Crossing into the dark

Posted on May 31, 2014
Matt Franks

Matt Franks

Lead Interaction Designer, Blackboard & Prof., Austin Center for Design (Austin)

    Over the course of our journey, we’ll be publishing the thoughts and feelings of our team as they live out the design process. Here’s a piece by Matt Franks of the Austin Center for Design.

    At AC4D, we are the evangelicals of ambiguity.  Time and time again I’ve pushed people out the doors of the school with a single mission – go and explore the world around you.  Immerse yourself into the cultures and problems to which we remain largely blind. Not by choice, but generally by habit.  It’s our nature to become so comfortable in our routines that we don’t even realize what they are. I am no exception to this.

    These moments of “motivation” are often met with disbelief & fear from the people we are forcing them upon.  “What do you mean I have to go out and talk to people?  Right Now?  I just learned how to do this?”

    We try and provide words of encouragement, but you can see the fear in their eyes.

    They are participating in a process that is forcing them out of their comfort zone without any clear understanding of the outcome. They are required to blindly trust us.

    I attempt to remain aware of this problem in my own life; occasionally making adjustments in my patterns as a means to discover the unexpected. Like many of the design researches I know, I think to myself  “You understand aspects of the world that others do not”, “you are so informed”.

    But my first 20 min in Rwanda as part of the UX for Good design challenge generated a realization that my “informed state” has largely been one of false enlightenment.

    What I thought were the boundaries that defined my perspective – those that I attempted to subvert in the name of “immersing myself in problems & cultures”, were not even close to the boundaries I’ve come to identify as a result of traveling here.

    Our initial decent into Kigali was in the evening, just as the sun started to set & the area moved into twilight.  As we passed over the roof tops of small towns and villages, I couldn’t help but think they looked the same as the villages we saw while taking off in Brussels. Small clusters of white walls and red clay roofs that travel along the roads that connect them.

    From 8,000 feet in the air, everything looks the same.

    But as we approached the ground, an extremely unexpected difference in these clusters of homes stirred a panic that I have not felt in a long time.

    There were no lights.

    No visible lights in the street.  No visible lights on the homes. Or so few that I could actually count the number of them between each village we passed. For anyone reading, this detail might seem like an expected observation.  It does fall within the western narrative I’ve heard from friends and family before coming here; That Africa as a tarp ridden collection of unsafe villages. A narrative that is never explicitly stated, but always inferred. One of thousands of sweeping generalizations that I’m guilty of as much as the next person – and just as afraid to admit.

    For me, the concept of limited electricity wasn’t what gave birth to paralyzing fear. If my computer dies, it’s not the end of the world.  If I have trouble charging my phone, it’s not really a big deal. These are the first world problems that I’ve grown largely accustom to solving on a daily basis.

    Rather, this small detail pushed me into a state of awareness, and sheer panic, that only comes with the realization that you are completely out of your element. That you are entering into a state of un-retractable ambiguity.

    My irrational internal monologue went something like this:

    • You are alone.
    • You have just been dropped into a culture in which the behavioral norms and customs are completely unknown. You are exposed.
    • You don’t speak the language.
    • You have no local currency; as the Rwandan Franc wasn’t offered at any of the exchanges so far.
    • You are an American – so the association with your government’s foreign policy decisions are just one of many lenses in which you expect to be judged (In Rwanda, this history is particularly unkind – Read about the US & UN response to the genocide if you are unfamiliar with what I’m referring to).
    • You are the first to arrive in your team. A group of people you have never met.
    • Your transport may or may not be waiting for you. (I arrived early. So for 20 min I stood by myself outside in the dark)
    • It’s 7pm at night and you have no choice but to press on.  There is nowhere else to go.

    I just crossed a boundary I was unaware of and I was letting my capacity for irrational narratives take charge.

    As a designer, the goal is to cross these boundaries.  To be immersed into a particular context, gain some form of empathy, and use that to create momentum towards solving a problem.

    Ambiguity is the hallmark of a good design project. In lacking an understanding of the end state, we are awarded the opportunity to craft it.

    But until this point, my experience with these “moments of unknown” have been supported by elements of familiarity. The invisible support structures I’ve unconsciously relied upon were suddenly gone.  I have no team of trusted designers. I am not retiring to the safety of my home after a few hours of contextual research. I am not the facilitator who can choose to end the interview if things take a turn for the negative.

    All I have is trust; to trust in the process I preach & the people that I meet.

    I am now one of the growing number of student’s I’ve kicked out the door with a call to action to “embrace the unknown”, and I can once again empathize with the fear associated in doing this.

    As I embark on this project, I hope the unexpected remains constant. I hope to exercise my capacity as a creative thinker in ways I have yet to imagine, and to maintain this state of ambiguity for as long as possible.

    However uncomfortable, this process creates moments of reflection, clarity, and opportunity that provide me with the motivation to keep doing it.