Papers Published!

5 Dec


Those of you who have attended our workshops have seen the above slide (click on it to see it full size). We use it to illustrate a technique called “how-why laddering,” which helps you work up and down between levels of abstraction when thinking about areas of a problem space to address. In research, we have found it a useful tool for conceptualizing how different parts of a larger project fit together and thinking about the “what” we are trying to solve and the “how” we might do it.

When we first sketched out the RAD project (over three years ago now!) we identified two areas of what we were trying to do that could best be addressed by a traditional academic study. The first was establishing an empirical basis for the content of the workshops. We wanted to understand how innovative, successful scholars approach their research, how creativity fits in, and whether their practice is close enough to design thinking that teaching design thinking techniques to graduate students could be helpful. While we had a hypothesis we would find evidence of similar mindsets, we wanted to rigorously test this.

The second study came from a desire to understand what participants were actually getting out of the workshops. By analyzing data from three years of workshops, we were able to pause and evaluate what is happening in the workshops, what we might improve, and how we might better understand the impact.

Both these studies were published this autumn in the same issue of the International Journal of Doctoral Studies. Like everything else we’ve done with RAD, they are the result of plenty of iteration, feedback from colleagues, and learning within our team. We are pleased to share them with you and look forward to hearing what you think.

  • Cravens, A.E., Ulibarri, N., Cornelius, M., Royalty, A & Nabergoj, A.S. (2014). Reflecting, iterating, and tolerating ambiguity: Highlighting the creative process of scientific and scholarly research for doctoral education. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 9, pp 229-247.
    (Link to PDF)
  • Ulibarri , N., Cravens, A.E., Cornelius, M., Royalty, A., & Nabergoj, A.S. (2014). Research as design: Developing creative confidence in doctoral students through design thinking. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 9, pp 249-270. (Link to PDF)

Embracing the shake

28 May

From one perspective, limits are those things that hold us back. We often dream of what we could do if we only had more time, more grant money, better mentorship, etc. We frequently frame problems as how to eliminate constraints. How can I get more attention from a busy advisor? How can I maximize my time and efficiency?

While sometimes these are useful ways of looking at a problem space, other times what is holding us back from generating a whole new set of solutions is our perception of limits. We use constraints in brainstorming to challenge ourselves to move past the ideas that first come to mind. Constraints can also be useful in shaping solutions, when limits are embraced and worked within. For instance, I regularly make it a practice to spend an hour or less on a first stab at a presentation, to force myself to get at the essence of what I’m trying to say.

An attendee from our spring workshop shared this Ted talk from artist Phil Hansen, who developed a tremor in his hand, meaning he could no longer create the pointillist drawings that had defined his art to that point. In this story of how he came to “embrace the shake,” he poignantly captures the way that what at first seems like “the ultimate limitation” can sometimes turn out “to be the ultimate liberation.”

What limitations have you embraced and found liberating?

Research Questions and Prototyping

23 Jan

The second year of a PhD, at least in the American system, is the time to narrow one’s interests and define a specific research topic. I ended the spring of my first year on track, with a strong direction and topic: evaluating the social and ecological effects of drought management policies. Unfortunately, over the course of the summer, I realized that it really wasn’t a topic that would excite me enough to do good work for a full five years. So I returned to school in the fall sans topic and basically back at square one. Instead of worry, however, I decided to turn the fall quarter into a prototype. I would carry forward three potential research directions and play with them, trying to get a sense of what sort of academic and practical contribution studying each would entail, and of what my life might look like were I to go down each rabbit hole. My plan for prototyping was relatively simple. I read the literature on each topic to get a sense of the types of gaps that existed and where my research might fit in. I brainstormed potential research questions – generating lists for each research topic – and also the type of research methods and fieldsites that I could use to answer the questions that sparked an interest. I discussed all three questions with my advisors and with new faculty who I hadn’t met but who had expertise in the field or in the theory. I also interviewed practitioners – policymakers and environmental managers – to see what sorts of useful information they would glean if I were to carry forward any of the directions. In other words, I did what any sensible PhD student might do to pick a research question. The difference is that I did it religiously with three questions rather than just one.

One of the key lessons that design thinking teaches about prototyping is to “fail early, and fail often.” When working with something as important as a research direction for a PhD – which will both dictate how I spend the remainder of my 5+ years at Stanford, and will also influence the types of jobs I can have upon graduation – the idea of “failure” is a scary one. I had already “failed” once – I spent upwards of six months researching drought management whole-heartedly, and ended up empty handed, really only having a clear sense that there was one question I could check off of my list. I can’t afford to come up empty-handed again, or I’ll be back to zero after two years of study, and significantly behind my peers. However, having more than one option on the table actually frees up one’s mind and, more importantly, removes some of the all-or-nothing attachment that can come with working on a single project. Inevitably, I would have to choose just one of the three options, but as long as I had three real directions – and treated each one with full, honest intensity – the likelihood that all three would flop was much smaller.

As it turned out, I have selected a direction that wasn’t included in the three initial topics I prototyped, although it does strongly incorporate two of the theoretical directions I would have applied. During the process of prototyping, I heard an incredibly thought-provoking talk about dam removal, chatted with a few faculty who I knew worked on the topic, and realized that it was a direction that would allow me to tackle a lot of the questions I have been grappling with since my master’s and happens to be a hot-button policy issue. Ironically, I studied dam removal as a core part of a hydrology class I took last spring. However, I was in full-blown drought mode during the spring and so dam removal never even crossed my radar as a potential and exciting direction. Being in the prototyping mindset allowed me to be open to new possibilities, since I was honestly invested but not fully attached to the topics I was exploring.

That I have settled on a research topic in no way signifies that I should drop my prototyping mindset. Instead, I have started a new process as I hone in on a specific research question. Rather than run with one question (and run the risk of coming up empty-handed in a few months), I am currently choosing cases, and starting to gather data based on two distinct research questions. Both questions stem from a larger framing question, but as I formulate potential theoretical directions and research design, I am treating both as real options. By playing with possibility, prototyping multiple research questions lets me work earnestly toward my dissertation while giving me the freedom to continue operating in a creative, exploratory mode.

The Power of Uncomfortable Constraints 2

1 Jan

Amanda and I and two other EIPER students were in a team at the EIPER retreat at Jasper Ridge. It was fall 2010 and we were participating in a workshop using the gift giving prompt that is often used to introduce people to design thinking: How to reinvent gift giving. We were in the ideation phase, and were asked to brainstorm under different constraints. In ideation, the goal is to come up with as many ideas as you can in a non-judgmental and quick fashion. The non-judgmental mindset allows you to go far and wide and notorious and ridiculous, because sometimes, that’s just what you need to trigger the right idea. The constraints are imposed to help focus your thinking in different creative directions, usually one at a time. Constraints allow you to go deeper in that direction while suspending other directions and thoughts temporarily. Typical constraints are realistic, like every idea must have “zero cost” or “a cost of $1 million dollars”, or beyond reality, such as “make every idea require magic”. Ideation and constraints sometimes take you in a direction you would perhaps otherwise not have thought of. Something like this happened in our ideation phase that day. Rather than just thinking out of the box, constraints helped us fly out of it.

We were asked to come up with as many gift ideas as we could that were zero cost and carbon neutral. This constraint turned out to be easy for us to fulfill, as our group naturally thought along those lines. We wrote some ideas on our large post-it: a picnic in the park with food from the garden, a heartfelt speech given by colleagues at work; a lovely letter, and so on. Since the so-called constraint was so much in line with our natural brainstorming tendencies, we felt we needed more of a challenge, so we asked our facilitator what we should do. Like good design students, we were willing to go in the next direction with the next constraint and see what would happen.

Our facilitator said: “Oh, ok. Why don’t you try turning the constraint on its head. Make it cost as much as possible cause as much environmental damage as possible!!” Now this gave us the heebie-jeebies but in the spirit of play we embraced this constraint and rolled with it. We soon had some ridiculous ideas like holding a party at the Trump Tower and flying to different parts of the world to compose different parts of a message of gratitude. This last idea suddenly struck a chord with all of us – we could implement this in a free and carbon neutral way! We could ask people from around the world to video record a message and email it to us, then compile them into a large message of gratitude, and that would be the gift. We got excited about this idea!

It was now time to prototype this idea. We decided to focus on a recipient. We chose Helen Doyle, Associate Director of E-IPER. We decided the message would entail thanking her for all her hard work for us students. We cut large square holes in different colored sheets of cardstock and used them as screens through which we would poke our heads to say our parts of the message. We wrote labels containing names of locations and stuck them to the bottom of our “screens.” We now had 3 excited students, and fuchsia, green and yellow screens. Next, we came up with a script.

We decided to simulate the feeling of each speaker being in a different country or state by referring to the weather. So, since I’m from Fiji, my message began with, “Hi I’m in Fiji where the weather is warm and humid…” We each introduced ourselves in this way then said something specific that we wanted to thank Helen for. I said something like, “Thank you Helen for always going over and beyond what we could expect, and for always having our best interests at heart.”

When we presented this prototype, we stood on tables holding the screens to frame our faces, and made our audience – the rest of the retreat participants, facilitators, Helen and other staff – stand in front of us at ground level and watch.

This prototype got us so excited that we were inspired to make real gifts in this way. I have yet to make one with video, but I went on to collect quotes and photos from about 20 friends and compiled an e-book for a loved one for his birthday. This ideation exercise with what seemed at first to be an  undesirable and extremely uncomfortable constraint took us to an idea that we implemented in various ways and won’t forget for a long time. This is just one example of the power of using uncomfortable constraints.

Applying Design Thinking to Interdisciplinary Research: Energy and Behavior

1 Jan

After some pivotal experiences in d.thinking (see my previous post) including classes and workshops, I started applying what I had learned to my research, which centers on how to lower residential energy use via behavioral approaches. With two advisors and a group of other graduate students, I was embarking on a new study aimed at understanding how people use energy, what barriers they face to reducing their use, and how to overcome those barriers.

We began with needfinding – a broad study in which we asked people how they relate to their homes. We did not address energy directly. We asked about household matters such as repairs, maintenance, expenses, rooms, appliances, and so on. Our goal was to obtain information that would help us map energy onto other household activities and issues. For example, we sought to understand maintenance in the home (think pools, roof gutters, ovens) as a way to understand how energy management could be framed in a familiar way.

We came up with many How Might We statements in this first study, for instance, “How might we equate efficiency with ongoing home improvements that people feel good about?” These statements guided the user interface design team. In the next phase of the ethnography portion of our study, we sought to create a hybrid methodology using design and anthropology methods. Our goal was to come up with a streamlined interview protocol that would help us extract from interviewees their primary energy related actions, and barriers they would face to new, alternative, lower-energy actions. We came up with specific techniques from both design and anthropology traditions. Examples from design include the 5 why’s, and incorporating brainstorming or ideating into the interview. From anthropology we took rapport building using open-ended questions, and simulations or scenarios that would help us identify barriers. We iterated with prototype interview protocols for over a year and came up with 2 protocols – one for experts from whom we would obtain new ideas, and one for home owners and renters from whom we would learn about barriers to those new ideas.

In a field like behavioral sciences, where there is an established body of research, we found that design thinking fits well into the later stages of research, such as ideating, prototyping and iterating solutions, whether they are methods, intervention designs, or interview designs. Each discipline or set of disciplines can probably use design process at different stages.

In the process of integrating d.thinking with anthropological methods, and applying both to energy related behavior change, we also came up with a glossary of terms to help the energy folks communicate with the design folks, a database of all the bodies of literature and methods we consulted, and a mapping of our process with all its iterations. By combining d.thinking with other research knowledge and methods, we were able to come up with a rich set of new approaches to study energy use.

What We Can Learn From a Mediocre Brainstorm

4 Dec

When brainstorming goes well, it feels like flying. You and your teammates produce copious amounts of ideas, many of which provide new and unexpected insights or potential solutions your current challenge. You are energized to start trying out multiple of these ideas immediately.

Every so often, however, the ideas produced don’t seem quite so sparkling or magical. One reason might be the team’s or your own emotional state…is your energy low? Was your team energy building off one another? Was someone not suspending judgement? But if the team is working well together and still the ideas that come out of the brainstorm seem lackluster, it might be a sign that you’re not yet solving the right problem and have more problem-finding to do.

At our last RAD Workshop, we had an uneven number of participants. So I jumped in to fill out the number of pairs. I am taking a required class this quarter that is difficult and not particularly relevant to my research. It is also taking a frustrating amount of time away from the qualifying proposal that is my real priority this autumn. Thus the problem I selected for ideation was “How can I pass Class X while minimizing the time it takes?”

The initial ideas in the team brainstorming were mostly unethical and clearly infeasible…cheat, date the TA, find previous exams. The only sensible solutions were obvious ones that didn’t add much to my understanding of the situation…get help, find a tutor. Looking at the ideas after the brainstorming time was up, the only one that seemed to hold any promise was “incorporate the class into your RAD work.”

As I started to think about how to prototype this idea, I realized that the way I had framed the problem for this brainstorming session had obviously failed to stimulate our creativity. So instead of moving on to prototyping, I decided to take a step back and re-define my problem.

Thinking about the idea of incorporating Class X into the RAD project, I realized that this idea appealed because it suggested that there might be a way I could learn other useful things from the required course than the content it is ostensibly meant to be teaching me. Bingo. Moving from the specific idea to the general formulation of the problem it suggested, I realized I could re-frame my challenge to be “What can I learn or gain from taking Class X besides the content it covers?” or similarly “How can I make the experience of taking Class X useful to my research agenda or personal life?”

This second prompt proved to be much more amenable to good brainstorming. Ideating about how to make the required class useful suggested ideas like using this problem as a RAD case study (as I’m doing in this blog post) or as an exercise in serenity/acceptance or as practice at doing just the minimum necessary work (quite a challenge for an admitted perfectionist).

As this example shows, a mediocre brainstorm can be a sign that your problem still needs additional re-framing.

What else might we learn from a mediocre brainstorm? How about from a disappointing experience at other phases of the design process?

The Power of Uncomfortable Constraints

3 Dec

A constraint that every idea has to be made of plastic during an ideation session gave me new ways to channel my passion for action into academic writing.

I had the privilege of co-teaching our RAD workshop to a small group of students with design experience on September 24, 2011. Because it was a small group, the RAD team joined some of the sections. I joined the Ideation and Prototyping sections and was in for a wild ride. My How Might We (HMW) statement was: “How might I channel my passion for action into academic writing?” For the first 2 minutes, we brainstormed without any constraints, and we came up with some pretty amazing ideas like “prototype paragraphs,” “write a poem about your paper,” “dictate while running and capture your words with a sound to text machine,” and “use a jigsaw puzzle or building blocks to represent your paper in simpler terms.”

Then we imposed a crazy constraint which we had agreed to BEFORE the rest of my team knew what my HMW was: every idea has to be made of plastic!!! As we continued ideating in between loud bursts of laughter, I continued to scribble ideas furiously until we ran out of time and my whiteboard was FULL!!! Some of the hilarious ideas we came up with were: “write out your paragraphs on reused plastic bags,” “spend time in a large bin with plastic waste until you feel motivated to write,” and this gem: “fill a room with plastic balls, each with an idea or word that will stimulate better writing” (at which point Amanda couldn’t resist reminding me of this darling cartoon: ). ❤

After just 4 minutes of ideation, I was overwhelmed and energized with more than 30 ideas. I picked five and began to think about how to prototype them, but two ideas stood out immediately: the poem idea (I’ve been writing amateur poetry for 20 years) and the room full of plastic balls idea. I grabbed some prototyping supplies: a coffee cup, some hard plastic netting, tape, and scissors. I cut the netting into a circle and cut a door into it, then stuck it onto the cup’s mouth. I wrote every idea from the whiteboard on a separate small post-it and scrunched it up, then put it in the cup. As a finishing touch, I placed a ladybug sticker on the netting door as a lucky doorknob J. Now I had a concrete toolkit I could consult each time I needed inspiration to write: just shake the cup, open the “door” and grab an idea to apply to my writing!

I then grabbed some paper and in about 2 minutes, wrote out a 2-page poem about the 30-page manuscript I am currently revising. I tested the prototype out on my colleagues and they said they understood exactly what my research was about, and inspired me to think of other creative ways to communicate my research such as slide shows with pictures of my subjects, and a screenplay. I study how to motivate people to use less energy, and the manuscript reports a randomized controlled trial in which we focused on specific behaviors like eating less meat, avoiding clothes dryer use, and driving less, all of which can reduce personal greenhouse gas emissions significantly and quickly compared to policy or technology approaches. Here’s the end of the poem:

we need not go to hell

in a handbasket

if we act quickly


so skip the hamburger

for a spinach salad

skip the drive

for a scenic walk or ride


when you need to fly

and if you launder

which we all do

please hang dry!

Through the ideation and prototyping phases, I was able to resurrect my passion for my least favorite part of being a grad student: academic writing. I remain indebted to my Ideation team, the RAD team, and to design process for its amazing powers!!