November 15, 2011
How do we design in different cultures? How do we ask and answer questions about our craft across languages? We traveled to Hong Kong to share Project: Interaction and discovered conversations beyond our expectations.
Last week, Carmen and I traveled to Hong Kong to present a talk at the International Conference on Interaction Design. We co-authored a paper titled, New Methods: Framing an Interaction Design Class to Complement Core Curriculum discussing our Project: Interaction experiences as they relate to students’ development in core classes.
Even though the trip was a significant investment in time (and money!) we were excited to present our work with Project: Interaction to an international audience. We met a lot of terrific designers working and teaching in Hong Kong and mainland China and saw a lot of great sessions from keynote speakers.
The conference theme was “Delight & Responsibility,” an appropriate concept during this moment in design. Many of the conversations and presentations were less about technology and more about the human experience that we design.
A few sessions that stood out:
One of the best paper presentations I saw was from Tequila Chan of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Tequila’s background is in design. In fact, he’s never taken a coding class in his life, and yet he’s teaching advanced concepts in programming to college students. He articulated his framework for learning adapted from the 4MAT system introduced by Kolb and later refined by McCarthy. (An overview of the concepts here.)
In his talk, Tequila shared his belief that creatives have a unique understanding of the world and therefore cannot learn programming concepts in the same way a developer might learn them. He has tailored his PolyU class around a series of small learning cycles that address a range of thinking styles for those who naturally ask “Why?”, “What?”, “How?”, or “What if?” Each project gives students a chance to explore the material in each of these four methods. I can’t wait to get a hold of his presentation to adapt this thinking to my own class!
I attended a workshop session focusing on curriculum design. I’m really interested in pedagogical methods for introducing interaction design at any level, and I found a healthy and spirited discussion in this seminar. I ended up sitting next to Dick Buchanan, who kept asking, “Should we even teach interaction design at an undergraduate level?!” In my tiny amount of experience teaching these concepts to undergrads, I’m inclined to agree with his line of questioning. I see my students taking away some of the larger concepts of interaction design, but one class inside a larger curriculum is nowhere near enough exposure to prepare them for any sort of interaction design position in the real world.
The debate included a series of great questions: How mature does a student need to be to understand systems design and business goals? How much can we expect busy college students to understand outside the world of college?
In the end, the discussion veered away from the design of curriculum in attempt to answer that fundamental question: Should we even be teaching this in the first place?
When I compare my high school students to my college students I see great differences in their willingness and ability to understand some of this material. What I find most interesting about the high school students is that we as teachers tend to translate the content differently. For example, right now we’re brainstorming ways to teach about site maps without making our students sit down at a computer to draw in Omnigraffle. Can we make the site physical in some way that represents the depth and relationships between content?
Maybe what we need at the college level is more hands-on instruction to communicate the web (and systems) in a tangible way that enables students to make the connection between content, structure and user experiences.
What does it mean to be an interaction designer in China?
One of the most interesting sessions was unfortunately conducted only in Mandarin. A friend sat in on the discussion and translated a bit of it back to us. She found it interesting that the Mandarin description of interaction design was quite different from how we describe our craft in English. Not only are the translated words different, but the concepts inherent in our work are different, too. We’re all here at a conference on interaction design – conducted in English – and it turns out we’re not even talking about the same thing. What I wouldn’t give to speak a tiny bit of Mandarin to be able to understand this cultural gap!
November 7, 2011
I spent the 15 hour flight from NYC to Hong Kong sitting next to an Italian and Thai couple with the most beautiful baby I’ve ever seen. (Remembering a friend’s recent horror story spending a 5 hour flight next to a very ill baby, my own flight was a dream in comparison.)
The child slept the entire time and only fussed a few times during take off. The real excitement came at the end of the flight, when the mother became violently ill. I awoke from the end of my last nap to the smell of partially metabolized strawberry yogurt. She looked at me desperately, asking if I had a plastic bag, and proceeded to lose all of her cookies – and yogurt, and dinner – into the bag. She was not the one I expected to see spitting up at the end of that ride.
I got off the plane at 6AM and knew exactly where I was going. I was only in Hong Kong six months ago, and I was amazed to find my visual memory of place and process was accurate. I went through immigration, grabbed some cash from the ATM, and boarded the Airport Express into Central. I remembered my confusion and wonder from the last time I was here, thinking about it as a distant memory from another time or place.
I found my way through the maze of escalators and mall promenades at the IFC Center, hopped on the elevated walkway and dragged my luggage up stairs to my friends’ apartment. I knew exactly where to go and what to do, despite my lack of sleep and barely understanding what time or day it was. It was like reflex, the route was so ingrained in my memory. It felt like coming home.
The westernized bits of culture here always make me laugh. Last night we went to a lovely restaurant called California Vintage Wine Bar. It was a great little place with all the right details – great wine, garlic fries and sliders. I traveled halfway around the world to find a replica of my neighborhood wine bar. So strange and also comforting at the same time.
The night ended with an hour-long shoulder massage. It’s so intriguing to me that even at 11PM on a Sunday night all the massage parlors nearby were booked. Hong Kong is a strange place indeed.
October 25, 2011
We’re taking Project: Interaction worldwide this fall and winter, heading to Hong Kong for the International Conference on Interaction Design in November and to Dublin in February for Interaction12.
Carmen and I are both excited to speaking on the topic of design education in schools.
In Hong Kong we’ll be presenting our paper called New Methods: Framing an Interaction Design Class to Play a Complementary Role in Core Curriculum, where we’ll discuss the importance of interaction design as a complement to STEM initiatives. We believe that with a rounded education, students will become more effective thinkers and innovators.
In Dublin we’ll be giving a 45-minute talk called People ARE Software: The Story of Project: Interaction. We’ll be speaking about the patterns we observe in how students learn to design, and how that learning cycle compares to the learning patterns we expect of our users.
I can’t wait to share more details as we get them!
September 28, 2011
In the five short weeks I’ve been teaching my class at Parsons I’ve already identified the different types of learners in my class.
From my perspective in the front of the room it’s endlessly fascinating to watch each student react to the material I present. Some students quickly grasp abstract concepts while others are delighted by the challenge of thinking and making tangible, concrete artifacts.
Now that we’ve had a few small critiques those differences have become even clearer. This morning I came across a psychology article titled “Classroom Styles” that presents a relevant framework for thinking about students’ abilities.
My own thinking about styles of learning and thinking has been driven by my “theory of mental self-government,” which I first presented in book format in a volume entitled Thinking Styles. According to this theory, the ways of governments in the world are external reflections of what goes on in people’s minds. There are 13 different styles in the theory, but consider now just three of them. People with a legislative style like to come up with their own ideas and to do things in their own way; people with an executive style prefer to be given more structure and guidance or even told what to do; people with a judicial style like to evaluate and judge things and especially the work of others.
I assigned a group project for the first milestone in my class. I decided to curate each group myself instead of selecting students at random. (A few grad school projects gone awry have taught me the dangers of haphazard pairings!) I categorized each person in my class into one strength: Leader, Doer, or Organizer. After each student was categorized I used my knowledge of their personalities to match the right Leaders, Doers and Organizers with each other.
At the end of the three week project it was clear that the roles I had laid out in my own spreadsheet were reflected in the work that was done. I was delighted to find Sternberg’s approach to be analogous to my own: Leader = Judicial, Doer = Legislative, and Organizer = Executive. I would love to read the rest of his book, Thinking Styles.
There are a lot of other great insights in his article, including a set of problems and methodologies for addressing a variety of classroom learners.
Check it out: Classroom Styles, by Robert J. Sternberg.
August 23, 2011
There’s so much excitement brewing for fall!
Next week I’ll begin teaching in the Design and Technology department at Parsons. I’ll be teaching a Core Interaction studio section to sophomores in the program. In addition to my studio, they’ll be taking a lab class with Patrick O’Neill, who’ll be showing them the ropes with code and technical goodies.
I’ve set up a mini-site for the class at http://pixelkated.com/core-interaction-1/
I’m working on a couple other projects that will be surfacing soon. I can’t wait to share them!
July 5, 2011
In June I joined Public Workshop and the Chicago Architecture Foundation as a Teaching Fellow for their annual collaboration at Taliesin.
For the past ten years the CAF has worked to bring six stellar Chicago Public School students to Taliesin for a week of immersive exploration and learning, with the goal of generating new ideas in the field of architecture. The Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture at Taliesin is a key partner for the experience, providing space, amenities and feedback for the students and staff during their stay.
The folks at Taliesin gave us a big challenge this year: build an outdoor structure where students and faculty can make phone calls and have private conversations. The constraint? It must be mosquito-proof and located in a pocket of the rural woods where cell phones can get reception, and it must be mobile enough to accommodate the school’s transition away from Wisconsin in winter.
In Chicago I met Mike, the CAF program director, and Alex Gilliam of Public Workshop. Soon after I met our six students: Jeisson, Audrey, Joseph, Edwin, Diana and Jovana. We picked up our second teaching fellow, Daniel Splaingard, in Madison and traveled together in a packed van for the rest of the trip to Spring Green, WI.
We began our week-long class with a broad exploration of architecture and the importance of place. The minute we got on the road in our ten-passenger van Alex handed out whiteboard markers. “What should we call this thing? Write down everything you can think of!” For five intense minutes we all sketched our ideas on the windows of the rented van. The themes of “learn by doing” and “failing fast” came up a lot, as well as the notion of translating pencil sketches to hands-on sketching with a hammer. After sharing, cross-pollinating, and more brainstorming the name that stuck was “Be a Teen Design Hero!” Hero was the perfect word to describe the six teenagers we spent the week with. In their young maturity they certainly should be something of a role model to other aspiring young designers.
Our exploration continued on-site at Taliesin. During one of our first mornings on campus we spent a couple hours competing in teams on a scavenger hunt. Each team was given a list of places and things to find: the buggiest location, the highest point, the scariest place. The hunt forced us to bond in our respective teams and the competition made us devoted to searching the entire place for the best representative in each category.
That healthy competition became more intense during our game of Capture the Flag on the third day. For nearly three hours we operated in a focused strategic mode, claiming stakes in various parts of the school’s land, and discovering the optimal location for hiding a flag and for running around unseen by the other team.
Joseph’s words sum it up best: “After running up that giant hill to get the flag it made me realize that no one would want to run all the way up there to make a phone call. The hill would naturally make it a bad place to put our phone booth.”
The game was the perfect way for our teens to discover the concepts of low and high barriers to entry and affordances.
After our adventures running around Taliesin and discovering all of the hidden nuances of the topography we were tasked with creating maps to tell the story of the space.
As we started sketching out our findings, overlaying the personality of the land with its geographic reality, all of the students realized a very important lesson. Our experience of the land is completely different from how it is represented on a map. Google maps doesn’t tell you about fields where the bugs are especially rampant, or the fact that the rocks are slippery near the river.
Having just experienced all of these nuances, we included all of the important knowledge we had gained about the place itself. In the end, we created a unique description of Taliesin, and in the process had identified the constraints for where our phone booth should be located.
The school at Taliesin is a unique experience for all the students who attend. They spend six months of the year in Wisconsin, and the remainder of their time at Taliesin West in Arizona. All the students live on campus and participate in cooking and cleaning. I was stunned the first day we were there when all of the students left their desks promptly at 6:30pm to head down to a communal dining hall. The whole community comes together for lunch and dinner each day, and they work together outside of class, maintaining the garden or singing in the chorus.
As an outsider I was delighted to be invited into their community for the week we were there. It was a privilege to share their unique way of life and learning, and our students understood the specialness of it, too. The teens jumped right in when asked to help with cooking and cleaning. They really enjoyed being part of the whole experience.
Our students bonded with one another instantly from the very beginning of the trip. Their relationships remained strong during the entire project and proved very useful when it came time to start building prototypes for our phone booth. The entire design process went fairly smoothly as a result of our students’ maturity and devotion to the project.
Jeisson captured his thoughts in his blog post:
“…this team means something to us and it empowers us to know that we will make something that we will all love, so we all support each other in our journey, even through small details like a minute bend in a singular plank.”
Our first collaborative effort was sketch-building. Alex dumped out a pile of skinny sticks on to the grass and asked each team of three to sketch a layout for our phone booth in a proposed location. Each team dispersed and selected a different location to construct a life-size sketch of our ideas.
After the first drawing Alex told us to rip it apart and re-sketch in a new location. My team chose a spot in the brow of the hill and built a pseudo-3D sketch showing how a structure could jut out of the hillside and make use of the uneven terrain.
Our third attempt was a real 3D built sketch using found materials and the skinny sticks. We quickly learned how strongly a pre-fabricated found element can impact the design process as our team struggled to manipulate our ideas around the angled 2x4s we had been so excited to discover in a discarded wood pile.
Fifteen minutes and about a hundred zip ties later we had a built structure with a faux roof!
During our critique we saw that each group had built a completely different type of structure, even though we were all working from the same constraints. When assembled together our explorations of space and structure turned into a comprehensive representation of variety and possibility for our phone booth.
Once we had discovered the best location for our phone booth we began exploring the structure itself. We did some sketch-building in our desired location to discover how a structure would exist in the space. We even brought in some Taliesin community members to test out our structure, asking them how it felt to approach and sit in the space we had designed.
Once we had a good idea of the structure’s footprint we measured and cut 2x6s for the frame of the deck. After building out the frame the team worked together to drill and screw down reclaimed decking to the top. It was a long process, and the team was so devoted to the project that they gladly worked into the night hours to finish as much as possible. It was a beautiful moment of coordinated building as each teen worked a different leg of the assembly line, each person moving in coordination with the other.
After the deck was finished we continued building walls and a roof above it. All our construction methods were fast, using 1x2s, screws and zip ties to quickly fasten walls together. If we weren’t satisfied with a decision it took minimal effort to undo it and try something new. We built our first prototype in only 45 minutes using these methods.
When we returned to it after lunch we had a quick group critique. One of our students spoke up: she didn’t like the structure. In her eyes it was full of chaos, lacking any sensical order that would make it a comfortable and relaxing space for a conversation. She quickly discovered she was the lone voice of dissent. Everyone was silent. It was the first time anyone in the group had disagreed! No one knew exactly how to work around conflict.
Moving forward, we deconstructed our first prototype and laid out the 1x2s to start sketch-building once more in an effort to design a new structure with more order. This time the students took over the plans for the building. After our first critique Alex and I could see that the students would need to take a new level of ownership for the project. To get them to a favorable solution faster, we let them conduct the designing, sketching and building on their own without any of our help.
I was nervous as we walked away. We were on a very strict time table for the remainder of the project, and as the sun was beginning to set I knew we couldn’t afford to waste any time arguing over a design. It was difficult to leave knowing that they might not arrive at a solution without us. Still, it was better for us to let them try (and potentially fail) on their own. At least they would own the failure, and have a greater understanding of the design process.
After 45 minutes we came back to find a purely symmetrical structure that lacked any of the visual interest of the first iteration. We gave a few inspirational words of critique and walked away once again.
After another hour the student-led team had created the foundation for a viable solution that included order as well as neatly defined chaos.
After the foundation for the design was built, Alex and the team worked together to build a roof for the structure. In the end, it was the students’ desire to balance order with chaos that led to an innovative roof design that reflected the slope of the land and fulfilled the functional need to wash off rain during storms.
At the end of our week together the students had an incredible opportunity to present their work to the Taliesin community. The night before the presentation I sat down with each student to talk through their experiences with them. I interviewed each student and helped them identify a story they could tell that would describe their personal experience in context of the project.
The day of the presentation the students each wrote a blog post with their stories and final reflections and worked with me to create slides for the Keynote. Somehow everything magically came together in the end. The students were heartfelt and genuine in their description of the week, and their personal stories proved compelling to the entire Taliesin audience.
I was so proud of each of them for pulling together an outstanding, articulate presentation in less than a day. Most adults I know can’t do that.
After the formal presentation, Edwin led a tour of the space where our structure lives. He did a fantastic job describing the team’s process of discovery and exploration and told about our methodology for designing and building the structure.
By the end of the show all our students were glowing with pride at what they had accomplished in only a week. For many of them this was the most significant thing they’ve done so far in their lives.
I’ve been able to reflect after a few days away from the project. While I was immersed at Taliesin it was clear that this is a truly special project. The students were amazing, and the experience of co-teaching with Alex was a new and welcome experience. He works very differently than I do, and having my own limits tested all week helped me grow as a teacher.
I’m still amazed at how close our team became in only a short period of time. My first instinct was to believe this relationship grew out of the fact that we were all secluded in a rural community together; we have no choice but to get along. Our student Jeisson’s first suggested that we got along because of our common interests in architecture. But there was something deeper; each student there worked hard for months to earn a spot on the trip, and as a result every single person was wholly motivated to make the project a success.
As a designer it was a fun experience for me to visit Taliesin and spend a week with architects. I was a little bit of an outsider, and at times I could feel myself being a disruption. Whether it was through pushing back at Alex, or pushing the kids to think in a different way, I clearly saw the value of having an outsider’s perspective and of not being afraid to be the lone voice outstanding.
In part questioning my own high expectations for the kids, I wonder “Where is the line between ‘good enough’ and ‘great’ for a high school student? When is ‘good enough’ acceptable?”
Finally, the real joy for me was in developing relationships with a new group of friends. Over the course of the week each of our six students emerged as a unique person. I was delighted each day to learn a little more about them, getting to understand their depths as young adults in the world and discovering as much about them as they were learning about themselves.
I am so happy to have had this opportunity and look forward to even more reflection and finding relevance in my future work.
June 28, 2011
Today was our hardest day by far. It was difficult for the students, who are tired and frustrated with some painstaking bumps in the design process. It was just as hard for us as teachers to watch the students struggle with ambiguity, decision making and conflict.
Morale is low. After five long days running around, playing outdoors, battling mosquitos and (literally) burning out in the sunshine, our group of six teens are exhausted. The same can be said for the adults who have been working even longer days.
All of the fun and games from the past week are a distant memory. We are focused on a single goal; all of our energy is poured into making the construction of our structure a reality. We’re working against our constraints of nature and time, and are struggling to come to consensus about important decisions for the project.
Our conversation and construction was derailed today when we decided to bring in a couple of user test subjects midday to validate the decisions we made. While it can be very useful to bring in test subjects at key points in the process, we brought ours in too late for us to make big changes, and too early for them to suggest little changes. Our test subjects launched a new dialogue that set our students’ minds in another direction from where we had been. On top of that, some of the students who had been left out of the key decision making processes were unhappy with the results and didn’t hold back their opinions (a true testament to the value of co-creation exercises with clients!).
After our rocky discussion Alex and I made the difficult decision to walk away from the problem. We sent the kids off for an ice cream break and then left them to work on a new prototype without our guidance. After thirty minutes the students came up with a new idea and built a mockup. After a brief check-in and another twenty minutes they pushed their design a little farther. The previously divergent group had come to a new decision together, one that everyone was excited about.
When we rejoined them, the attitude of the group was completely turned around. The students had reclaimed ownership of the prototype construction and were able to find enthusiasm and new energy for the work. Frowns of disappointment and frustration turned into excited smiles, eagerly anticipating the next step in the building process.
It was a difficult experience as a teacher to lead these students through this trying experience. I’m very glad to have Alex here to guide our teaching efforts and the learning experience for the students. He showed great calm under pressure and was willing to go into the problem a little deeper, trusting that there would be something great on the other end of the tunnel.
June 27, 2011
We had a beautiful moment in our project today. After a few days of guided exploring and 3D sketch-building the students finally started to create real prototypes for the structure they’ve come here to create.
We learned a few key things about the constraints for our design from our research and requirements gathering:
It must be in an area with cell phone reception
It must keep out the bugs (mosquitos!), rain and sun, and withstand high winds
It should be private enough for a phone conversation and public enough to hold a small group of 2-3 people
It must be portable or easily broken down
We started by laying out plans for the structure on our newly established site. Everyone was hesitant to make decisions and get into the activity at first. Finally someone picked up a 1×2 and started zip tying it to another piece of lumber. The whole team fell into place. We all followed each others’ moves, quickly working together to build a sketch of the still-to-come concept.
We worked the rest of the day to turn our 3D sketched plans into reality. We measured and laid the framework for the decking and worked past sunset into the darkness of the night to lay the tongue and groove flooring on top of our frame. The whole team moved in a single direction with each of our six students performing a micro-task that fed into the whole. A rhythm developed out of their work: lay down a plank, mallet it into place, drill the holes, screw it in, next! Observing the whole scene was like watching an orchestra of design- and power tool-driven passion.
We’ve been so lucky with this phenomenal group of students. They instantly clicked with each other on our very first day driving to Taliesin, and that bond translates to all the work we’ve done in the field these past few days.
If we had been inside a classroom it would have taken weeks for Alex and I to teach our students to understand the rhythm and cadence of a project. It’s not a cut and dry lesson — they have to experience it completely see the value. Being here in the woods in a fast-paced, hands-on learning environment has forced them to learn about the nuances of teamwork quickly. I’m glad they discovered it and made it work so well.