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Posted by core jr  |   7 Apr 2014  |  Comments (0)

PosttoSnaptrack-880px.pngImage courtesy of Moneythink

By T.J. Cook, CEO, CauseLabs

When it comes to getting projects right, I've found it helps to assume we've got it wrong. Our hunches are off. Our assumptions are off-base. We then just might get it right when it comes to designing something people really want to use.

Our team here at CauseLabs didn't know what we didn't know when we started rapidly prototyping a mobile application for Moneythink, the established and growing financial capability mentorship program for urban, low-income 11th and 12th graders in the United States.

Ironically, projects that never identify incorrect assumptions are the ones most liable to be off course. Using's human-centered design process and on-the-ground field data, we uncovered what we didn't know, and our mobile app development changed for the better. Because talked with dozens of teens, the team quickly came to understand their mindsets and subsequent needs. That information, the kind that only comes from talking directly to users, helped us recognize what was wrong with our initial assumptions and pointed us toward better solutions.

To step back, the goal with Moneythink Mobile is to reinforce good financial habits, encourage smart financial choices and build on Moneythink's proven financial near-peer mentorship model pairing college-student mentors with high school students for financial education. The idea for Moneythink Mobile came about in 2013 when CEO Ted Gonder made two important observations of Moneythink students. First, nearly all had smartphones. Second, the students made nearly all financial decisions outside of school, and therefore outside of the Moneythink program. Moneythink then started to explore the building and funding of a mobile tool that would give students a chance to show they had taken what they learned in class to heart by practicing the skills in their lives.

moneythink-classroom.jpgImage courtesy of

Jump ahead to this month and the nine-week pilot of Moneythink Mobile is well underway, with 70 students from eight classrooms in four inner-city Chicago schools testing the technology. The app includes challenges designed to help students build awareness of their spending and saving moments, create small financial goals, and engage in budgeting behavior while earning points redeemable for rewards along the way. Students update their peers on their progress in a social feed, sharing their financial decisions and commenting on those of others. After the Moneythink Mobile pilot, we will evaluate student engagement to optimize the app to meet students' lifestyles, capabilities and interests. We anticipate full launch of the app in fall 2014.

Before we got to our pilot, however, we took part in's design process and our own rapid prototyping method to de-construct our assumptions to better steer our design. Here are a few:


Posted by erika rae  |  17 Mar 2014  |  Comments (0)


The word "protestor" probably brings a few images to mind: a hazy scene of conflict, throngs of angry bystanders with politically charged signs and the police. While creative repurposing tends to trump product design when it comes to civil unrest, a class at the School of Visual Arts was recently tasked with designing for protest culture in a class called "Product, Brand and Experience," for which the subtitle is the brief: "Consumer Products for Protestors." [Disclosure: Core77 partner and Editor-at-Large Allan Chochinov is the Chair of the Products of Design Program.]

Damon Ahola and Richard Clarkson were among the students who took the class last semester, teaming up to design B. Super—a collection of transformative tools (including a utility belt) that transform the wearer/user into a superhero in minutes. See what they had to say about their experience and the product series they created:


Core77: Was there an "a-ha moment" that resulted in the idea for this series of products?

Damon Ahola & Richard Clarkson: We were discussing possible brand values and product directions early on in the process, Richard introduced the idea of superheroes. He was exploring the concept of superpowers in his thesis, so he was already quite knowledgeable about the topic. Damon quickly picked up the idea and immediately began sketching product concepts to give protesters a greater sense of confidence.

Could you walk me through the different products and their uses?

Each tool aids the protester in a specific task and is branded as such. The respirator mask,""breath," assists in surviving airborne toxins. To elude authorities, "disguise" is a fake mustache kit at the ready. Duct tape, handy in any situation, is included as "repair." "Relieve" is a lemon juice solution applied to allay the sting of pepper spray in the eye. As a mask, "hide" protects the protester's identity. Embodied as "declare," a rewritable roll-out canvas and marker act as a necessary communication tool. The single-use items are encased in a reusable box as "revive." Finally, the starter kit including the belt system and three of the tools is "empower."



Posted by Ray  |  21 Feb 2014  |  Comments (0)


Here, for your edification, is a video of Near Future Laboratory's "Design & Fiction" event in full. On October 24, 2013, IDEO hosted the panel discussion, moderated by Wired's Cliff Kuang, featuring sometime collaborators Julian Bleecker, James Bridle, and our own Nick Foster, who mentioned that "it was nice (and we think important) that we were physically together in a room." Indeed, given the subject matter.

We met to talk about design. And fiction. And the ways of approaching the challenge of all challenges, whatever it may be. We talked about expressing the opportunities those challenges raise as distinctly new tangible forms. As well as the essential value of mundane design. We talked about clarifying the present. We talked about designing the future. And doing both of these things with design. And fiction.

For those of you who can't spare 90 minutes engrossed in a series of presentations about everything from the so-called "Michael Bay Driving Experience" to 1984-worthy surveillant receptacles, here are a few highlights... but of course I recommend watching it in full (or at least absorbing the audio in the background, podcast-style) to, you know, actually hear what these smart and interesting folks have to say.


Posted by erika rae  |  17 Feb 2014  |  Comments (7)


We've all been there—befuddled by the many options the washing machine has to offer and envisioning the possible horrors that could arise with the push of a wrong button. It's a scenario that's generally resolved with a quick phone call to mom or a web search. Convinced that there had to be a better way, Peter Fabor, UX designer at Avast Antivirus and founder of The Surf Office, has come up with the straight-forward washing machine design we've all been Google searching for.

WashingMachine-Confusion.jpgFrom digital to dials, there isn't anything easy about cleaning your clothes the "right way"

After a bit of personal research into the realm of washing machine confusion, Fabor found a fact from the Daily Mail that put his project into motion: "58% of British men can't use a washing machine properly because they find the household appliance confusing." Even more, the headline on the Daily Mail's coverage states that a quarter of British men can't even mange turning the machine on. I'm sure that statistic reaches much further than the British—I for one have been known to tie-die many white shirts while trying to wash them and I'm an American lady.


Posted by erika rae  |   6 Feb 2014  |  Comments (1)


If rappers' boastful lyrics are any indication, hip-hop can take you places. A disciple himself, Tahir Hemphill—the ever-diligent artist behind the previously funded Kickstarter campaign "The Hip-Hop Word Count"—has visualized a dozen rappers' global treks via flight path-esque photographs tracking their lyrics.

RapLightPaintings-Comparison.jpgKanye West's global enlightenment (left) and one of Aaron Koblin's flight tracking designs (right)


Inspired by Pablo Picasso's light paintings, Maximum Distance. Minimum Displacement. takes one data point from "Hip-Hop Word Count" (more on that below) and puts it on the map. Hemphill has pulled out geographic mentions from his vault of crazy detailed research and created long-exposure visuals to better illustrate the globetrotting itineraries of these superstars (and perhaps to see if Pitbull is worthy of his terrible self-appointed title, "Mr. Worldwide"). By scaling geographic distances between destinations on a globe and assigning them coordinates, a robotic arm plots a specific point for each song's city mention using a light pen.

RapLightPainting-Picasso.jpgPablo Picasso and his original light paintings (left) and Hemphill's visualization of Kendrick Lamar (right)


Posted by Ray  |  30 Jan 2014  |  Comments (0)


With additional reporting by Erika Rae Owen

In 1990, Ian Frazier published a fiction piece in the New Yorker, casting an antagonistic yet universally beloved Looney Tune as the plaintiff of a court case against a corporate entity for its seemingly nonexistent QC standards. No doubt you are already familiar with the laundry list of complaints enumerated in Coyote vs. ACME. Time and again, we took pleasure in witnessing the episodic pratfalls of the pathetic Mr. Coyote (given name Wile), as the nefarious ne'er-do-well nearly obliterated himself on multiple occasions in his attempts to assassinate his long-standing rival, the Road Runner. Each and every time, a dangerous piece of equipment would malfunction at the worst possible moment with suspiciously predictable consistency, rendering the aggrieved as a veritable case study in schadenfreude.

The suit alleges that ACME is at fault, but new evidence suggests otherwise.


Glitches aside, the various instruments of death and gravity-defying wearables employed by Mr. Coyote in the cartoon are much more than mere stretches of the imagination—they are, in fact, prime examples of design fiction. We just didn't realize it until a designer from Pentagram took a stab at bringing the cartoon to life in a new way for their annual Christmas card.

Unlike the fictional plaintiff, designer Daniel Weil succeeds in his efforts: From the iconic spherical bomb to the more obscure Burmese Tiger Trap, these concepts may be more utilitarian than his previously-seen "Clock for Architects," but the inner workings of the five ACME products are certainly no less considered.

Click image to enlarge


Posted by Ray  |  23 Jan 2014  |  Comments (0)


Yesterday, we took a look at a potentially revolutionary breakthrough in brain surgery, which is great for neuroscientists (and their patients)—but the rest of us, not so much. After all, Steve Jobs channeled Henry Ford's dictum about a faster horse when he asserted that "people don't know what they want until you show it to them," prefiguring an interdisciplinary approach to 'neuromarketing.' In order to uncover what consumers really want—as opposed to their conscious desires—researchers such as Dr. Steven Scholte measure subjects' brain activity as they are exposed to various stimuli.

Now, designer Merel Bekking is looking to apply neuroscience to product design. In her quest to "create the perfect design," Bekking realized that the main obstacle is the fact that "perfection is subject to taste and aesthetics." The solution, then, is a systematic approach to determine what 'perfection' might be. "In 'Brain_manufacturing,' Bekking excludes personal preferences and tastes and creates designs purely based on scientific research results obtained with MRI scanners."

In every design process, the designer makes choices, such as which shapes, colours and materials to use. "If you let a group of non-designers make these choices, will you end up with the perfect design?" Merel Bekking says. "And if you ask people directly versus letting their brains give the answer, will there be a difference?"


Working with Dr. Scholte and the Spinoza Centre for Neuroimaging in Amsterdam, Bekking had 20 subjects—half male, half female—undergo an MRI while presented with various images that represented the shape, material and color of what would be an ideal object. Here's an informative (albeit a bit dry) video of Bekking describing her process:


Posted by core jr  |  21 Jan 2014  |  Comments (0)

Left: A community map with measured dimensions. Right: Iso-metric illustrated version of the community based on reference photos. This was developed to make the map more engaging and fun. Righthand illustration by Boyeon Choi.

In the field of design and technology today, deeply understanding users in their local context is an essential part to the design process. A holistic understanding of users generates empathy and a specificity of experience that enables designers to create valuable solutions for markets, communities and individuals.

In our field work in Uganda's rural north and Kampala, its capital and largest city, we took the unique opportunity to conduct research, as designers, into informal technology usage from a more complex and discovery-based perspective. Jeff focused on informal electricity bypassing in an urban community in Kampala, and An looked at how youth transfer media files via Bluetooth in northern Uganda. These are the stories that emerged after a hybrid approach of design, ethnography and other research methods to understand the systems and structures in place and build relationships with individuals working and living in these contexts.

In an increasingly globalized world, local contexts matter more than ever before. Rich, deep ethnographic stories can communicate the complex conditions under which communities and individuals make decisions regarding technology use in their everyday lives. These stories in turn inform design decisions around technology development and practical use. As Jessica Weber and John Cheng recently argued in UX Magazine, "Ethnography reveals how digital and physical processes work together to help businesses address gaps and focus on the entire customer experience."

We present two examples of user stories from our research into informal systems, as well as the visual forms we developed to communicate it. It was essential to use visualization to engage the designers and researchers in a developed, U.S. context to translate the unique characteristics of the informal systems for those who couldn't experience them firsthand. Visualizing the conditions and the systematic influences at work through user-generated drawings, maps, videos and photographic documentation placed them in context, helping to reframe these stories in a manner that permitted audiences in the United States to make judgments based on local values and their emergent informal usage of technology.


Posted by erika rae  |  27 Nov 2013  |  Comments (1)


The things that people do to snag a job are nuts. Standing out among the unemployed and enthusiastic is becoming pretty tough... especially when you have people like photographer Jens Lennartsson sending a minion of mini me action figures to the places he'd love to work.


Think of all of the possibilities: exaggerate your skills into super-hero-esque job qualifications, avoid handing in a resume that hits below expectations (design or otherwise) and bask in the fact that your first impression will always be on a perpetual good hair day. When you think about all of the time you spend perfecting your resume, you really wouldn't spend much more time on an action figure version of yourself.

Lennartsson's figurine, named GI Jens, is actualized as a camera-toting embodiment of who he is as a photographer. The packaging boosts his professional skills in an eye-catching display. No action figure is complete without a brochure displaying all of the toys features and Lennartsson doesn't miss that opportunity to display some of his work. Check out the videos after the jump for a behind-the-scenes look the complete GI Jens package and how he pulled this off:


Posted by erika rae  |  14 Nov 2013  |  Comments (1)


Testing a new product's intrigue is tough. As a designer, every one of your products is a masterpiece for one reason or another and it's hard to get a true take on whether or not it will sell. Upwell Design, a San Francisco based design studio, found the perfect way to test and market their new product, Walhub—by hacking IKEA. We've covered stunts similar to this before where people have used IKEA products to create more elaborate (and sometimes better) tools and pieces of furniture.


But Upwell decided to test the market's interest for their new switch cover/storage space by actually passing their design as an IKEA product. By dressing one of their own as an IKEA employee and adding all of the makings of an IKEA product (price tags, UPC barcodes) to Walhub, they placed the product in its natural environment among IKEA's designs and let shoppers do the rest. The video below shows the hack in action:

I'd say it was a complete success—even if solely for the confusion in that poor IKEA employee's voice as he (kind of) realized he wasn't speaking to a fellow rep.

Posted by frog  |   4 Nov 2013  |  Comments (4)


By Roberto Veronese, Creative Director, frog San Francisco

The use of digital banking and electronic payments is expanding in many countries, as consumers embrace technology that facilitates financial services. Yet in Russia, people still cling to cash for most of their financial needs. In fact, more than 90 percent of all commodity purchases are in cash, according to the Bank of Russia, and the country loses over one percent of its annual GDP due to the huge amount of cash circulating and its maintenance costs. This poses a challenge to financial institutions, like Russia's largest bank, Sberbank, which is eager to transition customers to digital services. Sberbank asked frog to envision product and service concepts that could effectively support that transition.

We began our work with extensive qualitative research in the field, investigating the deeply personal reasons why cash remains so popular among customers in Moscow. "I cannot go around without cash," a young, wealthy and tech savvy Muscovite told us, while shopping at GUM, the city's main department store. This was a typical response, even for younger Russians who are regularly online. More than half the population uses the Internet at least once a week, and appreciates the convenience of new digital tools to browse for information and media content. Yet in some cases these technologically sophisticated consumers refuse to open a bank account, preferring instead to pay their bills with cash at ubiquitous payments kiosks, despite the high commission applied to these transactions.

We found a number of reasons for this reluctance to adopt digital banking and electronic-payment services. Foremost is the fact that only a small number of merchants accept credit card payments, due to charges of up to 4 percent on the seller's side and widespread tax evasion. Meanwhile, salaries are still largely paid with cash, despite the introduction of "salary cards" issued by a bank chosen by the employer. This is the main type of card issued in Russia, which on payday contributes to an extremely high volume of cash withdrawals that are usually not transferred to bank accounts.



Posted by core jr  |  30 Oct 2013  |  Comments (0)


Our friends at the Extrapolation Factory are pleased to present their latest project, "Junk Mail Machine," which they recently developed during a week-long residency at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in Lower Manhattan. As with their previously-seen project 99¢ Futures," the participatory installation is an exercise in "imagining and visualizing diverse futures for New York City's commerce, through the eyes of individuals." Thus, the Junk Mail Machine is "an experimental futuring prototype which prompts visitors to envision new and augmented needs, as well as the businesses/services that might arise in response."

Elliott P. Montgomery and Chris Woebken share the story behind the project.

We put together the Junk Mail Machine proposal for the Storefront for Art and Architecture's residency call for their 'BEING' exhibition, and were surprised to be selected as their first residents. On Tuesday, October 15th, we squeezed our Brooklyn studio into a narrow, 60 sq. ft. corner of Storefront's energetic, open-air space. Over the course of five days in the Storefront, we developed the mechanics of the Junk Mail Machine experiment, with the pivoting walls opened to the multisensory backdrop of car horns, cigarette smoke and boisterous pedestrian conversation.




Posted by erika rae  |  30 Oct 2013  |  Comments (0)


It's hard to describe a word with more words—and generally ineffective. We've all been tongue-twisted at some point, searching for just the right word to describe something or other. Unofficial Report, a group of young designers on a mission to create a library of text imagery, has caught on to that with their "Unofficial Report" of the London Design Festival. Created by two researchers from Fabrica, the Italian communications research center, the organization is working to involve more than just the event itself in their reviews.

The group attends creative functions around the world and compiles reactions, graphics, quotes and physical things (like business cards) to create an exhibit that dives into the event and the environment around it. It's done differently for each experience. So far, they've recorded responses from London Design Festival, Art Basel and Milano Design Week.


Posted by core jr  |  28 Oct 2013  |  Comments (0)


How To (How To): The AIGA Research Project by Ziba
Part 1 · Part 2 · Part 3 · Part 4 · Part 5 · Part 6

In July, we offered three installments on how to conduct design research, using Ziba's recent work with AIGA as an example. The objective was to develop a new vision of the future for the 100-year old AIGA, a membership-based professional association for designers of all stripes. Before that was possible, a thorough survey of the organization's current state was needed. What did existing members love best, and what could they do without? What was making new members join, and what kept long-standing members coming back?

Ziba's first step was a branded, participatory informational outreach called Project Medusa, which took the form of a video-driven workshop for all AIGA members across the country. In Part 1 back in Julyl, we explained four rules anyone can use to get ready to do great design research:

- Do Your Homework; Know Your Limits
- Once You Know Your Audience, Use the Right Tools for the Job
- Take (Good) Risks
- Learn to Love the Bias: If You Can't Beat 'Em, Join 'Em

Project Medusa itself was designed, branded and delivered as a "how-to," guiding each AIGA chapter to host a home-brewed information gathering. In the second installment, Part 2, we drilled down into the details of what made Medusa tick. The rules explained there can be applied to any participatory, group-think-enabling sort of meeting:

  • Make sure everyone involved knows why they're participating. This can be handled neatly with your invitation, which also gives people time to have a bit of a think beforehand.

  • Choose the right space. Then have that environment properly set up, with everything you'll need to succeed. Paper, pens, whiteboards, markers, sure... what about music? Snacks?

  • State the rules of your engagement up front. Why can a group of strangers come together and enjoy a game of Monopoly? Because it has clear rules, parameters, and goals. Proper briefing is also essential in case everyone just accepted the invitation and didn't read it, or read it and forgot.

  • Pace your activities, and balance writing, drawing, speaking, conversation and breaks.

  • Take chances, as appropriate for your group. We've had good success with encouraging people to contribute as early as possible, as visually as possible—everyone can draw, even if it's only a stickman.

  • Don't be afraid to "waste" some time on throw-away activities or even jokes... warming your group up will have an effect on the quality of the atmosphere as well as the results.

  • Use strong reference points to help everyone get up to speed fast. (This goes back to your choice of theme.) Consider how relatable and believable each and every touchpoint along the way is.

  • Take advantage of every channel that's appropriate: movies, music, physical activities, books, or thank you cards.

  • Record everything: photos, audio, notes. Remember, there are no wrong answers, with this kind of research, so be sure to capture as much as you can.

  • Finally, keep it simple, stupid is time-honored advice for good reason. By the time you've finished preparing, things should be so clear and concise that you could sit down and write up a quick-start guide to your research project.


Posted by Mark Vanderbeeken  |  27 Sep 2013  |  Comments (1)


In order to fully exploit the design's potential to boost innovation, growth and job creation, the European Commission presented this week an action plan to promote the use of design in innovation.

Design is of particular importance to the Commission and is recognized as a key discipline and activity to bring ideas to market, transforming them into user-friendly and appealing products. Although some European countries are world leaders in design, others lack a robust design infrastructure and design capability. The action plan aims to tackle this systematic gap and to promote design driven innovation in industries and the public sector across Europe.

Posted by Ray  |  21 Aug 2013  |  Comments (0)


At various points when I was growing up, I recall teachers or other authority figures facilitating group discussions with the use of an ad hoc talking stick—a communal object that grants the bearer permission to speak. The concept itself (per the Wikipedia article linked above) originates in aboriginal culture, where it may be used democratically or as a symbol of authority, but they generally serve the purpose of designating a speaker in tribal 'council circle' settings. Thus, the concept has been adapted for a wide variety of contemporary settings, from primary school to corporate committees, making it an ideal starting point for the Smart Interaction Lab's recent prototyping session at the Barcelona Mini Maker Faire.

How can interactive objects encourage inspiration and dialog during brainstorming sessions?
Ideation sessions are part of everyday life at Smart Design, informing all the work we do. When reflecting upon these sessions, we developed the concept behind our Maker Faire project. We worked together as a team of multidisciplinary researchers and designers to explore how we can improve people's experiences of the ideation process through tangible interaction. Our solution was TOTEM—a family of three unique objects that help people get inspired and stay engaged in creative conversations and debates in order to generate new ideas. It is composed of a stack of three separate but complementary objects: Batón, Echo and Alterego.

SmartDesign-TOTEM-2.jpgEcho & Alterego

First up is Smart Design's take on the talking stick: "Batón" looks something like an hourglass-shaped bone and is designed to vibrate after a certain amount of time, indicating that the speaker's turn is up and he or she must pass it on to someone else. "This tool allows everyone present in a discussion to be heard and it forces the most dominant speakers to be more concise, but also those that may be more shy to speak up."


Posted by core jr  |  15 Jul 2013  |  Comments (0)


How To (How To): The AIGA Research Project by Ziba
Part 1 · Part 2 · Part 3 · Part 4 · Part 5 · Part 6

Welcome back, once again, to Project Medusa. This final installment in our three-part How-To series aims to illuminate the last phase of any design research project: what are you to do with all the information that result from your brilliant effort? How do you decide what's relevant, and what's not? Needless to say, it can be a bit complicated. Many of the considerations introduced earlier are also helpful at this stage: remember your goals, and understand your audience (which shifts now to whoever you're preparing the research results for.) Confused? Visit Part 1 for a more thorough introduction. If you recall Part 1 but missed Part 2, now's your chance to catch up.

While there are no right or wrong answers in design research, not all data is equal. Assuming you've carefully prioritized your goals and outreach, it's now time to prioritize results. At Ziba, we use a four-part process to synthesize the data research yields.


1. Aggregate the data.

This could mean digitizing handwritten responses, stacks of sticky notes stuck to a wall, dozens of photos printed, or whatever works for you and your material. You'll need to be able to see the data—and ideally search through it efficiently—before you can plunge ahead.

2. Sort for theme(s).

Like goes with like, and making logical groupings of related information will help you identify the trends and anomalies within your data set. Embrace the granular: this is most likely the only time you'll look at each and every survey question, listen to every minute of recorded discussion, and squint at all those doodles. Stop worrying about your goals, momentarily, and evaluate your results as honestly and objectively as possible. Everything is allowed to be interesting, at this stage. If, on the other hand, you feel overwhelmed with the amount of data you're confronted with, the sorting process will allow you to reduce complexity.

Themes emerge as you connect the strongest trends in the data to your hypothesis or hypotheses. Think of it as a naming exercise, if you're stumped: with the data sorted into buckets, each bucket needs a concise handle. There may be some hard choices—fascinating but quirky individual responses sometimes need to be cast aside if they fail to play well with other, larger groups of more typical answers. Force yourself to make decisions about what's meaningful and what can actually have an impact on the work to come.


Posted by core jr  |  19 Jun 2013  |  Comments (1)

WWU-SocialWearableHealth-COMP.jpgFrom L to R: Communication, Bonding, Air Quality

This past spring semester, Western Washington University's Industrial Design department teamed up with Anvil Studios, who were proud to sponsor a Senior I.D. studio, led by professor Dell King, focused on the intersection of health and mobile technology. We're pleased to present the results, courtesy of WWU ID and Anvil Studios.

Design Brief
Overview for Medical/Biometric Device and/or System:
Personal health monitoring and tracking with body worn sensors is becoming a big business. Several companies are addressing a variety of focused health monitoring systems from simple pedometers and calorie counters to fatigue sensors and full biometric activity tracking.

Comparative Market:
Nike fuel band, FitBit Flex Band, Adidas MiCoach, Metria, BodyBug, Basis, MioAlpha

Design Exploration Opportunities:
Wearable technology, Interface, User Experience, Docking or nesting, Modularity

WWU_DesignAudit-COMP.jpgInspiration images from the original brief



Posted by Valerie Casey  |  18 Jun 2013  |  Comments (0)


One hundred and seven degree heat. The height of the monsoon season. A country recently ruled by a brutal military dictatorship where US sanctions have just been lifted and foreigners are free to investigate and invest: time, thinking, money. What could be a better location for a design workshop?

Last week, 300 colleagues of mine—fellow members of the World Economic Forum's Young Global Leaders cohort - convened in Myanmar for our annual meeting. About 100 YGLs are selected each year from around the world for their work in the public and private sector to serve a five-year term to exchange ideas and collaborate on projects that create new value on topics such as the circular economy, gender parity, food security, human trafficking, and political reinvention. The mission is to help reinvent our global economy by advancing the concepts of dignity, equality, and fairness in innovative ways.

Before attending the WEF East Asia meeting in the new strangely sci-fi capital of Nay Pyi Taw, eight of us representing six countries went into the field to collaborate with Proximity Designs, a 10-year old social enterprise founded by Skoll Entrepreneurs Jim and Debbie Taylor. Proximity is a Myanmar organization that looks for high-impact opportunities to increase income for the 70% of the Burmese population (of 60 million) who are dependent on agriculture to survive, and they use design methodology to try to lift them out of poverty. Our goal for the daylong workshop was to brainstorm solutions for two important strategic issues with Proximity and to come up with actionable plans.


Posted by core jr  |  14 May 2013  |  Comments (1)


Imagine, if you will, a design exercise in which the primary constraint is simply to answer a brief with ideas that have never been dreamt of. The themes range from Global Warming to Time, and are selected based on passion as much as relevance and timeliness, and as such, design teams are expected to come up with ideas that meet those criteria as well.


These are the guiding principles behind IDEO's "Designs On—," an ongoing internal project that has taken off since IDEO Associate Partner and Industrial Design Director Blaise Bertrand introduced it in 2008. The global design consultancy has just launched a dedicated microsite for the fifth annual edition, which tackles the seemingly mundane (or otherwise overdone) issue of Packaging. And while the topic is ostensibly more pragmatic than past themes such as Food and Birth (as well as the two mentioned above), it's not so much a departure from the spirit of the platform as it is an affirmation of its breadth.


The idea of "Designs On—," according to Bertrand, is to "let designers pick a personal perspective" on the topic at hand. The goal is "to push the edge of a particular content area [as well as] to constantly question our assumptions about design." IDEO employees organize themselves into teams as they see fit, developing, iterating and ulimately packaging their ideas over the course of four to five months.

IDEO-DesignsOn-Packaging-1.jpg"The 'Expired' concept is one of my favorites," says Bertrand. "It feels natural—to take a simple analogy of a banana, [which has] a very powerful emotional aspect."

IDEO-DesignsOn-Packaging-Expired-2.jpgBertrand excitedly noted that "Biomimicry is a growing domain."


Posted by core jr  |  13 May 2013  |  Comments (2)


Reporting by Zach Hyman

Since I made the observation about protecting one's cards in Myanmar and China, I've noticed another example of the personalized/expensive solution versus the one-size-fits-most/affordable solution that related directly to my research on resource-constrained approaches to mobility in China. The challenge was, "How do I protect myself/my cargo from the elements while driving my three-wheeled vehicle?"


In Jiangkou, a small and remote city in Guizhou province that is accessible solely by road, a thriving workshop fabricates cargo shelters and cab covers specifically for three-wheeled vehicles. I had spent some time trying to locate this shop, as its fame for producing high-quality covers had drivers traveling from as far as the next province over to have covers made for them. Depending upon the size, a custom cover costs between 700 and 2400 kuai (US $111–$382) and requires 6–14 hours of labor. The result is a durable shelter for one's three-wheeled vehicle, with the option to add several other security and performance-enhancing innovations, such as additional in-vehicle storage, electric windshield-wipers wired directly into the vehicle's circuits, and "lock-rings," as seen in this piece for Ethnography Matters.



Meanwhile, a different solution is available for the residents of Tongren, Guizhou, a larger city and the county seat. Tongren is linked by rail and highway to other cities and provinces, and is better connected than Jiangkou to the rest of the country. However, there exists no comparable means of getting a custom-fabricated cover for one's vehicle there. The only comparable service I was able to find was a repair shop that offers to attach a front cover to one's three-wheeled vehicle, modified (usually using a combination of a saw and power drill) to fit a vehicle's particular dimensions.

ZachHyman-CardsCovers-CoverTongrenShop1.jpgThe shop in Tongren


Posted by core jr  |  13 May 2013  |  Comments (1)

WarStories.jpgBy Susan Dray

War story (n.) - A recounting of a memorable personal experience, especially one involving challenge, hardship, danger, or other interesting features.

-Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary

As field researchers, we face a dilemma. Our roles require us to interpret our findings carefully and to be perceived as competent and professional. Yet everyone who has done fieldwork for very long has been in those situations—sometimes funny, sometimes frightening, sometimes heartwarming—where things didn't go as planned and when even the best prepared of us has had to modify an approach or change a particular visit to "pull it out of the fire" from time to time. Yet it can be hard to share these experiences with our wider professional community in order both to find their meaning and to learn from them. There was never a forum for us to share our experiences and to learn from them.

Until now. A little over a year ago, esteemed colleague, friend, consultant and author Steve Portigal began an experiment. He solicited and posted "war stories" from field researchers around the world. He says that he didn't really know what would come of this, but the result has been a fascinating set of cautionary tales and hilarious, tender, interesting stories from the field told by and for an international audience of fieldwork professionals. As Steve introduced it:

We love stories, and in our work as ethnographers, we love war stories about fieldwork. These experiences—the crazy household, the dog that does his business on your shoes, the GPS failure—are inevitable and are often (at least in hindsight) hilarious. Exchanging these stories is a way of socializing our technique and creating learning opportunities for both tellers and listeners.

Based on his own experience conducting field research over the years, Steve is well aware that Murphy's Law is alive and well when researchers go into the field. Everything that can go wrong will go wrong, and even if you have brought multiple spares, extra batteries, cameras, etc., there's always something else to test your flexibility.

The themes of the 50+ stories currently available vary widely. This growing collection has great examples for those teach or who are learning how to do ethnographic research, as well as those of us who do or have done it. There are many lessons in them. Here are some of my biggest takeaways:

What really happens in the field?

Because roles in many firms are siloed, not all designers get to experience participating in a full-blown ethnographic study, up close and personal with a trained user researcher, this means that they may not see how it evolves over time. They may have a chance to do one or two visits, but that's typically not enough to get anything other than a superficial sense of the overall process, specifically the dynamic challenge of gathering all of the information a team needs. Because of this, some designers don't see the value of having a user researcher leading the effort of getting the vast amount of data that ethnographic studies inevitably generate. These war stories can give a flavor of how this happens over time and can help designers understand better what they can get from a good user researcher from time in the field.

Seemingly ubiquitous problems include but are by no means limited to: pungent pet smells, recruiting nightmares, inclement weather, and unsavory neighborhoods in which researchers find themselves, often at odd hours of the night. Many of these are hilarious. Some are poignant. All recount familiar circumstances that I suspect seasoned field researchers will recognize.


Posted by core jr  |   9 May 2013  |  Comments (2)

Text & Photos by Patty Johnson

Core 77's excellent series Apocalypse 2012: The End Starts Here saw 'mild polemics' and lively discussions used to demonstrate and suggest new roles for design at the beginning of the end of time. But what about designing in the apocalypse? Or, more accurately, in places that do not enjoy the easy availability of first world design practice.

All over the world, or rather the real futuristic world we live in where everything is indeed made by hand, artisans continue to make things that are essential to culture, history and most important livelihood. The artisan sector is the second largest employer after agriculture in the developing world. It is the only cultural industry where developing countries are the leaders in the global marketplace, with trade totalling over $23.2 billion annually.

Current design approaches and systems are, to a very great extent, dissociated or disengaged from the needs of 'people-on-the-ground' and from the capacities of local production processes. Contemporary product aesthetics that fail to capture consumers' attention are a result and reflection of this sense of detachment and ill-advised development. In order to create products that are at once sustainable, locally meaningful and globally marketable, it is imperative to begin developing, or perhaps retrieving, these integral connections.

So what about designing in Haiti? Not with the assumption that the nature of "first world" design practise and problem solving is appropriate for all situations as frequently demonstrated by the continued use of developing countries as part of a vast outsourcing system of product manufacture. Instead, what about a commercial design project in Haiti?

Haiti: media whipping boy; poster child for poverty and chaos; site for the projection of our collective fears—it has endured both metaphysical and real slings and arrows. It was the first country to take independence through rebellion—Haitians ousted Napoleon and for their efforts paid billions in reparations to compensate France for its loss of men and slaves over the next centuries. They have endured trade embargos by France and the United States. Haitian Voodoo has been pilloried and stereotyped by Hollywood. And, of course, they have recently barely survived a devastating earthquake.

And through all of this, Haitian artistic culture has continued to innovate and adapt proving a robust challenge to our common exclusion of things on the edge.


Posted by core jr  |   8 May 2013  |  Comments (0)


Reporting by Zach Hyman

Before beginning my Fulbright research in China, I had previously spent three years living and working in Yangon, Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). My time in Myanmar was formative: my firsthand observation of the extent that the country's residents relied upon tuolaji, their flexible and powerful tractor-like vehicles, to perform many tasks provided inspiration for my present research.

However, not all of the inspiration for what drives my research today came from the Myanmar's vehicles. During my time in such a resource-constrained context, I recognized the mixture of challenges and benefits that comes with relying upon many things to be handmade instead of mass-produced. While the Western world shifts toward coveting handmade objects as a sign of status and taste for craftsmanship, denizens of resource-constrained environments have no choice in the matter, and could benefit greatly from some of the very mass-produced goods that today's design-minded individuals tend to eschew. Although I knew this fact in the abstract, confronting this apparent contradiction up close made it obvious how much more costly it is to dwell in both a resource- and choice-constrained environment, where hand-crafted items are the norm rather than the exception.

Consider the things you carry with you each day. In Jan Chipchase's latest book, Hidden in Plain Sight, he identifies the most commonly carried objects around the world: keys, money and mobile phone. Besides these things, however, there is something else we always carry with us, whether consciously or unconsciously, and that is our identity. Most all of us are familiar with situations in which we must prove who we are, whether to obtain government services or benefits, gain access to a controlled area, verify identity in the case of legal sanction, and so on. While different contexts each have their own processes and differing degrees of formality for proving identity, the need remains nearly universal, and until technological solutions such as facial recognition are sufficiently widespread and accurate, identity will continue to take the form of a physical artifact—namely, a personal identification card.

The differences between identity cards—physical material, size, storage behavior, personal data, authentication mechanism, etc.—and the range of situations for which they must be shown comprises a common set of attributes to investigate across different contexts. Although an in-depth comparison of China and Myanmar's respective identity cards (and surrounding behaviors) is beyond the scope of this article, residents of both countries share the perceived need to protect their cards, whether for fear of damaging the ability to read the embedded chip in the plastic card (China), or to protect one's relatively flimsier paper identity card (Myanmar).

In Myanmar, individuals address the need of "How do I protect my important cards from being damaged?" with a custom solution. Plastic covers are individually crafted to each customer's document sizes, made directly in front of the customer by a single individual's hand, one at a time, using an elegantly simple, candle-powered tool. This solution is notable for both the amount of effort expended by the craftsman—which may seem excessive by an outsider's standards—to achieve the result of successfully protecting a single card. In 2012, this vendor was charging 100 kyat (US $0.13) to protect a single card. Technically, the craftsman need not create a bespoke, sealed cover for each document as part of his job, as there are only so many distinct sizes of identity card in the Myanmar context that require protection. However, he has no choice, given the materials that are available to him.



Posted by Steve Portigal  |   6 May 2013  |  Comments (0)


I'm pleased to share this excerpt from Chapter 2 of Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights. This part off the book sets up the overarching framework for successful interviewing: most experts have a set of best practices—tactics, really—that they follow. But what really makes them expert is that they have a set of operating principles. This ends up being more like a framework for how to be, rather than a list of what to do.

I've talked to a lot of practitioners about their own experiences in doing fieldwork and often they try to address challenges when they experience the symptoms, but that's usually not the right time. Consider this analogy: if you have insomnia, the best solutions are not those that you roll out at 3am when you can't sleep. To effectively counteract insomnia you have to make specific choices during the day, before you go to bed. Doing research with people is the same thing and ideally you approach this sort of work with a well-defined perspective that will inform all of the inevitable detailed, specific, tactical problem solving.

I think getting to this point as an interviewer (or for anything that we do at a certain level of both passion and expertise) is a journey. I'd love to hear about your journey or any other feedback or questions that you have!

* * *

When Wayne Gretzky apocryphally explained his hockey success as "I don't skate to where the puck is, I skate to where the puck is going to be," he identified a key characteristic of many experts: the underlying framework that drives everything. This platonically idealized Gretzky could have revealed any number of tactics such as his grip, or the way he shifts his weight when he skates. Keith Richards explains his guitar sound, which involves removing the 6th string, tuning to open G, and using a particular fretting pattern, as "five strings, three notes, two fingers, and one asshole." Even though Keith is explaining the tactics, he's also revealing something ineffable about where he's coming from. The higher-level operating principles that drive these experts are compelling and illustrative. Expert researchers also have their own operating principles. In this chapter, I'll outline mine, and I hope to inspire you to develop your own interviewing framework. As you develop, the process evolves from a toolkit for asking questions into a way of being, and you'll find that many of the tactical problems to solve in interviewing are simply no-brainers. As George Clinton sang, "Free your mind...and your ass will follow."

Check Your Worldview at the Door

I've been asked, "What was the most surprising thing you ever learned while doing fieldwork?" I scratch my head over that one because I don't go out into the field with a very strong point of view. Of course, I'm informed by my own experiences, my suspicions, and what my clients have told me, but I approach the interviews with a sense of what I can only call a bland curiosity.

As the researcher, it's my responsibility to find out what's going on; I'm not invested in a particular outcome. Even more (and this is where the blandness comes from), I'm not fully invested in a specific set of answers. Sure, we've got specific things we want to learn—questions we have to answer in order to fulfill our brief. But my hunger to learn from my participant is broad, not specific. I'm curious, but I don't know yet what I'm curious about. My own expectations are muted, blunted, and distributed. Although I will absolutely find the information I'm tasked with uncovering, I also bring a general curiosity.

Now, the people I work with don't have the luxury of bland curiosity. Whether they are marketers, product managers, engineers, or designers (or even other researchers), they often have their own beliefs about what is going on with people. This makes sense: if there's enough organizational momentum to convene a research project, someone has been thinking hard about the issues and the opportunities, and has come to a point of view.

StevePortigal-InterviewingUsers-Fig1.jpgFigure 1 - Capture everything that everyone thinks they know so that it's not stuck in their heads. Photo by Lena Blackstock (2012)

The Brain Dump

At the beginning of the project, convene a brain dump (see Figure 1). Get what's in everyone's heads out on the table. Whether it's real-time, face-to-face, in front of a whiteboard, or asynchronously across offices on a wiki, talk through assumptions, expectations, closely-held beliefs, perspectives, and hypotheses. Contradictions are inevitable and should even be encouraged.

The point is not establishing consensus; it's to surface what's implicit. By saying it aloud and writing it down, the issues leave the group specifically and enter an external, neutral space.

It's also not about being right or wrong; I encourage you to anonymize all the input so that people don't feel sheepish about expressing themselves. I wouldn't even go back and validate the brain dump against the resulting data. The objective is to shake up what is in your mind and free you to see new things. Think about it as a transitional ritual of unburdening, like men emptying their pockets of keys, change, and wallet as soon as they return home (Figure 2).

StevePortigal-InterviewingUsers-Fig2.jpgFigure 2 - Transitional rituals are actions we take to remind ourselves that we are shifting from one mode of being to another.


Posted by An Xiao Mina  |   2 May 2013  |  Comments (1)


Around California, I've been seeing more and more solar panels. Solar panels installed subtly on people's homes. Solar panels on wireless keyboards. Solar panels atop lights. In such a sunny state, these solar panels make perfect sense.

On my return to northern Uganda, I started looking more carefully at the different ways people use new technologies, such as mobile phones and computers. But with an emergent civic infrastructure, access to the electric grid in the region remains limited. So while I was focused on how people used technology, I had to wonder: how do they charge their devices at all?


I soon learned that enterprising citizens in rural northern Uganda often purchase solar panels. They then offer phone charging services at a range of what I observed to be around 400–500 shillings per charge. That's about 20 US cents. The panels themselves, often coming from India and China, can cost as much as 200 US dollars, so it obviously takes a while to pay back that investment. But as one person told me, there is always someone who needs to charge his or her phone. Any freelancer can appreciate the value of a steady gig.

What seemed new to me was a practice already many years old. As I poked around the web to understand the mechanics of solar panels, I came across a 2010 New York Times article talks about solar panels in Kenya:

As small-scale renewable energy becomes cheaper, more reliable and more efficient, it is providing the first drops of modern power to people who live far from slow-growing electricity grids and fuel pipelines in developing countries. Although dwarfed by the big renewable energy projects that many industrialized countries are embracing to rein in greenhouse gas emissions, these tiny systems are playing an epic, transformative role.