On Visioning

Why Purpose and Ethos Lead to a Stronger Vision

“The visionary starts with a clean sheet of paper, and re-imagines the world.” ~Malcolm Gladwell

visioningIn his 2009 TED talk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” Simon Sinek famously asserted “People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it.” This is true for customers of a product or service, but is equally true for an organization’s employees. The consulting firm Imperative published a study in 2016 that revealed that the most important factor in employee job satisfaction is having a sense of purpose. Thus, it is essential for businesses to have a vision and a mission that is effective internally and externally.

Many business schools and online guides advise approaching the vision or mission statement by looking into the future, dreaming big, and expressing ideas with emotion but not too much specificity. (Some organizations have both a vision and a mission statement, the former typically looking more inward and the latter looking outward.) Unfortunately, this has lead to a lot of vague and meaningless mission statements, i.e. “It is our mission to enthusiastically leverage efficiency while generating value for our customers.” That doesn’t inspire employees or customers because it doesn’t really say anything. On the flip side, getting too specific is also counterproductive: “We manufacture the best widgets in the industry at the lowest cost to consumers.” We know exactly what you do, but we don’t really know why you do it.

In this article I’ll analyze some vision and mission statements, and then look at why purpose and ethos are more important and powerful than vision or mission.

Let’s start by looking at some real-world examples for comparison:

Apple’s mission statement under Steve Jobs:

To make a contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind.

This statement isn’t about a particular product or even computers or operating systems. It’s about why they do what they do. Apple is a technology company, but this broad statement gives their design not only a functional and aesthetic goal but also an ethos, thereby creating a community of shared values. That’s why Apple customers are so loyal.

The downside to this statement is that it’s too broad and overly grandiose. Can a computer, smart phone or operating system really “advance humankind”? Maybe. But the hyperbole runs the risk of making it ring false with customers and employees.

Apple’s mission statement now:

Apple designs Macs, the best personal computers in the world, along with OS X, iLife, iWork and professional software. Apple leads the digital music revolution with its iPods and iTunes online store. Apple has reinvented the mobile phone with its revolutionary iPhone and App store, and is defining the future of mobile media and computing devices with iPad.

This isn’t really a mission statement, it’s just a list of products, some of which are obsolete. It’s also backwards-looking. You shouldn’t have to update your mission statement just because you release a new product or phase out an old one. The mission statement should have a vision that operates at a much higher level than any particular product. If Apple is only a list of products, even if those products are well designed and of good quality, then it lacks an ethos, and it lacks a vision of why they do what they do.


Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.

Patagonia’s mission statement concisely expresses both the values that have made their business successful as well as the values that drive them to help improve the world. They make and sell products by and for people who love the outdoors. As such, engaging in philanthropic efforts to help the environment is exactly aligned with their ethos of why they make the products they make.


We believe…

  • Everyone is creative. IDEO builds learning platforms and tools to unlock creativity.
  • Creative organizations are more agile. IDEO helps organizations innovate by empowering the people who drive them.
  • Complex problems are solved collaboratively. IDEO brings together networks to act on systemic challenges in education, sustainable food, mobility, aging and death.
  • Innovation in public life starts with people. IDEO creates human centered products, services, spaces, and organizations that empower communities, cities and even countries.
  • Technology moves fast, human needs change slowly. IDEO connects emerging technology to everyday needs and aspirations in fields such as biodesign, life science, health, and data.
  • Venturing is R&D. IDEO helps large organizations move quickly and small companies scale by putting people’s needs at the center.

This is very long winded, but IDEO is also a company that does a lot of things and so they may be justified in going into more detail. Really what this boils down to is that IDEO has six points in its design philosophy. In other words, they have a strong ethos and a strong culture. And it’s that ethos and culture that enabled them to essentially invent design thinking. Perhaps a more concise way to encapsulate this would be:

“At IDEO we believe that innovative solutions for technology, business and public life require human-centered collaborative thinking.”

It doesn’t capture everything, but it expresses enough of the ethos to be a guiding principle and communicate to the outside world why they do what they do.

Purpose rather than a mission

A pattern that emerges is that mission/vision statements are empty if they don’t also have purpose. The branding agency Siegel+Gale published a brilliant manifesto on this titled “It’s time to bury the mission and vision.” In it, David Srere rejects the empty and generic mission statements that many companies feel compelled to publish and instead focuses on their purpose:

“Purpose is a definitive statement of the difference an organization seeks to make in the world. It is a clear, credible, compelling response to a fundamental question: “Why do we do what we do?”” -David Srere, co-president, CEO and chief strategy officer @ Siegel+Gale

The key aspects of a purpose statement is that it articulates the what and why of a company in a way that is both high level and specific. Consider Google’s mission statement:

Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.

In one concise sentence Google tells us that they are not just a search engine or a cloud services company and they’re not just another tech product company. Their purpose is the “organize the world’s information” meaning they’re a big data company, “and make it universally accessible and useful” meaning they’re a UX-centric company. That provides a lens through which to assess every product or service they create, and tells us why they do everything they do.


To find your organization’s purpose, start with some simple sentences and keywords. What is your organization’s ethos? What is the characteristic spirit of your organization’s culture that grows from your shared values? And as you explore your organization’s ethos, keep working towards the why. Why do you do what you do? Look inside to find what drives you, and look outside to see where you want to go.


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.


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.

Designing Resiliency

Climate Change, AI, Cyberesecurity, and Experience Design

We are living during a period of history defined by uncertainty. Global climate change, political and social upheavals, demographic shifts and other large scale changes mean that past trends do not necessarily predict future ones. But this is also a period when design as a field is more prominent than ever, giving us tools to innovate in the face of challenges with uncertain outcomes. A primary design goal with these really big challenges should be resiliency.

Resiliency is a kind of strength. It allows objects to hold their shape, and people and organizations to remain intact under duress. To design resiliency we cannot just devise solutions to current challenges; we must also anticipate future challenges, and this requires futurecasting.

Futurecasting is not about predicting the future. This is a fool’s errand, yielding results that are almost certainly inaccurate. When I was growing up, magazines like Popular Science promised flying cars and personal robots in the 21st century. (I’m still waiting for mine!) Instead, futurecasting is about sketching possible future scenarios based on current trends across a wide range of disciplines including science, technology, social sciences, economics, environmental and energy trends, etc. Instead of viewing the future as a single linear pathway, it uses systems-based thinking to envision multiple possible scenarios from best-case to worst-case possibilities.

For this article, I want to focus on four specific and interrelated trends that will affect organizational resiliency in the next decade:

  1. Climate Disruption
  2. Artificial Intelligence
  3. Cybersecurity
  4. Experience Design

Climate Disruption

Climate change is already happening, and the latest data suggest that it started earlier than previously thought. Many scientists also believe that the recent Paris accord is too little, too late to stop human-caused climate change. While there is promise of technology-based solutions to the problem, these will take time to both come on line and begin to take effect. So we can say with a high level of probability that many of the predicted effects of climate change are inevitable, and some— such as sea level rise, drought in some areas, flooding in others, and increased storm activity— are now unavoidable. Designing resiliency to climate disruption thus becomes of paramount importance.

What this means is that organizations need to be aware of all the possible effects of climate change, and what parts of their business are most vulnerable. For some organizations that means there are value chain risks to physical property, energy supplies or price volatility with raw materials or commodities. There may also be risks of products becoming unpopular due to shifts in the needs or attitudes of consumers, or regulatory risks due to governments taking action to mitigate climate disruption effects. These need to be factors in an organization’s design strategy to improve resilience. (Kem-Laurin Kramer has an excellent book on design strategy and sustainability called User Experience in the Age of Sustainability.)

Artificial Intelligence

Before proceeding on this topic, it’s important to define what AI means. There are different types of AI, and the differences are enormous:

  • Weak (or Narrow) AI is non-sentient and focused on specific tasks
  • AGI or Artificial General Intelligence is sentient and of equal intelligence to humans
  • ASI or Artificial Super Intelligence is sentient and exponentially more intelligent than humans

To be clear, what we are talking about here is weak AI. We are a long way off from building a self-thinking, self-aware, sentient AI, and we really don’t know how long it will take or if it’s even possible. We are held back less by computing power and more by the fact that we don’t have a clear understanding of the inner workings of consciousness or sentience. It’s pretty hard to build something when you don’t know what you’re building.

However, weak AIs are going to have an enormous impact in wealthy countries in the next decade. A new development that is coming quickly is the personal AI avatar, a weak AI that acts as a personal assistant. It will filter information for you, customize your news feed, manage your personal and professional communications, and predict your needs and desires. These personal AI avatars will be gateways to access consumers. Some companies will design and customize the avatars. Others will negotiate with the avatars to deliver ads and marketing materials. Organizations need to understand how this technology works.

Objects with embedded computers and wireless connectivity, the ‘Internet of Things,’ will proliferate, and increasingly these objects will interface with weak AIs that live in the cloud. These will also interact with personal AI avatars. For instance, your avatar will know when you wake up and will tell your coffeemaker to start making coffee. Your printer will tell your avatar that your ink levels are low and then your avatar can order new ink from Amazon without bothering you. Rather than just designing individual products, organizations will be designing product ecosystems, and there will be no difference from a design standpoint between digital and analog experiences.

Another area that is seeing revolutionary change is transportation design. Enabled by weak AI, autonomous self-driving cars will become the norm in the next decade. That doesn’t mean everyone will drive one, but we will all share the road with them. Just like with the Internet of Things, experience design will be critical in how we interact with transportation, from cars to buses, trains and aircraft. Already, companies like Tesla, Hyperloop, SpaceX, Toyota, Honda and others are hiring UX designers to do the design work that used to only be done by ergonomics engineers. This is because people don’t just interact with their car or other vehicle, but are interacting with multiple hardwares and softwares both inside and outside the vehicles. Organizations working with transportation will need to think of their products and services more like digital devices and software-as-a-service rather than traditional transport.


We are in a cyberwar. Right now. The recent hacks of government email servers and the DDoS attacks that brought down sections of the internet in October, 2016 were skirmishes in this war. This war is very complex because some of the players are governments and some are private parties, but it’s often very hard to tell the difference. This war will affect everyone using the internet and connected devices, so organizations need to know what’s going on and have a strategic plan.

The recent DDoS attacks were especially significant because instead of using desktop or laptop computers to launch the attacks, they used other devices, like home internet routers and webcams. All of those Internet-of-Things devices are actually computers with wireless connectivity, and they are all vulnerable to cyberattack.

For decades cybersecurity and anti-virus efforts have always been a step behind hackers. Humans are a bottleneck in these efforts, and so the only way to be able to respond and defend against these attacks quickly enough to be effective is to use defensive Weak AIs. On the flip side, AIs can also be weaponized and used to launch attacks. Again, because AIs have an enormous speed advantage over humans, such an attack could be very damaging.

Hackers know this, and so an attack with a weaponized AI is almost certainly inevitable. Organizations need to have a cybersecurity strategy, and AI needs to be a part of that strategy. For individuals, personal AI avatars will not only be our assistants but also our bodyguards against hacking and identity theft.

With AIs being the new defensive and offensive weapons in the cyberwar, experience design is critical to being able to effectively utilize them and to understand what is happening.

Experience Design

Experience Design (XD), UX, and Design Thinking are becoming the biggest forces in all fields of design and business. This is because they work as effective methods for solving big, complex problems with human-centered solutions. XD/UX combines the creative ideation and sideways thinking of design, critical for coming up with innovative solutions, with the empirical rigor of science, critical to validating whether a solutions works or not and why. Studies indicate that startup businesses fail 80-90% of the time due to XD/UX failures, which include things like lack of a market need, being beaten by competition, poor product design, ignoring customers, etc. XD/UX is critical for business.

Some of the areas that XD/UX is expanding into include:

  • Industrial design
  • Product design
  • Transportation design
  • Fashion tech
  • Medical tech

Increasingly, XD/UX is designing not just single products but product-service ecosystems. The empirical iterative process of XD/UX is particularly well suited for tackling big complex problems using design thinking and systems thinking.


In this time of uncertainty, there are unique opportunities for innovation. The organizations that are best prepared and well positioned will have a distinct advantage in those opportunities. By leveraging design thinking and XD/UX, organizations will have the critical elements to design solutions to climate disruption, AI, and cybersecurity. Futurecasting may at first sound more mystical than meticulous, but only by putting in place a proactive forward-thinking strategy can organizations design resiliency.

The Feminist Tech Company: Ways and Reasons to Build a Culture of Equality and Inclusion

by Julian Scaff / edited by Crystal Scaff

This article is based on my keynote talk at the Wonder Women Tech Conference in Long Beach, California on July 17, 2016.

The tech industry has a problem. For all its progressive leanings and inherent coolness, the industry has a big problem with diversity. This problem is multi-faceted, with sexism affecting women, racism affecting people of non-white and non-Asian ethnicities, and ageism affecting people over the age of thirty. For this article, I want to specifically focus on the issue of sexism.

Women represent nearly 60 percent of the labor force in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. But according to a study by CNET that polled some of the largest tech companies in the world, women only make up a very disproportionate 30 percent of the tech industry labor force. And if you look specifically at technical positions like programmers, engineers and data scientists, the numbers get even more abysmal. The industry giants have some of the worst numbers: at Apple Computer, 20 percent of technical positions are held by women; at Google it’s 17 percent, and at Twitter it’s only 10 percent.


Why is this the case? Are men innately better suited to technical jobs? Let’s look at the evidence.

Computer programming was invented in 1842 by a woman named Ada Lovelace, who was highly skilled in mathematical thinking and developed the analytical engine that was the basis for all electronic computing in the 20th and 21st centuries. In the 1960’s, Margaret Hamilton was one of the world’s first software engineers. In addition to helping develop the essential principles of modern computer programming, Hamilton wrote the software that made the Apollo 11 moon landing possible. Recent data on women in tech includes a study by Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and North Carolina University that found that women coders made fewer mistakes than their male counterparts.

Ada Lovelace and Margaret Hamilton
Ada Lovelace (left) and Margaret Hamilton (right), inventors and pioneers of computer programming.

So isn’t it odd that a field that was invented by women and where women seem to outperform men is so male-dominated? Well, that study of women coders points to the reason for this disparity. The study specifically looked acceptance rates of code on the popular developers’ site GitHub. A low-acceptance rate indicated that code was not accepted due to errors, and the study found that women’s acceptance rates were higher than men’s, but only if the women’s gender was not known. If you take the same female coders and reveal their gender, then the acceptance rates of their code plummets. So there’s a strong and prevalent perception in the tech community that women are worse coders than men, even though the exact opposite is true.

These attitudes indicate that the problem in the tech industry is one of culture. There is a prevalent culture that sees women as inferior, and that culture is so prevalent that it discourages and prevents women from participating in this employment sector.

A study by the American Association of University Women showed that the number of women in computer-related fields has dropped in recent years, even though we know that women excel in these fields and there are jobs available.

Women have gotten the message that the tech industry is not friendly to them. This is a real problem for companies, especially in an economy where innovation is a driving force and access to talent is critical for success. Companies are losing out on critical talent and the attendant opportunities for greater innovation. Multiple studies directly link diversity with innovation, so tech companies are leaving a lot on the table by not hiring more women and minorities, particularly in roles of leadership, ideation, design and engineering.

All of this information is public knowledge. It’s published in sources like Wired, CNET, Fast Company, and the other publications tech insiders read. But entrenched culture doesn’t change unless direct and intentional action is taken to change it.

There are three things companies can do to fix this problem.

1. Change the internal culture.

Most people familiar with the tech industry know the terms “bro culture” and “brogrammer.” All-male technical teams tend to become self-perpetuating bro culture machines, so that even when a woman is hired, she has to either tolerate the hyper masculine, sexist culture or leave. We know from low retention rates of women in these jobs that many women choose the latter.

Companies need to talk about gender issues and gender-discrimination patterns with their employees. Frank and open communication is key to changing the culture. Every employee should be asked to show responsibility and leadership in affecting that change.

Over the course of my 22-year career, I’ve witnessed overt and subtle forms of sexism and discrimination in various forms. Overt sexism and sexual harassment are easy-to-spot legal issues, and while these are serious problems in some organizations, subtle sexism is much more widespread. Many men don’t realize they’re engaging in subtle sexism, so conversations about what it is and how to not do it need to happen.

I’ll give an example. I used to have a male colleague who spoke in markedly different ways to male and female colleagues. He might say to a female colleague in a higher-pitched voice “Good morning, Sally. That’s a very nice dress!” and then turn to me and say in a lower-pitched voice “Hey, Julian, how is that project going?” The more he did it, the more glaring it became. It was clear that on some level he clearly did not respect female colleagues on the same level as male colleagues. At a certain point, I brought this up to him and asked if he was aware of it, and he completely denied that this was the case. He also didn’t change his behavior. It was so ingrained that he didn’t see it, and nobody wanted to talk about it publicly because it was uncomfortable. This is the culture we are up against.

2. Promote women.

Organizations should aim for a gender balance (and diversity in general, defined in terms of ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity) in positions of management and leadership.

Some people will criticize this as a form of affirmative action that goes against the meritocracy model championed in Silicon Valley. But we know from studies like the gender bias against women coders that this “meritocracy” doesn’t apply to women and minorities.

Having more women and minorities in positions of management and leadership helps to change the bro culture in the tech industry, and it’s good for business. As we discussed before, diversity is a critical contributor to a culture of innovation. Therefore, aiming for gender parity and diversity in management and leadership roles isn’t just a nice thing to do; it should be an integral component of an organization’s business strategy.

Industries should also consider changing their policies to support work-life balance. The Harvard Business Review identified work-life balance as one of a number of major obstacles to women advancing in leadership positions. (There are other significant barriers, as well, so I encourage you to read the study linked above.) Organizations need to remove this obstacle and explicitly support employees—both women and men—in not having to choose between personal/family life and work life.

Because the truth is that working more hours per week does not equal more work getting done. A study at Stanford University found that employees working 60 hours per week achieved two thirds of the work completed compared to employees working 40 hours per week. Another study, by the Microsoft Personal Productivity Challenge, found that employees are only really productive about 29 hours per week. Incidentally, that same study found that women were slightly more productive than men.

So promoting work-life balance, and specifically limiting the number of hours employees are allowed to work per week, can not only help boost diversity in leadership positions but also boost productivity for the entire organization.

3. Recruit and communicate externally.

A common complaint from organizations is that they just don’t get enough job applicants who are women and minorities. As a hiring manager I’ve seen this happen: you advertise a job opening, and most or all of the applicants are white men. So what do you do?

If diversity is a key component of your business strategy, this has to be communicated externally. Companies need to communicate not just that they are an “equal opportunity employer” but that they have a gender-equal work environment. This should be front and center on the public employment page of the organization’s website, with an explanation of HOW they are gender inclusive.

Further, companies can demonstrate this dedication by sponsoring organizations that are working for change in the industry. Organizations like Wonder Women Tech, Girls Who Code, Black Girls Code, Girl Develop It, Tech Girlz, and many others.

No, this is not my boyfriend's computer.
Source: http://www.mcrockcapital.com/blog/tickle-girls-with-tech


It should be part of a company’s business strategy and strategic vision to cultivate an internal culture of inclusion and equality both because it’s the right thing to do and because it gives companies a competitive advantage. A lack of diversity has a trickle up negative effect that spreads from individual organizations to the entire industry to the world economy. The Harvard Business Review put it in blunt terms: having more women in the workforce could boost the GDP of the entire economy by 5 percent, which equals almost a trillion dollars. The tech industry needs to become truly progressive by getting serious about creating diversity. The feminist organization is more effective and more innovative than what we currently see in the tech marketplace, and our collective path toward the workplace of the future is stilted until the feminist company is the norm.

Designing Change for Good

The following is the original text from my talk at TEDx Crenshaw that took place in Los Angeles on Saturday, October 24, 2015. The video of the talk is included below. Special thanks to my editor Crystal Clayter for helping me write this piece and prepare for the talk.


I want to share with you a couple of things about my way of thinking. I have always viewed the world as one large interconnected system, and I’ve always wanted to use that understanding to make a real difference. John Muir once said “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe” and Ice Cube once said “The worst thing you can do about a situation is nothing.” And you know what’s really cool? I think I might be the first TEDx speaker in history to quote John Muir and Ice Cube in the same sentence! So now that we’ve gotten that milestone out of the way, I want to tell you about something happening right here in South L.A. that illustrates these two ideas.

A few months ago I heard a story on NPR news about a project called “Green Alleys” in the neighborhood surrounding Avalon and 52nd Street. Alleys are important for pedestrian traffic in this neighborhood, but they’re ugly, full of trash, and unsafe. When it rains, they flood with water and people can’t use them. The Green Alleys Project is addressing all of these problems with a unified solution. Solar recharging lights are going to allow people to safely use the alleys at night. A new type of pavement will let water seep into the ground, preventing floods and naturally filtering out pollution. Drought tolerant plants will beautify the alleys and help control dust, and public art projects will foster appreciation of culture. Promoting safe use of the alleys helps people get to and from work, helps kids move between school and home, and is good for both the environment and economy.

This project is important because it doesn’t treat all of these problems as separate issues. It recognizes that they’re all connected. We can’t effectively deal with one problem without addressing all of them.

I believe that the challenges we face in our community, and the world, are so big and complex, that we can’t fix them without a holistic approach. I present to you a solution that has the power to bring about vast changes: something called Design Thinking.

Design Thinking is a collaborative method for problem-solving. You start by identifying the problem. You come up with and test many divergent ideas on how to address all facets of the problem. You bring together the ideas that work, and discard the ones that don’t. You repeat these steps, as necessary, refining your ideas on each go around. And finally, you execute a solution.

The three most important aspects of design thinking are:

  1. Empathy. That’s why it’s often called human-centered design.
  2. Collaboration. You don’t have to be a designer to take part, and diverse viewpoints are highly valuable.
  3. Empowerment. Design thinking is about enabling people to become active participants in their own destiny.

Design is not just the domain of the creative class sealed in their little bubble. I teach user experience design at a postgraduate college called General Assembly, and I believe that teaching people design is teaching people empowerment. My students come from a vast range of backgrounds, and I really believe that anyone can take part in design. We cannot predict the future, but together we can invent it.

In service of this idea, I recently organized a Design Hackathon at General Assembly in South LA. With teams of students and alumni from General Assembly and USC, we spent a day applying design thinking to the challenges facing our local community. The teams came up with amazing, inspirational ideas. Unfortunately I don’t have time to share all of them with you today, but I want to show you a couple of them so it’s clear what people can do in just a matter of hours, working together and using Design Thinking.



This is a smart phone app called “Urban Green”. As many of you know, South LA has over 3,000 empty lots, many of them used for nothing more than dumping trash. An organization called LA Open Acres has mapped all these sites, but the Urban Green App goes further. Using geolocation on your phone, you can see all the empty lots in your vicinity, who owns them and if they’re available to be reclaimed. You can also connect with others in your community to organize and work together. This app empowers people to turn trash dumps into parks, playgrounds, and public gardens, with positive impacts for the local economy, culture, public safety, and the environment.

This is Design Thinking.


Here is another smart phone app called “100 & Rising”. One of the challenges of local business is how to draw investments, in order to grow and withstand the pressures of gentrification. This app is designed to empower local minority-owned businesses to seek micro-investment from the community. It also helps local entrepreneurs to raise funds for starting new businesses. The benefits include sustainable job growth, community pride, and profits from locally-owned businesses stay in the community, rather than being exported to another state or off shore bank account. 100 & Rising allows local minority-owned businesses and entrepreneurs to be participants rather than spectators in the economy.

This is Design Thinking.

Earlier this year, in Ohio, an educator ran an experiment called Prototype Design Camp with students from both public and private high schools. In the camp the high schoolers were taught methods of design thinking, organized into teams, and then allowed to work on projects.

Now, you’d probably expect high schoolers to be interested in designing new smart phone games or meme generators. But that’s not what they did.

Instead, they designed new schools with better learning environments. They designed better classrooms. And they designed new ways to build social movements.

In other words, they wanted to think BIG. Just by teaching a new approach to thinking about and solving problems, high schoolers were more engaged, more proactive in their learning process, and they were thinking in systems. This potential exists in the young people in this community as well. It’s time we harness it.

The challenges facing our community and the world are big, complex, interconnected, and urgent. We need a new way of thinking to meet these challenges. We need to be teaching design thinking to young people, at least at the high school level, if not earlier.

In the words of Dr. King, we must embrace “the fierce urgency of Now…Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”

Now is the time to design our own future.

SOLA/HACK! A Design Hackathon for Change in South LA

“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” ~Alice Walker


SOLA/HACK was a design hackathon I organized, hosted by General Assembly’s downtown L.A. campus. Participants included current students and alumni from General Assembly and USC. The objective of the hackathon was to apply design thinking and UX design principles to issues specific to the South L.A. community, with an eye toward how appropriate uses of technology could be used to help address social, economic, and environmental problems. While technology can be a powerful tool for change (think of the crucial role of cell phones during the Arab Spring uprising) it was stressed that there is not an easy techno-fix to every social problem. So participants were encouraged to look beyond just apps or websites and employ systems-based thinking on their solutions.

Some of the problems and challenges facing South L.A. include:

  • The area is a food desert, with half the number of grocery stores as other parts of the city.
  • It has the worst pollution levels in L.A. county.
  • South L.A. has an 8.4% unemployment rate, compared to 7.6% for the rest of the city, and per capita income  is half of what it is for the rest of the city.
  • South L.A. is starting to gentrify, which will push  out lower income residents. Risk factors for gentrification in the area include a a high proportion of renters, access to transportation via major freeways and expansion of public transit affords easy access to job centers, and housing values are low while architectural merit is high. Further, the affluent neighborhoods in L.A. have skyrocketing real estate prices for both buyers and renters, and in some cases are depopulating due to restrictive zoning laws. Recent studies have identified this as the real engine behind gentrification.

Zaneta Smith, a social worker and community leader in South L.A. who is also the organizer of the TEDxCrenshaw event, was a guest speaker and mentor for the hackathon. She opened the hackathon with invaluable information on the myriad challenges facing the local community, and mentored the teams on their projects.

Zaneta Smith talks with participants at SOLA/HACK.
Zaneta Smith talks with participants at SOLA/HACK.

Sofia Khan, a UX designer with Iteration Group and instructor at General Assembly, provided invaluable support and mentorship to the participants. Sofia and General Assembly alumn Alan Ortiz also taught a workshop on rapid prototyping, a critical tool for UX designers to empirically test ideas.

Participants were encouraged to think outside the box, think in systems, and draw connections between seemingly disparate ideas. The primary objective is innovation through collective brainstorming and rapid prototyping.

“The most innovative designers consciously reject the standard option box and cultivate an appetite for thinking wrong.” ~Marty Neumeier

At the conclusion of the hackathon, the participants voted on a winner. The vote was very close as all of the proposals were extremely strong and innovative. But in the end an app called Urban Green took the top prize. Below is a synopsis of this app, followed by the proposals from the other teams.


Winner: Urban Green by Karen Murphy, Bryan James, Natalie Sacks, and Kelsey Klemme

Winner: Urban Green by Karen Murphy, Bryan James, Natalie Sacks, and Kelsey Klemme.
Winner: Urban Green by Karen Murphy, Bryan James, Natalie Sacks, and Kelsey Klemme.

“Urban Green” is a smart phone app that addresses the issue of empty lots in South LA— over 3,000, many of which are used for nothing more than dumping trash. An organization called LA Open Acres has mapped all these sites, but the Urban Green App goes further. Using geolocation on your phone, you can see all the empty lots in your vicinity, who owns them and if they’re available to be reclaimed. You can also connect with others in your community to organize and work together. This app empowers people to turn trash dumps into parks, playgrounds, and public gardens, with positive impacts for the local economy, culture, public safety, and the environment.

100 & Rising by Rachel McLeod, Leon Baham, and Evangeline Hsiao

100 & Rising by Rachel McLeod, Leon Baham, and Evangeline Hsiao.
100 & Rising by Rachel McLeod, Leon Baham, and Evangeline Hsiao.

“100 & Rising” is a smart phone app designed to empower minority-owned businesses and entrepreneurs. One of the challenges of local business is how to draw investments, in order to grow, expand capacity and withstand the pressures of gentrification. This app provides a tool for local minority-owned businesses to seek micro-investment from the community. It also helps local entrepreneurs to raise funds for starting new businesses. The benefits include sustainable job growth, community pride, and profits from locally-owned businesses stay in the community, rather than being exported to another state or off shore bank account. 100 & Rising empowers local minority-owned businesses and entrepreneurs to be participants rather than spectators in the economy.

Help a Family Grow by Bianca Byfield, Viannka Lopez, Min Ryu, and Marvin Monserrat Jr.

Help a Family Grow by Bianca Byfield, Viannka Lopez, Min Ryu, and Marvin Monserrat Jr.
Help a Family Grow by Bianca Byfield, Viannka Lopez, Min Ryu, and Marvin Monserrat Jr.

“Help a Family Grow” takes an innovative approach to the challenge of foster care youth at the transitional age range of 16-24 known as “Transitional Age of Youth” or TAY. South L.A. has the highest number of foster care children in L.A. County, and many Transitional Age of Youth (TAY) do not have access to good schools, or good support and mentorship for transitioning to adulthood and independence. Help a Family Grow matches these youth at the ages of 18-24 with businesses who can provide not only on-the-job training but also housing, by utilizing existing state foster care subsidies.

The program goes well beyond a website and app, helping to build relationships between youth and business owners. The subsidies allow businesses to increase staffing levels, and provides youth invaluable job skills and experience. This systems-based approach is built on a forward-thinking model of partnering county and state governments with local business in a solution that benefits all.

Concept sketches for the "Help a Family Grow" app design.
Concept sketches for the “Help a Family Grow” app design.


Voice of South L.A. by Ellie Hoshizaki, Philipe Navarro, Kendrick Parks, and Poy Yeung

Voice of South L.A. by Ellie Hoshizaki, Philipe Navarro, Kendrick Parks, and Poy Yeung.
Voice of South L.A. by Ellie Hoshizaki, Philipe Navarro, Kendrick Parks, and Poy Yeung.

“Voice of South L.A.” is an app that gives people a voice to their representatives in government. People often feel powerless and far removed from their political representatives, and this powerlessness contributes to South L.A. having the lowest voter turnout and civic involvement in the county. “Voice of South L.A.” provides pre-populated forms for sending messages directly to local government officials, and also allows you to share your message with others to organize and inspire. It is a tool that empowers any individual person to participate in the democratic process and hold their representatives accountable. Greater civic involvement has vast positive direct and indirect effects on a broad range of social and economic issues.

SoLocal by Hassan Latif, Brooke Newberry, Tiffany Koh, and Melissa Jeffries

SoLocal by Hassan Latif, Brooke Newberry, Tiffany Koh, and Melissa Jeffries.
SoLocal by Hassan Latif, Brooke Newberry, Tiffany Koh, and Melissa Jeffries.

Small minority-owned businesses in South L.A. are feeling the early pressures of gentrification which include rising rental prices and shifting demographics. SoLocal is an app for consumers to find and support local minority-owned businesses using geolocation. Going even further than finding business, the app cross-lists items for sale and services in multiple businesses, allowing users to create shopping lists and do virtual window shopping by searching across different genres of retailers. Based on user’s shopping preferences the app would also make suggestions for stores that carry similar goods. SoLocal is a hub for creating a community that is both an online community and physical community for local minority-owned businesses and consumers.


The problems facing the local community in South L.A. are complex, interconnected, and in many cases long-standing and deeply-rooted. Technology alone cannot solve these issues. What will work is a systems-based approach that recognizes that socieity, theeconomy, and the environment are part of an interconnected eco-system. The participants in SOLA/HACK demonstrated that by taking a systems-based approach and employing design thinking, innovative and forward-thinking solutions are in our grasp. Indeed, the most innovative advances in UX design in the next decade will be in design for social good. I intend to use design thinking to be the change I want to see and to teach others to do the same.

UX Project Review: UXSC 2015 Designathon

The winning UX team, from left to right: Sarah Dzida (mentor), Alison Omon, Nikita Dhesikan, Kenia Duque, and Lowrie Fu.
The winning UX team, from left to right: Sarah Dzida (mentor), Alison Omon, Nikita Dhesikan, Kenia Duque, and Lowrie Fu.

Winners of the UXSC 2015 Designathon design an innovative master planner for college students

On April 25th, 2015, UXSC (the student UX design group at the University of Southern California) staged a Designathon, a shorter version of hackathon tailored to user experience design. The Designathon, held at USC’s tech incubator facility The Blackstone Launchpad, was open not only to students but to anyone who wanted to participate. Teams were formed the morning of the event, and each team was mentored by UX design professionals who helped them with the design process.

The winning team of Nikita Dhesikan, Kenia Duque, Lowrie Fu, and Alison Omon (and mentored by UX designer Sarah Dzida) were charged with designing Koreplan: a master planner for college students. Kenya Duque explained how their design would address student’s needs:

“Koreplan would help users find an optimal work/school schedule based off of their lifestyle. Instead of trying to re-design Google Calendars or another popular calendar platform, we decided to concentrate on designing a better experience for USC students when they use Web-Reg to sign up for classes.”

Common frustrations that students face with current online tools include having to open multiple tabs to see what courses to take in one semester (OASIS, Ratemyprofessor, Google Calendar, etc.), the overhead in remembering the specific classes that are needed, and being forced to start over when there is an enrollment error, such as not meeting the prerequisites for a class. These frustrations require students to spend many hours of time at tasks that should be much simpler, and the causes of these frustrations may also lead to students making errors in their course selection and academic planning, negatively impacting their overall university experience.

The team’s solution was to have a student log into Koreplan where their dashboard would show their remaining classes and the progress they have made to their 4 year plan. The student clicks on a few classes from their Major, Minor, or GE course lists, and Koreplan makes a few schedules with the combination of classes. The class sections have a table of details where a student can see if any of their Facebook friends are also enrolled in the class, and the rating of the professor teaching the course. Once a student has chosen their desired school schedule, they can integrate it with their personal calendars such as Google Calendar, iCal, etc.

The team focused on three primary user personas, representing a freshman student, a junior student and a senior. Although they did not develop a persona for a sophomore, the personas they did have allowed them to analyze the problems from the point of view of students from the very beginning to the end of their university experiences. The personas also represented a college athlete, a med student, and a member of a fraternity, giving the designers a broad range of user perspectives.

The confusions and frustrations with course enrollment selection and management, and the current lack of a systems-based approach to managing one’s academic career, were clear and universal for students of all types. While there are lots of great digital tools available for students, the lack of a coherent ecosystem for making these tools work together is exactly the problem the team approached. The solution they came up with, Koreplan, is precisely the digital trend that is defining UX design now and will continue to do so over the next five years: not just innovation in a single product, but designing innovative synergies between products. In this way, the Koreplan team not only designed a product that would solve major pain points for their target users, but also leveraged the synergies between existing technologies in a way that was inventive and forward-thinking.

Below are images from the work that Nikita Dhesikan, Kenia Duque, Lowrie Fu, and Alison Omon did for the Designathon:

User personas
User personas
Koreplan screenflows 1-4
Koreplan screenflows 1-4
Koreplan screenflows 2
Koreplan screenflows 2