Design Thinking: Next-Level Design or Nonsense?

We at AC4D spend a lot of time talking about who designers are and what they do. This is inevitable, given the ambiguity of the field. What is design, anyway?

I’m not going to answer that question, but will instead point to a quote from Richard Buchanan:

Buchanan quote

Buchanan is well-known in the design world for conceptualizing the fourth order of design, which incorporates all areas of design-historical focus: signs, things, actions, and thoughts. Fourth-order design deals with the complex systems that interplay to create what Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber identified as “wicked problems” in society—things like poverty, education, health care, and other universal issues.

The scope of design has thus expanded, exploding the neat boxes that it has historically been placed into. Graphic design, industrial design, product design, even UX design—it is easy to understand such concepts. But how do you describe “wicked problem” design?

“Design thinking” is a word that’s been adopted to convey this comprehensive concept. Tim Brown and Jocelyn Wyatt refer to the design thinker as a “T-shaped person.” They write, “On the vertical axis, every member of the team needs to possess a depth of skill that allows him or her to make tangible contributions to the outcome. The top of the ‘T’ is where the design thinker is made. It’s about empathy for people and for disciplines beyond one’s own.”

The T-Shaped Designer

The T-shaped designer, as conceived by Tim Brown and Jocelyn Wyatt

This is the closest I’ve seen to a concrete definition of what we do. But one component of this definition still left me confused. Every member of the team needs to possess a depth of skill that allows him or her to make tangible contributions to the outcome. What skills are pertinent to this type of design? We could point to the skills that have informed design historically, but would this be a logical extension or just a vestigial trace?

I set out to determine what skills are needed to be a design thinker. The writings of Nigel Cross and Edward De Bono were instrumental in creating the following framework, which builds upon the budding definition I’d drawn out from Brown and Wyatt.

THE DESIGN THINKING SKILL SET

The Design Thinking Skill Set

The Design Thinking Skill Set is a mode of interpreting the world at the intersection of two axes of behavior: the logic/emotion spectrum and the intuition/reason spectrum.

Many theorists have pointed out that design is not based in logic. However, as De Bono writes, “Every valuable, creative idea will always be logical in hindsight. If an idea were not logical in hindsight, then we would never be able to appreciate the value of the idea.” There must be some logic to the idea or it would not be useful. 

However, because wicked problems have no solutions, every attempt at improvement is necessarily subjective. And as Rittel and Webber explain, “Diverse values are held by different groups of individuals…What satisfies one may be abhorrent to another, [and] what comprises problem-solution for one is problem-generation for another.”

“Planning,” they proclaim, “is a component of politics. There is no escaping that truism.”

If improvement is subjective, then it is not enough for design to be logical. It must also factor in an emotional component—it must make its audience happy.

On the other axis lies intuition and reason. Reason, like logic, is necessary for design thinkers to understand the operations and interplay of the complex systems for which they design. However, reason can mask truly novel solutions. Here, De Bono’s conception of creativity is key. De Bono describes creativity as “lateral thinking,” or “cutting across patterns.” It is, essentially, the intuitive ability to discover new pathways through the application of tools and experience.

De Bono conceives of these as neural pathways, but the metaphor works in all of its conceptions. We acclimate to the world by forging an understanding of how things operate, but this understanding is limited by the logic we’ve internalized. Thus, it is difficult to conceptualize new modes of logic that can be useful, or improve upon, our initial understanding. However, tools can be used to create new ways of seeing, like a lantern revealing a hidden door in the darkness.

The Hidden Path

Tools such as the scrupulous inspection of interview transcripts, juxtaposing unrelated quotes from various participants next to each other, reveal hidden patterns in behavior, attitudes and emotions. Intuition gathered from our experiences allows us to identify problems in these patterns and conceptualize improvements.

Buchanan’s conception of “placements” is another critical tool for design thinking. As Buchanan writes,

Placements have boundaries to shape and constrain meaning, but are not rigidly fixed and determinate. The boundary of a placement gives a context or orientation to thinking, but the application to a specific situation can generate a new perception of that situation and, hence, a new possibility to be tested. Therefore, placements are sources of new ideas and possibilities when applied to problems in concrete circumstances.

This mode of thinking—of identifying concepts and intuitively applying them in novel contexts—is a tool that every design thinker should equip.

I’ve determined that The Design Thinking Skill Set contains the following:

  • Breadth of experience
  • Empathy
  • The ability to think creatively
  • An understanding of how to promote change

The last key is important, because the design thinker—an unwieldy name if there ever was one—is actually operating in another, more obviously important role: the Champion of Change.

Despite all of the potential negative consequences of design, it is human nature to try to improve our lives. We understand how to improve physical objects through design. Through design thinking, perhaps we will finally learn to improve our modes of being.

Themes from Exploring Austin’s Entrepreneurial Ecosystem

 

Austin's Entrepreneurial Ecosystem

Austin has one of the most vibrant tech industries in the country, but there’s more to the city than start-ups and Big Tech. Austin is invested in diversifying its industry, as outlined in its current five-year strategy plan, Strategic Direction 2023. For our research, we decided to explore how the City of Austin is fostering its non-tech entrepreneurs, who often do not have access to venture capital or angel investors looking to fund the Next Big Thing. We spoke specifically with women and people of color to learn how they are being supported by the city and its network of partner organizations that help people start their own businesses. Diversity and equity is important to us, and it is something that we hope to see reflected in our city’s economic sphere.

We spoke with nine small business counselors who work at three organizations: the City of Austin, SCORE and PeopleFund. PeopleFund is contracted by the city to provide small business loans as well as business assistance and education to people with otherwise limited access to such resources. SCORE is funded by the Small Business Administration and is America’s top resource for free business mentoring and education. The City of Austin partners with these and other organizations to provide guidance, counseling, and financial support to its budding entrepreneurs.

 

Ribbon Cutting

In addition to counselors, we spoke with five entrepreneurs working in various fields, including Jonas, who is starting an IT support franchise; Agnes, who wants to help people cook healthy meals; and Claudia, who is starting a mindfulness training business. Perhaps due to the nature of our research lens, all of our interviewees spoke of the desire to give back to their communities and be able to give more of themselves to their work. Beyond that, their interests were quite different, but key themes emerged in our interviews that illustrate similar emotions and experiences. We delve into some of them below.

Theme 1: People feel stigmatized for making “unsafe” choices, creating feelings of insecurity

We heard this from many of our interviewees who shared stories of shock from family and friends about their entrepreneurial decisions. “People were like, You’re doing what? Why? Claudia recalls. That requires guts, Jonas’s neighbor told him. Starting a business is often seen as an “unsafe” and potentially unwise move, that leads entrepreneurs to feel insecure when talking about it. This exacerbates the difficulties of networking, which is already a difficult thing to do. Agnes explained how nervous she gets talking to large groups. She likes to bring small groups of people together to cook so that she can avoid the discomfort of traditional networking. “The cooking is like a guise, because you’re not focused on networking,” she explained.

Cooking Class

Theme 2: Entrepreneurs rationalize uncertainty by clinging to “silver bullet” ideas

We saw this repeatedly in the way that people talked about their businesses. “Client acquisition is the biggest thing…just getting new customers, getting your first couple of customers,” Jonas told us, as if getting just one or two customers was all he needed. Claudia felt that it was just a matter of “getting in front of the right people.” This idea that others would come in and ensure their success—a silver bullet—was a common trend. 

Theme 3: Entrepreneurs worry they will fail by not making the most of their time and opportunities

Claudia shared her fears with us when relaying a story about trying to keep up with her networking goals. She’s working with an incubator here in town that recommends she talk to 100 people per week about her business. “So up to this point, I think I’ve only talked to 15…but when you are in that moment, it may be that one person that you need to say it to,” she says, lamenting her shortcomings. Entrepreneurs often feel like they are coming up short of where they need to be.

Claudia

This can be compounded by advice that stresses the importance of action: as Gary at the City of Austin explained, “A lot of people get trapped in the analysis paralysis. They’re overthinking things when they could have already started something already.” This urgency can exacerbate entrepreneurs’ existing stress.

Theme 4: Counselors feel that they need tangible metrics to measure success

We found that counselors use all sorts of metrics to monitor Austin’s entrepreneurial activity: workshop attendance, businesses started, jobs created, loans made. But some crucial components of success—such as confidence—can be difficult to track. Gary told us about the Women’s Entrepreneur Lunch, an event that the city hosts specifically for female entrepreneurs. Although he admitted there was value in bringing women together, he found that it was difficult to gauge its impact. “There’s probably, certainly a lot of intangibles,” he said. “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.” And yet, so many entrepreneurs looked to networking as the most important factor in their success!

Theme 5: Resources are viewed as an acceptable substitute for learning

If there’s one thing that every counselor has, it’s resources. Resources can be good, but not when every organization you speak to gives you giant stacks of them. The resources were overwhelming just to look at.

“There have been some organizations trying to pursue the ‘holy grail’ of the start-up list,” Gary explained in our one-on-one session. “And 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. Maybe somebody can, but this is my attempt at some sort of process.” He then shared the following document with us:

CoA Resources

Entrepreneurs see these resources as substitutes for actually learning the skills they need to succeed. At one workshop, a woman asked if she could just pay someone $400 to write her business plan, and Jonas spoke of purchasing networking lists from another organization.

Too many resources can lead to overwhelm, and they don’t always say the same thing. As Claudia put it: “I’m hearing a lot of contradicting information. I guess it’s whatever resonates with you.” In the end, some entrepreneurs fall back on their instincts because there are so many tools and methods, but no clear way to succeed.

As we continue to work with entrepreneurs and the service organizations that support them, we hope to use these themes to identify ways that we can make the entrepreneurial process smoother. In this way, we hope to ultimately help people find their footing when navigating the city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

 

Designing for Good: The Path to Saving Our Future

Design is a powerful tool that can be used to reshape society for the better. But how do we do it? We may share a common ideal, but designers have very different strategies on effecting societal change.

Some theorists, like Roger L. Martin and Sally Osberg, believe that social entrepreneurship is the way to improve society. They believe that social entrepreneurs have the inspiration, creativity, courage, and fortitude to pursue paradigm-shifting innovations in pursuit of correcting what they term suboptimal equilibria. What distinguishes the social entrepreneur from a run-of-the-mill entrepreneur? A focus, they claim, on social benefit.

“The social entrepreneur’s value proposition,” they write, “targets an underserved, neglected, or highly disadvantaged population that lacks the financial means or political clout to achieve the transformative benefit on its own.” This is a dubious distinction, most importantly because Martin and Osberg claim that neither entrepreneurs nor social entrepreneurs pursue their activities with profit in mind. “For the entrepreneur, the value proposition anticipates and is organized to serve markets that can comfortably afford the new product or service, and is thus designed to create financial profit,” they write. But the distinction “does not mean that social entrepreneurs as a hard-and-fast rule shun profitmaking value propositions.”

Comic Sketch 1

Ethically speaking, this gets at the crux of the problem of designing for the poor. When you are designing in a market-oriented framework, somebody inevitably profits from the disadvantaged. Social businesses, as outlined by Muhammad Yunus, may improve the lives of the poor with the introduction of lower-priced products or specifically tailored services. But the tension between capitalist market expectations (i.e., shareholder value) and the desire to perform social good will always inevitably tip toward the former unless it is explicitly proscribed otherwise. Thus, new forms of business models, such as the one Grameen Bank attempted to forge with Norwegian telecommunications provider Telenor, are necessary. It is telling that this attempt, wherein business ownership would have been turned over to community members who use the serviceultimately failed. The profit-breaking model proved a bridge too far for Telenor’s shareholders.

Two further issues to consider when designing for social good are the scope of the project and your connection to the community that benefits. Thomas Hobbes demonstrates the harm that helicopter philanthropy can cause with his example of the PlayPump—an invention that seemed like such a good idea at the time. Kids would play on the pumps like they would any piece of playground equipment, and in the process, they would extract water from the ground for the community to use. But a lack of proper understanding of community dynamics and a lack of follow-through ensured that the pumps went mostly unused. In some cases, women were found to be working them stooped over in pairs; in others, children were paid to operate them. Nobody even asked the communities if they wanted the PlayPumps. This was, without a doubt, a design failure.

Emily Pilloton’s solution to this problem is to design locally, with the community that you belong to. This ensures that you can earn the trust of your partners and learn the complexities of the ecosystem. If you want to improve education, for example, you must consider how health care, wealth disparities, and other issues factor into the equation. “The power of working locally, for the long haul,” she writes, “comes down to this: In doing so, we cultivate ecosystems rather than plant single trees.”

Comic Sketch 4

Victor Margolin talks about the difference between expansion and equilibrium economic models. Capitalist society, he notes, pursues the latter: a never-ending quest for more profits, more customers, more markets, more stuff. This leads to the exploitation of earth’s resources beyond what what the planet can tolerate. The beast cannot be slowed down, no matter the consequences, as is evident by the exponential accumulation of carbon in earth’s atmosphere. The world’s poorest communities, which do not have the resources to adapt to dangerous new weather extremes, will bear the significant brunt of this burden.

This comic strip demonstrates my attempt to synthesize these and other authors’ views on designing for the poor. These are issues that are important to the field of design, and they are issues that I treat very seriously. I hope to use design to move beyond market-oriented frameworks and truly develop with, not for, my community.

Comic Sketch 6

Stories from the Field: PeopleFund

IMG_5745 copy

For the past three weeks, my classmates Zina, Vickie, and I have been working with a nonprofit called PeopleFund. PeopleFund is a nonprofit that creates economic opportunity and financial stability for underserved people by providing access to capital, education and resources to build healthy small businesses. Inspired by their mission statement, we wanted to learn more about how they are helping entrepreneurs and small businesses succeed.

Through contextual inquiry, we learned about the experiences of both PeopleFund’s clients and the employees of their Education team. Through interviews ranging from one to two hours, we learned about what brought them to PeopleFund and their experiences working there. These interviews helped shape our research focus: to understand how PeopleFund guides and educates entrepreneurs who are looking to start their businesses. Our goals were to 

  • understand how PeopleFund’s culture supports entrepreneurs’ growth,
  • understand how PeopleFund helps entrepreneurs make sense of and navigate the business landscape, and
  • understand clients’ expectations and how the service aligns, challenges, and influences them.

We spoke with six PeopleFund employees and four users. Our users ranged from Jonas, a software developer and IT expert who is launching his own franchise, to Agnes, a UX designer working to help low-income populations eat healthier. Each user was unique, and sought out PeopleFund for different reasons, but all made use of PeopleFund’s Bloom Lab, which is one of the cheapest co-working spaces in Austin.

IMG_20190906_100308

Jonas is one entrepreneur who works with People Fund. They have helped him prepare for the grand opening of his business, sending out marketing emails and promoting on social media. They even designed his flyer. He is glad they can help him in these areas, because, as a self-proclaimed introvert, he knows that networking and connecting with people will be his biggest challenge.

Jonas works regularly out of the Bloom Lab space. “When I come in and start working, I am able to get my things done, no problems. Facilities are pretty good, so I never have problems with coffee or microwave, water or anything,” he told us. And the staff is very responsive. “It’s very easy to access them,” he says. “If they’re not here physically, they respond very well to emails pretty quickly… I get responses right away.” Granted, the space isn’t perfect—he laments the lack of privacy for phone calls or one-on-one meetings. This is a complaint that we heard from many users. In addition, he often wishes he could enter the building outside its 9:00-6:00, Monday-Friday hours. He finds that he often wants to work on weekends—a common attitude among the entrepreneurs we spoke with.

“I was like, oh my god, dear god, people show up,” Brandi told us, recalling in fear. “I don’t know if we had any workshops that had zero people, but we definitely had some that had like, two or three.”

Although the space is only open during those hours, many PeopleFund employees work long after the doors close. “If I could have my cats here, and a slightly less formal dress code, I would just live here” an employee named Gina commented. Work-life balance, like at many nonprofits, can be a struggle, but there is a genuine desire to help people, no matter the costs. “I care about that [these] people,” said another employee, Lena. “So if they want to stick with it, and they’re willing to work, and they don’t make themselves really unpleasant to work with along the way, heck, I’ll stick with them forever.” Many entrepreneurs are referred to the organization by the city of Austin, and PeopleFund provides them with six hours of free business coaching. However, if a client is making progress, they can provide more hours, and they often do. “They typically can’t go over the six hours, but we might still work with them anyway. And for some people, we’ll just ask and vouch and say they’re still making progress,” another employee tells us. “We still want to meet with them.”

In addition to one-on-one advising services, PeopleFund hosts workshops across the state. They offer various educational curricula, and they frequently partner with banks to promote financial literacy and help small businesses get off the ground. Running these workshops can be challenging, as there is often limited lead time, and conflicting priorities sometimes lead to what one employee described as “oversaturation” of workshops. This, combined with limited time for promotion, sometimes leads to poor attendance.

IMG_20190830_170807

“I was like, oh my god, dear god, people show up,” Brandi told us, recalling in fear. “I don’t know if we had any workshops that had zero people, but we definitely had some that had like, two or three.”

Balancing between the demands of events and clients’ individual needs can be tough. We learned that city of Austin clients are asked to rate PeopleFund’s services, which leads to a culture of fear and makes it difficult for staff to prioritize their time. “If I’m not as responsive as they’d like me to be, they can rate me a 2 versus a 10,” Marcia informed us. “So it’s like, you have to really be on it at all times.”

As at many nonprofits, responsibilities blur, work hours can be long, and limited finances add stress. Space is limited at the Bloom Lab, and this causes scheduling difficulties for both clients and employees. However, these pains are common for organizations that have seen such rapid growth. As Gina remarked, “When I started here, we all worked downstairs in the bottom corner of one building. We didn’t even heat or air condition parts of our building, because we were so small. And to see what this has become…” Her pride was unmistakeable.

We presented our finding to PeopleFund this morning. Many of the insights were not surprising to them, but they were pleased to see their users were happy with the facilities and the services they receive. They acknowledged a potential need to be more proactive with clients in offering services, but the difficulty of balancing that with their other demands is a challenge that will need more nuanced consideration. They also acknowledged the space constraints, and hoped we might be able to provide some insights at a later date to better address the situation.

Lisa copy

Most of all, they were pleased to hear the stories of their users. When we told them how Jonas had started his business as a way of giving back, they nodded in agreement. PeopleFund provides critical services for those looking to start small businesses, but its ethos and culture fosters a particular audience: one that aims to help the underserved. PeopleFund supports those who don’t otherwise qualify for lending from major banks, helping all who are interested in pursuing the “American Dream,” no matter their financial background. Many of the employees who work there have seen business failure firsthand and felt the effects of failed businesses on their parents and families. And many, like Jonas, have come from modest beginnings and now have the ability to start businesses that aim to help others.

PeopleFund’s Education team is critical for providing the information necessary to find business success. “You know, a lot of people are like, ‘Oh, I could do business,’ because that’s like the American Dream, right?” Marcia told us. “I can own a business. It’s so easy,” she said, explaining a typical client’s rationale. “But I don’t think people realize the maintenance that you [have to] have on how to sustain yourself.”

More information on our interviewees can be found here.

What Does a Designer Do? A Rumination on Magic

Ask what a designer does, and you’ll get a million different answers. This is apparent every time someone asks me what I’m studying here at AC4D. Is it like graphic design, or UX? What are we designing, and for whom? I tell them I perform research into human behavior and provide insights into how to improve systems, interactions, and general human experience. Their eyes glaze over.

The public writ large may not know what we do, but designers working in the field do—right? Well, it depends who you ask. There is general consensus that designers should work with users, and the field of interaction design rests on this tenet. But what does it mean to work with users, and how?

Jodi Forlizzi writes that “Designers understand, explore, and create based not only on data in the world, but also intuitive judgment.” This is a common belief among designers, but her approach to gathering data is unique. Her Product Ecology framework encourages designers to study products and how users interact with them to understand human motivation and behavior. This demonstrates an archetypal “designing for users” mindset. Her research may involve users, but, ultimately, it is the designer’s “intuitive judgment” that reveals new methods to better serve the user’s needs.

This “intuitive judgment” is something like magic, and Forlizzi embodies what I call the “Designer as Magician” approach. Many designers believe that we should interview users and test our solutions with them, but that  designing should be done by those who wield the magic. Jane Fulton Suri, who espouses corporate ethnography and experience prototyping, adheres to this notion. Don Norman, who believes designers mostly add incremental improvements to existing technology, adheres to this approach (he just doesn’t find the magic to be very impressive). And Chris Le Dantec, who understands the importance of designing with users, nevertheless holds the designer at a remove. His understanding of different publics, a concept he borrows from John Dewey, belies the idea that the designer can flit between communities at will and impart their magic skills.

On the other side of the spectrum is the “Designer as Organizer” approach. In this view, everyone can and should be involved in the design process, on a more or less equal footing with the designer. It is the designer’s job to bring those people together and help them organize their creativity and insights. This will allow them to direct the design process in a way that truly addresses their needs and values.

Liz Sanders is a strong proponent of this approach. She assumes that all people are creative and, given the chance, can contribute to the design process. Thus, she supports co-creation, especially as a means of generating social value.

Paul Dourish takes this one step further, arguing that, because every user’s context is unique and in constant flux, we must create tools that allow for user input and individual user design whenever possible. Bill Gaver, meanwhile, has his own approach wherein he gives participants creative prompts to generate insights into their attitudes and behaviors. This process, which he calls “Probology,” is used to generate unique designs that are more the result of creative play than research.

Finally, we have Jon Kolko, the founder of AC4D. His book Exposing the Magic of Design lends its name to the dichotomy presented here. Does Kolko believe that design is a form of magic? And when you expose the magic, does it cease to exist?

What Does a Designer Do? diagram

In the above diagram, I’ve placed Kolko in the “Designer as Organizer” category. He certainly believes that designers have a special skill, so it was difficult to place him here. Input from our class discussions—specifically his advice to continually solicit feedback and invite users to evaluate our themes and insights—has inspired me to place Kolko toward the “Designer as Organizer” pole. In addition, by arguing for the strategic incorporation of stakeholder buy-in, he shows attention to the need to organize public opinion (and corporate opinion) around a designer’s work.

Still, Kolko’s approach to design, despite incorporating users’ feedback, bears the hallmark of some of our other corporate-minded designers, including Norman, Fulton Suri, and Forlizzi, who ultimately argue that a designer must create something for someone at the behest of someone else. This mental hierarchy inspires me to place him toward the “Designing for” position—a somewhat surprising conclusion, given the fact that we are taught at AC4D to design for social good.

But I guess we’re not taught to design with social good, are we?

What is the designer’s responsibility to society?

At AC4D, students are taught to design for social good. The ethics of designing in practice, however, can be complicated.

To learn more about ethics, we read the work of five theorists. Not all practiced in the field of “design,” but all expound design principles and their impact on society. Edward Bernays wrote about manipulation of public opinion, for example, while John Dewey wrote about education. Both discuss the importance of shaping attitudes and behaviors and techniques for doing so, and their theories are critical to the practice of design. Both also wrote about the importance of working for social good, although they touch only lightly upon the subject.

These theories have been incorporated into the field of contemporary design and are reflected in the writing of designers like Maurizio Vitta. Vitta takes the conception of design and melds it to the theories of Jean Baudrillard to discuss the importance of the object for mediating social relations. Objects are not just used for practical purposes, he writes, but are used to convey status and convey meaning that undergirds societal interactions. Vitta expands the scope of design and accordingly expands the sense of responsibility for the designer. Therefore, he holds greater importance to the study of design ethics, encompassing a broader understanding of the ramifications of the work.

The final two theorists we read were Victor Papanek and Neil Postman. These two represent two polarities of our understanding of design’s impact on society and the designer’s consequent responsibility. Papanek understands design to be all-encompassing and the designer’s responsibility therefore to be of utmost importance. He believes ultimately in the power of design to improve society. Postman, on the other hand, believes that design creates winners and losers and that our focus on relentless improvement has led to an incoherent society that does not actually make people better off. He does not seem to believe that design improves society.

Social responsibility scale

I have created a social responsibility scale to capture each theorist’s conception of the scope and ramifications of design and their explicit commitment to social responsibility. At one pole is Papanek, who believes most in design’s power and most understands the designer’s responsibility. At the other pole is Postman, who, through his cynicism, advocates a near abdication of responsibility. In between lie Dewey, Bernays, and Vitta, who each present different components of design theory, with concomitant commitments to social responsibility and, consequently, importance.

AC4D Orientation: Complete

Today marks the last day of AC4D Orientation. I entered the week thinking things would start off nice and slow—we’d get to know each other, talk about the courses we’d study, some overview of topics, maybe a brief introduction to the skills and techniques we’d be learning. We did do all of that, but it wasn’t slow. It was a deluge.

On Tuesday we went out and spoke to ten food truck workers to learn more about the process of cooking in a food truck. We only barely put together a focus statement, so our interviews felt somewhat aimless, although we took in lots of interesting information. I thought for sure we would have trouble getting food truck workers to tell us about their jobs for 10 minutes during peak lunch hours, but everyone was surprisingly open. A German man named Karl sat down and told us all about his experience cooking doner kebabs for Americans. Alejandra invited us into her kitchen to show off her Honduran food, and Jose gave us some free samples as he told us about his Puerto Rican cuisine.

Afterward, we transcribed our interviews, separated our utterances (interviewee quotes) by idea, and looked for inferred likeness between utterances that we would use to create connecting statements that illustrate underlying themes in the nature of their work. This was difficult work! All of our interviewees talked about similar things, but many of our connecting statements felt like “red trucking”—making obvious statements based on similar facts that were mentioned by multiple parties (e.g., “space in food trucks is constraining”). Jon let us know that these statements were, as he put it, weak. He was right.

In the end, we managed to put together four themes, and were then tasked with creating 300 insights—statements including an inferred observation and, most importantly, a provocation. The provocation is key: a suggested course of action that, if our inferred observation is true, could upend typical behavior and result in new ways of working that are more efficient or more beneficial for those involved.

Creating provocations is hard. Not all of our not-quite-300 insights included provocations. A lot of them felt like suggestions to do things that smart food trucks already do. But a few of them, such as our rental system for cooking equipment, felt like it could genuinely improve food truck workers’ lives, eliminating hours of work from their day and reducing the capital needed to get their business off the ground. Everyone uses equipment. But does everyone need to own and maintain their own equipment? After so many hours of painstaking thinking, the insight felt revolutionary and rewarding.

We then received introductions to drawing and the Sketch tool. I will need to brush up on my skills with both to ensure effective communication of ideas. As a writer, I know that visual communication is both extremely important and something that I have weakness in, so I look forward to developing this ability.

Having taken a couple interaction design courses previously, much of this week’s activity felt like an in-depth refresher as opposed to something brand new. However, I know there is still much to learn—and argue about. While brainstorming insights, Jon pushed our group to hold divergent ideas simultaneously in our heads, pushing us to explore extremes so that we can best come up with new perspectives. In one instance, this involved exploring some very uncomfortable possible “solutions.” I look forward to further studying the ethical dimension of this work, as it’s clear that it will be of key importance if we are truly to use design to transform society for good.