The Practical Maverick: A Design Research Coaster

I do not recommend riding the rollercoaster in the diagram below.  Instead, view the coaster in terms of our latest assignment for our AC4D Theory class. We were assigned to create a 2×2 axis which represents eight different design professionals point of view on the topic of design research.

I chose to rank and group these professionals on two different axis:

  1. Vertical Axis: Is the professionals work practical; in other words, can their work be put to use in the field, or is it more dense, theory-based, or philosophical (impractical).
  2. Horizontal Axis: Is the professionals’ work better described as “designing for” users or “designing with” users .

Each researcher is an individual cart on the coaster, listed by their last name. Going left to right:

  • Don Norman’s cart is alone, as his perspective is that of a provocateur. Norman thinks inventors should invent, designers should stay out of it, only making tweaks to the invented thing to make it user-friendly. He’s also self-doubting of his claim, leading to great discussion, but not much of practically in the field.
  • Gaver is different- I view him as the design-artist. He designs with potential users, but in his words, his method of involving cultural probes are geared toward designing for pleasure, not utility. I look forward to trying some of Gaver’s methods, but for this design student, less practical for social entrepreneurship work.

Finally, we come to the long connected cart of six different design professionals that are designing with and designing for, practical use. They are connected because they build on each other’s work, even though chronologically I have taken some liberty.

  • Dourish is the theorizing academic. His writing of “context” as an action, and of the value of “ordinariness” speaks his strong influence of each designer above him. Yet, as a dense academic, his work is not immediately applicable in the field. As we cross the threshold into practicality, I’ve placed Fulton-Suri and Forlizzi together; they share a penchant for user-centeredness and prototyping that can be practical, but when precisely these methods should be used are a bit unclear. Le Dantec is the applicable design academic, who has used the methods of the professionals around him to research the world of homelessness, with a rare combination of rigor, from both design research and traditional academic research methods.
  • And finally, Jon Kolko, the founder of AC4D in the lead cart. Hold your thoughts of unnecessary flattery, Kolko does not teach this class. Part of Kolko’s position here may be to the order in which we read these pieces- his was last. But last for a reason; Kolko synthesizes the work of those connected to him, and writes with a clarity that is cross-disciplined. He takes the theories of those below him, cuts the fat off the theory, and pulls the preceding carts closer intoo practical use.

Regardless of position, the six connected rollercoaster researchers who design with users (and are practical in the field) are those that will most guide my work moving forward in AC4D.



Week 3 Reflection: So Damn Lucky

I’m lucky. Fortunate. Privileged, also, but I’ll get to that in a future post.

I’m lucky to be a student at 34 years of age and feel as my best future work is ahead of me. That’s in spite of the ups and downs of AC4D’s intensive program, and the nature of working in a new, small team. This past week was challenging in regards to teamwork. I had difficulty communicating with my teammates on a few occasions, as we differed on how to set an agenda, decide how things should get done, and even how much time per day we should be available on Slack, the online chat/email replacement that serves as our main communication method.

When teammates get frustrated with another, and emotions rise, I’ve learned it’s better to ride the waves of emotion rather than jump off the boat, or, spontaneously leave the area to breathe. It’s not comfortable. None of us prefer confrontation. No one wants to hear yelling or see tears, or push someone to that point. But we learned to confront our communication challenges directly (and sometimes the next day) so that problems don’t fester and become worse.

Having a tough conversation had the best result I could have hoped for. There’s always going to be disagreements about how work should be done. Yet, when you can have a direct conversation about what’s working and what’s not for you personally, and leave others that space as well, you grow together as humans. I have a greater appreciation now for Susi and Kelsey as people, (and as teammates) than ever before.

I also reminded myself to look up and appreciate the journey. Whenever the to-do list becomes long, I need to remind myself I live in a free society, I’m a full-time student for the first time in 13 years. I don’t own a home, but I live in a great one. I have a wonderful yard, a lazy cocker spaniel to pet, and friends and family that support me. So far I’ve put myself in a position to make AC4D’s process stick, and put to hard-earned lessons to use. I’m trusting the process, and appreciating how lucky I am.



Ancient Human Needs: Five Thinkers on Design

In the sixty-two years between 1928 and 1990, there was no shortage of public intellectuals who argued about what humans should achieve or how we should reach those ends. Our first assignment for Design, Society, and the Public Sector involved reading works by five different figures, all influential in either public relations, education, or design.

The image below describes the usefulness of these author’s theses to myself, a novice designer operating in a social-impact space in 2018. One of the difficulties in our assignment was deciding the criteria by which we would judge “importance” of each author’s work. I decided to change “importance” to “useful,” in part because I want these works to inspire my own design philosophy, and in part because “more useful” to me means “more actionable.”

Let us start from the least useful. Edward Bernays was a grandson of Sigmund Freud and is credited with developing public relations, propaganda, and the advertising industry in America. Yet just because we’ve been living in a world Bernays helped shape does not mean his theory is useful in 2018.

Maurizio Vitta seeks to form a theory of design, and comments effectively on how mass production weakens the designer and the objects created by designers. But Vitta’s dense theory ends up only commenting, instead of recommending how designers can adjust their practice for better ends.

John Dewey was a master educator who laid the groundwork for alternative or experiential learning throughout the early 21st century. His thesis speaks loudly to those who wish to create transformative experiences for students. I see part of AC4D’s curriculum and practice within Dewey’s ideas. His thesis is important, useful, yet specific to education.

Our final two thinkers, Neil Postman and Victor Papanek, speak to designing, inventing, and creating for deep, ancient, human needs. They are less concerned with the new, the flashy, the gadget or information delivery device, and instead write to the weaknesses, stigmas, and intellectual conformity that leads many designers to solve for false problems. Instead, they argue, we must form a clearer concept of ourselves, and design for the needs of the Earth and humanity itself. These thinkers both form the basis of a personal design thesis, and give me inspiration to act for the greater good.

Influential Thinkers Rated by Usefulness to an Ethically-Minded Designer

We are Feral Design Researchers

There’s a problem with unneutered pets. Cats and dogs who aren’t sterilized are prone to jumping on the next attractive thing that comes their way. Our first team assignment for the One Year Course at Austin Center for Design made us feel like a trio of feral creatures.

In the course of 48 hours, Kelsey, Susi, and myself were tasked with securing design research work with a local business or organization. Our instructors required the business to be local, have between 2 to 20 locations, employ more than 10 people, and have a humanitarian purpose. Finally, we must be paid for our services.

The last two days involved us searching our contacts, doing Google Maps searches, listing all NPO (non-profit organizations) we know, and setting up meetings to present a comprehensive design research opportunity. As defined by our instructors, Jon Kolko and Matt Franks, design research is about learning from people in the context of their lives. In other words, design research focuses on actual people’s behavior, rather than opinions. This is not pulling people into a conference room to ask them about how their organization can be more profitable, nor is it organizing a focus group to ask if Smirnoff Ice Guava sounds appealing.  

Our team developed an intriguing lead on choosing a humanitarian focused business, albeit one that has a more canine and cat focus. Seventeen hours after class ended, we met with an Austin-based vet care NPO (who we’re currently calling Austin Affordable Vet) whose mission is to “…make high quality spray/neuter services and veterinary care affordable and accessible to all pet owners.” Our meeting did not end with a signed research agreement, but the organization communicated interest, and requested further information on our design strategy approach. We are currently awaiting an answer to our offer.

Visiting the Austin-based vet care center
Visiting the Austin Affordable Vet.

While the vet care business fit the requirements of the assignment, it is the organization’s own focus on design through their new educational and training program that has us enthusiastic about a potential partnership. This training program, described by them as a “…training program that offers seminars, consulting, resources, and support to animal welfare professionals,” has a user-centered approach, which was confirmed to us by their V.P. of Training & Organizational Development. Based on their approach with their training program, our team decided there was enough potential interest to form a design research plan, and form a focus statement:  

We are conducting research into how this local vet care business promotes affordable and accessible vet care through relationships with other animal welfare organizations..

The research plan (attached below) lays out an initial approach to achieve the following goals over the next 16 weeks:

  1. To build empathy with our target audience, so we can better understand what it’s like to develop relationships with other animal welfare organizations.
  2. To identify the way their employees and volunteers think and feel about their operations, particularly focused on their new training program.
  3. To observe current processes and strategies used by participants to engage with other organizations.

    One of the local pups at the Austin Affordable Vet.
    One of the local pups at the Austin Affordable Vet.

The process of forming a design research plan prior to having conducted design research previously was demanding. Yet, based on what we’ve learned, Kelsey, Susi, and myself look forward to making the human connections that define contextual inquiry and participatory design. The challenge is to convince a growing organization that we are worth a shot, and can produce insights or results that can result in a actionable result for this local vet care nonprofit. See our research plan below:

Austin Affordable Vet_ Research Plan