Recent Blog Posts


Finessing the Help Dance

“When a male ballet dancer lifts and carries his partner around the stage in a pas de deux, he looks as strong as Atlas, but any ballerina will tell you there is a good deal in knowing how to be lifted.”

Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety

“How can I help” isn’t necessarily a simple question, and there isn’t always an easy answer. For much of my life, I’ve been observing a little something out there in the world. There are people who are porous to help, and there are people who are impervious to it. The ability to ask for and receive help is life changing. If you possess it, you have a big giant OPEN SESAME into connection, collaboration and belonging. And if you don’t, you are ever so slightly S-O-L. You’ll probably get by in life, but you’ll be at a high risk of being brittle, isolated and pretty worn out by the end of it.

In the first semester at AC4D, I dove into a design research mission. I wanted to see where the ability comes from and whether or not it can be taught. Here in the second semester, I’ve been in the trenches with the unflappable Eric Boggs taking the question ever farther. Can a digital system can work as training wheels for a person who needs help asking for help?

The Pilot

To recap for newcomers, Eric and I are building CareWell, a digital tool to help caregivers while they tend to aging loved ones.
Eric has spoken in a previous blog post about the mechanics of the pilot. I’ll address the outcomes and next steps.

1) Caregivers responded well to the task categories / bucket system we’d invented. They added a few, but by and large our initial impulse was correct. Good news for us as we are attempting to show that we understand the caregiver’s world.

2) It takes a minimum of 5 exchanges (text, call, email) for a caregiver to completely hand off a task and receive necessary updates. 5 exchanges multiplied across the numerous tasks a caregiver undertakes each week is an immense amount of communication to manage. There is benefit to having CareWell serve as the traffic controller. And it’s encouraging to see that we nailed this back there on day 1 of our project when we put up our first design pillars.

3) We knew from our research that helpers want to know exactly what they can do to help. What we did NOT know until we ran the pilot is that helpers often don’t help because they are afraid of burdening the caregiver. And there was no way of knowing, until we ran the pilot, something that is kind of a big deal. Our helpers prefer interacting with a text-based, digital system in place of communicating with the real live caregiever. They felt less intrusive, less burdensome, and less liable to be operating in a vacuum. They trusted our system more than they trusted their caregiver human to log their contributions and communicate updates.

This is kind of a big deal. Well, it might be kind of a huge deal. CareWell will always manage the tasks of caregiving, but it may center around something else. We’re considering the idea that CareWell isn’t task management as much as help management. CareWell may be a digital prosthesis for those who have trouble asking for and receiving help.

This new direction / refinement will require more research, and I’ll feel a lot better writing blogs on pilot results when we are generating consistent results instead of new directions. Eric and I have to talk more about all of this, but to me the concept is getting clearer and more exciting.

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Where the Things Have No Names

If you are reading the AC4D blog, you have probably encountered the single most excruciating side effect of being a designer. It can attack anywhere. It strikes when you’re with grandparents, at cocktail parties, chatting with a well-meaning clerk while you wait for a price check.

You, too, may have been asked to explain what the hell design thinking is. You, too, may have walked away from an encounter knowing full well the person you were just with is convinced you are a semi-delusional interior designer.

The latest batch of readings doesn’t cure the dilemma, but they did offer me a bit of palliative care. Nigel Cross (citing one J. Daley) provides a comforting insight:

“The way designers work may be inexplicable, not for some romantic or mystical reason, but because these processes literally lie outside the bounds of verbal discourse: they are literally indescribable in linguistic terms.”

Well, mazel tov to you, J. Daley! We’re supposed to be hard to explain.

In creating my diagrammatic salute to this thought, I aimed to incorporate other findings that seemed key to me.

1)    Riffing on Cross / Daley, I’d go so far as to say that the better a designer is, the more innately incomprehensible they are. However, the readings are incontrovertibly stern on one point. The burden of communicating all the goodies from the great nonverbal beyond rests squarely on the designer. Design involves drawing, making, iterating, drawing, making.

Yes. I know, that is officially not a newsflash. But what I hadn’t considered is that all that drawing, iterating, making is a very specific sort of contribution to the world. If designers are better able than most to dive into the realm where certain forms of wisdom reside, then there’s a certain moral requirement to do our best to make the insights broadly accessible.

What’s juicy here is that we not only iterate on what we-the-designers learn from our insights, we also iterate on designing the methods of unearthing them. I am slightly wonderstruck at the thought of a world in which designers keep creating better and better methods of subverting the thought ruts into which the brain naturally falls. I started thinking of designers / artists as the early adopters of generative lateral thinking. And of course, designers are also the group who have the tools to make things irresistible, attractive, easy to use and inspiring. Chocolate, peanut butter, world change. With innate skills and ever-more sophisticated tools of unearthing, translation and attraction, we may well be able to topple the cognitive patterns of the world.

2)    In homage to the concepts above, I went through a ton of iterations and also started building in Flash, which is a new tool to me.

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Putting the Flow in Flowchart | Service Blueprints and Service Design

As part of our Service Design class at AC4D, we were asked to complete a series of exercises that map the various touchpoints a user / customer will experience as they interact with the services and products attending to the business we are developing. The most recent artifact we created is a service blueprint, which can be defined as a “a customer-focused approach for service innovation and service improvement.”1

We conducted extensive research into areas of life in which people are regularly and reliably able to enter a state of flow. Flow can be loosely defined as a state of deep concentration in which a person is fully involved in overcoming surmountable but challenging problems. Our group believes that teaching people how to regularly enter a state of flow is absolutely essential in educating people who are creative, resilient and able to grapple with the complex, wicked problems of society.

Our findings taught us that a certain set of physical and behavioral elements must be present for a person to enter the state of flow, and to derive the full benefit of having gone there. After exploring a number of options of how to create a product that could teach flow, we decided that a learning tool kit / building kit was both the ideal product and the ideal business model for us at this time.

Moving from our design insights into a customer journey map and, ultimately, a service blueprint was a surprisingly helpful exercise. Which isn’t to say that it was surprising that it was helpful. We knew it would be helpful. If we’ve learned nothing else here at AC4D, we’ve all learned to trust the process implicitly (even if we grumble about it occasionally). What was surprising was the practicality of the insights that emerged from the service blueprint.

It seemed likely that the service blueprint would illuminate places where we could finetune the actual, well, service we are providing. That is, the non-physical elements surrounding our product; marketing, messaging, user interfaces and actual customer service. And we did unearth helpful insights in all of those areas. Things got juicy, however, when the blueprint started showing us where we should probably take a look at some core assumptions about our initial product. A few helpful suggestions from the blueprint include:

-        The triumph / failure cycle that is critical to supporting a state of flow can begin the moment the user receives their box. Unboxing can become a prominent part of the experience, It’s a place we can leverage to get immediate user buy in.

-        There are unexpected locations where people are likely use our kits. We’d originally thought of homes and schools. We now see backs of cars, grandparents’ houses, parks, hospitals and offices.  This opens avenues for special edition kits and reasonably priced add-ons and modification kits.

-        We’d defined a number of user reactions and interactions that seemed likely to emerge in our product ecosystem. We now see that these responses, such as reflection, sharing, referring, collaborating, are likely to take place in unpredicted places and with unexpected combinations of people. We are now able to design our platform to offer logical solutions for user response in a wide variety of situations.

-        We discovered additional combinations and re-combinations of people with whom our users can be expected to utilize their kits. Because our kits privilege both solitary and collaborative flow, being able to develop products and directions to accommodate a wide mix of ages, developmental stages and group sizes gives us a competitive edge in a crowded marketplace.

We have been reminded frequently that the service blueprint is a living document. While it answers a great many questions, it is also of immense value in shining a light on future questions. We are increasingly clear on questions we will need to answer at various stages throughout our product development, launch and subsequent processes. We are refining our vision and shared ethos, and as we do so are looking at the blueprint to see where we should weave that into the specific interactions under our aegis. Additionally, we have noted places where we need to be on alert for customer feedback, strategic reviews and additional development.

And that’s the update from the play pen! Over and out.



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Participatory Interviews

Jesse and I ventured forth this with another assignment for our Design Research class. This time we undertook participatory interviews. Like Contextual Inquiry (the last big assignment) this involves speaking with individuals to learn more about their lives and methods of interacting with their worlds.

That said, here’s the scoop on what we did, saw, learned and will try to do henceforth.

Methods | why we’re using them / why we think they work

We seek to understand how students interact with ideas of career discovery, guidance, paths, and goal setting.

As it turns out, this is a great fit for participatory interview research. We provided simple journaling exercises to prompt students to explore what they thought they could do vs. what they really would love to do in their lives. Additionally, the questions asked them to reflect on what would support them in pursuing their dreams. After reviewing the homework we conducted an interview about how people and resources in their lives could help or hinder their efforts to get where they want to be. Finally, we used a collaging type of exercise using seemingly random words and images to evoke a visual / emotional description of the attributes that are innate to their ideal form of guidance.

What we learned

1) We weren’t surprised by one main finding: when dealing when people who aren’t getting what they need, it’s hard for them to articulate what they do want. It’s hard to describe a place you haven’t been, or haven’t been frequently.

Collaging was a great way to elicit a positive situation that is difficult to describe. We found that the use of visual / word prompts did a great deal to unearth useful threads of information. It’s hard to produce a holistic description of everything you would change or create to build your ideal state. The collage exercise proved an effective method of breaking that intangible unknown into characteristics and attributes.

2) Another big thing we learned: it might not be the easiest thing to get unmotivated people to meet with us for 2 hours to talk about…motivation. We’ve run into a number of hurdles trying to get interviews schedules. Now that we know how this goes, we’ve learned to set up lots of extra interviews, as we can be certain that we can get our work done. Scheduling aside, this presents an important challenge. We aim to develop products / services / systems that meet unmet needs. How do you do that when you can’t speak with those who have been let down by the system so often that they have disengaged completely?

3) It’s a little early to identify trends, but we are starting to see commonalities among our participants. We’ve noticed that motivated people go through critical moments of doubt and are buoyed by friends, family and teachers. The support is critical; it keeps people from giving up in a difficult process. What we are also learning is that this support may come from the same quadrants for all our participants; ideal guidance takes different forms for each of them. It’s fascinating to keep drilling down for commonalities among the different ways people want to receive guidance.

What we’ll do differently next time

1) In one interview we stayed in the room while the participant worked on their canvas; it was a somewhat interactive exercise. In another interview, we left the room. It was my gut instinct that the participant wanted to be alone to work on it, but when we returned after 20 minutes it really did feel like the momentum had died. We felt like the process was impacted negatively, and hope to find ways to encourage participants to feel comfortable doing the collages with us.

2) The students with whom we are working seem hard to schedule. We are implementing (where appropriate, depends on recruiting method) personalized appointment cards, reminder texts, sign-up sheets and / or emails to provide a tangible reminder of their commitment.

3) In our post-interview debriefs, Jesse has observed, and I agree, that when I’m interviewing I need to pause more. It’s easy to infer that people don’t understand some questions, and one natural response is to rephrase the question in increasingly questioning ways. It’s tempting to jump in and explain. However, as we’ve been taught, it’s important to let the silence hang, let the gears turn, let the participant answer in their own time and way. We’ll be working even harder on giving the questions room to breathe.

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