Design Criteria, Makers Project: Week 2 Update

This is part two in a series detailing updates to our research into makers working contract jobs. You can read part one here, and you can find information on our research here.

Design Team: 

Kyle Beck, Sean Redmond, Lauren Sands

Primary Goal:

This week’s goal was to reevaluate insights and use them to develop 200 design ideas using reframing and insight combination techniques. Ideas could directly address the issues we observed as they pertain to makers or be free-association ideas inspired by our observations.

Outcome:

We were successfully able to brainstorm 200 ideas for new products or services that could be created to address problems identified.

Methodology:

Ideation was performed by examining insights and then grouped into the following themes:

  • Health
  • Business
  • Money Management
  • Agency
  • Art
  • Networking
  • Support Systems
  • Education

In addition, a “Miscellaneous” category was created to capture free-association ideas not directly related to makers.

Using the reframing technique, we took observations and filtered them through different environments, perspectives, and embodiments. For instance, we thought about the concept of taxes from the perspective of students, accountants, and CEOs, and each perspective brought different nuance to the idea. We thought about what a maker’s job would like in a city versus a rural area versus a space colony, and we thought about what tools might look like if they were swapped for other materials (e.g., plant plateware).

Using insight combination, we identified existing trends and popular applications (i.e., prevailing design patterns) and applied them to our observations to come up with new design ideas. This led to a number of ideas such as “Tinder for art,” “Tom’s Shoes for health insurance,” “Skymiles for artists,” “Airbnb for art studios,” and other concepts.

Highlights:

Some of our favorite ideas include the following:

  • A virtual reality relaxation program
  • Wearable tech that monitors and helps treat anxiety
  • Art leasing for events
  • Invoice and/or banking software that allows income to be split into different shadow accounts for planning purposes
  • A discipline-building program that encourages repetition of small tasks over time to increase resolve
  • “Tinder for art,” to allow prospective buyers to browse and purchase art via swiping
  • A communal dream network where you can share dreams and help each other achieve goals
  • Voice assistant technology that can produce invoices and help with administrative work

A spreadsheet of the full list of ideas can be found here.

Takeaways:

Many of our design ideas focused on business development, money management, and support networks. This is probably because we were conditioned to think about our research from these perspectives when working with JUST in the previous quarter. However, some of our most fruitful ideas came from approaching our research from health and agency angles. Such ideas have potential for more widespread adoption.

The simpler an idea, the more promising it appears to be. This is the hallmark of good design: something that seems obvious in retrospect because its usefulness is so intuitive.

It was easy to come up with variations of ideas for programs and apps, but we have some skepticism about how well used they would be. Given the saturation of applications in our everyday lives, the barrier for creating one that will be used with regularity by a large group of people seems high. In addition, it was hard for us to know if our ideas had already been created, given how many apps exist that few people use. We will need to conduct further research in the next phase.

Insight combination led to more immediate design ideas, while the reframing technique led more to reconceptualizations that were mainly helpful in redirecting the flow of our ideas.

Next Steps:

This week, we will evaluate our list of 200 design ideas and determine our five best ideas, based upon 2×2 comparison graphing. With this technique, we will choose two important attributes of our design ideas (e.g., ease of implementation, significance of impact) and then graph our ideas along an X-Y grid with each attribute plotted along an axis. Ideas that have the most positive potential will be chosen for further ideation and development.

Competency-Based Education Initiative: Project Brief

Student Learning Online

This is part two in a series detailing a potential competency-based learning design project in higher education. You can read part one here.

A college degree is more essential now than at any other time in history. Entry level jobs in most industries require one. But not every student is ready for the rigors of college education. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 41 percent of first-time, full-time college students earn their degrees in four years. Financial pressure adds significant strain to students, compounding the difficulties many of these students face.

The Problem: Too many students are unable to graduate from college given the way higher education is traditionally structured.

The Opportunity: Competency-based education can help more students receive a college education.

Competency-based education is a potential solution to this problem. This model allows students to learn at their own pace. Students demonstrate mastery of a subject via tests, projects, or portfolios when they feel they have sufficiently grasped the material. These classes can be taken online, at a fraction of the cost of attending university full-time.

Student Learning Online

The Pros and Cons of Competency-Based Education

Competency-based education has seen a surge in popularity since the rise of MOOCs (massive open online courses) in 2012. Online education was quickly seen as a way to reach nontraditional and underserved students in the US and around the world. Organizations such as Udacity and Udemy quickly rose to prominence, threatening to upend the world of higher education. But the dream proved elusive: although courses through these programs were much cheaper and easily accessible, persistence rates were extremely low. Udacity found that only 10% of its students would complete their courses, and of those, only half would pass.

Organizations changed course. Some shifted their focus toward corporate education, while others partnered with universities to offer a hybridized approach between traditional and online education models.

At the same time, competency-based education has grown more popular among educators. Particularly at the higher education level, the opportunity for combining the flexibility and accessibility of online classes with a go-at-your-own-pace competency-based approach has attracted significant attention. Universities such as Western Governors University and Southern New Hampshire University have proven successful with their models, incorporating mentors and other support systems to help improve student persistence. Many schools now offer options to earn online degrees.

Pros:

  • Online classes
  • Individually paced
  • Mentor support
  • Low cost

Cons:

  • Self-motivation required
  • Lack of physical community
  • Technology requirements

A tool to provide visualization of course progress and foster greater support and community for students would help address the cons identified above. This will be our design space, guiding our direction as we work to improve the competency-based education experience and increase the course success rate.
Design Process - Research, Insights, Prototype

The Design Space: Research, Insights, Prototype

The design process will involve three stages: research, insights, and prototyping.

Research: Research is conducted via contextual inquiry, an ethnographic method in which interviews are paired with close first-hand observation of contextual process. In this case, it will involve watching students attend class sessions and mentor meetings, as well as any online student support group interaction. It will involve probing how students think about their work and the methods they employ to stay motivated. It will also involve watching instructors interact with students and their behaviors toward student engagement.

Insights: Research leads to insights into students’ and teachers’ attitudes and behaviors. By examining patterns of behavior, I will come to an understanding of how students succeed. Often participants are unable to articulate the true motivations behind their actions and may be completely unaware of them. Insights aim to capture these blind spots. With this information, I will create design criteria that act upon the opportunity. This will lead to concept definition, setting the parameters for prototype development.

Prototype: Having established the design criteria and defined the concept of the design approach, I will develop a tool to assist students with motivation and support. The tool will be prototyped and tested for usability and benefit. The fidelity of the tool will not be prepared for public adoption. However, it will be interactive and will provide the information needed to create a confident blueprint for a final iteration. Instructions for how to create the finished product will be drafted and delivered at the completion of the project.

Timeline and Deliverables

Timeline

The project will unfold according to the timeline above. Deliverables will be provided at the end of each stage, in tandem with a check-in to assess progress. Deliverables include the following:

Logistics: alignment and planning workshop, research plan

Research: research report incorporating primary and secondary research, stakeholder interviews, and completed student journey maps

Insights: service models demonstrating existing use of services and areas of opportunity, storyboard illustrating design criteria and concept definition

Prototype: interactive digital interface created for testability and to demonstrate proof of concept (not a final product), instructional user guide

Test & Iterate: finalized prototype (not a final product) and recommendations for commercial tool development, revised instructional user guide

Final: final research report and recommended next steps

The project will be completed April 14, 2020.

I look forward to working on this project and developing this tool. As the competency-based education model is further refined, the opportunity exists to help greater numbers of underserved students obtain the education they need to succeed. It is my hope that this project will help make that goal possible.

Mapping Maker Concepts

This week, Kyle, Lauren and I continued our research into “makers” working contract jobs with variable income. We examined the insights we crafted last quarter and began pushing ourselves to view our findings from more radical perspectives, so that we can discover new ways of thinking about the problems we face. We also re-examined some concept models we created, fine-tuning them with information we learned from our readings last week, and began thinking of some new concept models to help us reframe our data and better foster the new perspectives we seek. Some models we explored include a semantic zoom of the maker ecosystem, a temporal zoom of a maker’s potential career trajectory, and concept maps exploring the maker growth cycle, the value of a makers’ art as it correlates to their network, and examinations of makers’ jobs, values, and more.

Makers Semantic Zoom

Semantic Zoom

Semantic zoom allowed us to view makers from new perspectives based on the ecosystem around them. We started with makers at the center and branched out to explore their support system, their networks, their values, their money, and their specific occupations. In our semantic zooms, we looked at their network and money in particular, using it to look at these concepts in greater focus. Examining their money allowed us to look at their income and expenses in detail, which led us to examine their business expenses in particular more closely. This allowed us to understand in more depth than previously just how much money it takes to promote yourself, to buy materials, to attend trade conferences, and to potentially start a business. Similarly, looking at their network gave us greater insight into how social events play an important role in building a network. In addition to conferences and festivals, we enjoyed brainstorming all of the different volunteer opportunities that people can pursue to build their network. For makers operating on small budgets, such experiences can prove very useful.

Temporal Zoom

Temporal Zoom

For our temporal zoom, we focused on exploring a hypothetical artist’s transition from art school to an independent contractor to a small business owner and, eventually, to retirement. Although we did not speak to anyone who experienced all of these stages, we were able to pull data from the various people we did speak to to create a potential lifecycle, with retirement influenced by the dreams that makers shared with us. What would it take to realize those dreams? One path to get there could be to create a business, something that some (but not all) makers working as independent contractors explore.

The temporal zoom was surprising because it forced us to focus on how priorities change over an artist’s life, and what sort of sacrifices and commitments would be necessary to truly shift into a business perspective. Many of our interviewees told us that they despised administrative work, and this emerged as a potential road block to building a business strategy. With business creation, we saw administrative focus balloon as free time and personal work shrunk — a tradeoff that does not fit all makers’ desires. However, as it allows for income to grow and debt to shrink, later dreams such as owning property and having greater free time to focus on personal projects grows, especially in retirement, something that most makers working as independent contractors did not envision. The temporal zoom shows one potential pathway to getting there.

Makers Checklist Concept Model

Concept Models

We created seven different concept models this week; some were revisions from models we created last quarter, and some were new models created when re-examining our data. Our Makers’ Values model demonstrates the priority makers place on agency and fulfillment over financial security, an insight that we found particularly helpful in our framing. Our Makers’ Checklist model captures makers’ different behaviors, demonstrating how makers live as “systems outlaws,” as we’ve described them. Our Networking model demonstrates that the value of an artist’s work is directly correlated to the size of their network, an insight that captures the importance that many of our interviewees place on getting themselves out there and being confident with all audiences, and our Energy Tank model shows the many obligations that makers working as independent contractors face, not just as it relates to finding work but also to paying taxes, finding health insurance, and other essential tasks. Seeing just how much is required to procure these things when you don’t work for a single employer was eye-opening, and made us feel greater empathy with those we spoke with.

Makers Values Concept Model

 

Maker Growth Spiral

Other models include the Maker’s Growth Spiral, which shows how makers’ art feeds into their work, which allows them to get money, which they use to further their art. These actions inform each other and allow makers to grow in all directions: in their creative abilities, in their work experiences, and in the income they bring in. The Makers’ Network model shows how networks influence the jobs makers take: as they grow, they take on bigger tasks, which requires them to seek out their network for assistance, thus providing other makers with opportunity. Eventually, as they get busier and their workload increases, makers stop taking smaller jobs, which they might then refer to a friend, and the cycle continues. Our last model, the Makers Occupation model, shows the types of work that makers do, and captures the overlap that many of our makers demonstrate. Many of our interviewees indicated a desire to constantly expand their abilities and branch out into new areas of work, and this graph demonstrated their multitalented capabilities with newfound clarity.

Makers Network Concept ModelMakers Occupations Concept Model

Progress and Priorities

This week, we were pleased with the number of concept models we crafted, and we hope to create more as we continue in this class. This allows us to expand our visual vocabularies and begin thinking of new and more insightful ways of approaching our data and sharing it with others, which will lead to greater insights and better design criteria. Our temporal and semantic zooms presented a more detailed look at makers’ behaviors, attitudes, and values, which will also prove helpful in our work.

The one area we were not able to focus on as much as we would have liked was crafting more provocative and radical insights. Even as we gained new clarity in simplifying our ideas into clear visual models, we have not yet been able to use that clarity to push our insights further. This will be our priority this week, as we continue to comb through our quotes and focus on new areas of significance, particularly those that we paid less attention to when working with JUST. These areas include makers’ mental health, networking, and values. We plan to dedicate time each day to challenging ourselves to brainstorm new insights as we simultaneously begin thinking about design criteria and new ways to address the latent needs of makers.Fine Art - Value of the Work

Rethinking Higher Education: The Online Shift

As education evolves to take advantage of new technological capabilities, the promise of providing quality education to the world’s youth looms large. An educated populace is something that everyone agrees is vital, but the best way to provide education is an ongoing topic of discussion. Traditional classroom settings have left some students bored at the pace of progress, while others struggle to keep up, lagging further and further behind.

Higher education, while pushed on all students as a gateway to career satisfaction and financial success, often proves difficult for many students to complete. In a study released last year by the National Center for Education Statistics, it was discovered that only 41% of first-time, full-time college students earn a bachelor’s degree in four years, and 59% in six years. For first-generation students and historically underserved students, the difficulties of obtaining a college degree are even more pronounced.

To improve college success rates and ensure greater learning among students, educators are considering new approaches to teaching. Competency-based learning is one such approach. Competency-based learning focuses on teaching mastery of certain skills or subjects, evaluating students based on their ability to demonstrate their knowledge. Competency-based learning is being implemented at the secondary level in schools in New Hampshire, Michigan, Ohio, and elsewhere. (It was adopted by Maine in 2012, but abandoned in 2018.)

Colleges, too, are incorporating the approach. In 2015, the federal government began funding experimental approaches to competency-based education in universities nationwide, although it was announced in November 2019 that funding would cease. In a letter to universities, the government said that enough data had been gathered to “support conclusions and policy decisions”; no further detail has been yet provided.

Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are a well-known alternative to the traditional educational approach. Born from the open educational resources movement and MIT’s OpenCourseWare project, they exploded into public consciousness in 2012 with the founding of many new online-education providers, including Coursera, Udacity, and edX. The New York Times labeled 2012 “the year of the MOOC” and educators (and entrepreneurs) began to look seriously to web-based courses as the future of learning.

The euphoria was short lived, as it quickly became apparent that there was much more to learning than putting videos on the Internet. Student success rates for MOOC courses were abysmal; Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun found that the completion rate for students taking the company’s courses was 10%, and only half of those students were passing. “We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don’t educate people as others wished, or as I wished,” he told Fast Company in 2013. “We have a lousy product.”

But MOOCs have proven popular, with millions of students taking courses each year, and Udacity and other companies have found more successful ways to provide online education. Udacity partnered with AT&T in 2018 to provide education to the company’s employees. Older, working professionals have become one of the main audiences for online education, as well as international students.

Other organizations have found hybrid approaches to higher education that are catching on. edX partners with established universities to deliver online versions of their courses and degree programs; this year, The University of Texas at Austin welcomes its first edX cohort of students pursuing a master’s in computer science. Students taking online courses are provided with access to virtual office hours, and they form online discussion groups with fellow students for further support.

As educators learn how to make online education work, promises and pitfalls remain. MOOCS and other web-based instruction offers the potential for students to work at their own pace, freeing educators to focus on students who need help, when they need it. The technology, combined with a competency-based learning approach, has the potential to reshape education in a way that is more tailored to students’ interests and abilities.

The downside to online education is that students, when not in a physical location with human interaction, have demonstrated significantly decreased motivation. This is something that will need to be addressed as new forms of education are explored.

Modular courses delivered via app are being developed as the next phase of education innovation. To succeed, this approach will need to be mindful of the pitfalls of previous innovations, such as MOOCs. Retaining student motivation will be crucial. Progress visualization will be necessary, but may not be sufficient. It will be important to plan for ways to ensure connections with other students and instructors are properly formed, and that students feel that they have the support network they need to persist. Creating this environment digitally looks to be a significant challenge. Partnering with educational institutions, such as edX has done, to create trust and take advantage of existing support systems is one potential way to begin to address this issue.

Figuring out how to manage these conditions and prepare for them will be key to the success of a competency-based, app-delivered learning approach. With the right formula, such a program could be a powerful tool for helping underserved and nontraditional students succeed.

Creating an Ethical Framework

Throughout this quarter, we have been tasked with creating an ethics framework that will guide our decisions as designers. This has been no easy feat. There is no universal set of ethics, and almost every decision of importance requires trade-offs. Even when you think you are designing something that benefits everyone, there is the possibility that your design will have unintended effects or be co-opted and used for nefarious purposes by others. The field of design is strewn with such cases, whether it be Airbnb giving hosts the agency to choose their guests (resulting in discrimination) or Cambridge Analytica adopting algorithmic prediction software to sway political elections.

Ethics can be considered from various approaches, and two in particular inform this framework: the consequentialist Common Good Approach, which stipulates that good actions should consider and benefit the whole of society, with consideration for the most vulnerable; and the non-consequentialist Rights Approach, which determines good by evaluating the impact of an action on the rights of those affected by it, emphasizing that people never be treated as means to an end.

The framework I have created was influenced by earlier models I’ve created, the Star of Good Design and the Identity Rainbow. These ethical approaches and previous studies, culled from readings and discussions on design patterns, privacy and identity, and emerging technology, inform the basis of my logic and the nature of my questions.

An Ethical Framework

The dark red questions are of most importance. If you find yourself in the bottom right corner (For whom?) you should reflect, ask yourself if you’re okay with this, then proceed to the agency question. This is a work in progress.

When facing the benefits and drawbacks of an ambiguous situation (or in all scenarios, really), consider the following questions:

Framework Questions

I’ve used this model on a few different scenarios. For example, imagine a health organization operates an app that provides reminders to take medicine and menus of daily meal options that meet nutritional value goals. The organization would now like to encourage people to exercise more. 

You have been asked to design a request asking users to create an exercise regimen every time they receive their medication reminder or set up a meal plan. This notification cannot be turned off, and must be declined each time. The organization thinks that, with enough prodding, users will eventually create a plan, and that they will ultimately be thankful once they set it up. 

If I follow my framework, I will eventually get to the question of whether this causes unintended harm. It very well could: annoying reminders could persuade users to stop using the app altogether, and they would no longer have access to the medication reminders and meal plans. So I would have to ask myself additional questions and determine the severity of the situation and what options I have to influence it.

I would proceed in the following way:

  1. I would make an argument as to why I think this is a bad idea and pitch alternatives.
  2. If unsuccessful in my efforts, I would ask if I could be reassigned from the project.
  3. If I had to, I would work on the project. There would be drawbacks to implementation, but also benefits. The drawbacks are not significant enough to quit the position.

I believe that this sort of reasoning must be employed when making ambiguous decisions. For example, if I were asked to craft a deceptive terms and conditions acceptance protocol, I would protest, but ultimately acquiesce if necessary, assuming that the terms are not more dangerous than industry standards. Since people are already used to sharing private information online, it would not be worth losing my job to try to change one company’s protocol. 

But let’s return to the hypothetical health organization above. Imagine that its next initiative was to obtain users’ medical records, so that the app could make tailored meal plan recommendations based on their health conditions. I would not work on this project. Combining medical records with shopping behaviors could result in discriminatory action by health insurers and government agencies, if they were to obtain this information. By storing this data together, I would be creating existential risk for our users.

In the end, my takeaway is as follows:

Consider the ramifications of your work. Consider your responsibilities to yourself and to others. Seek outside input. Stand up for your values. Do no deliberate harm.

Again, this framework is a work in progress. If you have thoughts and would like to provide feedback or engage in conversation about the limits of this model, please email me at sean.redmond@ac4d.com. I would love to hear from you.

Redesigning the City of Austin’s Small Business Program

Man with Classes

This is the final part of an ongoing research project that aims to understand how people navigate the City of Austin’s Small Business Program services and how they get value from the system. Our research began with PeopleFund, a community lender, and expanded in its scope as we learned more about the city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. Preliminary themes from our research can be found in part 2, our service slice evaluation can be found in part 3, and information on insights gathered can be found in part 4.

After four months spent researching the city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, this project concludes with design criteria aimed to improve the City of Austin’s Small Business Program.

My research has led me to conclude that the Small Business Program does not holistically prepare entrepreneurs to launch a business. Although everyone I spoke to appreciated the wealth of resources the city makes available, many found it difficult to navigate the path to actually getting their first customers. In addition, there are key skills that the Small Business Program does not promote, such as confidence in public speaking, that could benefit small business owners. Networking contributes significantly to business success, and this is one area in which the city can focus on to help strengthen entrepreneurial skills.

For a full summary of the research and a look at the design criteria I’ve created, please visit my website.

 

In Search of Techno-Utopia

Lately, our class has been reading about how emerging technologies have been used as tools of oppression. The most heart-rending case is what’s happening in China to the Uighur population: under the guise of fighting terrorism, the largely Muslim Uighurs are being monitored and tracked, their past and present behaviors used to identify individuals in need of “re-education.”

We are all familiar with the concept of the techno-dystopian future. Movies like Blade Runner and The Matrix are classic examples in film, and the entire genre of cyberpunk is built upon the idea. Our fear of future technologies has driven creation of countless stories exploring the potential ramifications of our technological advancement. But there are fewer ideas concerning what a techno-utopia might look like. Given that we are tasked with improving society via design, I want to explore what this might look like. I’ve created a diagram below to capture some of the tenets that I associate with techno-dystopian and techno-utopian futures.

Techno-Utopia and Techno-Dystopia

The concepts of dystopia and utopia would presumably exist in totally separate spheres, and most of these traits seem to be in diametric opposition. However, there is a tension between the two. With decentralization of power and personal autonomy comes the potential for majority rule without regard for society’s most vulnerable. As technology erases the power of gatekeepers to direct information and shape public opinion, techno-utopia risks turning into the worst corners of the Internet: driven by tribalism, fake news, and fear-mongering.

 

Risk of Mob Rule

This leaves us with the following question:

How can we protect the rights of minority populations in a world of decentralized authority?

There’s no easy answer to it, but this question must guide our ethical frameworks as designers. As we attempt to steer ourselves toward techno-utopia, this may be the most important question that we face.

Privacy and Identity: How do we ensure informed consent?

Online consent forms are ubiquitous. You must enable cookies and accept privacy policies and terms of use for almost every site you visit. How many people actually read these forms, or know what they mean?

I recently visited the CNN home page and was met with a small banner at the bottom of the screen. It read “By using this site, you agree to our updated Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.” I did not have to read through these terms or agree to them to access the site; my consent was given (without my consent!) immediately upon visiting. By clicking to view the Privacy Policy, I learned that my location could be tracked, my IP data monitored, and social media data captured, including my name, email, photos, gender, and social network.

Sadly, this did not surprise me, and it probably would not surprise most readers. We are used to giving this data away as a price to pay for Internet access and the convenience that the Internet provides us. We can read the news for free from home. We can pay our bills online. We can go grocery shopping without leaving the house. We can look at our friends’ vacation photos and send them messages. We like having these conveniences, but they come at a cost.

We give away our consent freely because we have been conditioned to do so. But giving away pieces of our identity data has risks. I’ve attempted to catalog those risks in the chart below.

Identity Data Risk Table

The chart is categorized by color according to layers of identity data.

Green pieces of information are what I call Social Relationship Data. This information is required to have relationships with others, and is mostly used for messaging and identity verification in social networks.

The gray layer contains what I call Societal Integration Data. This information is necessary to obtain basic, crucial services. Shopping and banking are made possible by this information (in addition to Social Relationship Data). To live without an address or access to financial institutions can create difficulty in finding work and fulfilling basic needs.

Blue data are what I call Existential Data. This information is core to your personhood and cannot be changed. It is, consequently, the most important information about you. Discrimination based on health status and citizenship status is widespread, and this layer of identity data is most frequently used to cause personal harm.

I’ve created what I call the “Identity Rainbow” to illustrate these layers, pictured below.

Identity Rainbow

When we share data about ourselves online, it is almost always data from the Social Relationship and Societal Integration layers. We allow this data to be shared because we have faith in institutional safeguards that protect us from the dangers of losing this data. We assume that banks will protect us if someone steals our credit card and misuses it. We assume the police will protect us if someone finds our address and angrily comes to our house.

We do not worry about keeping this data private because the risks of losing this data are low. They are not low for everyone—those under threat of physical violence, for example, would want to keep their address and location private. The convenience of sharing that data for those individuals does not outweigh the danger. But for most people, the convenience of home delivery outweighs the fear of home invasion.

This is a calculated risk that can be provided with consent. However, to ensure informed consent, we must be aware of those risks and actively choose to embrace them. By stealthily sharing identity information about me, corporations abuse their trust.

Informed consent requires active sharing of information in a deliberate, thoughtful fashion. It should allow us to choose which layers of identity data to share with different organizations and require us to proactively make this choice. However, doing this on a website-by-website or organization-by-organization basis is tedious and leads to disengagement. Consequently, we shrug off important consent forms and freely share our information without realizing it.

The creation of universal online identities with inherent privacy settings, such as a firewall, would give control back to users and allow for truly informed consent. However, it is important to consider what information this should entail. Information from the Social Relationship and Societal Integration layers allows us to easily act as consumers and fulfill our day-to-day needs. Existential information is required, however, for health care services, paying taxes, voting, and other important needs.

Identity Data Web

If we were to combine all of our identity information under one identity, we could allow integrated access between all of the institutions that currently safeguard that data, including the government, hospitals, banks, and corporations. However, allowing access to all of this data creates existential risk. Obtaining access to all layers of identity information can result in identity theft and a complete loss of freedom—a literal erasure of your existence.

Given the risk, is informed consent to sharing this information ethically permissible? Are there any benefits that outweigh the danger, and in what circumstances? The answer, as I see it, is no. A universal identity, whether centralized or decentralized, should take this into consideration and ensure that existential data is not linked or stored together with other forms of identity information.

Researching Makers’ Financial Attitudes and Behaviors: Part Three

This is part of an ongoing research project that aims to understand the financial attitudes and behaviors of makers who primarily receive their income from variable, contract-based employment. Part One provides information about “makers,” why we chose them, and our project goals. Part Two offers select stories from our interviews. Here, we present three themes that we have identified in our research.

In our last blog post, Kyle, Lauren and I told you about four artists who earn their income working in arts and arts-adjacent fields, primarily through contract-based work. We spoke to Pete, an A/V technician, photographer and musician; Rodney, a sculptor and craftsman; and Carrie and Becca, two visual artists with a creative studio who provide signage and wayfaring for local restaurants.

Since then, we’ve spoken to a total of 12 makers, including construction workers, set and prop designers, gallery designers, carpenters, and other art- and craft-based workers. From their stories, we have identified three themes that we feel are important to understanding the financial motivations of these workers.

Pete sharing his work schedule

Pete sharing his work schedule.

Theme 1: A variable schedule incentivizes working as little as possible.

Many of our participants told us how much they enjoy their free time, and this plays a part in their decision to work on a contract basis. It gives them the freedom to work when they want to, as they need to. We had hypothesized that the uncertainty of this type of work would lead individuals to work as much as possible and save as much as possible, to prepare for the times when they have trouble finding work. We found that this frequently wasn’t the case.

Take Pete: he told us “I take every gig I’m offered,” yet he also said “I only need to work seven days a month…sometimes I only need to work 4 days a month.” He could work more, but valued his free time more highly than the extra money. The people we spoke to knew how much they needed to make to cover their expenses, and they typically worked to that limit. As Rodney put it, “I [make] generally around $2,000 a month. It’s kind of like, I gotta make $2,000 to be broke but not have everybody mad at me.”

Rodney

We asked Rodney to pretend the cotton balls were $100 bills and asked what he’d do with this extra money. He told us he’d find ways to spend it. 

Theme 2: A variable income creates temptation to make large purchases.

Another trend we’ve observed is that variable income can lead to large influxes of money, which is then easy to spend. Carrie and Becca told us how their first year, after receiving some big contracts, they went out and leased a new, much larger studio. When we asked Rodney what he would do with $1,000, he said, “The only time I’ve ever had this, I went and bought a sailboat.”

Henry, a carpenter and owner of a local remodeling business, spoke to the phenomenon. “I’ve seen so many, umpteen guys that come in, they get one big job, and then then they’re driving the F350,” he told us. “Then they have a couple bad jobs and they’re driving the wife’s Corolla.” Sure enough, within a year, Carrie and Becca had given up their larger studio, realizing they couldn’t actually afford it.

Becca and Carrie at their computer

Becca and Carrie share the database they’ve created of all of Austin’s restaurants.

Theme 3: Work opportunities are word of mouth, so networks are crucial.

Almost everyone we spoke to emphasized the importance of having a network who can connect them to regular work opportunities. After years of networking, Pete told us, “They call me — and that’s one thing I love about my current situation. I never ever look for work. It just comes to my door and I say yes I can do it or no I can’t do it.” Others have to hustle a bit more, but work always seems to come through. Carrie and Becca, for example, find work by going out to eat and introducing themselves to the restaurant staff. “We’re literally landing a client almost every time we would go out to eat,” Becca told us.

Feedback

We presented our findings to JUST last Saturday, and they shared some helpful feedback with us. They agreed that volatile income makes it difficult for people to plan, as constant scarcity crushes the belief that it is possible to make a better world for yourself. We are not sure if our interviewees demonstrate this mindset: because they are “self-marginalized” and could theoretically find other, more stable work, it is hard to know if they feel they are trapped in their situations. The makers we interviewed told us that their lifestyle is one of choice as opposed to necessity.

We were told that many JUST clients sacrifice their credit to help their community, and makers are a group that values community very highly. Many people we spoke to also have bad credit, frequently due to unpaid student loan debt. Microcredit helps promote financial discipline, and this could potentially help some of the people we spoke to learn to save more, if they are so inclined. However, because they are “reverse entrepreneurs” — creating businesses in a haphazard way, as a means not to make money but to achieve freedom and pursue their passions — it is hard to know whether the type of financial incentives that help those deliberately starting a business would also be of interest to artists who mostly just want to do their own thing and make just enough money each month to get by.

Insights into the City of Austin’s Small Business Program

This is part of an ongoing research project that aims to understand how people navigate the City of Austin’s Small Business Program services and how they get value from the system. Our research began with PeopleFund, a community lender, and expanded in its scope as we learned more about the city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. Preliminary themes from our research can be found here and our service slice evaluation can be found here.

Photo with Mayor

Recipients show off their certificates for completing six Small Business Program classes offered by the City of Austin.

 

The City of Austin’s Small Business Program helps people learn how to start a business. It provides personalized coaching and classes on marketing, accounting, business plans, and other topics. The program has proven helpful to many people who’ve used it, but it can be difficult to navigate.

Classes are offered a la carte and provided without a clear hierarchy of importance. Courses and coaching are also provided by various partner organizations, including the Austin Public Library, PeopleFund, BiGAUSTIN, SCORE, and others. The city works to connect people to these organizations, but overlapping services can lead to redundant effort and frustration.

“If the library also offers classes, are those different?” someone asked during a BizAid Orientation class I sat in on.

“Different divisions, different departments,” responded the program facilitator. “We do a lot of the same stuff, everybody, whether it’s us, PeopleFund, BiGAUSTIN.”

Austin Public Library workshop

A course offered by the Austin Public Library in conjunction with the City of Austin.

 

It is difficult for participants to determine what to do, where to go, and who to see. This leads people to forge a path the best they can, taking courses, attending networking events, and trying to build the confidence they need to successfully launch their businesses and obtain clients.

I spoke with Kate after attending the BizAid Orientation class. Kate is looking to create a catalog of local goods for school fundraisers. She’s attended nine classes offered by the City of Austin, as well as classes offered by SCORE and the Austin Public Library. She attended the BizAid Orientation class late in the process. “It didn’t sound that important to me,” she said. “It was all done backwards.”

Kate only took the class when she realized that doing so would grant her access to personalized coaching from the city. Although she’s taken many classes and received mentoring from SCORE, she still feels she needs help.

Kate

Kate is an aspiring business owner. Kate has taken nine courses from the City of Austin’s Small Business Program. She hopes to launch her business soon.

 

“I don’t know the middle process, exactly,” she told me. “And that’s what really makes me nervous.”

Nobody knows the middle process, because there is no process. “I get asked the question, ‘Well, where’s my checklist?’ and I haven’t been able to figure it out, because I don’t think it’s a linear process,” I was told by Gary, a counselor with the City of Austin. This may be true, but that doesn’t mean participants wouldn’t benefit from directed guidance.

The Confidence-Building Cycle

The confidence-building cycle, as experienced by Small Business Program participants. 

 

Two themes began to emerge from my research:

  • Program metrics are used to measure outputs and not outcomes.
  • Value is measured by the quantity of resources available.

“Part of our measures are, you know, how many new businesses were started, how many jobs were created,” Gary told me. “There’s probably, certainly a lot of intangibles. Was I inspired? Did I gain confidence? Did I increase my network? We don’t have the measuring stick in place to capture all of that.”

None of the nine counselors I spoke with at the City of Austin, PeopleFund, and SCORE could speak to metrics that focused on participants’ personal development.

What they did speak to, though, is resources. Lots of them.

“There’s always a pathway for resources.”

“We have a lot of resources we’re happy to share.”

“We have an awesome resource guide that we will print out and give to people that just has a ton of resources in it.”

Resources

Resources from the City of Austin, PeopleFund, and SCORE.

 

These are just a handful of the many references to resources that I heard. The system, I realized, is structured around providing as many resources as possible, with the idea that people will eventually figure out a path to success on their own.

Insight 1: A lack of clear structure to business and course progression creates uncertainty and depresses confidence. The Small Business Program should foster confidence by implementing a clear recommended pathway from idea to business launch.”

Talking to the eight aspiring (and one accomplished) business owners I interviewed, I learned that confidence was the key factor to success. Confidence is obtained from experience, from familiarity, and from success. First-time business owners are still trying to acquire these things, and until they do, they often lack confidence. But without confidence, they may never successfully launch their business. It’s a catch-22.

Claudia

Claudia, a mindfulness coach who is starting her own business.

 

Claudia is a mindfulness coach just starting her business. She’s worked with two clients, and one was unpaid. She’s determined, but shy.

“There’s still a little bit of anxiety, any time you reach out to someone,” she explained. “It’s like, they’re too busy, or they’re gonna think this is dumb.”

This fear of networking was common among participants. Agnes, a healthy eating program coordinator, likes to put together small gatherings of people so she can avoid large crowds. “If it’s like 100 people there, I get super nervous,” she said. “I probably won’t talk to anyone.”

“It’s just easier to talk to new people in a small setting,” she said.

Networking is crucial for identifying customers, but people are afraid to do it. Building confidence is the key to overcoming this obstacle. Right now, there are few ways for participants to build confidence, short of powering through. Some take classes over and over again. Others look to tangible products to help establish their identity. This often takes the form of websites.

“I don’t want to sign up and try to apply without having some kind of website,” Kate told us, explaining why she hadn’t yet asked schools to adopt her catalog. “I think it’s a matter of me hopefully finishing my website, and then going ahead and going for it.”

“The biggest thing, I think, is marketing, and that goes back to the website,” Claudia echoed.

Neither Kate nor Claudia need a website to launch their business, but both felt that they would not be successful without one.

Two more themes then emerged from my research:

  • People need to feel safe to share their aspirations.
  • A tangible product makes their business feel real.

From these themes, I drew my second insight.

Insight 2: Confidence is necessary to succeed as a business owner, but it’s hard to feel confident without clear indicators of success. To quickly build confidence, the city should assert that confidence can be learned and focus on emphasizing and strengthening this trait.

With these two insights in mind, I’ve concluded that the Small Business Program needs to move participants quickly from a “Fear” mindset to a “Confidence” mindset. Right now people must overcome this barrier on their own, but if the city were to explicitly focus on this, people would be able to launch their businesses faster and with a higher rate of follow-through. Streamlining courses by highlighting recommended steps would provide guidance and help people feel they are moving forward toward a goal. Specific confidence-building classes and events, such as small networking opportunities for new business owners, could help people that they are developing a skill. This would prepare them to better network, find customers, and launch their businesses.

The Takeaway: Program participants must be moved quickly from a “Fear” mindset to a “Confidence” mindset. By structuring the program to specifically promote confidence and providing a recommended pathway to business and course progression, participants will feel they are making progress and gain the confidence needed to follow through with their businesses.

Fear to Confidence Graphic