Archive for the ‘ Design Ecology ’ Category

Bruce Mau on Ecological Change

Most actions are decided at the base of the brain. People act on norms. It took 20 years for the drunk driving campaigns to have an effect on government and on society. If it’s normal to drink and drive, they will drink and drive. Make it not normal, and they will stop. So if it’s normal to think about ecology, people will do that.

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Inaugural UX|XU Experience Recap (Global Lives Project)

UX for Good is the brainchild of Jeff Leitner and Jason Ulaszek of Manifest Digital. It is a conference that brings interaction and visual designers from all over the country to solve social problems for the non-profit sector from Friday afternoon to Saturday afternoon. I was privileged with the opportunity to be the volunteer team coordinator for the Global Lives challenge.

Our team consisted of 8 interaction designers and 1 visual designer. In addition, experts came in and out of our room to listen and offer their perspective throughout the session. These included a poet, journalist, designer, defense contractor, the client, and others. We were joined by various media representatives that photographed and filmed our process. A live blogger stayed with us for most of day and tweeted some of the more memorable quotes that came out of our discussion.

Jeff and Jason led the kickoff. UX designers are uniquely qualified to solve social problems because they have one eye on technology and one eye on user needs. That empathy for the client and end user is portable. “I’m tired of optimizing a shopping cart. Maybe there’s a bigger picture. And I want to give back, right?”

Our Process

After a round of introductions, the team dove into the case: Help Global Lives create empathy in a shrinking world. The Global Lives web site says that their mission is “to collaboratively build a video library of human life experience that reshapes how we as both producers and viewers conceive of cultures, nations and people outside of our own communities.” We watched some of the raw video footage and project founder David Evan Harris’ Ted Talk.

The discussion that ensued created more questions than answers. How do you define empathy? What are the access points to empathy? Who has the patience to watch 24 hours of footage? Is this an art project that seeks empathy as a byproduct or an objective that uses film as a tool? Who is the target audience?

At the end of Friday, our key insights were: 1. The empathy that a producer might develop by following a day in the life of another isn’t transmitted to the audience in the current format. 2. The process of making is more likely to create empathy than the process of watching. 3. There are too many messages, objectives and stakeholders in the case and on the website. 4. Those that are already empathetic are the most likely to consume this type of media; the current format probably isn’t reaching the audience that needs it the most.

Saturday morning, we made a schedule and to-do list. Our client, David, arrived early and after introductions, we took him to another room so that two could interview him while the rest of us took notes on the skype feed. We put up post-its of what we learned from the interview, grouped these by category, then created insight post-its that summarized what we heard.

Exhibitions are the organization’s core competency. They reach few and at a high cost but David feels it is the most effective use of the media. A documentary film is in the works that would have broader reach if shown on PBS. Global Lives has secured a small amount of funding to develop their web presence which could have broad reach but potentially limited impact. While some school teachers use Global Lives media, there hasn’t been a significant push in that direction. Constituents have different views of how to extend project reach.

We tried to define a problem statement and got close, but needed to move on. We tried to think of frameworks to define a strategy. Several ideas were on the table, but none were fully thought out. Time was quickly running out and we needed to go into production mode. We divided up deck pages and fed content to our visual designer for compilation. With five minutes to spare, our presentation introduced the challenge, walked through our insights, and made suggestions in the areas of improving digital presence, increasing interaction, broadening the audience, and forming corporate partnerships.

Personal Reflection

I enjoyed working with this group of talented designers. It took a lot longer to understand the scope of the problem than I expected. I wanted to keep the team on track without imposing too much structure on creativity, a strategy which resulted in a last minute scramble and an unfair burden on our visual designer.

I felt that quite often, 7 or 8 of the 9 agreed on a direction and wanted to move on, but that we were held back by one or two holdouts. To get the best ideas out, there must be room for dissent. To work against a deadline, sometimes, we have to move on. How do we move in the direction of the majority without making anyone feel alienated? I tried to summarize what seemed to be group consensus items and asked for collective confirmation. As time dwindled, consensus became easier to achieve.

In such a large group of talented people, pockets of deep expertise can limit individual perspectives. Framing the problem took longer than making actionable suggestions because of the diversity of perspectives. On the other hand, we could not have comprehensively understood the real problem without that diversity. Harnessing and directing talent is difficult but rewarding.

Is user-centered design unsustainable?

In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Roberto Verganti argues that user-centered design is not sustainable because sustainability is not embedded in our existing culture. A deep understanding of current needs would likely reveal concerns over budgets, health, safety, well-being, and emotional fulfillment instead of the more amorphous desire for a cleaner environment.

Take the well-known example of the Toyota Prius. This hybrid car was not the result of user-centered innovation. Toyota started to design the Prius in 1994, when user-centered analysis and market data were pulling auto manufacturers in a different direction: toward heavy, gas-guzzling SUVs. The Prius was a proposal — a vision that came from a better understanding of the future evolution of the socio-cultural and economic scenario. Now, more than a decade after it was first launched, people like it, even if they did not ask for it when it was conceived. And thanks to its early start, Toyota is well ahead of its competitors.

Verganti proposes that we use vision-centered design to introduce sustainability into the economic picture. By envisioning future scenarios, rather than relying on current user needs, companies can stay ahead of the development curve. For example, Ezio Manzini searches for local fringe communities that have already found sustainable solutions for everyday living. He then engineers these solutions and proposes them at a larger scale.

In order to be profitable, Verganti’s vision relies on the assumption that companies can predict when resource prices will be driven up by the market forces of supply and demand, prompting the search for lower-cost alternatives. How long will companies need to incubate energy efficient technologies before they become cost-effective? In the case of the Prius, it was about a decade. What about companies that invested in the early days of solar research? When will they see a positive return on investment?

While Verganti’s goals are admirable, they are not always practical. User-centered design can be sustainable. Well-designed products often last longer because users want to keep them around. The choice of materials, manufacturing processes and life-cycle planning all play a role in the sustainability of a product. Business models that consider recycling as part of component sourcing improve profit margins without significantly changing consumer behavior.

Companies should consider future scenarios but cannot ignore how user needs will evolve in those future scenarios. In the case of the Prius, Toyota had to believe that there was a point at which gas prices would rise sufficiently to make its technology relevant. So too must other sustainability initiatives be rooted in economics and prevailing consumer behavior to succeed. It is one thing to have a vision of sustainable consumption and quite another to make the vision itself sustainable.

I love this statement applied to timeless design.

Cradle to Cradle Silliness

Not to denigrate the cradle to cradle movement which touts the end of one life as the beginning of another life cycle, but this fish tank is hilarious. The Japanese have invented a deep fryer where hot oil floats above a tank of water. Inside the water are fish that eat the Panko breadcrumbs settling from the fryer. In turn, when the fish die and float to the surface, they get fried and fed to the cat.

The Cradle to Cradle Challenge

The industrial revolution changed the way people interacted with the earth because people wanted to subscribe to that change. The industrial revolution brought about mass produced conveniences that people wanted. Some would argue that this caused irreparable damage to the environment. If we are to argue that a new design revolution is taking root, this so-called “cradle to cradle movement,” what makes it so compelling that people will want to subscribe?

In “Upsizing,” Gunter Pauli tries to establish Generative Science as that solution. The author introduces this topic in the context of Darwin and Entropy. He argues that Darwin viewed evolution too narrowly by studying individual species in isolation when survival in nature depends on species integration within the broader ecological system. When we view nature as a system, we realize that there is more cooperation across species than competition. The death of one becomes the food for another. Entropy views life as a linear path towards chaos. It is a predominately Western mindset that encourages people to consume as much as they can during their lifetime. It is narrow in its view. From the standpoint of one person, things move from order to disorder as the body ages. But this does not have to hold true for the broader system of humanity. Generative Science embraces an Eastern mindset that considers the entire life cycle. By engineering the “waste” of one product to become the food for another process in a constructive manner, the cradle to cradle method encourages a healthier form of sustainable design than conservation techniques that only mitigate ecological damage.

McDonough and Braungart elaborate on Generative Science in “The Extravagant Gesture: Nature, Design, and the Transformation of Human Industry” by presenting the case for how cradle to cradle design needs to be celebratory of its local environment. They identify two forms of “nutrients” in cradle to cradle design: biological, which come from directly natural processes, and technical, which come from closed loops of reuse for materials that nature cannot absorb. Reclaiming and upcycling materials to create improved products occurs in the textiles industry. BASF uses a transformative process to rematerialize (rather than dematerialize as in the case of paper recycling) nylon 6 to make it an improved fiber.

Products need to adapt to the local environment. For example, the chemicals needed in soap depend on the hardness of water and the use of that soap. The environment’s needs from the runoff of soap water differ by region. National soap manufacturers do not take these considerations into account and simply add more chemicals to override local conditions. Locally produced detergents would be better suited for the community and promote local employment. Yet these extravagant gestures do not typify America because of the overarching economics. Cradle to cradle is touted as better, but only in isolated cases does it seem economically feasible.

This is the challenge we must face. How can we find solutions that incorporate the constraints of a broader ecological system into our design? What kinds of materials become suitable biological and technical waste for the environments of our target audience? Moreover, how do we make our solutions sufficiently compelling that consumers will want to buy into a cradle to cradle lifestyle? If we can’t compete on price, we must compete on feature set. This begs the question, “What aspects of the local environment can we leverage in biology or technology to lower the production cost or enrich the meaning of our products?”