James is a Boston born and raised web designer, with experience in the non-profit and political sectors. He has worked with numerous Massachusetts state legislators and done digital work for LGBT rights & marriage equality campaigns throughout New England. Coming from a creative family, he has a love for all things art and design. Everyone he asks about living in Austin wants to tell him about the food and not where to live.


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Recent Blog Posts


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

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Inner Circle: The birth plan for everyone else

Starting last October, Anna Krachey, Meghan Corbett and myself – James Lewis – began researching pregnancy and experiences surrounding birth. Through the research, iteration and prototyping phase we’ve come up with a product called Inner Circle: The Birth Plan for everyone else.

But, before I get into what the product is, let me tell you the story of how we got there first. We had read a New York Times article entitled “American Way of Birth, Costliest in the World” and were confounded by the following statistics:

  • Approximately 1 in 3 births are done by Cesarean Section.
  • The US has a high infant and maternal death rate for an industrialized nation.
  • The US is the most expensive place to give birth in the world. The second most expensive place is Switzerland, and on average it still costs half as less than it does here.

So we were curious – what is going on with pregnancy and birth today?


As we set off on our research, we spoke to numerous women who were pregnant or recently gave birth. They had a diverse array of experiences and backgrounds, but we came to the following conclusion: Our culture sees birth as a scary, out of control event that needs to be addressed as a procedure. With advances in medical technology, birth has moved away from the home and community and into hospitals. While there are many benefits to that movement, one of the negative impacts seems to be that birth is no longer a normal event that other women in the community witnessed and participated in. Women who are pregnant today have likely never seen childbirth in person, or even an accurate media depiction. Americans are typically shown a hyperbolized scene of a screaming, out of control woman yelling at her partner.

After speaking with pregnant women, a doula and doing secondary research our group came to see a more nuanced picture of labor and delivery. We wanted to design a product to enable women to focus on labor and delivery as a long, hard, completely do-able and natural process.



Looking back over our research we thought of the different women who had positive and negative birth experiences. We divided up these experiences across a spectrum between positive births; those that leave the mother feeling empowered by her birth, setting the tone for motherhood and negative births: where the experience often leaves the mother feeling bowled over – like she wasn’t in control and didn’t know what was happening.

We began to see a correlation between a positive birth experience and the level of assertiveness a woman expressed surrounding her pregnancy, and the labor and delivery of her child.

We spoke to a woman who had a homebirth for her first child. In getting things ready, her midwife recommended she write an email to her friends and family setting guidelines, boundaries and expectations for how they should interact with her during labor and delivery. She wrote out an email which she sent shortly before she gave birth that she kindly shared with us. In it, she said:

“We ask that everyone stay out of the house and possibly at a remote location… unless you have been specifically asked to be present.”


“I have put [my friend] in charge of keeping all close to us updated with text messages so that as we get close to the baby’s [arrival], people can make their way closer to the house.”

Inner Circle

Using what we saw from research and what we know as people with life experiences of our own, our group came up with Inner Circle: the birth plan for everyone else.

Inner Circle helps expectant mothers create a birth plan for her family and friends. It helps women make decisions about their own wishes and boundaries around their upcoming birth.

So how does Inner Circle do that? We’ve started designing the wireframes – which I like to think of as blueprints for a website or app – for our new product. We imagine the user to be a pregnant woman, who is probably in the second trimester of pregnancy. She’s gotten through the first trimester where there is a higher chance of miscarriage, and now she’s likely telling her family and friends.

The BASICS: We start off once the user has signed up for the service with a username and password, but hasn’t used the website yet. She sees a modal window, focusing her attention on five essential questions. In it’s essence, this is minimal plan she can send to her family and friends. However, what we really want is to get the basics down and out of the way. Then she can go explore some of the more thought provoking prompts our team came up with.

ORIENTATION: Once she answers the basic questions, she comes to a full screen. On it she she’s her name and a picture of herself if she’s chosen to upload one. This creates a sense of feeling that this is “her space.”

Since english speakers read left to right, the first thing she sees on the left hand side is her plan so far. On it are her answers and a prompt to explore the questions and prompts to her right under “Things to Consider.” She views some of the prompts with example quotes from other mothers. She clicks a button to answer one of the questions; In the example above it is “If you need anything during your last few weeks of pregnancy, who might be on call to help you? Select a few people »” EXPLORATION: The questions are paired with quotes from the mothers we spoke to during our research. These quotes serve a few purposes:

  • They help give context to the question.
  • They act as examples which let women compare and contrast to how they would answer a question.
  • They give social proof of women setting boundaries, showing you can be assertive and polite at the same time.
  • They reinforce the social spirit of the site: women helping other women through advice and ideas.


The user has clicked a button to answer a question presented on the last screen. Another modal window pops-up asking her to assign a few people close to her that she can call on for help. It also gives helpful suggestions, setting a friendly and helpful tone for the product.

COMPARING: After exploring questions under the categories of “Getting Ready”, “Labor & Delivery”, and “Baby Is Here”, the answers she’s given are shorted for brevity under “Your Plan So Far”. This gives her feedback of what she’s done, and allows her to compare it to the questions she hasn’t answered. Our goal isn’t to get women to answer every single question, but to compare and contrast the questions in a helpful manner which gives her pause to think but doesn’t overwhelm her.

While the user can click on any of her answers to make edits and changes, we included an “edit this plan” button at the bottom of the screen. This is because editing a document is a separate mental space from creating it. Changing questions before having to “commit” to them reinforces the goal of having her explore different options.


Shhhh… here’s a little secret! While this may change (these are only prototypes), the “edit your plan” and “schedule to send” buttons from the previous screen actually go to the same screen! Why is that? Because we want users to take this seriously – this isn’t a short text message to a friend, but a well thought out plan. During testing we often had users ask “I can edit this before I send it, right?” However, some users might not want to edit and are ready to send it out. We want to be explicit that users can send their plan without having to”edit” it if they don’t want to.

On this finalizing screen she sees her name and picture at the top of the page. All the instructions she’s written and questions she’s answered are laid out in full, in the same format her friends and family will receive it in.  She can change and edit her answers, and write an personalized introduction and conclusion to her letter. This part of our product is still in it’s infancy. We’re going to iterate and test out a few versions during the fourth quarter to make sure we get it right. When the user is finished with her plan, she clicks a button at the bottom of the screen to “select contacts & send.” Our team still has to take these wireframes to high level of fidelity, but this part of the flow will be where she adds her family and friends contact information and decides how and when she wants to send her plan.

- fin -

Well this has been a long blog post! Maybe you’ve scanned the headlines and images, or faithfully read the whole thing. Either way, what’s next for our group? In the fourth and final quarter of AC4D our group will pilot our product. This is like beta testing, putting our product in the hands of users. However, piloting is like pre-beta testing. The whole product may not be built out, there will still be bugs to work out and things to be re-designed. In essence, piloting is just another test as we iterate and refine Inner Circle.

One last thing! If any readers out there have experience with web development, especially with programming and databases, we could really use your help! Any advice, suggestions or time you might be able to donate would be a huge help to our group. Please drop me a line at james.lewis@austincenterfordesign.com or tweet me at @jamesLdesign.

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Testing Timelines

Preface: I’m in a group with Meghan Corbett and Anna Krachey researching experiences around birth and labor & delivery. This post is the second in a series of updates on developing a product to serve pregnant women. You can read last week’s post here.

Last week our group worked on a timeline exercise tracking how women view milestones in their pregnancy – things like telling their best friends, notifying their job or certain medical appointments – rather than thinking just in terms of trimesters. We looked at each step and evaluated the value proposition, emotional value proposition and incentive / motivations for a woman using our app at each of her milestones.

The milestones we came up with were:

  • I’m Pregnant!
  • I’m Telling People (Close Family and Friends)
  • I’m Telling My Boss
  • Formalizing Plans
  • Labor & Delivery
  • I Have a Baby!

Using these milestones, we came up with a timeline exercise. We wanted to make sure we were thinking about these milestones, and how those events affect sharing information, the same way pregnant women were. In it, we asked women to map out:

  • Milestones during their pregnancy
  • When they told their best friends, their parents, and the rest of their social circle
  • When they informed their jobs, clients or anyone else dependent on them that they were pregnant.

We tried to keep things pretty open so women could make it their own. In addition to marking milestones, one participant also indicated her levels of stress regarding her pregnancy and how that related to what was going on in her life.

This week we spoke with a first time pregnant woman, a woman pregnant with her second child as well as a Doula. Our concept of milestones appeared to be correct. Yay!

During this time one of our participants shared an email she sent out to her family and close friends. She was planning a homebirth, and her email laid out what she wanted everyone to do, how to communicate with her and how they could help. Such gems included:

“Please resist any urges to bring things to the house, such as food or drinks, during labor. I may be very sensitive to smells and we also need to keep all of our space clean and clear.”


“[My husband] will be communicating to people if anything changes and we ask that feelings be spared if changes on the day affect you.”

This participant was clearly able to set boundaries and expectations so that she could get what she needed and her family felt like part of the team – even if they weren’t there. We realized, however, that many women may not be able to do this or even think to do it, and speaking with our Doula confirmed this. During our initial research phase we heard:

“I’m just going to go to the Hospital and see what happens.”

We wanted to come up with a system to set these boundaries and parameters, so that women could start mentally preparing as well as focus on their birth. We heard anxiety from some of our research participants like:

“My parents want so much to be helpful, but my father is obese and my mother has cancer. It becomes more about me managing them instead of them being helpful.”

The tests I wrote about earlier, as well at the email I just shared along with many sentiments about pregnant women dealing with family members resulted in our current design idea: InnerCircle – The Birth Plan for Everyone Else.

We’ll continue to develop and refine the idea, but here are the main premises:

  1. Women share different information with different people about their pregnancy. They need a way to manage all that information and the complex relationships surrounding it.
  2. Women also need a way to plan and articulate what they would like their family and friends to do during her labor & delivery. They shouldn’t have to worry about keeping their mother-in-law happy while they are trying to give birth to a baby!

We are currently doing user tests where we will validate these ideas and see how women to respond to writing out directions for those around them. We’ve also come up with a paper prototype test where we’ll have women create circles of people around them in the same way we are planning to do it in our app. We want to see how women pick and choose whom to put in their inner circle – those who are closer and get more information – and those they put in their outer one.

We are currently recruiting pregnant women and new mothers to help test our design idea. If you know of anyone who might be interested, please get in touch with me at james.lewis@austincenterfordesign.com

Posted in Reflection, Startups | Leave a comment

Thermostat User Interface Design Project Comes to a Close

This is the final installment of posts about the iterative design and user testing process I’ve conducted for designing a thermostat user interface (UI) - Read my last update about my latest redesign here.

Over the last eight weeks of IDSE201 Rapid Ideation and Creative Problem Solving I’ve been learning about how to ideate the design of a user interface by wireframes – in this case for a theoretical Thermostat design.

As a reminder wireframes are models for user interfaces (UIs) that lay out the features of a design – kind of like how blueprints work for buildings. They wireframes may look polished, but they don’t represent the final look of a design. Wireframes are for planning and figuring out how all the elements in a system are laid out. This lets designers like us test and iterate – or come up with multiple, refined versions – before we come up with a final layout.

During this process, I came up with two completely different designs before finally settling on my third. By going through the design process and then testing them, I was able to test my assumptions about how real users would actually interact with my system.

The main test method I used was think aloud testing. Think aloud testing involves paper prototypes, printed physical versions of the UI design,  showing them to a test subject and asking them to complete a task like raising the temperature. The user speaks aloud describing what they are doing and thinking in relation to the task. This is a quick and easy way to see if you’re design is functional and if the design assumptions you made were right – or wrong.

Going through user testing on my various designs, I learned a few things:

  • Users won’t be able to manage the same level of complexity in a system as a designer is able to. While this may sound obvious, after spending hours upon hours thinking and perfecting a design, it’s easy to make assumptions that a task or feature will be easy to use when it’s really not.
  • We’re not just really designing a thermostat. We’re learning how to think in systems, understanding how the parts and the whole relate to one another. We applied the same synthesis and sense-making skills we’ve learned in design research to simplify and iterate upon a user interface.
  • You need to design in flows, not screens. Early on in the process, I was focused on getting every little detail right. I neglected to think in Hero Flows – the sequence of steps a user might take to complete a typical task of the system.
  • Start with assumptions, then move to validation. Designers need to use their abductive reasoning skills and make assumptions when they first begin to prototype. Without doing so, there would be little creativity and originality in our work, and everything would probably end up looking the same. But while assumption is important in guiding our work, we still need to test it with users. Our designs still need to function within the mental model that guides users when completing a task.
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