Humanitarian design is fine if done right

In response to Bruce Nussbaum v Emily Pilloton in the debate Is Humanitarian Design a New Kind of Imperialism? they both make good points although I do agree Nussbaum needs to do his research.

I love design and I love travelling so it would be great to combine both and do design work overseas for entirely selfish reasons — but I do accept Nussbaum’s criticism that the motives and intent behind people delivering design services in other cultures can influence the effectiveness of their design work.

However by following a rigorous evidence-based design methodology with an aim to implement a solution that is desirable, feasible and viable in the local context then I believe designers can contribute in a meaningful and positive way in any situation regardless of their attitude and reasons for being there.

To extend Nussbaum’s argument sighted designers shouldn’t be designing for blind or vision impaired people; non-cognitively impaired designers shouldn’t be designing for cognitively impaired people.

I think it’s absurd to expect designers to stay within the confines of their own cultural silo because apparently they are unable to empathetically and sensitively embed themselves in another culture in order to apply their design expertise.

Designers are facilitators. There’s no place for cowboy designers, lone wolves who storm in, make a mess of things and leave again. Like a catalyst, we guide others who truly understand the situation to develop the solution without us actually being part of it. It would upset me for someone to point to something I’d been involved with as a designer and label it as mine — it’s a group effort. If someone attribute a design exclusively to me then I’ve done something terribly wrong.

Even though Nussbaum’s blog post did get my blood pressure up a bit I do concede he’s got a point — about bad designers. I don’t believe such criticism can be levelled at good designers who make the effort to design and implement sustainable solutions that are relevant to the local context and that are adopted. Hell, I have to deal with the same problems of user adoption and uptake with web applications here — it’s no different. I’ve seen business software deployed with no user consultation or support and be outright rejected even though the developers believed people could be forced to change. I think the “imperialism” angle is overplayed. It really is just about good v poor or unethical design.

As far as the debate goes I think Emily Pilloton spent too much time defending the reputation and good work of Project H Design rather than clarifying Nussbaum’s argument although she did have this to say:

I cringed, but nodded along, agreeing with his assessment that too often humanitarian design is a scattershot “fly-by-night” occurrence in which Designers (with a capital D) swoop in with their capes and “design thinking” to save the poor folks.

I suggest you watch Emily Pilloton’s TED talk Teaching design for change.

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Weekend in Sydney

Jenny and I travelled up to Sydney for the weekend with no particular plans besides attending a friend’s birthday party and spent a wonderful couple of days exploring Sydney, Cockatoo Island and some back roads behind Mittagong and Moss Vale.

First up, we had breakfast on Saturday at the Lindt Cafe in Martin Place:

Lindt cake.

(I’ve taken a liking to Lindt Madagascar)

Then we caught a ferry out to Cockatoo Island where we spent the entire afternoon wandering between the old buildings and photographing the rusty old wharf-side cranes and equipment:

Wharf crane on Cockatoo Island.

Heavy machine shop at Cockatoo Island.

We had a great view from the rooftop of the 45-storey Park Regis hotel where we stayed:

View of Hyde Park, Sydney.

On the Sunday we came home via Mittagong, Bowral and Moss Vale with a brief stop at Morton National Park:

Grand Canyon, Morton National Park.

View the whole photo set

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Sunset, 4 July

Jenny had spotted the alto cirrus earlier in the day but on the way home from a TEDx organiser’s meeting it looked like it might make a good sunset so I send the message and we met up at our sunset photographing spot on Coppins Crossing Road.




Most of my photos of the sunset (I took over a hundred total) were taken with my Canon EF 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5 USM with polariser and Jenny’s Sigma APO 150-500mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM, all in RAW. Little post-processing done except white balance, minor colour enhancement and sharpening.

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First frost for 2010

I was running late for work so even though it was on our porch I just used what I had on me, which considering I take my camera everywhere was my Lensbaby with 10+ macro filter, so I’ll have to do a follow up with Jenny’s 100mm macro and tripod.

Frost on a wood hand rail.

Frost on a wood post.

Whilst packing my camera away in the boot of my car I managed to spill the Lensbaby aperture container and lost my f/5.6 disc down the side of the boot and into the car battery compartment (which is in the boot in MINI Coopers). Took ages to retrieve it!

Was great watching the frost melt in the sun through the lens. If I had my Canon EOS 7D already I could have videoed it …

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Tenzing the stalker kitten

I co-hosted a party this evening with my friend Rae Buerckner and took 56 photos … all of her kitten, Tenzing. Cute little thing, very friendly and playful. He took a liking to our border collie and stalked her around the house while Misty did the wombat thing and buried her head in the laundry trying to ignore the cat:

Tenzing the kitten watching Misty our border collie.

A few times Tenzing even snuck up behind Misty and pawed her, just trying to say hi and play with “the big black furry thing”:

Tenzing the kitten sneaking up behind our border collie Misty.

When Misty was in the kitchen, Tenzing would watch from just outside the door:

Tenzing the kitten just sitting, watching.

I tried to use flash unsuccessfully, so all these photos taken with available room lighting with my Canon 50mm f/1.4 on ISO 400 at around 1/40th of a second in RAW and bumped up +1 EV in RAW processing, adjusted to 3,500K then auto-levelled and backed off a bit in Photoshop. My poor, ageing 400D doesn’t cope well with grain. Pretty hard photographing animals playing, especially in that light and with such slow shutter speeds.

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Don’t pets make great subjects?

I was home from work sick today, so apart from snuggling under the blanket on the couch watching DVDs I took some photos of Misty. I’ve taken hundreds of her but so hard to get a good shot – indoors lighting, her dislike of cameras, high-contrast black-and-white fur … but I like these two I got today:

Misty our border collie dog.

Misty our border collie dog.

See more photos on Flickr in my Dogs & puppies set.

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Illustrated user scenario development techniques

Darren Menachemson gave a presentation at the UX Australia conference a few weeks ago about storytelling in user (product/service interaction) scenario design and production.

It was a great presentation with some nicely illustrated comic strip-like examples of visually-represented user stories that had the flexibility to vary in time, context, detail and descriptive text as necessary without having to stick to a proforma. This allows designers to highlight key aspects of the interaction or go into more detail about a specific point or sequence while still maintaining the overall flow of the story.

Darren mentioned there are no rules to producing these sorts of artefacts, and I agree. But given that we’re talking about “stories” and “scenarios” I believe there are frameworks and guidelines we can draw upon to assist – however these resources should be used carefully to ensure that implementing structure doesn’t break the flow that is the beauty of this type of scenario depiction.

Story Theory

The first resource is not a single, popular framework so I’ve adopted a model that falls somewhere between the vague (and therefore useless) and rigid models to something that is adaptable and useful.

Story theory is about writing stories. The models for story theory describe how best to structure a story in order to provide enough depth, interest and momentum for the readers of that story. Much like any tutorial on photography – which is something I wrote about previously.

The core elements of plot and character development have been around since Aristotle and as our illustrated user scenarios are unlikely to be as complex as a multi-threaded 300-page fiction novel then those basic linear concepts are still applicable.

I would like to present an eight-step plot structure developed by Glen Strathy that is a useful guide to thinking about and planning the plot for your scenario:

  1. Story goal: What is the goal of the story? What is the point we want to make? With user scenarios is it some pain point in an interaction with a product or service? Or a pleasant interaction? Success or failure? What’s it all about? Why are you preparing this scenario?
  2. Consequence: What will eventuate if the goal is not achieved? Essentially – what is driving the user in the scenario to go through the actions. It’s unlikely to be a life-and-death situation like you might have in a fiction novel but there must be something that is driving the user.
  3. Requirements: The steps in a process the user must go through to achieve the goal. This will likely be different to the steps you might have in a UI spec. There will be some overlap if you’re describing the interaction with a user interface but think about what other things the user must do before, during and after that UI interaction to actually complete the whole process from beginning to end. This is where personas will come in handy.
  4. Forewarnings: “Forewarnings are the counterpart to requirements. While requirements show that the story is progressing towards the achievement of the goal, forewarnings are events that show the consequence is getting closer”. This is what gives the raw, real-world aspect to a user scenario. The scenario shouldn’t depict a controlled laboratory environment with perfect weather, zero stress and readily-accessible help. Once again, refer to the personas and remove the optimal parameters to make it real and relevant.
  5. Costs: These are things the user “might be forced to endure in order to achieve the story goal”. Possibly not an aspect you want to explore with a simple user scenario but think about it – it might be relevant, it might be important particularly for scenarios depicting failed or sub-optimal interactions.
  6. Dividends: “Dividends are not necessary for the goal to be achieved. They may be unrelated to the goal entirely. But they are something that would never have occurred if the characters hadn’t made the effort to achieve the goal”. Think about the secondary benefits of a product or service.
  7. Prerequisites: Self-explanatory, the order in which events must take place for the goal to be achieved. Think about what happens when that sequence is not followed and whether that results in a deviation or the consequence.
  8. Preconditions: Roadblocks. Obstacles. Once again, refer to the real-world aspect of the scenario. This is not taking place in a controlled laboratory.

It seems unreasonable to try and cram all this thinking into a five-frame illustrated user scenario – but you should at least consider the framework and where relevant draw about this preparatory thinking to ensure you deliver a holistic story that achieves its goal and delivers the message.

Use your personas to flesh out your character(s) and make them believable. Different parameters of a persona profile will influence how the story plays out.

Decide what the setting of the story is and describe it both through illustration and the story.

Remember that you can annotate and caption your scenario so you don’t have to be too subtle about it but don’t inadvertently prioritise aspects of the story with black-and-white text captions that detract or confuse.


The second framework is a bit more defined. It’s a four-step format called Situation, Task, Action, Result (STAR) and is generally known for its use in recruitment by interviewers and job applicants to describe a work experience case study.

It’s certainly a simpler model than the story theory discussed above but could result in describing aspects of a scenario rather than a sequence that flows, and without the passage of time there is no interaction.

STAR is quite basic. Describe the situation, the setting of the scenario. What task or goal does the user have to perform? What action does the user actually perform? And what was the result of that action? Are they successful in performing the task? If not, what are the consequences.

Hopefully these two resources might give you some ideas when preparing your illustrated user scenarios and user stories. As I mentioned before, Darren is right – there are no rules. But it’s important to consider all these different aspects of telling the story so the audience can relate to the story, can feel empathy for the user depicted in the scenario and understand the context, the challenge and can explore different ways of looking at a product or service.

Quotes from and references to used with permission.

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