These last two weeks have been a journey indeed. Here’s the story.
I began this quarter with a project I called Soul of the City. The gist of it was to create more understanding and empathy in the city through amplifying stories of the individuals who inhabit it. Though I loved the idea in the abstract, as is the case with most any project, design or otherwise, the devil is truly in the details. In fact, this whole post is about working out the details in ideas.
As I developed the Soul of the City concept, working out the mechanisms of the storytelling and theory of change, I found each permutation to miss the mark of creating change I could be satisfied with. Who really is the audience? Whose stories are told? Are under-privileged individuals’ stories told to more affluent individuals through podcasts? My intention from the beginning was to create a format that created more understanding and empathy on both sides of the socio-economic divide, and this certainly wouldn’t achieve that effect. I tested other permutations of audience, content, and formats other than podcasts, and each time I felt something was missing.
By last week, I realized that though storytelling and art are powerful mediums, for the purpose of this project, I wasn’t satisfied with this as the crux of my project. I discussed a way forward with instructors and mentors and decided to reset the project. As bitter as the experience has been, it’s also been sweet.
Over the last seven days, I dove deep into making, elaborating on five ideas that I had generated during my initial ideation session.
For each of these ideas, I revisited the research to find the links, created a lean canvas, created two drafts of storyboards and then developed service blueprints. Finally, I created a go-to-market plan for the one I found most compelling. That’s the project I will finish next quarter.
Revisiting the Research
One piece of advice that I got from an instructor, Trevor Boehm, is that revisiting the research will be essential to starting anew on the right foot. I’m grateful he was there when I started over to give that advice.
For each of the five ideas I chose to elaborate, I went back into the user interviews and secondary research, identifying what were the sources that inspired the idea in the first place. This process helped me reconnect with the research and also helped me assess how to develop the ideas as I moved forward.
Creating Lean Canvases
Next, I created a lean business model canvas for each idea. A lean canvas is a business modeling tool that forces one to sketch a business idea in a comprehensive way on one side of one piece of paper.
The lean canvas was brought to the lime light of the business world by Eric Ries, and we learned the approach that Ash Maurya takes in his book Running Lean. Our instructor, Emiliano Villareal required that we create 15 lean canvases for business ideas in our Product Evaluation class, and the technique was so useful I decided to use it in investigating my five new ideas.
Next, I got my hands dirty. Literally, they were graphite smeared after creating about sixty storyboard frames. Storyboarding proved immensely useful in exploring these five new project ideas. First, I wrote stories about ten to twelve sentences long about how people might use each product or service to complete a goal. Next came sketching. For each story, I drew frames representing their key moments and details. After critiquing the storyboards with my instructor, I revised them, condensing them into half the number of frames.
I did this for each of the five ideas, and it taught me how storytelling is a forcing function for drawing an idea across the table like a blueprint for us to evaluate. Does it make sense? How do the parts fit together? What happens here? And over there? Storytelling can certainly skip details, but it creates a frame that allows us to better assess an idea. It forces an idea from being a point or series of points one makes through explanation into a coherent, unified whole.
Through the immersion in so much storyboarding, I learned to better elaborate ideas and also to represent them visually. I had the opportunity to draw. A lot. And I’ve even noticed I’m measurably more comfortable drawing than I was a week ago.
After the first draft of storyboarding, I was forced to cut the story in half, so the same concept could be communicated more concisely. This, too, was invaluable to practice five times, over and over. It distilled the story to its essential points.
Creating Service Blueprints
After storyboarding, I moved to elaborating service blueprints for each idea. I worked these out on the whiteboard since I knew there would be a lot of erasing to do. We practiced service design last quarter, but made customer journey maps, not service blueprints, so this would be my first. And second, third, fourth, and fifth.
If you aren’t familiar with service blueprints, I’ll explain, since no one outside of design has generally any acquaintance with them. In short, they diagram how a service is provided to customers, but they don’t just reveal the customer’s experience, they also pull back the curtain and indicate how the whole thing is orchestrated.
Actually, the curtain conceit is fitting, because in many service blueprints there are sections referred to as Front Stage and Back Stage. Front stage, is the part of the blue print that indicates where service delivery is visible to a customer. When you take a plane, for example, you order tickets online and then show up at the airport, take the flight, and get your bags when you leave. That was your experience. That was the Front Stage of the service. What about everything that happened behind the scenes, that wasn’t visible, from website hosting to communications, fueling and flying of jets, and baggage handling? All those hidden mechanisms are the backstage which is meticulously orchestrated to make sure your front stage experience went smoothly.
The Front and Back Stages are separated by a line of visibility. And there’s a line of interaction too. That indicates the place where the service meets the user – where they interact. A conversation with customer service, for example, is an interaction. Even a passive transmission of information on a screen is an interaction, communicating from the service provider to the user.
Finally, there are the supporting services. These are the policies that guide service or the systems that service providers utilize to complete the work. Automated data processing is one example.
Making the service blueprints was also enlightening, helping my to visualize what would otherwise be too complex to sort out verbally. I actually often thought to myself that I wish I had known this technique in my last job managing educational programs. Orchestrating all the moving parts to the program I managed was always a challenge, and one of the hardest parts was delegating it to others since it was such a chore to communicate what to do, when, and how it impacted the whole. A service blueprint would have made it much easier to communicate the program delivery to other staff and employees.
Finally, after creating the service blueprints, I selected the idea that I will continue working on next quarter. It helped to do all that storyboarding and blueprinting and critiquing and revision. By that point, I had looked at each idea from multiple angles to have a better sense of them. They weren’t realized products making an impact in the world, but they were also no longer completely insubstantial ideas. I made something that represented them so others could understand them, at least in part, and that made them more easy to evaluate and continue shaping.
Choosing A New Path
The idea I chose to move forward with is for now called “Housing Helper”. Housing helper was born out of the insight that the immense effort necessary to navigate options and seek help for housing assistance saps homeowners’ ability to hold on to their homes. We spoke with one woman named Kathy, for example, who is often anxious about her home’s disrepair. She’s a fifth generation homeowner in a house built for her great aunt back in the late 1800’s. Code enforcement comes by often, and she has applied several times for help with repairs to keep in compliance. Applications are taxing, however, and a new application needs to be completed for each service provider. Very easily, they can lead nowhere. Just recently, Kathy applied for housing repairs and went for months through a process only to be turned down at the last step because she didn’t have paperwork from her father’s loan from sixty years ago. Stories like Kathy’s are not abnormal.
The idea for housing helper is to create a technology that will dramatically reduce the burden that homeowner’s have in seeking help for home repairs. Housing Helper creates a centralized place to build and submit their applications to service providers. In a conversation with Habitat for Humanity Austin, we were told that such a system has been something they’ve wanted for a long time. I look forward to developing the concept further so people like Kathy can take better care of their homes and themselves.
Drafting a Go to Market Plan
Having chosen an idea to move forward with, I created a first draft of the go-to-market plan. A go-to-market plan is a document that explains many different aspects of strategy involved in bringing a product to the marketplace. The framework we chose covers everything from product definition to cost, partners, marketing, competition, and growth strategy.
Now that the go-to-market plan and service blueprint drafts are completed, I have good materials to bring to the table in meeting with service providers to discuss how Housing Helper can support their service and clients. I have a call scheduled with Meals on Wheels next week, a major service provider for housing repairs in the area, and I plan to meet with other members of the Austin Housing Coalition as well in the next two weeks to quickly develop a plan for Housing Helper. I also have a call with Keith Edwards, a professor at Georgia Tech and an authority on leveraging technology and interaction design to support non-profits and those seeking housing assistance. In addition, I will interview additional homeowners about their experience utilizing home repair services before moving forward developing prototypes and eventually a minimum viable product before the end of next quarter.
The last two weeks have been invigorating, and I’m excited to move forward on this new course. If you have any recommendations or connections with individuals or organizations I should parter or speak with, please don’t hesitate to contact me.