Defining Problems

The world is changing fast. There is a lot of pressure to innovate quickly, especially in terms of technology. However, technology-led innovation arguably does little to solve many of the problems facing humanity. While useful technologies are developed every day, much of technology is developed for the sake of the development of more technology–for added features that help products stay ahead of the market. Yet, there is another driver of innovation, which is human-centered design. This approach takes human needs as the impetus for innovation, ensuring that the solutions address existing needs and not unfocused technological progress. Either way, innovation begins first and foremost with how problems are defined.

In our Theory of Interaction Design and Social Entrepreneurship class, Laura Galos and I participated in a discussion around a series of articles focused on the subject of the uses of technology in innovation. Each has a perspective on innovative solutions, but also on the definition of the innovation problem. The readings were as follows:

Design Fiction, by author Bruce Sterling, introduces “design fiction” as a way to imagine and think about the future. Sterling is a science-fiction writer, speaker and professor at the European Graduate School in Switzerland.

Genevieve Bell, Mark Blythe and Phoebe Sengers wrote the article Making by Making Strange: Defamiliarization and the Design of Domestic Technologies. In this text, the authors describe defamiliarization as a strategy for exposing new opportunities by reframing our understanding of the intent and purpose behind things that already exist. Bell is a cultural anthropologist at Intel Labs where she leads a team of researchers. Mark Blythe is a research fellow at the University of York and Phoebe Sengers leads the Culturally Embedded Computing group at Cornell University.

In People Are People, But Technology is Not Technology, authors Gary Marsden, Andrew Maunder and Munier Parker underscore the importance of designing by understanding what a human needs technology to do, rather than working backwards from technological capabilities to address a human need—which may turn out not to be a need at all.

Ray Kurzweil, author of The Law of Accelerating Returns presents an argument that the relationship between the pace of technological change and human progress as it relates to the future is largely misunderstood. He says, “When people think of a future period, they intuitively assume that the current rate of progress will continue for future periods. However, careful consideration of the pace of technology shows that the rate of progress is not constant, but it is human nature to adapt to the changing pace…”. Kurzweil is the Director of Engineering at Google.

In each of these readings, problems are the basis of innovation. Problems may be defined as the need for technological progress, or they may be defined in ways that describe human needs first and foremost. We believe that the latter is a more useful viewpoint which empowers designers to solve for human needs above technological progress for it’s own sake.

Technology-Led Problem-Solving

Where “progress” is the goal, problems are defined as technological issues. Additional features and capabilities are seen as the solution to problems, and so the process with which to solve these problems becomes a feedback loop: from demand (whether from corporate, marketing, or pressures to outdo the competition) to creation, spurring new demand. In this context, technology takes the lead, resulting in rapid short-term changes that prevents designers from learning and iterating throughout the problem-solving process. This often manifests in feature-heavy innovations that are not centered around the humans who will use the product. Kurzweil illustrates the dystopian end-result of technology-led change. Technology is changing at an exponential rate, and will soon exceed our realm of understanding. He says, “As exponential growth continues to accelerate…it will appear to explode into infinity, at least from the limited and linear perspective of contemporary humans. The progress will ultimately become so fast that it will rupture our ability to follow it. It will literally get out of control. The illusion that we have our hand “on the plug, “ will be dispelled.”

tech for blog

What happens when designers lead change, not technology?

When benefit to human users is the goal, problems are defined differently. The authors of the texts we have read in class put forth several techniques for problem-finding and problem-defining that help keep human needs, rather than technological progress, at the center of innovation. Human needs are complex, and require a more robust framework around problem definition to ensure focus and useful outcomes. The following are three techniques the authors put forth to find and define problems:

Sterling: Introduce constraints

Sterling draws parallels between science-fiction and design as beneficiaries of more clearly defined constraints. It’s the recognition and acknowledgement of where boundaries lie that allow writers and designers alike to push past them and imagine new future states for their craft. He says, “These two inherently forward-looking schools of thought and action do seem blinkered somehow–not unimaginative, but unable to imagine effectively. A bigger picture, the new century’s grander narrative, its synthesis, is eluding them.” As it relates to problem definition, constraints focus a problem enough to allow designers to work in a small enough “box” to make an impact on a given need, or course-correct as necessary to find the boundaries of a problem worth solving.

Bell, Blythe and Sengers: Defamiliarize and reframe

By defamiliarizing, Bell, Blythe and Sengers teach us to disassociate from our existing understanding and reframing with new meaning to arrive at new and innovative opportunities. They describe this as an act of “analyzing a kitchen sink in terms of its cultural or social significance…by questioning the assumptions inherent in the design of everyday objects that HCI [human-computer interaction] has always opened up design spaces, pointing towards better and more innovative designs.” Defamiliarization allows designers to acknowledge the assumptions they come to a problem with. Focus on assumptions allows designers to avoid them or challenge them as they define the problem they will solve.

Marsden, Maunder & Parker: Contextualize culture

When problem definition begins first with the technology that could be used, designers introduce risks associated by omitting contextual understanding of the user and their environment. However, from the perspective of these authors, this means that constraints in technology don’t necessarily need to be understood by the end-user, but by those the individuals within a community that can use their understanding to imagine alternative solutions. They say, …”we realize that, within most communities, there are people with a vision for how technology can best be used within their context.” Defining problems that take into account the needs of individuals and community in their context leads to solutions that are relevant and impact real human needs in culturally-appropriate ways.


Human-Led Problem-Solving

Ultimately, designers are certainly equipped to solve describable problems, but they are even more well-suited to solve and lead problems that are ambiguous and difficult to define. Being able to iteratively introduce constraints, defamiliarize and reframe and contextualize culture allows designers to parse through complexity and solve problems that arrive at innovations useful for people. The goal of design from beginning to end is human-centered, long-term change. When design takes the lead on innovation, the problem-solving process invites the application of technology for the sake of humanity, not just technology for the sake of demonstrating speed to change. In order to truly have a positive impact on society people in society, ideas must be born of empathy and human understanding before they take they are shaped by the application of technology.

True Story


We are only a few weeks away from our final AC4D presentation, and we’re excited to share with you where our exploration of designing for family discussions around aging has led us.

Currently, our team (Laura Galos and Maryanne Lee) is working on both piloting and creating ideal-state artifacts for our project, which we are calling “True Story.”

True Story is “the get-to-know-you game for people you’ve known your whole life.” It’s a card game for families in which the object is to collect stories from one another, in particular, between intergenerational players.

What Does It Do?

While collecting stories is a worthy goal for families on its own, True Story is designed to do much more. Stories provide a window into the past, but they also provide insight into the way people think, make decisions, their values, and their fears. While family members are collecting stories in the context of a game, they are also collecting perspectives from other family members about topics that might never come up in ordinary conversation.

How Does It Work?

True Story cards each feature a question about a situation that has come up in the past. Some examples are, “Tell me about a time you met a celebrity” and “Tell me about a time you went on vacation alone.”


Other cards ask for stories around topics that our research has shown to be difficult for families to broach, such as finance, health, living arrangements, and driving. For example, a question that gets family members to talk about ill health is, “Tell me about a time you did something to improve your health.”


Once the player has told the story, other player(s) guess whether the first player has told a true story or a fiction story. Correct guesses are awarded a token to acknowledge the collected story, and the first person to 10 tokens wins.

Why Did We Make This?

Why do families need to collect stories, perspectives, an intuitive understanding of one another’s values and ways of making decisions? Why do uncomfortable topics need to be surfaced, if only in a game setting? Why make a game of this at all?

The Making of True Story

To recap some of the thinking that went into the creation of True Stories, we returned to our last blog post about our project, written at the end of Quarter 3. At that time our goal was to develop a design solution to help facilitate the difficult conversations seniors and their families have around the major changes that come with aging. Specifically, we wanted to help start conversations about aging transitions—such as limiting driving, or looking at assisted living—between adult children and their aging parents.

While the core of idea has remained the same, over the last several months it has manifested in so many ways—from an iPad game, to a website that helps adults send letter to their aging parents, to a communication tool that uses cards to start the conversation—that amid all the changes it is affirming to look back and see how closely our current product adheres to the principles we set out at the end of Quarter 3. Based on our research and testing with families, caregivers, and aging individuals, we had developed the following criteria to which anything we made had to meet.To help families address difficult aging-related conversations, our product must:


Design Principles: Mission Accomplished?

Use a medium older individuals already enjoy

Success! To get to True Story, we started by piloting a product we called “Playffle.” Playffle was also card-based, but felt more like a communication tool than a game per se. In our initial research back in Quarter 2, we saw that our older participants, such as Anette, 84, strongly associated cards with being social. She told us that she “love[s] to play cards. I have different groups I play with—some play more complicated games and some play less complicated ones […] It’s a good time, a lot of camaraderie there.” Our pilot participants, upon trying Playffle, greatly appreciated that the cards were non-digital. One participant, aged 82, was under the impression we were going to make a website out of our cards, was elated to hear that we intended to produce a physical product. Furthermore, even younger participants who we spoke with exhibit a wide spectrum of comfort with digital technology. Using a non-digital medium allows everyone to come to the table with a degree of certainty and comfort—a positive start to productive conversations.

Feels non-threatening for older individuals

In piloting Playffle, we explicitly created cards with questions about difficult topics, including driving, living arrangements, and daily tasks. However, we thought that by introducing these topics through hypothetical scenarios, there would be less of a sense that older individuals’ behaviors are being singled out by these conversations. In reality, declining health, trouble driving, etc. are problems that anyone can face, regardless of age. By creating scenario-based questions, we hoped to open up the dialog from one of intervention to one of mutual conscientiousness and preparedness amongst family members. For example, one of our cards looked like this:

Pilot Card for Blog

Our testing showed that hypotheticals are a great way of getting older individuals to open up about facing difficult situations. One pilot participant was very honest about how she could identify with one situation—about buttons and zippers on clothing becoming difficult to manage—and sharing with the other card player how she manages those difficulties. Another participant mentioned that she would like to use these cards with her daughter, who was making financial decisions our participant was worried about. In sum, older individuals not only felt comfortable with these cards, they identified them as useful for addressing difficult topics with their younger family members as well.


Feels approachable to family members

In our discussions with adult children of aging parents, we found that there was a great deal of fear around broaching aging-related topics. That fear stemmed from angering their parent. One participant we talked to, aged 61, with a father in his 80s, said, “If you bring up the subject of driving, Dad will terminate the conversation. He will become extremely angry and stop talking. Particularly as your parents age, you don’t want to alienate them at the end.” We think that by providing a product that is comfortable and approachable for older individuals—something that will probably not make them feel threatened or angry—we increase the approachability to younger family members. When we introduced the idea of playing cards to another participant, she saw them as “Something I would do day to day with my Dad. My Dad would think its fun finding out about each other or the solutions to problems.”

Leads to solutions, not just fun bonding moments

Our pilot iteration, Playffle, was geared toward adult children and their aging parents at a very specific stage—one in which the adult children were already concerned about the changes their parents would have to make due to aging, but before a crisis had yet occurred. These adults are understandably feeling a lot of pressure and seeking quick, sure solutions that would alleviate their anxiety and make their parents as safe and well-cared-for as possible. Playffle was pretty direct about coming to solutions, not just fun bonding moments. However, the cards felt clinical—a major reason we moved toward our current product iteration. We doubt that Playffle was an enjoyable enough product for people to want to use on their own without us sitting beside them. So we made a decision to broaden the possible usage of our cards. Our current iteration, True Stories, is less direct. It is not meant for adult children who need answers immediately. It is meant as a game different generations of a family can play together to hear stories they would not otherwise have known, get a sense of how the other person/people think and make decisions, and bring up “taboo” topics, such as health and finance, long before a crisis forces the issue. However, in exchange for directness, True Story offers an enjoyable experience that increases the likelihood people will actually use it. One participant in our early testing is caring for her father, who has dementia. Increasingly, she must make decisions about her father’s care on her own without her father’s input. She told us that she wants to make decisions based on “what would my Dad do?” By creating a game that families like to play—and as a secondary benefit, helps family members get to know each other, how they think, and what they value earlier—they can help each other make aging-related decisions together later.

Includes a way to follow-up on conversations

One of the strengths of True Story is that by playing it, the game ensures that taboo topics, such as health, are aired before a crisis happens. A question such as “Tell me about a time you had a health scare” means that families will have heard a story about ill health and have some perspective on the thoughts and feelings around that topic. Later, if and when tough situations arise, each of these stories acts as a tiny window through which the conversation can be re-introduced. By the time a serious conversation about these topics needs to happen, the silence around the subject has already been broken.

Takes into considerations families who live far apart

Many families today live far apart. Partnerships, job opportunities, and geographical preferences can result in families members that live thousands of miles away from one another. In our research, many families we talked to see each only for visits on special occasions. We know that the time spent together under these conditions is valuable. True Story honors the family time together by focusing on the collection of family stories. Additionally, it’s portable—not a small consideration in cases where families must travel to see one another.


Based on the design principles we laid out at the end of last quarter, we are confident that True Story can help families set the stage for open communication based on mutual understanding as they face major transitions, including those that occur with aging, together. Please feel free to explore our pilot version, Playffle, in the clickable prototype below. We will continue to pilot and evolve True Story until pencils down on May 2nd, so we welcome any feedback you have on our project in the comments section. Thanks!

Playffle Clickable Prototype


The Role of Design

Design is a set of tools and a process. Like all tools and processes, it can be used in the service of good or bad intentions. It can also be powerful, and so requires people to make decisions about where it is appropriate to apply design process or design thinking, and in what manner.

In our AC4D theory class, Laura Galos and I participated in a discussion about 4 readings this week around the subject of “power.” Pelle Ehn, Professor of Interaction Design at Malmo University who wrote Designing for Democracy at Work, describes this as “the degree of strength in the workers’ collective com[ing] from the ‘we-feeling’ created by shared experiences. The basis for this ‘we-feeling’ is physical nearness at the workplace – which makes interaction possible.”

In Innovation and Entrepreneurship: Schumpeter Revisited, John Hagedoorn from the Maastricht Economic Research Institute on Innovation and Technology writes about the influence Joseph Schumpeter, an economist and political scientist, had on the role entrepreneurs have in innovation. Hagedoorn quotes Schumpeter on the entrepreneurs’ loss of power by saying, “He pictures the diminishing importance of the entrepreneur who loses his/her function as the agent who changes existing routines. Economic development gradually becomes ‘depersonalized’ and ‘automatized’. Consequently, innovation is being reduced to routine.”

We also read Design Thinking and How It Will Change Management Education, co-authored by Roger Martin, former Dean of the Rotman School of Management and David Dunne, Adjunct Professor of Marketing. In this reading, Martin and Dunne make the claim that “the idea of applying design approaches to management is new and, as yet, largely underdeveloped,” but critical for the future professional power of MBA graduates. Finally, a short paper, Manipulation, by our teacher Jon Kolko, describes how the power wielded by designers can be put into check by involving the participation of others. He says, “participatory design places a heavy check on manipulation by including the people who will use or live with the design in the process of its creation.”

Each paper referred to design at a level of scale, whether it is the practice of adding design thinking broadly to MBA programs (as in the case of Martin and Dunne) or creating methods through with laborers could arrange and control their working conditions in Sweden (as in the case of Ehn). In each case, the role of a designer fits within a nebula of other roles in an organization, including management, labor, and in some cases users.

Traditional Work

Hagerdoorn, in speaking of Schumpeter’s theories, sets up a view of the traditional work organization, a top-down hierarchy with decisions flowing from management at the top to labor at the bottom. He positions the “entrepreneur” figure, a sort of proto-designer, as part-labor (but “creative labor” which is of a “higher order”), part force-of-disruption that upends market equilibrium and drives market evolution—at least temporarily. Eventually, as “innovation” becomes the norm, the designer/entrepreneur is absorbed into the management-labor balance. Generally speaking, work organization took on a simple structure:

IDSE402_Traditional for Blog

Schumpeter may be right. As “innovation” becomes the norm, designers are absorbed within the management-labor arrangement, in which case they cannot effect larger changes that really are innovative, and have less influence over whether the output of their work is beneficial or harmful. So the question is, where is the designer most effective in an organization?

Design Work

Based on the perspectives represented by each reading, we came up with this diagram to illustrate the position of the designer within an organization.

IDSE402_New for Blog


The writings of Martin and Dunne inform the left portion of the diagram. Martin believes that design thinking should become a part of any MBA training. The outcome of this may be that management also functions as the design team in an organization. However, Martin and Dunne leave out an important part of the designer’s role, which is listening to, understanding, and empathizing with users. Therefore, while designers have a reciprocal relationship with management, they must be separate and accessible to other groups of people who the designed product or service will impact. We have re-named “management” as “operations and strategy” to reflect this 2-way relationship, in which the designers are not “managed” but are partners in the organization.


Sometimes, “users” are laborers, who traditionally are positioned in opposition to management. In the reading by Pelle Ehn, designers explored the concept of democratizing the workplace. In a conscious decision to empathize with the laborers, rather than management, they established the idea that while designers must establish two-way connection with labor, they must also be outside of it. By being outside of labor, they are free to reject the “harmony view of organizations” that management puts forth to keep management in control, and conduct their research in the interest of the “emancipation” of labor.


“Users” not participating directly in a particular management-labor dichotomy are the people who use the products and services that are the result of an organization’s production. In Manipulation, Kolko writes that “design is supportive,” and “frequently serves people who cannot serve themselves.” Because designers cannot avoid inserting their bias into their designs, they can at least put checks on themselves and on other powers within an organization by engaging in participatory design, where the people who use the end products have a say in the creation and direction of the product. Therefore, designers also need to establish a two-way relationship with the people who will live with their output.

Designers as Interpreters:

In conclusion, the role of the designer within an organization must be that of a translator between each piece of an organization. They must understand and “speak” enough of the language of the thinking (strategy and operations), making (labor), and participation (users) to be able to integrate and meaningfully represent the disparate interests of each part of the organization to the other in a way that makes sense to all in order to use their influence to ensure the output of “good” products and services into the world.


Re-Prioritizing Scale to Achieve Cultural Impact in Design

In our Theory of Interaction Design and Social Entrepreneurship class, the first set of readings we were presented with are three viewpoints on how having the best of intentions to help can still lead to the introduction of consequences into the world that don’t leave people better off as we had hoped. With this being our fourth and final quarter as students at Austin Center for Design, understanding the influence we have on people and society as a whole is an important reality for us as designers to grasp.

Michael Hobbes, author of Stop Trying to Save the World uses the example of PlayPump International. This organization came up with the idea of PlayPumps, which are merry-go-rounds hooked up to a water pump that would “harness the energy of children to provide fresh water to sub-Saharan African villages. While the potential impact was extremely compelling to donors and the media earning PlayPumps significant financial support, an unintended consequence of the design made the pumps installed reliant on child labor.

Jon Kolko, author of Our Misguided Focus on Brand and User Experience addresses how marketing and design efforts have emphasized gaining control instead of encouraging behavioral change. The intent to build a relationship with customers is overshadowed by the draw of “gain[ing] efficiencies by producing…exactly as perscribed, in mass.” In applying this mindset to the design of user experiences, we prevent people from being able to “participate and contribute in a meaningful way.”

Finally, Aneel Karnani, author of Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: A Mirage makes a case for reducing the costs of the goods sold to them or making these individuals producers of the goods themselves in order to affecting the people living in poverty in a positive way. Otherwise, he says, “The only real way to alleviate poverty is to raise the real income of the poor.”

In other words, these three authors present points of views with the metric of success along a spectrum.


Success over time begins first with Hobbes and the novelty that comes with having an idea that attracts a following. He says that it is “a narrative we’re all familiar with by now. Exciting new development idea, huge impact in one location, influx of donor dollars, quick expansion, failure.” From here, the expectation for continued success is to scale the idea up to more people in more locations as quickly and as cost-effectively as possible. In order to garner public and financial support, the viability of a socially impactful idea is met with the pressures to scale. Only then is your idea recognized for its potential to drive behavior change. “PlayPump International…seemed to have thought of everything. The whole package cost just $7,000 to install in each village and could provide water for up to 2,500 people.” They were not addressing behavior change specifically, but were evaluating the idea’s ability to scale from a quantitative perspective. For designers, Kolko addresses this by saying that “Every design decision…contributes to the behavior of the masses, and helps define the culture of our society.” If success continues to occur over time, going down this path, we would expect the output of scaling an idea and driving behavior change to achieve cultural impact. This is where the breakdown occurs. Karnani’s point made here summarizes this breakdown: “Markets of the rural poor are often geographically and culturally fragmented; this combined with weak infrastructure makes it hard to exploit scale economies.”

Should we re-prioritize the notion of scale as the determinant of success over time?

Effective social impact is attached to the perception that an idea must ultimately achieve massive scale in order for it to be determined viable as a success. In other words, the challenge is changing the perception that success is directly proportionate to one’s ability to increase the number of people an idea touches. If we can begin to understand that cultural impact is affected over time by ongoing user testing and feedback followed by iteration, the concept of scale becomes an output of driving behavioral change. As a result, success is achieved by driving cultural impact over time.


What is the value of having user input in a design solution before you determine how an idea will be scaled?

When the novelty that surrounds the potential for making a difference quickly wears off, you might be left with something no one wants to use. You have now invested time and resources into something that you thought would make things better, but actually do not work at all. Re-prioritizing where the scaling of an idea should take place over time allows designers to more effectively shape culture through their work by focusing first on and foremost on behavior change by getting things in front of users, incorporating feedback (or not) and iterating.

Shaping the Conversation: Designing for Family Discussions Around Aging


Over the last eight weeks, Laura Galos and I have been working on a design solution to help facilitate the difficult conversations seniors and their families have around the major changes that come with aging.

Last quarter, we spent eight weeks conducting qualitative research with a range of individuals in their 30’s to their 80’s. We started with a focus on how people are planning for and financing their post-work years in the context of increasing longevity. The subject of aging and the impact it has on finances led us to explore how age-associated life changes also affect health and family relationships.

We found that communication about aging-related transitions can be difficult, as the older family members faces changes in the way they live, while younger family members find themselves feeling the “role reversal” of caring for the people who had previously cared for them. The communication problem families are faced with crosses a range of topics–from limiting driving, to agreement on living arrangements, to health issues, and others.



For some families, broaching these hard subjects is too difficult to bring up until forced by external events. We wondered about the root cause of the avoidance in families. In synthesizing the stories our participants shared in research, we came to the following insight:

Elderly individuals fear asking for help because taking others’ time and resources will result in being robbed of their own independence.

We considered the need for a gentler “ramp-down” for seniors, rather than the abrupt changes that happen as a result of small problems growing into large ones. On the other hand, we clearly see a need to give the elderly as much control as possible in making choices about their lives. This was an opportunity to design a solution that allows communication between aging parents and grown children to embody more honesty, mutual understanding and a place of emotional safety for both sides.

In our exploration of the topic, we found that the journey of bringing up tough topics between younger and elderly family members follows this general path:


We found that the journey usually begins when the family member that is responsible for caregiving, feels the need to address a tough topic. They look outside themselves for help or outside advice and will often have discussions about these issues with siblings. This usually leads to the building of a “case” against the elderly’s need to change their behavior and is followed by an intervention-like conversation that can leave both sides feeling frustrated, angry, hurt or shut down.

We see our product as an opportunity to change this journey from building a case to building understanding on both sides. Along this desired path, the intent of our product is to breaks up the conversation into smaller units focused on building understanding between family members, rather than a large conversation based on a “case” for the need to change. This likely also means that younger and older family members might having these conversations over time, rather than all at once.


For both the younger and elderly family member, our value promise to them is this:

By using our product, we promise to help you stay on the same team as you make aging-related decisions together.

Our first iteration explored the notion of team by using game mechanics. Games allow the user to take on different roles, explore alternatives in a safe space, and have a lighter, more fun experience. They also have the ability to diffuse the responsibility of bringing up tough topics.

One of the concepts we came up with is called Balloon Bounce. The object of the game is to answer questions related to a difficult topic within a certain amount of time. Not answering the question within a certain amount of time results in a challenge that family members would complete together.


While this idea was fun and more playful, the use of technology was more than either side wanted to take on.

Still exploring game mechanics, we still went with something that was a more familiar form. Conversation Cards. Using a question deck and an answer deck, the object of the game is to learn about each other so the answers are about the person who is asking the question. To play this game, one person would ask the question while the other players provided an answer that they think most closely aligns to the person who asked the question’s preferences. The person who asked the question would then pick the winning answer and award the person who answered with the point.


There is a mix of fun, lighter questions, but also brings up harder questions that get the family members closer to the answers they’re really wanting to know. Users enjoyed engaging with a familiar form and coming up with solutions together. For older family members, the conversation is not centered around things being taken away from them. Because this started to get to answers family members wanted to know, we needed a way for them to follow-up on the conversation.

Veering away slightly from the game mechanics, but into that continuous conversation users were looking for, our team came up with a service called, Enveloop.

Enveloop is a web-based service that allows family members to bring up tough topics by answering prompts in the form of letters and sending them physically through the mail.


Some users that we tested this service with liked that this allowed them to do something they felt was more meaningful for their older family member and saw this as a way to gain empathy for the changes they were experience as they aged. They liked that the technology made using the service convenient for them, but minimized it on the side of their elderly family members. Physical letters are a form they are already familiar with. Where users were less clear on the value of our service came from managing different communication methods. How would bringing up difficult topics through letters in the mail be better than talking over the phone or having a discussion in person?

The intent behind our initial design iterations was to test how tough topics could be more approachable for everyone involved. While our idea is still evolving, testing each of these concepts with users that are having or anticipate having difficult conversations about age-related life transitions in the near future, provided us with a set of criteria that will be used in our next iteration to help us move the idea forward:

  • Feels non-threatening for older individuals
  • Feels approachable to family members
  • Leads to solutions, not just fun bonding moments
  • Uses a medium older individuals already enjoy
  • Includes a way to follow-up on conversations
  • Takes into considerations families who live apart

Shaping the manifestation of this idea has proven to be as challenging as shaping the conversation between family members and the elderly itself. Quarter 3 has been as much about learning how we can make the impact we intend to have in this problem space as much as it has been about embracing where we are in the process with an idea that still exists in multiple manifestations.

Hard to believe we’re moving into our last and final quarter at AC4D. In the last eight weeks, we will pilot our idea and get our product in the hands of potential users. Check back in another week to see where our next iteration takes us!

Better Than a Phone Call

In our second to last week of Q3, our team (Laura Galos and Maryanne Lee) continued to build out or service, Meaningful Mail (working title). This service allows family members, from the web, to introduce difficult aging-related topics with elderly family members by sending them prompts and letters through the mail. To expand on our idea since last week, we created three main flows as low-fidelity wireframes, or sketched images of screens for the web part of the service. The main flows included:

Choosing a prompt MM_Topic_2_v3_1.4.A_blog Writing a long-form letter MM_Long Prompt_1.0.D_blog Writing small sections of a letter – 2 Approaches MM_Letter Chunks_1.1.A_blog Chunks of a Letter - Approach 2 Sending a letter MM_Send Letter_1.3.C_blogWe tested these flows by conducting think-aloud user testing. Think-Aloud testing is an evaluative testing method designers use with potential users to get a glimpse into what they are thinking and having them articulate this as they are performing a task. We began testing the wireframes with users that have aging-related conversations with elderly parents or foresee themselves as being the family member who will be faced with having these conversations in the near future. The testing was valuable in that it showed us breakdowns users faced in navigating the system, but it also brought up big questions we felt we have to work through as soon as possible for our service.

1. How is Meaningful Mail better than a phone call?

“I guess just like the purpose of it. What is the reason why this is necessary or easier than just talking.” – User Testing Participant

2. How does this service work?

“I guess I never thought of anything like this. Almost like talking about these issues through the mail. Interesting. Email is more how of how I figured it would be.” IMG_0927 Because we heard these high-level concerns, we went back through our testing from the last seven weeks to make sure that further iterations maintained the most important feedback we’ve heard this quarter. From that feedback, we formulated design priniciples to guide our work moving forward.

Design Principles:

  1. Product has to feel non-threatening to aging family members, and approachable to the younger family members bringing up difficult topics.
  2. Product should feel like a 3rd party in order to diffuse the tension that comes with bringing up aging-related conversations.
  3. The directness of the conversation should be adjustable, but in general conversations should progress from lighter to more difficult topics.

Our other focus this week is in creating a value promise and checking to see if our service aligns with the promise we’re making. Today we came to this version of the value promise that applies to both elderly individuals and the family members who help care for them by listing what the utility, emotional, and behavioral value is for each party. IMG_0935_blog We are currently operating under this value promise:

By using Meaningful Mail, we promise to help you both (younger and older family members) stay on the same team as you make aging-related decisions together.

When we held up each piece of Meaningful Mail to this value promise, it became apparent that there was far more opportunity for the users of the service to collaborate toward shared goals, rather than try to find a compromise between disparate purposes. As we move forward, we will continue to iterate on each piece of the service to make sure it maintains our value promise. If we can do that, users will not have to wonder why Meaningful Mail is better than a phone call.

Our full set of wireframes can be found here.

The Heart of the Matter: Aging-Related Conversations

If you’ve been following our project on the AC4D blog, you know that our group (Maryanne Lee, Laura Galos) is working on a design project to help facilitate the difficult conversations seniors and their families have around the major changes that come with aging. We are just past the midpoint of our ideation and development phase, and we felt it would be worth going back to the research to recap our findings and how we got to our current iterations.

Last quarter, we spent eight weeks conducting qualitative research with a range of individuals in their 30’s to their 80’s. We started with a focus on how people are planning for and financing their post-work years in the context of increasing longevity.

After some preliminary synthesis, in which we took our collected data and began to identify patterns, we saw that our research participants had a idealized view of retirement—filled with vacations, travel, and freedom from stress—that was misaligned with many of the realities of retirement, especially later retirement. One participant, despite suffering from health issues, summed it up with, “I think [retirement] is when your problems should just go away…I can’t think of anything really hard about being retired.”

Sickness, decrease in mobility, the potential difficulty of finding purpose, when and if to move to a retirement home—all of these contributed to a picture of “retirement” that was not nearly as rosy as the word normally conjured up. And this led us to our first insight. Our insights, while they stem from our research, are also the product of our interpretations. As a result, they are provocative. We used strong wording intentionally, as this would help us in creating design ideas around them. Our first insight was:

The idea of retirement is an overpromised fantasy, difficult to achieve and disrupted by the eventualities of sickness and deterioration.

In response to our initial findings, we began to shift our line of questioning. We also wanted to know, how do the elderly and their families manage major age-associated life changes? Going into a retirement home, limiting driving, and experiencing health issues—these major events are the cause of many difficult conversations between the elderly and their families. Or not. For some families, broaching these hard subjects is too difficult to bring up until forced by external events. Some of our insights around age-associated changes include:

Elderly individuals fear asking for help because taking others’ time and resources will result in being robbed of their own independence.

Elderly individuals’ attempts to avoid becoming burdensome to family lead them to hide their immediate needs. These needs eventually turn into crises, at greater cost to the family.

We shared our findings at the Q2 presentation. Next, our team came up with over 300 design ideas around retirement, saving for retirement, hobbies, finding purpose, and communication amongst family members, to name a few.

Through a process of downselection, we focused on a theme in our research that surfaced repeatedly. This theme was the difficulty family members had in broaching and conducting conversations with elderly seniors about difficult aging-associated changes. A particularly charged instance of this was conversations about limitations in driving. In each case, it seemed that because of the topic’s sensitivity, families deferred having these conversations for as long as possible. And for seniors, the abrupt changes–often with a high cost in terms of their freedom and independence–was too unpalatable to proactively discuss.

Our team has been considering some design solutions to address this issue. In particular, we have been thinking about the need for a gentler “ramp-down” for seniors, rather than the abrupt changes that happen as a result of small problems growing into large ones. On the other hand, we clearly see a need to give the elderly as much control as possible in making choices about their lives.

To this end, we are creating a communication tool to help seniors and their families talk about these major changes. After mapping how an ideal conversation between family members and the elderly would feel, we began to bring the communication tool to life.

Our team began by exploring different game and communication mechanics as a way of easing family members and the elderly into those tough conversations. These are the four avenues we explored:

  • Balloon Bounce: A game of keeping conversations “afloat” by using a digital interface that prompts questions.
  • Best Bets:  A game in which players win real-world prizes by finding common ground with family members.
  • Conversation Cards: A game in which players win points by answering questions about the other players.
  • Meaningful Mail: A service that allows families– from the web–to introduce difficult aging-related conversations by sending physical letters to seniors.

The intent behind our initial designs was to test how tough topics could be more approachable for everyone involved.

User Testing through Scenario Validation

To test our ideas, we conducted a scenario validation. Scenario validation is an approach that presents participants with scenarios and storyboards to illustrate proposed solutions so designers can gather feedback and reactions. We tested each of these four ideas with this method.


The top three things that we discovered from our user testing include:

Have open-ended discussion prompts: The solutions that used open-ended discussion prompts were preferred over game mechanics that forced particular outcomes

One participant said, “I thought [Conversation Cards] were more of a conversation, something I would do day-to-day with my dad. My dad would think it’s fun finding out about each other or the solutions to problems.”

Enable ongoing conversation: Game mechanics that had potential for follow-up did much better than games that only took up one moment in time

Another participant shared, “My dad, once he got [Meaningful Mail], it would probably prompt him to call me and talk about other memories as well.”

Minimize or eliminate technology for seniors – Anything that was physical and simple with minimal technology was perceived as a useful for seniors. Technology was well-received when used by family members to simplify their communication.

One participant said, “I spent half an hour on the phone with my dad last night because he accidentally deleted an app. What information are they gaining from this [Best Bets]? Even if it was useful, it wouldn’t be worth downloading an app. I’d end up on a call trying to fix it.”


The Next Step:

After completing scenario validation testing, we decided to move forward with Meaningful Mail (working title). Meaningful Mail will be a web-based service that helps family members bring up difficult aging-related conversations with seniors. From the web, family members will be able to send seniors physical letters about the subjects they most need to discuss. This week will be spent on creating wireframes for main flows and testing with both seniors and involved family members.

Below is a storyboard that illustrates our initial thoughts about how Meaningful Mail will work.

EPSON MFP imageEPSON MFP imageLindsay Josal was also on our research team. See where she’s taking her design idea here.

One Piece at a Time

We are at week 4 of our Ideation and Development studio class at AC4D. This week, it was imperative for our group (Laura GalosLindsay Josal, and Maryanne Lee) to test our ideas with potential users, even though the idea is far from complete.

Because we decided to focus on how design solutions can help families and seniors having difficult aging-related conversations, including driving cessation, we verbally tested short scenarios with families who are having or anticipate having those driving conversations.

We questioned our participants on how they would like the conversation to go–the ideal place to have it, how they would feel, how seniors would ideally feel, the desired outcome, etc. The answers gave us a clearer picture of the ideal conversation from the family members’ perspective, which we were able to map as a journey.

We learned that family members viewed the senior’s home as being the ideal place to have this conversation. They believed it would give seniors a sense of control–which is important as they’re being asked to give a significant measure of independence. When starting the conversation, family members wanted to convey that the conversation was about concerns around health and safety, not the elderly person’s intelligence. Family members wanted seniors to react “rationally” and in a “level-headed” way.


The ideal conversation journey map gave us some insight to the feelings families would want to have during difficult conversations. And it was tempting to try to create a whole system to encompass the entire journey. However, it’s impractical to expect to be able to create a whole working system at once, and we realized we would have to work on small pieces at a time.

Last week our team was excited about the aspect of using of game mechanics to help facilitate the conversations. Although our final product will likely not be a “game” in the traditional sense, we believe that game mechanisms may be of great help in easing tough discussions.




How do you go about finding game mechanics that you’re interested in? You play! Thinking of games we enjoyed playing helped us to think of different game mechanics that we would want to test.To that end, we created sketched wireframes of 3 games we could employ to help foster a discussion in a family. Each has a different emphasis.

Balloon game: Keep the balloon afloat by keeping the conversation going.

Slide1Slide2Slide3Slide4Digital slot machines: Win the game (and real-world prizes) by coming to agreement on given questions with family members.

blog_slots_screens-01Cards: Modelled on Cards Against Humanity, there is a question deck and an answer deck. Questions are about the person asking them, and answers can be filled in on answer cards. The person asking the question decides his or her favorite answer and gives points based on that decision.


In general, feedback about the game mechanics were positive. Participants felt they were a lot of fun. Although the game mechanics don’t yet address all the difficulties of the aging-related conversations, we also asked participants about the games in the context of these discussions. Participants noted that they would like a way of continuing conversations is something interesting or odd came up. They would like to be able to save answers and revisit them. Some participants said that their families do not play games like these together, and so using them at all would be contrived.

We think that our end product needs to be non-threatening and engaging. Based on initial testing, we believe game mechanics have an important place in our design because they can foster these feelings. However, the final product will probably not be a traditional “game” because of the seriousness of the issues and the difference between families on usage of games.


As our project evolves, we continue to refine the idea of “what it is.” As of now, we’re creating a tool to facilitate tough conversations between family members and the elderly. Using game mechanics, we are making the conversation more approachable and collaborative for everyone involved.


A Game Plan for Aging-Related Conversations

Quarter 3 is well underway and our team, (Laura Galos, Lindsay Josal, and Maryanne Lee) is in the midst of ideation and development. Last week, we downselected from three design ideas to one. We have been referring to this idea as a “communication tool” that helps caregivers and families have necessary but difficult conversations with the elderly around aging-related topics. Currently, the conversation we are working with in particular is one around driving cessation, or limiting of driving as people age.

Our teachers encouraged us to test ideas with potential users this week. Because we initially thought of this communication tool as a website, our plan for testing involved creating wireframes–sketched pictures of screens–to which potential users could react. As we began to visualize what we thought these screens might look like, we realized that we needed to take a step back and think through what this tool really was. We had to consider not just the endpoint for users, but hone in on each step of the communication process. How would it feel, in an ideal case, for users to begin using the tool? How would we like them to feel when they began the conversation? What would it feel like when particular concerns were brought up?


We began by creating a journey map of the ideal conversation. First, we talked about wanting the discussion to feel safe. For an elderly person, we think it’s important that when the conversation arises, they feel like it’s not a trap. For a “caregiver,”–or any family member who takes on that role–”safe” might mean that the situation is non-threatening. We also think they would like to project to the senior that they’re not trying to take their independence from them. Going through this exercise allowed us to generate a journey map, which we used as criteria for iteration.

As we returned to storyboards, our main focus this week was on the points in the journey where users start the conversation and bring up concerns. Our team explored different form factors including web, mobile and physical forms. We then came up with several iterations. By executing and revising these iterations, the soul of the idea began to reveal itself. We found that committing to a particular iteration all the way through helped us make decisions with greater detail. The storyboards we were most excited about take the form of games.


Why games? For many families, it is uncomfortable to bring up difficult topics. In games, devices such as dice or spinners can be used as a buffer. A given player has not asked that an action be taken (or a topic discussed), the action was determined by the roll of the dice. If the game is about difficult topics, no-one has the responsibility of bringing them up, the game may do it by design. We think this may be especially effective for families facing these difficult conversations.

In our research, we found that cards are an approachable and social game that many of our participants played with regularly. So, our initial game ideas began with cards.

Storyboard A:



Storyboard B:


Storyboard C:



In our Saturday studio critique, we discussed many forms the game could take, games that happen over time v. once-and-done games, and the use in games of hypothetical scenarios v. actual user information. Our team will continue to explore the design of our idea and begin testing some of these choices with potential users this week.


From Three Hundred to One

Over the course of Q2 at Austin Center for Design, our team, (Lindsay Josal, Maryanne Lee, and Laura Galos) conducted qualitative research focused on issues in longer life expectancy. In particular, we learned from our research participants the impact that aging has on finances, health care and family relationships. After an eight week process of research and synthesis, our team identified six insights and four design implications that we used to generate design ideas to address some of the challenges our participants shared with us.

One insight we found during the research process is that the idea of “retirement” is an overpromised fantasy. Many participants held a positive view of retirement as a time that should be carefree and relaxing, though the reality was often marred by physical ills and the stressors of aging. We also found that without hobbies and social activities, individuals leaving the workforce lose their sense of purpose with negative physical and mental repercussions.

Once we developed our insights, our team responded to these issues by generating three hundred design ideas.

A ton of design ideas.

Then came the difficult process of down-selection. Our team began with 300 ideas, and reduced them to 10. Once we sketched out storyboards for this initial selection, we cut them down to 3. Down-selection was no easy task for our team. We had grown to love many of the ideas we had created and seeing them narrowed down so quickly proved to be emotionally difficult. We wondered whether we had chosen the “right” ideas, and if they would address the challenges we had found in our research.

Looking back, our process for down-selecting our design ideas was not at all as arbitrary as it felt. We used scenarios, concept maps and storyboards to help us work through how these ideas would come to life, but also used the following criteria:

  • Expense – How much would it cost for us to actually bring the idea to life?
  • Time constraint – The ability to make the largest impact on our problem space in 8 weeks
Concept Map
Storyboards & Scenarios

As of Saturday evening, our team has focused on a single design idea: a communication tool that helps caregivers and families have necessary but difficult conversations with the elderly (on topics such as driving cessation). Our task for this week is to design the interface for our idea (at the moment, this means screens) and to plan initial testing with potential users.

Final Selected Design Idea