News and blog posts from our students and faculty

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Design Research in the Context of Addiction

Just three weeks ago, Jeff, William and I began the design research process as students of AC4D by developing a plan focused on learning about what addiction can do to a family. We began by putting our assumptions and ideas about addiction up on a white board and talked through having the experts (not us) teach us what this wicked problem is all about. As new design researchers, it was natural for us to approach this subject with a beginner’s mind.

We reached out to participants identified in our initial research plan including an addict, an addict’s family member, law enforcement and support. We secured the participants for our interviews a few different ways. Some were through personal connections. Others, like treatment and support, were scheduled through email, phone and in-person outreach. We were surprised by how willing people were to share their expertise with us.

Our first interview was with a 19 year old heroin addict. We prepared for this interview by developing questions and building them into a discussion guide. The discussion guide was created with the intent of shaping the conversation and asking questions that we felt would help us better understand addiction. Even after having done this and roleplaying the interview with each other, nothing could really prepare us for what our first participant shared. Hearing about some of the darkest details of his addiction, his attempts at recovery and the overwhelming love he had for his family exposed us to how complex addiction really is.

As design researchers, we came away from this interview with several learnings about engaging with people and moderating the conversation. We felt that having the discussion guide present during the interview was distracting to both our participant and our moderator. Listening back to the interview recording later revealed that our focus on the discussion guide questions prevented us from allowing the participant’s stories to cue the next question. Going into our second interview with the addict’s father, we decided to take a more conversational approach. From this interview, we learned that addiction affects every member of their family and that each person must decide for themselves what their relationship with the addict can be.

The more interviews we conducted, the more confidence we gained in asking for access. We got better at being the apprentice. In our third interview with the executive director of a support program for teens, he walked us through what it was like to have an initial conversation with a teen and their family that has come to seek their help and services. He showed us the assessment tools that the program uses to gain baseline information about a teen’s substance usage.

Our participants were experts on the topic of addiction and it was a humbling experience for all of us to hear their stories and learn from them.

Creating a safe space for our participants has revealed itself to be as helpful to them as it is to us. People don’t usually have the chance to share their lives without fear of being judged. While we did not come away from this research with answers to the complexities of addiction, we are excited to continue seeing where this will lead us next. Click here to see the presentation of our learnings.

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Couch Potatoes & Smart Cookies: Teenage Food Choices

Food for thought: how do teenagers make food choices when they’re away from their parents? Does family or income have anything to do with what teenagers eat? What about body image, or gender? Our team (Lindsay Josal, Crystal Watson, and Laura Galos) started with these questions at the outset of our design project for the Design Research and Synthesis class at AC4D. We’ve just wrapped up two weeks of design research, and have documented our journey and the people we met, here.


Using our noodles: What we did

We began with a shared interest in nutrition as a broad topic for exploration. Given a prompt to focus on teenagers and obesity, our group decided to broaden the focus to “teenage eating habits and food choices,” and try to understand influencing factors such as family, culture, gender, body image, and income levels. Over the course of our research, some of those influences clearly applied, some were less important, and unanticipated influences appeared.

Spilling the beans: Talking to teenagers

Our research method was to use contextual inquiry to understand and empathize with the teenagers. Contextual inquiry was important because it meant that we went to the environments where teenagers were naturally making their food choices and observed them as they navigated the process of selection, ordering, paying, and eating. For us, this shed some light on contradictions between the things teenagers said and the things they did. (For example, asserting an interest in eating healthy foods but actually eating chips and soda.)

Before going to each context (Barton Creek Mall, UT dining halls, Torchy’s and Bennu), we had developed a research plan (posted earlier, here). The plan changed a little as we refined our strategy regarding who to approach and where, given the complexities—such the issue of consent—of interviewing teenagers. In the field, we took audio recordings, photographs, notes, and developed a word cloud to allow them to explore their feelings about eating. With these artifacts, we hoped to capture as much information as possible so we’d have a rich pool of data on which to base our synthesis.

In a nutshell: What we found

We heard from six teenagers ranging in age from 14 to 20 (ok, 20 isn’t technically “teenage” but we felt the participant gave us compelling information and was close in age to our target). Along the way, we found a few things that improved our research process, and also learned about teenage culture, especially around food. For us, a few key learnings were:
1. Offering incentive for teenagers’ time made them more open to letting us watch and interview them.
2. That we needed to be more formal about scheduling time with people younger than 17, since arrangements needed to be made with parents.
3. That we could use environments to screen for appropriate candidates (eg, going to UT to find people over 17).

While we haven’t yet begun synthesis of all the information we got from the teenagers, we have found emerging themes connected to food. Several teenagers brought up strong family dynamics around cooking or not knowing how to cook, and who does the cooking in the family. We noticed that dramatic geographical relocations can be very disruptive to food habits and decisions. As previously mentioned, we also saw divisions between what teenagers said they ate and what they actually ate. On the whole, we’re excited to see problems and themes as they materialize from our transcriptions and photos, and look forward to our next phase.

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“IN SHORT, the point I am making is that rejection of the philosophy and practice of traditional education sets a new type of difficult educational problem for those who believe in the new type of education. We shall operate blindly and in confusion until we recognize this fact.”

This is how John Dewey opens his paper “The Need of a Theory of Experience”, one of 6 texts we’ve been assigned to digest in our first few weeks Here at AC4D. Appropriate both in our approach to design theory as well as the new type of education that AC4D represents. The following are insights garnered from the rest of the readings.

Christopher Le Dantec:
Design is the instigator and mediator of social and political revolution utilizing discourse through participation.

Victor Margolin:
There is a vacuum in the development of ways to reconcile these two models which a rethinking of design education and practive may help to address. As an art of conception and planning, design occupies a strategic position between the sphere of dispositional ethics and the sphere of social change. This is its power. Design is the activity that generates plans, projects, and products. It produces tangible results which can serve as demonstrations of or arguments for how we might live. Design is continuously inventing its subject matter os ti is not limited by outworn categories of products. The world expects new things from designers. That is the nature of design.

Maurizio Vitta:
Everything is simulcra and we must embrace our roles as prosthetic gods.

Edward Bernays:
The question at issue is not an emotional one, but a discussable one: Public opinion can be manipulated, but in teaching the public how to ask for what it wants the manipulator is safeguarding the public against his own possible aggressiveness.

Emily Pilloton:
“We cultivate ecosystems rather than plant single trees.” “I firmly believe that lasting impact requires all three of the following: proximity(simply being there, in the place you seek to design with and for), empathic investment (a personal and emotional stake in collective prosperity), and pervasiveness (the opposite of scattershot-involvement that has impact at multiple scales).

I’m here in a new educative experience operating blindly and in confusion. PosDia1

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Making Our Way into the Unknown

The future is bright, the future is scary. Most of all, the future is uncertain. Whether you’re hopeful or anxious about what’s next, it’s difficult to face the future without some trepidation. How will we address tomorrow’s consequences of today’s problems? Answers may lie in disciplines as varied as government, activism, art, and science. As a student of design, I’d like to know how effective a role design can play as well.

In our Design, Society, and the Public Sector class at AC4D, where we discuss the theory behind design, we’ve been reading the texts of six different authors. The focus of each article varies, but all reveal a distinct viewpoint on how effective design can be as a means of addressing the future. I’ve plotted out what stances the authors might take in this diagram.

At the “less powerful” end of the spectrum is Maurizio Vitta. In The Meaning of Design, Vitta writes that designed objects in our society have lost their functional identity. These objects can only serve as instruments for communicating who their consumers are. Our objects say to other people, “he’s the type of guy who owns a BMW.” Based on this analysis, design occupies a role that shows us who we are, or at most, a projection of who we’d like to be, but isn’t very effective at addressing how situations and people might radically change.

At the other end of the diagram is Victor Margolin. In Global Expansion or Global Equilibrium? Design and the World Situation, Margolin postulates that designers are in a unique position to tangibly demonstrate “new values in action.” Because designers make systems, products, services, etc., they sit at a “strategic position” between a highly market-driven worldview (expansion model) and one that takes into account the finite and interconnected nature of our resources (equilibrium model). Furthermore, he believes that demonstration has the power to convince where pure argument can’t—a key component in the adoption of solutions.

My views tend to align more closely with Margolin, because I think an effective way of exerting a degree of control on the future is by making things. Be cognizant about making things that can educate, respond, comfort, and convince others of their value, and you’ll have made a dent in the future. To Vitta’s point, not all objects will operate along Margolin’s equilibrium model, but based on the readings I think that in general design holds enormous potential for both making and mitigating change.

The Meaning of Design by Maurizio Vitta
Manipulating Public Opinion: The Why and The How by Edward Bernays
The Need for a Theory of Experience by John Dewey
A Tale of Two Publics: Democratizing Design at the Margins by Christopher Le Dantec
Depth Over Breadth: Designing for Impact Locally, and For The Long Haul by Emily Pilloton
Global Expansion or Global Equilibrium? Design and the World Situation by Victor Margolin

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Does it matter now?

In the past two weeks we have read six texts that contain, whether presented explicitly or inferred, an imperative for designers. They are mapped below based on their relevance for designing in an age of exponential expansion of technology and knowledge and unprecedented social disparity. Two themes emerged as I evaluated the texts in this context: the changing relationship between the designer, the designed object and the user; and the different ways to define communities.

It is perhaps surprising that the most useful text addresses an audience furthest removed from designers and does not focus on manipulating a specific material. In his The Need for a Theory of Experience, Dewey argues the most educative experiences take into account the trajectory based on the student’s past experiences and the interaction of the environment with the student’s internal state. The concept of interacting with all of the things that make up an environment, rather than unidirectional communication emanating from a single source, better describes the possible interactions between designer, object and user in the digital context. Also, understanding a users’ past experience provides insight into existing mental models and their ability to adapt to new technology.

Conversely the next most valuable text presents a single case study focused on the use of specific technology, and addresses designers. However, in A Tale of Two Publics: Democratizing Design at the Margins, Le Dantec does not start with a fixed notion of type of technology required to solve the problem or of his participants’ relationship to technology. Rather he presents a flexible method for a group of people to teach the designer how they use technology and what it means to them. Recognizing the varying roles of technology across different socio-economic groups and the opportunity to design at the intersection of those groups is paramount as technology continues to change.

Design in the Information Age: The Relevance of Six Texts About the Things We Make

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