Are we making the world a better place?

As I started thinking about Ethics class and this particular assignment, a lot of questions went through my mind and the process got a little bit like a labyrinth process. After doing my facilitation in class I ended up with a lot unanswered questions about all the readings like, How power works? Is everything done for the good or bad of customers? Are the users the losers? Are this big companies designing our lives? Is it unethical? Are they manipulating the customer into doing things they don’t want? Do algorithms define us? Are all these questions a framework? … I was mind browned away by all of these questions. So, I decided to zoom out and look at a bigger question:

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To have some sensemaking of the content in the readings I decided to do construct their different perspectives in two axis. And it all came to this:



By doing that I divided the concepts that prioritized more the business outcome and not so much the users. I found that there is a gap when having products and services that are human-centered and prioritize the user’s needs and wants.

To fix this, we could take the power-privilege diagram, where designers are in the top with the power (Figure 1). Why don’t we change the word power to businesses and vulnerability to users and bring the designers to the middle and move the balance where the users are in the power space and the businesses in the receiving end (Figure 2).

By doing these changes we could:

  • Balance the user’s needs with the business needs.
  • Design and the users experience will no longer be compromised.
  • The desire to generate commerce will lower and they will be able to main goal and to serve the user.

The challenges of doing this would be:

  • To be able to accomplish the business needs.
  • We have to be careful with regulations that already exist.
  • The ecosystem is built one way that influences design.
  • Benefit the businesses because at the end, they pay
  • Want things to change



(Figure 1)


(Figure 2)

After all of this questioning and thinking I ended up with a bigger question and that is what I will leave you to think about.


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Let’s play 20 questions!

Last week it was my turn to facilitate a 30-minute activity, and how Edward de Bono would say “Humor and creativity can change that road we always take and do some lateral thinking”, so, by putting myself in a green hat mood I did a small game to get the creativity up and coming. I connected the readings about the digital addiction by Jan Leslie and why do we have metrics? by Joe Edelman.



First of all, I started by setting the stage, in order to do that I wanted all of the members of my team to be in the same channel, so, I wrote down on a big board the goal, focus and take away this activity should provide when completed. The activity started right after setting the stage and then we had a discussion of how they felt in this activity and what questions they had lingering after doing the game.


The main goal of this exercise would be to understand how the metrics as simple maximizers1 are forming the data that media has defined as “who we are“ according to the reading of Joe Edelman. Also, I wanted to make an emphasis in the reading of Jan Leslie to build empathy with the feeling of an operant conditioning chamber2, so, in less words build empathy with the rat that had been inside that box, my team being the rat in this case. The areas where I wanted to focus were the metrics and the Skinner Box, specifically on rewards and hot triggers.

The take away I wanted my team to leave with after this exercise. Firstly, I wanted them to see the algorithms with a different lens (a green hat lens) of how by describing people with algorithms of behavior (as media does sometimes) they are missing out the values, goals and reasons for them to be who they are. Secondly, to incorporate some hot triggers to have more motivation on the activity, I gave them a Halloween candy for each time they had a right answer as a reward, for a wrong answer there was no reward and with no participation, you had no candy at all. The rewards would hopefully make the team feel good and therefore feel more motivated in participating (as the rat did every time he pressed the lever and a reward came along).


Let’s play 20 questions!

The game started, like any game, by explaining the rules of the game. Behind the piece of paper with the exclamation mark there was one person that I choose, no one knew who it was except for me. They, as a team, had to ask me no more than 20 yes/no questions to guess correctly (the questions being the simple maximizers1). However, I did not tell them where would be rewards when having a correct answer, I wanted to leave that as a surprise.


The team started by asking:

  • Are you a living thing? Yes (reward with candy)
  • Are you a celebrity? Yes (reward with candy)
  • Are you into politics? No (no reward)
  • Are you a singer? Yes (reward with candy)
  • Are you a woman? Yes (reward with candy)
  • Are you an actress? Yes (reward with candy)
  • Are you an African American? (reward with candy)
  • Are you and oldie? No (no reward)
  • Are you a comedian? Yes (reward with candy)
  • And with some help they found the celebrity I had chosen…


It’s Lizzo, who does not like her, right?

After showing her picture, I wrote down the word “Algorithms” all the things they asked for where similar as how social media thinks of us, by knowing those kinds of things they can know which kinds of ads, friends in common, likes and dislikes we have. But as Joe Edelman said in his writing, they are missing the greatest part of al, the reason why we do those things. For example, Lizzo started singing because she wanted to make his father proud after he passed away, or that she appreciates her body and challenges other women to see their body as what it is and not go with what fashion says it’s correct. So those are the main values and reasons she has behind doing what she does.

So, some questions came up doing this activity, what are they missing? What are her real values? Do algorithms define you? What it means to understand someone as a person? When you describe a friend, what do you think about her/him?, do you describe your friend as that blue robot in the picture above or do we describe them with values and things that are important to you about them.

After doing the game we had some sort of discussion about how they felt about this activity and what main take away they had after the questions. How did the candy reward felt? How did the game felt? Overall they felt the way I intended to and I was happy that the discussion went well and we all had a good talk about the activity.


Reflection and self-reflection

  • As a team reflection we had some discussion about how algorithms are good for some people and bad for other, like for example, for me, those alcogithms don’t define me, I don’t like being pushed to buy things that media knows I like, but I obviously can’t afford. Some other teammates had the opposite reaction. At the end ethics is a personal way of thinking and there are no right or wrong answers. The team left a feedback that maybe having more time to debrief after the activity would have been helpful, which I agree.
  • As a reflection with faculty they said that I lacked of a ultimate take away as designers, what can we do as designers? Ending up with a how might we…  And also that the candy reward would have been better as an “aha moment” of surprise at the end of the activity, which I agree.
  • As a self-reflection I would like to say to myself from the future, to do the activity with real people to timebox the actual time that is takes to complete the activity. I had 30-minutes and I thought that the activity would take 50% of the time but it actually lasted for about eight minutes, which thankfully I had a very participatory team and could do great discussion. But maybe for the next facilitation, have another activity prepared just in case I have some spare time.


If you have additional thoughts on how I could build or improve on the activities listed above – please reach out to me!



1 Simple maximizers are metrics that work as equations that give each option a number. The metric then evaluates potential future states of the world. And it always picks the option that leads to the world with the highest score.

2 Operant conditioning chambers is a laboratory apparatus used to study animal behavior. The operant conditioning chamber was created by B. F. Skinner while he was a graduate student at Harvard University. It permits experimenters to study behavior conditioning (training) by teaching a subject animal to perform certain actions (like pressing a lever) in response to specific stimuli, such as a light or sound signal. When the subject correctly performs the behavior, the chamber mechanism delivers food or another reward. In some cases, the mechanism delivers a punishment for incorrect or missing responses.

Low-income constraints parents encounter when having more responsibilities: Part one

For the next 8 weeks Dan and I will work together with JUST to learn more about financial inclusion and how that affects their day to day lives and to help JUST have a better understanding of financial decision making when it comes to family responsibility. We have found interesting information and we are only getting started.


What is JUST?

Steve Wanta is the CEO and Co-founder of JUST whose mission is to invest in low-income, female entrepreneurs to create more resilient communities in America and therefore to create a more just world where people have the chance to live with less stress and more joy. To do this JUST wants to change the narrative around the potential of low-income communities to be their own change agents. JUST provides loans exclusively based on trust to female, Spanish-speaking entrepreneurs.

JUST partnered with AC4D to find other communities they can serve and to understand how other communities behave when it comes to financial inclusion.


Our objective

Our main interest was to learn and understand how low-income constraints affect parents with the added responsibility of having a family. We have found that having low-income is set by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and is dependent on region. Qualifying for low income households in Austin is $57,689 a year, or $4,807 a month. 

Providing for a child in addition to being on the lower end of the earning spectrum is a challenge that we are interested in exploring further. The objectives of this research are:

  • To identify and understand the circumstances that parents who are low-income experience life on a day to day basis around Austin, Texas.
  • To identify and understand the emotional journey of parents who identify as low-income.
  • To identify and understand motivations for spending, budgeting, and saving around having a family.
  • Understand how a low-income family’s access to network services reflects their ability to operate as a family.


Our focus

The focus of our research is to better understand the circumstances parents with a child (or children) who are low income face in present day Austin, Texas. To do so we will discuss the intricacies of their motivations, struggles and community. We hope to explore life as a parent on a stringent income and how they go about navigating their day to day lives.


Our Methodology

For our methodology, we will be talking to each participant for about 45 – 120 minutes. Sessions should be conducted with relevance to the participant. By these interviews we would like to understand their financial attitudes and behaviors, specifically on how living with low-income adds more responsibility when having a kid (children). For parents and family members we hope to interview subjects in their home setting or a location where they feel comfortable. While interviewing with administrators or program persons we will interview in their place of work where they deal with the families they serve.

Firstly, we will start by having a small talk about them, then asking some questions to understand where they are at in financially and their feelings around it Secondly, we will do some activities that involve them understanding where their money goes and helping them visualize their responsibilities. This will help us to understand how they feel about these financial constraints and what things they are lacking in order to feel fulfilled in life.


We need your help

We need help connecting with parent participants. If you or someone you know may be interested in chatting with us, please reach out to to get in touch. Your perspective is incredibly valuable and will ultimately help in designing solutions for this unique group of people.

As students working with a nonprofit, we appreciate your willingness to help both us and our community.


Austin Center for Design

Austin Center for Design (AC4D) is an educational program uniquely focused on applying design principles to address social and humanitarian problems. Explore more of our philosophy and approach.

Ana Toca and Dan O’Halloran
AC4D Class of 2020

Where it all begins…

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Thinking about how to explain the readings we had for this assignment 4 “How designers think”, a lot of ideas came to my mind, but one really stuck me. I am 27 years old and I had never heard the words “Wicked problems”, “Well-structured problems” and “Ill-structured times”. Obviously, I knew they existed but never named them this way. Naming these big problems helps understanding them better. When the reading of Chris Pacione – Design Literate talked about how we should teach design as any other subject in school, gave me the idea that I could do and example of what would happen if we teach design in school. Why not teaching design as we are currently teaching math, chemistry, gym, why not design? In my opinion that would be very helpful, because we need more hands to do the work, every minute that passes, we are filled with more and more problems that add up. Why not teach the little ones that even if they want to be astronauts they can help, design thinking is for everyone!

That is why my story is about a design class in school, and how that could benefit us all. Each character is representing one author and talking about the synthesis of the reading. At the end I talk about certain things I like about the readings and how could they work.

Click here to see the story

What makes a meaningful Design Research?

There are many ways of searching and finding a problem, but not all of them have long-term and meaningful solutions. Here, I will attempt to describe some researches and explaining why they are working for certain contexts and how they are not. I made a diagram that explains this in a better more visual way. The horizontal axis is talking about how the research is focusing in working with the participants or working for them, which have can make the research have different results. The vertical axis describes if the research is based on a qualitative or a quantitative result of the investigation.

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I have named each author a different way so that we can all understand a little bit of what are they talking about. Now that you have seen who and why these people inspired me to do this type on diagram. I will start saying that I am going to be talking about the diagram from least important to most important, that is from the bottom right corner to the top right corner.

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Liz Sanders had three different values of co-creation that I thought of them as separate and very different researches, so I will describe them in the order that they have in the diagram, I have them numbered for a better understanding of which is what.

The value number three is the Monetary Value it is mainly fueled by making efficient ways of gaining more money. It only addresses short-term needs and has no depth of emotional bonding with the users/customers, that means that if a new company comes along and sells the user something a little bit better, the user will not hesitate and change companies. The designers roll is to make marketing and creative solutions that bring more profit to the company, not looking at their actual needs. And it is based on a quantitative result, numbers and data are more important than experiences and stories.

We continue with Don Norman or how I address him “but first… technology”, he talks about Technology innovation and that means to have a product that either fails or has a slow acceptance because people are not ready for them. They are the inventors of new and useful products and the needs get discovered afterwards, because technology enables the designers. The role of the designer starts when there is an actual product because as Normal says, we just improve existing products. With quantitative results because it is based in scientific facts and no interest in working with the participants because technology does not bases their facts in actual people or needs and wants.

Liz Sander’s number two comes next, with the Use or experience value that is fueled to transform customers into users, making them have an emotional connection that allows them to trust the brand, having them then buy their product and being the brand’s fruitful followers, resulting with a stable and lovable brand. The role of the designer is to find and design those emotional bonds and to build that trust so it is sort of leaning to a marketing approach. The results are both quantitative and qualitative because they want to get involved in their follower’s needs and wants.

Jon Kolko has too been separated in two completely different ideas that companies cannot seem to understand the differences. Numbering them to understand which one is which.

Marketing Research is the research number two, it is a process that link the users and marketers to identify new problems or opportunities. It is pretty similar to the Value of Use and Experience mentioned before, it is all about finding and exploiting those emotional connections. The designer forms part of a tangible and tactical part of the process. The content is both qualitative and quantitative, but I would lean more in a quantitative approach because it bases more on masses and not on the uniqueness of the participants.

In the quadrant above we have Bill Gaver with his clue interpretations. Cultural probes as they call them, are a collection of evocative tasks for inspirational responses (clues). I would not call this a Research as it is not attempting to find worth solving problems. It is 100% qualitative, as they base their study in stories about participants with no meaning because they don’t even know them. So for me it would be like looking at a random person’s Instagram Feed and coming up with a real (stereotypical) story of who they are. The results (if there are any) are mostly self-centered, because the role of the designer in this case is to interpret the tasks with their own experiences.

Changing to the right-side quadrant we go with Chris LeDantec and his attempt to empower the homeless community. This research consists in a better version of Bill Gaver’s probes and results. It also starts with a camera but ends up with interesting and game changing solutions. The role of the designer is to find making insights, designing solutions and testing them with the actual public bearing in mind that to do that there has to be an involvement of Inclusive design in order to be reaching to the whole community. It is al first working more for the participants as there is only one interview that consists in explaining the pictures taken, but in the second phase of the research they empower and involve the community in the designing and testing of the product.

Moving to Jane Fulton Suri with her Experience prototyping, it consists in enabling the users to gain fist-hand appreciation of a product or service through active engagement. This is helpful if the experience reaches a holistic approach, making the participants “look and feel” the same way they would have done with the actual product or service. Then the role of the designer is crucial, making an integrated and holistic experience rather than an artifact. It is a qualitative result because it is based on real experiences, although they can’t be measured because each person’s experience is unique.

Jodi Forlizzi talks about Product Ecology, it is a theoretical design framework of how products evoke social behavior and describe conditions of change. So basically, how a product functions and what can be better in the way participant behave around it. They have to see the problem and also see what is around the problem to get a better understanding of who are using it and in what context. The role of the designer is about seeking problems and improving existing products. It is a qualitative result because they are trying to understand behavior surrounding a product use in the context where it is usually used.

Jon Kolko’s number one in the diagram would be Design Research. It focuses on the people and the attempts to understand their culture, looking directly at the problem but also around it to have a holistic mindset. Designers have a strategic role, where they are part of participation and discussions, using their ability to think, analyze and produce. It is both qualitative and quantitative but the results are more about content in stories and field patterns.

Last but not least we have Liz Sanders and the Value number one, the Social Value it is fueled by a co-creative, longer-term and humanistic sustainable approach. At the beginning of the research there is no knowledge of what the outcome is going to be by having open ended questions. It is pretty similar to John Kolko´s Design Research. The meaning is in the behavioral conversations with the participants. The designer is included in the whole process of the research. The co-creation with the participants is critical for it to work correctly.

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So to wrap up I would say that in order to have a meaningful Research we should attempt to have a co-creation and collective and people-centered way of working. Understanding our participants and the problems worth solving. And a meaningful Design research would be the same but including the designer in the whole process, as well as having strategic ideas in the synthesis and insight phases.

The ethical way of designing

What do we owe our society? What have we been doing wrong or how can we improve?

By reading some authors that talk about ethics and responsibility, I started to wonder how can we improve in the world of design. These authors talked about different subjects and about different expertise. After reading all of them back and forth I began to have some ideas on how we could use their ideas into design and its ethics.

Firstly, I did a resume of the authors and took the most important thing, their position. Secondly, I thought about a way that position interested me to change the responsibility of ethics in designers, I also made an opinion about them. Lastly, I made a single axis and distributed the authors and their positions from Most important, to less important.

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Maurizio Vitta (The Meaning of Design) Talks about the things/objects we are designing, as more and more objects are created, each one loses its functional identity, becoming communication vehicles. The Form & Function are replaced by social value, we are using them as a way to portray themselves to others. In my opinion he is right, we are becoming mass designers, not focusing on the functionality or the quality, but in the quantity and sales. We are losing focus of why design was invented, to improve our lives, not to become a mass consumption.

John Dewey (The theory of experience) is not talking about design per se, but is talking about something that I think can be translated in a design language. He talks about “spoiled kids” how being the way that they are, they are limited to growth. In my opinion I think of a spoiled kid in creativity. Education now a days is giving much more meaning to the mathematical and logical world that creativity is not being taught, so at an early age, a kid is being limited in their creative mind. So they will always be behind.

Neil Postman (Informing ourselves to death) The title is pretty much what he is trying to say in the chapter I read, He is saying that we have tons of information so we don’t know what to do with it and don’t know how to get rid of it. We don’t even know what is relevant or irrelevant and that is true, I can’t count how many times my mother has sent me fake documents of pictures. We don’t know what is true anymore. But in my opinion if you think about it, now we can’t live without it, we have created a monster and can’t imagine living without it.

Edward Bernays (Manipulating the public opinion) Influences, or “Special Pleaders” as he likes to call them can be found anywhere, he says that anyone can be a influencer, a leader and convince others. He also talks about different methodologies of how to have good propaganda and how can you dramatize to get peoples interest (we are talking about 80´s propaganda) and how can Clichés be used to change peoples. Propaganda is 2D design, and I think if you take advantage of the pros of propaganda you can make big and good things in the world, like for example ending a war or having mass distribution of good ideas. If we use it wrong then that is when we have problems.

And las but not least, Victor Papanek (Design for the real world) He talks about advertising, how we are using it to influence people to buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have and to impress people that don’t care. I think we have a responsibility as designers to create things that bring some solution to the world, thinking before making what consequences may you object have and fix them.


Orientation Recap

In the past few days I have learned a lot about design strategy and the creative mind you need to get this done. The bootcamp was about ¨Food Trucks¨, for starters I don’t know anything about that business, but I was curious to learn how they get things done in that small space. I learned a lot that even if you plan things, like in this case the questions we were going to ask the food truck owners and employees, out there all the planning changes and you have to always think about the main questions and stay in focus. I found it very difficult to make questions about something I didn’t know where I was going, protects I have worked in, you first get the main concern or problem and then you make questions around it to try and answer the problem. But certainly this was interesting.

We had so little time to get every activity done, I sometimes burned by brain and couldn’t work for 5-10 minutes, just looking at the texts and not knowing what I was reading. Obviously I did not feel comfortable because every activity was about getting outside of your comfort zone and play with it. Like for example, talking to people that are working in rush hour, was very difficult for me, I felt like I was in the way and they didn’t want to talk to me about my school project, and I totally understand them. Other things I got to feel where insecurities whether I was going in the right path, but in the other groups sketching presentations I got to see that we all arrived to different concepts and there really is no right or wrong in the process, you just have to get to the end. I felt also very proud of the ideas we had as a group at the end with so little time. I am looking forward to learning this times ten this year.