Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The dilemma of empathy in design

A version of this post has been published on medium.

Can you be or get too close to a situation or group of people to design effectively for it or them? Or is being fully in that situation or group of people beneficial, perhaps even essential?

Don Norman and Roberto Verganti are among those who have argued that “the more that design researchers immerse themselves in the existing context, the more they ... are trapped within the current paradigms,” making it difficult to imagine, let alone design, a paradigm change when such might be needed.

About 10 years ago, I worked on a project for a new system for people with diabetes. We talked with many people who had diabetes or who helped educate diabetics. I even wore an insulin pump around for several days. In short, we were building up subject matter knowledge and empathy for the people we were designing for. During this user research phase many of us (myself included) started to have actual nightmares that we had diabetes. I remember once looking at my toes, wondering if the tingling I was feeling was the onset of diabetes. (It wasn’t — probably just my foot was asleep.) We’d empathized to the point where we really identified with diabetics and their problems, which are considerable. We had so much empathy for them, in fact, that for several weeks, we couldn’t solve the problem. It seemed intractable, given what we knew about the condition and the state of technology at the time.
But Emily Pilloton, in an article entitled, Depth Over Breadth: Designing For Impact Locally, and For The Long Haul, wrote:
For design within communities, we must genuinely identify with the community and consider ourselves part of it in order to produce solutions that are informed and long lasting in their impact. Through such empathy, our actions become inherently collective, making more permanent impact. This power of collective action was beautifully described in a 1994 white paper published by the South African Government’s Rural Development Program committee: “…The people must together shape their own future. Development is not about the delivery of goods to a passive citizenry. It is about active involvement and growing empowerment.” 
I am entirely convinced that our greatest successes have and will come from work that is local, deeply entrenched, long-term, and in our own backyards. I firmly believe that lasting impact requires all three of the following: proximity (simply being there, in the place you seek to design with and for), empathic investment (a personal and emotional stake in collective prosperity), and pervasiveness (…involvement that has impact at multiple scales).
On what was this view based?
(After more than a year) bouncing between projects, constantly having to shift gears between cities, user groups, research sets, prototypes, and team dynamics… we began working closely with a single school district: the Bertie County Schools in Eastern North Carolina. Bertie County is the poorest county in the state, with close to 80 percent of its school district’s students living in poverty. Since the partnership’s start (a year ago, we) have spent nearly half our time in Bertie, building educational playgrounds, designing new computer labs, rewriting entire curricula, and implementing countywide education campaigns. 
What we quickly discovered was that being there, as citizens, rather than just designers, was 80 percent of the battle. By becoming immersed in the community, cheering at high school basketball games, and weighing in at board meetings, we have earned the trust and partnership of the school district’s teachers, parents, and students, making our work more personal, appropriate, responsive, and meaningful. Gathering feedback from the community happens more smoothly, the ability to prototype and experiment with new ideas is more fluid, and a public understanding of our process has become more common. All the capacities required by the design process have become more natural through face-to-face engagement and open communication with the community, which of course, requires us to be there. 
Where wide-scale endeavors fall flat is in their cursory understanding and lack of long-lasting commitment to the communities they serve. It is only by becoming a member of a community… that we can truly understand the issues and produce sustainable and effective solutions.
Jon Kolko addresses part of this when he states in, Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving, “It may take weeks of observation to become aware of the intricacies of tacit knowledge in other people, which a short-term project-based approach to design doesn’t provide.”

And contributing to this is, as George Aye stated recently, the role of an imbalance of power between designers — who, when they “work on complex social sector issues, …often enter situations with power inherently given to them (even if they don’t realize it)” — and the “communities being served”:
For all the talk about being human-centered, one very human factor often gets overlooked — a basic understanding of how power operates in relationships between people. This lack of understanding by design(ers) results in wasted funding, poorly prioritized projects, and broken promises to the very communities that are being served.
Chelsea Hostetter, in an article with the title that I stole for this post, reveals that already being a part of the community to be served isn’t enough:
Alex and I were embedded into the trans and queer community of Austin, and it’s really hard when you’re part of the LGNTQ community and also talking with members of that community about their needs to not feel like you want to take action right then and there. There were a lot of emotions I felt around the research that was just difficult to process as a queer person myself. 
The Transgender Day of Remembrance is an event held for the community to remember the lives of the transgender victims of homicide with that year and to communally grieve. So throughout all of our interaction with the trans and queer community, the underlying ribbon we found is that somebody usually knows someone who has died whether through murder or through suicide. It’s tragic, and it’s awful, but that is the day to day of our community. As I was listening to the many names called out of lives lost that year, I started sobbing. Watching one person grieve is harrowing, but watching an entire community grieve, and feel connected to people you haven’t even met, is something that is completely, deeply, and soulfully impactful. At the time we dove really deep into the research but it struck a very deep, dear, personal chord with me. I previously considered myself a member of the queer community but through that research, I realized that I hadn’t been a good ally of the trans community like I previously thought. I didn’t have enough information or empathy to properly support our trans community then. 
I don’t think that (the app we designed for the queer community when we were students at the Austin Center for Design) would have worked in the state it was in (then) because I wasn’t as embedded in the queer community as I am today. I am now a regular member of several queer community meet-ups and work with an internal group at frog that promotes diversity and inclusion. I realize in my specific case, in order to be helpful and beneficial and really design for that community, you have to be embedded in it. In my current position within the community, I feel far more able to help people.
The following recent tweet and the top of the article it points to is of relevance…

…as is April Starr’s tweet which she composed shortly after she and her husband endured a terribly designed process of rounds by doctors and residents during her husband’s hospital stay:

I’ve been marginalized professionally and through a health crisis and a healthcare nightmare (and as a result, a long stretch of homelessness). Does this make me better suited to design for diversity and for healthcare (and for the homeless) than designers without that experience? I think so; in fact, I think it even makes me better suited to work on other social issues of great complexity. [But does this mean I wouldn’t need to further connect with people in non-diverse, the healthcare, or the homelessness ecosystems and engage in or otherwise tap (additional) design research when designing for healthcare and for the homeless? Not at all.]

If one hasn’t had such experiences, is one ill-suited to work on such issues? I don’t think so. As Tina Seelig writes, everyone experiences “challenging character building opportunities” during one’s life that facilitate one’s ability to develop empathy for those whose character building opportunities are more challenging. And by embedding oneself in the community to be served as much as possible, as described by Emily Pilloton and Dan Saffer and Chelsea Hostetter

Is all of this only of relevance when addressing “wicked problems” (i.e., social issues of great complexity)? 

And what of Norman and Verganti’s caution about becoming trapped by the current paradigms the more one immerses oneself within them? What can one do to not become trapped? Dan Saffer’s continuation of his story of developing too much empathy for diabetics:
It wasn’t until we were able to step away from the diabetics’ perspective and become less empathetic that we were able to come up with a product concept. We needed distance — a psychic removal — in order to really assess the problem and take action to change it. In other words, we had to act like designers, which meant we had to be more objective, to sit outside and to the left of the problem space. As this experience taught me, too much empathy can be as crippling as too little. 
Empathy will get you to see the problems from the users’ perspective, but not the solutions.
Do you think Emily Pilloton and Chelsea Hostetter would agree? Would George Aye find this imbalance of power to be unacceptable?

Questions, questions… (Indeed, I addressed the content of this blog post — and much more — during a session entitled, “Question Everything: Workshop to Help You More Effectively Design for Social Impact” which I led with Susan Wolfe last month during San Francisco Design Week. Should you be interested in such a workshop, give us a holler.)

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Applying anthropology, design, and theory to medical education and medical practice

A version of this post has been published on Medium.

My nightmare experience with the healthcare system several years ago prompted me to commit to playing a role in fixing it. Among the things I’ve done since then are write and publish lots of articles and blogposts and speak at lots of events, telling about my nightmare, sharing similar stories of others, and addressing what designers need to know and do to increase their contribution to such a fix. Most recently, I did these things in the context of teaching a course at the Austin Center for Design, an educational institution focused on applying design and entrepreneurship in the space of large-scale “wicked problems.” Our broken healthcare system is one such wicked problem.

The course I’m referring to is an advanced theory course, but one during which we examined the relevance of theory to design and social entrepreneurial practice today. We addressed healthcare during two parts of the course: one focused on what limits what we can imagine, the other on the opportunities of entrepreneurship.

Some of what limits what can be imagined within the healthcare system is addressed very powerfully in “How Medicine Constructs its Objects,” a chapter in a book written by Dr. Byron Good. The chapter is one of the readings I assigned to students. In it, Good provides an anthropological perspective on Harvard Medical School education, describing how students learn “fundamental practices.” Here is a series of quotes I used in class to guide discussion of this chapter — notice the emphasis on objectifying the patient, the power of the write-up and of presenting patients, and the pressure to fall in line:
"Entry into the world of medicine is accomplished not only by learning the language and knowledge base of medicine, but by learning fundamental practices through which medical practitioners engage and formulate reality in a specifically “medical” way. These include specialized ways of seeing, writing, and speaking."
"Within the lifeworld of medicine, the body is newly constituted as a medical body, quite distinct from the bodies with which we interact in everyday life."
From a student:
"I would occasionally be walking along a street and find myself attending to anatomical features of persons I passed, rather than perceiving them as persons with social characteristics…"
"This reconstruction of the person is essential to a student becoming a competent physician."
"When first learning medical interviewing “I felt that it was a great privilege for me to hear some intimate details of their lives” and she would spend time listening to what patients wanted to talk about. By the fourth year, however, she said “you start to develop this sense of ‘well, I have a job to do here and I’m doing something for you, so I’m going to just do it as efficiently as I can.’"
From a student:
"You’re not there to just talk with people and learn about their lives and nurture them. You’re not there for that."
From a student:
"One thing about medicine I actually admire is [that] there really is an ideal of clarity…and [logical presentation]. The ideal write-up has sort of all the facts that argue in favor, and all the facts that argue against, and conclusions drawn from those… drawn together in sort of a summarizing formulation about what you think is going on and then a plan of attack. I mean, something is very satisfying about that. Of course the real world doesn’t lend itself to that, so you distort the real world a little bit to make it fit that nice pattern."
"Writing both reflects and shapes conversations with patients. It provides the categories and structures of those conversations, and it represents a structure of relevance that justifies the systematic discounting of the patient’s narrative."
"There is an enormous social science literature on doctor-patient communications. In our interviews, however, medical students indicate relatively little concern about this domain of talk. In part this is because it constitutes a surprisingly small amount of time. … But the medical students’ lack of concern about their conversations with patients is also a result of their perception that the central speech acts in medical practice are not interviewing patients but presenting patients."
"Doing case presentations is probably the main thing you concentrate on… for the medical student, their one chance to be in the lime light is when they present, and it’s also probably the area where you’re most likely to either gain the respect or the annoyance of your colleagues, and especially your superiors…"
"Students become quickly aware of the performance dimension. They rehearse presentations, learn to give them without notes, even to make up details if they do not remember them exactly, and are very aware of the response. If the performance is not successful, the team members start fidgeting, rolling their eyes, … And this is the single most important source for criticism or approval which students experience in the early stages of clinical training. “It’s not how much time you spend with your patients or how caring you are with them or how good a rapport you establish with them…”, but your presentation of cases.”"
Little surprise that humanizing the healthcare experience is considered by many to be healthcare’s number 1 need (see, for example, this recent interview of Dr. Bridget Duffy, former Chief Experience Officer at Cleveland Clinic).

A bit more from the Good chapter:
"Students have an awareness of the “conventionality and arbitrariness” of much of what they prescribe, true even of the most dangerous procedures; “They see treatments that have poor outcomes as well as those that provide benefit. They see some residents or attending physicians doing procedures they think should not be done or behaving miserably toward patients. At the same time, they recognize they are not senior enough to judge what should be done, and they feel deeply the pressure to show solidarity, not to question the actions of those up the hierarchy.”"
"The powerful have total control over your self-esteem."
One of the slides I used in class of relevance to all this, referencing Dr. Jay Parkinson’s TEDx talk:

An all-too-common example of how all this gets experienced by patients and their loved ones is powerfully reported in April Starr’s recent “Free ideas from a human-centered designer for hospitals that want to be (or make it seem like they are) patient-centric” (another of the readings I assigned to my students):
I had the recent misfortune of watching my husband in severe pain and as a result stay in the hospital for a week. As a human-centered designer, it’s hard for me to turn off my observational and ideation skills so I figured I’d channel my frustrations and provide some free consulting.
Some of her recommendations:
Fucking introduce yourself already. 
Who are you? You walk into the room and we don’t know your level, specialty, name, or role. Should we listen to you? What questions can we ask you? Who the fuck knows?
If you are too busy/self-important to introduce yourself, hand over a laminated sheet with a picture, name, and specialty like this: 
We will waste your time much less with our annoying, time-consuming questions if we know who you are.
Decouple decision making from communicating. 
Upon asking a simple question: who was in charge of my husband’s care, the head of a certain specialty (in front of all her silent and obedient resident ducklings) told me:
“We are like a five-wheeled car being driven by five drivers”.
I responded:
“Well, cars don’t have five wheels or five drivers for a reason.”
She then responded:
“Well, we all may argue but we come to one conclusion at the end of it.”
That wasn’t what I was asking. I wanted to know WHO we should listen to for the final word, not HOW they make decisions. Before this gaggle of 8 people entered the room without knocking, waking up my husband and sucking all the air out, a DIFFERENT group of 5 doctors do the same thing and give us DIFFERENT information. I simply wanted to know who to listen to. Just trying to understand what the fuck is going to happen with the person I’ve decided to share my life with who is in intense pain that’s all. NO BIG DEAL.
If they don’t want to have a hierarchy for decision making, fine. There should still be a designated point person for communication of next steps. Argue and make your decisions behind the scenes, and then send that decision off to ONE person who can come into the room and explain it clearly to the patient.
Decide which is more important to do in front of the patient: teaching or providing medical service. 
I understand and realize that residents shadowing doctors is an important way that they learn. However, their presence is disruptive. In one day, we had 5 different groups of residents and their arrogant leaders come by and wake my husband up to ask the same set of questions that have been documented in his chart (that 5-wheel car doctor seems to think everyone is reading).
If patients are in pain, had a rough night of sleep (all of this documented, RIGHT?) then give them a fucking break and pick on the other patients who slept better and are more in the 1–5 pain range.
Really understand why you became a doctor & adjust accordingly. 
Do you REALLY want to help people or do you like solving medical problems? If it’s the latter, maybe you should stay behind the scenes and let the people who are good at caregiving and communicating do what they are good at.
Ok, but you are still a control freak and want to stroke your ego by talking with the patient in front of all your resident minions? Fine, but then adjust your comunication style when you cross the threshold. Don’t use acronyms, don’t assume we understand medical terminology, let us speak occasionally…etc.
I also shared some of April’s subsequent tweets in class:

And, sadly, this one:

Three days ago, April published “MORE free ideas from a human-centered designer for hospitals.” It includes:
Humanize the medical case. 
My husband had had a rough night in the hospital. He had been up all night with with a lot of pain. In the morning when I arrived he had finally fallen asleep and I sat quietly in the corner. Unfortunately, it was 9am and rounds had started. I overheard our case being read outside the door “Male, age 42, presented with diarrhea, large mass on the left lobe of the liver…” I felt a knot form in my stomach and my blood start to boil but couldn’t figure out why I was so angry. They kept talking about him and I finally got up, opened the door and stood outside so they would know I could hear them talking about him. They didn’t stop talking when they saw me emerge from the door. I stood there for a few seconds, hoping someone would realize how rude and disruptive they were being. Eventually I blurted out (possibly not my finest moment) “My husband is resting. We can hear everything you are saying and it makes us feel like he’s a piece of meat. Can’t you talk about his case down the hall so we can’t hear you? Can’t you see in the files that it’s been 3 weeks since this started and it’s still very emotionally raw for us? Maybe skip over this one today. Or ask us first.” To his credit, the doctor was very apologetic while the residents just stared at me like I was a crazy person (you try watching a loved one deal with a painful medical condition without going crazy!).
There were obvious indicators in the data that this was a unique and emotionally charged situation. The doctors also didn’t realize or care. I think that if some personal, and not just medical, details had been highlighted in the case (for example: that he was healthy before all this — he had just had a full physical with no problems 2 weeks prior, he has a 6 year old son, loves to bike, and works as an innovation consultant, and that he still didn’t have a diagnosis) maybe the doctors and residents would have seen us as people, not just a medical oddity to be discussed openly in the hallway.
Teaching hospitals need to consider the impact these VERY different objectives (teaching residents and caring for patients) have on one another. There may be situations where it makes sense to blend activities and others that require a clear separation between them. One way to blend the two activities would be to humanize the medical case. Adding personal details can remind the doctors that these are real people, create a bridge between doctor and patient and encourage the doctors to treat people like people. It would also help patients potentially learn more about the medical side of things if they were a part of the conversation. However other times there should also be a clear separation of activities: when teaching residents, talk about the medical cases (especially sensitive ones) BEFORE you walk to the hospital room. Don’t talk about “the case” in front of them like they aren’t there. Duh.
In class, I also shared a handful of the many thousands of stories of patients experiencing medical misdiagnosis. In “Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness,” Susannah Cahalan, whose misdiagnosis was similar to mine, writes: “we live in a time when the rate of misdiagnoses in the United States has shown no improvement since the 1930s.” According to some analyses, misdiagnoses and other “medical errors are the third most common cause of death in the United States.”

How can this be? Dr. Brian Goldman’s powerful TEDx talk, which I showed in class, details an important part of the answer as referenced on this slide:

In the more recent, “A physician experiences a medical error. Here’s her story,” Dr. Maja Castillo writes:
After my experience, several colleagues recounted cases of the same error at their institutions. How can a potentially lethal error happen again and again at different institutions without leading to a systemic change in medical practice? How can we not see the need for a universal system to record and analyze errors?
It will be no easy task to study medical errors. For too long our culture of blame has shrouded the subject in fear, guilt, and shame. Medical professionals are taught early on that they are dealing with people’s lives, and mistakes are unacceptable. Instead of learning how to assess and respond to errors we are taught to suppress and ignore, as happened in my situation. Our laws perpetuate this process by treating malpractice cases as the fault of single individuals instead of systemic failures. There is no safe space for medical professionals to openly discuss errors without fear of repercussions.
Three more slides I used referencing TEDx talks, referencing the concept of the god-complex:

(I showed the video of Dr. Jeff Benabio’s talk in class, since he describes how and why physicians have needed to reinvent themselves throughout history and how and why new technologies are requiring physicians to reinvent themselves again.)

Some take a wholistic view. As Stacey Chang recently wrote in another assigned reading, “Health Care — A Final Frontier for Design”:
The dysfunction of our modern health care system isn’t about failure of intention, but rather pursuit of siloed and sometimes conflicting priorities. The needs of clinicians haven’t always aligned with the needs of patients, and both are subject to the demands of payers and regulators, and the financial limitations and business strategy of the provider organization. When each party manipulates and adapts to meet its own needs without regard to the needs of the others, it creates the incoherent mess we call our health care “system.” Medical professionals are trapped in the episode-driven fee-for-service revenue machine that defines value by productivity rather than impact on the patient’s health. Patients are trapped in the 10-minute office visit, the formularies and preauthorizations that second-guess their physicians, and arbitrary limits on visits for physical therapy or psychotherapy that ignore their needs and their rate of progress. Patients bypass their doctor for the drugstore clinic, or just don’t bother until they’re really sick. Both clinicians and patients get lost regularly in the systems that surround them, be it EHRs that prioritize accounting or hospital campuses that haphazardly add spaces to accommodate new services or capabilities.
Chang, the Founding and Executive Director of the Design Institute for Health at the University of Texas at Austin, comments on the role design has played thus far in healthcare:
Design interventions in health care have tended to be piecemeal. They address specific aspects of the ecosystem — more friendly clinic experiences, easier-to-use medical devices, improved medication adherence, more effective care protocols — but don’t achieve the large-scale transformation that design has activated in other industries. 
At an Austin Forum I took my students to, Dr. Mini Kahlon of the Dell Medical School and Ed Park of athenahealth were critical of Silicon Valley’s role in this:

More from Chang, this time referencing new opportunities for design in medicine, particularly in the context of medical education:
The Design Institute for Health aspires to establish ways to achieve [large-scale] transformation through a new type of collaboration.
The governing principle is that patient and provider experiences are designed to produce a shared responsibility for the ultimate outcome, in a model that continuously learns and evolves.
To be fluent in these new models, students of medicine and other health professions need different training. At the Dell Medical School, students transition earlier than usual from classroom learning to clinical rotations in order to clear time in their second and third year, when they are taught design skills. (For example, students will learn how to conduct ethnographic inquiries to learn about the needs, pains, and motivations of clinical and social service providers in the community.) They apply those skills by identifying systemic health challenges in the community, conducting unconventional research, and then developing new solutions. The most compelling efforts are then incorporated into the strategic work of the medical school, turning students into allies of change, instead of just recipients of a traditional curriculum.
Underlying the new models is theory, as described in another assigned reading, “The Future of Health Care?”:
[Dean of the Dell Medical School, Clay] Johnston and others point to the theoretical work of Elizabeth Teisberg and Martin Harris, developing the Med School's "value-based" approach to health care systems: finding ways to produce and quantify better outcomes for patients. Teisberg is the author (with Michael Porter) of Redefining Health Care: Creating Value-Based Compe­ti­tion on Results (2006), a seminal work in the field, arguing that the profession and the industry must shift from the fee-for-service model that currently governs medical practice, hospital finances, and health insurance plans, to a value-based structure that measures and rewards health outcomes – and over time, by eliminating unnecessary and repetitive treatments, broadly reduces the cost of care. Teisberg, now a full professor and executive director of Dell's Value Institute for Health and Care, and colleague Scott Wallace summarize their approach in a recent article, "Four Steps Within Your Stride" ( measure outcomes; document "care paths" to determine best practices; use integrated teams of varied expertise across the patient's full cycle of care; design solutions that incorporate the direct experience of patients. Elsewhere, Teisberg summarizes the value-based goals: "Higher value opens the opportunity to enable better health for more people with the same resources."
Such a theory sets the stage for radical innovation, but some are wary of this theory, including Dr. Jay Parkinson whom I quoted earlier:

Even a faculty member at the Dell Medical School (Dr. Ted Held) expressed some doubts about it in response to a question from me at a recent event at which he was speaking.

But other attempts at shifting to a value-based approach have begun to bear fruit, and when coupled with design, great things are likely to happen.

Actually, lots of great things have started to happen, even in Silicon Valley, where Stanford’s Medicine X initiative, with which I’ve been involved as a design advisor, speaker, workshop facilitator, ePatient scholar, and event organizer, has done much to spearhead co-design with patients and, as Dr. Bryan Vartabedian puts it, “the rise of medicine’s creative class”: “there’s an unexplainable high to seeing 400 years of a stagnant profession turned over like rotting compost.” Last month, Medicine X held its first conference focused on medical education; Clay Johnston was a keynote speaker.

I’ve worked a bit with the Dell Medical School. Stacey Chang provided a design project for some of my User Experience Design Immersive students at General Assembly; I featured Chang at a Medicine X event I organized on the University of Texas campus; and I’ve worked on design (process) strategy with the head of a medical department there. Healthcare has been the focus of quite a bit of the work of my design strategy consultancy, OE Strategy.

For more information about the course referenced repeatedly above that I taught at the Austin Center for Design, see “Teaching Theory at AC4D.” There was more to the sections that addressed healthcare and much much more to the entire course. 

Lastly, consider following me on Twitter as I continually tweet about things happening in design and social entrepreneurship that are likely to impact the badly needed transformation of our system of healthcare.

Friday, May 05, 2017

Teaching theory at the Austin Center for Design

A version of this post has been published on the AC4D blog and on Medium

“Great timing,” I think to myself yet again. As I was preparing the deck I would use that evening to facilitate a discussion on the opportunities of (social) entrepreneurship, I discovered that a vote by the Texas House of Representatives the previous day had “set the table” for Uber’s return to Austin. (Uber stopped providing rides in Austin a year ago in protest of required driver background checks.) Already in the deck were quotes I had taken from “The sharing economy is a lie: Uber, Ayn Rand and the truth about tech and libertarians,” one of the readings I had assigned for that evening. Also already there were tweets and (other) references to other articles about Uber, some positive, most negative. Into the deck went the headline about the legislature’s vote and a few words from the online article.

Serendipitously encountering tweets, articles, and other information pertinent to a class shortly before the class was typical for me, since I follow people on social media who care about the things I care about and teach about. And I often took advantage of that. I had previously added to the above-referenced deck — which I’ve made available in its entirety below — images from two recent articles I encountered via Twitter about Walmart, including one entitled “Business Exists To Serve Society,” words somewhat surprisingly uttered by Walmart’s Chief Sustainability Officer during a recent interview; we watched that interview during class, since it was of great relevance to arguments made by Michael Porter and Mark Kramer in another of the readings I had assigned for that evening, “Creating Shared Value.” That same day, I noticed on Facebook that a former colleague of mine, David Rose, was in town; I had shown a video about David and read a bit from his book, “Enchanted Objects” the previous week in class during another section of the course, and since David was a serial entrepreneur, a guest appearance would be a nice fit for this section of the course as well, so I made it happen.

All of this (and much more) was for an advanced theory course on interaction design and social entrepreneurship that I taught during March and April of this year at the Austin Center for Design (AC4D). Assigned readings included articles — often long and sometimes complex — by renown authors on theory about or of relevance to design and entrepreneurship as well as articles — often more recent and shorter — facilitating the understanding of theory and its relevance to design and entrepreneurial practice today. (All of the assigned readings are listed in a deck at the end of this post and possibly still -- depending on when you are reading this -- on the course's webpage.) The course is one of three that all students take during the final quarter of the AC4D educational program.

Teaching this course was a wonderful experience due in large part to the wonderful students. Each class featured great and often impassioned discussion, and student presentations, each synthesizing designated readings in a personally meaningful way, were always special. One of Sally Hall’s very creative presentations consisted largely of a board game she designed that “follows the development of a non-profit organization working to increase access to education among low-income individuals in Managua, Nicaragua”; the game (being played in the photo below) was designed to help players understand and “explore the complexities of social impact.” One of Kelsey Willard’s presentations was a scary story about the impact of the coming singularity told, appropriately, over a campfire (see photo below). Our examination of power relationships prompted Elijah Parker to share information about his life he had never before felt comfortable sharing. The same examination prompted Conner Drew to explicitly formulate a set of personal design ethics and to call on others to do the same. And repeatedly, Garrett Bonfanti effectively highlighted just how important the role of the designer has become.

I’ve taught lots — inside of companies, via educational institutions, and at professional conferences — with much of my teaching focused on practical skills. General Assembly — where I taught the 10-week, full-time User Experience Design Immersive course several times — is among the up-start organizations claiming that intensive programs focused on teaching practical skills in the context of multiple, real-world projects prepare students for the workplace much better than much longer, more traditional, and much more expensive academic programs. While that is often true, AC4D Founder Jon Kolko has articulated the importance of teaching theory:
"Our curriculum at Austin Center for Design is rich with design theory. Students take theory classes that focus on the social and political relationships between design and the culture of society. Students learn theory and discourse related to designing for the public sector, specifically as it relates to ill-defined problem solving and the ethical obligations of designers. They read complex articles from computer scientists, psychologists, and sociologists, and they build arguments that synthesize these articles into new ideas. 
Yet the program at Austin Center for Design is a practitioner program, and these students go on to be practicing designers, not academics. They work for big brands, for consultancies, and in startups — and increasingly, they start their own entrepreneurial endeavors. They aren’t pursuing a Ph.D. path, so why teach theory? Why waste precious class time on academic discourse, rather than practical skills? 
I’ve thought a lot about what makes a great designer. One of the qualities is craft and immediacy with material. That’s sort of obvious — someone who makes things needs to be good at making things. I’m convinced that theory is also a key ingredient to greatness, a key part of claiming to be a competent, professional designer, but it’s less obvious than methods or skills and is often ignored during design education. There are at least three reasons I think students need theory as part of their foundational design education:
  • Theory gives students the basis for a “process opinion.” …
  • Theory gives students the ability to think beyond a single design problem, in order to develop higher-order organizing principles. …
  • Theory gives students a sense of purpose, a reason for doing their work. …
We’re seeing an influx of design programs aimed at practitioners, programs that intend to increase the number of designers available to work in the increasingly complex technological landscape. I’m skeptical of programs that don’t include theory in their curriculum. It has been argued that vocational programs should focus on core skills and ignore the larger academic, theoretical subject matter. I would argue the opposite. It is the vocational programs that require this thoughtful context the most, as graduates from these programs will have a direct impact on the products and services that shape our world."
I agree with Jon (and with the students who voiced additional benefits from studying theory), and whenever I taught for General Assembly, I made sure to include some theory. However, I was delighted to have the opportunity to dive more deeply via teaching at AC4D.

My thanks to: Jon and to Kevin McDonald who, before the course, shared invaluable information with me about when they had taught the course in the past; Lauren Serota, Adam Chasen, Mini Kahlon, Ed Park, and David Rose for their guest in-person appearances; Daniela Papi-Thornton, Paul Polak, Harry Brignull, Anne Hathaway, Meryl Streep, Jake Solomon, Ricky Gervais, Brian Goldman, Jeff Benabio, Don Norman, Sean Follmer, David Rose, Jared Ficklin, Stephen Colbert, Sally Hall, Pelle Ehn, Kathleen McLaughlin, John Battelle, Jess McMullin, The Police, and a few others whose names I don’t know who appeared on video; and the many authors of tweets and of articles other than those I assigned that I referenced during the course.

The course ended just last week, but I greatly miss teaching it already. I am very happy to have become a part of the AC4D community.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Do I really need to write a book?

Last month, I was chatting with Peter Merholz at the Big Design Conference in Dallas. He was there promoting his new book, Org Design for Design Orgs: Building and Managing In-House Teams — an excellent book by the way, and we were talking about how interesting it is that it is still important to write a book to be sought out as a consultant; blog posts are not enough. “You’ve never written a book, have you?”, said Peter, “Why not?” (Interestingly, it was Peter who first asked me years ago why I hadn’t started my own user research firm.)

Should I have written a book by now? Probably, yes. (Should I have started my own user research firm years ago? Again, probably yes.) I certainly have a couple of books in me, but do I really want to urge them out? Is it really true that good blog posts cannot suffice?

Well, without answering those questions (at least for now), let me spend a bit of time proclaiming the merits of reading old blog posts — not just anyone’s, but mine! I’ve written lots about topics such as those Peter addresses in his new book, and though many of those posts have aged a number of years, their relevance remains surprisingly — perhaps disturbingly — high. And what makes my posts particularly valuable is that they present and contrast the experiences and perspectives of many; they are not solely about what I think and have experienced.

For example, consider the topic of design collaboration. Cross-functional collaboration is now highly touted as crucial to successful design, but I know lots of designers who still do their work largely independently. WTF? Some of my blog posts on the importance of collaboration and keys to its success include:
Numerous posts address (additional) characteristics of a good research and design process, something with which many continue to struggle. They include:
But what do you do when you can’t follow an ideal process? I had a conversation about just that about a month ago with a director at a company that strongly touts its ideal process, but can’t always engage in it. I pointed him to, Working “middle out,” an approach which ends up increasing the chances of following a more ideal process in the future.

Multiple obstacles to employing design in the most impactful way can surface. Some of the many posts about such obstacles include:
Each post in the above list also addresses how to deal with such obstacles. Additional posts which do the same include:
The design and positioning of design organizations is still a hot topic, as suggested by the reaction to Peter’s book. Among the posts I’ve written on this topic:
And I’ve authored posts on so much more. Indeed, there is gold to be found in these many blogposts.

Design leadership is a hot topic these days, and many of these posts could form the foundation of a very good book on the topic. But, can’t the blog suffice? Do I really need to write a book?

Well, things would be better organized in a book, and I’d update and extend the posts’ content, and I’d fill in some gaps, and…

OK, maybe I should write a book. But while I do that or consider doing that, look through the lists of posts I've presented above for those that might be of help to you now. Use the tags for help accessing others. As I mentioned earlier, even the older posts continue to be of relevance.

Friday, October 07, 2016

My best work lies ahead of me

A version of this post has been published on medium.

I’m presently looking for full-time work, and part of my strategy has been to contact people I know or with whom I’m connected on LinkedIn who work at a company with an opening in which I might have an interest. I also sometimes reach out to others in key positions at the company. I always try to meet — in-person or remotely — with such people, usually informally and sometimes over coffee or a beer, to discuss the role, the company, and what they believe is most needed in the role (and why). I learn lots this way and sometimes seem to go through a pretty extensive interview process even before such a process has officially begun.

One of the times I arranged to meet with such a person recently, I entered the place of work, was taken back to the person with whom I was to meet and had not met before, and then watched as she sorta froze as soon as she saw me, the smile disappearing from her face. This happened with two of her co-workers as well, and it has happened on other — though not all — occasions of a similar nature.

I’ve talked about this with some of my older friends, and they confirmed what I feared might be going on, since they had experienced the same thing: ageism. I surprised these people I was meeting for the first time by being older than they had expected and probably hoped, and it negatively affected things moving forward.


Ageism in tech has been dubbed “an under-the-radar diversity issue” — “the industry’s biggest secret.” However, it wasn’t much of a secret when Mark Zuckerberg uttered these oft-quoted words in 2007: “I want to stress the importance of being young and technical. Young people are just smarter.” Today, “the average age of an employee at the top technology employers is around 29.”

Some people have tried, such as via lawsuits. But the title alone of a recent Washington Post article suggests that most such efforts have been to little avail: “Baby boomers are taking on ageism — and losing.”
“At a time when conditions have vastly improved for women, gay people, disabled people and minorities in the workplace, prejudice against older workers remains among the most acceptable and pervasive ‘isms’.”
This is disgusting.

One of the jobs I applied for recently is pretty much equivalent to a job I held several years ago. I applied, because I loved that job and because my experience since being in that job has enabled me to perform in such a job even better. But I was told by the employer that the years that had passed since I held that job was a detriment.

Hmm… (and I can share a story of a similar nature involving another company).

Do not disregard the benefits of my experience, people! I’ve learned lots over the course of my life and career and have contributed substantively to the development of the field in which I work. And I continue such contributions and am higher performing and more capable than ever. 

And, as suggested by this photo from this summer of a subset of the people in the room who were giving me a standing ovation at the end of our 10 weeks of intensely working together, I know how to work effectively with those young people Mark Zuckerberg said are the only people of importance in tech:

I am looking for work (spread the word!), and my best work lies ahead of me.

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Some additional excellent articles on ageism in tech include last month’s “You’re How Old? We’ll Be in Touch” in The New York Times and the older “The Brutal Ageism in Tech” in New Republic. Please share others you recommend via comment.