Activities on the Spot

In 2007 I was an English teacher in a public school in France, teaching a rotation of 8 classes and seeing each class once a week. It was tough to keep them straight, but I enjoyed the classes, ranging from first to third year English, with ages between 11 and 13.

One week, I planned an activity based around World War 1. I knew they were studying the United States and their role in the war, so I dug out one of my favorite poems (Flanders Field), translated it into French, and prepared a list of questions to get discussion going on the impact of war on the country’s youth.

One problem: when I arrived in class, I realized they were studying the American Civil War, not World War 1. Continue Reading


What is Livability?

A few years ago I was spending some time in Barcelona with my cousin Josh. One night I offered to make dinner – a peanut chicken dish I had more or less invented. We sat down to dinner, and after a few bites Josh said “this is very edible.” His wife Jan immediately defended me. “What a terrible thing to say! This is great.” But Josh had meant it as a complement. “I mean I don’t want to stop eating it,” he explained. Since then I’ve loved the idea of edible meaning more than something you can eat, but something you don’t want to stop eating.

Yesterday, during our frustrating yet valuable card sort (part of the ongoing design process trip for high school students I am currently co-leading through Atlas Workshops), the students got into a conversation on the word livability. It’s a popular word in city design these days, but the definition is vague at best. To be “livable” means more than just a place you can live. It means a place that is delightful, a place that ranks at the top of Design’s Hierarchy of Needs. Livable describes a way of living in the way that Josh wanted edible to describe eating. Yet edible does connotate merely able to be eaten, to most of the world, and livability equally might mean merely able to be lived in. No wonder livability is such a difficult concept to explain! Continue Reading


Card Sorting, People Sorting

Yesterday’s lesson: if it frustrates me, it likely frustrates students as well.

GamestormingTo be clear, I was not frustrated yesterday. In fact, I absolutely loved our exercises – it was the beginning of our Information Architecture work, as we (Atlas Workshops) continue to lead the students through the design process to create a website about smart cities. We’ve helped them to do some basic user research, understand their audience, collect data on smart cities, and yesterday the time had come to identify how the information they had collected all connected, and (ultimately) how we would display it on their final website.

We began with a card sort. Each student had a topic in mind, and announced it to the team. My plan had been for them to write their topics on index cards, and then collectively sort them into various categories until they had a clear idea of how their myriad ideas connected. That said, we had forgotten the index cards. We had also forgotten the sticky notes. It was a user experience designer’s nightmare… until we realized, the cards could be people. Continue Reading


The Worst Gamestorming Ever

Today I led the worst post-up I have ever experienced. It was wonderful.

An Atlas post-up

For context, I’ve long been a proponent of Gamestorming, a set of activities that encourage creative brainstorming compiled by Dave Gray. One of my favorites is a post-up, which uses sticky notes to promote group agreement on complex subjects. I’ve adapted the post-up from its original form, with great success – I change it a little with each team of executives or stakeholders, but it has a few consistent elements:

  • I always begin by asking the group to write their ideas (generally “nouns”) of what makes up the bigger project we are beginning. I ask them to write rather than discuss so that quiet voices will be heard as well as strong voices.
  • I post all of the ideas on a wall, all in one color, so that they stop being individual people’s ideas.
  • As a group, we decide which nouns are similar, and group them together in categories, in order to begin identifying a structure – and in this case, to help the students break out the website project into sections they would each individually work on.

Continue Reading


What is Design Thinking?

Interesting challenge today: my team of eight high school UX designers began their official web project, as we travel through Scandinavia with Atlas Workshops. Over the course of three hours, we had three objectives.

  1. Identify various methods of storytelling, in order to select one that might best work to convey information to our target audience of other high school students.
  2. Select a single method of storytelling, based on user interviews they conducted on one another.
  3. Learn what that phrase they keep hearing, “design thinking” means.

Continue Reading


New Perspectives

A few years ago I was in a meeting with several older, more experienced marketing and design folk. In theory, I was there to present my plan for their content strategy, but not thirty seconds in someone cut me off and began to talk over me.

I’ve thought about that moment many times, and felt a number of different emotions. At the time I was frustrated. Since then I’ve felt everything from furious to grateful. Furious at how disrespectful it was, but grateful for the perspective it gave me. I realized three things from that meeting. Continue Reading