architecture for humanity

architecture for humanity

I first remember hearing about Architecture for Humanity during Icograda Design Week in Vancouver in 2010. Nathan Shedroff described this project in his presentation on sustainable practice (which was, by the way, my first hint of CCA, and foreshadowed my application to the school). I was fascinated by the entire project – open source architecture, social networks, disaster relief – what could be more timely and important? I recalled being at Burning Man in 2005, the year of Hurricane Katrina. The subsequent mobilization of many burners and their temporary structures to the disaster site after the festival to lend a hand and help was inspiring. Architecture for Humanity echoes that giving, innovative, survivalist culture of Burning Man.

My question for Architecture for Humanity is this: how do we rebuild the intangible aspects of a disaster-torn country? We hear often about the numbers of orphaned children that result from these tragedies, and I wonder what happens to them. I wonder who passes down stories and traditions to these children, who supports them through life’s journey? For these children, the disaster is not temporary but will echo through their lives, with every milestone, they will feel the loss of their parents, their support group, and possibly be disadvantaged because of it.

Johnathan Harris spoke last night at CCA about building a library of human experiences, and envisions that will become this after many years of contributions. He envisions that it could be accessed by anyone to search for guidance, and I was excited by this idea. I see the need for a guidebook for life, which could be useful tool for shattered communities. I am terribly naive about they types of community support that are given after a crisis, so I would love to ask Architecture for Humanity about their experiences in the field, and if they see a need for some kind of solution for these issues.

ixd theory :: the power of persuasion

I don’t think it’s ever okay to trick someone to do something, even if it is good for them. But even as I type this, I know there are times when I have used persuasive techniques on people, and this sounds manipulative. I’m not sure why the word persuasion is connected to trickery, perhaps all the years of advertising has cast a negative light on the concept. This is unfortunate, because I believe understanding the mechanics of persuasion is a powerful key in design.

I don’t think it’s manipulative to offer my nephews a movie treat in turn for emptying the dishwasher. They need to learn the importance of the task, and how contributing to the household chores helps make the house feel like a family home. But emptying the dishwasher is not fun, especially when there are some many other fun things to do. By offering a reward for their participation, my nephews get a pleasurable motivation in return for taking the time to do the chore. In the end, everyone wins. Hopefully, as time passes, I will only have to trigger them by asking, and saying thank you will be a big enough reward.

I’ve also used persuasive triggers to drive web behavior. With Pacific Blue Cross, we made a web form easier to complete and responsive to input, and more people bought travel insurance online, instead of calling the help line. We knew that most people were fairly motivated to buy travel insurance on their own, but the difficulty of the process resulted in many lost transactions. We looked at factors such as the time to took to complete the form, the mental difficulty of the process and the cost of the purchase. We made the form responsive to input, so it presented only the information that particular visitor needed. We also provided real-time calculations to make it easy for the visitor to compare and choose several travel packages at once. The result was changing a paper-based transaction to an online behavior. In this case, our understanding of triggers, motivation and ability was a huge help to the customer. I could hardly call this trickery.

But let’s return to ethics. It is highly conceivable that these mechanics can be applied with less honorable intentions, such as encouraging impulse buying or the consumption of harmful goods. I think the alcohol industry has this area covered. But when we are designing a system to help people, and they have explicitly agreed to a behavior change, then we are duty-bound to use persuasive techniques to make the best system for them. The explicit agreement to the change is key, and often, this comprises of signing up for a service or buying a product. It would be wrong not to “trick” the person with persuasion, because ultimately, this is what they are asking us to do. Now we can certainly debate the value of the types of behaviors people are asking to change, but I believe that if we choose projects with human dignity and the betterment of society in mind, we can steer clear of these issues.

ixd theory :: proxemic twittering

Our discussion on proxemics in interaction theory class coincided with my 5-year Twitter birthday. At that time, I never would have imagined that Twitter would emerge as a leading communication and promotional tool. Watching this service gain momentum has been fascinating, yet the way I communicate through it has shifted dramatically. As Twitter has become a larger public space, I have assumed a more appropriate social voice.

When I first heard about Twitter at Web Directions North 2007, it seemed like a fun way to stay connected with people. We brought the water cooler conversation into the digital world, and shared brief thoughts about habits, events and work in pithy, humorous ways. At the beginning, I had a small network, so it felt fairly close and personal. I didn’t worry too much about what I would tweet about because frankly, it was only my friends who were listening. However, as the Twittersphere grew, my network started to contain more casual acquaintances. Then I added my Twitter feed to LinkedIn and Facebook, and I felt myself moving into a social space with work contacts. I became more conscious of what I tweeted, as I was aware of how earlier personal comments were suddenly becoming less acceptable in this public space.

The social cues are harder to read on Twitter, it’s not like being at a party where you can politely move away from someone if they start to annoy you. The cues can be almost invisible, such as being ‘unfollowed’ by someone if you say something they perceive as unsavory. You won’t even know they have left your side until you attempt to direct message them. I even remember a time when it was considered rude if you did not respond to a retweet with a thank you. Today, not responding may still be rude, but with the greater social distance and sheer amount of Twitter activity, it’s somehow understandable and forgivable. Proxemic behavior becomes a study of subtle language, timing and the interactive mechanics of the system.

I think the most fascinating modifications with social messaging have come while the system shifts in size and scale. As Twitter has grown, people now have multiple accounts/personalities – one for personal, one for public, one for business – and proxemic distance is controlled through privacy settings, tone and subject matter. Or look at the new service Path, strictly mobile and personal, that mimics the intimate atmosphere of early days on Twitter. Path provides that space for protected conversations (read drunken messaging). One thing is certain: we are coming to understand that the proxemics of virtual space are real, and possibly have more impact than those of real space.

uncertainty and fluidity

Uncertainty is a familiar bedfellow for the consultant. He keeps you up at night, wakes you up in the morning, but not with delightful things like foot rubs and breakfast. No, uncertainty, he’s a tough one, always stealing the covers so you wake up shivering, or crowding the bed so you teeter on the edge, close to falling off but not quite. It’s not that he’s unkind or cruel per say, just relentless, and if you look at him in the right light, you see uncertainty is just hoping to show you your blind spots. Uncertainty leads in stability and calm, but you must invite them in with some well managed experiments and a whole lot of fluidity, as Donald N. Sull tells us in his article Disciplined Entrepreneurship.

I’m reminded again in Sull’s article about the similarities between designing a business model and designing a product. Throughout the product design process, the designer is constantly testing their design idea through sketching, prototyping, usability testing and research. With each iteration, the idea gets stronger, yet there is always an underlying state of flux. The design is constantly changing, with parts being added and taken away as each experiment proves what is needed and what is not. I don’t know how many times I have had to let go of a feature because it just wasn’t technically feasible, or more importantly, not needed by the end user. And yes, this can bruise the creative ego, leave you shivering. But better to be shivering from having your ego cloak pulled away than sleepless because your design idea failed due to lack of testing or a rigidity in your vision.

This iterative, fluid spirit exists within business model development too, and Sull’s research shows that “a business model will probably have at least one major change and countless minor ones before it is ready for another round of investment.” I heed this advice, because if Sull knows this to be true, so do the VC funders. They are expecting your model to have some degree of flux and change. I believe that resisting this change will show an immaturity not worth investing in. VC funders will be looking at your model to see your depth of understanding in the market and the uncertainties you anticipate. They will want to know your experiment plans to help mitigate these risks, and historically how well you have  integrated and shifted as you acquired new knowledge about your venture. By successfully navigating uncertainties through clarity and adjusting your model, you will gain investor confidence.

To return to the bedfellow metaphor, how did you get those damn covers back? Perhaps it was as simple as having another duvet handy, or snuggling in closer with a warm hug. Fluidity helps us in real life too.

eleven pitches in eleven minutes

First off, I have to give kudos to all of the participants in the Lean Startup Meetup in Seattle. It takes confidence to stand up in front of your peers and pitch an idea. And what a great thing, to have a forum to practice what is clearly an integral skill: the ability to quickly and precisely explain your idea in an engaging, clear way. I know that we will be pitching our ideas in a couple of weeks, and I hope I can keep a spirit of experimentation and practice throughout. I tend to get nervous, which overrides everything.

Of the eleven pitches, I enjoyed the best. The pitcher quickly engaged the audience by asking a series of questions based around the problem they are solving: how to find the best tools on the web. Not only does this create an interactive environment, it shows though audience participation the prevalence of the problem, and how well people relate to it. I also liked that the pitcher used a light touch of humor to bring the pitch down a notch. Connecting through humor creates a less intense environment than a full-on sales pitch. He also uses a nice hook, “the app-bubble,” which helps the audience connect his idea to something they already understand, the tech bubble. He then gives examples of how different roles would find his site useful, not just in a convenience sense, but in useful business applications, for spotting trends and competitive analysis. Finally, the pitcher ends with an invitation to check out a live, working site. His application is already live, demonstrating an already existing commitment to the project. Ironically, I didn’t find the product to be as good as the pitch. I was imagining a more dynamic and searchable experience, but perhaps interactivity this is what further funding could enable.

I found ComputeNext to be the most difficult to follow. The service does sound very helpful and robust, but I couldn’t follow the technical jargon that easily. I got lost in the description of the scenario. I think if the language had been simplified, or the pitcher had compared his service to another, more familiar product, I would have been better able to mentally map his service. I also found his tone very monotone, and therefore it was difficult to know what was being emphasized. Crafting the flow of his argument would have helped his pitch immensely, perhaps by including dramatic pauses, audience questions and a descriptive hook.

Overall, it was interesting to watch these pitches, and I am excited to try pitching our concept. I hope the butterflies stay at bay!

desperately seeking strategy

I’ve been reading through this week’s selections for business class: What is Strategy, by Michael E. Porter; Innovating Across the Business Model, by Peter Skarzynski and Rowan Gibson; and A Thermostat That’s Clever, Not Clunky, by David Pogue. Our assignment this week (if we choose to accept it), is to develop our business strategy, the plan that will combine our strengths and our unique product offering into, hopefully, a successful business model. I feel acutely my inexperience in knowing the right answer (is there one?), and I know the only way through this is to practice, iterate, and incorporate my design practice knowledge, which means getting visual as soon as possible.


I love the activity-system maps that Porter uses in his paper, they appeal to the IA in me. I can already see the sticky note wall, covered with bits of multi-coloured paper, each one illuminating an answer to the multitude of questions posed in each of the readings this week. I have a feeling we will have to be relentlessly methodical through this process, as they say “leave no stone unturned,” and I hope as project manager that I can support and encourage my team to dig deeply to find these answers. I know it will be easy to fall into discussions around product features, which is equally important and can drive our strategic themes, but can also diffuse the conversation.



I think a remedy of this is to incorporate Indi Young‘s mental model framework, so we have another framework to float the product features. I think this model, that brings together the customer’s mental model and product features, will be an excellent complement to the activity-system maps. By looking across customer behaviour and subsequent offering gaps, we hopefully can tailor our overall business strategy to delightfully fulfill the customer needs (ones they may not possibly know they have). Then, as Porter says, if we diversify our strategic fit across activity consistent with overall strategy, reinforcing activities and the optimization of effort, our business strategy will be sustainable. Further, we can take a page from Luke Williams, who says that unbroken areas are the most fertile space for disruption. We can invert market conventions for meeting customer’s needs to create potential opportunity. This should decrease the possibility of competitor imitation, and we should be golden.

Should be, I say, because what I am missing is the gut feeling. Successful business strategists, be they entrepreneurs or consultants, possess a knowing that comes from practice, trial and error, and most importantly, success. So I know that above all the visioning, I must be willing to set the framework in motion. It’s as we say in design, you never know if your design is successful until you see someone interact with it.

marking time with nature

I am studying Christopher Dresser for my History of Design class, in which we have to choose a designer from the past and hypothesize how they would design a product from today. I first read about Dresser in Nest magazine (insert here much lamentation at the disappearance of this marvelous publication). Dresser’s long career began as an artistic botanist, but then he grew into a designer of many items, such as wallpapers, rugs, furniture and pottery. I am always struck by his exacting replications of plants in his designs, and also how they differ in terms of geometry and symmetry than that of William Morris. Flipping through The Art of Decorative Design, I discovered the appendices which contain a fascinating explanation of Linnaeus’ Flower Clock. Apparently, Linnaeus dreamed of a garden that told the time based on when flowers would open. Whimsically beautiful. Dresser also includes the description of an Ornithological Clock, designed by an anonymous woodsman, in which time is marked when birds wake and sing. So charming. I’m delighted by these ideas and the desire to link mechanisms to rhythms in nature, however Victorian the sentiment. I know these ideas are quaint, yet they remind me of a time when these patterns were widely known and acknowledged as fertile ground for exploration and emulation.

ixd theory :: reading in the cloud

There is a used bookstore back home in Vancouver called McLeod’s. I loved going there to browse through the stacks of once-owned books, it was an adventure every time. I never knew what I would discover – they have a great collection of books from the early 50’s, with their leather covers and ornate typography. The physicality of these books is almost as luxurious as the stories and images inside them, and I loved to take home my treasures to read at leisure, enjoying the feel of the paper and the imprints of the ink.

I was always a bit skeptical of eBook readers. My love of the physical book and the appreciation for the craft of book making colored my perception of applications such as the Kindle. As a designer, I lamented the apparent death of this craft, and the closing of so many independent bookstores. My feelings have changed since starting school. The flexibility, convenience and utility of the Kindle have won me over.

I don’t have an actual Kindle device, but have a version of the application on my iPhone, iPad and laptop. The software has been tailored for use on each device – basic reading and bookmarking for the phone, richer notating on the iPad and full notation and citation features for the desktop. The team certainly thought about the most likely situations for reading, and provided functionality accordingly. Moreover, by using the Kindle service, my reading activity is saved in the cloud, and all three devices sync to the most recent activity on opening. This allows me to read anywhere, anytime, without having to carry an extra item with me: the physical book.

Let’s be clear, I still love real books and buy them all the time. I love exhibition catalogs, art books, poetry. These types of content I do not want to experience in a digital form (not yet anyways). The book itself is part of the experience. But for course books, business books, content that I need to actively read (notate), the Kindle experience is excellent. I never liked writing in books anyways, and now I find I am far more engaged with the content. It also appeals to my desire to walk more lightly on the earth, to have less things. And I have yet to truly tap the social connectivity that the Kindle provides, the ability to see other readers’ notations and highlighted content. I feel that this technology has made my reading experience more expansive, and I know it’s just the beginning of the innovation.

hyper-organization through synced connectivity ftw

I’m living in the micro-culture of academia. The demands of the client have been exchanged for the demands I am making on myself. I don’t mind spending weekends and evenings swimming around in business model development or form studio photography, but I do need a break from time to time. Managing my time and tasks are crucial to finding those moments for self-reflection and renewal.

It was pretty clear within two weeks of starting school that I would need to find a comprehensive method for tracking my tasks. There are so many assignments to complete: reading, blogging, group work and general exploration. The current trend in hyper-organization has been a great help, especially when it combines the constant connectivity and syncing in the cloud, two other trends that show no signs of slowing. Surprisingly, Producteev is a free service. It is probably the easiest software I have used for time management, and it allows me to add tasks, label by type and group by project (read courses). I can access my task lists from a desktop app, a web interface and an iPhone app. Very flexible!

When I started school, I set an intention to make time to learn the things that I don’t know. I have learned that I need to make time for more experimentation and exploration. Billable time is no longer a motivator, though I am taking note of how much time is good to leave for activities such as reading, creative experimentation and exploration. I think that these activities are vital to project work and must be included in a creative practice, either as billable research and exploration, or accounted for as a business expense. Less responsibility to clients has allowed me to really see the value of my own process, so I must devise ways that I can keep that practice alive (and funded). Making time for these activities is the first step.

Using technology maintain some order to aspects of my life also helps me to have more quality time to spend with people. Using my task manager, I always know what my schedule is, and if I can commit to an event or request. This gives me more peace of mind, as I don’t have to worry that I am forgetting classes or homework. Always being connected can be tiring, but creating awareness around my “busy-ness” helps me create time for unstructured de-connection. I know that by taking the few minutes to organize myself, I get far more work done, and I can plot free time just to be random. As Scott Berkun explains:

“I deliberately try not to fill my calendar. I choose not to say yes to everything. Doing so would make me too busy and less effective at achieving my goals. I always want to have some margin of time in reserve, time I’m free to spend in any way I choose, including doing almost nothing at all. I’m free to take detours. I’m open to serendipity.”
~ Scott Berkun, Mindfire: Big Ideas for Curious Minds

ixd theory :: usability principles in context

We’ve been reviewing the usability and heuristic principles described by Don Norman (summarized here) and Jakob Nielsen (summarized here) in IxD theory class. It’s a nice reminder, having a few years of usability testing under my belt. It’s funny, because I mostly learned these principles through practice – by testing my own designs and seeing where they failed. It was a valuable education, because you never truly see your design until you watch someone else use it.

It’s hard to decide what principles are most important, because I think they are all useful. I tend to respond more favorably to Norman’s Design of Everyday Things (DOET) principles than Nielsen’s, simply because they feel more human and less cut-and-dried, though both sets of principles are the result of many years of observing and understanding user behavior. Norman’s principles also feel more open, as they were developed in consideration of both digital and physical products, whereas Nielsen’s are tailored to digital interface analysis. As a designer who tries to understand broader human needs and transmedia solutions, Norman’s principles are more flexible for me. I can speak about the principle of affordance, the hints that reveal how to use a object, in relation to a web interface button as well as to a teapot handle. I guess I could also speak about these same qualities in terms of error prevention, to design the object carefully so it prevents misuse, but this feels less elegant.

It really comes down to context for me. Nielsen’s Ten Heuristics are helpful principles when diagnosing the problems in an existing digital interface, and can be used like a checklist. The language through which they are crafted is the language of the software developer, so it is easy to translate user experience issues to the team who will ultimately fix them. The heuristics have an almost scientific, definitely engineer-like, tone, which can be helpful to transform a conversation about design principles, such as contrast and proximity, into one about the visibility of the system status. Norman’s DOET principles are similar to Nielsen’s, but they lend themselves to different contexts, such as thinking beyond the visible system experience into mental mapping or considering cognitive load. I am not saying these concepts are more important than the others, but that Norman’s principles are helpful in concept discussions, such as debating the possible affordances a button could have, the perceived mental model the user has when said button is pushed, or why constraining functionality through a web form is beneficial. I like to pick and choose from both sets of principles, as no design situation is the same. The challenge is understanding these concepts well enough to explain their relevance in a given situation.