Thoughts on Design, articulated.
The one thing I admire the most about the developer community is the culture of open-source and community-driven content. Look at the number of self-taught programmers, Github, Stack Overflow, Railscasts, local Hack nights - just an incredible amount of resources and inspiration to draw from for anyone who is interested and willing to learn how to code.
Recently, I’ve noticed an irony. Most of the web companies that are well-loved these days - Instagram, Dropbox, Etsy - all run tech blogs in addition to their company blogs. The irony is that these are also the companies that have been recognized for their design - beautiful, useful, and usable. Why aren’t their designers sharing their approaches to problems like their engineers are? Even with Facebook’s recent focus on design, a design blog is nowhere to be found. They do, of course, have one for developers.
So with the recent talks around designer-founders, still, where is the design leadership from the best designers working at these great companies? Like when Marc Hedlund, VP of Engineering at Etsy, announced their grants for Hacker School or when his team writes about code as craft - that’s really cool. Design consultancies write about their POVs, 37 signals has a design and usability blog, but where are the rest? If Apple is the default example for everyone arguing why design is important, where is the Apple design blog? Where is the Hacker News equivalent for design?
I feel like we collectively could make more of an effort to articulate “design thinking” in real life, not just as case studies of how design can be a driver of disruptive innovation, but rather in the day-to-day life, how are designers making decisions and identifying problems? This is important because it matters what problems we choose to solve and what we spend our time working on. At HourSchool, we want to foster a culture of active contribution and participation, so we are going to practice what we preach and write about our intentions, values, and process. We’ll start with the following topics, in the context of our work and the way we approach the problems we face:
Service Design and Interaction Design
HourSchool’s single most important goal is to discover and create more teachers. “Put Teachers First” is the motto around our HQ these days. Our metrics for success is the number of people we are able to transform into teachers and we are here to make sure our teachers feel supported every step of the way. We aspire to turn all the low points of the journey and make them a more enjoyable experience - whether it’s planning, promoting, or soliciting feedback. We want to remove all the barriers of teaching.
For example, one of the biggest barriers to teaching is that most people don’t see themselves as teachers. Through research, we know people are more likely to teach if they are being nominated by someone. So we implemented a feature where one can nominate others to teach a class:
Then the challenge becomes, how do we translate all those insights into the product? How do we turn something so human into a digital experience? These are all questions our team strives to answer everyday so we can build something desirable, beautiful, and delightful.
Designing with, not for
We are a proponent of co-design. When trying to understand if we are meeting users’ wants and needs, we don’t do A/B testing nor look at heat maps. We go to where people work and play, we hang out and we observe. Often times, people might not be able to articulate their experiences in a way that points to an immediate solution—the research techniques we use and the synthesis is up to us as designers, but these ongoing dialogues build trust, empathy, and most importantly, the right product for the right people.
For example, when designing a peer education program at Green Doors, we realized early on that—although the residents had access to computers and although computer literacy was an important goal for the organization—the residents simply didn’t communicate with each other online (duh-they live right next door to each other)! Our role then shifted to being the facilitator and translator, challenging and collaborating with residents and staff through a series of work sessions to extract insights and stories from them.
All that resulted in “HourSchool on paper”: hand-drawn flier, sign up sheets on bulletin board, and nomination postcards that you can slip under someone’s door. The end goal is to design something that the community finds relevant, feels ownership in, and eventually can’t imagine life without. By translating needs into action, we have co-designed a solution at Green Doors that creates engagement and excitement through fun classes and continual knowledge sharing with each other.
Designing for Wicked Problems
Every designer bears responsibility for the consequences of their design - but some consequences are more detrimental than others. For instance, screwing up when designing for a photo-sharing app is different from screwing up when designing for a foster care agency. Staying lean and working iteratively still applies, but not in the same way. In Collective Invention’s “Detailed Plan for NOCCA’s Future”, they described the difference between random experimentation and thoughtful iterative improvement:
We recognize that the language of ‘prototyping’ is tricky when used in the context of education. To some it implies random experimentation, that children’s educations will be put at risk. This plan, however, describes a rigorous learning process that requires that multiple iterations take place before we ever enter a classroom. Our job is to ensure that as many problems have been worked out in advance of student interaction as possible. That means that each time we prototype a new program or class we’ll need to invent a mechanism for trial and error that is cost-effective, relevant to the context and able to yield the greatest insight possible by the time we begin interacting with students.
In order to design, we have to gather data and stories. Again, doing research for how people commute is different from doing research on why someone is homeless. Kat Davis, alumni of Austin Center for Design and now an interaction designer at frog, wrote about ethical challenges after her research last year:
I realized that I was not probing into someone’s life habits but into someone’s life. The stories people told me were so personal. Some people refused to answer my questions. With those who answered, sometimes I probed too far. Other times people opened up too much and told me things I didn’t know how to respond to. Good researchers can lead a conversation toward information they want to learn about, but I often found myself just simply listening. I felt as though I constantly walked a fine line between what I was supposed to be doing as a researcher and what I felt I should do as a compassionate human being. At times, I felt more like a counselor and less like a researcher, giving out hugs instead of business cards. Other times, I simply didn’t know how to respond, with my hands awkwardly in my pockets.
Are there situations where a designer should just walk away? Is it okay for a designer to make physical contact with a participant? Is there an ethical responsibility to share information with authorities if the participant talks about law-breaking activity? There must be a certain amount of trust between the designer and participant, but how far does this trust extend?
Document Everything, Design Publicly
We don’t have all the answers, but as we work and design for social impact, we will share our learnings and opinions with you. Christina Tran, our program design lead, will be leading this conversation, drawing on her rich experiences, sharing our values at HourSchool, and curating other work in the field.
If you work in the fields of design, education, and/or social innovation, join us in this conversation. We look forward to hearing about your experiences. And if your organization is looking for facilitated program design and like what we offer, we’d love to talk to you. Send us a note.
Have a good day!
- Ruby (@rubyku)