In the outskirts of Musanze, in northern Rwanda, mattresses have become a tool for female empowerment, family security, and social change. Hilarie, a softspoken farmer, mother, and wife, is the mastermind behind this association and has become a figurehead of change in her village and over 30 others in the region because of it. How Hilarie became a purveyor of mattresses for social change offers some fascinating insights about human behavior, community dynamics and… financial services.
Yes, financial services. Specifically, the challenge of financial inclusion—bringing financial services to the poor for the purpose of improving their lives. This is one challenge that resists easy scaling across markets. If a solution devised by a bank, mobile operator, or other financial services player achieves some level of success in one market, it's highly doubtful that the same idea will work in other markets. The always-cited example of this is Safaricom's highly successful M-Pesa mobile money platform in Kenya; no other mobile money service in the world has had even close to the same level of success.
Roberta Tassi is a senior design researcher and interaction designer at frog Milan, with a deep background in information visualization and communication design.
While working on her graduation thesis—exploring the interconnections between Communication and Service Design—Tassi developed Service Design Tools, a website that gathers visualizations used to support design processes. The collection was created with the idea of sharing her research within the design community, and so far it has caught the attention of both academic and industry insiders. Yet, Tassi warns these tools are meant to inspire, not act as one-size-fits-all solution.
Tell us a little bit about Service Design Tools.
I put together this web platform called Service Design Tools in 2009, and I still manage it today. After published, it has immediately become a sort of reference point within the service design community, it's an organized catalogue of tools and examples that professionals can use to support their design activities day-by-day. It can be browsed in different ways, according to specific communication purposes, and it's conceived as an open platform: I still receive a lot of examples of new tools, keeping the collection growing in time.
Why are visualizations specifically crucial in service design?
When we speak about a service or a system, an ecosystem or concept, they are a lot of times abstract things. Visual representation is a way to make them more tangible, and so, sharable.
The same is when we deal with research outcomes, usually there is the need to translate them into meaningful insights and frameworks to inform the design process, establishing a foundation for all the following activities. And visualization again can be really helpful, to turn information and data into usable materials.
Approaching a problem with a design mindset is a craft—a way of working that may seem effortless, or even second nature, to a master craftsman, but can prove very hard indeed for a novice. And, like all crafts, it is something you learn by doing rather than by knowing. You can read all about “Design Thinking,” or other user-centric approaches, but it is only when you start to do them, to apply them, and to practice them that you start on the journey to becoming a master craftsman. As a result, these methodologies don’t really lend themselves to classic corporate education seminars. You can learn what they are in a seminar but not how to apply them. Such methodologies do not easily fit into a traditional school curriculum either. Though core curriculum standards are beginning to value twenty-first century skills, such as collaboration and creative problem solving, it is not obvious how a school might integrate the design-mindset into students’ schedules. It’s creative but it’s not “art”; it involves problem solving but it’s not math. So, if design-centric thinking is the future, and schools are not adopting it, how and where might we teach it?
Museums are a great place to start. They aren’t constrained by curriculum, they are environments that celebrate innovation and creativity, and they are often dealing with groups of students looking for an interactive experience.
Milan’s Salone del Mobile began in the 1961 to promote Italian furniture for the export market. In the fifty-two years since, it has grown into one of the world’s premiere design events, drawing enthusiasts and attention from across the globe.
“From Tuesday to Sunday, the city comes alive with all sorts of madness,” says Executive Creative Director Fabio Sergio, based in frog’s Milan studio. “It’s not just about the furniture showcase but what is happening informally in showrooms across the city as companies and designers showcase what is happening within design.”
frog will be joining in the citywide design festival, hosting two events over the course of the week. On April 9, the studio will be opening its doors for an informal showcase of its work along with music and drinks. While the open studio is a Salone del Mobile tradition, this year’s event will serve as a housewarming for the studio’s new space.
In December 2012 I traveled to Afghanistan with fellow frogs Jan Chipchase and Cara Silver to study the intersection of mobile technology and consumer banking. We were there to study financial services and access in a country where only 9 percent of people use financial institutions but 65 percent own a mobile phone. Today we're releasing the full report of our findings, entitled "In the Hands of God: A Study of Risk and Savings in Afghanistan." Download the PDF here.
“For the next 20 years, experimentation in food will be equivalent to the kinds of experimentation we’ve seen with the Internet over the last 20 years.” Keynote speaker Dr. David Edwards, founder and director of Le Laboratoire in Paris, France, served up this prediction to a room of farmers, historians, architects, entrepreneurs, and community organizers at the Food, the City, and Innovation Conference held in Austin, Texas.
David Edward’s presentation offered a radical vision of a future with breathable foods and edible packaging, which effectively set the tone for a two-day roundtable discussion aimed at expanding perceptions of what constitutes food and community in the digital age. After inviting members of the audience to take a collective “whif” from his breathable food samples called AeroShot Energy (imagine lipstick-sized inhalers), Dr. Edwards concluded his keynote by emphasizing the importance of designing for food experience which he believes will serve as a path to innovative solutions for solving our complex global food system. The notion that our food system will undergo changes comparable to what we’ve seen in the last couple decades of the Internet is an inspiring, if not terrifying provocation and the uneasiness of the conference participants (who were well-caffeinated thanks to the energy inhalers) was palpable as the panel discussions began.
For the past four winters, the Davos Hub Culture Pavilion has opened its doors across the street from the World Economic Forum’s epicenter during the organization’s Annual Meeting. Inside, “the global collaboration network” and its partners—2013’s lineup included Blackberry, Cognizant, CNN, GE, and the Wall Street Journal with additional support from Edelman and frog—host brainstorming and deal-making sessions focused on creating unexpected connections between people, ideas, and capital around the world.
Through the industrial age we have systematically repackaged the artifacts of our lives in smaller and smaller containers. We are in the age of miniaturization. Mobile computing is at the center of our increasingly de-centralized lives. Interestingly, artifacts like music, photos, and video have taken more portable forms while remaining sublime indicators of our identity: our history, memories, behaviors, and habits. Acquiring, creating, and consuming these artifacts—or what might be called our digital legacy—constitutes much of our mobile activity.
Trends like the steady drop in computing’s price to performance ratio, network speed innovation, cheap supply of memory, enhanced battery life, and large-scale quality manufacturing all fueled the evolution of miniaturization. But advances in user experience arguably played a more important role. The introduction and rapid adoption of multi-touch opened up the experience in ways previously impossible with indirect interface models. Rather than impose an abstraction in the way users interacted with content, content began responding in expected and familiar ways for users. Performance also made the experience responsive and immediate. There were no more spinning cursors or hour-glass icons interrupting the moment. Small nuances, like the use of physics or the way items and lists responded to touch, brought moments of delight that users understood and connected to.
The current generation of mobile device is roughly 8-9 millimeters thick with a 3- to 5-inch touch screen, a couple of cameras, sensors, and a connection to the network and cloud. Mobile platform wars are certainly far from over, but a period of mobile normalization has begun. It’s not unlike the time when personal computing settled with Windows and Mac OS. The core features are similar and standard interaction paradigms have stabilized. Android vs iOS vs Windows Mobile are not really as strategic decisions as they previously were. The steady pace of incremental innovation by Apple and Google has a tangible cadence. It hasn't stalled but perhaps it has crested. While we continue to cram more and more of our lives behind that 4-inch display, we also lose out on many of the important attributes that make our digital legacy important to us. There is something missing from the experience. Touch is a great enabler but it breaks down when we have access to every song recorded, every picture we have ever taken, and several terabytes of history and social interactions that we are constantly encoding about ourselves.
frog recently participated in the annual IIT Institute of Design’s Design Research Conference (DRC) that was held in Chicago. Our challenge was twofold: to facilitate an interactive engagement with the entire conference audience and to provoke thought and reflection on the conference content and theme — the adjacent possible.
Each year a group of students at the Institute of Design works to create a conference that explores emerging themes and practices in design research. This year’s focus on concepts from lateral fields and disciplines was inspired by author Steven Johnson’s description of the adjacent possible. Johnson draws upon this idea, originally from scientist Stuart Kauffman, to argue that good ideas are often generated by the recombination of other existing ideas:
“The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself. The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations.”
In the context of the conference, this essentially boils down to a few simple questions: What can designers learn from other fields? Which ideas can help us create better solutions?
I spend a lot of time playing multi-player video games with people all over the world. In the process, I have come to realize that the gamers I play with represent a wide range of age, ethnic, and gender diversity—sometimes even more than the range of people in my daily life. I started to wonder if this was true of other gamers: were their groups of in-game friends more diverse than their real-life friends? What was the impact of these video game interactions on gamers’ awareness of other cultures?
I live in New York City, which has a pretty diverse population, but in the past I have lived in cities like Kyoto, Japan where my gaming friends were absolutely more diverse than my non-gaming friends. Could cultural awareness gained through online gaming translate into more positive attitudes and interactions with a wider group of people offline?