Saturday, August 27, 2016

I Aspire to Be a Second Rate Designer

My goal in this essay is to confront the unfortunate rhetoric that pervades most professional careers, namely that our goal should be to be the very best. Of course, taking any alternative position is a precarious place to occupy, because one would be subject to the criticism of being a slacker, or someone who is satisfied with mediocre work. I stand in neither of those places, but I am very pragmatic and realistic about my abilities and aspirations. As I have worked with both faculty and students at the University of Georgia about designing learning experiences and environments, I've seen too often the paralysis that can occur with just the thought that one's work is no good. I especially want my students to take on the identity of "designer," but this is something many resist. They feel they don't yet quality for such a title. My position is simply you are a designer or you can be a designer by choosing to do so.

The inspiration for the title of this essay comes from a comment I remember Steve Jobs making about Microsoft products. My memory was that he called them, as a whole, second-rate. As it turns out, my memory was kind to Microsoft because Jobs actually called them third-rate:
I guess I am saddened, not by Microsoft's success – I have no problem with their success, they've earned their success for the most part. I have a problem with the fact that they just make really third rate products. (1996) [citation]
I remember thinking at the time how I wish I could design software as good as that sold by Microsoft. Second-rate in this context seemed like an excellent aspiration. Yes, I long admired Steve Jobs' pursuit of perfection and remain very inspired by the excellent products and software produced by Apple. But, his vision within an environment of very talented (and well compensated) people is not one that I can put into practice myself.

Consider the following saying, attributed to Voltaire: "Perfect is the enemy of the good." I first heard this a long time ago in the context was that we should never be satisfied with something just being "good enough." Instead, we should strive for perfection. (An essay by Charles Osgood on being "pretty good" makes the same point.)

In contrast, I interpret this quote in exactly the opposite way. I view the strive for "perfection" as a debilitative or paralyzing state that usually results in a person either not trying at all or just giving up. And, apparently, Voltaire agrees with me, if you can believe the Wikipedia entry.

A more modern version comes from Sir Robert Alexander Watson-Watt, a pioneer in the development of radar during World War II: "Give them the third best to go on with; the second best comes too late, the best never comes." Given the war context of this quote, I can easily imagine the sense of urgency to just get on with it and stop all sniffling about it not yet being good enough.

Design Thinking

I've read a lot of the "design thinking" literature over the past couple of years. A really good book that I use in one of my doctoral design courses is Creative Confidence by Tom Kelly and David KellyHere is a link to a great TED talk by David Kelly about this. Here a few good quotes from the book about the potential for everyone to be a creative designer:
"One prerequisite for achieving creative confidence is the belief that your innovation skills and capabilities are not set in stone. If you currently feel that you are not a creative person – if you think, “I’m not good at that kind of thing” – you have to let go of that belief before you can move on." p.30
 On Bandura's concept of self-efficacy:
“Doubts in one’s creative ability can be cured by guiding people through a series of small successes. And the experience can have a powerful effect on the rest of their lives.” p. 40
 On the failure paradox:
“A widely held myth suggests that creative geniuses rarely fail. Yet … the opposite is actually true: creative geniuses, from artists like Mozart to scientists like Darwin, are quite prolific when it comes to failure – they just don’t let that stop them.” p. 40
 On permission to fail:
“…you can get better faster at coming up with new ideas if you give yourself and those around you the leeway to make mistakes from time to time.” p. 49
And finally a good reminder that creativity is an innate human characteristic:
"We forget that back in kindergarten, we were all creative. We all played and experimented and tried out weird things without fear or shame. We didn’t know enough not to. The fear of social rejection is something we learned as we got older. And that’s why it’s possible to regain our creative abilities so swiftly and powerfully, even decades later." p. 6

Me and My Accordion: Love Unrequited

And yes, this is an actual photograph of my accordion!

I think a good way of thinking about this issue is by analogy to writing or music. Just as many resist taking on the identity of designer, people are likewise hesitant to assume the mantle of writer or musician, even if they have been keeping a diary or journal for years, or have long enjoyed playing a guitar or other instrument as a hobby. Many feel the identity of writer or musician is reserved for those special few who have achieved success or acclaim.

Allow me to tell you a little story about me and my accordion. My story mirrors the classic Greek theater experience in that it contains both comedy and tragedy. In the last 30 years or so, I've focused solely on the comedy. I'm the guy at the meeting who says, "I'm not sure that's a good idea, but hey, I play an accordion, so what do I know." But, there was a time when I thought I could be a good, even great, musician if I just practiced hard enough.

I took accordion lessons for four years from the age of about 8-12 from the truly great accordionist Steve Seventy - a legend on the Southside of Pittsburgh who unfortunately died in 1988 at the young age of 61. (His name is not pronounced "70" by the way, it is pronounced "se-VEN-tee".) I paid for these lessons myself with my paper route earnings. I stopped taking lessons at about the time I started high school because practicing had long become a chore, not a passion. But, around my junior year of high school, I regained an interest in music and thought to myself that if I practiced long and hard, I could be good. After all, that was the rhetoric I had heard - you can do anything you want if you just try hard enough. I also tried to conquer my fear of performing in public by actively looking for opportunities to play at my high school and church for various occasions. I really tried to be good. The problem, however, is that I was and am a terrible accordion player. I'm missing whatever gene is needed to be musically skilled. My greatest triumph in playing the accordion was when I was a public school teacher and played for my elementary school students. They didn't care if I good or bad, they just loved the fact that they had a teacher who owned this amazing contraption and something resembling music came out of it when he strapped it on.  I take great satisfaction in thinking that these kids - now in their mid-40s - likely think back fondly to that one teacher who played an accordion. I bet that's one of a handful of things they do remember with a smile from those years.

So, yes, I am a musician, though a poor one. But, I am a better person by having made the attempt. And, making a joyful noise is a noble and honorable endeavor.

Me and LiveCode: 35 Projects in about 40 Months

In my own design work, I know I'll never attain the status of a great designer. But, I love to design and don't want anything to interfere with that passion. I still see the status of a second-rate or even third-rate designer as an aspiration and high achievement. I would only be a step or two away from being a first-rate designer, which would be a tremendous accomplishment.

I actually date my first experiences as a "real" designer to those same years as a public school teacher when I learned how to program in BASIC on the Apple II computer. I actually published two software titles back then. One was a compilation of educational games titled Serendipity, with the most successful being a game to teach fractions titled Mineshaft. The second was a golf game titled rather pretentiously Professional Class Golf. This golf game remains my magnus opus and I keep an old Apple IIe in my office so I can play it occasionally.

Writing this essay gave me some reason to pause and reflect on my experience these past few years learning LiveCode. Using January 1, 2013 - the launch date of this blog - as the starting point, I've designed about 35 LiveCode projects in about 40 months, just about all of which I've written about in this blog. The projects have been big and small, though mostly small. Very few are worth more than the virtual ink I've used to write about them, but that is beside the point. I'm a designer because I design and build.

A collage of "first rate" designers resulting from a Google search of "great designers." (Genius, I know.) A special tribute to Steve Wosniak, one of my personal heroes. "The Woz" gets much too little credit for his contributions to the culture of Apple, in my opinion. I always highlight Frank Lloyd Wright because, well, his middle name is "Lloyd."

Final Thoughts

So, it is with courage and conviction that I hope everyone will replace any aspirations to be the top "anything" in their field with simply being the best you can be, knowing that you will improve only by doing something. This means that you will do your very best, but realize that when you are judged against the best in your field, you will likely not stack up too well. And that's OK. So, instead of striving to be a sport's MVP, strive just to make the team. Become a writer not to make a million dollars with a best-selling novel, but to express yourself or to communicate well with your colleagues and friends. Instead of producing the world's next killer app, design something that will help just a few people in some small way.

Trying to be the best you can be will make you want to try to do things you never did before. The key idea here is that you, and you alone, will be the judge of your success. If someone else judges you and criticizes you, you will know whether or not you did your best. You should accept the criticism, perhaps with an ear or eye toward something useful in the person's feedback. That is, instead of feeling "destroyed," you should be open to some information that will improve what you've already done. This is a very empowering and liberating feeling.

And, if you think your ideas are so obvious as not to have any worth, then check out this video by Derek Sivers:


Kelley, T., & Kelley, D. (2013). Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All: New York: Crown Business.


1. I gave a presentation with the same title as this essay on August 19, 2016 at the 3rd annual IDD@UGA Conference in Athens, Georgia.

2. It also just occurred to me that my taking on the identity of designer came at the very same time as my most successful accordion experiences. Hmm, maybe that's a correlation worth exploring and advocating.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Did You Hear the One About ... Affordances of a Digital Q Sort Activity

I heard a good joke recently. Here goes...

"A rich miser made his wife promise that when he died she would bury all of his money with him. After he died, at the funeral, she placed a box inside the casket with him. Later that day, a good friend asked the widow if she actually put all of his money in that box. The widow replied that she complied fully with her husband's wishes. 'On the day that he died, I put all of his money...'"

I'm going to be a little cruel and not tell you the punch line right away. What gives? Well, I'm doing this to make a point. And don't worry, I'll finish the joke near the end of this post.

Here's the main idea: Like good comedy, timing is important in good teaching and learning. For example, if you are a science geek like me and someone shows you a cool experiment with results that don't match your expectations, you want a full explanation of what's going on right away. (I always refer to this as the "Mr. Wizard Approach," in honor of Don Herbert and his teaching strategy on his popular TV shows of years long ago.) When curiosity and interest are piqued, a teacher has a unique learning opportunity, sometimes referred to as a "teachable moment." The need or wanting to know something is a powerful force that the best teachers leverage. Of course, if the teacher waits too long or doesn't recognize the opportunity, the moment will be lost, perhaps forever. How long is too long? Well, it all depends, doesn't it? Perhaps you've already lost interest in my joke and have moved on to checking Facebook. Or, more likely, you've skipped all this blather to try to find out the punch line below. (Well, maybe it's not there - boy, that would be cruel.)

OK, now let me get to the specific point of all this. I have recently been collaborating with Brandy Walker and Rich McCline of the Fanning Institute here on the University of Georgia (UGA) campus on the topic of using Q sorts within an instructional or learning setting. Brandy and Rich do a lot of outreach to community groups and organizations within the state of Georgia. Their work is not so much instructional as it is facilitative - that is, they try to help groups clarify goals and issues so that these groups can make good decisions. They have been using Q sorts within many of their workshops as a way to help the participants understand their subjective perspectives on the various important issues that the group is facing.

Brandy and Rich have been implementing paper-based Q sorts, so they are interested in the opportunities afforded by the digital tool I've slowly been developing. However, in one of our recent meetings, we began to talk about just what are the affordances of a digital approach, and also what are the affordances of the paper-based approach. To be sure, there are many excellent affordances to the paper-based approach. The tactile and visual elements of having a large Q sort board lying in front of you as you move the small statement cards about are very strong. It's also a very intuitive process. You know exactly what you are doing and it is easy to make quick modifications. The other significant affordance is the ability to have a Q sort with a large number of statements. The most I've seen in the literature is around 65 or so. After all, you have the entire space of the table at which you are sitting to use.

In contrast, my digital version currently only allows a maximum of about 25 statements and this is a real limitation to any serious Q sort researcher. It's not a big limitation for my purposes given my interest in using the Q sort activity as an instructional activity, but I know I need to think about ways to expand the number of statements while remaining true to the original Q sort procedure of having all of the statements available to the user as the sorting activity proceeds. Other electronic versions I've seen perform the activity in a fashion where you group the statements in stages, starting with low, middle, and high piles as step 1, then only work with those piles sequentially in the subsequent steps. I admit that I'm resisting that approach as I think it violates some aspect of the true Q sort approach. (I may be wrong.)

OK, So What Are the Affordances of a Digital Version of the Q Sort Activity?

Despite the charms and history of the paper-based version of the Q sort activity, I firmly believe that my digital tool offers significant advantages over paper-based approaches. As Brandy, Rich, and I quickly discussed the pros and cons, I agreed to come up with a tentative list of affordances for my digital approach. So far I've come up with four main affordances:
  1. The easy preparation of an unlimited number of Q sort activities.
  2. The easy and quick administration of any single Q sort activity either in a face-to-face or online environment (synchronous or asynchronous).
  3. The ability to administer multiple Q sort activities within a single session easily and quickly.
  4. The ability to provide real-time data analysis (suitable for instructional purposes) quickly to the participants during an active Q sort activity.
You should notice my fondness of the words "easily" and "quickly."

To conduct a Q sort with my digital tool, you enter a special code given to you by the instructor to bring up the Q sort activity. This code simply queries an online database that transfers the statements needed for the Q sort and also produces a Q sort board with the right number of slots. After the person finishes the Q sort, the answers are uploaded to the database. If I want everyone to do another Q sort, all I have to do is give them another special code and the app automatically and immediately resets. Creating the Q sort itself takes maybe 10 minutes once you have the list of the statements. I built the database to make it easy to duplicate and revise any Q sort in the library.

The fourth affordance is one that I've worked on quite a bit this summer with the two online courses I've been teaching at the University of Georgia. Up until the most recent version, only the instructor (aka me) could do the "quickee analysis" and then share the results with the group. The latest version of my Q Sort Tool puts these analysis features into the hands of the students. As soon as they complete a Q sort, they can then begin checking the results. I made several videos demonstrating and explaining all this for my students, but I'm not able to share these here because they contain personal data. Soon, I'll create some videos with the personally identifying information removed or masked in order to demonstrate how this feature works.

Why are these affordances so noteworthy? Again, you have to consider all this from a teaching and learning point of view. It's one thing to conduct a research study using Q methodology where the data are collected, analyzed, and reported. This involves a process that can take weeks or even months. The goal of traditional Q methodology is to better understand what are the different profiles within a group describing their subjective interpretations of a particular issue or topic. For instructional purposes, the goal is to get people to think deep and hard about a particular topic, followed by having some good discussions, reflections, and more discussions and reflections during a period of time when people actually care about the topic. These reflections are enhanced if you also know and consider your classmates' points of view.

Comparing the Digital to Paper-Based Q Sorts for Instructional Purposes

When Brandy and Rich conduct their Q sorts in their workshops, they have to prepare sufficient copies of the paper-based statements for every person attending the workshop. They also have to prepare a paper-based Q sort board for each person to use. The materials then have to be carefully assembled and distributed during the workshop. Brandy and Rich also prepare and post the statements on large flip chart paper mounted on walls around the room. Everyone then completes the Q sort individually. When finished, everyone is prompted to write down the statements they placed at the extreme ends of the Q sort scale. They are given a sheet of sticky green dots and red dots and told to find those statements on the flip chart paper on the walls, putting a green dot beside those statements they agreed with the most and red dots by those statements they agreed with the least. Then, Brandy and Rich use the flip chart paper and pasted dots to lead and facilitate a reflective discussion about the topic with the group.

It should be noted that the Q sort topic that Brandy and Rich conduct is based on a well-researched survey instrument that Rich has produced and validated over the years. Therefore, the statements they use in the Q sort are not submitted by the participants. Obviously, if the procedure was to engage the participants first in producing their own individual statements, they would have to figure out a way to get those statements far in advance of the workshop in order to have enough time to prepare the statement cards. In their case, they recycle the cards for the next workshop. I don't know if they would ultimately find tiresome the labor needed to constantly produce new statement cards for a new Q sort for each workshop group. That is, I wonder if they would abandon the Q sort activity under those circumstances. The other consideration is that the number of Q sort statements would have to vary, which would mean having at the ready Q sort boards with the right number of slots.

Most of the comparisons we could make between a paper-based and digital Q sort boil down to logistics, but there are cognitive issues at play here too. For example, I think it makes a profound difference if the Q sort statements are based on the participants' own views. I think this makes the Q sort itself much more meaningful and authentic because each participant is given a window into the thinking of their peers as they complete the activity. It's also quite meaningful and motivating to see your statement among the list. But, I think there is another important cognitive issue that relates (finally) to the issue of timing.

The Clock is Ticking

There are many things one can conclude from comparing paper-based and digital Q sorts. Let's say that you are perfectly willing to spend whatever time it takes to prepare the paper-based materials. But, consider the time it takes between a single person completing the Q sort and the start of the reflection and then the small- and large-group discussion. I assert that if too much time transpires then the "teachable moment" is seriously threatened. That is, people may either lose interest or forget the point of the exercise. Of course, knowing that Brandy and Rich are expert workshop leaders, they likely use the time well and engage people in conversations while everyone is up and about putting their red and green dots on the mounted flip charts. And, I can see some real affordances to the social aspect of this milling about that an expert workshop leader can leverage. Still, I think reducing the time between completing a Q sort individually, reviewing the group results, and then holding the reflective discussions is overall the preferred approach.

The point - again - is that timing is everything. Which reminds me...

"On the day that he died, I put all of his money in a bank account and I wrote him a check."

Yes, that is the punch line to the joke that began this blog post. Hmm, do you remember the set up?

(I heard this joke from Professor Young-Suk Kim of Florida State during her excellent talk at the 2016 AERA Conference in Washington, DC.)

Final Thoughts

I'm obviously a little biased here given the many, many hours I've spent developing my little digital Q sort tool and the web site with the database backend I've designed to support it. To be sure, there are many limitations to my digital approach. The most noteworthy is one I've already mentioned - the relatively limited number of statements that can be used. Another limitation is the fact that my tool is not web-based. You have to download and install a client-based app on your computer, which many people are reluctant to do, or simply find very bothersome to do. There is also a certain level of opaqueness in using any digital tool when compared to the totally intuitive nature of moving slips of paper around on a table, a difference that is not trivial.

As I end this posting, I think an additional and noteworthy point to be made is that my tool can also be used for traditional Q sort research. That is, my digital tool quickly and easily collects data in the needed format for uploading into a bona fide Q sort analysis program. Brandy and Rich also collect the full data for subsequent analyses. The IRB procedures they follow start with taking a photo of each person's completed Q sort (with the participant's permission). Later, someone from Brandy's research team manually enters each Q sort into an Excel spreadsheet. The steps Brandy and Rich need to complete to get to the point where they can run a statistical analysis is time-consuming and - from my perspective at least - arduous and cumbersome. Of course, I could not think of a better way to do it.

As I hope is evident, getting all of the Q sort data collected and ready for analysis in a paper-based approach is no small chore. The choice is either to convince each participant to accurately record their Q sort results to yet another medium (paper or a spreadsheet), or having the researchers move around the room to record the data in some fashion. The Q researcher yearns for "quickly and easily."

An aside, but it's also been on my mind that an interesting research study would be to compare the outputs of my "quickee analyses" with the traditional Q-style factor analyses. I hope to either focus some research on that question myself or support an enterprising doctoral student who would like to take it up.

The other thing that I always find fascinating about producing digital tools is the ability to come up with small, but important variations in the tool or what it can do. These are often made in combination with creative changes or enhancements to the instructional approach. It's amazing how many times an idea comes up with the preface "If only your tool could do this..." It's usually very easy to make these sorts of small revisions or enhancements.  But, again, I don't want to discount the hands-on tactile feel of moving paper or cardboard around on the table, or having a reason to get up and move about the room and having some short or long conversations with other people doing the same thing. I don't want to live life only in front of a screen. But, I think creative and innovative teachers always take full advantage of the affordances of all of the available resources available to them.