When tools get in the way

previously wrote about the importance of learning to use tools to communicate our ideas. Inability to use a piece of software shouldn’t be the limiting factor in pursuing a good idea.

In the intervening weeks, I’ve thrown myself into experimenting with technology that helps me be productive and communicate ideas.

I’ve spent more hours than I can count poking around Illustrator and Photoshop to replicate images of fruit and iPhone apps and storyboards.

I’ve recorded videos using iMovie, drafted numerous documents and presentations using Pages and Keynote, and created digital sketches using my Adonit Jot and the Paper app on my iPad. I’ve captured and converted hours of video and audio footage from research projects. I’ve implemented the Action Method system across all my electronic devices to track my ever-expanding task list. I’ve Skyped in a classmate from 2,000 miles away to participate in class even when he couldn’t be physically present.

I’ve figured out an entirely new paperless workflow using iAnnotate to read and take notes on the articles, chapters, and white papers for classes.

I’ve enjoyed experimenting with a lot of technological tools–familiar and new–to help me get through this quarter.

But this week, as my classmates and I sketched people and digital interfaces and gave another round of presentations, I’ve been embracing analog methods again. The tactile stuff of markers and dry-erase boards and paper and sticky notes reminded me of something important:

Sometimes the tools just get in the way.

Because the idea needs to come first. Technology can support articulating an idea and bringing it to fruition. Hardware and software can be great ways to produce artifacts. But they can also serve as a serious distraction and focus our attention on the wrong things.

When I’m working on a project in Photoshop, it’s easy to zoom in on one portion of the screen and literally move pixels around. I can refine the details for hours, and completely forget what idea or value I’m trying to communicate more broadly.

So my challenge to myself this week has been to put pen to paper and sketch through concepts before I start digitizing them. I can draw something out in a minute or less and iterate several versions in roughly the same amount of time it takes to start up my computer and open Illustrator or Keynote.

Better yet, I think the physical interaction with an idea makes me more likely to refine and improve it. And it’s also way more satisfying to crumple up a piece of paper and thro it across the room than dragging a file to the trash.

The Value of Ethnography

For the past couple weeks, we’ve been studying the place of research and ethnography in the design process. After engaging a variety of readings, I’ve drawn from a framework  by Liz Sanders and applied a few of the other readings against it to articulate why I think designers should drive for design that invites users to be co-creators without the designer becoming fully embedded in the user’s context.

Here are a few quotes from Sanders that resonate with how I understand the changing role of design:

I think designers must become facilitators in co-creative acts to bring value to complex systems and address social problems.

(Yes, that’s a mouthful! Another way to think of it is this: As designers tackle increasingly complex social problems, co-creation is essential. Ethnography and other design research tools become keys to understanding and identifying the problem. Furthermore, they welcome people to participate in generating a solution they have ownership in.)

So, the next challenge was how to visualize this concept. I started thinking about the relationship between a) involving users in the design process and b) the value from the resulting product or service. From there, I plotted some case studies from other readings against the diagram.

Ethnographic design research in relation to value.

Inventive* – the desire to invent for invention’s sake.
A) Example: Norman writes about revolutionary innovations that happen outside the design research process. Inventors create because they are inventors. The outcomes of their work may transform society–or fail miserably. An example of a product with inventive value is the Apple Newton.

Monetary – the desire to make money in new, more efficient, or more sustainable ways.
B) Example: Norman says design research is most helpful for incremental innovation. Working with users to iterate slowly improves the product or service to better meet people’s needs–and generates more success or money. Software updates are a prime example of working with users to make small improvements and keep or gain customers.

Use/Experience – the desire to transform consumers into users, so the products/services better meet their wants and needs.
C) Example: Le Dantec talks about a project that engaged two publics, homeless people and case workers, in co-creating a Communication Resource Manager tool with the design team. Through this process, the team developed a service that met needs of the two publics and offered significantly more value than would have come from a less collaborative process.

Social – the aspiration for longer term, humanistic, more sustainable ways of living.
D) Example: Pilloton has immersed herself in Bertie County and advocates for living and designing from within a community in order to develop empathy and understand the complex social systems that play into a problem. This means the designer and community can co-create to address systemic social issues like education, poverty, prejudice, etc.

* Inventive value is my addition, drawing from my reading of Norman.

The gray shaded section represents the area where I think designers should play.

I believe ethnography and co-creation are essential to the design process, especially as designers tackle more complex social problems. However, I believe there’s a threshold for co-creation. If a designer wants to actually produce a product or service, unlimited participatory design can become unwieldy. Furthermore, while I think designing from within a context can be incredibly valuable, at a certain point, I think the designer can develop “expert bias.” Empathy is important for co-creation, but the designer needs to have enough distance to see the workarounds and broken systems that ethnographic research reveals.

Ultimately, I think designers need to work on systemic problems and co-create to offer use/experience and social value.

What Do You Desire?

In Lauren’s class a week ago, we were talking about why research methods matter for the design process. One important reason comes down to mental models–or how a person imagines something works.

Just the other day, I experienced the challenge of mental models firsthand. I was working on a project in Photoshop after spending a significant amount of time working in Illustrator the previous week. The two applications look really similar, but when I started trying to manipulate shapes and use some of the tools I’d come to rely on in Illustrator, I kept getting error dialogue boxes.

I’m sure I hit the enter key harder than necessary in my effort to get rid of the error message. And I had a few choice thoughts for Adobe.

My experience and frustration happened because they way I thought something should work differed from the way it actually functioned.

This reminds me of a concept called the desire path. I’m sure most people have seen a desire path before–and have probably even contributed to making one. This kind of trail happens when people deviate from the intended path, usually for the sake of a shortcut. Like this.

Desire paths are a physical examples of workarounds. They visibly reveal what happens when the way something is designed and made manifest differs from what people expect or want.

And that’s part of the value of design research. Through observing people’s actions, we start to see behavioral trends. We notice patterns of how people naturally function, what they expect, where they get stuck, and where they carve out other routes.

So I’m starting to pay more attention to desire paths around me. It happens when I’m out for a run and see a shortcut tamped down by people before me, as well as at a coffee shop watching the barista move from the register to the espresso machine. By noticing, hopefully I’ll be better equipped to design products or services that more closely match the user’s mental models.

(Image: Kake Pugh)

Learning about Learning about Learning: Debriefing a Contextual Inquiry

In the past week, our Methods class has been digging into a research process called Contextual Inquiry (CI). By taking place in the environment being studied, this process allows the researcher and participant to partner together. The researcher observes work in action and can talk with the participant directly to make sure the researcher’s perceptions and interpretations of what’s happening are accurate.

Eli and I partnered up to look at how digital technology is used in Special Education classes. We were particularly interested in seeing ways technology helps students with physical or learning disabilities learn, participate in class, and socialize.

Starting late last week, we worked our networks and called and emailed area schools to find teachers willing to let us into their classrooms. By Wednesday morning, we were loading up our bags with flip cams, notebooks, pens, cameras, and tripods and on our way to two schools bustling with teachers, aides, and students.

Here are a few of our initial impressions:

  1. Doing Contextual Inquiry quickly exposes a researcher’s assumptions. Eli and I didn’t know what to expect before we walked in, but we both had mental models of how classrooms operate that were based on our own K-12 educational experiences. While some things were similar, like using calculators and a couple classroom computers. Others have evolved, like using digital projectors and document cameras. And still others were completely new to us, like learning how iPads and iPhones are used to track student progress and seeing how switches are used to enable students to interact with teachers and their environment.
  2. People seek to be understood and are very willing to share. Whether we were talking to teachers, aides, or students, they were excited to show us what they were doing. One student Eli met showed her how he was using his calculator and then revealed a detailed drawing he had been working on because he loves to sketch. A teacher we met exuded passion and practically bounced around the room from a computer to an iPad to another electronic device, eager to show us how each worked and why they mattered for students.
  3. The setting matters a lot for a Contextual Inquiry. And it kind of doesn’t. Since the goal of this kind of research is not only observation but also asking questions and interacting with participants, a flexible environment is really valuable. In one of the schools, it wasn’t appropriate for us to interrupt the teacher while she was lecturing, so we had to wait for a 15-minute window when students were working in groups. However, we still gathered a bunch of rich data to evaluate and synthesize in the coming weeks.

We learned a ton more about how technology is used in Special Education and were incredibly energized and exhausted by the experience. On a personal note, Eli and I were a little surprised by how tiring the process was. Being hyper-aware of what’s happening around us, tending to technology, keeping track of time, trying to keep the conversations relatively focused on our research topics, and empathizing with the participants takes a lot of work!

In addition to being prepared for the emotional investment of Contextual Inquiry, Eli and I talked about doing more advance preparation. We spent a lot of time formulating our focus and some discussion questions, but we would have liked to do more screening or talking with teachers in advance so they understood our objectives. Plus, we could have made more effort to get consent forms in advance of the class. Finally, we’d set up a better researcher’s toolkit with an audio recorder for each of us, another video camera, and a discreet point and shoot camera.

That said, I’m excited to start unpacking the data with Eli. And I can’t wait to use the Contextual Inquiry method for future projects.

What I Learned From a Banana…

This is a banana:


It was the outcome of my first foray into Adobe Illustrator CS6. The still image likely betrays the angst and frustration that went into figuring out how to form a pretty basic shape. Managing the pen tool to create curves. Figuring out how to manipulate anchor points and handles. Learning a few basic keyboard shortcuts so I didn’t have to keep clicking back and forth between the vector image and the application’s panels and palettes. Cursing at my trackpad because I didn’t think to bring my mouse to class.

The next day, I tried again, this time with the help of a mouse, an external monitor, and a bit more confidence than in my first exploration.

Starting from scratch was much easier, and I discovered little tricks (through lots of Google searches) that led to this version:

banana 2

Throughout the rest of the week, Adobe has made me feel like I’m in 8th grade again, full of drama and angst. My classmates and I have celebrated our accomplishments and discoveries, only to groan when we hit the next roadblock approximately four clicks later and resort to a series of Command-Z keystrokes.

Today, though, as I closed out an Illustrator file filled with a cluster of grapes, I realized I’ve only been working in Illustrator for a week. I’m surprised how quickly I’ve been able to move from complete novice to feeling comfortable creating objects in Illustrator.

And my surprise isn’t only about semi-successfully hacking my way through a complicated software program.

Matt and Pat, the instructors for our Studio class who are putting us through this emotional bootcamp, explained that these projects aren’t about fruit in vector format. They’re not about learning to use clipping masks or gradient meshes. They’re not even about Adobe Illustrator, really. Instead, Matt and Pat are challenging us with tools that will enable us to communicate and document ideas.

Jon Kolko’s words struck me in class the other day. When we’re creating a product or service–or even a presentation, there are lots of reasons not to do something. But it shouldn’t be because we can’t use the tools to pull off what we envision.

I’m definitely trying to embrace the messy, inefficient discovery process. Through the challenges, our class has started to bond and collaborate more deeply, and we’re discovering how scrappy and resourceful we can be–even working on tight schedules with minimal prior knowledge.

And I learned all of this thanks to a silly little banana.

Position Diagram #1- On Identity, Consumption, and Context

After reading perspectives on the role of design in society by Vitta, Buchanan, Papanek, Bernays, and Chochinov, we were challenged to visualize two ways of positioning design and argue which one is best.
Below, you will see my synthesis of concepts from Bernays which have led to mass consumption bemoaned by Vitta. From there, I start to lay out my own perspective on where I think design needs to go, which is informed by points raised by Vitta, Papanek, Buchanan, and Chochinov, as well as my own experiences and reflections (through a Western, first-world lens).

All design, to some extent, is about changing the public’s attitude about a particular idea, product, or service. In Manipulating Public Opinion: The Why and The How, Bernays offers a systematic way to change the public mind. This process starts with framing the problem, which is a foundational part of the design process. From there, designers identify the desired outcome and create a product.

Bernays’ next step is to design a spectacle to focus the market’s attention on influencers showcasing the product. Bernays uses the language of “changing cliches,” which is one way of transforming the social meaning or significance around an idea or product.

The next step to influencing public opinion, in Bernays’ model, is to broadcast the spectacle widely through mass media channels to influence the general public’s opinion. These messages may tell about the form and function of an object, but they also communicate the product’s value. The thing is no longer a thing; it carries a promise.

Desiring to emulate influencers and tastemakers, public opinion shifts. People want the social significance represented by the product, which drives consumption and in turn, continues to shape public opinion.

Shifting toThe Meaning of Design, Vitta argues that we consume products not for their functionality, but for their social value. Our need for social relationships with one another drives us to work, which in turn, leads to the consumption of goods. With so many things available, the products themselves become communicative objects endowed with deep cultural significance.

When people consume these products–when they “try them on”–their acts of consumption themselves become signs to everyone else. The products communicate a person’s values and identity. Our identity becomes wrapped up in the stuff we clothe ourselves in, and that’s how others identify and interpret us as well.


So what’s my position on design at this moment?

I’m a realist. I know mass production will continue to exist. And as long as there’s mass production, companies will continue to endow products with social significance because differentiating one object from another through form and function has limits.

However, I think designers need to recognize their exaggerated influence over the people who use what they design–whether products or systems. I embrace what Chochinov, Papanek, and Buchanan say when they call on designers to shift to systematic, contextual thinking. Rather than engaging users for the sake of consumption and manipulating public opinion, I would like to see designers consider their own place within a larger context that includes people, products, systems, and the environment.

I also want to see designers direct their attention to resolving resolving real, complex problems that don’t have straightforward answers. Problems that are, in the words of Buchanan, “indeterminate,” where the reward of a new product or service isn’t changed public opinion or consumption, but an improved life for users and the systems they participate in.

– –
Bethany Stolle

Design Boot Camp: A Reflection

Last Thursday and Friday, our class participated in a design boot camp. The two days provided a quick way to experience the design process from start to finish. We focused on this year’s theme of education and explored three phases–Ethnography, Synthesis, Prototype–which we’ll drill into with much more depth as the year progresses.

Chuck, Eli, and I teamed up to research college students who work while going to school. We had about 90 minutes to conduct interviews and gather as much data as we could during the ethnography phase. The three of us went to the University of Texas and Austin Community College campuses to talk with students. In total, I think we interviewed about 14 people. Not statistically significant by any means. On top of that, our results were probably more skewed because the semester hadn’t started yet. We came back with lots of notes and photos but weren’t very confident we’d have much to go on.

However, as we processed our research and started to synthesize it, we discovered some surprising insights we didn’t notice in the moment as we were speaking with students. (And we also developed a whole new list of questions we wished we could have explored!)

Ultimately, the storyboards and sketches we prototyped by the end of boot camp on Friday wasn’t anything we could have anticipated on Thursday morning. I’m not saying it’s an idea we’d actually be able to produce and sell–or that there weren’t other ideas we toyed with–but the process did help us identify some new insights and opportunities.

And more importantly, the boot camp reminded me that it doesn’t really matter where you start. The important thing is to start. Somewhere. And to be open to where the messy, iterative process will lead.

Ready, set, draw

  1. Document everything.
  2. Design publicly.

Jon lifted up these two values during AC4D orientation yesterday. He was talking about how ideas are fleeting, but if we want to actually solve wicked problems, we need to make stuff. And in order to create something, it must be written down. Documented. Artifacts–which can take the form of sketches, notes, prototypes, models, videos, photos, and more–become points for communication and clarification. They externalize ideas and enable collaboration.

At one point, Jon said, “Have an idea? Make it. Show it. Create it. Draw it.”

And if I’m honest, that’s kind of scary. I’m no stranger to sketching on a dry erase board as I process an idea, but my scribbles usually consist of boxes and arrows. The thought of drawing people (especially while standing in front of other people!), intimidates me.

So after class wrapped up for the day, a small group started talking about our fear of stick figures. Jon gathered us at the dry erase board and gave us some tips for drawing people and hands, since we’ll be doing that a lot in the months ahead. And then an assignment: Draw hands and people. An hour a day. And see how much easier it gets over time. Here’s a snapshot from last night’s efforts:

Even with only a couple hours under my belt, I’m already feeling more confident. At the moment, I’m much better at hands than people (and at palms than knuckles), but I’m excited to keep practicing and discover how this skill will enable me to communicate ideas more effectively.