Goal for this quarter: get ideas out of my head faster

Upon reflection of last quarter I realize that I failed to execute enough doing, making, or saying largely due to maladaptive thought patterns. The futile attempts to have things align perfectly in my head before I committed pen to paper usually lead to procrastinating the work.  The quality of my assignments suffered as a result. Below is a visualization of how I hope to change this:

Universal education in design thinking is essential for effectively tackling wicked problems

Complex problems facing us today come in all shapes and forms. Herb Simon provided a powerful framework of dividing these problems into well structured (WSP) and ill structured (ISP) problems. We will proceed to think about complex problems with the help of illustrations to understand better challenges that face us while trying to solve complex problems. For example, mapping the Human Genome is a WSP while designing the road network of a city is an ISP.

Criterion of a Well Structured Problem Human Genome Project Designing Road Network of a city
Definite Criterion for testing any proposed solution
The problem state, the goal state and transient states
“Legal moves” can be defined
Knowledge acquired can be represented
Solution moves take into account real world constraints
Solution requires practicable amounts of problem-solving ability

The biggest problems facing humanity today like health, energy, food security, waste management etc, are special forms of ISPs which Horst Rittel has termed as Wicked Problems (WPs). WPs are different from standard ISPs in that they also have added dimensions of conflicting stake holder intentions/value systems and dynamic dimensions, constraints and success criteria. As an example, the problem of primary education in poorer communities has no definitive criteria for testing the effectiveness of the proposed solutions. The issue is further confounded by the varied and potentially conflicting goals and values of parents, students, teachers and state officials.

As a society we have been focused on building professionals like lawyers, engineers, accountants, doctors, designers, teachers etc with their formative universal education comprising purely science and arts. Such professionals are what Pacione defines as masters who are production literate, good at execution, proof-based deductive thinking and perfecting algorithms. They are very well equipped to take on WSPs which as expressed by Simon can generally be “automatically” solved by brute-force approaches or through more optimized problem solving approaches like search, sort and other algorithmic methods. However, wicked problems are elusive with numerous possible approaches and require understanding of qualitative, subjective and often changing criterion of success. When faced with indeterminate problems like this, our traditional way of creating professionals sets us up for failure.

As rightly observed by Buchanan, design thinking tends to be universal in scope and it can be applied to any area of human experience. But in the process of application, one must discover or invent a particular subject out of the problems and issues of specific circumstances. This sharply contrasts with disciplines of science which are concerned with understanding the principles, laws, rules or structures that are necessarily embodied in existing problems that are more fully determinate. Thus we believe when design thinking is incorporated into universal education with other subjects like maths, science, history, language, literature and philosophy rather than just being specialized professional training at varsity levels as it exists right now, we will empower the professionals we create as a society with much better capacity to tackle wicked problems facing us.
For example, traditional methods of education used in lower income communities have resulted in very low enrolment, high dropout rates, limited literacy and large populations of unskilled labour. In more recent years, private individuals who are not traditional educators have made significant inroads into delivery of education to the ones who need it the most. These include Ben Dublin-Thaler who designed a carbon-neutral BioBus which brings science lessons to communities that do not have the proper equipment to teach the subject matter, The Khan Academy which has delivered 81 million lessons covering multiple areas of focus and is now supported by Bill Gates, and Savera which provides classes tailored for the working children in the slums of Ahmedabad, India. Such approaches would not have been possible without the application of design thinking.

Success achieved by these non-educators in the field of education points to the value of Including design thinking as an essential component of universal education which will enable our society to tackle complex problems with greater competence. This resonates Paciione’s feelings on design being too important to be just left to just designers as practitioners.

– Written by Samir and Ben

Complex problems facing us today come in all shapes and forms. Herb Simon provided a powerful framework of dividing these problems into well structured (WSP) and ill structured (ISP) problems. We will proceed to think about complex problems with the help of illustrations to understand better challenges that face us while trying to solve complex problems. For example, mapping the Human Genome is a WSP while designing the road network of a city is an ISP.

Criterion of a Well Structured Problem Human Genome Project Designing Road Network of a city
Definite Criterion for testing any proposed solution
The problem state, the goal state and transient states
“Legal moves” can be defined
Knowledge acquired can be represented
Solution moves take into account real world constraints
Solution requires practicable amounts of problem-solving ability

The biggest problems facing humanity today like health, energy, food security, waste management etc, are special forms of ISPs which Horst Rittel has termed as Wicked Problems (WPs). WPs are different from standard ISPs in that they also have added dimensions of conflicting stake holder intentions/value systems and dynamic dimensions, constraints and success criteria. As an example, the problem of primary education in poorer communities has no definitive criteria for testing the effectiveness of the proposed solutions. The issue is further confounded by the varied and potentially conflicting goals and values of parents, students, teachers and state officials.

As a society we have been focused on building professionals like lawyers, engineers, accountants, doctors, designers, teachers etc with their formative universal education comprising purely science and arts. Such professionals are what Pacione defines as masters who are production literate, good at execution, proof-based deductive thinking and perfecting algorithms. They are very well equipped to take on WSPs which as expressed by Simon can generally be “automatically” solved by brute-force approaches or through more optimized problem solving approaches like search, sort and other algorithmic methods. However, wicked problems are elusive with numerous possible approaches and require understanding of qualitative, subjective and often changing criterion of success. When faced with indeterminate problems like this, our traditional way of creating professionals sets us up for failure.

As rightly observed by Buchanan, design thinking tends to be universal in scope and it can be applied to any area of human experience. But in the process of application, one must discover or invent a particular subject out of the problems and issues of specific circumstances. This sharply contrasts with disciplines of science which are concerned with understanding the principles, laws, rules or structures that are necessarily embodied in existing problems that are more fully determinate. Thus we believe when design thinking is incorporated into universal education with other subjects like maths, science, history, language, literature and philosophy rather than just being specialized professional training at varsity levels as it exists right now, we will empower the professionals we create as a society with much better capacity to tackle wicked problems facing us.

For example, traditional methods of education used in lower income communities have resulted in very low enrolment, high dropout rates, limited literacy and large populations of unskilled labour. In more recent years, private individuals who are not traditional educators have made significant inroads into delivery of education to the ones who need it the most. These include Ben Dublin-Thaler who designed a carbon-neutral BioBus which brings science lessons to communities that do not have the proper equipment to teach the subject matter, The Khan Academy which has delivered 81 million lessons covering multiple areas of focus and is now supported by Bill Gates, and Savera which provides classes tailored for the working children in the slums of Ahmedabad, India. Such approaches would not have been possible without the application of design thinking.

Success achieved by these non-educators in the field of education points to the value of Including design thinking as an essential component of universal education which will enable our society to tackle complex problems with greater competence. This resonates Paciione’s feelings on design being too important to be just left to just designers as practitioners.

Capturing More Than the "What": A Reflection on Participatory Interviews

Last week Diana and I connected with CSA members to learn about how they made decisions when preparing food. Our method of research was called a participatory interview. This method involved discussing the topic with the participant and leading them through a creative activity called an Experience Canvas. During this exercise the participants chose word and image stimuli from a collection we provided in order to reflect upon their ideal experience.

There were many aspects of the interviews that went extremely well. The scheduling with the participants was straightforward and we easily found times that worked for everyone involved. We were also very successful in clearly communicating the intent and procedure to our participants as indicated by their ease of understanding the different stages of the interview. The participants themselves were excellent to work with as they were very friendly and agreeable. They both were very willing to discuss and reflect aloud which resulted in an interview that proceeded efficiently and within the optimal range of interview time.

The canvasing activity was enjoyable for all involved. In fact, the participants indicated that they found the activity to be very useful in helping them crystallize their thoughts around the topic. One participant even indicated that he might want to use the activity as a tool for future thought processing. The participants chose stimuli with confidence and could coherently articulate why they selected them. We had to artificially speed up one interview mainly because the participant could relate almost every piece of stimuli to his beliefs in a meaningful way.

However, there were many aspects of the interviews that could be improved upon. As note taker, I believed I was capturing sufficient notes during the interviews. However, I later discovered that my notes were extremely vague and failed to provide complete thoughts and references to the context of certain ideas. Many times I wrote down the “what” while failing to record the “why”. Also, there were several instances where I failed to identify the specific stimuli that the participant was discussing which lead to confusion and frustration during the later synthesis process.

Diana also saw several things she would do differently as the discussion facilitator. The participants were enthusiastic enough on their own that she let them take the lead too often, sometimes forgetting, in her enjoyment of the conversations, to do the actual work of moderating. To avoid this problem in future she would ask more probing questions that would explore the “why” behind the participants beliefs and values. She would also be more assertive in asking to see mentioned artifacts, and being sure to document them. During the canvas activity, she would lead her participants to elaborate further or clarify their stimuli selections by encouraging them to write directly on the canvas.

Upon reflection, we both realized that the main component missing from our interviews was a sincere curiosity about our participant’s choices and values. We identified closely enough with our participants that we took too many things for granted and would constantly assume that we knew what the participant was talking about without requesting clarification or asking for an applicable story. For example, one participant stated that he he did not appreciate his food being bland and predictable. We recorded the idea and moved on with the interview without even bothering to ask why he thought these things, or what bland and predictable meant to him. The lack of understanding behind these beliefs resulted in the data being essentially useless to our later synthesis.

Overall, we managed the structure of the interview fairly well but missed the frequent opportunities to reach a deeper level of inquiry. As our confidence in our research abilities improve we hope to become more aware of those opportunities for insight and develop the skills we need to capture them.

Fun with Guerrilla User Testing

This week I searched all over Austin for people to test the user interface of my smartphone app, Leafy Compass. I had them navigate through sketches of the app to perform the following functions: search for local fruit, input their shopping list, and take a photo of a local fruit. Then I had them state the number of problems they encountered with the app. I interviewed seven different people and adjusted the sketches according to the feedback I received. Here is a video of the final test (with the technical issues that my laptop experienced edited out):

The user testing went fairly smoothly but there is lots of room for improvement. In my next user tests I would make the following changes:

  • I would stop leading the subject and not give them any confirmation before they have made a decision
  • I would create a more specific set of criteria for them to review my app than “how many issues did you have?”
  • I should triple-check my laptop for potential technical issues