Now the course is finishing up and the final assignment is to reflect on your experience with the design challenge and how you might apply the skills and mindsets of design thinking to your own work and interests.
In the early stages of the course they had us do some self-reflection about what we wanted to get out of the class and we then went on on to form Learning Squads. I started one named New Community Paradigms. For myself, the basis for both was this New Community Paradigms effort. It seems right then to return to this blog and have it be the platform for the final official review of the class. There will though be further explorations of what was taught in the class in future posts. There was too much for just one blog post.
My personal stated goal for the Design Thinking class was to see how it could be incorporated into a community-based direct deliberative democracy approach to community governance. Design thinking is an excursion into another previously unexplored arena, among those so far ventured into include ‘Livable Communities,’ ‘Placemaking,’ ‘Radical’ Community Engagement, and ‘Systems Thinking.’ Although I already had knowledge of Design Thinking and considered it as potentially being an important component of New Community Paradigms, this was the first time I had attempted a course on it.
I started at a reflection and formulation stage and I am still there but then I didn't expect the course to fit immediately and smoothly into my current efforts. I hoped that what I would learn could later be incorporated as both means by which I further developed those efforts and as its own end alone. That much as been achieved, now it is a matter of implementing it.
There was further self-reflection as to our individual approach to inquiry or the space of inquiry to be defined by three words, which for me due to an introverted and introspective personality type, were exploring, internalized, reflection. All happening within an environment encompassing space, people, and process dedicated to Design Thinking. There will be more reflection on these aspects with future blog posts.
With that as a basis, we began to explore a specific problem set or design challenge. I use the term problem set because it was crafted to encompass a wide and diverse set of issues within an important aspect of a great number of people’s lives, the transition from college to work. The focus, however, was on the process or the journey not the product or goal and not so much on asking the right questions but asking the questions the right way.
As was said in the Learning more about What is Design Thinking? post.
Now though, having learned more, I would say that design thinking goes beyond being micro-focused to drilling down into the community at a subatomic level of design by focusing on a specific individual. Design Thinking demonstrates that there is an important difference between designing for individuals as the average of a class or for a group of individuals and instead designing for one specific individual. The later is more aligned with a human-centered design or user-centered design perspective by emphasizing a deeper understanding of problems from the perspective of different stakeholders, not as a member of a class or a category, but as a unique individual. It can be applied in this way to the creation of innovative products, services and processes.
The purpose of addressing the problem set from the perspective of a unique stakeholder was to allow us to go through the Design Thinking process. The first phase was framing or defining the problem by establishing empathy with the ultimate stakeholder. The challenge could be examined through different lenses and stakeholders by talking to them and learning about their perspectives so that one discovered their unique problems that needed to be tackled. Government usually takes a one size, or more to the point our size, fits all approach. Government programs are usually designed to fit the needs of funders or overseers but very seldom is there a true focus on user needs. It has been a common philosophy of government that if you set the program resources up so as to keep those deemed undeserving out then the rest of the program will take care of itself.
I am not going to go into details of my particular project wanting to focus instead on the process but my interview was productive. However, I made the mistake of being too restrictive in selecting collected data to put on the final empathy map. I just needed a bigger map. More data or information would have helped to provide a clearer picture of the stakeholder for whom I was designing. The creating of this picture of the stakeholder reminded me largely of the Appreciative Inquiry approach. This is another yet known but unexplored arena to which more attention needs to be paid.
The next step was Ideate which for the assignment consisted of coming up with 50 ideas that could address the specific insight derived from the empathy and definition stage. Again, the focus was not on coming up with a single best fit answer but to generate an overabundance of ideas extending from the practical to the fantastical to the disruptive. Idea generation exercises included imagine addressing the challenge with a million dollars or if a 5 year old had to implement it. Again, this is not something in which most city halls would care to partake but then most city halls are not bastions of innovation. For my part, I was only able to come up with 35 ideas. Partially because I left it too late and got burnt out before the deadline but perhaps also because my empathy and framed or defined insight was too focused limiting the possibility of generating ideas. Perhaps not an issue if one comes up with a viable idea but as will be shown later the ideas I finally implemented had limitations.
From the 50 or 35 ideas, 3 were chosen as most practical, most disruptive and favorite, and from those 2 were selected for the next stage of the assignment Prototype and Test. The fundamental idea I took from this stage was of failing forward, and I should add fast. This concept of prototyping or pretotyping to fail more efficiently, effortless or at far lower costs is further explained by Alberto Savoia, Google's Innovation Agitator and Engineering Director, through his "The Pretotyping Manifesto" presented to the Stanford Graduate School of Business in January of 2012.
At this stage, we were to build inexpensive, make that cheap throwaway models of what we were proposing as solutions or approaches to the insights through the ideas that we had generated. This is an approach followed by many innovative companies in the private sector but still seems inexplicable to most in city hall. In my experience, management was not even comfortable with an iterative process concerning the creation of something, wanting instead a final finished product without mistakes to be presented to the city council and public. This meant that once a course of action was decided upon early in the process that everything was done to justify that decision including selling it to the public. The notion that an idea should be allowed to fail and then try another one was inconceivable because it would mean that upper management or the city council had been wrong about something.
There was also a significant error in application with my own two prototypes, one an online platform similar to LinkedIn but dedicated to the stakeholder’s industry and the second being on online management training program similar to a combination between the Sim games and Second Life. The prototype format was a mock up of computer screens for both ideas by which I mean a series of text boxes with appropriate sounding titles and associated notes.
Both were well received by others in peer review for what they were designed to do but I realized after having gone through the process that they came up short regarding actually addressing the stakeholder’s immediate problem. They might have if they had already been built and partaking in the building of them could have potentially helped the stakeholder but the stakeholder did not see it that way. Wanting instead to depend upon their own set of skills despite any obstacles that may or may not arise. In actual field testing this would have meant putting my solution aside and looking for another by coming up with more ideas or revisiting the empathy and frame or define phases.
My idea could then be evaluated for implementation at a later stage, that however would have meant broadening the stakeholders who likely would have had other concerns. One of the artificial aspects of the class is that every project was able to see, at least virtually, the light of day. In a community setting, with large, diverse groups and competing interests, perhaps nothing gets done. From a community perspective, this is not necessarily a bad thing. It may be necessary and proper for other elements of civil society to step in to address certain challenges.
I already listed the difficulties that government and other more bureaucratic institutions might have in implementing Design Thinking processes. There could also be potential stumbling blocks concerning community activists doing it if there isn’t a set discipline to walk the fine line between stifling creativity and becoming too attached to an idea that isn’t going anywhere. If Design Thinking could be implemented in a community setting that could then become a needed skill by community development workers in the public and private sectors.
In this particular academic case though this is the end of the process, reflecting on what could have been done different and how it could be applied to our own specific interests. I believe that this process could be applied in a larger community setting although most of us were only able to work on projects on our own. If we had worked together in groups, which seems to be more the norm for on-the-ground groups, there would have been far more ideas and many of our own ideas would have had quick but well deserved deaths early on in the process but the focus would be on the lesson not on the failure. The six person Design Thinking teams is, I have to presume, optimal but in a community setting, particularly one with an established direct deliberative democratic approach to community governance, would then be evaluated for how it fit with the community’s vision and principles and further for how well it worked. Actual Stanford students have actual Stanford professors to do this with them. The final point that needs to be made is that when this balance of creativity and practical and useful outcomes is maintained the results of Design Thinking can be impressive as the upcoming PBS documentary Extreme by Design will demonstrate when it is aired in its entirety in December of this year. Future blog posts will likely feature snippets of the documentary.
The course will remain open providing the opportunity for further inquiry and reflection how Design Thinking can be incorporated into New Community Paradigms. Areas of interest in which I see Design Thinking being applied are Participatory Budgeting and more generally in addressing wicked complexity challenges by breaking them down into more addressable chunks.