The UX of a community mural – part 1

My daughter and her friends are broken hearted about immigration. The Mexico border is so close, they are our neighbours, and my daughter has friends in Mexico. When they learned about the current events at our borders and around the world, the cost in lives and dignity, the cold-hearted global response, and that half of all immigrants are children, its an incomprehensible reality to their world-embracing outlook. She and her friends came up with an idea to help them express their thoughts: paint a mural with their friends from USA, Canada and Mexico.

The sketch that started it all

I agreed to help as convener and organizer and as this project went along I realized it mirrored and illuminated my professional work in many ways. I decided to document the process for my own benefit, and to illustrate the parallels between a purely creative process with a visual result and the more hidden processes that make up much of my professional life.

The facts on the ground as we began were:

Deadline: 1 month, before the start of school in the fall. Our main time constraint was that teens these days have way too much on their schedules… just like my professional colleagues! But thats also made these kids good time managers and we found a way.

Scope: limited only by their openness to learn, absorb, process, and interpret their world (and a small budget)

Budget: about $100 for supplies. All labor provided for free.

In my role as convener and project manager I helped the kids unleash and give form to their ideas, adding context and a reality check when needed, and nimbly staying out of the way of their creative efforts. I always feel there is something acrobatic about good project management, there one moment and out of the way the next, with a hint of smoke and mirrors, empowering your team so its like you were never even there. The acrobatic approach proved very useful when working with a group of teenagers, who forge ahead with an idea like rhinoceros on a rampage.

We began by defining the goal, and just as when defining UX goals, or business goals, it took longer than expected to reach a consensus that everyone could get solidly behind. By the end of their first meeting they had come to two important consensus decisions:
– The poster would use monarch butterflies as a metaphor for human migration.
– They needed to learn a lot more about both monarchs and immigration.

We then launched on a research phase, reading and watching videos about monarchs, and researching contemporary and historical artwork that addressed immigration by artistic luminaries like Jacob Lawrence, Yu-Wen Wu, Mohamad Hafez, JR, and Helen Zhugaib..

Noteboard from our first brainstorming session on immigration. This is a variation on a classic K-W-L chart. The first column asks what the kids know for sure about immigration, the next column lists what they have heard but are not sure if its true, and the third column are the questions they want answers to. In discovery for any project, art, web, or otherwise, identifying what you dont know is just as important as what you do.

The next part of the research phase was learning about immigration. We began by identifying what they knew, what they had heard but were not sure was true, and what questions they needed answered. I made an appointment with an immigration lawyer and they peppered her with their questions and gained a lot of valuable insights into a process that had been a total mystery. During our consultation afterwards they were able to identify many ways in which monarch migration mirrored human immigration and their ideas for the mural began to take on more complexity.

Every project begins with a base coat.

After completing each research stage we integrated a rapid iteration agile technique invented by artists tens of thousands of years ago called “sketching” :-D. As the artist Mary Corse wisely says “I think as time goes on, physics discovers what artists are already painting or doing.” Similarly, I think web development is slowly discovering the techniques artists employ in their quest for truth.

The kids were full of ideas and confidence, without the baggage to hold onto any particular idea for ego’s sake. If only we held onto that quality more as we grow into our professional lives!

One illuminating element of this process was that the more they learned the simpler and more abstract their ideas became. The same pattern emerges in thoughtful design and coding projects. Art is often dismissed as fantasy, but fine art, like any other form of human expression, utilitarian or not, draws on reality. The richer the input the better the output. This patterns is visible in UX, in programming, schematic architecture, project management, and certainly in design.

The more they learned the simpler and more abstract their execution became. The same pattern emerges in thoughtful design and coding projects.

Their lack of experience did show however, though not in lack of ideas or creativity – OMG SO CREATIVE! – but in that they were unable to settle on any one idea. All shiny objects were of equal value. In the end they did come to a consensus idea for their artwork with a really strong theme and message. It was perfect, but I had to hold onto the idea for them before they wandered off to the next shiny object! I realized I have watched many groups of professionals do the same and this project has helped me come to really value more experienced team members, and draw more attention to their opinions, to help my teams sift through ideas and hold onto the good. It has also given me more confidence and authority in holding onto the good ideas and helping my teams maintain focus.

The final sketching phase resulted in an abstract representation of the USA’s borders, represented by ripping paper to follow the correct geographic contours. In fact, the more they learned the simpler and more abstract and interesting their execution became. The same pattern emerges in thoughtful design and coding projects! The mural went from a flat piece of art that was going to hang on a wall to a horizontal plane with hanging elements above it. They decided the butterflies would “fly” across the borders unimpeded carrying messages of hope. The messages would be written by their friends in Mexico, Canada, and the United states, and they would ask visitors to add to the mural with messages of their own.

A prototype built with pride!

Their friends in each country would also create a map base and add butterflies as a second layer. In each place visitors would write messages of hope on monarch butterflies to be mailed across the border, unimpeded, so each installation would continue to grow in richness and hope with visitor participation.

One design element became a sticking point during planning: how to represent each country without passing on unintentional judgement. To come to a decision we implemented user profiles. We discussed who might view this piece and built up profiles of representative users. They invited friends and parents who fit those profiles to review the work and give feedback. It resulted in some very interesting changes. They ended up leaving the countries paper-colored and allowing the ripped edges representing the borders to take precedence. They added some geographic elements to help orient their viewers, but kept them abstract to ensure the artwork would not simply register as a map. And lastly they shifted the orientation of how their work would hang, turning it upside down and at an angle to both throw off user expectations and to represent the tilt of the earth towards the sun… a nod to the elemental forces that affect humans and wildlife alike.

We have two more official work days to go. Wish us luck, and look for part 2 in the weeks to come!