Ruby Ku is using design approach, appropriate technology and new business model to solve problems that are worth solving. She works at Thinktiv and splits her time between interaction design and program management. She loves good books, good conversations, and a good cup of coffee. She was born in Hong Kong and grew up in Toronto. Her heart beats equally for both places.

I am not trying to “save the world”. I do, however, see it as my duty to leave the world a better place than when I entered it. This is me, stepping up, with hopes of being joined by others in my generation, so that together we can create a better future that we all want to be a part of. So often I feel restless, seeing the gap between my vision and the current reality, but for now, I am working hard to do what I can and creating a path that is the most suitable for me.


Reflections

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Recent Blog Posts

 

Founder Thoughts

Alex and I always talk about how we need to write more, do some writing first thing in the morning before diving into emails, get things out of our heads onto something tangible. Yet, it still doesn’t happen as often as we would like.

But here’s a start, some raw thoughts from the week.

On taking money
We’ve gone many months without outside money. We came this far by putting in our own savings and a ridiculous amount of generous help from friends and supporters. Well, money is running out and we need to raise some. But we’ve always had a lot of hesitations when it comes to taking other people’s money. Since day 1 we’ve always wanted to learn to make money, not raise money. The idea of bootstrapping was always more appealing to us than the idea of “being funded”. At the same time, I think we are also just nervous. Nervous about the responsibility. Here’s a thought I had the other day: I probably wouldn’t be as nervous if I was borrowing the exact same amount of student loan to pay for a 2 year master degree. It would’ve felt like the most normal thing to pay a huge sum for my education as an investment, and I’ll pay it back through years of hard work afterwards. When it’s viewed that way, investing in my own startup all of a sudden feels like a much better deal. I have control over what I want out of it, and I’m learning more everyday than any degree would be able to give me. Speaking of defaulting the responsibility to someone else – “I paid you tuition so now you’re responsible to teach me everything to be successful.”

On building supporters
It’s easy to want to stay in the studio. All the work that needs to be done! Someone’s gotta do it right? Recently, I have a new found appreciation for getting out and building connections. And I don’t mean the “networking” sessions where you exchange business cards but in reality everyone just really want to talk about their own startups (us included!) I mean building deeper connections and a group of supporters in Austin, with other groups that are doing amazing work such as PeopleFund, Center 61, The Next Fest, Aunt Bertha, Urban Roots, Four Teachers, to name a few. As much as sxsw has been overwhelming, because of our active outreach lately, we have met some really great people and felt that we are much more rooted in Austin than we were two weeks ago. Starting a business is an emotional journey. Having people around who understand makes you not die.

I have thoughts on some other topics, but haven’t articulated enough to write about yet.

I feel fine. Recovering.

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A letter to AC4D

Dear AC4D,

Recent events left me feeling a mix of thoughts and emotions so I decided to write you a letter.

You are an 8-month graduate program, but you’re also a solid community. You are great mentors, but you are also all makers. The group of people coming in and out all day provide constant reassurance but they also never hesitate to jump in to challenge why we are doing what we are doing. You provide tools but not answers. You’re a safe place to learn like how a child learns – you know, start doing something, make mistakes, ask dumb questions, repeat, and eventually all of it become tacit knowledge. People go work on different things and have different definitions of success, but you welcome them with open arms as long as they’re still trying to change the world.

AC4D never really ends. For us alums, having the current students around in the same space keeps us on our toes. Accountability easily goes out of the window when the 8-month program was over. It’s too easy to not follow through, to come up with excuses, to let life get in the way. Watching new projects emerge is inspiring and it almost becomes your engine of innovation to ensure we never stop asking “what if’s”. In return, I hope we alums provide comfort for the current students that all of this is possible. It’s still fun, and I honestly can’t imagine doing anything else. The energy is contagious so no one ever feels like they are fighting a lone battle.

You don’t leave your students graduate with just a “good idea” either. The audience who came to the Q3 presentations today asked tough questions. “What are you actually doing? What is your role? Why would people want to use this? What are all the touchpoints? How do you build trust and protect your people? How do you change perceptions and create brand? How do you build expectations and instill responsibility and create delight? Who is paying who? How do you build a collective? Where do you start?” My heart beat really fast as I watched the students think on their feet with all eyes on them tackling every question being thrown at them. I’m so impressed and blown away with their work and how far they’ve come.

I have every faith that they will figure it all out and make it happen, as will all of your future students because of what you have created. In the wise words of Dr. Seuss, “unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

Love,
Ruby

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Some feedback and observations from Q1 presentations

I took notes last night so thought I’d share them here. They’re raw and not complete, but hope they would be somewhat helpful.

On design research:

  • Need to explain more why design research is different and valuable especially to non-designers.
  • Design research is not supposed to be easy, it’s going to take lots of time, practice, and rigor.
  • Trust your findings. It’s great to tie it to the big picture, but don’t let external stats overshadow your rich insights from the field research you have from spending hours with people.
  • Reflect. Always.

On artifacts:

  • Label your concept maps. They should be stand-alone artifacts.
  • Watch for visual design typo (ex. use icons from the same library).
  • Make use of quotes.
  • Don’t be afraid to use big definitive statements. Take up the full slide.

On story telling:

  • Relate back to what you started with. Stories should be wrapped around a larger theme.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask provocative questions and leave audience thinking.
  • Decide on the one thing you want the audience to walk away from.
  • Learn how to dial up and down with your story to different audience, and the only way to get better is to keep telling the story.

On realizing limitations:

  • Understand what you would like to do more of (ex. new contexts)
  • “Not having enough time” is not a valid limitation

On having a system/process:

  • Have system to capture your whiteboard sessions and defining moments, whether it’s a deck of yellow index cards labelled “good ideas”, taking photos of all your sticky notes and brain-dumping in ppt, plain text file, anything, pick something. Never rely on your memory.
  • Jon once told me one of the most challenging things about being an interaction designer is switching between tasks: doing research, brainstorming, making, project managing, presenting, etc. It’s a skill, embrace it and learn it.

On choosing a topic:

  • Don’t over-worry about choosing the perfect topic. There’s no such thing. Let it evolve and follow where it takes you. You can’t decide in a room what you’re passionate about. Keep working and it’ll come.
  • Best case scenario: you find a topic you’re passionate about and you continue to work on it after ac4d. Worst case scenario: you have a set of new skills and tools to go tackle any problems you come across later on in your lives.
  • The only wrong thing you can do is not doing anything.

And here… some words of wisdom sent to me by Ms. Tran from LA.

Heart work takes hard work. Tell everyone what you’re working on. I really enjoyed the presentations. Thanks for letting me be a part of last night and I’m looking forward to Q2!

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Reflections and Lessons Learned from SDNC11

I gave my very first talk at the Service Design Conference 11 in San Francisco last week. It was a really good experience and I wanted to share some of my reflections and lessons learned.

1. Biggest takeaway from the conference

This is my first exposure to the “service designers”, and it’s very different than the Interaction Conference in Boulder. As a gross over-generalization, the field often associates interaction designers with software developers, service designers with business analysts, and product designers with mechanical and electrical engineers. Interaction designers speak in the language of user interface and usability; service designers speak about customer journey map and touchpoints. At the moment, while interaction designers are asking if they should learn to how to code; service designers are asking how to show the business value of their existence to management.

One of my favorite talks was by Brandon Schauer from Adaptive Path, on how to “capture lost revenues from the Service Anticipation Gap by applying just a portion of the overwhelming ad spends on the optimization and creation of services”. He defined Service Anticipation Gap as the gap between customers’ expectations and perceptions vs. what they are actually getting. While ad spend creates promises, service design is what actually deliver those promises. His arguments are compelling and illustrated by great examples. Presentation can be downloaded here.

Richard Buchanan was the closing keynote with the conference. AC4D students should all be familiar with his definition of “wicked problems” and the four degrees of design – signs, things, actions, environment. After two days of talks focusing a lot on the tactical of how to make a case for service design to management, Buchanan reframed the discussion to why management itself should become a design discipline. He left Carnegie Mellon and went to Weatherhead School of Management (note: management school, not business school), because he envisions management as design activities and is currently working with organizations at all levels – corporate, government, foundations, community, to look at how we should build our future organizations. Going back to management literature in the past, Buchanan reminded us that the purpose of an organization is not to make a profit. Profit is the means that allow the organization to fulfill its purpose. The purpose of an organization is to provide goods and services to citizens. We, as designers, are at the heart of what makes an organization valuable. He concluded his talk by saying that design is a very humble profession, and suggest that as designers, we should let go of trying to be the star, but instead, the facilitator of the world around us.

Relating back to my own personal reservations about starting companies, calling myself an entrepreneur, and the general hype in the start-up world; Buchanan’s perspective on design continues to give me a strong ground to plant my feet on when I think about how this is not as much about “starting a company”, as it is about designing at the 4th degree – the environment and the organization, in which will hold and deliver the products and service I’m designing, in order to create the impact I want to make. As AC4D aims to turn students into founders and projects into companies, there are different tactical skills required for design (ex. making) and business (ex. marketing). However, I think it’s helpful for us to remember that it’s a similar creation process: how do we design at an organization/environment level to create an impact? what activities and interactions need to happen, collectively, to achieve the original vision?

2. Personal step forward in public speaking

I had 10 minutes for my talk. As I was preparing, looking for photos, and trying to put together powerpoint slides, it just didn’t feel right. It felt like I was forcing the limited amount of photos I have on my computer to tell a very powerful and emotional story. So in the end, I decided to go with one slide. It had one photo on it: the photo from Church under the Bridge.

I explained Church under the Bridge to the rest of the conference by saying that was where everything started, and is what keeps us grounded in everything that we do. So I wanted that to set the context of my talk. From there, I shared the leap of thinking and the journey of going from a homelessness project to an education startup. Finally, I concluded by stating that at HourSchool, we measure our success by the number of people we are able to turn from a student to a teacher. Overall, I think the talk was well received. It was short and not in-depth. But I didn’t think it was meant to be.

Personally, this is a huge step forward for me. For those that started ac4d with me last year could attest that I hated speaking in public, I was bad at it, and I would do anything to get out of it. But here I am, a year later, signing up to speak in front of over 300 people. I can pinpoint a very specific moment of this turning point. It was when I had to go present to the staff at ARCH with Ryan and Kat because Alex couldn’t make it. After that, I wrote about how rewarding it was, and how it was different – because it mattered. Since then, I have been willing, and wanting, to talk in front of crowds, because the story matters. And I want as many people to hear it as possible.

One of these nights I was working late at Thinktiv and overheard some conversations from Jon’s class. He said something along the lines of needing to get used to presenting our work and being confident in what we’re able to do. I share many of the same sentiments with the other students – it’s intimidating, it’s scary, it’s hard, to put yourselves out there, to be judged, criticized, and compared. I understand. But next time when you’re unsure of yourselves, just remember that this isn’t about us. Your stories need to be told, your work needs to be presented. Because it matters.

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