Building confidence and the evolution of Love Intently — an interview with AC4D alumni Sophie Kwok

In this interview, Sophie Kwok (AC4D 2016) and I discuss her evolution as a designer and founder of a service, Love Intently, that empowers couples to build stronger and deeper relationships by taking the guesswork out of showing you care. Sophie credits the Austin Center for Design community for playing a key role in both her personal and professional growth — specifically by always providing a sounding board for ideas and critique, as well as being a source of unwavering encouragement. She possesses boundless positivity, a desire to nourish community, and a down-to-earthiness, can-do spirit that I admire greatly and know will always contribute to her success.

How did you find out about Austin Center for Design?

Randomly, I had a developer friend come into town, and he was talking to me about UX designers and Interaction designers. He explained to me how needed they were in the industry and the demand for them. The more he talked about what they did, the more I realized, ‘holy crap, that’s exactly what I want to do!’ So I started this rapid Google search and AC4D got on my radar. I was trying to scheme how to check out the school, and then ironically, a Creative Director in my office came by and dropped off AC4D Boot Camp tickets on my desk and was like, ‘Hey, I got some of these, I think you’d enjoy this, you should go!’ So, I went and realized, ‘This is exactly what I want to do!’

Toward the end of undergrad, I heard about IDEO and Frog. I was immediately interested and initially made an internal goal to scheme to get into Frog or IDEO through Interior Design and the spatial interaction piece of things. I knew they were hiring for architects for that, but as soon as I found out about AC4D I knew my ROI was almost 100% from an interior design salary to an interaction design salary, so I made the jump!

Tell me what you majored in during Undergrad and what you were doing before AC4D — and perhaps why it was the right time to make a move.

So I studied Interior Architecture with a minor in Sustainability, so I had exposure to all of these Wicked Problems. Coming from a small town in Houston, I just wasn’t exposed to a lot. I had no idea that two-thirds of the world live off of two dollars or less a day. Or the environmental crisis we were in and the lack of basic necessities so many people suffer from today. So during undergrad, I got exposure to what was going on in the world, and I just knew that was something that I wanted to impact in some capacity, whether it was in my work, or outside of my job. Then after undergrad, I worked at a large firm in Austin, and to be frank, it wasn’t a logical time to make the jump. However, I did anyways because I knew I didn’t want to be an interior designer forever. This was something I knew before I even graduated from undergrad.

Interaction design was something that I already wanted to do without knowing there was a title for it. For me, the fact that I found AC4D and then my Creative Director came by and dropped off tickets to the AC4D boot camp; those were signs that I couldn’t just ignore. After going through the Boot Camp, I knew it was something I had to do, and I would regret not doing. In short, I ran out of excuses not to take the leap. I am still single, young, with no kids, had very low-risk but extremely high ROI.

Tell me about your time at AC4D and your greatest challenge related to the program.

My biggest challenge was learning how to do Ethnography and Synthesis because it was just so different from what I was taught to do and what the Architecture industry allows for. The traditional education system trains you to have the right answers but doesn’t empower you to ask questions. When I think about it, being able to ask the right questions and handle ambiguity is critical in creating impact or entrepreneurship.In Interior Architecture, we never went and talked to people who are actually going to be in the spaces that we design, which is incredibly sad. The larger firms are trying to hire design researchers and become research-based, but the interior designers who are actually designing the spaces rarely have that knowledge.

Ethnography and design research was really difficult for me because it became extremely emotionally taxing. Empathy is something I felt strong in previously. AC4D takes practicing empathy to a whole other level, to the point that I actually take on participants’ emotions in an unhealthy way. I had to learn how to separate that and learn to process those emotions on my own. For me, my research topic in Q2 was extremely close to home — I was pretty much a research participant — because of that, by the end of Q2, I wasn’t even sure what was true of my life or the lives of our participants. I had been living in their world, emotions, and stories — the good and the bad — for so long.

Sophie in the midst of a synthesis process at AC4D.
Sophie in the midst of a synthesis process at AC4D.

As cliche as this may sound, another major challenge I think we all learn to overcome during AC4D is ourselves. You’re forced to ask “why” against every part of yourself and what you believe. None of it is easy, but if you’re willing to do the work, the outcome is invaluable. You learn how you work, your patterns, your triggers, strengths, weaknesses, and how to leverage all of it in the most impactful, productive way.

Can you tell me more about your Q2 research and how it led to your final project?

The initial research topic was mental health, and we were assigned the task to find a population to focus our research on. We chose to focus on second generation Asian Americans with refugee parents. This was a population that people would say, “they don’t need help.” We knew this was a population that didn’t get very much attention and if we didn’t do the research, it was likely no one else out there would. We had this opportunity where we knew we would get phenomenal stories and could generate powerful, meaningful insights. However, we knew there would be difficulty breaking down cultural barriers since these stories aren’t commonly shared.

We approached our research differently by inviting our participants to cook a meal with us that reminded them of home. During that time of making a meal with them, we got to ask them about their lives and relationships. From there, we naturally went into a lot of topics around family dynamics and family conflicts, dug into solutions around conflict resolution but recognized that conflict resolution within families is highly complicated because there are multiple people, personalities, none of which actually choose each other. They are just born into each other’s lives.

We kept running into problems and knew that we needed to pivot. Around Q4, we pivoted to romantic relationships since it was a relationship they chose. We believed it was a relationship we could create a meaningful impact in and it would overflow into their other relationships. We took a step back and started looking at the steps and build up before they ever get into conflict. Rather than a reactive approach, we wanted to create a proactive approach. Our focus shifted to what helps couples build strong and deep relationships daily, rather than concentrate on fixing relationships at their last thread.

Sophie and Meg working through a service mapping activity at AC4D.
Sophie and Meg working through a service mapping activity at AC4D.

What does your research show about what it takes to ensure a successful partnership? I’m sure a lot of people will be interested to know!

That’s a loaded question, and it wouldn’t be a wicked problem worth making an impact on if there was a simple answer! Most people will say good communication is the key, but I believe it’s mutual respect. Communication will break down at some point no matter who you are but once you lose respect, it rarely comes back. Two people who don’t respect each other have an extremely difficult time loving or communicating to each other well. You can always work on building communication, but it’s near impossible if mutual respect isn’t there.

Additionally, it’s not enough to love; you must choose to show it daily. Our generation is obsessed with making an impact in the world, which is amazing and we should be… however, it shouldn’t be at the cost of our personal lives and relationships. A lot of the time, people will work up to the big moments — like their anniversary and birthdays and think, ‘Oh, I’ll just make it up to them then,’ but it’s the everyday interactions that matter most. When we get busy, it’s so easy to forget to do the little things for each other, as simple as giving your partner a hug; people forget that. Love Intently empowers you to bring your intention back to your relationship. When you have time together, protect that time and give each other undivided attention. It’s also important to learn how your partner best receives love and show them in that way, not necessarily the way you best receive it. Humans are forgetful, so we frequently need to be reminded we’re loved. Lastly, it’s not always about the quantity of time you spend together but the quality of the time. I’ll bet you’d be better off if you spent less time together but intentionally made it special quality time.

Sophie walking fellow students through initial pilot concepts at AC4D.
Sophie walking fellow students through initial pilot concepts at AC4D.

Are there any differences in ages — as far as expression that you’ve seen? For example, many of my friends use Snapchat as a way to connect and share moments. Could Snapchat be the savior of relationships?

I think it works for some people in a lot of ways, and social media has helped, but there are a lot of things in social media that have caused strain on relationships too. For example, some girlfriends get mad that their boyfriends don’t post on social media about them. Little things like that, come out of insecurity and doesn’t have any true reflection on how someone feels about a relationship. I think Snapchat works well for someone who receives love through quality time. It’s impossible to be together all of the time, so Snapchat allows them to feel like they spent time with you or know what is going on in your day without having to physically being there. I also know some people well into their 60’s who love the heck out of social media and Snapchat, completely redefining how they connect with their kids. On the contrary, I know some people who can’t stand social media but that doesn’t change how healthy their relationship is.

What did you learn in Q4 about your idea that gave you enough confidence or desire to try to take it beyond AC4D?

In Q4, students are asked to pitch every single week. For us, it was really rough the first couple of weeks, because we legitimately did not have an idea — we were pitching what felt like nothing! We were trying to create a business model around an idea that didn’t even exist yet. But around week 3 the idea around Love Intently started to get some traction. Before we knew it, people started saying, ‘Hey, this really makes sense! Are you going to do this after school?’

I remember we immediately got wide-eyed and freaked out a bit. We were both planning to get interviews post AC4D, and I was starting to line up my network to do so. Prior to that, we hadn’t even considered taking the idea further, but different instructors and mentors at AC4D came in and sat us down. They asked us why we weren’t considering moving forward with the idea, that they thought I should, and that they believed we could. It was truly a community of people that believed in me and the idea, way before I could ever believe in myself. That’s something that I will be forever grateful for and what is so great about AC4D. Yes, we do critique each other and try to make things better, but at the end of the day, it’s about building each other up and creating meaningful things in the world. Everyone advocates for each other at the end of the day. While you’re going through AC4D, it’s the most uncomfortable refinement process that everyone goes through — it’s about pulling out the gunk that’s stopping you. In many cases, it’s ourselves.

Is there an explicit connection between your previous research and your concept? Our did your current concept come out of additional research?

There is definitely a connection. The insights and lessons from our research I will never forget is that everyone wants to have meaningful relationships and conversations, they just don’t know how. Secondly, everyone wants to talk about the harder things in life; they don’t think they have the permission to do so or know how to start. The connection between strong, healthy relationships and mental health is undeniable. Love Intently’s mission is to empower people by giving people tangible ways to excel at loving their partner. We want to help people create more meaningful moments with the people they love most. I believe that the stronger you are in your romantic relationships, the better you will be in the other relationships in life. Our focus is to build on emotional intelligence and self-awareness which helps in every relationship in addition to empowering us to become a better human in general.

How does the product or service concept work?

Love Intently empowers couples to build stronger and deeper relationships by taking the guesswork out of showing you care. We give you daily suggestions based on your partner’s personality type, love language, personal interests, how long you’ve been together, whether they have kids, whether they live together and other factors of your relationship.

We take away the stress of trying to figure out what to do so you can spend more meaningful time together. For instance, Eric would love a massage today, or five minutes of your undivided attention, or would love help cooking dinner tonight or his favorite band is coming into town surprise him with tickets. Something simple like that, that you may not necessarily think of otherwise, but would be super meaningful for your partner if you did.

Where is Love Intently at now, about a year out from AC4D?

I just got into a pre-accelerator program called DivInc, which is a pre-accelerator that empowers diversity in tech, so they take on minority and women founders. It’s an awesome opportunity with an incredible community of brilliant people that want to build each other up. The program starts in April, in Austin, and lasts for three months. I think it will empower me to take things to the next level. An important part of starting a company is learning how you work best. I realize that I needed accountability and people around me. This is one of those ways I’m building that in for myself and hopefully I’ll have a team soon.

Also, I launched officially to the public January 10th, and I had 11 couples come on, and test the first iteration — and paid for it. That was the first time I had ever experienced individuals paying for a service I crafted, and it was exhilarating.

Most recently, I got the opportunity to do a casting call for Shark Tank which was an affirming experience. To think back on where we were this time last year with a half-baked idea to being invited onto a casting call with Shark Tank is surreal to me. I feel confident about my pitch, and we find out in a week or so whether I move forward. Either way, the experience alone was a huge confidence booster.

I remember Jon (the founder of AC4D) saying to us that someday we would present so much it would just become another one of those things we did. I thought he was crazy because I was pretty awful at presenting, but he was right. I’ve pitched Love Intently countless amounts of times in a vast number of environments that none of it really scares me anymore. Melissa Chapman (fellow AC4D alum and mentor) mentioned last week how bizarre it was to think back on my very first presentation to now hearing about me pitching to Shark Tank and owning it. But that’s what AC4D is, a true transformation if you’re willing to put in the work.

What did you learn from the pilot?

There’s a huge learning curve in learning how to launch something successfully; what that looks like and all the phases of launching like pre-pre-launch, pre-launch, launch, and post-launch. They all require different strategies and content. This is also on top of building a website, figuring out recurring payment systems, integrating automation as much as possible and the list goes on. There are about a million things I would do differently now, but it’s OK. The last launch was the first iteration, and I know that there will be future ones. I’m working with people right now to make it an even better experience. Because right now, as an interaction designer, I know the experience can be greatly improved. There are problems that I know are there, so now it’s working to fix them and put the next iteration of Love Intently out into the world again. However, as Steve Jobs says “If you’re not embarrassed with your first launch, then you launched too late”. I also had a hard time asking people to pay which is a common occurrence for creatives because we all have imposter syndrome in one respect or another. However, as humans, we value things as they are priced. So by asking people to pay, Love Intently empowers more couples to build stronger relationships in a sustainable way.

Is there anything else you want to share about your AC4D experience?

I feel the biggest reason I almost didn’t apply was because I thought I was too young and inexperienced. When I entered AC4D, I was only 23 years old and had only worked for a year, which I think is the youngest out of anyone that has gone through the program. I thought I didn’t have enough work experience and I was worried I wouldn’t bring in a valid enough experience. Of course, I was also worried about taking on an additional financial burden — I know there are some programs out there that last 3 months and are the same price. However, understanding human interaction isn’t something you can “crash course” into. Gaining the ability to create wireframes but not to have a process in creating meaningful products is a steep trade-off.

AC4D was by far, the right choice for me because one, I think the “being young” thing is just bogus and is something people need to get over. If anything, I think I was easier to mold because I had less experience and ideas around exactly how design education should be. I was open to everything, in comparison to some approaches or concepts that some folks in my cohort struggled with. Secondly, the money — your ROI is high- you’re going to get a return. Ask any alumni; I think across the board we’ll all agree it was worth every penny. The community is amazing, the alumni network is incredible, you are guaranteed to get a position that pays decent, and it’s a matter of how picky you are after the program of what type of job you want to take. The alumni I know who are unemployed have been picky in finding work they care about, and they should be!

Whatever experience you have — just apply. Make it an option for yourself. If you’re accepted that means the faculty sees something in you that they want to sew into, and that you have something they want to empower and build up. They’ve already taken the commitment to invest in you. After that, you can make a decision to see if it’s right for you. You can always say no but if you don’t apply it’s an automatic no.

Austin Center for Design is a not-for-profit educational institution on the East Side of Austin, Texas that exists to transform society through design.

Driving human-centered design in a large enterprise: an interview with AC4D alumni Dave Gottlieb

Dave Gottlieb and I attended Austin Center for Design (AC4D) together from 2012–2013. We worked closely on a variety of design research efforts focusing, for example, on how schools and parents work to provide healthy eating options to middle school children, and how seniors at home utilize technology for communication with family, among others. Through all of the intense moments of the everlasting bootcamp that is AC4D, I will never forget Dave’s patience, deep booming voice and warm heartened-ness, nor his dedication to the process and improving his craft over time. In this interview, we explore Dave’s reflections on his time at AC4D, and how ultimately he has been able to facilitate the human centered design process @workday to drive the success of a large scale learning solution.

How did you find out about Austin Center for Design?

I remember — it was 2012. I was at my sister Chloe’s apartment in Brooklyn, who had just come back from a conference in Brazil with Jon Kolko. She mentioned Jon, “started something new and exciting that I haven’t heard of before, it’s a program in Austin that I think you would really love focused around, design and social entrepreneurship. It is something that I would do if I hadn’t already gone to design school.”

It was right at this time when I had tapped into the social entrepreneurship scene in Brooklyn, NY. I was facilitating Impact Sessions, a speaker series focused on the stories of people who were starting their own startups; in the back of my mind I didn’t know if I had the skills to start my own business or if I had the creative side to do it. So the concept of attending came right at a critical point in my life where I was like, “alright, let me apply, I doubt I’ll get in, but let’s give it a shot!” So I applied.

Funny story. The acceptance letter was sent to my yahoo email address — which I never check — so I didn’t even know that I had been accepted until a month before everybody was supposed to show up. Not even a month before, I think it was two-weeks before! Jon was like, “Oh, I thought you weren’t interested because you never got back to me.” And I was like, “I’m in! Let’s do this!”

I just remember going to that first, small building and meeting Jon and being like, “Oh my god, what did I get myself into?” But also excited at the same time. It just felt right since the day I got there. You know when you make a decision and it just feels like the right one, like the right path to something new and exciting.

What was your experience like during school?

I knew that I was coming in with very little design experience. I had never touched any of the Adobe products, I knew nothing about wireframing, I knew nothing about storyboarding. I knew nothing about sketching. So I was pretty much starting from scratch, but I think I came in with a lot of background in storytelling, and in building empathy and connections: I had a background in understanding people in different communities because of growing up on a yoga center or “Ashram” in upstate NY and being around a lot of different groups of people and always being passionate about social issues, especially environmental issues. So I knew I could catch up with the practical skills if I put myself to the task.

I kind of played catch-up early on but that added to the fun. I think as a designer, you always feel like you are catching up because there is always someone who is more highly skilled than you are in whatever tool you are using, but it was just a matter of getting a certain level of fluency in order to be able to present your ideas and get feedback. I think a lot of the course was making a thing and then presenting ideas — a lot of them bad, some of them good — and then getting feedback. A key part of the program is learning how to take the critical feedback and improve upon your ideas, it’s an iterative process. This process was definitely a new thing for me to learn.

Dave and other members of the AC4D class of 2013.

What was your greatest challenge at AC4D?

I think it was in the first quarter that I had a lot of doubt that I would be able to do it, but there was a point in time that I just broke through that and I was just working off of the improvements I was making. I went from feeling deflated to filled with energy. I saw that it wasn’t just design work in a sense that people think about design work as in visual design, there was so much more to the program — a whole process of discovery work and talking to people to gain insights into what they might actually need. It was that discovery piece that I could see myself doing in the future more than the interaction design work.

What do you feel was your greatest moment?

I think one of the best moments was when you (Eric), myself, Eli and Callie presented the second quarter. We presented our initial design concepts — at that point we didn’t have to decide on our final project — but we had a group of ideas that came together from research and synthesis that we had all done. We narrowed about 150 ideas into three concepts that we presented. I just remember us presenting to a large audience and getting great feedback, I could tell they were engaged and we received a really nice applause as well as a handful of thoughtful questions. At that moment it just felt like the hard work we had done over the last several months had paid off. I just remember so many high and low points in that process and then delivering a great presentation and it felt like a big accomplishment. That’s when I was like, ‘Alright, I can do this.’ Do you remember that moment?

I remember that moment, I love that moment! Tell me more about your final project at AC4D.

So Eli, Callie and I — because you (Eric) ended up doing your own thing — we were studying baby boomers and how they were using technology. We did a lot of contextual inquiry where we went into people’s homes and talked to them, and every time we talked to someone they ended up opening up their photo books and showing us their family and they felt very distant. We live in this time where people are spread out across the world; it’s a global economy now, and so we wanted to figure out, how could we capture the wisdom and stories of the elderly and bring them together with their family and friends?

Out of our ideation process came the seedling for Spoak — which was an iPad based storytelling tool where people could utilize their photos and add audio stories to them and then share those with their family who, in turn, could add additional stories to them and share back. We chose the ipad as our form factor because we saw great adoption of it in the homes of our elderly participants, because it was easier to swipe and simply had larger fonts.

Dave, Eli, and Callie presenting Spoak at AC4D final presentations.

Tell me, what it’s like to be an alumni?

Well I always feel like I’m telling people about my experience no matter where I go — so no matter if I was in Austin, or California or Ireland, I just love to talk about my experience there at AC4D. I think there’s few points in my life where I felt like I gained so much from such a short amount of time — and AC4D is one of those. So, as an alumni, I remember being in Austin with other alumni and it was great because we all had each other if we felt stuck or had questions about our role or projects. Now, I can’t just walk over to the school or meet someone in person, but I know that I made such deep connections while I was there that I can easily email or call to get advice from anyone at any point because it’s such a close-knit community.

Being in Dublin, I just recently saw Jon Kolko and Jess because he was speaking at a conference here. My colleagues at work love Jon and are always watching his talks. So that was good — it just reminded me that no matter where I am, the AC4D community will pop in.

I just mentioned, I’m always talking about the program. I think I’ve recommended a bunch of people and I’m hoping that a few people I recommended for this year will apply because I’m constantly getting people coming to me in a very similar point in their life and I know that AC4D can be the perfect opportunity for them to kind of get over the hurdle where they are getting stuck. A lot of people get stuck in their life where they are sick of doing some job that they don’t like or feeling like they’re not moving in the right direction or in a place that they’re excited about. Or, they are very socially driven, and they want to make an impact, but they feel stuck.

They get to that point. I end up talking to these people about my experience at AC4D, and they get really excited about it. Given my experience abroad at this point — at how similar that point or feeling is across borders — I believe that AC4D could have different centers in different cities. That’s just how impactful it could be.

What are you most proud of related to design since you graduated?

The launch of Workday Learning, because it’s something that I’ve been working on for the last 2 and a half years. It’s a completely different style LMS product — actually we didn’t want it to be a tradition LMS — that has been driven ground up by design and design research. When we started, we focused on inspiring the product vision and capabilities, which came from talking with and observing employees using techniques I learned at AC4D and shared with the product manager, Nate, who I was doing the research with.

Dave finishing up his notes post usability study.

What we saw over and over again, especially with the millennial generation, is that it’s a group that wants to connect with their peers. They want to help shape the direction of their companies and share ideas to improve. And so we knew that we had to give people the ability to create their own content, to rate and recommend content, so you can search and learn what you want to learn like Youtube, not feel like your company is telling you what to learn (for only superficial or legalistic reasons). It’s a more connecting and inviting software.

It started so small with stakeholder interviews and contextual inquiries outside of Pleasanton, CA, then we travelled across the US and Europe — just two of us, with guidance from my design manager Eric. Our research led towards the strategic decision to build Workday Learning — and I was asked to go help build the design team in Dublin. And now we have over 50 people working on it. So that in it of itself — to know that 50 + jobs have been created and two companies have been acquired and ingested into it. We have 100+ companies now in the pipeline, and 5 have gone live. One large customer that will eventually go live with Workday Learning has over 500,000 employees. Potentially 500,000 people at one company will be using our product. That’s pretty cool. I’m proud of that scale, and of being one of its founders for a modern learning technology platform that will be used around the globe.

Dave in transit for user testing at Twitter.

How were you able to get the runway to build this product?

A lot of that was — in order to sell that idea, we had to sell the research, and through the research we found the pain points in the existing software. I think being able to bring the teachings of AC4D — the ability to go do discovery work specifically — into a large and fast growing company, was really exciting and has changed the culture internally and the UX focus. It’s brought the importance of UX to the forefront, that we should be involved from the beginning and not just at the end to make a product look pretty. I think a lot of times that happens, particularly in companies that are product management and development driven. We now have a seat at the table because of products like Workday Learning.

Dave, you’re a rockstar. Badass! (laughing)

Thanks. Honestly, I was worried a bit up front — working for a larger enterprise software company. But then you realize one company signs on, and your designs could be used by hundreds of thousands of people. It’s an incredible thing to realize. Ultimately designers want people to use their products and effect change — they want to promote their ideas. So with having access to that many customers and people using your products, it’s pretty awesome. And Workday is just growing and growing like crazy. The design team when I started in Pleasanton was 20–25 folks, now they have over 50. When I went to Dublin to help further build out the design team and the product, it was Bill and myself, and now we have another 12. It’s cool to be part of a company that’s growing like that.

Dave at the new office opening party in Dublin, Ireland.

Talk more about your beliefs about working for an enterprise software company vs a more consumer oriented software.

I haven’t worked on consumer software in a while, but it’s very easy to go out and talk to potential customers and come up with an idea that you can design for that group of users. It seems like you can go more blue sky with designs and you can design more for the consumer facing side of the product. With enterprise, for example, you have different groups of users. In Workday Learning, we’re designing for new hires, managers, instructors, course creators, administrators — it’s a much bigger thing. What helped us with this was creating four personas which drove our design.

You have to be able to create, deliver, and report on content and also have the end user experience. At the end of the day, you have a whole sales team that’s selling that product. So in a way, in order to go out and talk to your customers, you need to go through a variety of channels just to get the opportunity to talk to a customer. If I had a startup, I could go to the Starbucks down the street and test out a design. You can’t just do that with enterprise. There’s too much security, and a lot of complexity.

How does that make you feel?

It’s both challenging and rewarding. At AC4D, we were taught that if you have a design, you go out and test it. Get five people, get feedback, iterate, and move on to your next iteration. We can do that internally through hallway testing, but a lot of times there’s just layers of security that makes that tough. Navigating the world and thinking about how to sell your ideas is important no matter what company you work in.

In that context, I lead workshops often with product managers and developers to cover “what is UX”. I have a whole deck of slides covering the different phases of the design process, emphasizing why talking with us earlier is better: this is how we can help you. Then you have to do a project with that team and over time, they’ll learn — let’s get UX involved early. So now we’re getting a seat at the table early in the process instead of putting out fires at the end.

It’s great to see the evolution of design thinking at the organization. Right now we are testing products in our new state of the art UX Design Studio where we have the PMs and devs sitting in on product testing sessions; they’re writing down post it notes about participants and having debrief sessions. It’s really cool to see their faces when they’re seeing users using the product. I’ve heard it more than once: “oh my god. I’ve been working on this for the last year and I’ve never seen a user use the product.” Honestly, they’re just really loving this ability to see customers use the product and that has been not only really fun, but really inspirational towards the improvement of our products.

Sample user persona used in creation of Workday Learning.

Closing question — parting words of wisdom for students considering applying, or for those interested in doing more social impact work?

Now more than ever we need creative thinkers, problem solvers, and designers — especially given the political climate — we need to throw away the divisive nature and get people together to solve problems using design thinking, using statistical data, using behavioral economics — whatever it is — because what we’re doing right now isn’t working. Politics is dividing people and our country and the politicians aren’t solving the largest issues facing us today in a smart way. Seeing how AC4D enables you to take a big problem and take a chunk of that and really go out and learn about it and figure out ways to solve it — a lot of times people feel frustrated and are unsure what to do to make a change, and I think as someone who’s a social activist and passionate about an issue, it’s the perfect place to take that passion and connect that drive with methods that work in order to feel like you are making a difference and actually go out make a thing. I am excited to see AC4D grow and be part of an evolving creative community of rock stars. Thanks Eric for helping to spread the word.

Dave Gottlieb in Ireland (when not doing design work, Dave’s exploring all corners of his adopted country).

Austin Center for Design is a not-for-profit educational institution on the East Side of Austin, Texas that exists to transform society through design.

The dilemma of empathy in design — an interview with Chelsea Hostetter

As designers, we are aware of the importance of infusing empathy into the design process, but we rarely stop to reflect on the emotional reverberations and obstacles that empathy infuses into the design process. In our interview, Chelsea(AC4D 2014) speaks specifically about those challenges in designing for and with the queer community in Austin — a group that she is a part of and strongly supports. Chelsea is well known in the AC4D community for her abilities as an illustrator, designer, and patient teacher, purposefully conveying emotion and meaning through sketching.

How did you find out about AC4D?

In 2008, I was working as a graphic design intern at a financial company called MPower Labs. My boss was Suzi Sosa, who is Jon Kolko’s friend and one of the investors in AC4D; she mentioned it offhand. Right after I had gotten out of undergraduate I looked at it again and I felt like I wasn’t 100% ready for graduate school. Around the same time, I applied to the Center for Cartoon Studies (CCS), an exclusive graduate school for professional cartoonists, and they accepted me. I remember thinking, well, I could avoid this shitty economy and go to graduate school in Vermont for cartooning, but there was something in me that said, “no, you should stay in Austin and see what happens.” So I declined to go to CCS, and ended up staying here in Austin and working on my professional career.

Fast forward to 2012, four years later. Alex Wykoff was my coworker at a tech company I was working at and he wanted to be a designer. He told me about this school called the Austin Center for Design, said we should apply together. I felt like the first time was just a coincidence. The second time was a sign. When the universe knocks at your door twice, you go with it. So I decided to apply with Alex. I was excited that we both got in, and we were both nervous about it, but I was very happy to be able to work with him throughout the AC4D experience.

What got you to say definitively you were attending?

I went to the Austin Center for Design bootcamp and realized that there was so much more utility and purpose to design than I previously thought (shameless plug, one’s coming up!). I had been looking at other schools like RISD and SCAD, and the work that I saw people producing was a bunch of really pretty — technically very impressive — but a lot of the work that I saw didn’t have a lot of feeling or emotion behind it. Or even purpose, really. I would see student projects where people would design these beautiful 3D printed bikes, but they weren’t meant for people to ride. They weren’t meant for consumption, they were meant to be art pieces. While I think that’s nice, I’m very utilitarian in professional design. If it doesn’t function as it should but looks nice, it’s useful for beauty but not much else. When I spoke with Jon, and then saw the types of people that Austin Center for Design attracted, I realized that this was the right decision for me to go there instead of any of the other schools. I knew that A, the coursework was going to be difficult and I like to seek out challenges; and B, the social entrepreneurship piece was a piece I really cared about. It wasn’t about making art pieces that go into the world and are forgotten. It was about making an impact and making a difference.

Tell me about your year at AC4D.

It was hard! (laughs) I think one of the things that struck me about AC4D that the curriculum is really at the same pacing and difficulty level as at Carnegie Mellon University (where I did my undergraduate degree). This meant that there were high expectations set for us that I really genuinely wanted to meet. Q1 was okay, Q2 was very difficult. Alex and I were embedded into the trans and queer community of Austin, and it’s really hard when you’re part of the LGBTQ community and also talking with members of that community about their needs to not feel like you want to take action right then and there. There were a lot of emotions I felt around the research that was just difficult to process as a queer person myself.

In Q2, I went to the Transgender Day of Remembrance (November 20th). The Transgender Day of Remembrance is an event held for the community to remember the lives of the transgender victims of homicide within that year and to communally grieve. So throughout all of our interaction with the trans and queer community, the underlying ribbon we found is that somebody usually knows someone who has died whether through murder or through suicide. It’s tragic, and it’s awful, but that is the day to day of our community. As I was listening to the many names called out of lives lost that year, I started sobbing. Watching one person grieve is harrowing, but watching an entire community grieve, and feel connected to people you haven’t even met, is something that is completely, deeply, and soulfully impactful. At the time we dove really deep into the research but it struck a very deep, dear, personal chord with me. I previously considered myself a member of the queer community but through that research, I realized that I hadn’t been a good ally of the trans community like I previously thought. I didn’t have enough information or empathy to properly support our trans community then. Now, I feel much more confident in being an ally, but I’m learning new things every day. It changed my worldview and allowed me to become a more supportive person. That’s how much the research can change you.

Q3 was really difficult, and Q4 was the most difficult. It’s challenging to take your insights from research and turn them into something with which people can empathize, but it is often extremely challenging when you’re doing something socially impactful to take that and put it into an idea that’s going to make money. Because sometimes you wonder if you’re doing the right thing for the community — there’s a societal rule that I believe if you’re making money and benefitting off a community, that that makes you a bad person. So I had a lot of conflicting feelings throughout that entire time. I still believe in social entrepreneurship, but especially with the income disparity of the queer community, I don’t know how that would work. I wouldn’t want to charge an already financially burdened community to use something that might help them find friends. So in hindsight, I had expected the rigor of the classwork, but I did not expect the emotional rigor that I would be going through with my work at AC4D.

How did this empathetic research end up inspiring your ultimate project idea?

We started with our focus being simply the trans and variant community of Austin. We broadened it slightly to the queer community of Austin, which is slightly different than the lesbian and gay community of Austin. The queer community tends to include bisexuals, folks who are trans, gender queer, gender variant, asexuals, anyone who doesn’t exactly fit the norm of heterosexual or homosexual.

We recognized that there were a lot of resources online for people to talk together in the queer community, but ultimately, a lot of the people in the queer community couldn’t find other people in the community even in Austin. There were some pockets here and there, but it was rare to see people who had formed a pocket of community around themselves. A fair amount of people we had talked to felt isolated from the community, often through a series of events, or the way that they had chosen to live their life. There are folks out there that identify as transgender but at some point, they pass as another gender, and at that point, there are some folks who feel like they would rather pass as a binary gender (male or female). While that’s a choice they make for themselves, I also don’t think the community should be isolating or vilifying them for making that choice or vice versa, where “passing” for a binary gender is idolized or looked up to in a hurtful way.

So, this opportunity manifested itself somehow into a mobile application? How did your initial research translate into content or feature requirements for the interface to make it approachable and build community in a way that might be distinct from, for example, joining a Facebook group?

Queery is the name of the application. We devised it specifically for the queer community to talk about targeted subjects that were very relevant to them. These targeted subjects would include coming out and other queer related issues; if people wanted to know, for example, what shops were trans and queer-friendly. Those discussions were already happening online, but more often than not, we saw that people — the people who felt most positively in the community — were the ones who had a physical mentor there with them, saying, “Hey! Here are the shops you go to,” or “I have this doctor, or therapist, they’re very trans and queer-friendly, here let me show you to them.” Someone to sort of walk them through the steps. So, we devised Queery as a way for people to become mentors within the queer community who could be physically there for their mentees as well as a way for people to receive mentorship within the queer community.

It works like this: You are invited to queery by a friend. You create a profile and select a topic that you want to talk about and then it will select for you someone who is nearby who also wants to talk about that topic. The application will pick a coffee shop that is located between the two of you (without showing you the location of the other person) and then the two of you meet at that coffee shop. This serves as a neutral location to talk about whatever you want to talk about — that conversation topic is just a starter — but the intent is for people who have not met each other before to meet in-person in a coffee shop and get to know each other. It helps people on the outskirts of the community feel more connected to people within the community and helps us meet one another in person when we might have only met someone online. It’s a safe, secure way to meet people within the queer community that you might not have otherwise known about.

queery wireframes.
queery wireframes.

After the coffee shop meeting, the system allows people to rate each other and designate whether it was a helpful session for them, if the person was nice, etc. The ratings were helpful to assist in moderating the online community; if, for instance, someone who was rude or trolling entered the community, the system would remove them from the community. The only way to get into the queery system is similar to Gmail’s beta launch, which is to give an invite to another person. People who are already part of a community will start inviting their friends and then their friends will start inviting their friends and at least one person might vaguely know another person, but it allows those large pockets of communities to be able to be connected together through a friend of a friend of a friend. If you have someone who is at the epicenter of a community they might be connected with someone who is sort of at the farther branches of the community and it allows them to pull that person at the edge back into the community. That to us was the biggest thing — and the biggest thing we found in the research — is that if you have a strong community and you have a group of people in-person who are supporting you, then you feel like you have a good place in the world. If you struggle with depression or gender dysphoria you are less likely to act on impulses when you have a physical presence of a community because you are thinking about your own impact. The biggest risk to someone who is struggling or marginalized is being isolated from their community.

How did prototyping this system change the system or your understanding of the community?

One of the things that I realized through prototyping is that when you present people with a binary electronic system for community, people react to this in unusual ways. For instance, in the pilots that we did, we were able to match people up with one another for conversations but we found out later that it was actually better if a third person introduced them. It mattered was that there was a third person there to moderate if things went sour. Because this is a high-risk community, the risk of “going sour” isn’t as mundane as having a disagreement. Sometimes fights like these end in a deadly way. Prototyping surfaced even more challenges we needed to meet so that participants felt safe and comfortable.

Prototyping queery.
Prototyping queery.

Through prototyping, we also realized that there is a discrepancy between people giving information to the system and the desire to get information from the system. When we talked to people about their profile questions vs. the questions they’d want to ask the other people, the questions they wanted to ask other people were questions that they themselves did not feel comfortable answering. Questions like, what their transitioning status is, if they have a partner, what their sexual orientation is, etc. This isn’t information that someone would be comfortable giving out to a stranger, and yet, they reported that they would feel more comfortable if a stranger offered this information to them.

Prototyping also validated the benefit of queery which was when people walked away from the conversations, they felt better, felt like there were more people in the community who understood them and felt connected to the Austin community. In one of our pilots, there was someone from the trans community and someone from the asexual community who met together and the person from the trans community realized that they genuinely did not understand what asexuality was and how it functioned because they themselves were not asexual. The person from the asexual community realized that although they considered themselves part of the queer community, they had only ever hung around people who were heterosexual-leaning or otherwise part of the majority and they understood what it felt to be in the queer community.

The last thing we learned from piloting was that we shouldn’t just pair like with like but also make unexpected pairings because it’s beneficial for people to get to understand the breadth and depth of the queer community and understand someone who they haven’t talked to before. It helps people understand their differences while rallying around the fact that the queer community is just as diverse as its many, many members.

Let’s talk a little about Post-AC4D. Tell us about your experience at Frog Design and your insight after reflecting back on your time at AC4D.

I currently work as an Interaction Designer at frog design. I began by contracting with them. They liked me and I liked them and we decided to stick with one another, which has been a wonderful partnership. The reason I decided to pursue becoming a better designer in lieu of pursuing doing social entrepreneurship is that when I left AC4D I genuinely felt like I had to be a better designer in order to serve the queer community better. So my focus at the time — and I think my focus even now — is to hone my skills so that I become more useful to others.

I don’t think that queery would have worked in the state it was in after AC4D because I wasn’t as embedded in the queer community as I am today. I am now a regular member of several queer community meet-ups and work with an internal group at frog that promotes diversity and inclusion. I realize in my specific case, in order be helpful and beneficial and really design for that community, you have to be embedded in it. In my current position within the community, I feel far more able to help people. It has also allowed me to pursue other things that I thought I would not be able to pursue. Some of the work that I am doing is designing physical spaces, and it’s very exciting to be part of the wide breadth of work we’re doing here at frog.

Chelsea leading a design workshop.
Chelsea leading a design workshop.

The other thing here is the people. At the very end of the day, I got into Austin Center for Design because of the people and the reason I’m at frog is because of the people, because there are a ton of incredibly talented and wonderful individuals with whom I have been able to share programs with, I have been able to share the stage with at interaction16, and that I’ve been able to share my work with and become better. I feel like the work that we’re doing at frog is definitely targeted towards a different audience — but all of this work that I’ve been doing, I feel has the end goal in mind of helping the queer community. Even if it’s one small thing at a time. I just had a really great conversation with a good friend of mine who knows someone who is coming out and I was so happy to provide them with advice and information to be supportive during that time. I’m honored that they think of me that way. I didn’t have that kind of support and a lot of the people in the community that we’ve talked to in Austin, don’t have that support. The more I’m involved in the community, the more that people know that I am involved in the community, the more questions that get asked, the more potential link ups that can happen and the more people can become connected.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Yeah! One of the things that AC4D taught me is that in the world of technology — and in the world of design affected by technology — things tend to be in absolutes. For instance, Snapchat uses shareable design and all of a sudden everyone wants to know how to integrate shareable design into their application, or Facebook excels at being a viral social platform and now everyone wants to bring social into their applications. All designers and researchers at some point in their career get to the point where they say, “I thought this was totally a certain thing, I thought this was black and white but maybe I was wrong.” So my philosophy as a designer is to force yourself to look at everything in shades of gray rather than black and white because black and white is sexy and it’s something people are naturally drawn to, but people have a hard time finding the balance.

I think some of the greatest designers were the ones who achieved balance in their work and who have achieved balance of form and function. I get tired of hearing people say that one buzz word is going to be the magic bullet, because life isn’t that simple, it’s really complex. Just like the queer community, you can’t put someone in a box and expect them to conform to everything in that box. It’s not possible. Everything will bleed out of the box. We should stop putting people in boxes and allow people to be the weird, wonderful amoebas that they are.

Austin Center for Design is a not-for-profit educational institution on the East Side of Austin, Texas that exists to transform society through design.

Designing for Civic Impact: An Interview with Celine Thibault

Celine Thibault graduated from Austin Center for Design (AC4D) in 2016, and soon after joined the City of Austin as a Design, Technology and Innovation Fellow. Read on to learn about her experience at AC4D —and how participating in and learning a human centered design process through projects on sex education, teenage self-expression, and (even) a “pitch-and-putt” service design shaped her ability to communicate ideas and build value for the communities she is a part of.

How did you find out about Austin Center for Design?

I learned about AC4D through Dave Gottlieb, who was a student at the time. I never considered AC4D for myself because I didn’t consider myself a technologist, but Dave would invite me to AC4D events, and I was always sparked by the conversations I had with students and alum. At work, I felt limited in what I could do and after a few more frustrating years, AC4D presented itself as an alternative. It was a way for me to use more of my skills and go further in my work.

What were you doing before attending Austin Center for Design?

I worked in sales for Juniper Ridge, a small perfumer in California, and as the Visual Director at Treehouse, a sustainable home improvement store here in Austin. Before that, I worked in service, retail management and fashion design. I worked primarily for small companies by choice.

What did you see that AC4D would provide you?

I saw that it would help me articulate, develop, and sell my ideas, if that makes sense. In previous roles, I was sort of banging my head against the wall — I had great ideas but I couldn’t articulate them to the people that mattered. It created not only this frustration with myself, but this frustration across my work environment. AC4D presented an opportunity for me to do that — and a way out of my creative frustration.

Tell me more about your year at AC4D.

At ac4d I worked on two big projects. I partnered with Meg McLaughlin and David Bill on the first. We researched sex education by interviewing women in Austin. Right away I realized that after 3 years of living in the same city, I had a very narrow view of the people who lived here. Research changed that. During interviews, the conversation turned toward other topics. For example, one woman talked about her community being broken up on the East side from so many people moving in, real estate prices soaring, and childhood friends being pushed further out. I had a lot of rich discussions.

Celine interviewing a women in downtown Austin, TX.

The second project spanned 6 months and focused on self-expression among teens. Some of the adults we interviewed assumed teenagers were lost in social media, but we discovered something different. Teens are trying to figure out who they are and they’re trying to do it as carefully as possible because social media is now this permanent thing. Ultimately, we wanted to create a solution where teenagers would feel safe expressing themselves. We designed an app called Realme that teens could use in their school to post anonymous messages within 100 feet of their current position. Other teenagers using the app and in radius can discover and comment on these messages. What that means is if Allie is standing in her high school and she wants to post something that’s important to her peer group, she can post and dictate when the message will disappear from that spot. Nobody off-campus can read it and now Allie has shared something important or reached out to someone else and they have the opportunity to write back.

Celine interviewing a teen in Austin, TX.

We tested the app with one of the teenagers that we’d interviewed, and I remember the moment where she “got it” and started inventing ways she’d use Realme, “There are all these things I want to do with this!” She was actually struggling to meet other people in her school who were gay and this gave her a potential gateway. She was also really into certain shows, but she didn’t have anyone she could talk to about it so she could put those conversation starters out there.

Tell me about the options for anonymous expression. What was the thought around these options?

We wanted to give teens as much control as possible over what they put out into the world. We don’t realize how limiting our current digital applications can be, they really guide the style of the communication we’re expressing. So, if you can create something that puts control in the hands of the person that’s going to use it, that’s better because they are able to articulate themselves as best they can. I don’t think there is any greater power than being able to articulate your own feelings, especially amongst your peers.

Celine evaluating concepts with designer, Sophie Kwok

I know you also worked on a really interesting service design project — full disclosure, I ask because I love pitch and putt!

The Service Design class at AC4D gives students an opportunity to work with an organization in the community. The goal is to create value for the business, their clients and for other stakeholders.

My team wanted to work with a business that gave us the opportunity to really dig in and make an impact. Someone suggested Butler Park Pitch & Putt because they had a connection to the owner, Lee, and she was open to working with designers to improve her business. Lee adopted the business from her step-dad after helping him run it for years. She was totally open to everything. We began by interviewing Lee, then customers, the food truck guys that park there, and employees. We learned that because she had adopted this business from family, there were legacy decisions that were affecting her ability to run the business and there was also a feeling on the golf course that you needed to be a “member of the club” to have a good time. There are a lot of people that come and don’t talk to anyone else, play a round and it’s fun! For people who like to come regularly, there is an established old club and you need to fit in there.

We focused our service recommendations on making it more casual and welcoming for newcomers. We started by making it more approachable at the entrance for new guests. We ended up implementing two of the three solutions that we recommended. Our solutions consisted of updating her menu services, re-configuring the inside of the building and making it easier for newcomers to move around the course. In sum, these solutions lowered the barrier to entry and made people feel like they knew where they were going versus feeling lost. We went back a few weeks after implementation and observed that the desired outcomes were there. New guests felt more confident, the staff’s frustrations had lifted, and Lee was using our recommendations to help her negotiate spending with the city who owns the property she leases.

How did you test or prototype your solutions?

We reorganized the clubhouse layouts, and built temporary signage, paths, and course maps, and then watched customers interact with them. We knew that they were working because, for example, new customers flowed through the purchasing process at the clubhouse more easily because they understood the options, the basics of what equipment was provided to them, and where to tee off.

We came back two or three days after the round of clubhouse prototyping and asked the employees how it was going, too, and they said “It’s a lot better. Things are so much easier for people!”

What are you doing today professionally?

I work with the City of Austin as part of their Design, Technology and Innovation Fellows program. It’s a year-long position with the city, and the largest fellowship program in the country focused on civic technology and services.

Since starting the fellowship, I have been a part of two projects. The first project that I was on was redesigning the Austin Convention Center and Palmer Event Center’s websites. We worked with a great team at ACC and PEC, who guided us on conducting research at events and connected us to event planners, US-based and international, to interview and become familiar with their needs and challenges. We developed research learnings and defined opportunity areas for improving the content and organization of the site. Myself and designer, Charlie Elwonger, drafted user scenarios which helped guide our initial wireframe sketches. We began usability testing two weeks into design, getting great feedback from planners. This helped us iterate quickly. It took a close working team to move so fast — we had a front end developer, back end developer, a project manager and a designer. Soon after usability testing began, I shifted to another project with Austin Resource Recovery, the city department managing Austin waste services.

Austin resident contextual interview focused on recycling and composting.
Austin resident contextual interview focused on recycling and composting.

I’m in the middle of a 6 month project with ARR, wrapping up research and moving into design and prototyping. ARR wants to improve their diversion rate, meaning you are sending less recyclables to the landfill. ARR is an award-winning department. They run innovative pilot programs, testing ideas to help people recycle more. Their primary strategy has been ‘let’s get people recycling correctly, and then we can focus on higher-level ideas.’ That other stuff, like teaching people how to creatively repurpose things, or showing people how their personal recycling habits impact greater efforts are also big motivators. ARR wants to reach a 90% recycling diversion rate by 2040, and we believe to that to do that, we’ll need to work with them to design solutions that play off those big motivators.

Research share out for ARR.

We interviewed 48 residents in the city, and 4 property managers and owners. We formulated our research learning and opportunity areas based on that data and are preparing to share them with our team at ARR next week. The most interesting thing about the project and this program is that we’ve had a core team that includes a member from ARR, as well as individuals on rotation — people from Keep Austin Beautiful, from the Office of Sustainability — and we’re all working together. Everyone has been open to talking and providing feedback, and nobody gets their feelings hurt. It’s been a real eye opening experience for me.

How has your AC4D experience influenced you and your current work?

There are a couple of really big things that my experience at AC4D taught me. One of them is learning how to provide actionable feedback — the critique sessions that we have from quarter 1 to quarter 4, both public and not, are one of the most valuable tools that I learned at AC4D. Forcing yourself to take your work, put it in some sort of medium and putting it up so that other people can come and provide feedback is something that I think most workplaces go without.

Because of this, it slows down the progression of the work, it makes people more attached to their work than they need to be and it holds them back from sharing. Another thing that the AC4D program does well is teaching you to become comfortable in chaos. There are a lot of times in a work environment where everyone feels like we aren’t getting anywhere. We are conditioned to have all the answers and to never be uncertain. AC4D prepared me to know that we are making progress even when it feels like we don’t have all of the answers, because we don’t; but we’ll conduct research, make something, test it, and improve from there.

What do you want to do after this 1 year fellowship experience?

I’ll continue doing work like this. My peers came in with different expertise and private sector experiences and it’s been stellar working with them, learning from them. Everyone wants to work in civic tech and serve the people around us. I’ve never been happier than I am right now in my job. I love going to work, working with the fellows, and I have the tools I need to work through challenges.

What advice would you give someone around how to become involved in design for social impact?

If you find yourself working and not being able to express yourself really well, not being able to sell your ideas, not being able to get as much done as you want to — then AC4D can give you the tools and the peer network to help get you over those barriers. You’re learning methods that help you overcome your own work barriers, as well as the barriers the work environment naturally provides.

Austin Center for Design is a not-for-profit educational institution on the East Side of Austin, Texas that exists to transform society through design.

Design Leadership and Finding Your Design Path: An Interview with Samara Watkiss

Samara Watkiss graduated from AC4D in 2015. Since graduating, she has led design at Austin start-up Click Security, which was acquired by Alert Logic in April of 2016. In this wide ranging discussion, we look at how Samara found AC4D; review the evolution of her final project Summit, a financial app geared towards helping millennials pay down debt; and reflect on what it means to be a designer and collaborative leader.

How did you find Austin Center for Design?

In previous design and strategy roles, I kept ending up working on what I later came to know as interaction design challenges; for example, I was asked “hey, can you make a user flow for this?” and “could you figure out the game mechanics for this Facebook game?” I knew I was good at it, and I was actually better at it than straight graphic design. In time, I realized this was interaction design.

I looked at a variety of schools. I looked at California College of the Arts — there were a couple that seemed interesting, but were often extremely expensive, were multiple years in duration, and I already had some professional momentum so I wasn’t looking to take many years out of the workforce. And I realized I was also interested in developing a better business sense, because I think designers who understand and can speak the language of business and can bring that narrative together with their perspective of creativity and empathy are most effective and get a seat at the table in strategic decision making, which is definitely what I want.

I had heard of AC4D, and I reached out to Jon Kolko and said “can I come visit?” Girls Guild (a company formed by AC4D graduates focused on empowering young girls by connecting them to women makers) was working that day I came to the studio, so I also got to talk to them. I followed that up by doing the AC4D Design for Impact bootcamp. I was like, “Oh!” That confirmed it was the thing for me. Then I discovered applications were still open. I thought if anything, it would be a year out, but Jon was like, “nope, apply!” That was March 2014 and I got accepted end of May, and moved to Austin in August.

What drove you to attend?

In addition to what I just mentioned, I chose AC4D because I wanted a theoretical underpinning to the work I was doing; and then I wanted the social entrepreneurship exposure. I had pretty much worked exclusively on big enterprise level clients to that point, and I wondered where else I could do this work, and I wanted to set myself up to work on things that matter.

At AC4D, you worked on a year long project, focusing your design efforts on a large scale social issue. Could you talk a little bit more about your project and team?

I had a terrific team in Jeff and Lauren. We were interested in financial health and human behavior. You can crunch all of the numbers, but it seemed like, especially for our generation and people a little bit younger, there just wasn’t a place to have financial conversations and make sense of things. We felt like this was a topic ripe for design research.

We conducted contextual inquiries with people in their homes, focusing on how they managed their money, and who did they talk to about it. We met with millennials — single and couples — and were particularly interested in when people move away from their parents, how do they develop their awareness in their twenties (which we considered sort of an extended financial adolescence) and figure out their priorities? In our interviews, we found common behaviors and emotions around credit card debt, and people’s struggle to pay it off. In particular, spending is a way in which we reward ourselves, but there isn’t a way to connect to that same emotional energy to pay down debt.

Through an iterative process, we developed a service delivered by mobile app that helps people pay down their credit card debt in little increments, day by day. We tried to make THAT rewarding, connected to moments where they felt like they were doing something good for themselves. So it wasn’t just this budgeting experience at the beginning of the month, then coming back at the end of the month and feeling disappointed. Through our research, we knew our participants didn’t know how much (to put towards debt in a daily sense) was enough. And our participants didn’t want to give up all their fun; they needed something that could help them find the balance of enough to actually make a difference to their debt, but not so much to make them put up their hands a say “I give up.”

The best thing I learned from that project was how to prototype lots of different parts of a service experience. For example, when are the moments in a person’s day that were the best triggers for savings interventions — to say, “Hey! Do you want to put $4 towards your credit card debt?” And how to tie those together to build towards a continued sense of positive reinforcement, changing their relationship to their debt and behaviors around it? It was amazing to do this type of prototyping, and was something I really learned from the faculty at AC4D. They kept saying — ‘what is the most important part of your service? How do you even get close to trying it? Now go try it!’

Keeping track of prototyping efforts for Summit.

Can you walk us through how you got to your service idea from the research?

We went through an ideation process — we were determined to come up with 300 ideas from our research. AC4D teaches a variety of ideation techniques that are informed by research insights — we took these 300 ideas through a down selection process by evaluating them on the criteria — what mattered to us, as something we wanted to put in the world — what felt feasible; what we were excited to do, what we thought would actually impact people. We down selected to 9 ideas, sketched those, and started to see the overlaps between them, and then combined and modified the initial 9 down to 3, which we illustrated at storyboard fidelity.

After additional feedback, we chose the Summit concept — but I want to be clear, it evolved a LOT along the way through iteration and testing. As I reflect on it, I know that the ideation and down selection phase were really important to helping us understand exactly what we wanted to eventually focus on, we had considered a lot of different possibilities, so we weren’t distracted down the line and could stay true to the core of what our product should do.

Summit Concept Screen.

What did you want to do after AC4D? Did you consider taking Summit forward?

I don’t know if I knew. I wanted to do everything. As a team, we weren’t ready to execute against Summit right away. AC4D is an intense and valuable experience, and I needed a break to process and figure out what I really wanted. Now, about 18 months out, I feel many of the lessons I learned at AC4D coming to fruition and my understanding deepening. I’m excited to revisit Summit, both the specific product, and the lessons learned from it, to see how to continue it. The work I have done since graduating has given me more perspective and confidence to take my own projects from concept to reality.

So what have you been doing?

After AC4D and thanks to an AC4D connection, I had the opportunity to take over the design department for a network security startup called Click Security here in Austin. One of the things that drew me to that role was the opportunity to own and manage the design for an in-the-market product, which I hadn’t had in my past consulting experience.. Click Security was acquired this last April, which was exciting!

What was it like to put on that Design Director hat?

When I started, it was about managing short and long term goals: what stepwise improvements could we make in the product? When could I trust my intuition and when do I need additional research? We were going to have a release in 6-weeks and I was just beginning user research, so I asked myself “What good decisions can I make now to move this in the right direction?” All while I was getting caught up on Network Security to understand the subject matter.

I remember there was a steep learning curve in the beginning. Developers would come to me and say, “So, if a user clicks this button, this window is already open and it’s in this state, so what happens?” And I’m thinking, “Why are you asking me?” Then I realize: Oh, because I’m IT! That experience pushed me to get better at sharing user research and structuring my deliverables to empower developers to make some of those decisions themselves, and being more detail-oriented.

How has AC4D impacted your work and allowed you to grow?

I realize because of my experience at AC4D and what I learned there, that one of the highest compliments I can give people and myself is: Hey, you made a thing! I really learned at Austin Center for Design the value of just doing — something. Once you’ve made something you can have a conversation about it rather than just getting lost trying to explain something or talking at each other.

As a designer, I see my job as figuring out what is the next thing we can make. Sometimes that is figuring out what design is right to test with users, what fidelity it should be at to get us feedback that is helpful, and then sometimes it’s asking, “What can I make to help manage my team better? Or, what can I make because this hand-off is not working?” I still tend to want to make a thing and not show anybody because I don’t feel like it’s ready for feedback yet, but coming out of Austin Center for Design, that loop is shorter for me — I’m like, “Nope, I need to make a thing and I need to get it in front of peers or users.” They’re not going to judge me, they’re going to judge the thing.

What does your Austin Center for Design experience mean to you?

It made me braver and scrappier as a designer — it was challenging, and fun, and now I know I can work like that, so I have this internal bar that I look for in other experiences.

Do you have any advice for individuals who are looking to get into design or social impact?

If you want to get into design, or want to be a better designer, this is a generous community. People will talk to you and meet with you if you ask. When I graduated from art school and was trying to figure out what I was going to do, it was the middle of the recession and nobody was hiring, but nearly everybody I contacted said, “Well, come in, I’ll look at your portfolio and talk to you.” I made it a point when I was at Austin Center for Design to get the email address of every speaker who came to talk and I tried to get coffee with them. If you want to do it, or want to do it better, talk to the people who are doing it well.

The same goes for AC4D — Having this community of Austin Center for Design alumni and people who are involved, who will get coffee with me, help me, talk through problems — it’s invaluable.

Something else I probably learned at Austin Center for Design, that took a year or so to really percolate in my head, was to ask the question: I want to design on X issue — instead of looking for a job that is all set up to allow me to do work on that issue, why can’t I just start? And then what do I need to rearrange in the rest of my life so that I can do that?

Any other thoughts you’d like to share?

It’s an awesome time to be a designer! We have the skill-set to be able to talk to, and really listen to people in order to design stuff that matters to them — not just on screens, but services and processes too. I feel so lucky that I have a job that fulfills my desire to connect with people and to be creative and strategic.

Designing around the world: an interview with Jacob Rader

Jacob Rader graduated from AC4D in 2015. Since graduating, he has contracted at top design consultancies such as Big Tomorrow, Carbon 12 Creative, frog Design, and Projekt 202. Most recently, he has returned from a stint designing with Proximity Designs, an award winning social enterprise based on Yangon, Myanmar. I sat down with Jacob recently to discuss his varied experiences, and how AC4D has shaped his path.

What spurred you to attend AC4D?

I found AC4D at a time when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I had been working as an engineer and wasn’t really satisfied with it. A friend of mine pointed me towards AC4D. What really appealed to me about AC4D was that it seemed like a real opportunity for change; it was short, it had a good structure, and it was affordable.

What did you want to do after?

I wasn’t really sure at first, after graduation I kept working as an engineer while I worked through what I wanted to do. After a few months I started taking contract work and I’ve been doing that ever since. My first contract was with Big Tomorrow — it was a short piece of work that was part of a larger project they were doing for UT. Working in the education space felt like a good fit compared to the work I was doing as an engineer — I went from designing cosmetic bezels and latches for Dell servers to helping to design a content strategy for a new educational program geared towards first time college students.

After Big Tomorrow I was lucky enough to get contract work with some great firms like Carbon12 and Projekt202. I ended my year with a project at frog. Frog was always somewhere I wanted to work, and many of the people that mentored me through my transition into design cut their teeth at frog.

What was your role at frog?

Our team was tasked with reconceptualizing and restructuring the application process that veterans go through when they are applying for benefits online at the VA. The old process that veterans navigated to gain their benefits was bureaucratic and at times frustrating — it was an opportunity to streamline and humanize this process. Our project was a small part of a much larger effort that the VA is going through.

Early this year, after my project with frog, I left and went to work with Proximity Design in Myanmar.

How did the opportunity to work in Myanmar surface?

A friend of mine had been doing work with Proximity and helped connect me with them. With my background in engineering and design combined with my interest in social impact, it was clear that Proximity could be a great fit for me. We started talking last fall, navigating the 12-hour time difference to organize interviews over Skype. After a few months of chatting they offered me a fellowship position, where I’d spend 6 months working with their design team.

What is Proximity Design? And can you elaborate on the social aspects?

Proximity is an NGO, but not like any of the other NGO’s I encountered when I was in Myanmar. They built the company around design — the same principles woven throughout the AC4D program — to create products that serve rural farmers, as a means to improve the economic conditions of the county. They don’t just come in and give products to farmers. They work with farmers, designing products around their needs, and ultimately sell their products to those farmers. If farmers don’t like the products Proximity creates, farmers won’t use them, and so the designs have to match the farmers’ expectations. And that’s a huge shift, especially in the NGO world, where you have a lot of external organizations coming in, bringing outside tools and technology, and prescriptively saying, “Here, this is what I think you need.” Proximity’s approach is, “This is what I think you need, and will you buy it?” And it’s up to the farmers to determine the value.

Design team synthesizing field research.

What project did you focus on while in the field?

One of the products they introduced a while back was a drip irrigation system. At the time there were no motorized pumps in the country, and so they created this really elegant gravity fed irrigation system. Over the last few years, sales in the drip system had started to decline and it was our job to go out and figure out how the landscape had been changing over the last few years and how we needed to improve or change the irrigation systems Proximity was making.

We found that the market had changed quite a bit. In the last few years the country has opened up, and with that openness has come new technologies, including cheap motorized pumps from China and Thailand. All the farmers we were working with, who 10 years ago were manually pumping water or pulling water out of wells with buckets, now had diesel and gasoline pumps. There was this new flow of irrigation technologies like cheap layflat tubing and sprinkler heads that are changing the way farmers are working. Proximity needed a system that was going to leverage these new technologies while staying competitive with cheap products from China.

In the end, we developed a new sprinkler system based off of the components from the existing drip system. Our new system is inexpensive, flexible, and reliable, designed to scale with farmers needs.

The new irrigation system.

What was the most challenging aspect of your experience?

There were all these little moments that had their separate challenges. I was in a new place, I had never traveled or lived abroad before. My first month and a half was hard, being away from home and getting used to a new place. But I think there is a certain confidence that you build when you travel, you build confidence through the experience.

Getting used to a new team, especially one in a different country, was challenging but not as much as I had thought it would be. I think I got lucky with the team. There was a language barrier but once I got used to the cadence of translation it wasn’t really an issue. With any team, once we got to know each other we learned how to work with one another.

The workshop.

What was the most rewarding aspect of your experience?

Getting to work with the guys that I did. My teammates were skilled and incredibly talented in their own ways, and it helped to shift my perspective about what makes a good designer. There were four guys on my team — Tin Tun Aung , Aung Ko Ko, Tayzar, and myself. Tayzar used to drive for the design team, but worked his way into the team as a designer. Tin Tun Aung was a welder on the manufacturing team, and when they noticed how creative he was they hired him onto the design team. Aung Koko’s background was in manufacturing. While none of these guys had formal design training, they had a native ability to create and problem solve. In many ways the qualities that make good design are part of the culture in Myanmar, things like creativity and experimentation. It was super rewarding to work with those guys. It helped me realize that design is not this formal thing that needs to be taught, but a natural process that needs to be facilitated and fostered.

Proximity design team at work.

What do you mean by facilitating?

For me, facilitation means helping to guide the design process. Everyone has things that they’re good at and areas where they struggle. Facilitation is about helping everyone feel comfortable enough to create at their best, and leveraging the skills of the group to create the best outcome.

The guys I worked with were really great at the making side of the process — at creating new things and experimenting to solve a problem. They were also really skilled in research, going out and understanding what our customers needed. Where they struggled was the fuzzy middle part — synthesis and sensemaking, where we try to really understand the things we learned in research in a deeper way. The first time we went through synthesis, it was a disaster. I was trying to recreate what I learned in school and it just wasn’t the right fit. We needed to shift and think about how to do synthesis with this team. We had to reframe it in a way that best fit their ability as designers.

Design isn’t a set of tools. It’s a general approach to problem solving. There are tools we can always fall back on, but each problem, project, and team requires its own unique approach.

How have you grown as a designer?

I feel a lot more confident. It was my first time ever leading a team and I found my confidence through that. Designing a physical product, I got to combine my new design skills with my old engineering skills — after a year of working on digital products, shifting back to a space I’m more comfortable with helped to illuminate how much I’ve learned as a designer.

Can you reflect on what your time at AC4D meant to you?

In terms of the experience, the program is super intensive. Everyone told me how intense it was, but I don’t think I really understood what that meant until I started AC4D. That rigor forces you to face your limitations.

Like other programs, AC4D gives you a framework to approach problems with a core set of skills and tools. Where AC4D differs is that it builds on that core. It’s more than just technical skill, the program helps you understand your creative process in an deeper way. It takes all those skills and tools and makes them flexible. You learn to be a designer in the real world, not just one in school and it forces you to have a perspective about the work that you do.

To learn more about Jacob’s work, check out his portfolio.

Austin Center for Design is a not-for-profit educational institution on the East Side of Austin, Texas that exists to transform society through design.

On designing a new VA mental health service delivery experience: an Interview with Melissa Chapman

Hello there! My name is Eric Boggs. In 2013, I graduated from AC4D.  I’m blown away on the regular by the things our alumni are doingwhat I am doingand I wanted to share some of those stories with you.

I can’t help but be up front. I want you to know so that you’ll consider coming. Attending AC4D will empower you to drive impactbecause there is no way you can leave the program as less than a creator, leader, and storyteller. These are things that I think a vast majority of us want to master in our lives, but are just unsure of where to start. AC4D guides you through the process.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Melissa Chapman. Melissa recently began her role as the VA Office of Innovation’s Designer in Residence, where she is determined to reimagine a greatly improved mental health service experience for veterans. If you are ever so lucky as to meet her, you will note her to be fiercely empathetic, direct, polished, and owner of a hearty, disarming laugh.

[eb] Can you tell us about your current role?

[mc] Sure. I’m currently serving as the first full-time designer at the VA Center for Innovation (VACI) where my focus is, among other things, working with the team to increase access to mental health services — in a myriad of ways. Before I joined, our Deputy Director worked with the Public Policy Lab and did a lot of generative research with Veterans, practitioners, administrators and staff — identifying a host of pilot projects and opportunity spaces. On day one, she basically handed it to me and said, “go”.

The work is a combination of service, visual and interaction design. The majority of the work occurs in the field alongside users where we routinely shadow doctors and Veterans, prototype, user test, conduct stakeholder interviews, repeat. The other key is knowing who to reach out to for policy clarifications and design feedback, as well as who to get in the room for collaborative workshops.

The core strategy is co-creating and enacting product and service roadmaps that prioritize elements that increase access to mental health services, which requires a combination of advocacy, policy and design. It’s my professional Graceland.

In home prototyping session.
In home prototyping session.

[eb] What has been the most challenging aspect of this work?

[mc] Prioritizing. With so many eager staff and innovation opportunities, it’s challenging to actually focus on the issue at hand.

[eb] What process do you use or have you created to prioritize what gets fixed?

[mc] I’ve started to think more than ever about long-term strategy versus short-term. Long-term strategy I keep very specific and narrow. In the short-term, I’m highly collaborative and open to other opportunities (i.e. know firmly where you’re trying to get, but be flexible on how you get there).

Veteran parking.
Veteran parking.

[eb] What has been the most rewarding moment or aspects of the role?

[mc] Well, lots of them. Hmmm. I was working in a waiting room at a VA Medical Center the day that the Dallas police shootings happened. I was looking around, watching how other people were responding, as it flashed up on the screen that it was a Veteran who had pulled the trigger. All of the news articles I read subsequently indicated that he was having trouble with mental health issues.

So, just the timeliness of this work. And the heart of it. The fact that we’re always working towards being the voice of the Veteran — that won’t get old.

It’s also the best to meet and work alongside true civil servants. These people have been working to improve life at the VA for decades and are happy to hear about, and participate in, this latest chapter of creative problem solving.

[eb] AC4D focuses on the realities of business, too. What does that mean to you in the context of the VA?

mc] We have to think not just about Veteran value, but also business value. And that is what I think distinguishes AC4D. The school is able to train top-tier, interdisciplinary designers who don’t create ideas in a vacuum.

The mental health mapping, for instance. Because Veterans don’t know how to access services, it’s common to present to the ER over and over again. Not only is it a not ideal experience for the Veteran, but also an unsustainable business design. It’s the most expensive way to treat a Veteran that doesn’t guarantee continuity of care. I mean, it’s clear, right? It’s sort of obvious, but also it’s ingrained in our AC4D brains to take that into account as a key constraint of the design process.

AC4D taught us design in the context of business value and systems thinking.

[eb] How did AC4D prepare you for this?

[mc] The curriculum drives home the importance of value; not just beautiful design. Their bullshit meter is so spot-on. It also teaches you to get out of the way of your own process.

[eb] What were you doing prior to AC4D?

[mc] I was coordinating political (mostly environmental) campaigns in the Pacific Northwest.

[eb] Why did you choose AC4D?

[mc] I wanted to build a relevant skill set that’s human-centric and has heart.

[eb] What does your year at AC4D mean to you?

[mc] It was the year that I became in charge of my life. AC4D teaches autonomy. It teaches you to own things and gives you a tool set on how to do so. I see this all the time. For example, I get emails with questions from people that they so clearly could have gotten the answer to… There’s just so much about the world and classic educational systems that train you to not think or act for yourself.

There’s a saying at AC4D: Ideas are free. Implicit in this is… what are you actually going to do about it? The faculty drive that home in a way that’s healthy, but also intense. There’s an urgency to it; then there’s a level of general self-discipline that you build in parallel.

[eb] Who has been most influential for you as a designer/social impact designer?

[mc] In college, I got really into Paul Freire (I know, I know…). In his bookThe Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he talks about praxis: the reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed. Even as the veil of young idealism lifted in my mid 20’s, I always had one eye out for a way to enact this very thing. When I found AC4D, I quickly recognized it as a place where this could be applied in a modern day sense.

[eb] Is there anything else you’d like to share?

[mc] Have you seen the alumni happiness survey? Proof is in the pudding, people!

Austin Center for Design is a not-for-profit educational institution on the East Side of Austin, Texas that exists to transform society through design, and inspires greatness in students leading to happy, impactful, and well compensated graduates.


Alumni Design-a-thon Results

La Michoacana market, a Hispanic Market on east 7th street in Austin, TX, is just a block away from my work but feels a world away from the Austin I typically experience.  Garish, multi-colored lettering on the outside describes food products in Spanish.  The clientele is predominantly Hispanic, particularly during the lunch hour, when lines of Hispanic migrant construction workers await Mexican food and aguas frescas from the kitchen that dominates one half of the store.  That afternoon, I walked sheepishly around the store with my clipboard (generally to feign professionalism), before I finally began a pained conversation with the cash register attendant in Spanish.  Shortly, I fell into a broken Spanish and English mix.

Over the course of a few weeks, our team of AC4D alumni conducted street and subject matter expert interviews to understand Hispanic language access issues in Austin – What are the cultural and economic impacts of not being able to speak English? And what are the barriers to learning and practicing English?  From our research, we aimed to use design to generate ideas that could be used to both support language acquisition and improve a sense of shared identity in Austin, which more often than not feels like 4 or more cities co-habiting than it does one unified city.

Conducting the research, particularly via street interviews, wasn’t easy.  Our team’s rather low level of Spanish expertise gave us a rather ironic window into what many ESL students must face in their day to day experience in Austin. While I speak decent Spanish after college study abroad experiences in Central and South America, that fluidity was built up almost (gasp) 8 years ago.  Our team of designers, including Chuck Hildebrand, Bhavini Patel, and Melissa Chapman, all have varied levels of non-existent to passable Spanish skills.

With that said, I will not trade the often priceless experiences that followed those awkward introductions, where we gained some very real insight into the drivers and challenges facing migrants in our city.  Just like you and me, they’re trying to make life work – yet they might already have families and multiple jobs that can, and do, get in the way of learning something new.  I wanted to thank each member of our team, as well as the experts and individuals who gave their time to support the effort.

A taste of highlights from our Research

 There are challenging logistical barriers for Hispanic migrants trying to learn English.

Hispanic migrants often live far from their workplaces and work multiple jobs with fluid schedules.  Poorer migrants, and particularly undocumented migrants likely do not own a car – and therefore getting to and from any particular ESL location requires time and energy that only the most driven of learners can give.

The best course content includes elected, and not solely directed, information.

Learners should have a say in the content that they learn.  Speakers may want to focus on basic interactions that support daily living, such as health, school, workplace transportation, and other economic transactions.  But they equally may want to learn more specific nuance to the language they are using, including accents, pauses, pitch, and humor.

Camaraderie is an important aspect of long term learning.

For some that attend language classes, the draw for learning a language may be just as much about connecting with other people as it is about learning.  The emotional connection can provide an ongoing link to attendance that a traditional classroom approach doesn’t explicitly provide.  We should support interactions that increase dialogue around what it takes to survive and thrive in Austin.

Read the final report!

Report Cover

In the future, we’d like to identify partners for civic design who could sponsor a formal challenge for Austin Center for Design Alumni.  Please let me know your thoughts, suggestions for topic challenges, and recommendations for partners that would be interested.


Kicking Off the First AC4D Alumni Design-a-Thon

On Wednesday, October 8th, I jointly kicked off the first AC4D Alumni Design-a-Thon for Social Good.  A Design-a-Thon is a term that I use loosely to describe a shared design process, similar to a hackathon, with “appropriate” time set aside for each phase of design.  Over the next month, our core team of 4 alumni and 12 part-time alumni will be exploring the topic of Linguistic and Cultural Barriers for Hispanics in the city of Austin; a very large and diverse, but seemingly segregated group in our city.

I am so excited to interact with this community, to learn from them, and hopefully come up with an exciting product or service concept that we can actually build.  Y finalmente, yo tengo una oportunidad a usar el lenguaje en lugar de solo preguntado por tacos!  I joke, but there’s definitely something about getting “stuck” in one’s place in the city as I sometimes lament; in not expanding or growing, but seeing things the same way and falling into routines. There will be more posts in the future by other members of the core design team, including Melissa Chapman, Chuck Hildebrand, and Bhavini Patel, tracking both arcs of personal and project experience.  I want to take my time to focus on the expansive nature of this Design-a-Thon, and give context on what it means to me.

First, connection.

I remember Ruby Ku (’11) and I (’13) discussing alumni engagement over coffee at Cenote, one of our favorite spots in East Austin.  The intensity of the AC4D program – working day in and day out, for long hours with the same group of 10 people – feels so imbalanced to the post-program experience, where we haven’t had structured ways to keep involved and connected with each other. That’s disappointing, and something we agreed we should work to change.  The Design-a-Thon was born over that discussion, realizing that we should work together for fun: as a chance to retell stories and laugh, as well as grow professionally.  We can learn so much from each other and build our talents further. Many of us have been apart for 1-2 years, working on different projects and with differing methodologies across Austin.

Second, potential impact.

I remember my first design bootcamp.  I was a non-designer, trying to figure out how to do the process of design, without the actual time to process what I was really doing.  Now, with training and the design toolkit under my belt, I feel more confident in the design process.  Design gives me authority to be in places I don’t belong, and ask questions I should not – what my work colleague Briana would consider the privilege to be “nosy”.  These experiences lead to insights that are the seeds to ideas that through refinement and testing can have great impact and value to individuals.

I think all of us who’ve come through the program define impact in part as working on projects that have the potential to effect reduction in community ills.  We perceive them as the issues that “really matter” to quality of life, and to the largest number of people.  That is the allure.  We all experienced it going through the curriculum, through our own projects or watching ones that other alumni have continued.  We want to follow it now that our skills are growing up.

Many say good design is achieved through design; namely, repetition.  I’m excited to see what we can deliver on during this iteration.



Let them Add the Drapes

Happy Valentine’s Day!  I bought a bacon rose for my girlfriend – #ihopeshethinksitsawesome?

I’ve been thinking a lot over the last few days about how to design applications that give users the foundation – the house – but let them add character and flair in a way that isn’t obtrusive.  Even better, without doing much or any work on top of what they would be doing normally.  Those type of interactions done well are delightful.

For example, in the CareWell application I’m designing and building for caregivers and their families, any user in the family can add and change the group’s photo.  This will also update the background to the logo, visible on every screen.  I’m betting that users will change the photo, not only because it affects what they see – but that because they know other members will see that photo and delight in it.

My guess is that individuals become more attached to things that represent their uniqueness, and are therefore less likely to stop using them. Individuals are also more likely to use things that help them express that uniqueness to other people.

This is the anti-path/fb Paper approach to design.  They’ve gone ahead, curated, and built the whole shebbang.  With perfect pixels and manicured swipes, the apps look great (I’m actually extremely envious of their design team talent!), but I’ll never use them again.  There’s no room for me to make it mine.

This may very well be the fundamental difference between interaction design and industrial design.  I want something physical designed to perfection, because it is immutable.  It’s also easier to show off.  Pixels, on the other hand, are hidden and ephemeral.  Great design in this sphere requires thoughtful usability, restraint, and the respect to let the user co-create delight.