Code is material: why designers must learn to code

It would seem obvious and non-contentious to say that if you are crafting a digital product, you should know how to code.

It is neither obvious nor non-contentious.

Last year, around this time, Jared Spool offered three reasons why learning to code makes you a better designer. He got responses indicating only partial agreement or complete disagreement from Jan Tidwell, Hillel Cooperman, Davide Casali, and on and on. (There are also lots and lots and lots of responses in the affirmative).

When you craft something, you manipulate a material to do what you want, to behave in the way you desire. And when you have a mastery of that material, you can act with a strong sense of fluidity. I’ve heard artists describe this fluidity as a dance: where both partners have autonomy, but there is harmony between them. The artist knows the limits of the material, how it “wants” to move or flow, how it will react when you push or pull it, how it will change over time, how it will react with other materials, and so-on. When I studied ceramics in upstate New York, my mentor used to mix glazes according to recipes he developed over thirty years. He would follow the recipes to a point; then, he would add pinches of materials based on the humidity or the ambient room temperature. I’ve been using his glaze recipes here in Austin, and while the general aesthetic is right, they don’t have the same richness and depth, and I don’t have enough of a mastery of the material to fix them. (He also adds coffee to the clay before mixing it, a habit I’ve picked up without really understanding why. He also listens to classical Indian music while throwing, a habit I fully subscribe to.)

I like the metaphor of “code as material.” When you write code, it has a flow to it. It reacts to your actions (and the actions of other people – “users”) in certain ways. It changes over time, based mostly on the complexities of the environment in which it is found. It reacts to other code, and so-on. And, like clay and glazes, it has both accessibility for basic learning and a frustratingly long learning curve towards developing mastery. Once you develop mastery in code, you can dance with it, and produce the same types of harmonious beauty that comes from understanding the flow and pulse of any material.

I’m a big proponent of thoughtful, methodical, intellectual design process. I advise students to think through the details. Consider the edge cases. Work through iterations. Don’t throw everything up and see what sticks; have an informed opinion. Take your time. Make supporting artifacts, as these help you think. And so-on.

But one of the few principles of agile that I actually agree with is the idea that design doesn’t end when development starts. Development should be a creative activity, not a rote form of execution, and if that’s true, coding is an extension of design. During development, design decisions happen over and over and over. That’s not a failure of the designer forgetting to specify things; it’s a reality of dancing with the material, and it should be one of the most enjoyable parts of making. Instead, it commonly becomes a point of contention. It is in these real-time development decisions that a quality product is often lost. Developers who have little autonomy feel that they weren’t given all of the data to execute. Designers who don’t understand the material feel frustrated (both with themselves and with their development teams) when they see the results. The seams of the product become exposed, as these small details add up.

I’m watching one of my alumni, Ruby Ku, code the next version of HourSchool through paired programming with another alumni, Chap Ambrose. Two years ago, Ruby didn’t know how to design or code. Now, she’s achieving proficiency in both. And as a result, I see her engaging in the dance, and having moments of beauty in crafting. And as a result of that, I see her having a more thoughtful, more considered, and more nuanced opinion about digital products in general.

Ruby’s broad goal is to tackle wicked problems. This can only help. Learning to code is giving her increased mastery over her materials, and so she can begin to craft things she sees as positive changes to the world. Technology is a magical bridge between people because it acts as an amplifier. Learning to design and learning to code will give you control over what is amplified, and allow you to drive the changes you want to see in the world.


[Related: Craftsmanship]

Observations on the relationship between government, business, and wicked problems

Politics – the role of government, and our views about that role – have a critical influence in wicked problems. It is common to view politics as artificial and somehow extraneous to our work. Yet in the context of nutrition, health and wellness, poverty, and so on, understanding how these forces work is fundamental to changing behavior.

Consider: according to the NCHS, 35.7% of the adults in the United States are obese.

Why? How? How can we fix it?

Based on that finding, our country would, theoretically, change policies to control the types of food that are consumed or produced, to mandate changes in physical education for students, to add warnings to sodas (like the warnings on cigarettes), and so-on. But did you know that the definition of “obesity” is simply a body mass index (BMI) of greater than 30? Most of us have no idea what a BMI is. It’s a measure of your weight in pounds, divided by your height in inches (squared), times 703. If that seems fairly arbitrary, it’s because it is: it was developed in 1840, and hasn’t changed since. NPR describes “10 reasons why the BMI is bogus”. Kate Harding offers pictures to illustrate what BMI means in real people, arguing that BMI lumps people who are obviously fit into the “obese” category, while Medical News Today claims that we’re probably underestimating obesity in the US.

High-fructose corn syrup causes weight gain, and is now linked to both autism and ADHD. Michal Pollan describes that “Corn is the sweetener in the soda. It’s in the corn-fed beef Big Mac patty, and in the high-fructose syrup in the bun, and in the secret sauce. Slim Jims are full of corn syrup, dextrose, cornstarch, and a great many additives. The “four different fuels” in a Lunchables meal, are all essentially corn-based. The chicken nugget—including feed for the chicken, fillers, binders, coating, and dipping sauce—is all corn. The french fries are made from potatoes, but odds are they’re fried in corn oil, the source of 50 percent of their calories. Even the salads at McDonald’s are full of high-fructose corn syrup and thickeners made from corn.”

Some doctors are lobbying to change how we calculate obesity to use waist-to-height ratio, a better indicator of actual health risks. And others are demanding that we readjust our century-old focus on corn subsidies, part of the the farm income stabilization, which are incenting the use of these ingredients in the foods described above.

Who would oppose such changes, in the face of scientific evidence?

According to Reuters, the “side with the fattest wallets.” The food and beverage lobby spent 140M in 2009-2011 – more than they spent in 1998-2008 combined. As the Reuters article describes, these lobbyists drive their message directly to the top: “On July 12, White House visitor logs show a who’s who of food company chief executives and lobbyists visited the White House. The group met with Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s senior adviser, and Melody Barnes, then director of the president’s Domestic Policy Council. Among the group at the meeting: CEOs of Nestle USA, Kellogg, General Mills, and top executives at Walt Disney, Time Warner, and Viacom, owner of the Nickelodeon children’s channel — companies with some of the biggest financial stakes in marketing to children. Those companies have a combined market value of more than $350 billion.”

And when you peek behind the curtain, you see Janice Fields – president of McDonalds USA – is also on the board of Monsanto Company. You learn that John Chidsey, formerly CEO of Burger King, is a Director at HealthSouth, the US’s largest owner and operator of inpatient rehabilitative hospitals. Janet Hill, Director of Wendy’s, is also the director of Dean Foods, which owns Robinson Dairy, Borden, Country Fresh, Mayfield Dairy, and pretty much every other dairy manufacturer in the US. Daniel Bryant is the Senior Vice President of Global Public Policy and Government Affairs for PepsiCo, and is on the board of directors for the largest lobbying group in the US, the “United States Chamber of Commerce”. Donald Correll is on the board of directors there, too, and is also a director at HealthSouth. Patricia Woertz is the CEO of Archer Daniels Midland, an agriculture processor. She also sits on the board of directors at Procter & Gamble, and sat on the US President’s Export Council.

The connections between the producers, distributors, and politicians are clear, and personal influence plays a major role in setting policy direction. In a wicked problem, behavior change comes through multiple approaches, all engaging at once. Some of these come from product and service design and advanced technology. Many of them come from advertising and cultural voice. And a huge amount of them come through the influence of a very small number of people, manifested as lobby-led policy decisions. To fire on all cylinders, social entrepreneurs likely need to understand and drive all of these forces.

If you haven’t played with the online tool They Rule, check it out here: it offers a great interactive visualization of those who are pulling the strings.

Online Learning, Part III: A System Of The Future

My last two posts offered my opinions on why online education doesn’t work. That’s a pretty pessimistic outlook. I thought I would offer a conceptual sketch of what online education might look like if it did work. Here are the components that I would need to offer thoughtful and reflective studio, theory, and methods courses online.

A virtual media wall. Students can place content on the wall by dragging and dropping. Once on the wall, content can be moved, resized, grouped, overlapped, and annotated. Multiple students can use the wall at once. The wall is large but finite in size, to simulate an actual war-room, and to ensure content doesn’t get lost in the periphery. A “print to media wall” (like “print to acrobat”) is installed on the client computer, allowing every application to seamlessly export to the wall. This type of tool allows for students to externalize their content, compare and contrast, see progress, and understand the whole and the sum of the parts.

A virtual conversation hall. Students can join a live conversation, simulating either a lecture hall or a small-group discussion. Everyone in the conversation displays a webcam view of their face (similar to Google Hangout), and the facilitator of the discussion can see and takeover the screens of the students (individually, or in a group) to display content. This type of tool encourages artifact-driven conversations, where content is used to substantiate a point of view.

Floating control. Students have the ability to push control to other students or teachers, letting someone else operate their mouse and keyboard remotely (similar to VNC or other remote access tools). Latency of these solutions is pretty poor, especially with rich graphics applications, and so this probably won’t happen any time soon. But this type of tool will allow for an approximation of the real-time design-led correction that occurs in a studio, where someone draws on top of your drawing or builds on top of your prototype. This form of learning is critical for designers: to see, in real time, their own work evolve through the skills of someone else.

Whiteboard on demand. At any time, students and teachers need the ability to sketch publicly in a free-form manner. Sketching with a mouse sucks, and so this feature implies a different type of input device for students (such as a stylus). This type of tool mimics the type of visual thinking that occurs throughout a design studio, where ideas are visualized in real time and in a highly raw format.

Shared music. It seems silly, but a big part of the studio environment is working in a group, quietly, listening to the same music (and fighting over control), and reminiscing about different musical styles. My online dream tool includes the ability for everyone to hear the same music at the same time, creating an ambient connective thread between students.

In addition to having these things, my ideal online teaching tool doesn’t have forums, quizzes, gradebooks, homework turn-in, plagiarism checking, attendance, and all of the other nonsense that most LMS providers have decided is critical for teaching. These patronizing features are a distraction, and have nothing to do with learning.

Perhaps the largest challenge of achieving the above is in the smoothness of interactions: the ease with which someone transitions from one tool to the other. It’s tempting to design modes – whiteboard mode, conversation mode – as discrete sections of the solution. But that’s not how education works, and that’s not how learning occurs. All of the “tools” above are not really tools at all, but facets of a learning environment, and they need to co-exist with minimal boundaries between them. I realize a lot of this is presently both obvious and a technical pipe dream (reinforcing my pessimistic view of most of the online tools being built), but I also realize that technological advancement is now approaching a period of renaissance. Believe it or not, the next ten years are going to be as close to science fiction as we’ve ever experienced. To borrow from Ray Kurzweil’s metaphor of the “second half of the chessboard”, the exponential increase in computing capability that will occur during the next ten years will be massive as compared to the last ten years. And so we’ll have the opportunity to leverage technologies to achieve a vision similar to that described above.

My vision for online learning is technically advanced in infrastructure (requiring high bandwidth, low latency, streaming video, large displays, and so-on), but extraordinarily simple in user-facing features. As Clayton Christensen describes, “We use the word disruptive, not because it was a breakthrough improvement.. it [technically] wasn’t as good. But it was more affordable, and simpler, and more convenient to use… What we found is that almost invariably, an entrant company came in and killed the leader when one of these disruptive innovations emerged.” The disruptive innovation in education will be, from a user’s standpoint, extraordinarily simple and obvious. The disruptive innovation in education will not be a superior teaching algorithm; it will be a superior learning environment.

Online Learning, Part II: Designing Experiences

I wrote about my hesitations with online learning, and received an extremely thorough response from Frederick van Amstel. In it, he describes the creation of a new learning tool called Corais. At the same time, Anya Kamenetz pointed me towards two alternative tools, p2pu and udacity. We got into a discussion here at AC4D, and Ruby Ku – of HourSchool – pointed out the development of I’m also familiar with weteachme and skilio.

There are lots and lots of new companies that are attempting to change the way we learn, and I applaud every single one of them for their intent. At the same time, I have a nuanced and academic critique of nearly all of them, and to get to the critique, I need to take a slight detour to talk about experience, and to quote heavily from someone smarter than myself, John Dewey. If you’ve never read Experience & Education (pdf link), you might go do it now; it’s a short read, although not an easy one. I’ve read it six or seven times and I’m still not sure I’ve absorbed it all. In it, Dewey responds to the idea of “progressive education” – education that rejects traditional norms, such as sitting in desks, learning from books, moving through a rigid and linear history, and preparing for university. Instead, the progressive education movement focused on experiential learning and critical thinking.

A lesser known text by Dewey, Schools of To-morrow, examines some of these progressive attempts. He critiques Montessori for being too constraining – offering an illusion of freedom – while recognizing that unconstrained play leads to an imitation of existing norms, where children act out existing social activities and reinforce social patterns. In all of the progressive techniques, learning occurs by experiencing things – by taking an active role in activities and interactions, and reflecting on that active role.

And so we turn, today, to self-declared “experience designers”, to create “user experiences” that are of a high quality: implicit in many conversations of “disruptive education” via the internet is the idea that a designer will create the ideal learning experience.

There’s a sense of history repeating itself. The rhetoric around online learning tends to emphasize the same things that Dewey embraced only with a sense of hesitancy. He championed alternative forms of learning, but with a major caveat, described in his “experiential continuum.”

I see Dewey offering three critical points for educational reform through this experiential continuum.

First, experiences change people. A person is not the same person after the experience, as they were when they started. “From this point of view, the principle of continuity of experience means that every experience both takes up something from those which have gone before and modifies in some way the quality of those which come after.” Additionally, having an experience “influences in some degree the objective conditions under which further experiences are had.” As we experience, we learn, and as we learn, we view subsequent experiences through a different lens. An educational system needs to adapt to these changes.

Next, experiences are not equal. As he describes, “The belief that genuine education comes about through experience does not mean that all experiences are genuinely or equally educative. Experience and education cannot be directly equated to each other. For some experiences are miseducative.” Dewey then points out that traditional education is made up of experiences, too, and that most progressive education decries these as being “of the wrong kind.” And so it is not the necessity of experiencing things that is relevant for progressive education. “Every- thing depends upon the quality of the experience, which is had… Hence the central problem of an education based upon experience is to select the kind of present experiences that live fruitfully and creatively in subsequent experiences.”

Finally, viewing experience as if it were something that goes in only in ones’ body and mind is reductive and wrong, ignoring ” what has been done and transmitted from previous human activities… It ought not to be necessary to say that experience does not occur in a vacuum. There are sources outside an individual which give rise to experience.” An experience is rich, unique, and multi-faceted, because it depends on the entire social and cultural history of the person doing the experiencing. “The conceptions of situation and of interaction are inseparable from each other. An experience is always what it is because of a transaction taking place between an individual and what, at the time, constitutes his environment.” Education needs to understand and contextualize content within that social and cultural history of the learner.

Given these three points, the role of the teacher is one of interaction curation through individualized focus: the teacher needs to offer opportunities for students to experience things on their own, but they need to create appropriate boundaries around these interactions and activities to encourage a certain type of desired outcome. I say “opportunities for students to experience things”, and “encourage”, because the experience will always be personal: it will always be different and unique, depending on the social and cultural background of the learner.

And so, I return to think about the new online paradigms emerging – those that reject the common, and awful, approach to simply duplicating seats in desks, multiple-choice quizzes, and other obviously flawed ways of teaching and learning. Many of these new paradigms fall under the unfortunate acronym MOOC: Massive Open Online Course. What these platforms are attempting has extremely positive goals: to offer a democratized view of education, where content is available freely and students can mix and remix content together to form their own curriculum.

The problem I see in many of these new tools is one of experience. Having a learning experience is not automatically positive. Watching a video online is not necessarily good. Building my own curriculum is not necessarily good. Listening to a lecture is not necessarily good. These things are always contextual. You can’t design a learning experience for someone else to consume, and then abdicate the responsibility of the subsequent changes that occur. Put another way, you can’t “experience design” your way to learning, online or off. You can urge, cajole, shepherd, scaffold, or influence students, and that’s precisely the role of the human teacher: to help the learner structure the right conditions for their experiences to occur, individually. And then, the teacher has an ethical responsibility and a moral imperative to respond, once those experiences have changed the learner. And to continue to respond, and change the learning activities and interactions, over a sustained period of time. A good teacher changes the way learning happens every single time they interact with a single student. This is why Big Picture Learning works, why Dennis Littky can boast graduation rates of ninety percent. It’s why traditional apprenticeships are so effective. And it’s why I’m so hesitant to embrace an online platform, no matter how new and different the learning paradigm – no matter how “unique the experiences.”

I realize that my critique is not a practical one, although it has practical (and hard) implications. But if we’re going to claim to be educating people, we need to consider how education works. This is theoretical, as is all educational pedagogy. Education needs to be grounded in theory, and Dewey’s writings from a hundred years ago are the best educational theory I’ve read, yet. I hope the founders of each of these companies has an opinion on Dewey’s work, and I hope they can find a way to humanize their technological platforms in order to recognize this adaptive and ongoing dialogue that has to happen between a student and a teacher. That’s the future of education. It’s not easy, quick, or cheap. The internet will play a fundamental role, no doubt. But so will people: teachers are still critical.

Problems With Online Learning

I’ve had a lot of people ask me why Austin Center for Design doesn’t offer online courses. The short answer is because I don’t think online learning is effective.

Here’s a generally accepted view of education: A professor has knowledge, and is going to give it to students. This is how many fields are taught; this is how I attempted to learn statistics. I sat in a large room, and a professor stood in the front, and talked at us. The educational environment was optimized round this form of exchange–for the movement of content from one person to a mass number of people. In fact, all of the supporting structures were created to aid in the idea of mass content movement. The TAs taught “recitation” sections, in order to reiterate what the professor said but in smaller groups. The multiple-choice assessment was used to judge effectiveness across hundreds of people. It’s a machine approach to education, one where the goal is efficient knowledge transfer.

There’s another approach to learning, one that I subscribe to. In this version of education, the professor has had experiences of a certain style, and is going to try to help students encounter experiences of a similar style. And, through various activities and conversations, students will reflect on their own experiences together, gaining a form of “meta education”, or education about the education. The professor has knowledge, but there’s no expectation that they will “give” the knowledge to students. Instead, by having experiences with shared attributes, students will develop the knowledge on their own, and will therefore have a more associative and deep meaningful relationship with that knowledge. They will understand the context of the knowledge, and what’s more, they will have experiential hooks into the knowledge: richer neural pathways through which they can retrieve that knowledge later.

In design, experiential learning is critical. There is no specific subject matter of design other than design process, method, history and theory.  I may not know anything about a students’ design topic – say, poverty in Austin or Texas organic farming – and so I can’t offer any assistance on the particulars. But because I’ve experienced design problems that have a similar form, and because I’ve experienced the cadence and approach of creating various services or products, I can structure learning opportunities that anticipate certain styles of outcome. In a sense, I can create experience frameworks for learning, with a strong degree of confidence that a student will find their way to a design solution that’s appropriate.

All of this is a backdrop upon which I view the question of online learning. Online learning is optimized around knowledge transfer. It doesn’t have to be, and there will be a future where the internet provides a cohesive set of experiential learning tools. But right now, the tools massively constrain the type of education that can occur.

These are just some of the problems I’ve encountered with online learning (both as a student and teacher), related to this idea of knowledge transfer as compared to experiential problem solving.

The student receives Immediate quantitative responses but delayed qualitative responses (or none at all). Because of the perceived convenience of automated grading, online learning management tools seem to lead educators towards multiple choice assessment. The student receives their numeric grade immediately after completing a task or exercise, which seems like a good idea: instant feedback reinforces behavior. But because of the immediacy of a succinct response, it seems that educators don’t feel it necessary to provide a richer, more qualitative response. The student may then never gain an understanding about their problem solving or learning strategy, greatly reducing their ability to form a causal relationship between their actions and their results. They are left knowing how they did, but not why, and so they’ll have no real indication of how to improve. This form of quant-driven, multiple-choice assessment is a testing mechanism that’s a result of a knowledge-transfer precedent in education.

There is no immediate, in-situ response; there is no “talk-back” between the student, the teacher, and the subject matter. When working through a problem in real-time, the content acts as the mediator between teacher and student. The educator may point at a piece of content, offer a meta discussion about it, and then relate it to another piece of content or to a personal experience. In creative fields, the teacher may actually do some of the work in front of the student, so they can see a new drawing, idea, or concept emerge in front of them. This is lost online. There is no real-time canvas of interactivity, there is no relating a problem to an anecdote.

Educational forums seem to foster shallow discussion. There are many great examples of online forums on the internet with rich, moderated discussion. Participants are there voluntarily, and post when they have something to say. While many online programs attempt a form of interactivity between students through similar message boards or scheduled chats, the substance of the conversation is thin. When I’ve asked students about this, they describe a sense of posting obligation: that they may have a certain number of forum posts that are required, and so they engage simply to check off a box or receive credit.

There’s little room for Socratic learning. My Socratic approach is one where I build on (and repeat) what a student has said in order to get them to say more about it or to get another student to respond. This back and forth occurs extremely quickly. While this can be replicated in typed chat, it typically isn’t (probably in part because students can’t type that fast), and when it’s attempted via webcam, the latency of most consumer internet connections introduces enough lag to be problematic.

There’s no sense of emotional progress. The idea of “feeling like you are learning” is really, really, really important. It’s entirely subjective, though, and is based on things like individualized attention, emotional reactions to individual people, and meaningful feedback in the context of errors or mistakes. And this feeling comes through discussion, and is nuanced: it’s not algorithmic. I have conversations with my students, and we walk around the block, and we drink a beer, and we talk about our feelings. It’s therapy, more or less, and it’s hard to understand that it matters. I have yet to see an equivalent in online learning tools.

There is a lack of peer to peer learning. In creative fields, seeing your peers making progress serves both as an instructional tool and as a motivator. It provides a point of reference to approach and to quality, and reinforces the idea of craftsmanship. There is no equivalent form of “next-desk” style learning in online learning packages, where students can peek at the work of their peers in an informal and non-confrontational setting.

Asynchronous learning drives a non-standard learning timeline. Online learning provides the ability for students to progress through a class based on their own schedule, and this is a large attraction for students. But it means that students in a class don’t share a common reference point during a discussion or conversation; they aren’t focused on any given subject matter at a unified time. A great deal of rich learning occurs by comparing and contrasting approaches and results from multiple students at once. If the students aren’t encountering subject matter at the same time, it becomes difficult to offer these comparisons in a meaningful way.

In addition to these core stylistic issues as related to knowledge-transfer vs. experiential learning, there are also more pragmatic problems that I see with learning in an online environment:

Online Distractions. My students are, generally, a product of a digital generation (as am I, to some degree), and in class, they have laptops open with Facebook and Twitter. But because I can lock their gaze and see their faces, and because of existing social norms concerning eye contact in an education setting, and because our classes are small enough that I can literally see their screens, they typically refrain from full-on use of these tools during class. There are no such social norms for online education, and from my experiences observing students using online tools in action, it’s clear that the actual educational content takes second place to the social tools.

Brittle technology. The more advanced forms of online learning – those that involve multiple webcams and group chat, or canvas-based approaches for free-form whiteboard-style drawing – simply don’t work well. There are compatibility issues. There are bandwidth issues. There are latency problems, or syncing problems, or plug-in problems, or browser problems. The advanced technology brings advanced problems, making it extraordinarily time consuming to perform even simple activities.

Until an online tool manages to alleviate some of the above concerns, I’ll continue to offer my program exclusively in a face-to-face environment.  An evolution of online tools will happen, no doubt about it. But it hasn’t happened yet. For all the hype of Khan Academy, it still falls short in terms of collaboration, free-form expression, peer to peer learning, and complex problem solving. It’s serving a niche for rote-based fact dissemination, allowing us to eliminate most basic introductory courses (and I’m all for getting rid of the giant, anonymous, teacher-doesn’t-want-to-be-there, taught-by-graduate-students courses at most universities). But there’s so much more we can do. Presently, all of the component parts of online education are lacking: camera hardware, network latency, software, pedagogy, and so-on. The internet is a vehicle for exponential reach; it amplifies things. Right now, online learning is amplifying bad educational practice. It’s making it easier for people not to learn. I feel education is the way out of the various social, financial, political, and economic messes facing our country, and that it’s too important to do wrong.

A Nation of Whiners: The Implications of a Service Economy

In the past three days, I’ve had three negative interactions with the service economy. Chase put a block on my credit card, resulting in a trying visit to Mexico. I got fed up with AT&T spamming me with promotions for U-Verse, and I complained via twitter. And a TSA agent dropped my camera after I opted out of a naked scanner at the Austin airport.

In reflecting on these interactions, and my reactions to them, I’m beginning to wonder if I, along with most of the country, am embracing an expectant and entitled perspective about service. It’s been 80 years since Harry Gordon Selfridge said “The customer is always right”, and we’ve always just assumed it to be true. But I watch people pick fights with companies in front of the world via twitter with increased prevalence. I too realize the success of and continue to exploit the “public shaming” quality of a twitter-based service escalation. The entire meme of “first world problems” resonates only because we rationalize how inconsequential these problems actually are, yet we continue to vocalize them, complain about them, and make demands for more, better, faster. Although I can’t believe I agree with Phil Gramm about anything, it does appear that we’re becoming a nation of whiners, and the whining is mostly related to misaligned expectations. Either companies aren’t providing a high enough level of service, or our expectations are set too high. I believe both are true.

What is Service Design?

While service design is only just beginning to gain traction in the United States, Europeans have discussed and practiced this form of system design for years. It makes sense, given that the service histories of the US and Europe differ. It’s a difficult profession to understand without an example, so here’s one that’s fairly obvious: imagine the service offering of McDonalds unfolding before you on a large stage. You are in the audience, and it’s an audience of one. On stage before you, things happen: someone approaches and welcomes you, takes your order, asks for your money, gives you change, and then gives you your food. Behind the curtain, other things are happening that you can’t see. Someone receives the order. Someone makes the food. Someone receives a delivery. And so-on. What makes service design unique, though, is that – unlike a passive observer at a play – you are an active participant. You do things, feel certain ways, and react to interactions. You don’t like onions, so you ask them to hold the onions. You are curious about how much fat is in the burger. You ask where the restroom is located. When the cashier sneezes into her hands, and then turns around to grab your order, you change your mind and leave in disgust. Simply, you have autonomy: you do things, most of which are predictable, and some of which aren’t. And, the various employees have autonomy, too, meaning they may or may not follow the policies, procedures, and rules put in place by the larger corporation.

Now, extend the stage idea beyond the confines of the restaurant. Consider all of the other places you encounter the McDonalds brand. They have many stores. Some of a drive-through. Others have a children’s play area.  They have advertisements. They offer coupons. They sponsor charity events. They respond to public policy. They lobby. And so on. Each place you find the brand affords an opportunity for interactions with the brand. And each time you interact with the brand, you are finding yourself in the midst of service design: a large-scale type of interaction design.

Service Expectations

Service design is usually manifested in a design strategy as a service design blueprint: a visual illustration of the stage metaphor, showing the various touchpoints between a company and a customer. It describes the expectations of normal behavior between the customer and service employees, products, supporting artifacts, environments, websites, and so-on. And a good service design blueprint appropriately recognizes autonomy: the ability for both the employee and the customer to act in ways that aren’t “designed.”

If an employee is provided a rigid script, and not allowed to deviate from the script under threat of reprimand or termination, a company can try to maintain “brand integrity” for predictable customer interactions, but will fail miserably at cases outside the norm. Evidence this failure with my recent call-center rep at Chase who simply wouldn’t let me talk to a supervisor before getting my name and social security number. That’s the policy, and she’s literally not allowed to deviate from the script (her computer screen may, in fact, not let her past those questions without answering them). It doesn’t matter how irate a customer is; rules are rules.

But the reality is that a “predictable customer interaction” is a fallacy. There’s no such thing. Each interaction with a customer is unique, as experiences are always unique: an experience literally doesn’t exist until it is “had” by a person, and the “having” of the experience changes it as it shapes it. An experience is active, and it depends on more than just rigid utility: it depends on action, expectation, and emotion. The differences between service experiences may be (and usually is) trivial, particularly in the case of an industrialized process (like fast food or air travel). But it is the non-trivial differences that are critical: the extremely good, or more frequently, the extremely bad experiences that people have are the ones that spread, because these are the experiences we remember. I can’t tell you any stories about 99% of the cab rides I’ve had in foreign countries, but I can remember excruciating details about the ride in Monterrey where a woman threw a large rock at our cab. I’ve gone to Starbucks hundreds of times, but don’t recall any rich details about my experiences – except when my friend Matt dropped his coffee in a messy explosion, resulting in the Starbucks machine grinding to a temporary halt. And I don’t just remember these deviant cases. I tell people about them, because stories are human, and because bad experiences make good stories.

Empowerment and Publicity

When you reflect on service design, you quickly come to a topic of organizational behavior and company culture. Because a service design blueprint assumes autonomy, it must also assume some ethical, philosophical, or moral stance of employees. If you want your employees to react to situations in a certain way, you can tell them explicitly what to do, or you can provide them a framework in which to act on their own volition. The former results in a large group of people having banal experiences, and a small group of people having vivid and problematic experiences that they are likely to share with their friends. The latter results in people having extremely varied experiences, which may serve to “dilute the brand consistency” – a perceived travesty for large companies.

But in both cases, negative interactions with your products and employees will find their way into the internet. I’m concerned that, as our nation continues to transition to become almost entirely a service economy, the implications of poor service and expectant consumers will result in a nearly impossible emotional rift. What’s more, I don’t think the brands that are transforming (or have already transformed) from product companies to service and software companies have the necessary skills and attitude to embrace the level of service necessary to satisfy our demands. A service-design mindset is useful because it acknowledges the freedom for people to act like people – emotional, idiosyncratic, and irrational people.

But service design doesn’t do anything to stop the whining, and to be honest, I’m not sure most companies are willing to deal with the increased entitlement of Americans. Immediately after opting out of the naked scanner at the airport for the hundredth time, watching a TSA agent drop my camera, and doing my best not to scream obscenities at her lest I get arrested, I had a tremendous urge to tweet about what happened. My almost automatic response to poor service was to let the world know about it, as if this public shaming of an organization would somehow make things right, undo the experience, or make me feel better. And in that action – that public tweeting of a poor experience – comes a lose/lose scenario.

For if the company doesn’t respond adequately to my problem, it serves to reinforce the rift between customer and service provider, and it does so in an awkward, public forum. AT&T publicly responded to my tweet about their U-Verse spam by asking me to opt-out: “Sorry you keep getting these.” When I asked why they sent me more than one, they ignored me. If you look at @americanairlines after they screw up a flight, you’ll see tweet after tweet offering a thin and insincere apology to everyone on the plane who complained. It’s like a five year old, ordered to apologize, who is clearly waiting for his chance to get even.

But if the company does respond adequately to my problem – if, for example, TSA offered me a public and clearly sincere apology for slamming my camera down, or for stripping me of my dignity with a pat-down each time I fly, or for being generally obnoxious, the result is even worse. Because by responding to my public complaining in a meaningful way, they serve to reinforce the idea that whining gets results. I write to United about an uncomfortable flight, and they send me a $100 certificate for another flight. Publicly tweet about poor service at Starbucks? Here’s a coupon for a free latte.

I can only think of one way out of the trap, other than ignoring customer entirely (and that’s clearly not a good approach). The one way to avoid this public lose/lose is to provide high quality service every single time, and never get in a situation where your customers are upset. I’m not sure that’s possible, particularly in complex system environments like air travel. But I know it’s not possible when you pay service employees low wages, no benefits, and no long-term opportunities for growth or collaborative ownership; or when you mandate a mindless assembly-line approach to service, where each employee has no potential for pride in their work; or when you enforce demeaning and demoralizing job scripts, uniforms, routines, and practices; or when you add arbitrary audits, checks, and evaluations to enforce equally arbitrary quantitative metrics and production goals.

If we’re to survive the coming service apocalypse, we’ll need to empower service employees to act with dignity and integrity.  It seems like, simultaneously, we’ll need to find the same sense of integrity in ourselves. It starts with less whining.

Anticipating Customer State of Mind: the Problem With “Brand Relationships”

By way of an anecdote, here’s a reminder to anticipate the state of mind of a customer when you design a service.

It’s Thursday, and I’m in the airport in Mexico. I buy and eat lunch, and my credit card is declined. First thought: lovely, the bank turned off my card because of purchase made in a different country. There’s a subtle irony to this (When would you need your credit card the most? When you travel in a foreign country. When it would be most likely to be turned off? Right.) and it happens to me frequently in other countries. Not a big deal; I have a few pesos left, and I pay with cash. As I’m waiting for my plane, I skype with my wife and ask her to call the credit card company and sort it out, as I’m without cell service. She reports back that the credit card was, indeed, turned off because of suspicious activity, and now it’s back on. She also said that the customer service representative hopes I have a great time in Mexico, and it must be lovely for me to be able to travel that much. I thank her and him for the editorializing and get on an airplane.

As I’m attempting to leave the Austin airport and pay for parking, my card is declined, again. Frustration, this time mostly aimed at the anonymous customer service rep who gave the wrong information. It’s my last few US dollars in my wallet, enough to get out of the airport. (As an aside, I wonder what happens if you can’t pay to get out; do you just leave your car there, racking up more charges, and try to find an ATM?)

Friday morning, I call Chase. The automated system has me confirm several charges, and then says that the block on my card has been removed. I don’t believe it, so I confirm with a human. Good to go.

And then, when I make a purchase before lunch, my card is declined.

This is the part of the story where design breaks down: where our ability to create service scripts without accounting for the emotional needs of humans falls apart. I call the company, and get an operator. I immediately ask to be transferred to a supervisor. She refuses, explaining that she needs to know what the problem is, first. She’s following her rules, the procedure that she’s probably been trained on. If I was in a logical, rational, thoughtful state of mind, I would simply explain the problem, and in seconds, she would transfer me to her boss to sort it out.

But I wasn’t in a logical, rational, thoughtful state of mind. I was furious and over-reacting, mostly because I felt my money was being held hostage. There’s a tunneling of thought that happens during an emotionally charged situation, and the reaction of this tunneling was me, irrationally demanding over and over to speak to her supervisor. Her response was, not surprisingly, to demand over and over that I tell her what the problem was, and so this went on for close to three minutes. Then, she pretended to hang up. This was followed by a minute of silence. I out-waited her, and she finally transferred me. Completely juvenile behavior on my part; completely unprofessional on hers.

In a relationship, both parties have a shared responsibility to diffuse an argument. If I was arguing with my wife, the right thing to do is stop, even if I’m logically “right”. But I don’t have a relationship with my credit card company, and no matter the amount of consulting that has led Chase to believe that I want one, I don’t. I want my money to be safe, and I want to be able to spend it whenever I want. That’s it, start to finish. Brand-driven, message-driven artifacts like this continue to support nonsensical “relationship” ideas, and serve to distract from the actual interactions that are occurring, one to one, between people in response to system complexity:

And the joke is, five years ago, I could have written a document just like this, and probably did. This is considered “good consulting” – driving consistent branding, through messaging about relationship. It’s industry “best practice.” And it’s wrong.

The reality is, if you work in fraud prevention at a credit card company, there’s a high probability that the customer who is calling is upset. I can’t imagine a reason to call the fraud prevention line in a happy mood – I can’t think of even one use case where my perspective would be outgoing, upbeat, and open-minded. Designing a service means anticipating this, and designing to support it. This means empowering the customer service representative freedom to deviate from a script, and training her to sense the anxiety in the voice of the customer on the other end of the phone. And it means anticipating that security “safeguards” intended to support the customer will have negative consequences, and being prepared to handle those.

Turns out, my card was compromised nearly two weeks ago (card numbers stolen from an online merchant? Disgruntled employee? Who knows; Chase couldn’t or wouldn’t tell me), and a permanent hold was placed on the account. Removing the temporary hold didn’t do anything, because the card was, basically, turned off entirely. I don’t know why it took two weeks for that hold to take effect. I don’t know why the various reps could see one hold but not the other. I don’t know why the rep I got thought arguing with me would be more productive than transferring me (although I can guess, and it’s probably because she’s dis-incented to escalate calls, and trying her best to follow protocol). I suppose the final kick in the teeth was that I was after I was finally done speaking with the supervisor, I was randomly selected to take a survey, asking me about my customer service experience. The system didn’t recognize my responses, and as I was pressing “1 – extremely dissatisfied” as hard as I could, the system hung up on me.

This situation is far too common, and I’m sure any of you reading can relate to it. The algorithms intended to track purchasing behavior don’t work, as they misread my foreign purchases as rogue. And the humans involved were constrained by an overly rote script, unable or unwilling to deviate. This is the problem of service design; it’s the problem of “experience design” (and why, as I’ve explained before, you can’t actually design an experience and should stop trying); and it’s the problem of complexity. The solution is fairly simple. Empower your employees to do the right thing, anticipate the emotional response of your customers based on their situation, and realize that every interaction with a customer will be unique. You can’t systematize customer service. Companies like Zappos realize that, and while I’ll take issue with their use of the word “relationship” too , the key to their success are words like “honest”, “integrity”, and “trust”:

A key ingredient in strong relationships is to develop emotional connections. It’s important to always act with integrity in your relationships, to be compassionate, friendly, loyal, and to make sure that you do the right thing and treat your relationships well. The hardest thing to do is to build trust, but if the trust exists, you can accomplish so much more.

In any relationship, it’s important to be a good listener as well as a good communicator. Open, honest communication is the best foundation for any relationship, but remember that at the end of the day it’s not what you say or what you do, but how you make people feel that matters the most. In order for someone to feel good about a relationship, he/she must know that the other person truly cares about them, both personally and professionally.

Connecting Design Research to Value

There’s a simple way to illustrate the value proposition of a new company, and I’ve found it to be extremely effective in communicating the worth of a hypothetical new product or service.

First, introduce an actual user that you’ve spoken with. If you are using presentation software, like Powerpoint, use a full-screen image of the person doing their job. This suggests that you’ve spent time with a potential user, and it immediately humanizes your intent: it indicates that you are presenting design-led innovation, as opposed to technological or business-led innovation.

Describe the person’s main want, need, or desire. This is sometimes called a “pain point”, but I feel that the word “pain” is too simplistic (the language I’ve used – want, need, desire – is probably too simplistic as well) because this is often subtly aspirational. Illustrate that you both understand and empathize with the person by emphasizing the emotional result of this need not being met.

Use their words. Quote the user, verbatim, in order to substantiate the need. If you are using slides, I’ve found it extremely effective to overlay the quote in REALLY BIG LETTERS on top of the user.

Repeat for two or three users. Show that you’ve spoken with several users and identified a running theme, a pattern.

Summarize your synthesis. Using a single slide, show the users again, and illustrate the high level summary of your interpretation of your research. This is where you show an inferential leap: where you combine empathetic research data, and build upon it, to produce insights. I’ve found it useful to show each user again, summarize their quote, and then show my interpretation directly below it.

Identify the implications of your synthesis. Using a slide per insight (no more than three), explain what the implications of your insight are on a potential new system or service. At this point, you are identifying new constraints: you are describing how you are artificially constraining a blank canvas of new ideas, in order to suggest a new and valuable service.

Introduce the product or service. Use the widely used formula: We help [your most promising prospects] that [need help with the pressing concern you address] succeed by [providing the material improvement you will deliver].

From here, alternative approaches work, depending on the audience. If you are presenting to investors, you might show how the service works to generate revenue, and then transition into a discussion of financials. If you are presenting to a technical audience, this might be an opportune time to introduce a “how it works” diagram, emphasizing the technological stack and architecture.

Using this style of presentation works because it gives your audience a point of reference, a place from which to judge your design and idea. It helps them see the world from a different perspective. And it offers a rationalization for your product or service, but in human terms. It doesn’t try to prove the giant potential of your market, which investors see through quickly, and it doesn’t claim a massive technical innovation, which technologists are implicitly skeptical of. It’s a designerly way of showing value.

The Conditions For Flow

I’ve found that I alternate between three ways of experiencing the world, three perspectives or ways of attending to thoughts and actions. These are broad, narrow, and a strange floating perspective, halfway between the two:

When my perspective is broad – usually, when I’m well rested, in the morning, and without stress or anxiety – I can literally see more things in my field of vision. I have trouble driving, because my eyes fixate on people and flowers and cars and animals, things on the sides of the road and in the distance. I can feel my curiosity, an active curiosity, looking at the world, open to new ideas, actively looking for things to learn about and experience. I have ideas, and think of opportunities, and consider how things might be. I can traverse relationships between ideas in a playful way, and those who know me know that this connective stream of consciousness usually comes out of my mouth, too. It’s a visionary perspective, one of potential.

When my perspective is narrow – usually after I’ve been drinking, or late at night, or when I’m concerned or anxious about something, or when I’m in the midst of chaos – I can feel my vision constricting. I ignore my surroundings – people, and the environment – and focus on a single problem. Typically (and unfortunately), my work involves a computer, and when I have a computer in my lap, it becomes the single focus of my attention – it actually becomes an extension of my thoughts. It enhances the tunneling, making it extraordinarily hard to attend to outside influences. I have solutions, and I get things done, and I check things off lists. I pay no attention to the world around me; there is no new, outside influences. This is a productive perspective, one of accomplishment.

My perspective frequently falls into a place between the broad and narrow, a floating perspective. It’s a weird feeling, a place without “edges”, where there is no inner dialogue or criticism, and simultaneously, no sense of vast and endless opportunity. This is a space of creativity potential; it’s also the space of emotion. And when I have competency in a given skill or area, this is the place of flow.

When I throw a pot on a potter’s wheel, the medium is clay, the form is literal, and the subject matter and form are one: the way the pot looks is the same as what the pot says. If there is “content” to the act of making pottery, it is formal. When I’ve achieved flow, the form, the content, the subject, and the medium all act in harmony. By definition, the flow-like state means rational consciousness is suspended. My thoughts are not “focused on the pot”, nor are they broad or curious. They exist in a state of motor response, where my hands and eyes respond to the medium and form of the clay. It is in this state of flow that prior experience and expertise drive action, and I’ve actually caught myself thinking about completely unrelated topics – groceries, or politics – while still managing to produce beautiful art. It’s as if I’m not so much doing creativity as watching creativity being done.

When I code, I’m aware of my deficiencies, mostly related to syntax. I know, theoretically, how I want to do things, but I’m hindered by a lack of familiarity and experience with the actual code to write, and so I find myself constantly searching Google for the appropriate syntax. I typically write pseudo-code to describe my intent, and then go back to actually craft the real code. When I write the pseudo-code, I arrive at a place of flow: the medium is algorithmic (sequences, logic), the form is English, and the subject matter is irrelevant. I have expertise, and so I can again suspend rational consciousness. My thoughts are not “focused on the code”, and I’m able to simply act, without conscious thought. But when I move to writing the actual code, my state of flow breaks. I visit google, learn the appropriate syntax for regular expression matching, visit stack overflow, synthesize some knowledge, and return to my code to try it. It typically doesn’t work, and so I test and refine. It’s a sloppy process, and throughout it, I’m aware of my end goal and my current state relative to it. I feel public: I feel like I’ve dropped my groceries in front of other customers in line. It’s a self-awareness that detracts from the actual medium, form, and goal. It’s the self-awareness of learning, and it’s one that my students feel nearly all of the time.

In design, the subject matter matters. The subject matter introduces artificial constraints. In code, the artificial constraints are limited: the architecture selected, the platform established. The primary constraint is my expertise. In clay, the constraints aren’t artificial, as much as natural – what the clay can do literally constrain what I can do with it. I know these natural constraints based on, again, experience; I’ve ruined beautiful works by pushing the material beyond its place of comfort.

But in design, the constraints are artificially based on both content and medium. To achieve the comfort and quality benefits of flow means mastering the content, and knowing about whatever it is you are designing. What’s more, it means knowing about the relationship between that content and people. There’s also a need to master the medium: to have an intimacy with code, or plastic, or marble, or print. And, there’s a need to know the relationship between that medium and people. This is a triad of expertise: to know a medium, to know the content, and to know behavior. And when I say know, I mean to know naturally, intimately: to have achieved, through experience, enough competency as to achieve flow.

And even then, with a rich expertise in the medium, the content, and human behavior, I still need to achieve that place of perspective that hovers between broad and narrow, and that floats between opportunity and pragmatism. This is partially outside environment, in that the conditions around me need to allow for this state. And it’s partially inside, in that my thoughts need to quiet, and my cares need to dissipate. Deadlines and requirements push towards a narrow perspective, a perspective of productivity. Vision and innovation push towards a broad perspective, a perspective of opportunity. A flow state of accomplishment lives between the two. It’s a fragile state.

Words Matter: Design, Experience, the WSJ and the UXPA

There was a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, proclaiming that design school (dschool) is the next business school (bschool).  The claim has been made countless times over the last decade. It implies that designers provide value to businesses, and are fundamental in helping them solve problems, by using divergent thinking – by acting like designers. By claiming that design is the “next big thing”, this article – and others like it – introduce design to an entire group of people that have otherwise never heard of it, which is positive. The article is thin and an advertising piece for Stanford, which is neither positive nor unique, but for the purposes of this post, it’s also not relevant. I typically refrain from reading the comments of any online site, because they are notoriously poisonous. But in this case, I was curious to see how readers of the WSJ react. The result is disappointing:

“I guess this is why jobs are going to China. Their universities are teaching hardcore math and science and our universities are teaching BS.”

“Design is only as good as the function and practicality. There needs to be good engineering at a reasonable cost.”

“I don’t get it?”

“Another example of education run amuck in the U.S.”

The overall tone of the response is one that laments the demise of US business due to poor education of students in science and math.

There was also a recent announcement that the UPA, or usability professionals association, has rebranded themselves as the UXPA. This resulted in a large-scale and almost entirely negative response from various figureheads of other professional organizations. Ex-board leaders from IxDA called it a land-grab, and Lou Rosenfeld – one of the founders of the IAI – wrote a pretty direct response.

I don’t particularly care one way or the other about what UPA does with their name. Nearly all of the designers I know have never heard of UPA and will continue to never have heard of it, with or without an x. And the WSJ article hasn’t been the first describing how design can fix all of our problems, thin on details but loud on cheerleading, nor has it been the first place design was relegated second-class citizen at the expense of the “real sciences.” But both events display the large-scale lack of clarity surrounding design, not just for the public, but for designers, too.

Both events actually stem from the same problem, which is a problem of history. Collectively, we don’t know the relationships between design and outside disciplines, and we have a scary lack of knowledge about our own roots. I’ve never been much for learning history as facts, because I find it meaningless without understanding of the richness of people’s lives. I don’t mean to imply we should know who invented what, or in what year the iMac was released. I mean we have a poverty of a different sort of history – knowing the connective tissue of how our profession has arrived at where it is now. I’m disappointed that the general public doesn’t know it, as evidenced in the WSJ comments. But I don’t blame them, because the US is trying hard to be a STEM country. But I’m thoroughly ticked off that members of UPA don’t know it, or have elected to ignore it.

By connective tissue, I mean stories and precedent. I mean stories of Shelley Evenson and John Rheinfrank’s work at Fitch. The legacy of Jay Doblin. The push towards technology transfer that’s been spearheaded by Bill Buxton at CHI for the last twenty years. The work of John Anderson, Herb Simon, and Allan Newell at CMU. The union advocacy work of Pelle Ehn. The rise and fall of Westinghouse and Unilever; the rise and fall of Scient and Viant and Studio Archetype. The thought-leadership of Johnson-Laird and Cooper and Buchanan. The glory years of Xerox PARC. This is the history of interaction design, the profession that’s now trumpeted as the saviour for commodity-led business, the profession that understands experiences, the profession that is about behavior and dialogue. This history that has shaped our discipline holds an implicit, rich, and multi-faceted definition of words like design, experience, service, and innovation. These words point to things, they mean things. They reference entire careers of people, thinkers, researchers, and practitioners. These words mean things independent of your own understanding of their history, and their history doesn’t stop existing simply because you don’t know about it.

This is not “just semantic” (although it is entirely about meaning and language), because the words are now placeholders for people’s careers. Multiple tweets of the UPA/UXPA announcement asked (humorously? seriously?), “Does this mean I get a new title?” No, no it doesn’t. You don’t gain knowledge, skills or respect by putting the word “experience” or the letter X anywhere near your name. Taking a few classes in design methods doesn’t make you a designer, and changing your professional organization’s name doesn’t make you any wiser about experiences. It’s going to take hard work to move from an engineering field of time on task and number of errors, to embracing issues of poetics and soul. Like the commenters in the WSJ article inadvertently illustrate, these are challenging topics where words matter. Soul? What’s that? Sensual? Poetics? Emotion? You won’t find a SUS score for these.

I appreciate design being written about in the newspaper, and I appreciate people volunteering at a professional organization to support our discipline. But “our discipline” has a history that has resulted from the extremely intellectual and focused work of individuals, and their contribution is trivialized equally when the WSJ commenters claims that it “Sounds like macaroni art to me” as when the UPA claims ownership over the word “experience”. Words, like ideas, are free. And like ideas, words are powerful. When we use them, we should mean it. All of the time, and with purpose.