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.


Recent Tweets

@bethanystolle: RT @suzannahpaul: Shine on, Cait. (And @JesKastKeat!)

@bethanystolle: @ericworringer @emmykegler @BroderickGreer Damn. Too good--or painful. I can't quite tell.

@bethanystolle: @JesKastKeat Not surprised to see you rocking a gorgeous color for #NationalLipstickDay

@bethanystolle: Yes, #CecilTheLion is horrible. But I hope people get just as outraged about #SamDubose #SandraBland #WalterScott #MikeBrown #EricGarner ...

@bethanystolle: RT @AishaAdventures: I'm tired of waking up to people's entire LIVES reduced to a hashtag because the system doesn't value them. #SamDubose

Recent Blog Posts


Wireframes, take 2

A couple weeks ago, I created my first wireframes for our Rapid Ideation and Creative Problem Solving class. This week, I developed a revised set of frames for an iPad application that facilitates class scheduling and registration.

I integrated feedback from testing and presenting the previous wires–especially problems with navigation and usability around registration and pop-up descriptions to compensate for interface decisions that weren’t self-evident. Since this is an iPad app, I also wanted to change the navigation so the app would work regardless of orientation.

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

I tested these wires with three users using a Think-Aloud Test, where testers explained what they’re doing as they tapped through paper prototypes. Their descriptions helped me understand where the process didn’t flow as expected–as did the “Uhhs…” and pauses when they needed to reorient themselves to the screen presented before them.

So what did I learn in this round?

  1. Experiment with the schedule view. No one tried tapping the schedule to add classes based on time. Similarly, in my first iteration, users didn’t immediately know how to set time preferences on their schedule. I need to determine if this is a valuable part of the app, and if so, offer affordances so users understand what they can do.
  2. Streamline the “hero flow.” In testing, all my users defaulted to searching for classes through the course catalog rather than entering the process through the schedule view. Several screens were entirely unused in the tests, so I want to reevaluate the process to make sure it isn’t too complex.
  3. Refine details. I added some visual cues in this round–like showing the most recently added course as darker on the schedule, making the registration button an obvious option, and adding a status bar to indicate number of credits on the schedule. However, others features were not obvious enough; no one used the filter options for course searches, and one user wanted to slide the credit status bar like he does when he unlocks him phone. In my next iteration, I want to continue refining these details so they’re useful.
  4. Test with more users. I only tested with 3 users, and while I saw trends in the usability issues with my frames in this round, I know I would have had a better sense of the problems and opportunities if I tested with more people. I’m planning to retest this current set of wireframes with 3-4 more people before I dig into work on iteration 3.

I’m enjoying this process more and more–though I do think it gets harder with each iteration because the “easy” usability decisions have already been made.

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The internet is more than a series of tubes

Before going on vacation a couple years ago, my husband and I bought a Kindle reader. Since then, I’ve also installed the Kindle app on my phone, iPad, and laptop. My Amazon shopping habits have changed, too. Unless I’m looking for a highly-designed book or a reference text that I’ll refer back to frequently, I always check to see whether the latest novel or business book that attracts my attention is available on Kindle before deciding whether to buy.

This coming from someone who works in publishing, holds a library card, and hates to see small bookstores close.

But I turn to Amazon repeatedly because the Kindle is one part of an incredibly effective ecosystem. I don’t always love the Kindle device itself; taking notes can be tedious, and I rarely return to the passages I’ve highlighted. I have a love-hate relationship with Amazon’s one-click solution that simplifies the checkout process at the same time it decreases the amount of money in my bank account. Despite my complaints, Amazon has a huge selection of books it can deliver to any of my devices in less than a minute. Their attention to delivering value across an entire system outweighs the shortcomings of individual parts and keeps me coming back to use their services.

This personal experience with a cultural shift toward digital publishing kept popping into my head as our class explored the changes in traditional systems thinking to contemporary uses in design applications today.

Several decades ago, discoveries in physics and the industrial, mass-manufacturing model defined the language of how we thought and spoke about systems. Systems were mechanical, contained, ordered efforts. Some systems were complex, but they still had inputs and outputs, logical hierarchies and central controls. (See Hugh Dubberly.)

I remember a few years ago when Senator Ted Stevens used rudimentary, mechanical language when he referred to the Internet as a “series of tubes.” Ultimately, he spawned an Internet meme, teased by people who had a sense of the complex, networked, and dynamic structures that enable people to go online and communicate across the globe.

Today, there’s a shift toward organic, biological language when we’re talking about systems. The Internet is a web. Software has bugs. Computers get viruses. Products have ecosystems and lifecycles. Information flows like streams or rivers. Designers consider sustainability. Networks have become less centralized and more “organic.” (Interestingly enough, even the notion of a “meme” grew out of concepts in evolutionary biology.)

In parallel, the field of design has increasingly moved toward user-centered and participatory design methods in order to address large, messy, “wicked problems” like hunger, climate change, and poverty. Which brings me to the work we’re doing at AC4D this year—trying to tackle wicked problems in education.

When I look at the current state of education in the United States, I see a parallel with the changes happening broadly in the field of design and systems thinking. Schools and districts and states and national standards are parts of a complex web that make up our educational system. Just as systems thinkers are moving from mechanical to biological language, I think our educational system should move away from traditional industrial approaches (like funding schools based on which bubbles students fill in on standardized tests) and instead consider what other methods might prepare students to work in fields that are just starting to grow or haven’t developed yet. (Again, more organic language.) Doing this may mean the teacher’s role changes as well, much like the designer is becoming a facilitator within a system rather than an author creating something for others.

Much like Amazon and the Kindle, not every component of the education system will work flawlessly. However, using systems thinking, especially with biological language, may offer a better starting point to address problems in design and in education.

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If at first you don’t succeed…(with wireframes)

“So you made a thing…”

We’re only three months into our program, and many of the things we’re making right now are not very good. Jon Kolko frequently uses the above phrase to preface a longer statement about how it’s important for designers to externalize concepts, design ideas, and propositions. Sketching, building, and prototyping ideas make it possible to poke and stretch them in ways that make the resulting product or service much stronger.

Which brings me to our Methods class for quarter two: Rapid Ideation and Creative Problem Solving. For our first assignment, we were tasked with developing wireframes* for an interface that helps students to plan their class schedules online.

To tackle the project, I started with a scenario about a student who wanted to plan her schedule on the go from her iPhone, but I quickly realized how challenging it is to design a system for such a tiny screen. (Especially with very limited wireframing experience!) So I shifted to developing for an iPad version.

Here are the wireframes I developed after multiple iterations. (Click link or image to download a full PDF with annotated wireframes.)

My process started on paper with scenarios, storyboards, and rough sketches. Through Sharpie drawings on copy paper and conversations with classmates, I tried out different configurations and got feedback on what was confusing. After sketching over 30 or 40 screens by hand, I started turning my hand-drawn interfaces into digital ones (using Keynote Kung-Fu) and added links so my five users who tested using the a think-aloud method were able to click through like they were operating a real app.

So what have I learned so far?

  1. Start with fewer details. I tried to draw in a lot of detail in my storyboards and the first round of iterations, which made it harder to throw out some of the pieces that weren’t working well.
  2. Play with more iPad apps. Through my testing, I discovered some of my layout choices didn’t fit with iPad conventions or users’ mental models for how the interface should work. I’m going to adjust these in the next round of iterations, but I also need to spend more time exploring apps to see how other developers handle similar issues.
  3. Don’t make people read. I had some messages on screen to help users know the next step, but the testers tended to experiment rather than read. My future iterations need to make the steps more obvious without the explanatory text.
  4. Provide feedback. “Am I done?” was asked by more than one tester. I need to think through how to offer visual indicators so users know where they are in the process and understand the outcomes of their taps and swipes.
  5. Make decisions so the users don’t have to. My first iteration allowed users to choose class by setting their preferred times on a schedule. But they can also browse the full course catalog. This was unclear for most of the testers, so I need to resolve the conflict in approaches so the user isn’t confused. And more broadly, the designer should make intentional decisions that make the experience better for the majority of users rather than building in “flexibility” that just leads to confusion because the designer didn’t want to take responsibility for focusing the interface.

While this process felt overwhelming and tedious at first, it became more fun the further I got into the wireframes and testing. I guess that’s a good thing because we’ll be iterating this same series of frames five more times!

And maybe by the end of the quarter, Kolko will end his, “So you made a thing…” phrase with, “and that’s actually something someone might want to use.”

(Wireframes are sort of like rough blueprints for a digital interface–using real content but stripped of design elements so the focus stays on designing the controls, navigation, and relationships between content and features, rather than emotion or design elements.)
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Deconstructing Difficult Problems

For our final position diagram of the quarter, we were challenged to show the difficulties in solving complex problems. I drew inspiration from readings by Herbert A. Simon, Amos Tversky/Daniel Kahneman, and Philip Johnson-Laird and put together this visual, in which I argue that designers can employ constraints and bias to make ill-structured problems easier to address. Then through iteration and inverting bias, designers can generate insights to address portions of the problem. All this while still keeping in mind how those solutions contribute to the whole system.

I realize most ill-structured problems may never become well-structured enough to solve with brute force or computing. However, a process of refinement and iteration can make it easier to start tackling complex, amorphous problems.

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