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.

Freewriting as Design Thinking

4 Jul

One winter afternoon while I was writing my masters’ thesis, my officemate and I made a discovery that permanently changed how I approach the act of “doing research”. I don’t remember how we came to read a review for Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day by once Harvard Writing Center Director Joan Bolker. However we stumbled upon it, however, we were inspired to brave the rain to find the library’s copy right away. We read most of the book in about three hours that afternoon, and continued quoting sections aloud to each other until she finished her thesis a few months later. In the four years since then, I have become somewhat of an evangelical for this book and have passed copies out to a number of friends.

Bolker’s premise is fairly simple, but profound. Rather than writing once you have ideas or results in order to tell the story of what you did (i.e. writing as storytelling), she urges a graduate student or scholar to write continuously throughout the research process:

“Writing is at the center of producing a dissertation [or any other piece of scholarship]. This book will teach you how not to talk away your ideas or lose them in mental gymnastics. You will learn to write in order to think, to encourage thought, to tease thought out of chaos or out of fright. You will write constantly, and continuously, at every stage, to name your topic and to find your way into it. You will learn to write past certainty, past prejudice, through contradiction, and into complexity….If you’re to do all of this, you need to write every day, even if it’s only for fifteen minutes a day” (page 5).

During my masters’ thesis, I embraced this method that Bolker (and others) advocate: regular freewriting and academic journaling. I began work each morning by sitting down with a cup of tea and producing 5 single spaced pages of writing. I wasn’t aiming to produce 5 pages of text that would ultimately go into my thesis. Rather, I was developing ideas, exploring tangents, asking myself questions, problem-solving. Design thinking is often thought of as a social process, but looking back now, I realize the conversation that my daily writing allowed me to have with myself played many familiar roles to that played by team members in the innovation cycle.

My freewriting was a key source of new ideas. Often I started with a self-created “prompt” that had arisen in my work the previous day, perhaps from my reading or, later, from chapter drafts I was working on: To what extent did the culture of the Department of Lands and Survey influence the new Deparment of Conservation after its creation in 1986? Why are attitudes towards wilderness different in the United States and New Zealand? In answering my prompts, I wrote in a brainstorming spirit, without thinking about whether what I was writing was right or not. Instead, I tried to suggest as many possible answers as I could come up with without stopping. Investigating them, analyzing them, testing them against the literature, discussing them with my advisor, weighing them against one another – all these analytic processes came later in the cycle of the day, after my 5 daily writing pages were complete.

Daily writing also served as a means for prototyping. I tested chapter outlines or structures by sketching them out quickly in the morning without the pressure of drafting them “for real.” I tried alternate versions next to one another and then evaluated them, answering (in writing, of course), questions like What are the pros and cons between these two prototype thesis structures?, The daily writing pages gave me what web developers call a “sandbox,” a place on the server to try out pieces of code (or in my case, snippets of writing) and see what it looks like before implementing it in the real document.

A third function my freewriting pages served was to raise new questions and thus identify new needs to be addressed in my work. My style in the pages was reflective to a fault, continually asking myself about the implications of an argument I was making or an explanation I was developing. Being able to ask myself questions in writing allowed me (1) to know where I needed to gather more empirical evidence and (2) forced me to fully think through possible criticisms of my ideas before anyone else saw a draft. Additionally, since writing up ethnographic and interview research can be solitary and even lonely, the pages gave me a way to use my own mind as sort of a teammate, literally carrying on a conversation with myself through my writing each morning, paying attention to not only content but also my own mood, motivation, etc., and suggesting solutions for the inevitable slumps in productivity.

Most importantly, perhaps, by creating an inviolate habit that I began my days with a set amount of writing, I was building in consistent time for creative thinking to occur. Five single spaced pages is a fair bit of writing, taking at least an hour each day. Not daily, but with decent regularly I found myself reaching the state of flow that Csikszentmihalyi talks about, where an idea would lead to a new idea and then to another. By the end of the hour I would have produced a piece of writing with very little conscious sense of having done the work. Besides being exhilarating, this flow state was also incredibly productive. Just about every new idea worth anything in my masters’ thesis made its initial appearance in some form or another during my morning daily writing practice.

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 d.school 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.