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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

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.

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, 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.

Prototyping vs. Experimentation

3 Jun

We are in the process of planning for RAD Public Workshop v2.0.

Overall, we judged Public Workshop v1.0 to be a success. Thirty-six participants came, spent an energetic day, some told us they took away insights for their research, and most agreed this is a conversation worth continuing.

When we met a few days later to debrief, we discussed both the elements of our curriculum and logistical plan that seemed to contribute to those successes as well as those that didn’t work as well. D.thinking style, the RAD team instantly slipped from identifying something that had not worked as smoothly to brainstorming a multitude of other configurations that could have avoided the perceived issue we’d just identified. (I think our jumping between analytical, research style identification of possible problems and immediately generating possible ways to solve them have frustrated the wonderful woman who had observed the day for us and who was providing feedback about her observations.)

Now our task is to choose among the multitude of ideas we generated to design v2.0. We’re relying on instinct honed after vBeta and v1.0 and on our respective prior experiences running similar workshops or courses. For instance, before v1.0, we were thinking of our curriculum more as teaching d.methods, but a key comment by a participant made us realize that the workshop curriculum – like many courses – is actually using d.methods like prototyping to teach larger d.mindsets like a bias towards action. Plus there are certain structural constraints  like our crazy intersecting travel schedules and personal preferences that weight the balance one way or the other given two options that in theory seem rather equal.

We are clearly prototyping, not experimenting, though the two activities share many similarities. Yes, when we run workshop 2.0 in September, we will be testing an unknown configuration of activities and will be vitally interested in observing what results. We are paying similar conditions to the starting conditions to what we would if this were an experiment; we know that the observed results in v1.0 came from curriculum 1.0+advertising strategy 1.0+registration form 1.0 etc. And we are recording the workshop results so we don’t forget what happened, should we eventually get to v8.0.

But what we are not doing – which we would certainly do if we were experimenting – is making incremental changes. To truly understand the effect of advertising strategy 1.0, we ideally would run workshop v1.0 again changing only the advertising strategy to advertising 2.0.  Classic experimental methods rely on isolating causal variables to make causal explanations. The importance of varying only a single factor at a time goes back to the nature of logical argument that classic experimentation relies on, expressed in its quintessential form by John Stuart Mill’s methods for causal identification. (While there are now sophisticated statistical/econometric techniques that overcome some of the limitations when isolating a single variable is not possible, a classic experiment varying one factor and keeping the others constant that shows the effect is present when the factor is present and absent when it is absent is still often considered the “gold standard” for establishing proof that the factor caused the effect.)

So why are we not making incremental changes? Three reasons:

1) Logistical constraints – We simply don’t have the time or resources for as many iterations as we have ideas for elements we want to test.

2) Multiple causes – Mills’ methods and varying single factors do not lead to conclusions about effects with multiple causes or interaction effects (effects of factor A that result differently depending on whether factor B is present or not). Like many effects in education that deal with complex human group behavior, the effect we are interested in (an energetic group experience in which people learn d.mindsets) is probably the result of multiple causes and interactions between different factors.

Most importantly, however,

3) Different purposes – We are not interested in causation so much as finding a recipe that works.

Ultimately, we are not interested in establishing how each of the different elements in our workshop plan individually contribute to the overall success of v2.0. What we care about in the end is finding a successful combination of elements that collectively produce a stellar workshop. And since we are interested in finding that magic recipe as quickly as possible, it makes sense in our case to vary whatever we think needs varying and try it out. It is this concern with getting to a solution that makes what we are doing in our workshop creation at the moment prototyping and d.thinking.

Two other thoughts:

1) Education has a educational design sub-field which does similar work getting to a solution that works but pays more attention to the causes behind the success in order to make the findings generalizable. (See Theme Issue: The Role of Design in Educational Research Educational Researcher January 2003 32: 3-4, doi:10.3102/0013189X032001003)

2) Later, of course, when we do have a combination that seems to work, there might be an opportunity to return to study what we’re doing with a more analytical eye and move back along the r.thinking side of the spectrum to explain the causes for that success. This is what my dissertation is doing with a software tool.