News and blog posts from our students and faculty

Category Archives: Theory

Systems of Sensemaking

In this quarter’s theory class, my research team – which includes Anna Krachey and Meghan Corbett – are looking at the authors writings and relating it back to our project Inner Circle. Inner Circle is an online app that helps pregnant women make a plan for family and friends detailing decisions around their upcoming birth.

This section’s writers discussed the relationships between creativity, strategy and design. To better understand these relationships we created a 2×2 grid to plot our interpretations of the author’s perspectives. Whether the authors were discussing business, artificial intelligence, or design, we saw a common theme: using frameworks for sensemaking. But what are the orientations of these proposed frameworks? We saw them on the following scales:

Flexible to Prescriptive: Were these frameworks flexible enough for users to ultimately change and co-create for their own purposes, or did they require users to follow certain steps in a prescriptive process?

Logical to Intuitive: Are the authors oriented towards a more logical, inductive form of sensemaking or do they see sensemaking are more personally intuitive, dynamic and personal?

These authors favor lateral thinking, and using systems which are highly logical in the grand scheme but allow for flexibility in tactics and execution.

“The goal of the strategy hierarchy remains valid — to ensure consistency up and down the organization. But this consistency is better derived from a clearly articulated strategic intent than from inflexibly applied top-down plans.” — Prahalad & Hamal

These authors deal with adapting robotics and artificial intelligence to make them more “human”, simulating skills of lateral thinking. For these systems to be successful it requires one to take emotion and thinking, and codify it.

[On the different perceptions of transitions in robots] “This suggests that realism or time taken to attain an expression might be a crucial factor in how the robot is perceived by human subjects.”  — Mike Blow

The authors are using or creating systemized methods to  categorize inherently ambiguous things such as aesthetics and abductive reasoning.

  • Pierce:  system uses logic, but it comes from an individuals own experience.
  • Mahlke is on the intuitive spectrum because he recognizes that humans project their own emotional sense onto an experience.

“It is true that the different elements of the hypothesis were in our minds before; but it is the idea of putting together what we had never before dreamed of putting together which flashes the new suggestion before our contemplation.”— Charles Pierce

Through a variety of frameworks and perspectives, these authors see sensemaking and problem solving as needing to be flexible as to adapt for the situation at hand. They also value using intuitive thinking, rather than solely inductive reasoning, when designers are solving problems.

“An engineer wants to test; test and measure. He’s been brought up this way and he’s unhappy if he can’t prove something. Whereas an industrial designer, with his Art School training, is entirely happy making judgements which are intuitive.” —Cross

Posted in Theory | Leave a comment

Building a pragmatic definition for sensemaking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Posted in Interaction Design, Methods, Theory | Leave a comment

Motivation, Context, and Their Relation to Both Designer and Design

For the past few weeks in our Theory of Interaction Design class, we’ve been talking about the cognition of design, sense making, and the way that it interacts both in a visual stage but also in a business environment. Our task this week was to create a 2×2 diagram and place each of the authors on this diagram.

The readings seemed at first, disparate, and organizing ten disparate things proved to be a challenge. However, as I started distilling what all of the readings had in common, I came to a few key conclusions:

1) There are three direct actors in the process of design:

  • The user;
  • The artifact (the design itself);
  • And the designer.

All three of these actors seemed to have an affect on the process of design; in human-centered design, the user is who is considered first and foremost; but once research is complete and sense making begins to occur, there is a dialogue between the memory of the user, the designer, and then, eventually, the artifact.

2) That these three direct actors were indirectly influenced by two things:

  • Personal motivation, both intrinsic and extrinsic and
  • The context of the situation.

In my last theory post, I talked a great deal about context and why it matters; this post, I will take an ancillary view to context and use it as a means of influencing the user, artifact, and designer in the process of design.

Click here to view the full PDF.

The axises are – Context drives the creation of new design vs. design drives the creation of new context, and that design is inherently extrinsically motivated (for users) vs. Design is intrinsically motivated (by your own mind).

I’m going to zoom into two people who are on opposite sides of the spectrum—Edward De Bono and Charles Pierce.

Edward De Bono writes about his colored hat system, and how “the ritual and artificiality of the hat system is its greatest advantage.” He uses an artificial constraint (hats) to help facilitate conversation with others around design because in many business settings, it is difficult for users to understand the meaning behind design thinking, but easier to understand, “I put my red hat on and now I’m talking about emotion.”

Though it is an arbitrary constraint, De Bono’s idea was brought on by the fact that not many people in business could interpret what people meant by “creativity” and “design.” There was a certain intangibility to it that was not understood by people in the business world, and by developing the hat system, De Bono is allowing others to experience design thinking.

This is a great example of design that is created both by context and extrinsic motivation to help out others—he saw a problem in understanding, ideated around the best way to express design thinking, and came up with a hat system.

Pierce, on the other hand, is a logician by trade, and argues that the thought that occurs behind design is abduction, which is closely linked to perception (so much that distinguishing between the two might be difficult) and is an interpretation of the intent of someone/something.

For Pierce, perception and abduction truly are what influences our context (indeed it is the lens through which we see the world), but to tease out abduction from perception is what occurs in the sense making process, formed entirely inside our own minds.

There is a tangibility that we can see in De Bono’s case (we physically have colored hats we can “wear”), and an intangibility in Pierce’s argument, but both are strong ways in approaching sense making in design.

My personal view on the diagram is that we as designers must be able to move around to multiple places on the chart; we must be able to be both intrinsically (for carving out sense making) and extrinsically (to work with our users to make a usable product) as well as allow ourselves to be influenced by the context of the world and “the ‘talk back’ of our design” as Shön calls it. The ability to hold multiple conflicting truths in their head, similar to Pierce, is a mark of a talented designer.

Posted in Theory | Leave a comment

Build Scaffolds. Inspire Articulations. Make New Knowledge. And Repeat.

Access to information technology can make our lives easier, of course, but how people are affected and the sharing of their experience is where we can find meaning.

The diagram below maps 8 author positions around the roles and implications of technology and the meaning of experience and context. Click on the diagram for a full view:

 In What We Talk About When We Talk About Context Paul Dourish describes the interaction of information or object and activity as an alternate concept of context. Context as an interactional problem is the relationship of dynamic objects and activities.

But object interaction is more than the transmission of information, as Bohnear describes in Affect: From Information to Interactionit can be a form of social action, which achieves social ends collectively, in ways in which collective meaning shapes individual experience. 

So if you build scaffolds (supportive frameworks) people will articulate their own experiences that can be interpreted for new knowledge for others.

Posted in Classes, Interaction Design, Reflection, Theory | Leave a comment

Understanding Our Inner Circle Application Through Context and HCI Design Theory

Our design team is knee deep in piloting our design idea around pregnancy, labor and delivery called Inner Circle: The Birth Plan for Everyone Else.  You can read more about it here.  In Chris Risdon’s Theory class we started off the quarter reading about Human Centered Interaction (HCI) and context in which technology is used. Because we are in the process of thinking about designing the interactions within our product, and how context may affect its use, we wanted to apply the concepts that we learned from these readings to think about strengthening our own design.

We constructed a 2×2 axis based on how we understood each author’s perspective to relate our own Inner Circle concept and execution.   The x axis plots how closely each author’s view point on technology relates to our concept (doesn’t at all, or strongly relates). The y axis plots how we see each author’s perspective relating to the execution of Inner Circle (relates closely, doesn’t relate at all).

It was really important to our product to think about how technology inserts itself in our society and its relevance and impact on our culture because it is our objective for our product to serve as a bridge in communication and connection, and not a disconnector.

One of the most interesting author perspectives was that of Steve Mann, inventor of EyeTap, the predecessor of Google Glass.   Mann was insistent that the capability of a camera that records all viewer perspective experience would offload some of the mental ram needed to remember trivial things.  Mann hypothesized that this would allow us to retain that ram for more important memories and thought processing.  Our group really strongly considered this vantage, because we think of Inner Circle as being able to offload some of the mental ram that goes into worrying around organizing a birth.  ”Don’t forget to tell Martha to feed Phoebe when we head to the hospital to give birth” might bounce around in one’s head for months before the event arrives.  Using Inner Circle to send out a plan to everyone else informing them of the organization and plan around the birth would act as a way to clear an expectant mother’s mental plate, much in the way that Mann talks about not using mental ram to remember trivial details.  However, we also think that defaulting on committing something to memory is in a way defaulting on processing fully.  Leading pregnant women through creating reminders to send later and making decisions around their birth experience forces them to process these things.  At the same time, it releases some of the anxiety of having to remember these decisions when the time to focus on the labor at hand arrives.  This mapped to our agreeing with Mann on concept- in that we both agreed that the ability to offload mental energy could help one focus on more important things.  However, our execution of making pregnant women process decisions through the use of our app is directly the opposite of how we see Mann’s execution- that one could fully disengage from processing things with the thought that they could return to the footage later.

This is prime example of the process we used for dissecting each of the seven author’s theories relating to HCI and context in technology and then relating their point of view to our own design.   You can see the full 2×2 below.

We’re currently recruiting pregnant women for our pilot!  If you know anyone who would want to participate, send them to  Thanks!



Posted in Theory | Leave a comment

Designing Meaningful Models for Interaction

Recently our class has been exploring modern design history and its intertwined relationship with computing technology and approaches to human and computer interactions.  Technology is both active and contextual in our lives and as a result any discussion of how humans and technology is characterized by both granular detail and broad societal trends.

Designers are rightfully wary of the effects of amplification that are possible through modern technology.  Industrialization showed us the immense power and terrifying unintended consequences of amplifying design ideas.  And in the computer age we have seen many of the same naive, shortsighted views that characterized industrialization repeated in new mediums.

In one of the articles we recently read, Steve Mann advocates for the use of a video capture device that will record every moment of our lives and act as a filter for our perspective of the world.

Having an on-demand photographic memory can help all of us by offloading, to a wearable computer, the task of memorizing now-mundane details that might only later become important.

I couldn’t help but think of the idealized representations of home life in mid-century advertisements for appliances and how they would free women from the arduous everyday tasks.  And while Mann’s perspective may have seemed extreme not long ago the introduction of google glass clearly demonstrates our willingness to continue to hand off tasks to automation.

In another article, Paul Dourish explores (among other things) how our everyday activities shape our view of the world.  Out of this view we begin to see technology that simply attempts to model and replace human activity more realistically: in severing out connection with the environment around us through our activity, we lose our ability to make meaning of the world.

Practice is first and foremost a process by which we can experience the world and our engagement with it as meaningful. As technologists, then, our concern is not simply to support particular forms of practice, but to support the evolution of practice—the ‘‘conversation with materials’’ out of which emerges new forms of action and meaning.

Dourish’s wider point is about how the people that we interact with and the social norms that we establish inform, shape, and ultimately collaborate with us to establish the context from which we make meaning of the world.

In another article that Dourish collaborated on this idea manifests into an important implication for designers who wish to affect people rather than divorcing them from meaningful experiences.

This requires a shift from designing systems to model and transmit emotion to designing systems that support humans in producing, experiencing and interpreting emotions.

As designers we design for people to able to understand and use our systems efficiently.  The computing mediums that interaction designers often bring ideas to life in are biased toward an information based approach to the world that relies on representational models.  And so designing for people by creating computational models that match the observational models we see in the world becomes a natural extension of modern mediums.  But over time this disconnects people for the everyday world and leads to hollow, filtered interactions with the world around us.

Liz Sanders explorations in co-design offer a relevant counterpoint to consider.

People are naturally creative. As designers of scaffolds, we need to give them participatory tools to promote generativity in their thinking.

Sanders describes the designer’s role primarily as a facilitator: a conduit for other’s creativity.  I think Sanders overreaches in pushing all of the active creativity out of the realm of the designer and so I think her model is flawed as a model for methodology in the design process.  But they may offer a powerful model for how to think about the systems that interaction designers put into the world.

As with so many themes in design, the ethic for a designer emerges as a tension between competing needs.  Our medium requires us to think about how to leverage information models and our subject requires to consider how to create interactions that lead to meaningful understandings of the world.  So our task becomes to explore interaction scaffolds that give people the opportunity to create their own meaning and then create models of these scaffolds that are appropriate for the medium.  In this way we design systems that embrace the new interactions that are only possible in new mediums rather than simply creating a virtual shadow of meaningful interactions.



Posted in Design Education, Interaction Design, Methods, Theory | Leave a comment

Whose Context is This, and Do I Care?: A Look Into Technology and How it Affects Us Contextually

In our theory class this quarter, we have been reading about the way technology inserts itself into society, and what its relevance is. Today, I’d like to share with you some of the main threads of these eight readings and provide some basis for discussion around the concept of who owns context in our society.

By context, I will paraphrase Dourish in saying it is “…a concept of [continuous] action versus a social setting.” For example, if you are sitting in a restaurant, you are in a specific context. There is a social setting and decorum around being in a restaurant (social norms dictate that we usually are wearing clothing when in a public dining area like a restaurant) and the actions happening around the restaurant affect the setting (if a waiter drops a dish, people react to it, and it affects the way others act).

In our modern society today, there is a joke about whether “we control technology, or technology controls us.” This is the question that I am interested in when I talk specifically about the context of our day-to-day lives. Is technology affecting the context of our lives, and is it making it more or less meaningful?

In the following diagram, I outline the opinions expressed around these questions from the eight authors. They have varying opinions about the way technology affects us, and why this matters.

Click for the full diagram.

A trend I noticed as I was diagramming is that people who spoke of technology being the creators of context in our lives were generally talking about the modern day, while people who saw context as a product of human interactions were talking about something more future-focused. Many of the authors had a juxtaposition of both of the arguments, where they spoke of technology influencing our lives currently, and moving more towards a future where humans controlled their own outcomes.

Personally, my answer to these questions is that in some aspect, technology controls the context of our lives. I do wake up to check my e-mails, but I wouldn’t say that being productive in this case makes me happier. I am at my happiest when (using technology or not) I am figuring out a problem or creating something new out of nothing. I view technology as a partner-in-crime to humanity, in the sense that wherever we point it, we as humans can make meaning out of it. If someone tells me that Adobe Illustrator was a revolutionary program for artists, I would be dubious, but only until someone shows me the work that was produced by humans through Illustrator will I be impressed with the tool. Digital art programs have influenced the way I think about shapes, colors, and lines. But the way I think about shapes, colors, and lines and the way I draw them is also influenced by the humans that I interact with daily. I think both technology and humanity is responsible for shaping our context, but technology only becomes meaningful to other humans when they see what they can do with a technology.

I argue that as humans, we can dream beyond the constraints of technology, and push what we think technology can accomplish further towards shaping our lives in a positive way. I also think that as humans, we have to reclaim what our context means for us in our day-to-day lives and see in which parts technology makes our lives more meaningful, because in some cases, it does not.

Posted in Theory | Leave a comment

Mobile Apps for Disaster Recovery

Giving tools to people engaging them to create is the best way to encourage more volunteering response. Having the chance to craft and sculpt any of the surroundings people are in gets to the heart of volunteering. With this app the goal is to give a set of tools that stimulate a volunteer to inform about damaged areas into engage others to volunteer. By raising awareness of the need the stronger the community responds and the better survivors still feel connected to the community. I can’t think of a greater way to increase community awareness than to make tools for them to raise awareness of an disaster.

Below is an phone app for people involved in volunteer service. The goal is to engage others to become volunteers and help out on similar projects. One way that I am exploring this space is by utilizing music. This phone app below is a walk through of how an individual can document the work that they are doing and share it in a fun engaging way with other people. Music is the medium that transmits a messages to others. By having a application operating from the ideas of creative problem solving this can be a solution for natural disasters not being quickly dropped by popular media for other stories.

The other concept for Natural Disaster relief work is rooted in supporting the survivor directly.  Having an emotionally supportive phone app that provides a step by step process on how to recover from a natural disaster can empower survivors. Most of the time people are unprepared and unknowledgeable on the steps to take after a disaster occurs. The goal of this app is normalize the process of recovery by providing goal setting in task managed approach. This is an application that incorporates a task list to provide a better understanding of a sense of accomplishment. In the workflow below a user is given a set of tasks to complete in each category. The idea is to project the frustrations of the daunting task of recovery into a more understandable language with small steps and goals.

Other engagements that the app can have is check in to evacuation center. Allowing check ins on the mobile device will allow a better managed intake as well as have a the ability to communicate in multiple languages. Discussing this with peers has raised some ideas of who to focus this type of app too. Another idea I found to be profound was make this an app geared more toward kids. By creating a rebuilding education tool that incorporates the methods of play to engage kids could be extremely beneficial to the rebuilding process.

Posted in Interaction Design, Portfolio, Theory | Leave a comment

The Power of Influence

Lately, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be an influencer of others. As a designer, it is my duty to focus my work around my intended users (the trans* and gender variant community), it is my job to think of solutions for innately wicked problems (safety, gender expression and body dysmorphia), but it is also my prerogative to influence others.

Whether it be through our presentations last quarter when Alex and I talked about a trans* woman who was kicked out of her house at thirteen by her family when she came out, or through answering the multitude of questions we get from our friends and family, Alex and I have become influencers.

Why is this significant?
Let me take you on a thought experiment for a moment. Imagine that, completely at random, a tennis ball would appear and reappear next to you. You would be working in your office, and -plop!- a tennis ball materializes out of thin air and bounces off a wall. You try to catch it, and it disappears before you have a chance to touch it.

How would you react?

If you’re like me, you would reason it away by saying you were too tired that day, or you must be seeing things. But what if it started happening more regularly? Every day, at random intervals, a tennis ball would appear. Once you got over the initial shock, or maybe trying to show it to your friends to make sure you’re not crazy, you would probably work the occurrence into your every day life. Your friends would report soon after that they too have reappearing tennis balls in their offices as well.

At this point, if someone new to this were to walk into your office and see the tennis ball appear and disappear, you might say, “Oh yeah, that’s the reappearing tennis ball. You don’t have one?”

Not Just a Ball
The reappearing tennis ball is a metaphor for any new technology or thought pattern that has influenced the way we think about things. I remember a time when I said to my college roommate when she first introduced me to Facebook, “What’s the point of this, anyway? I can just call my friends.” Now I can’t think of my life without it.

That, to me, is the power of influence. That, over time, we can make something as bizarre as a reappearing tennis ball, or as bizarre as a place where you can follow the minutiae of your former babysitter’s life seem normal is such an amazing and powerful concept for me to behold.

We talked about it in theory class how Bernays changed the way we view bacon. America went from coffee and toast for breakfast to bacon, eggs, and all sorts of accoutrements. Now, I dare you to find an American who doesn’t view bacon as an essential part of a breakfast menu.

I initially came here to AC4D with hopes of “changing the world”, and that is a very broad statement compared to where I am now. I am now here to influence the way people think about our bodies, about gender, and about transition. It is still a tall order, but it is much more clear than a vague, feel-good goal.

I think all of us would benefit from being made more aware of the ways in which we influence others and are influenced by others. Influence is a powerful thing. It can turn the uncommon to common, and the outcasts into just another part of a fluid humanity.

And isn’t that incredible?

Posted in Theory | Leave a comment

Simplicity Through Understanding

Here at AC4D our focus is on understanding and designing solutions for Wicked Problems.  These are social problems that are intertwined and woven into the complexity of our human systems and interactions.  Part of what we’re learning here are methods for cutting though the complexity around these problems.  Ultimately we can’t influence and change a system until we understand it, and really that’s where the heart of simplicity lies.

Simplicity is understanding; whether it’s a complex problem like heath records, or comparatively well defined, like a thermostat. Once we understand the parts of a system we can then design, smart, simple solutions.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been designing a thermostat.  Just as with my team’s research around heath records, building a thermostat is a human centered process.

Each week I iterated on the design and put it out into the world in the form of prototype testing with potential users.  Each of those test users found new issues and illuminated different areas for simplification; only by building this understanding with real people was I able to refine my design.

Below you can see the translation from an existing thermostat concept model, to my first iteration, to my final iteration 

Simplicity in design isn’t really about removing things from your design; it’s about choosing the right things to put in.  By understanding what a person really needs we’re able to directly address those needs, and ignore the superfluous.

In the case of my thermostat, this meant removing all but the basic features: setting the temperature (one for when you’re home, one for when you’re not) and switching between heat, cool, and fan modes.  This simplification allowed me to really play around with the form of the design and focus on how I was communicating with the user.

By constructing a good understanding of the users needs, I was able to focus on the simplicity of my design.  This resulted in a flexible and robust system.  School here at AC4D is coming to a close for the quarter, but I plan on working on this design to bring it to a higher fidelity, rendered version in the weeks to come.

Final Thermostat Wireframes

Thank you, and if you have any questions or comments feel free to contact me at

- jacob

Posted in Theory | Leave a comment