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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?

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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?

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.