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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.

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!!

A Few Memorable Moments from My Design Thinking Journey

3 Dec

This 2-part post captures some significant moments in my learning to use design thinking.

Design Process 101

It was my first day in my first ever class. Creating Infectious Engagement. Spring 2008. I walked into the classroom, which looked more like a warehouse, and saw that there was a card with my name on it on one of the tables, along with 2 Jeffs and a Dan. I sat and waited a bit, then met Dan, and by the time the 2 Jeffs arrived, it was time for a brief welcome from the teaching team. Perry was running this class session. We went around and introduced ourselves briefly, and then were asked to pair up for an exercise.

Dan and I paired up and we were given a sheet of paper with some boxes and lines on it. The first part said “Needfinding.” Perry said, “Take out the pictures of yourself flossing that we asked you to bring.” So we did. He then asked us to interview our partner for 5 minutes and figure out what their brushing and flossing process is like. I asked Dan about his process and he said he wished he could remember to floss, and there was some way he could be reminded about it while brushing. I was complaining about how messy my brushing process was with frothy toothpaste flying everywhere from my electric toothbrush. It was fun to talk about this and also very intimate, so we got to know each other well.

Perry asked us next to draw a few ideas for designs for how we could provide our partner with what they needed. We were given just a few minutes. Next Perry said “pick one of these ideas and draw a few different ways you could design it.” We did this, working alone.

Next, Perry asked us to get up, grab some materials from the bins provided, and build the idea we liked best. We had 5 minutes. I ran and got some supplies: a small tape wheel, a toothbrush-sized stick and some other objects to play with.

I hadn’t stopped to think that I hadn’t built anything in a long, long time. I just did it. There was something incredibly exciting about the time constraint, being able to play with random materials, and building something you’d just thought about a moment ago.

I built a toothbrush that contained a floss dispenser; this was my best idea. I mounted the tape wheel to the stick and attached string to the wheel to simulate floss. The idea was that when you brushed, you would see the floss and be reminded, then just pull some, and start flossing.

Time was up. Perry told us to get back into our pairs and explain our device to our partners. I explained my idea to Dan and showed him my creation. He liked it!!!! Next, he floored me with a prototype of a toothbrush that has a suction system for sucking away excess toothpaste and saliva while brushing, down a tube and into the sink. It looked like a normal toothbrush but with a clear tubing near the top running to about three-quarters of the way down and he had modeled the suction system using a small spinning wheel. It was super!!

Next we shared some of the prototypes with the class and Perry asked us what we liked or would change about the prototypes we had made and the ones that had been made for us. We also shared how we felt while going through this process of designing something so quickly. Clearly, we were all energized by this first class meeting.

We sat in our team of four and I got to meet the 2 Jeffs, and we chatted a little and were given our first project brief – a design challenge from Facebook.

I had never felt this excited, gleeful, and energized in a graduate class before. I went home thinking that great things were in store for me. I was right. Read on to find out what we did next.

Needfinding: Why Design Thinking is Also Known as Human-Centered Design

In my first class, called Creating Infectious Engagement, our first project was to get more people 30 and older to use Facebook.  We set out with the first phase – Needfinding. It’s like ethnography where you try to know your subjects, in this case, potential older Facebook users, deeply, and develop empathy with them. We interviewed people under 30 to understand why they use Facebook, and we interviewed older folks and found out why they don’t use Facebook much.

Here’s what we found. The young folks use it to share photos, stay in touch, and have fun. The older folks fear for lack of privacy, find Facebook trivial and childish, and prefer to call friends on the phone or write emails or letters to communicate. We found this to be quite logical and obvious so we went a bit deeper. We tried to really get at which emotions were important to older folks that Facebook might satisfy.

We thought a natural way to get older folks onto Facebook would be to connect with the younger folks who were already on Facebook. So, we interviewed some parents who told us how sad and disconnected they felt when their kids left for college. This was real, emotional, human stuff and we felt we were onto something.

We decided to check out the flip side – what were young people thinking and feeling? It turned out that young people didn’t want their parents on Facebook seeing their drunk and disorderly pictures!!! This seemed fair enough…

To portray the results of our needfinding process, we created and performed a skit between a mom and son who is away in college. In the skit, the mom calls the son, and while he is about to go out with friends, you can hear in her voice that she’s really missing him. During the phone call, one of the son’s friends comes in and exclaims, “Man your beard is really coming along!” Then the mom says, “I want to see your beard,” and there’s a moment of intensity where the mom really misses her son and feels she is not connected to his life experiences. The son hastily says, “Oh ok mom I’ll send you a picture, I’ve gotta go!” and then the skit ends.

Through needfinding, we unearthed a real human need – the need for parents to feel connected to their children’s lives once the young ones leave for college. We also found another need – for young people to effectively segment their lives so that their parents don’t see things that might alarm them.

To come up with a solution that would meet these needs using Facebook, we followed design process – ideation, prototyping and testing. We came up with a Facebook app called Facebook Family that would let young folks drag and drop the content they wanted their family to see into a parallel profile. This would make it safer for them to then invite their parents to Facebook. The app allowed for a very simple interface for the parents so they did not feel intimidated and there were easier privacy features to help parents feel more comfortable. We also felt that if kids invited parents, the latter would be happy to join and less fearful of privacy issues. We realized our solution could be extended to a business profile. We tested this out with our target users and both young folks and their parents said they would use it!!! We had come a long way, based on solid human needs that drove our innovation process. I came away from the project feeling that identifying real human needs was a critical, and perhaps the most critical, step in the design process.