hand pumps they already had.”

 

The biggest opportunity in this example would have been to reach out to the recipients of the PlayPumps and learned how this effort would have been received. If the community wanted this or if they would even use it. It would have been discovered that this solution may not have been the best solution to the situation at hand, or even a solution at all.

 

There is another example where working with the developing world was in fact successful. New Story was able to build 151 houses in Haiti which ended up housing 1,200 people where as the Red Cross changed course after only building six houses even though they had raised half a billion dollars for the cause. The Red Cross, “struggled to attract residents because,’ the areas they planned on building were, ‘too far from basic needs like work and food.” The cofounder of New Story, Alexandria Lafci, explains, “This is what participatory design is so crucial and is something we incorporate into all of our communities. We ask families for their input about the location, the style of home, broader community needs, etc.” The findings led New Story to deciding to build their community only about 10 minutes away from their jobs and support networks. Because of this, the community was in a position to adopt the housing because it fit into what was important into their own personal life, unlike the PlayPump example. They are expanding to launch similar efforts in El Salvador and Bolivia, but the models will be slightly different because each location affords unique needs. Participatory design will be used once again to accommodate the small amount of income that exists (unlike the population in Haiti) and will implement a pay it forward model to invest in future communities. Once again, tailored to the specific needs of the population New Story is designing for.

 

A mix of these two efforts include the example of New York’s High Line project. Robert Hammond had the idea of “turning a disused elevated railway on Manhattan’s West Side into a high-design ‘linear park’. He thought it would attract maybe 300,000 visitors a year.” The problem lies in that, “he and his co-founder Joshua David didn’t really think about what the High Line could do to the neighborhood, apart from adding a little extra breathing room.” The project was successful in the sense that it drew new business and condos, as well as the expectation that it will generate $1 billion to the city over the next 20 years. Where the project was unsuccessful is that the park didn’t appeal to the direct neighborhood it was originally intended for. On either side of the park were local housing projects, which consisted primarily of people of color. The traffic the park ended up drawing were predominately white and mostly tourists. Reactions to the park consisted of feelings that local residents, “didn’t feel it was built for them; they didn’t see people who looked like them using it, and they didn’t like the park’s mulch-heavy programming.”

 

During the project locals were asked questions similar to which colors they liked, not necessarily what specifically they would like from the park itself. Because of this Hammond admits that, “ultimately, we failed.” Where they story begins to change is when you look at what happened next. This self proclaimed failure led Hammond creating the High Line Network, which is a coalition of designers and planners building adaptive reuse parks in the High Line mold. The entire purpose of the network is to further examine how to improve neglected neighborhoods, without pushing away they very people they intend to serve. A component of this organization is conducting listening sessions to hear feedback about his project, which started a number of new initiatives including paid-job trainings and further development on the two housing projects previously mentioned. These efforts are due to participatory design, which leads to a more successful execution of intention.

 

Another frame within this conversation is that of corporate philanthropy. One side of this conversation tends to lean towards a negative view that corporations are only incorporating philanthropy into their business model in order to sell more goods, regardless of the outcome. For example, the PRODUCT (RED) campaign is a campaign founded by Gap that has asked companies to create a red version of their product and donate a percentage of the proceeds towards the HIV/AIDS effort in Africa. One could argue that this effort feels ingenuous due to the fact companies are pushing commoditization as an effort for social impact. They see the effort as saying, “if you buy this product, then you’ll save lives.” In fact their slogan is quite literally “buy (RED), save lives.” On one hand I completely agree and there is something unsettling about this effort that doesn’t seem to fit the effort.

 

With that being said, despite some room for improvement in transparency, the organization has raised $465 million dollars and claims to have impacted over 90 million lives. It has allowed doctors to spend more time on their research and slow down HIV transmission. This is where intention becomes tricky. I can see the intention of this effort coming from a place of genuine interest in causing an impact, but I can also potentially see the motivating factor being that to drive higher profits via a philanthropic effort. This is a detail we may never fully know, but one fact remains: the amount of money raised to increase resources for a social cause. If this is the outcome with either intention driving the effort, then how much does it truly matter? An opportunity was identified to raise a significant amount of money for a good cause and was acted upon. Yes, I would love to believe that the effort was genuinely altruistic, but if you were the one directly benefiting PRODUCT (RED), does it change the outcome of the benefit?

 

Initial intentions in design can be come from a variety of motivating factors, but I would argue that the outcome is what is most important. Action can come from a place of good intention yet have negative outcomes, while it can also come from a place of poor intentions and have positive outcomes. Regardless, the outcome is what we are left with whether that be further conversation, fundraising, or housing for people in need. Ideally, we should consider the outcome while we are designing in order to optimize our intentions.

Theory Final – Larry the Lobster

For our last project in theory we were asked to read 6 articles from a variety of designers that discussed what is involved with being a designer as well as the process of design.

We live in a time where design is maturing into a discipline which is being recognized to stand alone. Design is gaining more of a seat at the table if you will and influencing companies and organization from the ‘C’ level. This is partially due to the fact that design is being recognized as a universal and flexible solution to a number of problems. Design firms such as IDEO and Frog are helping push this understanding into the public.

Richard Buchanan argues that “design problems are ‘indeterminate’ and ‘wicked’ because design has no special subject matter on its own apart from what the design conceives it to be. Subject matter is potentially universal in scope, because it could be applied to any area of the human experience. But in the process of application the designer must discover or invent a particular subject out of the problems and issues of the specific circumstance.” This brings up an interesting topic of whether or not design is its own discipline due to the fact that it is 100% dependent on other subject matter. I would side with the fact that this argument facilitates design being it’s own discipline even more so since it can be so ubiquitously applied.

Jocelyn Wyatt take an approach to explaining design thinking targeted towards those who don’t have much exposure to design. To break it down to assist these individuals to get on board with design thinking she describes it as three spaces to avoid direct linearity: inspiration, ideation, and implementation. Inspiration is the space of identifying an opportunity where a potential solution could be applied to improve a problem. Ideation is the process of generating, developing and testing ideas. Implementation is the path that leads from the project stage into people’s lives. The primary purpose of breaking down the definition of design thinking in this way is to prevent process focused individuals from picking apart the fact that design thinking is not concrete.

Chris Pacione takes a similar stance as Jocelyn in the fact that by breaking down complex topics, in this case design thinking, into a digestible format that it affords the idea of establishing design thinking to be as ubiquitous as mathematics. He states, “design is too important to be left to designers.” I wholeheartedly agree with this statement. By having a basic understanding of design thinking it would allow people to thrive in a day to day experience. This is due to the fact that the skills design thinking would provide would allow people to step back and ask why more consistently. They would start to pick apart why the way things are and inherently want to improve them.

Nigel Cross explains that a level of intuition is how design research can make broad generalization with a small sample. After all design research isn’t trying to predict behavior, but it attempts to empathize behavior. Along these lines the intent of the design process is to make something new, and by doing so you help change the problem, not just solve it. He also discusses the idea that design has to happen in real time, you can’t read it but you have to do it. This provides an incremental build up into something “magical” that doesn’t happen instantly. This is the reason why it’s called a process.

Edward De Bono primarily discusses process and acknowledging the default way the brain operates does not afford creative thinking, which is where this magic can happen. This creative thinking is also referred to as lateral thinking, in contrast to linear thinking. The logical part of the mind is based on what it’s seen before which prevents opportunity. One of the more simple ways De Bono proposes to get around this limitation is the use of a random word. The idea is to apply a random word into the problem space, regardless of how crazy it feels or how it doesn’t make sense. This generates a new frame around the situation that normally wouldn’t have been explored. The random word works because it is genuinely abductive. After the application of lateral thinking he argues that a valuable idea will be logical in hindsight, but needs a catalyst to arrive there.

To summarize these points of view around design thinking, I’ve created a video. Please enjoy.

A Story of Poverty – Theory Readings

Poverty is a social issue which could be argued to be impossible to solve, a wicked problem. A wicked problem is a problem that is so deeply connected to other factors with a large set of variables that it is inherently extremely difficult to solve. But, by trying to understand the links and causes of poverty, technology & homelessness, as well as applying the idea of a social business, I believe we can lessen the severity of homelessness.

My story of poverty begins with Bill feeling good about life. He’s worked hard and had created a pretty comfortable life for himself. This was the case until he found out the store he was working for was shutting down. This led to him losing his job, which led to losing his vehicle, then his apartment ultimately leaving him without a place to live.

This part of my story relates to Christopher LeDantec’s recognition that multiple issues compound and negatively link together to create a situation of poverty. Although my story focuses on one situation, LeDantec explains how there is no one single cause of homelessness, so there is no single solution. LeDantec also discusses that there is a common mentality within poverty that people desire to continue maintaining his or her appearance to hide the fact they are homeless, primarily from friends and family. Those who keep their cell phones also use this as a social construct to communicate that they are still doing alright, as well as literally continue communication between friends and family as much as possible. One insight discovered by LeDantec was the fact that mobile devices are perceived to be more useful than a laptop or desktop computer.

My story continues with Bill having the desire to keep up his appearance. He does this by stopping at a truck stop to use the showers. At the truck stop Bill buys travel size products to minimize his spending as well as receiving a sense of greater purchasing power.

This purchasing power is derived from C.K. Prahalad’s discussion about businesses having untapped potential by branching out items into smaller and individual use sizes, which makes products more affordable and ultimately gives people in poverty more purchasing power. He argues this ultimately improves their quality of life.

After showering to maintain his appearance for upcoming job opportunities Bill was also hoping that it would help relieve his stress. This was not the case. He decided he really wanted a beer or two to destress. This probably isn’t the best of decisions due to the fact he only had a $20 to his name.

I chose this scenario to relate to Dean Spears’s discovery through research that scarcity and poverty depletes cognitive ability and reasoning power due to trying to resist the indulgence of the poor. Because they are living in scarcity they’e almost forced to make bad decisions.

While Bill is drinking his beer Eric is introduced into my story. A dialogue occurs between Bill and Eric about their situations and Bill learns that Eric is also under a large amount of stress. Eric explains that he hasn’t been happy with his job and that he was frustrated in the fact that he felt he wasn’t able to make the impact he was originally hoping for within the organization. Eric is considering leaving his company but wasn’t sure what to do next.

Bill jokes that Eric could solve his problem of not being able to find a job. This is where my story relates to Roger Martin’s article. Martin talks about how there are there three qualifiers for a social entrepreneurship which are to: identify a stable but unjust equilibrium within the poor or disadvantaged population, then identify an opportunity to improve the situation, and lastly forge a new equilibrium that alleviates suffering for the group. The opportunity Eric identifies is by designing a system with Bill that focused on applying for jobs via a mobile device rather than a laptop. The seemed to be more accommodating to someone in a situation similar to Bill’s.

Continuing this dialogue Bill counters Eric’s explanation with confusion about how Eric wanted to leave the corporate world and that it sounded like he was potentially entering a similar space. Eric then began to explain how he was recently exposed to the idea of a social business, which is a self-sustaining company that sells goods or services that repays investments and improves the quality of life for the poor. This is what he wished to co-create with Eric (which also addressing LeDantec’s argument that co-creation is a good thing in order to design for multiple publics). This conversation is my way of bringing in Muhammad Yunus discussion around the idea of a social business.

Bill and Eric decide to move forward with the idea of creating a service focused on applying to jobs via a mobile device. This allowed Bill to get back on his feet. Not only did he end up getting into a better position but he loves the fact that he is helping others that have been struggling to climb out of homelessness.

 

Thing

Service Design: Service Journeys

To kick off our Service Design class, we split into groups to visit a couple of local services and document our journeys. Our group, Kade and Miranda, chose Castle Hill Fitness (a gym) and YardFarm (gardening and landscaping). Our goal was to understand the sequence of interactions with the service and the touchpoints involved. Here are our journeys…

Castle Hill Fitness

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YardFarm

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Considerations in Social Business

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Until now, our theory readings have felt like a jumbled mess of ideas and language. Reading and discussing each author is practice for representing our own ideas in peer and public discussions. As we round the bend to week 6 the indistinguishable mess is shaping into a greater whole. The more I read and discuss, the greater the constellation grows– everything is interconnected. The challenge in life and work is designing the details while grasping the larger picture. What am I doing and how does it effect the world around me?

Each round of readings focuses on a theme. First it was design and what it meant to be a designer then we approached power and responsibility, scalability, value and participatory design. Last week we tackled poverty and social business through the lens of,

  • Christopher LeDantec, Assistant Professor of Digital Media in theSchool of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech
  • Roger Martin, Institute Director of the Martin Prosperity Institute, University of Toronto
  • C.K. Prahalad, University Professor of Corporate Strategy at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, University of Michigan (until his passing in 2010)
  • Dean Spears, Executive Director of the R.I.C.E. Institute, Oregon
  • Muhammad Yunus, Head of the Yunus Centre, Dhaka

We discussed turning the poor into consumers, defining social entrepreneurship, and the implications of social business– all ideas that brought on knee-jerk reactions from the cohort. We agreed and disagreed with each other and did not always agree with the authors.

I worked with a team to discuss, sketch and present a story to externalize our ideas but more importantly– to illustrate our arguments. We each came to the table with a plethora of opinions, some stronger than others. The practice of defending our opinions to each other helped us to understand that seeing an argument from every angle is vital to understand the implications of the work we do.

C.K. Prahalad encourages companies to sell to the poor– a previously overlooked population that holds an enormous collective wealth globally. The risk in this proposal is the implication of a negative offering. How can we decide what people need from a distance?

In LeDantec’s design papers for a project for the homeless, he emphasizes the importance of working with the population for which you are designing. Do this and you can avoid (most of the time) designing a detrimental service or product.

Roger Martin warns that social entrepreneurship is becoming too common place, suggesting stricter principles for what social entrepreneurship entails and when one can call him or herself a social entrepreneur. At first I worried that creating stricter guiding principles would limit the development of social-minded business ventures but after many peer discussions, I’ve come to understand the need to build awareness and cultivate a culture of asking whether something is the right fit.

Dean Spears focuses on cognitive depletion and the poor– beware the choices you provide to others, they may have a negative impact on an impoverished person’s ability to make good decisions. More choices does not always mean a better life.

Summarizing all authors, Yunus crafts the most compelling position: “entrepreneurship is by no means a rare quality among poor people.” As developing nations create new technology, we must make that technology accessible to underserved populations. We cannot decide what someone will do with it but it is our responsibility to usher each person into the global economy and make participation a choice. The best way to do that is to not only provide someone with products and services to lead a safer, healthier life but the opportunity to create meaningful work.


 

I realize in class that I tend to have a very idealized vision of entrepreneurship, work, life and the world at large. AC4D as a forum for discussion is invaluable and has helped me to shape my own ideas into a stronger narrative. Please enjoy the comic created by myself, Misty Nickle and Sophie Kwok for this week’s Theory assignment.


 

The following comic illustrated our positions and the positions of the authors centers on a Beverage Company, Nutri-Sip and an experience in selling to the poor.

Nutri-Sip’s team of bright and bushy-tailed entrepreneurs creates a new drink for the domestic market, Nutri-Sip Protein Shake. It delivers daily vitamins, protein and a small serving of caffeine to get the day started right. People go wild for it and the Nutri-Sip team convenes to discuss markets for potential growth. They plan global expansion and begin installing Nutri-Sip kiosks all over the globe to bring healthier choices to underserved populations.

The product is too expensive for poorer communities ad so they come up with a plan for a smaller serving. That’s it! Nutri-Sip is a hit worldwide. People begin using it as meal replacement and without realizing it, they begin gaining an inordinate amount of weight. Health Clinics are overburdened with overweight patients and someone calls Nutri-Sip headquarters to suggest they come and investigate.

The Nutri-Sip team flies to a village. They speak with a very heavy man who loves Nutri-Sip. He says he drinks it 3 or 4 times a day. Their next stop is the local market where all the local stands have been boarded up. Finally they meet Tomas, a farmer that agrees to work with them to design a new solution that better fits that community.

They develop the Nutri-Sip juice stand, incorporating local produce into fresh drinks.

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Innovation in a pair of Socks

 

Inspiration comes in many forms- from desert landscapes to scientific exploration to seeing someone struggle and realizing a way to help them. Inspiration can lead to great design but when does creation prove to be useful or meaningful, to have value? Where does technology come into play and what is innovation?

Last week in Theory, we discussed excerpts regarding need, value, inspiration, context and innovation by five authors: Don Norman, renowned technologist and professor; Jon Kolko, designer and AC4D founder; Bill Gaver, Professor of Design at Goldsmiths University of London; Liz Sanders, Design Researcher; and Paul Dourish, computer scientist and professor at the University of California. In this post I review their arguments, filter their positions through my own lens, and illustrate those positions with a comic.

Design_and_Innovation_comic.003Let’s begin with Don Norman.

In “Technology First, Needs Last: The Research-Product Gulf” Norman writes several purposefully controversial remarks about design research and innovation in order to provoke us to “reconsider ideas they take for granted.” The final statement he makes, attempting to sum up many diverse arguments against Design Research is, “One thousand years ago people did not have a need for email or not even for the telephone: It took the existence of technologies to make these activities possible, which slowly determined the need.”

Yes, as new technologies are developed, they can become a need but need does not arise from the invention of the new technology- it moves to the most valuable iteration of that technology.

Our needs are basically unchanged from early man- we need to eat and drink, sleep and communicate with one another. Have we built socially and technologically advanced ways of doing that? Yes, but every major shift in technology came from a previous major shift.

A cell phone is a perfect example. Although the technology is imaginative and now very valuable, it was preceded by the once valued landline telephone. That was preceded by morse code and before that was smoke signals. Each advancement was considered innovative in their time.

Innovation is the advancement and eventual adaptation of technology. New technology can only be innovative if adopted as useful or meaningful by the end user, not the creator. Kolko refers to Vogel’s definition of innovation as “a valued leap from the viewpoint of the consumer.”

So let’s explore this idea with a comic about ancient technology, re-applied: socks.

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Earl is an early man. He sleeps in caves, kills animals for food and drinks water from glacial melt. Earl has a problem- his feet are always cold and they get blisters from walking around. Earl tries and succeeds to fasten a covering for his feet from the hyde of a wild animal. Earl has invented socks or shoes or both.

In this ancient instance, a need developed and Earl looked for a solution in his natural environment. Need preceded invention and technology. But this is the dawn of man- let’s flip to more modern time, the 70s.

Design_and_Innovation_comic.005Vast technologies have change the shoe market. Nike storms onto the scene in the 70s with simple shoes to support the burgeoning indie running movement.

A couple of decades and several incremental improvements later, the shoe is relatively unchanged. It is a multi-layered outer meant to be comfortable but remain rigid for support. It’s made of dozens of materials and although it’s better-looking, the fit is clumsy and ill-suited to the variety of feet in the world. It causes runners grief but it’s the best we have so we deal with it.

Again, need comes first: a need for a material exponentially different than what is currently available. Where can Nike begin? They decide the best place to get a feel for what runners are experiencing is on the track and on the streets but why is going there so important?

Design_and_Innovation_comic.006In “What we talk about when we talk about context,” Paul Dourish guides us through a complicated web of evolving definitions of context. If we think context is fixed then we can definitely design something brilliant for runners from the confines of an office. By doing so, we limit technology to existing and definitive constructs. If we think of context as a product of each individual interaction between every person and their environment then we need to go see the activity being done, do it with someone, share in that experience, and observe what happens. Only then can we create something that is truly adaptable and valuable to the ever-changing human experience. Paul goes on to write,

“Users, not designers, determine the meaning of the technologies that they use, through the ways in which they incorporate them into practice. Accordingly, the focus of the design is not simply “how can people get their work done,” but “how can people create their own meanings and uses for the [product] in use”; and in turn, this suggests an open approach in which users are active participants in the emergence of ways of working.

Design_and_Innovation_comic.007The Nike research team hangs out with runners. They stretch with them, run with them and cool down with them. They talk about everything- all within the context of each runners life.

Something keeps happening. They watch over and over as runners take off their shoes and socks and put a fresh pair of socks on. They ask why and the runners explain, “it feels good on my feet- like a second skin with some support.”

Ah-ha! The Nike design research team strikes gold! “Let’s make shoes for runners that feel like socks!”

Design_and_Innovation_comic.008The Nike researchers return to what they call, Innovative Kitchen.  They figured out a few years back that if they wanted to stay at the front edge of the marketplace, they needed to work with specialists in every facet of their business, including the most important- the end-user or customer so they developed a lab of sorts to make space for collaboration.

Design_and_Innovation_comic.010Each author, whether or not they touch on it in these readings, believes in studio culture: artists, tinkerers, engineers, designers, researchers, programmers, scientists- great minds under one roof, focused on a similar topic, challenge or problem.

Liz Sanders and George Simons write, “Co-creation […] involves the integration of experts and everyday people working closely together. […] Multiple divergent points of view need to be expressed, listened to and discussed. Empathy between co-creators is essential.”

They take it a step further. “Moving co-creation from the company to the people it serves […]” has the greatest potential to create social value. How do we do that in a real life setting?

Design_and_Innovation_comic.011The Nike team does this by welcoming runners into their collaborative space to work alongside designers, programmers, engineers, and scientists as “co-designers” as they attempt to develop a valuable product.

Design_and_Innovation_comic.012The team is assembled. There’s just one problem. No one has any clue how to make a supportive, breathable, lightweight running shoe that’s like a sock.

This brings us back to Norman who says, “new technologies […] inspire technologists to invent things.”Design_and_Innovation_comic.013New and interesting technology was once a novel thing- something that we reveled in, that we were excited to see just because it was shiny and new. Today, technology is ubiquitous. It’s not enough to say what new and shiny thing can I invent? We are flooded with technology and therefore you have to ask, “what should I create?”

Design_and_Innovation_comic.014In this instance, the Nike team is inspired by their customer- runners. They have a collaborative team synthesizing runner interviews and observations into opportunities for design. By keeping the customer or user at the center of their process, each designer is confined to a specific set of needs and simultaneously free to search their environment and new materials for potentially useful and meaningful technology.

We make space for new technological advancements because we are empathetic to our customers or users and understand their needs.Design_and_Innovation_comic.015A team member comes back to the Innovation Kitchen with a photo of a suspension bridge and old bridge plans drawn by engineers in the 1930s. He spreads the images on a table and the team embarks on a 4 year collective journey developing a new fiber called Flywire. Out of that comes the Nike Flyknit- the lightest, best-fitting, least wasteful shoe to ever hit the market. Runners and walkers alike snatched up the Flyknit and with their adoption, have made it a truly valuable product.

Design_and_Innovation_comic.016Why is this my illustration of value? Revolutionary tools existed before we made use of them. It is only through their use that become valuable to us and the same goes for other species.

A new product or service can be inherently valuable when we put the end user at the center of the design process.


DISCLAIMER: THE EVENTS IN THIS BLOG POST ARE BASED ON A TRUE STORY BUT LOADED WITH FICTION. IF YOU WANT TO READ THE REAL STORY, CLICK HERE.

Design in Society: A Comic Strip

Design’s role in society is ever-changing. In Design, Society and the Pubic Sector, we discuss the works of authors like Edward Bernays, considered the founder of modern public relations, and John Dewey, an important voice in education and social reform.

Our mission this week was to draw a connective thread across six authors and illustrate their positions through a comic strip. I invented Jack, a character we’ll follow through a series of positions around design’s role in the everyday.

We begin with Jack and his Dad who wants to show him something important. They walk to a new building recently constructed in the neighborhood. Over the door Jack reads, LIBRARY. His dad is an architect and explains how he worked with a group of people to design the library and what it provides: access to knowledge that was previously only afforded by a few.

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Design can be a bridge to bring knowledge which otherwise would have been too far from reach to the doorstep of a community. A library serves as a source of learning, a door to the imagination, a center from which we seek information or advice. It is also a place to meet people and share stories- common ground. A library is only one element of a web of complex systems that make up our experiences.

Jack is proud of his dad’s work and understands that design can be a tool for social change.

 

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In Jack’s Monday morning Science class, the teacher introduces the predator-prey relationship: a large cat chases a small but fast rabbit. We assume the cat catches the rabbit and devours his prey. The next day Jack is running errands with his mom and notices an alley cat with a mouse in its mouth. He recalls the predator-prey relationship. Wednesday arrives and Jack is in his afternoon Math class. He is active and curious and likes Math often raising his hand to ask questions.

The teacher presents Math as a concrete subject with simple equations.  The one we see on the chalkboard is: 1+1=2. Jack raises his hand and asks, “what if one animal eats another animal?” The teacher, focused on getting through the curriculum, tells Jack he should be focused on Math, not Science, and to ‘pay attention’!

Jack is dumbfounded and sketches out a scene in his mind where the large wild cat from science class is chasing his Math teacher. His question went unanswered and the curious thread of consciousness he once had slips into oblivion.

In “The Need of a Theory of Experience,” John Dewey expresses the need to design for quality experience in education and explains this through the principle of continuity of experience. His belief is that each experience forces all of our existing experiences through a sieve, possibly altering them in the process. Jack’s experience in the class shifted his attention from learning and leaves him disenchanted with school in general.

Dewey explicitly places all the responsibility on the teacher to design for a quality experience for a student. I believe an educator can shift design to the hands of the student, allowing them to explore and build their own environment and therefore have a hand in shaping their experiences. It is impossible for an educator to design a quality experience for one student let alone many. We all come to the table with our own set of experience layers. An educator can, at best, be observant, open and responsive to a student’s experience building trust and respect into their relationship and providing space for personal growth and exploration.

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Jack is now in high school. He’s spent his entire savings from three summer jobs on a used Shelby Mustang convertible. He drags his dad outside, excited to show him. Dad doesn’t know what to say. He asks what his son could possibly get out of that car but Jack reads up on automobile designer Carroll Shelby and sees the car as something beautiful, an extension of himself.

Some young women from school see Jack in his new car and wave hello, further affirming his belief that his by purchasing this convertible, he is now a more desirable human being.

The car has become part of Jack’s identity. In Vitta’s “The Meaning of Design” consumers become reflections of what they consume. First, we consume objects, but consumption becomes so much a part of our culture that we become consuming objects. What we consume becomes “mere informative instruments that constitute the language through which the social mechanism that produces them is expressed.” He goes on to write, “All that emerges is the object’s social value defined by the nature of the present profit-based system,” measured by “uncertain parameters, such as prestige, price, [and] name.”

Jack has fallen victim to a natural tendency to layer on stuff to project a more interesting image of himself. He uses the car’s sex-appeal and perceived value to inform others that he is cool. By taking on the image of this sexy “prosthesis”, Jack also takes on its weaknesses and perceived value. The Mustang breaks down and Jack feels like he’s broken down.

One of Jack’s classmates asked him to the upcoming dance and he realizes that he doesn’t need to have a cool car. He can build relationships without things.

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Jack has grown up and, inspired by his dad, has become an architect. His most recent project site is in Ghana, far from his office in St. Louis. There are multiple project leads and every meeting becomes a yelling match. Jack just wants to do meaningful work and feels frustrated with this project.

Pan Lu Sheng wrote “Diversity in Design Education in China” remarking on the growing design education sector in China, a focus on design culture and the large numbers of students graduating into the design sector. Sheng draws attention to the the fact that China, which is perceived as a manufacturing center, will be a driving force and leader in global design. The US has been a global design leader and as a result of expansion, we have shifted from designing at home to driving our value structure into foreign places.

What Jack is experiencing is a disconnect from his work and the project leads are fighting to insert their opinions into the project. None of them are invested in the community they are building for. Jack is concerned their project has a short lifespan and may not be an integral part of the landscape in Ghana because its design is not rooted in that culture, rather, it is being mapped thousands of miles away.

Walking home, Jack passes the library his dad helped design. He notices the library is in disrepair and feels sad. He even sees a girl walk by and hear her say on her cell phone, “I’ll meet you at a coffee shop. The library is too quiet and the wi-fi sucks.” Jack goes home that night, puts his project work aside and starts scheming.

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Jack draws up some rough sketches of changes that could be made to the library. He thinks it could be more of a community sharing center, not only a place for books. Jack sees design as an avenue for social connection. What changes could be made to make the library both a quiet place to read and a place for coming together, planning, talking, sharing? He decides to do this, he has to not only get the buy-in and help from the neighborhood but he also needs to hear their opinions.

Jack goes door-to-door, inviting the neighbors to be co-collaborators and designers. He knows he has to present the project with energy and engaging visuals to convince them this is a project worth participating in! He also feels personally connected and responsible to the neighborhood and his fellow dwellers and speaks with sincerity.

Pilloton, Margolin and Bernays intersect at the need for a personal stake in design work, consideration for equilibrium of new growth versus review of existing work, and the necessity to excite to convince others to join you in making change. Vitta writes that design is successful only when it can be “continually transformed while it remains faithful in substance to its original function.” Jack and the community molded the library into a place that was relevant to their needs. Design is a tool to deliver knowledge and it is communication. Design is the artifice, aesthetics, but is can also be function and experience. Design is ever-changing and when it becomes stagnant, it should be reconsidered.