Bethany grew up on a small hobby farm just outside a rural Minnesota town (population 500). After high school, she moved to “the cities” where she earned a B.A. in Youth and Family Ministry from Augsburg College in Minneapolis.

Intrigued by the intersection of ministry and business, Bethany began work at Augsburg Fortress Publishers (a Lutheran publishing house) after graduation. Over the years, her roles ranged from editor to product designer to curriculum developer. She led several projects that spawned sparkhouse, a division at Augsburg Fortress that uses design thinking principles to make innovative products a reality. Her work has helped define the company’s culture.

A complete extravert, Bethany loves to connect with people and organize people and processes to make cool, well-designed stuff happen. When she’s not working, she loves to travel, cook, exercise, read, write, entertain ideas, and geek out on sci-fi shows with her husband, Brent.

We face difficult challenges in our world. Injustice. Illiteracy. Hunger. Discrimination. Poverty. Even with good intentions, motivation and execution are difficult. That’s why I am excited to study at the Austin Center for Design—by studying Social Entrepreneurship and Interaction Design, I will be equipped with principles and tools to lead efforts to address the problems around us.


Reflections

Recent Tweets

@bethanystolle: Instagram in Real Life [video] http://t.co/hw6yWzKgRB // Love this one from @natalietran

@bethanystolle: RT @justsomeguy: You should go to @midwestUX this year—one of the best, if not the best UX conference I've been to, & lovingly curated. Wis…

@bethanystolle: Love the Resketch notebooks since I backed on Twitter. Now $16.99. :) http://t.co/9zfNip3TJZ (cc @IdeasDoneDaily)

@bethanystolle: Teens and mall culture: The fading love affair? http://t.co/25Dz8KAKZN // More tales of disappearing teen-friendly publics (ala @zephoria).

@bethanystolle: Yay! @IdeasDoneDaily is back from vacation!

Recent Blog Posts

 

Scheduling & Harmony

“What’s your schedule look like this week?”

I ask Jesse this question as least once a week as we build Kites & Ladders, a business to amplify the voices of people with autism through tools that support self-expression and communication.

Why do I constantly pester Jesse about his availability? (And spend too much time in Google calendar?)

Our first Kites & Ladders product is the Harmony wristband, which uses biofeedback to help people on the autism spectrum become aware of their emotional state and express it to others. Getting to that point where people can purchase the Harmony wristband, though, requires collecting a bunch of biometric data, testing various wristband form factors, and validating the concept with kids on the autism spectrum, their parents, and experts in the field. Not to mention drawing on the wisdom of a number of engineers and industrial designers.

This means our calendars have been quite full over the last 6 weeks.

Early on, we discovered that we couldn’t find the right combination of sensors or get access to raw data using commercial fitness trackers. So Jesse soldered and sewed and hammered and coded and tinkered to create our own prototype. We can now collect data about the wearer’s heart rate and stress level and process it in a number of ways. Meanwhile, I sketched shapes, interfaces, and buttons to figure out what the device could look like in a more polished form down the road.

On top of building, we’ve had weekly meetings with at least two or three engineers, industrial designers, and leaders in autism or educational organizations to continue learning more about autism as well as hardware development.

Then there’s the testing…

Testing the Harmony wristband prototype.

So far, we’ve visited 9 homes and worked with 11 kids (both autistic and not) who tried out the wristband. As the device captured biometric data, we hung out and watched Annoying Orange videos (you’ve been warned–they’re annoying!), went to the library, observed piano lessons, paged through countless photos of ventilation systems, sat through frustrating homework assignments, and witnessed everyday life while taking notes about the child’s emotional state and environmental changes.

Heart rate and stress level data captured during a test session.

Through this process, we’ve become incredibly passionate about and committed to working in the autism space. One expert we spoke with said an autism diagnosis is often treated like a lid, not a ladder. Through Kites & Ladders work, we’ve met incredible individuals with autism who have a lot to offer the world. The challenge is how Kites & Ladders can support these people in reaching their potential.

So we carry that into the final weeks in our program. Our calendars are still filling up as we reach out to new people, test and refine our prototype, develop our business pitch, and figure out how to produce the Harmony wristband.

But those blocks of time encourage us, propel us forward, and remind us that we’re doing meaningful work.

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Innovation happens in hindsight

Our class recently read a series of articles that dealt with the relationship between creativity, knowledge, sensemaking, and strategy in design. As I went through the articles, a theme kept jumping out at me: Innovation happens in hindsight.

More accurately, I should say we recognize innovation and consider the design solution to be logical and straightforward (or as an obscure failure) when we look back. In Serious Creativity, deBono writes that if an idea does not appear logical in hindsight, we won’t appreciate it. However, he argues that this post-hoc reasoning means we place too much emphasis on logic and not enough on lateral thinking and creativity as the way to develop new design solutions.

In Discovering Design, Nigel Cross writes that, in contrast to fields like logic and science, “design initiates novel forms” through abductive leaps. The “solutions” a designer proposes don’t necessarily answer the “problem” in an expected, straightforward way. Good design is often surprising.

I wanted to create a simple visualization to process my thoughts around the place of hindsight, surprise, and logic when it comes to designing product ecosystems. I’ve mapped out the current state of a number of products and services in Google’s ecosystem in the current state, but many of these products have moved down the Y-axis since their initial launch as the surprise factor wears off. I could see using this kind of tool on my own projects in the future to evaluate components of a product system–and to remind myself that time judges innovation.

Innovative design solutions often come through surprising leaps of reason and make logical sense only in hindsight. Over time, the surprise factor drops as solutions either fade into obscurity or become more ubiquitous and utilitarian.

 

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Wireframes, round 5 (done but never finished)

In our final Rapid Ideation and Creative Problem Solving class, we presented our fifth (and final!) iterations of wireframes for class scheduling and registration.

After four previous versions, I wasn’t totally sure what to do next. So I printed and hung each wire from Iteration 4 on the wall and I stepped back to look at the whole system. Though I kept multiple paths for people to add, browse/search, and drop courses, I stripped out many of the extra features. No more setting time preferences. Fewer filters. Only the catalog view to see course listings or descriptions (instead of an alternative view when starting from the schedule section).

Which brought me to Iteration 5. (Click image to download PDF.)

To test my wireframes, I set up a hyperlinked Keynote presentation so users could click through the prototype on a computer. While I discovered a couple issues where links weren’t set up properly (or where people tried to use the keyboard rather than click the “glass” keyboard on screen), I think the digital wireframes created a smoother testing process. Instead of trying to sort through and lay down one of 35-40 sheets of paper, I was able to pay more attention to user behavior.

Of the five strangers who tested the application for me, several finished and had a sense of, “That’s it?” As in, “Cool—I’m done? That wasn’t bad at all!” And the snags users did experience were mostly issues related to iPad conventions or elements better addressed by visual design.

So what did I learn from this class? I appreciate the process of iterating and incremental improvement on behalf of a user’s experience. I understand the value of Think-Aloud user testing (and approaching random people in coffee shops to get perspectives I likely wouldn’t get from people who know me). I learned the challenge of designing a comprehensive system as well as considering detailed interactions. I messed around with prototyping tools and templates ranging from markers and paper to print-outs to interactive digital mock-ups. I moved from a set of requirements to a rough thing to a more polished version to something that testers wanted to see made into a real application.

Finally, I learned the difference between done and finished. I could create 82 more iterations if I wanted. I could continue testing and tweaking. These wires aren’t finished. But I learned a lot about incremental problem solving, and I’m perfectly happy putting away these wires and being done with this project.

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Iterate, Iterate, Iterate

We’re into our third iteration of wireframes to create an application that facilitates class scheduling and registration for our Rapid Ideation and Creative Problem Solving class (iteration 1, iteration 2).

This week, I took another pass at a feature that allows students to set their schedule preferences before searching for classes, since my initial scenario depicted a woman who is trying to maximize her time working toward a nursing degree while also working full time and being a wife and mother. I also continued to refine some details around editing/dropping courses and considered animations/transitions that commonly appear in iPad apps.

Here is the third iteration of the wireframes. (Click image to download a full PDF.)

My other focus with this round was conducting Think-Aloud user testing with five people I didn’t know. I spoke with students from UT-Austin as well as a man in a nearby coffee shop whose wife is a nursing student. As they tapped through paper printouts of the screens, they told me what they were doing, which helped me understand where some of my changes didn’t fit their mental models of how scheduling happens. (I also learned that it’s much harder to test with people I don’t know. They tended to get quiet when confused or frustrated, so I had to keep prompting them to “please, keep talking,” so I could understand what they were trying to do.)

So what did I learn in this round?

  1. Semester selection. Users frequently got stuck trying to plan Fall 2012 rather than switching to the Spring 2013 semester. I should just take them to the semester open for registration instead of the current term.
  2. Course suggestion. I added a feature that suggests courses based on the student’s degree requirements and schedule preferences. The slider interaction to add classes was used only by one tester—and that’s because he couldn’t figure out another way to add classes. I need to figure out whether to rework or drop the suggested course concept.
  3. Registration workflow. In this test, two users wanted to go through the schedule and registration process for one course at a time, rather than create a whole schedule and then submit the registration. I need to figure out how to support that workflow so they aren’t locked out of changing their schedule if they sign up for one class and then want to modify the schedule after submitting the registration.
  4. Create a digital, interactive prototype. There’s a disconnect between paper and digital prototypes. Where users might try tapping an iPad screen to see what happens, it feels more awkward in paper format. I want to create a hyperlinked prototype that users can interact with on an iPad or computer screen to see how that changes the experience.

This week, my big realization was around testing. While the iterations are important, I have a lot of room to grow in recruiting testers, developing scenarios for them to try out key features, and considering environmental factors that will lead to successful testing (noise/distraction levels, paper versus digital prototypes, testing at a table instead of an open seating area, etc.).

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