Home and Charting with Caveats

Grad school. Coronavirus. Caregiving.

Some days you just need to cry and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I am fully aware that I lead a privileged life. I’m one of the fortunate ones for the immediate future but I gotta say, caregiving and trying to wrap up your MFA course work during the middle of a pandemic maxes out your stress levels. I know enough about cortisone to know that this is not good. But, what choice do I have?

The bright side is that I’m home. If I was stuck in Florida, things could be much worse. I have a whole new level of empathy for caregivers around the world, in situations much more vulnerable than I. Good grief.

The down side is that I’m unable to focus on my course work. Without going into detail, just imagine having to be everywhere for everything your spouse needs. Every. basic. need. Plus it hurts me to see him in pain.

I can only hope he’ll get better soon. I’m trying to stay positive. Inside I’m crying.

Circles of Exclusion

Circles contain. They unify. They’ve come to symbolize harmony, wholeness, cycles, woman, eternity and more.

Kat Holmes Exclusion
Image from Kat Holmes’s book, Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design

They also exclude.

I’ve been reading Kat Holmes’s book, Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design and because of Kat, circles have new meaning.

What is inclusion?

Merriam-Webster defines inclusion in a few of the following ways:

  1. the act of includingthe state of being included
  2. the act or practice of including students with disabilities with the general student population
  3. the act or practice of including and accommodating people who have historically been excluded (as because of their race, gender, sexuality, or ability)

So, if inclusion is “the act of including” or “the state of being included” or “the practice of including” this means something or someone is excluded, yes? Merriam-Webster seems to have covered all the bases with “people who have historically been excluded”.

Yet, Kat Holmes points out early in Mismatch that physical accommodations for people with disabilities such as ramps, modified doors and the like is not enough to be considered “an inclusive environment”. To be inclusive the “psychological and emotional” aspects of people must also be respected.

Even more, according to a Fast Company article, inclusion and diversity mean different things to millennials, gen-Xers and boomers. Millennials believe “inclusion is the support for a collaborative environment that values open participation from individuals with different ideas and perspectives”. Some argue that inclusion isn’t the best as efforts to include may backfire and exclude. Hmm…

Imperfect

So, damned if you do, damned if you don’t? My sense so far is that Kat wants us to start somewhere. To be clear, “exclusion isn’t inherently bad, nor inclusion inherently good”. Mistakes are inevitable and to come away with greater insight with more people contributing to the conversation is priceless. Asking questions she believes is the best way to make progress; asking people who have been excluded is the best place to begin because there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Inevitably, someone is excluded. Inclusion is on-going; however, she urges “responsibility for inclusion as a matter of intentional choice, rather than risk an unintentional harm”.

Image from Kat Holmes’s book, Mismatch.

“Invisible by Omission”

Several years ago, a friend’s 80-year-old father and I were sitting in his living room chatting, about what I no longer recall but, one thing he said to me that honestly shocked me at the time: “When you get old, you become invisible”. It was honest. Real. This became a conversation about how we as a society view the elderly and aging. We glorify youth and diminish pretty much anyone 40 and above. Why is that?

Kat briefly writes about how we categorize people. People are “multifaceted” so how do we determine which aspects we design for? Categories are simplified, typically binary and while they make things easier for us she warns us that there will always be people we leave out. We automatically prioritize some over others and essentially erase their existence.

Bias and Assumptions

Think about how we exclude based on healthy or not, with disabilities or not, ethnicity, economic status, religion, pedigree and more. As designers, it is important to ask ourselves: who are we excluding with the decisions we make? Remember the circle? Who is in and who is out?

We love to categorize. So, when it comes to data, I’ve been thinking: how are we collecting it? What determines our categories? When it comes to data, how are people excluded and therefore never counted? When it comes to data and training machines, how do we exclude? How are we creating bias in the algorithms we design?

What “mind bugs” have we acquired over the years that allow us to look for the easy answer or perhaps the most comfortable solution? Exclusion, according to Kat Holmes is how we learn to be inclusive. When is the last time you thought about what you exclude? How often do you question the status quo?

For better or for worse, the people who design the touchpoints of society determine who can participate and who’s left out. Often unwittingly.

Kat Holmes, Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design

These are some of the questions moving through my mind.

So, what are designers to do? First, check “sympathy and pity” at the door. Then, open your mind to ideas that may counter your beliefs. Inclusion isn’t about you.

Three inclusive design principles by Kat Holmes

  • “Recognize exclusion”. This is the big first step. Recognize your own biases, assumptions and fears. The real work begins here—the truth.
  • “Learn from diversity”. Look to each other when doing the work to change.
  • “Solve for one, extend to many”. What is universal? Identify the thread that binds us together.

I’m looking forward to the rest of Mismatch. I have my own experiences of being excluded and watching those I care about be excluded. Kat has given me a lot to think about.

The Truthful Art: Math, Science, The Mind — Oh My!

Literacy, Articulacy, Numeracy, and Graphicacy

Confession: I am one of those designers who is “terrified by math and science”. In fact, I’ll admit last week I had a bit of a math and science panic while trying to complete a weekly assignment. Still, I’m not sure it is without good reason. As well as I can remember, I loved science; biology in fact. If memory serves, I enjoyed math, too; geometry and algebra, I believe. I think I got as far as pre-calc but alas, didn’t do well.

Looking back I wonder: At some point in high school did math and science become boring or was it that people — teachers and fellow students — who insisted because I was Asian I had to be great at math and science? What was wrong with me? Or, was I so turned-off by the idea that I had to fit some stereotypical Asian mold that I avoided it at every opportunity? Both? Does it matter anymore? Not really.

What matters: my future with my husband and my family. Learning. Growing. Reinventing. Frankly, I don’t want to become beige. You know, boring, dull, dated, lacking flavor—stale, white sandwich bread. These are a couple of reasons why I uprooted from my comfortable and cozy life in Syracuse, New York to pursue an MFA in Interactive Media at the University of Miami. (Ok, and maybe get a break from the cold and grey for at least a year or two.)

But after reading, You Aren’t Qualified to be a Professional Journalist where Professor Cairo bluntly tells journalists, “If your level of numeracy is so abysmal, you aren’t qualified to be a professional journalist” and to “stop with the I’m-not-good-at-Math bullshit”, perhaps this is why I am here as well. This time and this class with Professor Cairo may just be my moment of facing my fears when it comes to numbers and science; my efforts to “[cultivate] the main skills of an educated person”—Literacy, Articulacy, Numeracy, and Graphicacy.

I thought I knew my knowledge gaps.

I became a student again specifically to learn how to code (again) and to learn UX research (I am learning this semester). Last semester, however, I learned about empirical research and experimental design through an intense Human-Computer Interaction course taught by Dr. Barbara Millet.

I was not prepared for independent variables, dependent variables, randomizing tasks, prototyping, collecting data, Likert scales, analyzing using SPSS and writing, writing, writing. For, as Dr. Millet frequently stated, “If you don’t write about it, it didn’t happen”. I believe that class to have been the most challenging academic learning experience of my life—so far. For experienced researchers, you may think I’m being dramatic. Please allow me the drama because that list and more is a first for this BFA-photography-student-turned-on-the-job-trained-designer. The more I learned, the more I didn’t know.

OK, I complained. I was exhausted. I thought I wouldn’t make it through the semester. But, I am thankful beyond measure for the academic rigor of Dr. Millet’s class. Because of her class:

  • I can apply what I learned to UX research methods — equally rigorous class.
  • I could understand the language, structure, and findings of the research presented at the Computation + Journalism Symposium.
  • Rightly so or not, I measure all research papers to Scott Mackenzie’s writing.
  • I can speak with researchers about their work and I hope, gain insight as to how their research could be applied to industry or potentially affect our daily lives.

“Science is a stance, a way to look at the world, that everybody and anybody, regardless of cultural origins or background can embrace”.

Alberto Cairo, The Truthful Art, Chapter, 4, p. 100

A couple of years ago I was faced with a decision to surgically remove a “small” chunk of my breast as a preventative measure for what, according to some research, could be a linear progression to breast cancer. I went into research mode; Googling anything and everything I could find about treatments, standard protocols, and alternatives. Why? Because I had loads of questions. There were contradictions everywhere but the primary drum beat was surgery.

from: Breast Cancer Awareness | Stages of Breast Cancer – Johnston Health.  There are no sources, no explanation in the article other than how to do a breast self-exam. This visualization is too simplified and potentially harmful.

I’m fortunate to have a relation whose research is in breast cancer at the University of California at San Francisco. Based on my conversations with him, I was pretty sure I did not have early indications of breast cancer. Yet two surgeons were insisting I do surgery. So, I felt comfort in the medical research that questioned existing research and the mainstream clinical practice. My mind caught all three bugs — patternicity, storytelling, and confirmation. I found everything that would support my position (wait and see) and make me feel better.

I’ll spare you the details of that crazy summer and autumn but eventually I agreed to do a test that would either confirm or refute what I believed to be true. I was scared. To my relief, my gut feeling was confirmed, but what if I didn’t do the test and the results were more serious? What if I had blindly done the surgery? People don’t talk about the chronic, often debilitating problems that can happen post-surgery.

One of my brothers is a doctor and Professor of Emergency Medicine. I asked him why my doctors wouldn’t talk to me about options and risk assessment for me; not the average woman; talk to me about uncertainty. He simply said that people don’t visit doctors for a discussion. People go to doctors for concrete, immediate solutions. Apparently I’m an exception (and to some a pain in the butt).

So my questions include: Why do many stories about health leave out the measures of uncertainty? Are we as a society so uncomfortable in the grey areas that we need a quick, easy-to-share headline that supports our preferences? Why do seasoned professionals blast research that question the norm?

This experience was just one in a series of personal experience that lead me back to design. What can I do as a designer? How can I improve my skills as a designer (and a person) to contribute to positive change on high-impact, “wicked” problems? 

You Aren’t Qualified to Be a Professional Designer

The answer to that last question requires circling back to the I’m-not-good-at-Math bullshit … perhaps the same could be said about designers: “If your level of numeracy is so abysmal, you aren’t qualified to be a professional [designer]”.

OK, no one wants to hear that. But I agree, the I’m-not-good-at -Math excuse for designers has got to go. So, say this out loud:

I am a designer and I will learn statistics, brush up on math, learn basic coding skills, and understand the underpinnings of controlled experiments because it will help keep me from becoming beige.

Hell, if Matt Waite, a professor at the University of Nebraska can do it (so inspiring), so can we. If you can take a class at your local college, make the time. If your schedule is so packed you feel like you don’t have time for an in-person class, Professor Cairo has complied a nice list of books to get you (and me) started. Find a learning partner. Keep each other accountable. It’s time to ditch the bad at math badge of honor and keep cultivating your skills.

Crossroads: This Idea or That Idea?

What do you do when you started down one path and all of a sudden another reveals itself? 

Just before Thanksgiving break, I found myself researching two ideas. I knew this wasn’t efficient but I felt compelled to explore the second idea more after the interviews I had conducted. Five interviews later I found that perhaps the initial idea Qinyu and I came up with wasn’t the best path.

This is the beauty of interviews.  They can enlighten you, challenge your initial ideas and lead you down a different path. Some may think this creates more work but I think it saves you time and money down the road.

What is the second idea? A chatbot I’ve nicknamed, “Charlie”.

Charlie isn’t really new. At least, not for me. He was one of the first ideas I had after the first interview but somehow during our initial concept meetings, Charlie was passed over for our smart entertainment system idea. So, Charlie sat on the sketch shelf for months, until now.

I hope to write more about Charlie and I’ve fractured my index finger so typing is incredibly slow and not easy. (I’ve developed tremendous amounts of empathy for people who lose digits or have arthritis … )

More soon …

Designing Innovation: Teamwork, Prototypes and Feedback

Creating the Education Kitchen kit Prototype

This is when our team really shined. Laura, Mackenize, Maria and I went full-on to design a prototype for our presentation last week. Laura especially took ownership designing the look and feel of Education Kitchen. I helped to guide and tweak a few things with the type and colors but Laura really deserves praise for the visual design. Our Slack group chat blew up for hours and it was a great feeling.

The evolution of the Education Kitchen logo. Once Laura established a direction, I offered some suggestions to tweak the type choices and relationships between the script and sans serif. The last row became our final choice.

I think in terms of strengths, we complemented each other well and I appreciated how when it came to meeting deadlines and time to discuss direction, we showed up and we followed through. Forming these types of relationships is one of the great things about graduate study and immersive experiences; one I believe can be harder with online educational experiences.

Team “Food Fresh 4”: Laura Miller, Me, Maria Aguilar Valez, and Mackenzie Miller

Mackenzie also went to town on building a more detailed scenario for our presentation. I love the combined imagery/collage type effect. She has a knack for building and making. 

For this phase, I suppose Maria and I took on supportive roles; making sure that our presentation had all the right elements; filling in where we were needed in terms of gathering , organizing and structuring content, checking spelling. plus making sure there was consistency in the language, content, design, presentation, among various other tasks.

All in all, we were at team in every sense of the word.

Effective functional and cross-functional teams do more than “divide and conquer” when confronting the never-ending queue; they harness that sparky, sometimes chaotic, energies of their members in a collaborative effort that we’ll call “thought partnership”. 

You can think of a thought partner as an intellectual complement—a collaborator who shares your goals but comes at problems from a different angle, with a different set of skills.

“Creative Teamwork”, p. 146, Chapter 6,, About Face)

Maria, Mackenzie and Laura were my “thought partners” in every sense of the word. I feel fortunate and hope we’ll work together on many more projects in the future. I will add that anyone who hires them in the future will reap rewards.

Kit Mockups and AR Prototype

Here is Education Kitchen and a few examples of items that would be included in the kit.

Education Kitchen Packaging Prototype

Initial Feedback

Overall, Education Kitchen was well-received. Ideally we would have been able to connect with at least one of our stakeholders to present and offer them a chance to give us feedback directly as well as use the AR app prototype. In the near future, we hope to accomplish this after implementing additional feedback we received.  

In addition to the previous suggestion to try BlippAR to create a working app, a suggestion to add illustrations to the recipe pages so that kids can also color those pages was offered. Perhaps while an adult in the house cooks, the kid can color. We received some nice compliments on the presentation and visual direction. Additional feedback included discussion about community gardens and how in underserved populations, land is at a premium with many most likely living in apartment complexes. This would shift the community garden to the schools but even then, land might not be available. Roger Horne spoke about this aspect and why he doesn’t see “community gardens” as a solution. Community gardens are not part of our solution but Clay’s point is a good one. Perhaps we need to include something about gardening in containers or hydroponics? A growing solution that doesn’t require land.

There were also suggestions about having a dinner party where the food from the kids’ community garden would be served … This is an idea we had as well but for development, raising funds to support non-profits or even schools; a way to bring the families, farmers, educators and officials together. 

More and more, this leads me to think our pitch or messaging needs to be more clear that we are not advocating for a community garden or that kids encourage their families to start a garden. Perhaps the inclusion of seeds automatically suggests this. I think of the seeds as more of a science experiment opportunity. 

On the tech side (AR), Clay spoke about “unlockable items” which triggered a memory that Lien also spoke about unlocking experiences. Perhaps we didn’t speak clearly enough about how the technology is a bonus layer. So, IF schools have access to wifi and a device that could support AR apps, then the students benefit from this feature. Still, he did encourage us to think about how the AR aspects could be more than nutrition information; something really special and I think this is where he was saying it could tie into a website layer as well; an opportunity to educate at a global scale from a local level. His ideas for a journal or “pen pal” concept was interesting and one to seriously consider moving forward.

Good feedback and more things to think about and re-process if we decide to move even further with this draft of a solution for the next iteration!

A small update to one of the recipe pages with an illustration to match the recipe.
Stylistically, this isn’t a match but it was a good suggestion and we’ll need to address this in future iterations.

Moving Forward

I would be keen on developing this concept further and some aspects I’d like to address in a future iteration include:

  • Understanding what visuals—color, typography, illustration style—and even paper feel would appeal to our target audience. While I love the current look and feel, it may not resonate with our core audience. I’ve made a mental note to remember that as designers we come with our own ideas and personal tastes that may not always align with others. More research definitely needs to be done.
  • Present our working prototype to Urban Greenworks and Urban Oasis to get their impressions.
  • Create a more detailed “map” of how a more personalized regional approach would work and what types of items would be included (e.g. Maine vs. Texas).
  • Think in more detail about postures for mobile devices. The prototype we created was for an iPhone. How different would the experience be on a tablet and on different operating systems? How would the experiences differ in the classroom versus outside the classroom? For example, if we created a prototype for a farmer who invites kids to the farm, how would the AR experience—assuming she/he has the tech resources—be different? 
  • Explore the idea of a website where people could archive into a journal or create postcards to send to other Education Kitchen explorers.
  • Understand AR technology more and further develop the narrative of its use and inclusion in the kit. This is where “understanding technology” (Don Norman) is truly critical. 

Adding more digital experiences would definitely require us to think more about addressing beginner users and experts plus get a better understanding of possible friction points. In fact, writing about this experience leads me to think we definitely would need to explore the AR app more closely from a user’s point-of-view. I don’t think we did enough analysis and testing.

Ah, lessons learned … I think it’ll take a while longer to process everything. I’m sure in the next few days and weeks, I’ll realize more we could do to refine and improve our first iteration. As a person who isn’t used to slamming through my work, I’m adjusting. Still, the lessons and takeaways will definitely be applied in future projects for this class as well as others.

Timeline for prototype build and presentation: Less than a week.


This is Part 9 in a series documenting my learning experiences developing a solution to address food deserts, food security, health literacy, and health for populations. This project is part of our Designing Innovation course with Professor Lien Tran at the University of Miami, School of Communication. I am an IMFA (Interactive Media Master of Fine Arts) candidate.