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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 d.school 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.

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:  http://xkcd.com/150/ ). ❤

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

now!!

so skip the hamburger

for a spinach salad

skip the drive

for a scenic walk or ride

teleconference

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 d.school 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 d.school 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.


Design, Creativity, and the Performing Arts

22 Sep

Last spring, I was invited to give a talk on research and design for a dance class at Stanford.  The class, titled “Liquid Flow: Dance, Design, and Engineering,” both taught basic dance technique and theorized on the role of the body as a source of creative inspiration.  Because the class had a large number of graduate students, the instructor thought her students would surely appreciate our team’s new perspective on the research process.

In preparing for the class, however, I didn’t feel comfortable just talking.  I would never consider lecturing during a workshop at the d.school, which fully embraces a “bias toward action.”  More importantly, it was a dance class, the students would be expecting to move, and I have far more experience teaching dance than teaching in any academic classrooms.  So I developed a new curriculum—on design, research, and choreography.

I brainstormed hybrid activities that played with the intersection between movement, research, and d.thinking:

  • How might you interview someone using only your body?
  • Make a short dance. Now prototype it – test whether the emotions the choreography is trying to convey come across; whether a certain sequencing worked and why.

The class was a hit.  During the final activity, with less than half an hour to run through the entire design process, the teams of non-trained dancers made beautiful, moving, and incredibly diverse pieces.

Developing and teaching the class forced me to reflect on my own experiences with the creative process.  I have trained in dance, music (I play flute), and acting since I was four.  I love the process of choreography: turning on a piece of music, having a rough idea of what I’d like to create, and then messing around with my dancers, or—to use d. language—prototyping the moves, sequences, and spatial patterns until it clicks.  Or writing music, just playing and jamming, noting what riffs seem to work, and then beginning to construct a coherent piece from these tidbits.

The problem is that I approach my academic work in a completely different, non-creative way.  Somewhere between first grade and completing my bachelor’s, any sense of creativity or play was erased from my academic repertoire.  Sure, I’ll take the time to develop a good hypothesis, and always write several drafts of my papers, but nowhere is there an element of play or an understanding that I won’t have it “right” or “perfect” the first time and that’s okay.  (In fact, not being right is great, because that means I have somewhere to expand and innovate.)

Even after ten months of exposure to design thinking, of developing and teaching RAD workshops, and embracing (at least intellectually) the fact that my research can be enhanced by thinking like a kindergartener again, it still terrifies me to really play with my research.  I’ll brainstorm research questions, sure, but I can’t quite get to the loose mindset that comes so easily when I pick up my flute.  I guess I feel like I have too much at stake when it comes to my academic career, which is the exact opposite mindset than I actually need.  I have learned how to do really well in the elite academic world with the techniques that I’ve honed since high school–techniques that make my work really good but not revolutionary–and I’m scared to try anything different.  The irony is that at this point in my training and my life, I want to (have to) be revolutionary: too many of the problems that I hope to address with my research demand out-of-the-box approaches.

Practice makes perfect.  Or rather, practice expands one’s proficiency and repertoire.  I’m still in Ballet I with my design skills, and I have to remember that great performers and artists take years to hone their technique before they can let loose, break the rules, and improvise.  Be patient, and trust the process—after all, I have a lifetime.