Viewing entries tagged
Service Design

Impact Any Problem Like a Designer


This morning I was asked if I approach design management (the emergent term for the application of design to organizations to engage complex problems) as an architect or as a communications designer. It was a little hard to answer is because the answer squarely falls into the domain of neither and both. While I believe whole heartedly in a non-disciplinary approach to design, if it is necessary to specify a form of design practice and theory, it is important to recognize that these fields exist on a gradient. Over the last 15 years of research and practice in design and urban planning, I have developed a systematic approach to structure problems and interventions across this gradient and have developed a simplified conceptual model in response to demands.

Illustrated above, I look at all problems as fitting somewhere within the above structure - wherein a problem might be defined by thought and language (sign), by tangible products and interfaces (object), by spatial context (environment) or by large scale invisible systems such as formal law and culture (culture can be considered another expression of law).  So for example, if you are attempting to solve a big problem like poverty, it exists in all sections because poverty is contextual, has artifacts, and there are many existing specific words and images that are used to communicate the idea of poverty. Whereas a problem that is very well defined, like the design of a toaster, will most likely sit squarely in the domain of objects.

At Carnegie Mellon University, I was introduced to Richard Buchanon's theory on the Four Orders of Design, which was very similar to my own model, but we maintain very different objectives and I found his model is harder to operationalize.  Buchanon does have other variations,  and additional work on operationalization has been pursued by Golsby-Smith.  There are additional models out there and while I find it validating and interesting to look at their models, my own approach emerged from the field. It is not informed by these other works, I point them out merely because they exist, and I find these other frameworks are missing a critical component, the people.

Within my framework, the most important characteristic is the recognition of dispositions held by people who occupy each conceptual frame. Without people - there is no framework.  There are no objects or contexts without people - there is also no design or strategy - people are the scaffolding of everything.  Consequently, I do not consider this framework as universal, but is thus far, a model that has arisen organically through various design interactions with people, technologies, and spaces.

Yet people are highly complex. I cannot manage to engage all people in every project on every level, and therefore I have created over the years a simple heuristic to note critical attributes of people within a project which will determine the project outcome.  All stakeholders in a project have, want, or lack resources (for their interest or mine), they likewise all hold a unique vision for their lives and the project outcome, along with specific objectives, beliefs, expectations, and baggage from prior experiences. I cannot juggle all these balls for every person at one time, but I do attempt to establish an sense of organizational structure between different actors and their unique attributes.

The Difference of Design in Organizations
Lets imagine an international company hires me with a big problem phrased as a simple request, "how do we become the leader in our industry?"  When companies have approached me before, they have already conducted many of the preliminary SWOT assessments and strategy planning sessions. Perhaps they have utilized a more traditional business management strategy, but found the problem too sprawling to meet the discrete demands... for example, it is impossible to identify and validate appropriate benchmarks if the problem itself is poorly defined. Driven by market research, they believe they should offer the same technologies or assets as their competitors. Yet it makes no logical sense to mirror competitor if you want to be the industry leader. It is important to do something new - but what and how?

Using the Framework to Generate the Big Picture
As a complex problem, I will work at all levels of the framework. In the case of robotics, I will take this problem and build a detailed understanding of their robots (the object).  I will look at all documentation, branding, communications, and language used in relation to their robots (sign). I will go into the facilities where the robots are used and spend time understanding the relationship between the robots and the Environment. I will also look at sales trends, labor laws, social movements, international trade agreements, and latent technology trends (perhaps also concerning language, objects, environments) to capture a big picture understanding of the robots in relation to some invisible systems that shape the future of the company.

Digging Deep into the Social Terrain
In this process, however, I have left out the most important component: the people.  Who is talking about the robots? Who is listening? Where are they? When customers purchase the robots, what are they saying? How do they represent their needs?  In the environmental context, who works with the robots and how?  How do those people exchange information about the robot in that context?  More importantly, how does the robot relate (or not) to the resources, objectives, histories and so on, of every person at every level?  If I go to the capital and talk to the people shaping policies that inform the outcome of robotics markets - congressmen and lobbyists for example - what can I learn from them?

Insight by Emergence
Working through this framework to understand the problem is only the first step. Yet the more I can build knowledge at each level of interaction, the more flexibility I have to craft and test interventions. Perhaps the corporate strategy is something simple like a branding campaign or promoting a national policy - yet perhaps it also requires manipulation to the technology to better facilitate how other companies train their employees? If that is the case, what language should be used and by what device should it be communicated? By means of this approach, the key insights and opportunities will emerge and do not need to be invented - nor can they be predicted.

Impact by Design
The final outcome of such a problem will rarely consist of one single action.  Rather, it will require many small interventions choreographed across the system.  Some interventions are more important than others. To describe the processes on design for wicked problems deserves more attention than I can provide right, yet with this framework, one is equipped to better understand any kind of problem to get going in the right direction by doing the following:
  1. Get away from the tunnel vision of a personal discipline or expertise
  2. Build an integrated and fluid systems understanding of a problem 
  3. Identify many points of intervention across scale/scope and points of view
  4. Leverage the most powerful yet high-risk asset of any problem, the people.
  5. Uncover new opportunities for exploration and testing

Designing a Better Tax Experience in the USA


I've spent enough time living and working among impoverished and struggling communities, from Detroit to Addis, to know the wonderful benefits of public services and infrastructure. I've also seen the depths of corrupt systems, having spent nearly 3 years in Afghanistan, and so I also know what can happen with tax dollars are abused - and the damage can be severe. But from these experience, I fully believe that taxes are awesome. Thanks to taxes, I have enjoyed luxuries such as clean water, paved roads, and breathable air.  I've been able to acquire student loans to access otherwise unreachable opportunities. I have enjoyed the deep knowledge and entertainment of libraries, bike trails, and the internet.  Taxes are good.


Then why is it is so painful and frustrating to pay to taxes?  

For many years I've been engrossed in a never ending flow of  interrelated IRS documents to sort out taxes owed to my own government. I have also paid much in taxes to other governments, which was equally frustrating from the lack of information and structure. Then of course there is the act of watching your personal balance suddenly diminish while media outlets continually cover abuses of federal spending. When you pay your taxes in America, you feel like you have been beaten by a complex system.  You do not feel like a winner.

I propose that the rate of tax payment and frustrations with federal spending are not really the problem. The US already has a low tax requirement. Out of the richest 114 countries in the world, the USA is way down at number 55 in tax expense upon the population. So the frustration is not an indicator of too much paid in taxes, but it is merely a symptom of something else. 


The poor Service Design of US taxation.

Historically the US government has had very poor service design for many of its service systems, but in the last 5 years, great improvements have happened. Regardless of what you might think about Barack Obama, his administration has made massive strides in creating information systems and interfaces for the American public so as to improve the service design of governance with platforms such as the following:


These websites are impressive. They provide the means for anyone to acquire comprehensive information, engage the federal government in a personal manner, and even go so far as to directly petition the executive branch of government to address specific issues (We the People). None of these tools are perfect. The biggest flaw is that most American's don't realize these tools exist, and thus continue to rely on popular news media for information about their government rather than investigate information directly at the source.  

So things are looking good regarding user-integration in governance... until you look at the IRS website. Suddenly the interface between citizens and government breaks down to a grinding slow-motion act of torture at the very moment that this interface is of greatest importance. As US citizens we are left feeling abandoned and dismayed, handing our money to an impersonal force while under duress.

The USA has one of the most complex tax codes in the world.  In fact, deconstructing and comparing our tax system across 16 different categories to the 220+ countries in the world, the USA is number 94 on the Tax Attractiveness Index.  Who is number 93?  Zimbabwe.  

Unless you work a standard 9-5 job for a standard wage and have a limited income, it is difficult to calculate the amount of tax owed to the US government. Add an additional variable, such as living abroad or having multiple investments, and you will find it gets quickly complicated.  Since millions of Americans do not live in the USA and yet are faced with with this really difficult tax structure, it is no surprise that many have been giving up their US citizenship. But we do not need to necessarily simplify the tax code.  We need to change the way we engage with the tax code and our government.


Creating a New Experience

Lets think about the tax payment process differently.  How can we structure this for the sake of the user?  How can we simply the process and how can we make the relationship between the citizen and the government feel more personal?  How can the payment of tax feel like a meaningful contribution to society and not a point of frustration?  Lets redesign the process.

The IRS does not offer an online site to determine or pay taxes.  This is a serious flaw.  Instead, tax payers must find a 3rd party site (such as HRblock) to determine the rate of taxation.  These sites vary in their user friendliness and in their ability to provide the customer with the proper guidance.  These 3rd parties also frequently charge fees and if the user has special needs, such as a side business of freelance work, then the fee can jump into hundreds of dollars.  I happily used one such site for about 6 years, but once I moved abroad, I found it didn't offer the services I needed and it took a lot of research to find the right tool.  Even finding a qualified accountant to work with the needs of a non-resident citizen was super difficult.

So once you find a tool to determine tax, then the act of payment is painful.  The IRS does not have a simple online payment portal.  Rather debit or credit card payments are available via 3rd party online services who charge a fee for the processing (often about 3 dollars + 3% of the payment).  Lame.

If you choose to pay via check, then you write the check (typically for a hefty sum), put in in the mail, and never have any continued relationship with your earned money.  It is no longer yours, and you don't know what came of it.  Then you turn on CNN and some politician or reporter says that millions of dollars was wasted on some pointless initiative... I'm thinking of the classic "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska.  How can you feel good about this?


Imagine for a minute how all this could be different..
  • Imagine, if instead of a 3rd party website, you simply go to the IRS website.
  • Imagine scanning your thumbprint and being connected to your personal account.
  • You input your income, are guided through a series of questions and your rate of tax is determined.  Much of the information passes across years and you only need to apply updates. Unused credits from the following year are automatically transferred and advice is given freely on the website regarding deductions.
  • You click "continue" and your final tax rate is explained to you in simple English, such as how that amount was determined and you are shown some data visualizations of how much other people are paying in your state and nationally, across different kinds of jobs, and at different incomes or with similar households (3 kids and a private business).  See this page at Brookings for an example... I was interested this morning to see how different counties take advantage of deductions.
  • After it is explained to you, you approve the processing of your tax fee, or the reimbursement if one is owed.  Perhaps it could even make a suggestion on how to improve your deductions for the next fiscal year to lower your tax rate.
  • After the tax is paid, your deposit is assigned a tracking number.  I'm thinking of a large-scale version of "Wheres George" in which individual US dollars are mapped on their movements around America. I'm not certain of the intricacies, but imagine if you could say "oh yeah, last year I paid for a road, or the year before I paid for a school."  Perhaps you can login at any time and see updates to the spending of your contribution.

Connecting your tax to its use would entirely transform our political system, reduce poor spending decisions, and make people feel better about paying their taxes. It might even shift voting patterns.


When you imagine what taxes can do to change the quality of life, and when you think of your personal ability to make a dramatic impact on your community, paying taxes can be a pleasant and rewarding experience.  

I am happy to share 2/3 of my income with everyone because we all benefit by working together.  But I also know the pain and frustration that comes from the tax process. Yet if I've learned anything from my last 10 years of working in economic development, design, education, science, and governance, it is that all problems can be managed.  

We must accept that there is no ideal tax system.  Debating over flat tax vs. sliding scales vs. VAT vs. income tax and so on is not only redundant, but the arguments lose relevance when we shift our perception on tax delivery and the interface of citizen engagement. Consequently, we can  even drop all the self-importance and egocentrism that are connected to the suffering of taxation. We can move onward, and to do that, we don't necessarily need to change the structure of taxes, but rather, we need to change the way in which we undertake the experience of taxation.  It needs to be more personal, more simple, and more rewarding.  It needs to be re-approached as a service. Better yet, it needs to be revisited to become an opportunity.


The Human Latency of Smart Cities and Data Driven Reward Systems


Last week the number of participants registered with the US healthcare website were released and the results were unimpressive. This could be for many reasons, although personally, I have not enrolled simply because the website, like all technologies, is an iterative process.  Whenever a new operating system rolls out for my laptop or ipad, I'm always excited, but I'm never an immediate adopter.  I typically wait until an update is launched, which is typically about 2 weeks later.  I'm rather excited by the healthcare initiative, but it would be foolish to rush into enrollment.  The website, like all technologies is a work in progress.

The constant media coverage about the dismal enrollment numbers has been paralleled only by NSA scandals which has done much to raise the social dialogue on issues of connectivity, surveillance, and our data driven lives.  In a few previous blog posts I've reflected on the persistence of data beyond communal memory.  This week I've had some time to read some of Anthony Townsend's new book Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia.  Concurrently I've also been reading Addiction By Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas by Natasha Dow Schüll.  While both of these texts appear to handle different subjects, I'd argue that their is actually a strong link between these works and the current issues of technology in society.

Within Smart Cities, Townsend begins with a historical overview of urban technology development and describes the evolution of major corporations presently working with these issues such as Siemens, Cisco, and IBM.  He identifies established and emerging systems to contend with urban planning issues of climate change, traffic, and economic growth.  But Townsend isn't advocating for these mega-companies to dominate data-driven urban development.  Rather, he advocates for a more widely distributed net of stakeholders, consisting of empowered everyday citizens who use technology to interface with their governments and businesses to create a bottom-up model of a well designed urban landscape.  

I've met Anthony a couple times and have followed his work for many years.  Last June I sat in the audience at Poptech The City Resilient and listened to his talk on designing a wireless network in New Jersey that will continue to function under threat of natural disaster.  His faith in smart systems is optimistic, yet carefully hesitant, and I believe his argument for the creation of smart cities to be a more democratic process to be on target.   

Yet my own concern about smart cities is less about the actors involved in the creation of the technology and the control of the data, but is more interested in the actual "recipes" used to streamline the city.  When I lived in Cincinnati, I recall it had demographic and economic qualities nearly identical to the city of St. Louis.  Consequently, it was common for these two city governments to simply share or sell each other studies on their own cities (such as research on industrial clusters) rather than conduct the work internally.  If somethings works in St. Louis, then it should work in Cincinnati!  On a different scale, I've also sat in several meetings with members of the United Nations advocating a similar boiler-plate approach to urban development - even if the project failed in the first instance, it would be replicated and applied to the second.  

Consequently I believe that an extensive level of qualitative research must be done before any quantitive system can be constructed and applied to a given city.  Of course this is expensive and methodical mess, so probably not in the interest of companies like IBM.  This is where Anthony and I overlap.  If the work is done by the local communities, then the outputs will likely best conform to the local demands.  

Anthony advocates and hopes for the widespread participation of urban citizens in the creation of smarter cities.  He does well to identify many small organizations working to teach programming and give momentum to local-scale smart city development.  But here we differ again... my outlook is gloomier.

For much of internet history, we have mostly lived under the 90-9-1 rule - wherein 1% of internet users create content, 9% curate, and 90% consume.  In the 20 years we have had the internet, this has improved as online content creation has risen with the advent of social media.   In 2004, The Pew Research center found that 44% of internet users had actually created content on the internet.  Now, Pew has found that number has drifted upward to 54% in 2013. I should add that the Pew Research Center released another study identifying that 15% of Americans are not even online.    I realize this is a a very small snapshot, but does this rate imply that it will take 99 years for 100% of internet users to also become content creators?  But what is a more reasonable number? 50 years? 20?  

If 20 years of global internet access has resulted in only 50% of all internet users to become content creators, how will this translate to more technical processes such as coding?  Yes - there are many high quality online tools today for people to learn computer programming skills for free.  I am personally a frequent user of such tools.  But this stuff is not easy, requires discipline, and is not a skill set available in a readily consumable manner.  More importantly - there is an issue of incentive.

Participation in any enterprise requires an incentive, but the situation darkens when the enterprise has a steep learning curve.  Apparently health care and national security are not a sufficient incentive for most Americans to use a website or forsake personal data.  But in contrast, millions of Facebook users supply very personal details of their lives to the Facebook company for the satisfaction of gossip, shared photos, and adorable cat videos.  What incentives exist for a democratized process of urban systems design?

This is where I feel Schüll's research on human addiction to casino machine gambling might provide light.  Casino machines are highly refined to maximize the amount of time an individual spends on the machine.  Casinos also employ various design techniques to drive customers toward machines and increase time of play.  But many casino's now feature data driven analytics to refine the experience further, to create new machines, and to ultimately derive far higher profits.  An excellent example is the use of rewards cards.

Subscribed loyalty rewards programs encourage repeat visits but they also give customers a reason to share data.  By providing customers with free rooms, meals and tickets to special events - or even paid weekend resort getaways for high rollers - casinos provide a series of convenience and in exchange, capitalize on the windfall of collected data.  Many casinos maintain 90 different demographic categories on each customer, can predict future calendars and budgets, and generate behavior reports to assemble the best package of rewards to offer each individual.  If a customer strays from pattern... for example, a habitual gambler stops making visits, that person will be emailed, snail mailed, and telephone called with enticing offers to return.  

This creepy surveillant system has been of great value to the casino industry.  It works.  But it also appears to be popular with patrons.  According to Schüll, in Las Vegas casinos, "70% of gamblers use loyalty club cards" and the number continues to rise.  Apparently the provision of personal information to a corporation is okay in exchange for a hotel room and a prime-rib dinner.  But website enrollment for affordable healthcare?  Snooze.

A distinct difference between the task/reward systems of the casinos and the healthcare enterprise is that in the healthcare website, an individual must still express a level of work and payment in exchange for the reward.  Whereas in the casino system, it appears to consist entirely of rewards for the user.  The array of losses are behind the scenes.

So returning to the issue of "who" leads the charge in the creation of smart cities, I honestly don't see a great degree of grass-roots design unless the amount of effort is reduced and a direct system of ongoing incentives is increased.   The success of the Citi Bike initiative in New York City is a good example. Users enjoy the convenience of an affordable system, brought about through public-private partnership, and the primary sponsor CitiBank maintains a constant influx on user data with which to capitalize. Perhaps in the end the only real winner will be the bank, but right now it appears as a worthwhile exchange for over 100,000 enrolled bike users. 

Perhaps this rewards model can be applied somewhere as we continue down the road of data driven city optimization.  Maybe a clear system of direct incentives can be provided in exchange for citizens to contribute to the creation of better neighborhoods and the sharing of personal data.  Maybe one day, however, the simple rewards of a safer, cleaner neighborhood will be enough?  

Should We Paint the Sandbags Pink? Redesigning The End of War


A fundamental lesson within the major literature about counterinsurgency, such as Nagel's How to Eat Soup with a Knife or Galula's Counterinsurgency Warfare, is the lack of institutional memory regarding the end of conflicts.  For whatever reason - social, organizational, cultural or otherwise - popular conceptions of history describe wars as having a messing beginning and a tidy ending.  Images of helicopters hovering over Saigon or masses of WWII soldiers boarding ships homeward bound resonate in the global social conscious.  But it is unlikely that any war in history concluded with the simplicity of closing the cover on a book.

Historical battles were heavily shaped by the seasons, as the winter obstructed movement and in the spring many soldiers would need to leave the front lines to plant seed.  Wars would be resumed once the seed began to sprout, postponed for harvest,  then returned to again until winter.  A quick look at the wars of the 19th century on wikipedia reveals that most wars lasted 4-5 years, but  the wrong impression is given by this list as it provides a nice simple year for the conclusion of every conflict.  In contrast, many of the wars featured ongoing skirmishes, small attacks, and a trickle of minor incidents for months or years after each battle.  

Today's conflicts are no different.  Low-intensity, protracted conflicts stretch onward into the future.  Major international conflicts and localized internal conflicts seem to never end.  Yet a significant  difference between these conflicts and those of the past is the role of advanced communication technologies and access to simple yet powerful weapons that put small groups on par with massive military forces.  

So if wars have messy endings but the mess is bigger these days,  do we defend our cities with the same methods as in the past?  At present we rely upon militant checkpoints, guard towers, road blocks and a whole array of methods intended to restrict movement, obstruct attackers, and provide tactical advantage to one force while negating abilities of the other.  This is all well and good in terms of security, but it does nothing to add finality to the ever-steady trickle of attack incidents.

When fortifying a point of interest, the goal is to focus on utility, with the broad assumption that the newly installed elements are temporary.  Consequently  security architecture is stark and simple, an element that becomes threatening when contextualized by armed guards and interrogations.  The greater problem is that these features are rarely temporary.  Because the hostilities continue, the security infrastructure remains, detracting from the quality of the urban experience and reinforcing the sense of danger.  One could even argue that such infrastructure promotes ongoing militarization and escalates conflict.

To instill finality into contemporary conflict, we must create defensive infrastructure to facilitate a post-conflict urban condition.  We must create security mechanisms that not only satisfy their primary objective, but can contribute to the health and wellbeing of urban living.  Imagine if one day someone in Kabul or Baghdad or Cairo could wake up in the morning and say "remember that police checkpoint that used to be around the corner?  I really miss having it there, it really made walking down the street a little more pleasant."  People make such statements about art, fountains, gardens and landscaping.  They do not say this about barbed wire fences, blast walls, or security installations.  

So what should we do? Should we paint the sandbags pink?  Maybe.  It seems absurd, but why not?  Perhaps global society could benefit to emasculate the battlefield.   Discard the drab olive green and replace it with a mural of clouds.  Many could argue that such acts beautify war and devalue its significance, but this is only partly true.  Such acts beautify our environment and celebrate our common humanity,  thus giving an opportunity for peace, otherwise lost, by devaluing the the significance of violence.  It is time to design a new battlefield, not to fight war, but to end it.

After the Robot Wars: Drones, Interface Design, and Urban Reconstruction


I use Urban Planning methods for conflict stabilization and post-war reconstruction.  This focus demands that I also maintain an ongoing understanding of trends in contemporary warfare, whereas I seek to create an urban environment goes beyond physical reconstruction, but also facilitates the psychological healing of afflicted populations.

Lately I have been investigating how to apply concepts from service and interface design to conflict and post-conflict environments.  Service and UI design both are rooted in understanding user approaches and psychological impulses to craft a satisfying user experience in retail or online.  If we can craft a retail experience to facilitate greater customer satisfaction, such as how Apple uses of free-floating associates who can provide sell you an iphone at the display table, then we can apply the same steps and research methods to shape urban environments to maximize the urban experience of the citizens.  Likewise I believe we can use these steps to create opportunities for pacification, identity construction, and community healing.

But today while researching concepts in service and UI design from Carnegie Mellon University (famous for robotics), a new concept came to mind.  As drone warfare continues to escalate in use and force, the conflict cities of the future may have little evidence of human destruction.  Those initiating the war may be thousands of miles away, yet the perpetrators of war in the eyes of the local community, will become more abstract.  

I'm not claiming the future will look like the battlefields of Terminator 2 or The Matrix, but rather I have a few new questions:

Can we facilitate community healing after destruction waged by technology?

Does the identity of the perpetrator matter when reshaping a conflicted landscape to manage memory?

Does the use of high-tech, non-human weapons of war negate our ability to learn from war or overcome the resulting trauma?