IxDA Design Jam 2016 - A Critical Review by Peter Last

Last week, I and two other committee members of the Toronto branch of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA) launched into 2016 with our first-ever full-day “Design Jam”, focused on designing for the needs of immigrants and refugees. By the numbers, this was one of the largest events IxDA Toronto has ever run, bringing together over 40 designers with 10 mentors and subject-matter experts to design 8 concepts in response to 3 major problem areas affecting immigrants and refugees. As this event represented the culmination of several months of planning, and sets the tone for an event-filled 2016, I wanted to take some time to reflect on the goals we went into the event with, and what we’re taking forward as learnings for future events.

Planning Tools & Techniques

When we started planning this event, we didn’t know quite how large it would get, or how it would come together. In many ways, this meant that the framework we were using to develop the event kept changing over time. On some occasions, this led to miscommunication, and on others, it meant that work had to be redone. Purely from an operational perspective, this event raised the bar on the level of organization we as a committee needed to be prepared to support. Coming out of this event, we now have a more formalized system to manage points of contact within organizations, more detailed records about volunteers and partner organizations, and better file management for IxDA materials. All of these improved systems and processes will make it easier to run better, more professional and polished events in less time.

Design Jam Goals - Successes & Failures

We understood that events like this – and the concepts that come out of them – typically do not have direct, lasting impacts, but we had several goals we wanted to achieve in this event. First and foremost, we wanted to use this design jam as an opportunity to provoke designers to think about more socially-impactful problems that design can play a role in resolving. Secondly, we wanted to connect designers to organizations where they could volunteer their skills. Finally, we wanted to make IxDA events a little less insular, and push designers to collaborate directly with those outside the design realm – to design with, rather than for. Reflecting on the event, I feel that we had mixed success in meeting these goals.

A More Socially-Conscious IxDA

On the first, I think the event was a huge success; our chosen topic clearly resonated with the design community, and covered problem areas not typically considered by designers. On a personal note, I believe that organizations like IxDA have a role to play in developing designers' understanding of their social and ethical responsibilities, and this event did a good job of highlighting that. Looking forward over the next year or so, this type of focus (on pressing social, political, or cultural problems) is something I am personally interested in emphasizing further.

Expanded Organizational Partnerships

On the second, I think we made a good start by partnering with a wide variety of other organizations in the community, which helped expose designers to other groups they may not have thought of working with before. With future events, however, I feel better advance preparation and communication between our partner organizations and our membership could help lay better groundwork for more lasting engagement. I would be extremely interested in broadening the range and increasing the depths of partnerships over the next year or so, to bring designers into close proximity with more new and varied perspectives.

Still Too Insular - More Work To Go

It was the last goal, however, in which I feel we really failed to hit the mark, and it came through in feedback we received about the event. We didn’t do a good job of promoting the event beyond IxDA’s network, and so we failed to draw in participants from outside the design community. Especially for design jam events, not having representation from the full spectrum of stakeholders (including end users and their communities) is a monumental failure. For future events where we are hoping to encourage collaboration between designers and people with other skills and experiences, we will need to more conscientiously promote the event to those outside the design “bubble”. 

Overall, I feel that this was a great way to start off 2016, and an ambitious standard to set for future design jam events. We didn't meet all our goals, but we made good progress towards them, and we know where we still need to improve. On behalf of the entire IxDA committee, I’d like to thank all our partners, sponsors, subject matter experts, volunteers, and participants for making this event what it was, and I look forward to many more opportunities to bring designers together with the broader community throughout the year!

Quick Thoughts on Hackathought by Peter Last

Over the past weekend, I participated in a hackathon put on by the Centre of Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). It was a fun weekend, and a great opportunity to do some work in an area that is effectively disregarded in the private sector. It also, however, highlighted several major problems with the hackathon model more generally. I had my suspicions about these problems earlier, but I really felt them as a participant. Looking back over the weekend, three major concerns stand out for me: the lack of focus in the problem definition, the limits on time and emphasis placed on research or insight-gathering, and the lack of opportunity to test ideas with end users.

To kick off the hackathon, we were treated to a panel discussion covering some of the issues around mental health and wellness facing post-secondary students. Much of the discussion focused on the need for dialogue about mental health and wellness issues, and little time was spent exploring or characterizing the needs of students either on a day-to-day basis, or in times of crisis. Moreover, the emphasis of the hackathon itself was placed on creating a mobile app that used the ThoughtSpot data. This made it difficult to more clearly define a problem faced by post-secondary students to target, as there was both little discussion about those problems and a lot of emphasis on a particular implementation (a mapping application).

While I felt it was reasonable and worthwhile to set a constraint on needing to rely on the ThoughtSpot data, I think greater emphasis on problems faced by post-secondary students around mental health issues followed by ideation around how the available data could be used to solve those problems would have resulted in more creative solutions, and less emphasis in the end on mobile map viewers.

The tight timeframe also prohibited opportunities to do deeper research within the ad hoc teams at the hackathon. This meant that most of the ideation was driven from personal experience. While personal experience can be an effective source of inspiration, it is also harder (in many ways) to evaluate one's own experience retrospectively, and self-rationalization of behaviours can lead to radically different outcomes from researching the experiences of others.

This also makes the lack of opportunity for testing even more concerning, because it means that there is no opportunity to have someone else's reality steamroll your preconceptions and throw into sharp relief the inconsistencies in your own narrative of events, personas, or user goals.

While hackathons and design slams can be a great way to challenge yourself to get creative and to produce something meaningful in a very short timeframe, I sincerely hope that any organization using them as a tool to crowdsource product ideas subjects any they choose to rigorous evaluation to make sure they are actually meeting needs in their context of use.

Design for whose social good? by Peter Last

His social and moral judgement must be brought into play long before he begins to design, since he has to make a judgement, an a priori judgement at that, as to whether the products he is asked to design or redesign merit his attention at all. In other words, will his design be on the side of the social good or not.
— Victor Papanek

Much has been said (often and at great length) about the need for designers to consider whether their work is for "the Social Good". I think this is a good first step for all designers. However, I believe it is woefully inadequate in that it assumes that there is one social good – a monolithic and communal principle shared by everyone. To see how clearly false this is, one simply needs to look at the ongoing public battles about everything from privacy to the economy to the environment. A relevant tech sector-based example is the recent conflict between Facebook and its transgendered members, who felt it was not supportive of the social good to mandate that "real" names be used on the platform. This clash of values highlights both the variety of understandings of what constitutes the public good and the disproportionate and negative impacts that are often felt by marginalized members of society when the public good is dictated by those in power.

It is important, therefore, to clarify what constitutes the social good, in order to be able to subsequently target it with one’s work. There is a theory called Standpoint Theory in feminist epistemology that can help clarify and structure an approach to understanding different social goods. Standpoint Theory posits that an individual’s perception of reality is indelibly determined by their “standpoint” – the total collection of their experiences influenced by factors including (but not limited to) their gender, race, socioeconomic status, and educational background. This suggests that, depending on the situation, there might be pools of commonality in perceptions of the social good, contingent on shared experiences and factors affecting standpoint. By being aware of these standpoints, and by pointedly considering them as factors influencing the goals and perceptions of users, it should be possible to conscientiously target particular social goods. This, in many ways, meshes neatly with the emic approaches of ethnographic research, which advocate adopting the unique perspectives of the subjects of the research to frame the research outcomes.

While this might seem to be a closed case – a problem already solved by existing research techniques – I believe there are gaps that remain. From my own perspective, looking at popular applications and technologies, I see a horrifying breadth of sexism, racism, and other forms of discrimination embedded in many of them. In reading about Kathy Sierra’s experience, or the experiences of others who have suffered abuse or discrimination on these platforms that (ostensibly) were created to empower people, I feel at a loss. I have never experienced anything close to what these individuals have experienced, and I can’t even begin to comprehend how it has influenced their perception of simple activities on such systems, let alone how they perceive the social good. Seeking to apply ethnographic research practices to particularly target marginalized groups to ensure that their understanding of the social good is taken into consideration is problematic for several reasons. Clients are unlikely to be willing to pay for research into communities that represent only a small portion of their prospective user base. Moreover, they are unlikely to see value in specifically targeting attributes that they have decided a priori to not be important differentiators. 

Once again, there is a theory from feminist epistemology that can illuminate a path to a solution. A particular interpretation of standpoint theory leads to what Dr. Sandra Harding calls “Strong Objectivity”. In this interpretation, those who are marginalized in society are actually capable of perceiving a more objective reality. This is because they must necessarily be able to interpret the world through the standpoint of the dominant group as well as their own particular standpoint. This means that they can shift their perspective, chameleon-like, or more clearly highlight points of similarity or dissimilarity between standpoints. When you combine that epistemic privilege with design, through co-creation or participatory design that emphasizes or depends on participation of those from marginalized communities, I believe it is possible to identify design approaches and values that embody the highest shared common good across all groups. Moreover, when considering marginalized groups as one dimensional spectrum of what IDEO calls “extreme users”, it is conceivable that the outcome will not be the position of optimal compromise between communities’ concepts of the public good, but will actually offer an emergent perspective that can optimally serve the public good from any individual perspective as well.

I will continue exploring these ideas, but it would be great to get input on these ideas from those with more knowledge and experience than me, whether in feminism (activist or academic or other) or in design.