Low-income constraints parents encounter when having more responsibilities: Part one

For the next 8 weeks Dan and I will work together with JUST to learn more about financial inclusion and how that affects their day to day lives and to help JUST have a better understanding of financial decision making when it comes to family responsibility. We have found interesting information and we are only getting started.

 

What is JUST?

Steve Wanta is the CEO and Co-founder of JUST whose mission is to invest in low-income, female entrepreneurs to create more resilient communities in America and therefore to create a more just world where people have the chance to live with less stress and more joy. To do this JUST wants to change the narrative around the potential of low-income communities to be their own change agents. JUST provides loans exclusively based on trust to female, Spanish-speaking entrepreneurs.

JUST partnered with AC4D to find other communities they can serve and to understand how other communities behave when it comes to financial inclusion.

 

Our objective

Our main interest was to learn and understand how low-income constraints affect parents with the added responsibility of having a family. We have found that having low-income is set by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and is dependent on region. Qualifying for low income households in Austin is $57,689 a year, or $4,807 a month. 

Providing for a child in addition to being on the lower end of the earning spectrum is a challenge that we are interested in exploring further. The objectives of this research are:

  • To identify and understand the circumstances that parents who are low-income experience life on a day to day basis around Austin, Texas.
  • To identify and understand the emotional journey of parents who identify as low-income.
  • To identify and understand motivations for spending, budgeting, and saving around having a family.
  • Understand how a low-income family’s access to network services reflects their ability to operate as a family.

 

Our focus

The focus of our research is to better understand the circumstances parents with a child (or children) who are low income face in present day Austin, Texas. To do so we will discuss the intricacies of their motivations, struggles and community. We hope to explore life as a parent on a stringent income and how they go about navigating their day to day lives.
JUST_Participants-01

 

Our Methodology

For our methodology, we will be talking to each participant for about 45 – 120 minutes. Sessions should be conducted with relevance to the participant. By these interviews we would like to understand their financial attitudes and behaviors, specifically on how living with low-income adds more responsibility when having a kid (children). For parents and family members we hope to interview subjects in their home setting or a location where they feel comfortable. While interviewing with administrators or program persons we will interview in their place of work where they deal with the families they serve.

Firstly, we will start by having a small talk about them, then asking some questions to understand where they are at in financially and their feelings around it Secondly, we will do some activities that involve them understanding where their money goes and helping them visualize their responsibilities. This will help us to understand how they feel about these financial constraints and what things they are lacking in order to feel fulfilled in life.

 

We need your help

We need help connecting with parent participants. If you or someone you know may be interested in chatting with us, please reach out to team_da@ac4d.com to get in touch. Your perspective is incredibly valuable and will ultimately help in designing solutions for this unique group of people.

As students working with a nonprofit, we appreciate your willingness to help both us and our community.

 

Austin Center for Design

Austin Center for Design (AC4D) is an educational program uniquely focused on applying design principles to address social and humanitarian problems. Explore more of our philosophy and approach.

Ana Toca and Dan O’Halloran
AC4D Class of 2020
ana.toca@austincenterfordesign.com
dan.ohalloran@austincenterfordesign.com

Here/Not Here

Last Sunday I was trying to brainstorm on my 5 business ideas that I needed to make Lean Canvases for. I had 2 ideas so far and wanted to brainstorm with fellow students. But I was at home. Was anyone at school? How could I know?

And I thought, if only there was a Marauder’s Map for AC4D so I could know who’s at school.

And that’s how I got my idea.

Here Not Here

If you’re interested in staying abreast of its development, check out my landing page and sign up to receive updates. Thanks in advance!

Design Juniors + Start Up! Kids

Last week I was concerned about the progress of the summer academy program I’m starting, called Design Juniors. Not only did people not understand what design thinking was, they kept asking the question, but what will the kids be doing?

Very valid question, and my answer was that, I didn’t know! I knew we would do some “design thinking” activities, but I hadn’t defined the challenge the students were going to work on yet. Last week, I held several meeting with people at different non-profit organizations around town, and they all seemed to have potential. One conversation, however, stuck with me the most.

Start-Up! Kids Club began just a year ago and is essentially a one-woman show with a growing program in 6 locations around Austin. The woman that founded the non-profit program has been getting requests for a summer camp, but she doesn’t quite have the capacity to do put it together and run it on her own.

This is where I step in. “Why don’t we just partner for the camp?” I asked, “We will teach kids how to launch their own businesses, and design thinking will be the underlying methodology we use.”

She was in, and now I’m working on putting together an outline for a two week course in the summer that blends design thinking and entrepreneurship.

IMG_2302

Next steps include tightening up some partnerships that are in the works and ironing out details like location and pricing so we can start selling spots for the camp.

In April, we are planning to run a retreat for students out at a place near Dripping Springs. This will be a teaser for the program and a way for us to test out some of the things we will teach.

In the meantime, there’s lots to do. Next week you can look forward to hearing what it’s like to run an ideation session with 9 year olds.

 

Thinkers of the Future

The future is unknown.

Prior to AC4D, I spent a lot of time working with students of all ages, from pre-school through high school. My most recent role was at Eanes Elementary School in Austin where I taught 3rd Graders. I taught all subjects, but was lucky enough to have a supportive administration that trusted me to create my own projects for my students. It was in these projects that I saw my students come alive. We took on big, messy projects that allowed them to “figure it out” for themselves, and they simply oozed with enthusiasm, often wanting to skip recess to work.

When I asked myself the question, what’s a problem worth solving? I couldn’t let go of that special joy I feel when teaching. And I can’t let go of my fear that the school system is spoiling a young person’s chance for a bright future.

What I mean by this is, students are wildly unprepared to do just about anything upon graduation from high school and even college. But the problem is, we no longer know what we are preparing our students for. The future is unknown. The young people of today will be asked to solve problems in the future that we have yet to fathom. So how could a teacher possibly prepare her students for the unknown?

It’s clear that we no longer need to create students that can perform well on tests, and memorize facts. Really, we don’t even need to focus on preparing students for college.

We need to prepare students to be the thinkers our future will demand. We need to give them the skills and confidence to take on unknown challenges. And we must give them the courage to solve problems not only creatively, but earnestly and with reverence for the complexities of our world.

I propose a program for design thinking that gives students the opportunity to explore human centered design principles as it applies to complex problems. The problems will be both real and imagined, and students will learn skills such as sketching, ideation, prototyping, testing, and iterating. That’s right, it’s AC4D for young learners.  

Asset 6@2x

What I Learned

There are many schools in Austin that have taken on initiatives to incorporate social emotional learning (SEL), STEM, and design thinking. The importance of these skills is gaining traction, but teachers are so strapped with meeting state requirements, that doing a deep dive into the world of Design + Empathy is close to impossible. We need another way.

Schools could adopt the Design + Empathy program as part of their curriculum. It could be an after school program. Or it could a summer camp. After considering restrictions and running the numbers, I’ve decided that they best way to test a program like this is through a summer camp model offering a 1 week day camp.

The working name for this camp is Design Jrs.

Design Jrs Sketch 2-01

The age range the program will focus on is 9-13 year olds. This is the age in which students have enough cognitive ability to think outside of their own selves, work independently as well as on teams, and whose parents still need to find activities and camps for them during the summer break.

Most summer day camps in the Austin are a week long and range from $250-$350 a week. By running a quick calculation of costs, revenue model looks sustainable.

I’ve also learned that my customers for this model are not just the students, but that the parents are my key customer.

What’s Next

Moving forward there are many parts of this plan that need to be validated. Will parents pay for this program? Will they understand it’s value? Will students be excited to sign up?

The first step in testing this plan is to conduct customer interviews with parents to understand how they go about finding and selecting a summer camp for their child.

I’ve been around parents and students enough in the past to have a vague idea, that I believe looks something like this:

Artboard 1@72x-100

If this decision making process is true, I’ll need to dive in more to developing a plan for helping Design Jrs. become a no-brainer camp decision.

Additionally, I plan to validate the enthusiasm of students. To do this, I’ll run short sessions in the classrooms of some of my past co-workers. The development of the curriculum will be an on-going process, but at this stage I’ll start by testing the concept and get feedback from students on the parts that excite and resonate most.

Other important steps forward include securing the location to host the camps out of. For this I plan to do some research and have conversations with schools that are already equipped with the types of space requirements this program will need.

Areas for Support

Have you yourself taught design thinking workshops or lessons? I would love to hear your approach and learn what resources or methods you found most valuable. Do you have ideas of possible locations? Do you know of similar programs in Austin I should be aware of? Do you know of any design organizations that would be interested in a partnership or contributing to this venture?

queery: Connecting the queer community, one person at a time.

Hello, everyone!
Chelsea here, at the end of this quarter to sum up our journey with queery throughout our time in AC4D and beyond. I admit, this will be a bittersweet blog post for me. We’ve grown so much and learned a lot in this past year, and looking forward to the future is a simultaneously exhilarating and frightening exercise.

First, let me tell you a story. When I was 16-18 years old, I came out as queer to my friends and family. There wasn’t a lot of questions; in fact, there were no questions. I had this overarching sense that no one really wanted to address it; it was an elephant in the room.  It was what one of our participants called being “unsupportive in a passive way.” They said,

“I don’t care who you make out with, but we’re all equal.” That’s coming from a kind place, but often it is incredibly dismissive of what it’s trying to support. The feelings of otherness is so much bigger than who we kiss or what bathroom we use. It’s so relentless.”

As we worked with the trans* and gender-variant community, I realized that while our experiences were completely different, we did share this feeling in common—the feeling of being alienated from our friends and family and the subsequent fear of rejection when we came out.

One of our participants, Emily, talked about her experience as she was “walking the plank” both with her identity and her social interactions.

After synthesizing the stories of the many participants in the trans* community, we realized that there was a circle of rejection, retreating, and reinforcement that the community experienced.

Rejection was in the form of people ignoring them, people verbally or physically abusing them, or people cutting them out of their lives outright. There was then a retreat to safer, online spaces where they could be themselves with others, but through online media and their own experiences (like the story of this trans* student being suspended just for using a gendered bathroom), there is a continuous reinforcement that people do not accept or care about them, and then they feel rejection anew.

We made queery to break that cycle.

queery is a service that allows members of the queer community to meet based on interests for one-on-one networking. Users choose their interests, their location, and schedule, and queery pairs them up by what they want to talk about.

We’ve also considered the fear of being outed (or indicating to someone that you are queer before you are ready to tell them)—we don’t want to be like Google Plus, who accidentally outed a transgender woman to her coworker. Because of that, we have a commitment to the privacy of our user’s data, and also a handy way of people to find one another in a coffee shop without outing themselves, where folks hit the “I’m here” button on the reminder pop up, and the screen will turn green and vibrate (thus alerting the other person that you are there, but not calling too much attention to yourself).

We’re very cognizant of the feedback we’ve received around keeping our user’s data safe, and because of that, this has changed the way we’ve thought about making queery a sustainable business to continue providing value to the queer community.

When we thought about adding in the additional challenge of maintaining queery through a stream of revenue, we wanted to make sure that the queer community knew that they own queery. That’s why we propose to do a yearly pay-what-you-want subscription (minimum $10) for the community. The idea that is you can pay into the community to help out other members in the community, or if you don’t have a lot of cash on you, can still access queery for a minimal fee.

When we projected this out with growth over three years, we realized that we would most likely be profitable in 2017 and be able to continue to provide value for the queer community by adding more features and partnering with other local LGBT and trans*-specific organizations to throw parties, get people to know one another, and get people connected.

In this quarter, we have been piloting with the local queer community in Austin, and the feedback we have received from the community that encourages us. One participant said,

“[When I met the other person,] I felt connected [to the queer community] again, and that felt awesome. I hadn’t realized how cut off I felt.”

However, there is more than just encouragement—we learned through the pilot that the intent of queery was not as well-explained as we’d hoped.

“It was a little bit unclear to me what the purpose or the end goal of this was except to meet people and possibly make a friend.”

Indeed, queery’s purpose is to meet and make friends, but I think we wrongfully assumed that people would have the same mental model as we did around the importance around friendships, and so in future iterations, the importance of making friends will be better explained.

We also found that the network effect extends beyond queery. Emily and Robert, two participants, met through queery, and later recognized one another at a party. Emily invited Robert over to hang out with her and her friends. If queery had not been present, Robort might have never received that invitation. We were overjoyed when we heard about this.

I also realize that if queery succeeds, we might be planning for our own obsolescence. If the queer community is already well-connected, wouldn’t that mean that queery is no longer needed?

Maybe. I’d love to live in a future where when someone comes out, it is not looked at as an elephant in the room, but celebrated with open arms and love. I’d love to see, and have seen before, queer communities rally around their members for support. And I hope that queery is another support for the queer community to lean on one another when they’re going through rough times.

I want to work collaboratively with other LGBT organizations from an angle of being queer-first; a unique angle for those of us who don’t want fit the mold, don’t really care to fit the mold, or those of us who ware figuring out what the hell is a mold.

I plan on continuing my work with queery and will continue to reach out to the communities that we have built ties with in the past year. Without their help, I don’t know where I’d be.

And if you’re interested in getting in on queery’s next steps—contact me. We need folks to pilot, and we’ll be seeking out more and more folks from the queer community in Austin to help me make queery something great.

Signing off,
Chelsea

Coda: Inner Circle Part 1


I’ve always been interested in childbirth- fascinated, because it’s amazing. And then petrified, because everything I’ve ever seen or heard about it is so scary; why is that? It’s a process our bodies are designed for.
When my team was looking for topics to research, we came across an article in the NYT detailing some pretty staggering statistics on birth in the US. One in three births results in a C-Section. The US is one of the most expensive places in the world to give birth, and we also have one of the highest maternal and infant death rates in the industrialized world.
We did a lot of research into this topic to find out WHY these things are happening in birth in our culture. Our huge takeaway insight was that our culture sees birth as a scary, out of control event that needs to be addressed as a procedure. We’ve taken control away from the mother and put it into medicalized methods and procedures that doctors understand.

One of the primary reasons for this is that women don’t see birth anymore- we used to literally support each other through the labor and delivery process and so would see the birthing process unfold before actually going through it. Women saw that it was a long, hard but totally doable process that our bodies are designed for. When birth starting happening in hospitals, women stopped seeing birth until they went through it themselves. By that time, their vision of it had been incredibly flooded by the images from the media that it is crazy, out of control and needs to be intervened upon (which is where I imagined my own fear spawned from)

So, our team wanted to design to enable women to have positive birth experiences. When women felt enabled to make informed decisions about their birth, they would end up feeling empowered by the experience instead of feeling bowled over by it.
We saw through our research that women that headed into birth feeling informed and assertive tended to have a more positive feeling about their birth experience afterwards, and women that were less informed and authoritative and had more of a “I’m going to roll up to the hospital and see what happens-I trust my doctor” attitude tended to feel more bowled over by the experience and have more negative feeling about the experience afterward.
One of our participants showed us an example of a birth plan that she had written for close friends and family detailing her wishes and setting boundaries around her upcoming home birth. Her plan helped friends and family feel included, let them know how they could help, and also allowed her to set boundaries with them. This email set a great tone for her birth and also for her impending motherhood.

It was also a provocation for the design of our startup: Inner Circle: The Birth Plan for Everyone Else.
Inner Circle is a web application that helps pregnant women create a birth plan for friends and family. By offering questions, prompts and examples from other women’s experiences, Inner Circle allows women to practice an assertive voice around their upcoming labor and delivery.

We are currently pilot testing. Pregnant women can go through the process of creating a birth plan email for friends and family via a survey monkey web form that we’ve created. We will then format this information into a Birth Plan Email for her to send to friends and family. See below for an example and go to innercircleplan.com if you know anyone that would want to pilot with us!

How to create a pilot app for $1.54 (and a fair amount of time and aggravation)

Fair warning, this is a technical post and doesn’t cover much (if anything) design-related. I just wanted to share what I used to allow for us to build up a prototype without much cost.

As we are knee-deep into the fourth and final quarter at AC4D, the task is to pilot our ideas within the community. The amount of fidelity can vary greatly, but one of the goals is to assess whether or not our abductive leaps have landed on solid ground.

I set a rather ambitious goal to actually build our application in its entirety. I also wanted to explore a few technologies which I haven’t had the time to investigate otherwise, but I believed were going to be a solid fit for our project.

The first thing I did was to go to Walgreens and purchase a pre-paid Visa card. Many online services, especially the ones I wanted to employ, require a credit card to be on file before utilizing any free trials. This allows me to create a solid budget constraint and to avoid any security issues with my personal credit in case the data is stolen, which happens more often than you’d like to imagine.

The next steps occurred in a less-than-ideal order, but it worked for me.

I went to Amazon Web Services site and configured an EC2 instance. The Linux micro instance is free for one year. Since I am no stranger to their pre-configured Ubuntu instances, it was an easy choice.  I could create a complete separate post about this step, but the short-short version goes like this: Read the directions they give you, read them again, attempt what they describe. Rinse, wash, repeat.

Once the EC2 instance was up and running, I poked a few holes in the firewall to allow for an SSH connection and HTTP. I also created a set of SSH keys so that I could safely connect to our git repo and deploy code. You don’t have to have a git repo, but I certainly recommend some form of version control other than copying and renaming folders.

So why choose EC2? Freedom and cost. The EC2 micro instance supports nearly any stack you could possibly wish to use. If I had chosen a typical hosting service, I would pay a lot more and have rather limited choices as the IT manager for hosting services usually likes to keep their servers in lock-step and tend to lag on support for the latest libraries. EC2 is free for a year and I can do what I like. That’s an incredible deal.

Having said that, if you would like to save yourself some incredible configuration headaches, Digital Ocean is a rapid up-and-comer in the hosting space which provides a ton of flexibility, a great management interface, and very little challenge in configuration. You just pay a bit more for the convenience.

With this much configured, I wanted to get a server up and running as quickly as possible. I had played a little bit with Meteor in the past, but I wanted to try it for our project for a few reasons:

Firstly, it is a complete stack with a Node.js front end and an integrated Mongo data store. My view is that if I need to use HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, why not let that be all I have to learn instead of trying to pile on Python or Ruby? Granted, CherryPy and Flask are pretty quick-and-easy, but a simple stack means that it’s easier to bring people onboard to help. Mongo is a recent favorite technology of mine since it doesn’t require a strict schema. I can add new attributes without having to retrofit.

Secondly, it takes only 4 lines to install, create a project, navigate, then start a server. I would be able to discover any network issues very quickly this way.

Thirdly, it is intended for use as a web app. Updates to data or behavior are pushed out to the user without having to ‘bounce the server’ (stop the server, make chances, then start the server).  This also means that the site is always ‘live’. As the users interact with the system, it can constantly update the other users’ view. In the case of Queery, this means that the moment a new meeting is available, other users could be notified. Static web pages can’t begin to come close to the level of interaction possible.

So far, everything I have described has cost $0.00. So where does the $1.54 come from?

If you want a domain on the cheap, 1and1 is impossible to beat. If you want a .com, it’ll set you back a whole $0.99. This sometimes means you need to get creative with you domain name, but ‘getqueery.com’ seems pretty reasonable to me.

To get the name ‘getqueery.com’ to point to the EC2 box, I had to use Route53.  I honestly don’t know if there is another way to use DNS to point to an EC2 instance, but for $0.55 including tax, it seemed like a pretty reasonable deal.

It was quite a learning experience to get this up and running, but you can now visit http://getqueery.com/ and sign up for our pilot!

As the pilot progresses, expect a few followup posts on how to implement multiple views in Meteor and how to use the HTML5 geolocation and vibration APIs!

I hope this has inspired you to think a little differently about just how far you want to go with your pilot. Got any questions or suggestions? Feel free to contact me via email or twitter

New Quarter, New Queery

Welcome to Quarter 4, everyone!

Alex and I last posted, Queery was a fully fleshed-out design concept that we presented to a panel of entrepreneurs and designers. The initial response we received was very positive, and overall, we’re pleased to see that Queery is resonating not only in the hearts of trans* folk, but in people who are interested in being allies to the trans* community.

As a reminder, Queery is an invite-only safe space for trans* and gender variant folks to discover their local community through face-to-face meetings. Queery aims to create a community around get-togethers and fuel connections through matching folks by common interest.

Where are we now?
For the past two weeks, Alex and I have been working on developing a pilot program that we can work with the community. We are looking to test out Queery with people who want to provide feedback on the service so that we can make it better. It’s one thing to test folks with paper prototypes, but another to test with a working website.

Below is a peek into the finalized wireframes for the Queery website.

Since we have started our piloting, Alex has been hard at work setting up an EC2 instance and a GitHub repository to make sure that we have all the development tools we need for future coding work. I’ve been working on making sure that we have all the pages and styling we need to match the wireframes.

Going forward, we are seriously thinking about our business plan and how Queery will sustain itself. Will we be receiving grants from LGBTQIA organizations for assistance, or will this be powered by its amazing users? We are hoping the latter.

Want to Help?
For any of you who identify as trans* or gender-variant, we would love your help in piloting Queery. Would you like to meet new people in the Austin area? We can set you up with one on one meetings with other folks based on interest. Please reach out to us at spectrumproject@ac4d.com if you are interested.

BringUp selected for the 2nd round of the $50K Arch Grants Global Startup Competition

Although Will Mederski and I may have been in radio silence around AC4D recently, that doesn’t mean we haven’t continued to work on BringUp.

This past fall we got our software about 2/3rds complete with help from 2 students from MakerSquare. The automated parent signup process now works, and you’re welcome to try it out by texting the number  27  to 512-861-8455.

This winter, we submitted BringUp for the 3rd Annual St. Louis Arch Grants Global Startup Competition (www.archgrants.org) This organization provides $50K grants to about 20 companies willing to relocate their headquarters to the St. Louis area, along with lots of free accounting, marketing and legal assistance. It’s free money, no strings attached. Will and I are proud to announce that BringUp has made it to the 2nd round of the 2014 competition!

The 2nd round is a bit of a lighting round, as we had one week to prepare a 3 minute YouTube video, as well as an additional presentation. Luckily, Will and I were readily prepared from the work we did last year at AC4D. Creating this material on top of SXSW and a bad case of strep-throat was no problem at all. Please check out our video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v25N0fNBCCs

The Spectrum Project Update 7: Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3…

As my design partner Alex explained in his blog post, from CoffeeRoulette was born Queery, a service exclusively for the trans* and gender variant community for pairing people together for safe, one-on-one interactions with one another within a curated community.

When we last left you, we were going to test our wireframes with users—so far, we have tested three users and plan to test another two users by Sunday, and write up a full report by then.

The response has been extremely encouraging. “Where were you six months ago when I moved to Austin!?” said one of our participants while pointing at our wireframes. “You need to make this, invent a time machine, and then give me it.”

Our preliminary tests have also unearthed some usability issues of our wireframes—the confirmation screen for the application after the meeting has been set is unclear, and some of the icons on our navigation bar were not clear enough to convey meaning.

We have since updated our wireframes to not include the navigation bar, and to instead, have an easy, one-at-a-time flow that prevents the user from doing too many things at once. In our new organization, we will have singular flows where a user sets up a meeting, has reminders for that meeting, and only until they complete a meeting and rate the meeting will they be able to set up a new meeting.

Additionally, Alex and I have started asking the hard questions in terms of edge cases:

  • What if someone feels uncomfortable or unsafe during the meeting, how can we stop it?
  • How will we be able to monetize this service to pay for itself and keep it going for the community?
  • How do we pitch this idea to coffee shops, and how do we get more coffee shops involved in trans*issues?
  • What happens if someone who is not supposed to receive an invite is sent an invite (through a mis-typed e-mail address, for example)?

Before our presentation next Saturday, we want to think about these questions and more while we continue to refine our wireframes this week.

We’re also getting fired up for our own reasons—because both Alex and I are cisgendered, we get asked a lot by others, “Why make an application for the trans* community when you are not trans* yourself?”

We will never be able to fully understand the struggles of someone who is going through transition. What I can understand is the anxiety I feel when I walk into a new place with new people, and now I am suddenly expected to walk around to everyone and introduce myself, with no knowledge of how the conversation is going to go. I can understand wanting to stay online with my friends, as I have done that for years and years, only meeting my internet friends once in a while if I had money. I can understand the pain and awkwardness of a conversation going south.

I get giddy thinking about the folks who we have talked to and who are interested meeting one another and hitting it off. I trust that with the right advisors and with the support of the trans* community, we will be able to build something that the community can take over from us and call it their own.

Again, Alex and I are continually thankful for the folks who have been testing our wireframes, providing us feedback, and guiding us on the way to Queery. We’ll see you for a final blog post next week.