Pushing through the Freezing fear of Ambiguity

On the fifth meeting of our Studio Design class, we were given the assignment of our final project for the quarter: The $1000 Assignment. In three short weeks, we are to identify a problem, come up with a viable solution based on our skills, follow through with the solution, and make adjustments in order to make $1000 by October 19th.

I think all of our stomachs dropped as the implications set-in.

“In three weeks?! How!?!! I don’t know how to sell anything!”

For some reason, the fear washed over me, then subsided, if only momentarily. What if I reposed this assignment as a personal challenge to make a difference to a community I care about? Immediately, I thought of Austin Pets Alive! (APA), a nonprofit organization dedicated to making Austin a no kill city. I volunteer at APA and know that they are constantly in needs of money and supplies. I drove home from class anxious yet optimistic about the opportunities.

But that’s where my process paused. I had other assignments on my mind and honestly, I was just scared to start. I didn’t know whether the solution should dictate the method or the other way around or where the money would fit into all of this. Fearful of going down “the wrong path”, I thought talking to someone from APA about what fundraising methods were tried and true would give me a jumping off point, but the conversation kept getting postponed. I was just going to have to jump in and hope I don’t drown.

I created a list of the things I am good at and considered which of these skills could produce a marketable product. The idea that has emerged with is a combination of my graphic design skills and an understanding of people’s love of their pets. I have decided to create custom artwork featuring pets and donate 75% of the proceeds to Austin Pets Alive!


Unique Pet Prints

This idea came to me when I considered a painting my boyfriend’s sister had commissioned a few years ago. The painting is a two-tone stencil like image of Lucy, a beautiful and well-loved boxer.

In Process Painting of Lucy

In progress painting of Lucy.

I realized that I could extend this artwork idea and offer custom high-quality prints, paintings, and other products featuring pets to the many people that consider their pets an integral part of their family. The market for a unique pet print business has the potential to be quite large, especially in Austin. Combine this idea with the fact that 75% of proceeds will be donated to Austin Pets Alive, and I was sure that the orders (and money) would roll in.

While many people have expressed interest in online forums, the amount of orders I have received has been under-whelming. I have reflected on possible reasons for this with help from some of my classmates and professors and believe I have been relying too heavily on online connections (Facebook, Reddit, etc.) to connect with my niche market audience. To combat this, I am ordering high-quality prints of some of pieces I have created and will be traveling to dog parks, boutiques, and pet stores to sell directly to my customer. My boyfriend, Cory Hartmann, is also helping me streamline my online platform to improve customer experience and make purchasing as easy as possible.

Keep an eye out for an update about my progress in solving this dilemma in my next blog post!

P.S. If you or anyone you know would like a custom pet print, please visit my facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/uniquepetprintsbymeghan (new site link will be posted as soon as possible).  These unique prints make wonderful personal gifts!


Contextual Loops – A Nascent Tool For Design

I’ve been reflecting on a design research project I completed with a colleague at Whole Foods Market.

We were asked to focus on the healthy eating customer journey – how customers make decisions on what to buy based on in store signage.  What we found was surprising.  In sum, customers rarely paid any attention to signage – there was just an overload of the senses, as anyone who has been in a Whole Foods Market can attest to.  There were multiple factors at play, from not feeling able to stop and assess because the hordes of shoppers might run one over, to the inaccurate assumption that all WFM products are healthy.

Each barrier that we found was directly related to what I would call a contextual loop – slowly moving cycles that are part of the customer’s day to day interactions.  In common customer journey maps and service design blueprints, these cycles – of repeat service use, intermingled with contextual factors such as common calendar cycles and seasons, night and day, and the changing goals of customers during these cycles, are ignored.  Yes, customers in fact arrive at grocery stores and follow a similar journey over and over to identify the next product needed, target a section, then hone a choice before ultimately making a decision.  And yes, this could be considered part of one larger customer journey from arrival to departure – but the fact is that so much about how a customer ACTUALLY shops and experiences a store is based on their accumulated experience outside of a store.  This, we know, is an ebb and flow, and on the whole, one trip to a grocery blends into the next for a shopper, treated by the store as just another divorced experience.  But it isn’t truly a divorced experience, or certainly doesn’t have to be.  What if I had a delightful, personalized shopping experience that paid attention to my shopping habits over time?  What if, when shopping at night, the service could cater to me by offering valet service for safety?

These types of ideas come from what I would call contextual loops.  Contextual loops are, brilliantly enough, cycles that occur during repetitive product or service use.  They can be customer driven – i.e. cycles of being a “good” and “bad” eater; company driven, such as  quarterly sales or seasonal products; and temporal cycles, such as temperature, time of day, or holidays.  Obviously these can overlap, and one of the goals in creating these loops on paper is to identify those interaction points.  Contextual loops can get us thinking about not only what we see during initial research, but allow us to grow our potential set of insights, as well as create delightful moments for customers.

To Start

First,  you’ll need a canvas, a standard customer journey, and a couple blank sheets of paper/stickies to start using contextual loops.  I do agree that even for most companies or services, taking a look at one abstracted journey may offer a lot in the ways of understanding current major gaps. But this tool will make sure that you don’t miss higher levels of gaps.  Now wrap that customer journey into a circle (you can just create a circle, don’t actually take a huge CJ and force it into a circle) and place it onto the canvas.  On a separate sheet of paper, keep a running list of ideas of customer goals and business goals, and start with a list for that initial journey.    On a third piece of paper, keep a list of potential touch points or business ideas.  You will move between all three, and they will build off of each other.


Time to get meta

Try to think of the next contextual level up.  There may not be one thing that’s more “right” then another.  Put yourself in the customer’s shoes, and use your own intuition.  If you are having any trouble, place some more customer journeys on the canvas and start asking yourself – what is, or could be different, from the first journey to the 2nd? The fifth?  The hundredth?  For example, in our food related example, some issues between the first and second trips could be “food waste generated”, or “family gave shopper feedback on purchases” among others.  See if those thoughts highlight any customer or business goals, as well as generate any additional insights or ideas for future touch points.  Continuing with the example, an insight might be – customers continue to think about the brand as long as the bags stay in the house or are used.  How can we ensure more use, thus inspiring more people to see our brand?  Or, how do we support our shoppers when they have to deal with kids and a husband who won’t try a new food item without ridiculing her?

Meta Loops
Meta Loops

More Contextual Loops

Starting to think in multiple journeys will no doubt inspire you to think about the other contextual loops that are going on during these cycles – and seeing where they harmonize with customer and business goals can create valuable ideas.  Let’s look at a common contextual loop for the customer – a work week.  Our customer’s goals may vacillate during the work week vs. the weekend.  We may quickly start to see that a work day trip is all about getting in and out quickly, with food to fuel the day.  Having displays, set ups, and maps for hungry hunters vs. experiential shoppers is clearly more important on work days then it is on the weekends.  Trying to grab the attention of a shopper on a week day may be close to zero.

Continue by building out that initial contextual loop in both directions – in this example, to the day vs. evening loop in one direction, and months and years in the other.  See what you find.  The color is added to highlight, but you could easily just think of concentric circles and brainstorm.  The end goal isn’t visualization – it’s insight.

Date Loops
Date Loops

These ideas and assumptions can then be rapidly prototyped.  This is a nascent method that can help rapidly identify avenues worth testing along the way to superior product or service design.  Please let me know your thoughts or questions!

Where should we go, and how do we get there?

I’ve really enjoyed discussing Strategy over the past few weeks in the IDSE 302 – Theory of Interaction Design and Social Entrepreneurship.   I spent a lot of time doing case studies and strategy evaluations while studying for my MBA with a focus in Strategic Management. At the time, I understood strategy as  “Where do we want to go, and how do we get there.”  I was taught Blue Ocean Strategy, Porter’s Five Forces, and PESTLE Analysis. Those tools are great for evaluating the market to determine strategic intent, or where a company “should go,” (strategic intent) but don’t add value when determining the strategy of  “how to get there” at a product level. Instead, we learned how to communicate intent and to steer the ship, but not how to design the next product or service.

Enter AC4D.

The past 5 months, and particularly this class at AC4D has give me the ability to design the strategy at the product/service level with high confidence. This stage of my education is exactly where I hoped I would be.

In my latest Position Diagram, I highlight the process to get from a solid Strategic Intent to the creation of the Product Strategy.



Wireframes: Version 4: Simplifying the visual and the interaction

For this iteration of files I wanted to simplify the process for the user and in changing things realized that the screen was becoming easier to manipulate. I took off a large amount of text and buttons and complied them into nicer elements that the user is directed to use. I also updated the sign in for social media, which will let the user share their schedules and information from Course Calculator to various sites.

Wireframes: Version 4

Complex Solutions to Complex Problems

This week we were asked to describe the difficulties of solving complex problem. Simple problems can be solved through reaction, while complex ones require more investigation and strategy. Philip Johnson-Laird broke the process down to a molecular level. While not simple, chemistry notation can be used to model a complex and ever changing problem.

Position Diagram 4: Experience, Bias, and Designing for Difficult Problems

This is the final diagram for Jon Kolko’s class, “Design, Society, and the Public Sector.” Like the last diagram, this artifact had to stand on its own with little explanation or exposition. Additional parameters were placed on it as well: “pithy, succinct, small.” Given that most of my previous diagrams relied on narratives spanning 6 to 16 panels, I was up for the challenge.

Diagram 4: Experience, Bias, and Designing for Difficult Problems

Zooming Zombies

My old friend Hubris paid a visit while I was doing AC4D homework the other day. I was working through an assignment to compare and contrast viewpoints of five authors. The topic: design (not shocking). The presentation format: visual (ditto). I was completely broadsided by what came next.

Before I continue, it might be useful to share little about how I approach AC4D and the life beyond. I look upon the internet (and its flashing, tweeting progeny) with considerable askance. I have mistrusted it pretty much since I first made its acquaintance circa 1995 when we basically ran our glacially slow, squawking modems on hand cranks and elbow grease. It has long seemed to me the Internet, in its worst iterations, has the power to strip-mine the human experience of resonance and meaning.

Yes, it’s preposterous to carp at the digital world via an Internet blog written for a digital-centric design school. I get it. But I have made a choice here. The Internet’s not going away, so I’m diving in to the belly of the beast. I’m going to spelunk around and see if I can’t find a way to fight pixels with pixels. Come up swinging with a way to digitally foster a world of connected humans in all their messy non-vector, non-grid glory.

So with that said, back to AC4D homework and concomitant broad siding.

Things were not going well. The readings had all been straight up my analog alley. They more or less proposed that unexamined, dissociated design could cause real harm to real humans. Something along the lines of ‘designers devolve into blank-minded zombies who manipulate and shape human will. Beware!” All I had to do was draw it.

But I had to draw it (or so I thought) on the computer. Hours passed and I had nothing to show for it except an increasingly friable PowerPoint slide that looked like a steaming heap of digital horsepuckey. I was near tears, near the time to leave for class but nowhere near having made a credible artifact. And somehow, after spending a beautiful afternoon staring into my screen with glazed-eye despair; I realized that I was 100% full of grade-A shit. It’s a bit rich to go preaching against the emotional zombies when you’re the one who’s lurching around in a disconnected digital mania.

So here’s how it went from there. I closed the computer, went for a walk, created an even crappier PowerPoint, and presented it to the class with no preparation whatsoever. My computer didn’t work, I had no cogent point, Jon literally told me I was full of shit (although I think that may have been an oblique complement). I got what is, I think, the very first ‘F’ I’ve ever gotten in my life.

And I had a blast. I learned a ton. Even though the presentation stunk, the way I spoke seemed to click with my classmates. For the first time I really felt like I belonged in this school. It was the first time since starting AC4D that I’ve felt at all like myself. So I’ll eat my humble pie and my 9-month digital diet. But I am going to be a little more cautious about the pacing. I’ll learn all the things I need to learn and I’ll learn them well. It’s just not going to happen instantly. If I don’t splice in some time to be connected to the world around me I’m doomed. It won’t be perfect. In fact, it may just have to look like a train wreck for a while. I find the deepest learning comes when you’re willing to be denatured and rebuild with new information.  It’s a messy process, but I’m OK with that for the time being.  It comes with the territory; I’m only human.

How to Use a Concept Map to Get Your Way

Most professionals will, at some point, find themselves in positions of selling: of persuading a skeptical audience that their vision of the future is a good one, and is worth pursuing. Most professionals do this poorly, attempting to use words to appeal to logic, as if the best argument is the most rational. Whether that should be the case is debatable; it certainly isn’t the case in most organizations. Instead, a successful argument for a future state is usually made through a combination of emotion and narrative, and appeals to the heart and soul. I’ve previously talked about one way of making this case, by connecting design research to value. And I’ve also talked a great deal about sensemaking, as the way people understand and form relationships with new ideas. Concept maps are a way of persuading an audience, while at the same time, educating them: helping them to see the world from a new perspective (yours!), and giving them a mechanism through which they can make sense of the new future you are proposing.

This is a step by step guide on how to make a concept map. My point here is not to show how to make one, but instead, how to use one. A concept map is overwhelming when it is first presented. It was an extremely effective tool for the person who made it. It becomes a point of confusion for the person who has to read it, and this is where a concept map crashes and burns: it’s a manifestation of the expert blindspot. In creating a concept map, you’ve learned new things and you see the world in a new way. It’s tempting to present the finished artifact as proof of this new vision. But the audience wasn’t along for the ride. They didn’t learn what you learned, they don’t see the world the way you do, and because the map is visually complex (as was your learning), they’ll be intimidated.

And so I recommend that you use a concept map for organizational change over a period of months, strategically, socially, and with a goal of manipulating the trajectory of your company by helping colleagues view the world as you do.

First, you’ll need to have an end-vision, a target for your organization. This may be a new role for your product, a new delivery mechanism, a platform change, a strategic acquisition, a re-org, and so-on. Over time, as you figure out what this end-game is, a concept map becomes a useful tool to represent the vision – to you. Use it as a selfish tool. For example, if I was pushing a healthy-eating rock up-hill at McDonalds, I might arrive at a big concept map, with a small portion that looks like this:

My intent is to show that the only way healthy eating will survive in a fast-food setting is if it is introduced by corporate, pushed to suppliers, and manifested through massive large-scale discounts, negotiated at the same level as corn. It’s complicated, hard to understand, and while it makes perfect sense to me, it’s of no use to anyone else. There’s no story being told; I literally need to explain it with words, or people won’t understand it or use it.

So, I might start by introducing this:

It seems dumb: it’s so simple. It doesn’t really say much. But it stakes out a view of the world with three major constituents. This is, potentially, not how people in the organization currently view the world – commonly, people in big organizations view the world through the lens of an org chart. This challenges that, albeit it extremely subtly.

I would put this in my presentations, email it to a few people, print it out and hang it on my cube.

And then, over time, I would start to replace it with this one:

I would start to describe how our franchise owners are fairly apathetic about what products are actually served in the stores, and instead, care about minimizing change, conflict, and cost.

After a few weeks, a version like this would start to show up:

Over time, the map is introduced into the organization, and at each step, there’s no announcement, unveiling, or massive production associated with it; it’s not a design artifact in a finished sense. Instead, it’s “released” through one on one meetings, in presentations, in conversations. And over time, it gets traction, because it begins to stand for things. The diagram itself starts to act as a placeholder for the conversations you’ve had, the vision of the future you see, and even the roles and responsibilities of individual people or entire business units. One way of thinking about a concept map, released in this style, is that it challenges the org chart: it’s a way of affecting change in a bottom-up fashion, rather than an autocratic manner.

And one day, you’ll be sitting in a meeting, and someone you don’t know, from an area of the business you’ve never had influence in, will present your diagram back to you, as if they made it. That’s an amazing feeling: your design work has shaped the tenor of the organizational dialogue.

Sometimes, you’ll need to introduce the map slowly – taking weeks or even months – until all of the various constituents have accepted it as a common language. We did just this in a client project at frog for an extraordinarily large client (hundreds of thousands of employees). We offered an initial view of a service landscape through a concept map. It was simple, just a few circles and some words – so simple that, at first glance, someone might say “that’s it?” And the map began showing up in various presentations, and posters, and emails. Over time, the map become more complicated – and was still “infused” into decks and emails. And it became part of the organization language; it became the way people talked about the future. This type of strategic introduction of new design language is extremely powerful. Organizational change can occur through design proxy – slowly, methodically, and purposefully.

If you like thinking about concept maps, check out Hugh Dubberly’s great archive at www.dubberly.com/concept-maps.

Five Year Plans and Exit Strategies

Some of my students had a chat with a prospective investor regarding seed capital, and the conversation turned to five year plans and exit strategies. They had neither. I realize it’s mildly heretical, but I don’t think either are valuable tools for social entrepreneurs. Here’s why.

A five-year plan is an artifact of large-scale “traditional” venture capital, and is – at least for the recipient of the venture money – a completely arbitrary time horizon. For the VC, however, it’s a critical length of time. Rob Day, of Black Coral Capital, explains the mechanics of how this works in a great post (forgive the long excerpt, but it really nails it):

The time from initial investment to exit typically has to be 5-7 years at MOST — preferably much less. Factor into the equation that an exit is most likely only going to come once a company has significant and growing revenues, and not when the technology is simply brought to market, and very quickly the VC’s decision-making starts to be clear… the reason for the 10 year fixed life of VC funds is not only because of the LPs’ needs for liquidity, but also because of the time value of money.  Discount rates (not that they’re often used in the industry, but still…) are really high for venture capital investments.  That reflects the high risks associated with launching any new business, along with the high expected returns of the asset class… a VC who knows that the technology in question should work (there’s rarely any “science risk” associated with an internet startup, after all, just market and execution risks) expects to achieve a minimum 40% IRR at least 35% of the time. What I just explained is where the oft-mentioned “5x” (or in other words, “we look for investment opportunities that we think will at least grow to 5x our initial investment”) comes from in venture capital. Because if you return at least 40% IRR over 5 years on a million dollars, you’ve turned it into $5+mm.  If you do that with the kinds of success rates Fred Wilson talks about (let’s say 35% 5x investments, 35% 1x investments, and 30% wipeouts, to vastly oversimplify), you will have returned 17% per annum, not including the management fees, etc.

This speaks to the unique perspective of both parties in the venture equation. Say you are a startup looking for money. Your focus is, predictably, on yourselves and your prospective investor:

But their focus is on their LP’s (limited partners – the people that put the money into the fund in the first place), and on maximizing their return:

And, their focus is on hedging their risk across a number of investments:

The “five year plan” theoretically gives them a view into your likelihood of returning the magic 5x return. But while you’ll write your five year plan from the small, focused perspective of your own company, it will be considered by the funder in the context of all of their other investments.

The (until recently – .pdf link) unspoken joke is that the VC typically doesn’t actually generate the return they expect for their LPs, and I’ll argue it’s because predicting market dynamics five years out is, on a broad level, easy enough to prove useless, and on a detail level, impossible.

Consider that five years ago (May 2007):

  • The billion dollar company Instagram didn’t exist, and wouldn’t exist for three more years
  • George Bush was still president
  • The “global financial crisis” was just beginning
  • iPhone 4 hadn’t been released yet
  • Justin Bieber hadn’t been discovered yet

Back in 2001, I worked at a company that was first called allmystuff, and later reinvented as Contextual. The company raised about 11M from Dell Ventures, TL Ventures, Austin Ventures and AV Labs. The money was raised in October, 2000, and the board voted to close the company in March, 2002. The five year plan didn’t include two planes crashing into buildings in New York.

I’m not arguing that “black swan” events should preclude entrepreneurs from trying to plan and strategize. I’m arguing that, for a brand new business, any quantitative metrics tied to activities outside of a four-month window are completely made up, and I think most people know that. But we go through the process of the five-year plan because the VC asks for it, because they’ve always asked for it, and maybe, because it makes them feel like they are Doing A Good Job.

Fred Wilson from Union Square Ventures has said “Start-ups should be hunch-driven early on and data-driven as they scale.” I completely agree, and at a stage where an entrepreneur is asking for seed money, scale should be about the furthest thing from their mind. The five year road map is a distraction, and when someone asks for one, it should remind you of their intent: 5x, five year return, and a broad focus across their portfolio. You’ll be but one drop in a much larger bucket.

The other side of the coin is the “exit”. An exit implies a large liquidity event: an IPO or an acquisition. It’s how the funders get their money out. An “exit strategy” is the plan for the monumental event that will occur in approximately five years. For design-led social entrepreneurism, the idea of an exit reinforces the problems of design tourism: that you’ll fly into a problem situation, move some post-its around, and solve homelessness. But as I’ve written about before, wicked problems demand a long-term focus and an emphasis on depth. The entire idea of a timeline, as rational as it may be for things like budgeting and resourcing, doesn’t make a lot of sense. Instead of pursuing an exit, I encourage my students to pursue a stay-the-course attitude. It requires dedication and patience, and that’s intimidating and scary. But I just don’t see society making progress on these large, consequential issues in short bursts.

Stop worrying about exiting and planning a five year strategy. Start focusing on impact, today.


What Is A Design Strategy?

I’ve gotten used to the multi-layered explanation of what it is I do, because design, interaction design, and social entrepreneurship usually get blank stares. I’ve found that in business and technology circles, describing my work as design strategy gets a slightly better reaction: while the other person has no idea what I’m talking about, they typically want to learn more.

I view a design strategy as a long-term plan, focused on how best to tame technology.

In a business, a design strategy compliments and intersects with both a business strategy (what to build, based on market dynamics and competitive expectations; what IP to leverage; what core competencies to flex; etc), and a technology strategy (architecture, security, platforms, etc). Design is a lens through which to look, just like business or technology. And the three strategies are really one, because they are inextricably linked.

Most startups avoid the idea of formalizing a strategy entirely, probably because they don’t have time. When they do have a strategy articulated, it’s often buried and scattered across various documents like a pitch deck, a website, and in assorted word documents, and more frequently, it exists in the air between a few founders: it was spoken, over long nights and multiple conversations. In larger companies, a strategy is usually articulated at executive levels, but then diluted into small “strategic imperatives” as it trickles through the company. I find this demeaning to employees – it implies that they can’t follow a complex train of thought, but instead, must rally around meaningless statements like “Unleash the power of the ‘Power of One’”. Seriously: that one is from Pepsi in 201, as is this:

How much do you think they paid Deloitte  for that? You can view more in their Pepsi 2010 Earnings Call deck (pdf), and I think that serves to illustrate the point: when talking about people, a business strategy, alone, is a thin and superficial vehicle.


A design strategy shows the value your products and services will bring to people, and describes this value as a goal state. It also describes the broad steps you’ll take to achieve this goal. Typically, these broad steps involve technology, and when they do, the focus of a design strategy is on minimizing the seams of technology: making it invisible.

Our mission may be to eradicate poverty, and our vision is a world without inequality. Our strategy may be to launch, in the next twelve months, a new set of services designed to treat the psychological, physical, social, and spiritual needs of the homeless, simultaneously. A business lens describes how this will be financially sustainable (unfortunately, the business strategy of most non-profits and NGOs is “acquire grants”, which isn’t sustainable and requires a huge amount of overhead). A technology lens will describe the various SMS-delivery systems to be used, or the rollout of a new web-based platform for case workers. A design lens emphasizes the narrative of use, and how it changes over time. It’s a set of stories, that progress as our products and services progress, to illustrate the positive quality of our offerings as a whole. In this case, it might describe – through story – how the new peer to peer learning platform will empower people, how a new integrated resume system will present workforce benefits, and how a new SMS-based system will prompt the homeless for self-reflection throughout the day. It describes an end-game through the value for people.

A design strategy should, like any other strategy, have an artifact-based representation. If you don’t write it down, there’s little chance that anyone will remember it or act on it. And because a strategy is about a future state, I find it most useful to include means with ends: to include the roadmap to achieve the strategic results, with the intended strategic results. While Powerpoint seems like the defacto standard for anything involving strategy, I recommend another format: a really big, floor to ceiling timeline. When you print things really big, they come to life: people notice them, stand in front of them, and talk about them. And they absorb the totality of large, time-based ideas: they realize that strategy is long-term and arduous, and requires steps along the way. There’s a sense of practicality to a strategy when it’s accompanied by a timeline of actions, as if to imply both vision and realism at once. And because if its size, a giant document like this will likely be placed in a public area of a building – ideally, where those being served by the design offerings can see it, understand it, and have a say in shaping it.

In many ways, a design strategy uses the elements of a service blueprint, a theory of change, and a product roadmap, and combines them into a single tool. But it’s more than a tool, because it can act as a powerful reminder of purpose. Why are we doing the things we’re doing? How do they all relate? Why am I in the weeds, sweating the details of this tiny little UI decision? Oh, that’s why: because it builds to a much more grand, purposeful intent. A design strategy gives you a reason to go to work.