3D Printed Houses: A Design Solution for Affordable Housing

This 3D Printed House Goes Up in a Day for Under $10,000

There aren’t a ton of ways to build a house other than the way houses have always been built, which is to say, by putting up four walls then adding a roof. This ages-old technique had to be modernized at some point, though, and as with everything else in our lives these days, technology’s delivering that modernization. In this case, instead of being built the old-fashioned way, houses can now be printed.
Last week at the South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, construction technologies startup ICON and housing nonprofit New Story unveiled their version of a 3D printed house. The model is 650 square feet and consists of a living room, kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, and shaded porch. It went from zero to finished in under 24 hours, and it cost less than $10,000. Equivalent homes built in developing countries will cost a mere $4,000 each.
This isn’t the first 3D printed house to spring up (or, rather, to be plopped down); there are similar structures created with similar technology in Russia, Dubai, Amsterdam, and elsewhere, but this is the first permitted 3D printed home to go up in the US.
ICON’s crane-like printer is called the Vulcan, and it pours a concrete mix into a software-dictated pattern; instead of one wall going up at a time, one layer is put down at a time, the whole structure “growing” from the ground up. The printer consists of an axis set on a track, giving it a flexible and theoretically unlimited print area.


“With 3D printing, you not only have a continuous thermal envelope, high thermal mass, and near zero-waste, but you also have speed, a much broader design palette, next-level resiliency, and the possibility of a quantum leap in affordability,” said Jason Ballard, ICON’s co-founder. “This isn’t 10 percent better, it’s 10 times better.”
The house has a greater purpose than just wowing techies, though. ICON and New Story’s vision is one of 3D printed houses acting as a safe, affordable housing alternative for people in need. New Story has already built over 800 homes in Haiti, El Salvador, Bolivia, and Mexico, partnering with the communities they serve to hire local labor and purchase local materials rather than shipping everything in from abroad.
New Story is in the process of raising $600,000 to fund a planned 100-home community in El Salvador. It will be the first-ever community of 3D printed homes. Printing will begin later this year, and the goal is for families to be moving in by Q3 of 2019. Donors can fund a full house with just $4,000.
Six hundred and fifty square feet may not sound like much space for more than one to two people, but it’s a huge step up from the lean-tos and shacks that make up the slums where millions of people live. ICON and New Story hope the Salvadorian community will serve as a scalable model that can be exported to developing countries around the world, providing a high-quality housing option for the millions who currently lack  one.
slum-tent-Haiti
Image Credit: Adam Brophy

“Instead of waiting for profit motivation to bring construction advances to the global south, we are fast-tracking innovations like 3D home printing that can be a powerful tool toward ending homelessness,” said Alexandria Lafci, COO of New Story.
The homes are built to the International Building Code structural standard and are expected to last as long or longer than standard concrete masonry unit homes.
While 3D printed houses are a great alternative to the flimsy lean-tos millions of people call home, there are some limitations to consider in terms of them being a solution to global housing shortages.
The biggest need for affordable, safe housing in the developing world is in or near big cities; take the slums of Cape Town, Nairobi, or Mumbai as an example. Replacing families’ current homes in these locations with printed houses may prove difficult simply due to space constraints; 3D printed communities are far more practical in rural areas where there’s less population density, and may not be a truly scalable solution in urban areas until the communities get vertical. 3D printed high-rises are already in the works, though not yet for the purpose of affordable housing.
If skyscrapers can be printed and used as offices, it’s only a matter of time before they can be used for housing as well. And in the meantime, $4,000 a pop for a safe, cozy home where there was no home before is a solid step in the right direction.
Image Credit: New Story

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The Future of Digital Health: Personalized Health Care Beyond the Doctor’s Office

In an interview at Singularity University’s Exponential Medicine in San Diego, Leslie Saxon, founder and executive director of the USC Center for Body Computing, spoke about the Virtual Care Clinic her team is building.
The concept for the Virtual Care Clinic was created in 2015 and has since been the team’s vision for how to create a better future of virtual patient care.
“Imagine a model of healthcare that’s always available and driven by data so you’re continuously collecting data off your body, about your environment, your nutrition, and activity,” Saxon said. “Then it delivers back to you personalized health care throughout your whole life. You don’t have to be in a brick-and-mortar building to get it, and you have access to the world’s best experts.”


Everyday technologies like cell phones, smartphone sensors, cloud storage, and data analytics are playing a critical role in Saxon’s vision. “We now have technologies that can scale and that are in enough people’s hands. We have analytics that can deliver accurate information to people and collect accurate information from them,” said Saxon.
Saxon is most excited about leveraging technology to increase patient participation and form a partnership between the care provider and patient, which enables more personalized and continuous care. She believes these are critical components to improving our current model of patient care, where patients are often disconnected and uninformed.
Ultimately, her hope is to create a global network of health experts that is accessible to all.
“A basic human right is access to health care, but few people have it,” she said. “If we can use digital tools to provide this, that would be an amazing thing.”

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Why Nothing Cuts Through Complexity Like Visual Thinking

Dan Roam is a management consultant who uses visual thinking to make complicated ideas simple. His books Back of the Napkin and Draw to Win explain how anyone can use visual thinking to improve communication, problem solving, and innovation.
“People often talk about the simplicity that’s on the other side of complexity,” Roam said in an interview with Lisa Kay Solomon, Singularity University’s Chair of Transformational Practices. “I have found no better way to get to that simplicity then simply to draw things.”
You don’t have to be an artist to benefit. In the business world, he said, new challenges look complex, like a “conceptual plate of spaghetti.” Visual thinking breaks down problems into their core elements, and by looking at the same images, people can more easily get on the same page.
The results speak for themselves. Roam said a set of 46 pictures explaining the Affordable Care Act landed him an invitation to Fox News and the White House—not because he was the most knowledgeable expert, but because his drawings offered the clearest explanation—and a 1967 sketch on the back of a cocktail napkin launched Southwest Airlines.
The power of the pen isn’t only in what it can write; drawing a picture can be even better.


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Designing for Emotional Wellness

Technology Can and Should Be Designed for Emotional Wellness

In an interview at Singularity University’s Exponential Medicine in San Diego, Nichol Bradford, co-founder and executive director of Sofia University’s Transformative Technology Lab, explored how new technologies are being designed to enhance emotional wellness and awareness.
Sofia University’s Transformative Technology Lab is certainly a unique space in Silicon Valley. The lab exists specifically to support entrepreneurs and innovators who are building new health and wellness-focused tech in an emerging field called transformative technology.
What exactly is transformative technology? The group defines the term as “science-based hardware and software that can produce reliable and positive changes in the human psychological experience.”


Bradford explains that within our psychological experience, or our wellness spectrum, there are a variety of technologies that can support specific conditions, such as anxiety, stress, and depression. One of Bradford’s favorite examples is an app called Ginger.io, which provides emotional support coaching and uses AI for pattern recognition in its users.
“With their permission the app performs a bit of phone monitoring and establishes a baseline for the user,” Bradford said.
“If someone who is depressed or has been depressed wants to avoid another episode, they can establish a baseline with the system. Then, if the person suddenly changes their behavior—if they’re slowly staying up really late or having a texting war—a coach from the system reaches out to them. This helps people get help in advance of an episode. That’s what a lot of this pattern recognition and live data tracking is allowing for.”
Bradford is most inspired by products like this, where user data is gathered then fed back to users in a way that helps them develop a higher level of self-awareness.
On the other end of the wellness spectrum is what Bradford refers to as exponential wellness. It focuses specifically on people who are using technology to push their psychological capabilities. Bradford said, “We have people in our community who are really pushing the mental and emotional capacity of human beings and pushing boundaries on what is possible for transformative leadership.”

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Bradford is also interested in companies that are using neuro-stimulation and biofeedback. She gave the example of a new FDA-approved electro-stimulation device by a company called Fisher Wallace. The device straps to a user’s forehead and is proven to effectively reduce depression without using traditional drugs.
One of Bradford’s key messages is that humans take direction and coaching really well, and that we should optimize technology around this notion.
“Many people in the wellness space feel like technology is the problem. I think the problem is not that it’s bad, but that it’s not good enough. It doesn’t have a human-centered design and there aren’t enough people saying, ‘how can we use technology to create intimacy and connection?’”
Image Credit: Patrick Foto / Shutterstock.com

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How Investors Can Use UX to Identify Better Startups

This article is based on a presentation by Erik Wingren and Petra Wennberg Cesario

by Julian Scaff

Startups are cool and exciting, and the opportunity to innovate and build a profitable business (or get bought by a big company for a lot of money) is tantalizing for both the founders and investors. But the stark truth is that about 90% of startups fail. Some of the reasons for this are beyond the control of the people involved in the startup, but many of the reasons for failure are absolutely in their control. It’s critical for founders and investors alike to know what those controllable factors are as early as possible. A large majority of those factors have to do with User Experience, and so below I’m going to look at each one of those factors to see how good UX design done early can help a startup avoid common pitfalls, and help investors better evaluate their chances of success.

20-Reasons-Startups-Fail

CB Insights compiled a list of startup post-mortem failures. Not all the reasons for failure have to do with UX, but most of them are either entirely UX or UX-related. This means that UX is by far the number one reason that startups fail. Let’s examine the top factors along with the percentage of failed startups that cite each as a reason for their failure:

1. No Market Need – 42%

This was by far the number one factor of why startups failed. It’s pretty simple: if nobody wants your product, then you have no business. So how can you find out if there’s a market need for your product or service? User research and user testing are the best methods to find this out, and you should know this before you start building anything. A startup that hires a UX designer (or has a UX designer as a founder) before they hire an engineer is already off to a good start.

If you’re an investor, make sure that a startup has done their UX research before they started building anything.

2. Ran Out of Cash – 29%

Typically a lot of engineering time and money is spent fixing bad features, or re-doing work that wasn’t done right the first time. User research, lean prototyping and testing helps ensure that you’re building the right product with the right features before you start building it. In fact, UX has been shown to reduce development time by 30%-50%. That adds up to a lot of money!

If you’re an investor, you want to look for startups that are using UX to build the right product in the right way and not just wasting development money.

3. Get Outcompeted – 19% / Poor Product – 17%

Getting outcompeted and making a poor product are closely related. Most companies don’t have a unique product or service and have to compete in a crowded marketplace. The factors that give products an edge over their competition are typically superior functionality, ease of use, and a positive emotional experience with customers. Factors that kill a product’s competitive edge are poor functionality, complexity, and customer frustration. A study by Gartner revealed that 90% of companies believed customer experience to be their primary differentiator.

Making a really good product is hard, and nobody gets it right the first time. UX design follows an iterative design process, meaning products are developed in lean cycles of researching, testing and improvement, leading to incremental, data-driven design solutions. If a product has flaws (and all do) it’s very difficult to identify those flaws and how to fix them without using the UX design process.

If you’re an investor, look for startups who are leveraging UX design to ensure high quality and gain a competitive advantage.

4. Poor Marketing – 14%

Knowing who your customer is and what they need leads to a deeper understanding of how to market your product to them. Further, UX design helps to create a differentiated brand and product proposition. The best marketing in the world can’t cover up a poor user experience.

In you’re an investor, look for startups that leverage their user experience as an integral part of their branding and marketing experience.

5. Ignore Customers – 14%

This is a no-brainer from a UX standpoint. The UX design process is also called ‘human-centered design’ because the focus from start to finish is on the people who use the product. If a startup isn’t doing UX research and testing, they’re flying blind.

If you’re an investor, look for startups who pay attention to their customers with UX research and testing.

6. Lose Focus – 13% / Pivot Gone Bad – 10% / Burnout – 8% / Failure to Pivot – 7%

Managing a product and a business through iterations and growth cycles is tricky, and it’s very easy to lose focus on the core customers and/or core business model. With it’s user-centered iterative methodology, UX design helps startups to stay focused on core business objectives, the most important features, and to know when to pivot and how. Keeping good focus and getting positive results prevent burnout because teams won’t waste time building the wrong product or features.

If you’re an investor, look for startups who leverage UX to stay focused and respond intelligently to change.

How do you know if a startup has done “good” UX?

Here is a checklist of key indicators that a startup has done good UX and not just thrown around some buzz words:

  • Have they done User Research? When pressed for time, it’s common for research to be the first thing cut, but this can lead to catastrophic wastes of time and money, and ultimately business failure.
  • Do they understand the entire Customer Journey? The user experience doesn’t just begin and end with the customer using your product. To really understand the user, they need to know their entire journey through deep user research.
  • Do they Prototype and Test before development? The most common mistakes that startups make are building products nobody wants, not being able to compete, and building poor quality products. The only way to know they’re building the right product with the right features is if they prototype and test. This also helps ensure they won’t run out of money building the wrong thing.
  • Do they have Senior Design Leadership? It’s critical that design thinking and usability are core company values. This only occurs when design experts are at the leadership table, in the form of a founder, a Chief Design Officer or VP of Design, or a company that keeps a UX design agency on retainer to serve that same role. Senior Design Leadership is so important that some Silicon Valley investment firms will only invest in startups that have designer founders, and many VC firms are hiring designers to help evaluate opportunities.

If you’re a tech entrepreneur, investing in UX design is the most effective way to boost your chances of success. If you’re an investor, it should be the number one thing you look for in a startup investment. Research definitely shows that UX is the key.

2017 SOLA/HACK!

Design Thinking and Social Entrepreneurship Hackathon for South L.A.

Members of a community are too often relegated to being mere spectators of change. How can they instead become active participants and influencers in the changes that affect them most?

In this third annual design hackathon event, participants used design thinking and UX methods in an entrepreneurial spirit to address social, economic, and environmental challenges specific to South LA Participants first learned about these challenges with two kick-off talks: Julian Scaff, organizer of the event and Design Director at the agency Interactivism, talked about economic and environmental challenges facing South LA, focusing particularly on the complex issue of gentrification. Zaneta Smith, director of TEDx Crenshaw and an expert in social work, talked about the socio-economic issues facing local residents, young people, and homeless population. Then participants formed teams to brainstorm and rapidly prototype solutions. At the end of the day all the teams pitched their projects, and a winner was decided by democratic vote. Eventually all the projects will be featured on the TEDx Crenshaw website so that they can be exposed to city officials and private investors to inspire real solutions in the local community.

The winning idea was a smartphone app called “Open Door” designed by Jessica Rahman, Sapphira Dai and Kiki Lowry. Lunch, prizes and space for the event were provided by General Assembly. Below is a description of their project with screens of what the app would look like.

Open Door App Proposal 

There are 44,000 people in Los Angeles County that are homeless. Of these, only 16-20% of adults are employed. There currently is no easy-to-navigate tool for this population to find job and housing opportunities in LA, despite existing resources.

Open Door is a mobile application connecting persons who are homeless and/or formerly incarcerated with employers and home listers, including social enterprises, who empathize with the aforementioned populations.

OpenDoor_4web1.jpg
Loading and sign-up screens.
OpenDoor_4web2
Job search and apply for job screens.
OpenDoor_4web3.jpg
On left: Confirmation screen. On right: Zaneta Smith, Jessica Rahman, Sapphira Dai, Kiki Lowry, and Julian Scaff.

 

Special thanks to Miki Reynolds, Kellie Cockrell and Auriel Jimenez at General Assembly for their invaluable help in making this event possible.

8 Ways Apple Can Save the MacBook Pro (Hint: it’s all about UX)

MacBook Pro dongles
You may have to use up to 17 dongles with your new MacBook Pro.

The Problem

The release of the new MacBook Pro computers with the Touch Bar feature has not gone smoothly for Apple. Chief amongst the problems with this latest iteration of Apple’s flagship portable computer is poor and inconsistent battery life, the primary reason why Consumer Reports for the first time initially did not recommend the laptops. Consumer Reports has since changed their recommendation after Apple released a fix. But even with this problem apparently corrected via a software update, there are other serious usability problems, as well as a user base that is largely underwhelmed with the lack of innovative improvements that could actually improve the user experience.

The reduction of ports down to just two or four Thunderbolt 3 ports on the 13” and 15” models respectively seriously hampers how professionals use the MacBook Pro. There are still too many hard drives and other peripherals and input devices that use USB and FireWire to be thrown away and replaced. Users can purchase expensive adapters for all their externals, but forcing users to buy and use a pile of dongles is clunky, terrible UX.

The Touch Bar was the most vaunted new feature on the revamped MacBook Pro. It’s essentially a second small touchscreen display that replaces the function keys, allowing for customization of the UI for different software applications. Apple calls this “A revolutionary new way to use your Mac.” However cool this may look, it seems to create more usability problems than it fixes. First is that using the Touch Bar for executing certain tasks is slower than using keyboard shortcuts because as a flat touchscreen it has no tactile feel. The user must take her hands off the keyboard and her eyes off the screen to look at and use the Touch Bar, thus disrupting their workflow both physically and psychologically. Ten of my students currently have MacBook Pros with the Touch Bar, and all of them report that they thought the feature was cool at first, but stopped using it because it was slow and not very useful.

Contributing to this degradation in speed and efficiency is the fact that the Touch Bar changes functionality when you switch software applications. While customization might seem like a powerful feature, it’s long been a well known fact in the HCI field that one of the most common causes of user error is what’s called ‘modality changes’, i.e. when the functionality of an interface element with the same look and/or location changes it’s functionality depending on what mode the software is currently in. One of the ways that professional or power users achieve greater speed and proficiency is by committing commonly used functions to subconscious muscle memory, so that for instance a user doesn’t have to think too hard or look at the keyboard to hit ‘Command-S’ to save a document, they just do it automatically. If, however, ‘Command-S’ functioned as ‘Save’ in Pages but in Keynote created a shape then users would be prone to making errors by accidentally hitting ‘Command-S’ in Keynote when they intended to just save their document. Further, users would have to work more slowly and think about what modality the software is currently in. I have observed this with my students: they stop, look at the Touch Bar, and have to think about how to use it every time. A quick ‘Command-Tab’ switches applications, and therefore modalities. That’s why they quickly stopped using the Touch Bar: it’s bad UX, especially for power users.

Some other lower-level annoyances about the MacBook Pro:

  • Standard RAM and hard drive storage is too small for pro users
  • Lost the HDMI port for HD displays and projectors
  • Lost the SD memory card slot used by most professional DSLR cameras
  • No touchscreen display

Collectively, these all add up to the MacBook Pro creating more problems than it solves. So below I’ve outlined features and functionalities the MacBook Pro could have to make it a really innovative, powerful, and most importantly user-friendly portable computer.

But first we need to look at…

Who is the user?

The MacBook Pro, as it’s name implies, is for professional users. This is a pretty broad category, but for this exercise I’m going to focus on a core professional user group that Apple has long catered to: Creative Professionals. This includes designers of all disciplines (graphic designers, illustrators, interaction designers, architects, 3D artists, etc) and media makers (photographers, videographers, film/tv editors, special effects artists, etc). Some commonalities shared between creative professionals include:

  • Use of memory- and processor-intensive software such as the Adobe Creative Suite, Final Cut Pro, Maya and AutoCAD
  • Need for large, fast and local storage capacity (cloud-based storage is too slow for working on very large files)
  • Need to work quickly through complex tasks
  • Often need for tactile input, i.e. via a tablet input device
  • Need to connect external devices for input (graphics table, track ball, video controller), hard drive arrays with fast connections, multiple external monitors for working, external HD displays and projectors for presentations, small memory storage devices such as USB thumb drives for quick file transfers and SD cards for professional digital cameras
  • Need for durability as they are sometimes working in different environments (working remotely in Starbucks, on movie sets, visiting clients, etc.)

And let’s also keep in mind one more important thing: not one single professional user has ever told me that they really need their MacBook Pro to be thinner and lighter. Apple seems to be obsessed with this. Pro users are not.

So now that we have a few insights into the needs of professional users, let’s look at some features that would help solve these user needs:

Eight Ways to Save the MacBook Pro

  1. First of all let’s ditch the Touch Bar. It doesn’t seem to serve any of these user needs, and creates usability problems rather than solving them.
  2. Next let’s focus on memory. Pro users need lots of memory to run applications and store large files, and although Apple wants people to pay for their cloud services, this doesn’t work for how pro users actually work. Let’s make the standard base-level memory 16GB of RAM (upgradable to 32GB or 64GB) and hard drive storage starting at 1TB (upgradable to 2TB or 3TB).
  3. Pro users have evolving storage needs. Let’s make both RAM and HD memory user upgradable.
  4. To help pro users work more quickly and efficiently, Apple should design add-ons for their pro software such as Final Cut Pro and Logic Pro. These can include keyboard overlays that teach keyboard shortcuts (proven efficiency boosters) and different types of mouse-like input devices specific to these softwares.
  5. Many pros use tablets for a more tactile input device experience. Apple should follow the route of Microsoft and others by giving the MacBook Pro a touchscreen display with stylus. They already have something like this with the iPad Pro, but iOS doesn’t run most of the professional software. Let’s bring that iPad Pro functionality to the MacBook Pro.
  6. Speaking of the iPad Pro, let’s make it interoperable with the MacBook Pro by making the iPad Pro a portable dual display option. Let’s allow users to connect an iPad to the MacBook Pro and use the iPad as a second touchscreen display. The Microsoft Surface Pro can’t do that…yet.
  7. Pro users already may have to connect multiple external devices to their MacBook Pro. Let’s not make that even clunkier than it already is by forcing them to stick a bunch of dongles between the computer and the externals. Let’s create a customizable, modular port bay on one side so the user can choose between these two options: three Thunderbolt 3 ports + 1 USB-C port —OR— two Thunderbolt 3 ports + one USB-C port + one FireWire 800 port. And let’s add back the SD card slot for pro photographers and videographers.
  8. Durability is something that is not usually a priority with the industrial design of computers, but so-called ‘Tough PC’s’ have been around for a long time. So let’s really set the MacBook Pro apart from the competition by making it waterproof (to one meter…let’s be reasonable), dustproof and shockproof.

Conclusion

To design great products that are usable AND innovative, Apple needs to use the UX process to understand it’s users, design to their needs, and test extensively. Ultra-thin laptops with Touch Bars are neat, but they don’t solve any usability issues and don’t serve the needs of professional users. Beautiful aesthetics can deceptively mask poor usability as explained in this excellent article on The Aesthetic-Usability Effect by Kate Meyer.  A beautiful, ultra-thin laptop with a not-very-useful Touch Bar and a bunch of dongles hanging off of it isn’t innovative, and it’s not good design.