CASE STUDY: PowerPlay — Sustainability Through Education

Social Impact Project (Renewable Energy)

The Project: Apply the user-centered design process to influence social change.
Role: Information Architect, UX Researcher and Visual/UI designer
Tools: Pen & Paper, Post-its, Sketch, InVision, GoAnimate, iMovie, Google Drive
The Goal: Create a digital or physical experience that has a positive social, environmental, and economic impact.
Duration: 14 days

Team Management

From the start our team (Michael DeGothseir, Debby Alberts) focused on creating a team manifesto that helped us align our goals, communicate our process, and allow each member to be responsible for that part of the process. We set up a simple timeline that helped us map out and timebox the UX tools we felt were most beneficial for this project.


  • Team Manifesto
  • Project Timeline

Key Takeaways

  • We wanted to design a specific experience instead of just one digital solution
  • Our goal was to design a solution that killed 3 birds with 1 stone (Disclaimer: No birds were harmed in the process)


Refining our scope took a fair amount of time. Our topic was renewable energy, which is a pretty general topic. The implications were vast, so the first question that populated our minds was simple; where do we start?

Defining our goals early on through a team manifesto allowed us to create productive restraints that focused on goal oriented implications. Moving away from a digital solution and diving deeper into the realms of physical products allowed us to do that. A lot of time was spent discussing the possibilities, but we didn’t see any real progress until we started to create a concept map that helped visually branch our ideation.

After a couple of brainstorming sessions, we started building momentum with the idea to harness the energy that kids produce during recess. The concept map above helped us clearly grow and link the possible ideas starting from the first idea that focused on a sustainable playground.


  • Brainstorming
  • Concept Mapping

Key Takeaways

  • Pre-defined limitations makes managing the possibilities much easier
  • Balancing our imagination with what can be realistically implemented

What is out there? — Market Research

Our initial idea was to design a renewable energy playground that could possibly sustain an entire school. But we had much to learn.

The first task was to discover what else was out there. We found many others who had either conceptualized our idea or were currently using it in a different context.

We gathered as much information about the current competitive landscape we could. It started by cold calling multiple companies in hopes that we could pick their brains about what has/hasn’t worked for them. We first spoke to Crys the executive director at Empower Playgrounds, he was kind enough to provide details on how his playgrounds harness and store energy. Their mission is to enhance educational opportunities for children in deprived villages by providing renewable energy through electricity-generating playground equipment, smart LED lanterns, and hands-on science kits. We gathered inspiration and direction from many different sources including, industrial designers, forward thinking companies, and conceptualized solutions designed by students.

This competitive awareness helped us understand how to move forward with our solution. Our goal was to create something that could realistically be implemented, so our design had to be scientifically sound. To validate what was possible we reached out to industrial engineers, architects and even had a chance to pick the brain of a NASA rocket scientist (they’re as smart as everyone says). These conversations helped us understand the technical opportunities and constraints in our design.

Our initial idea was focused on schools having the ability to harness energy from a kinetic playground. This would then be used as their primary energy resource. Unfortunately, current kinetic energy technologies are limited when providing the wattage needed for large facilities. This realization caused us to pivot from our initial direction.


  • Comparative Analysis
  • Scientific Research & Interviews


  • Our idea to harness the energy of kids was in the realm of possibility
  • One hour of play has the ability to generate roughly 150–200 watts
  • An average school in the US spends $1 Million on energy per year, if we could somehow reduce that number by even a fraction. The money saved could then be reinvested into school infrastructure.

Educational & User Research

Though our initial idea pivoted, we still wanted to focus on creating an all-around immersive educational experience around renewable energy (in the form of a playground).

Research regarding the physiological benefits of play-based learning was easy to find. Studies suggested that the attention span and memory of students, improves before and after exercise. Adding an element of gamification (the application of typical elements of game playing to other areas of activity) would allow children to become highly immersed into the educational material.

Using this research as a foundation, we interviewed those whose career was devoted to the education of children: Teachers and School Administrators.

1. Can you tell me how you engage and motivate students?
2. How do you feel about competitive or incentive based learning?
3. Based on your experience, what makes an assembly, visiting speakers, etc. successful?
4. Describe any overall challenges facing you as an education professional and/or the educational system as a whole.
5. Do your students have recess or free periods? If so, how many?
6. Does your school currently teach about renewable energy, “going green”, etc.?
7. Is there any thing else you that you’d regarding the above topics?

We asked about engagement with students, successes or shortcomings in education strategy, challenges, and how they would improve the current state of renewable energy education.

Affinity Map of all of our Research

All of our prior research was (Persona, Scenario, Business Model Canvas, Comparative Analysis, Interviews) organized by using an Affinity Map. These tools allowed us to define and understand the behavior of our target persona. Using this human centered design strategy helped us move forward with our plan to impact social change.


  • Physiological Research
  • User Interviews
  • Stakeholder Interviews
  • Personas
  • Scenarios
  • Business Model Canvas
  • Affinity Map

Key Takeaways

  • Play-based learning is a primary feature we wanted to incorporate
  • Successful teachers engage their students but involve them in the learning process
  • If a lesson is student focused, kids are more likely to pay attention and retain the material
  • There are still many schools who do not teach their students about “going green” even though most educators think it’s important
  • Administrators take responsibility for their students education success and overall well being
  • Student safety — building materials, size restrictions, occupancy, etc. and costs are administrators’ main concerns when implementing fairs, playgrounds, etc.

Strategy, Design Iteration & Testing

We believe the future of the human race is interconnected to both small and large decisions we make in the present time. It’s not a matter of opinion, there will be a global crisis if we do not reduce fossil fuel emissions by at least 80%. How much time do we have? Not 100 years, not 50 years, not even 40 years. We have 34 years to completely change our current energy dependence. This is done by thousands of small efforts. We must create a passion driven awareness for the next generation of creative problem solvers or else we have lost as a species. Proper education must come first.

If we hoped to effectively pull this off, school administrators and other decision makers would have to buy in. To communicate how, we held a design studio to wireframe an informational website for school admin.

To better understand how users grouped content, we card sorted to figure how they subconsciously gave hierarchy to specific content. This confirmed our website’s information architecture landscape.

After understanding the interface’s landscape moved to lo-fi mockups and content creations. The main components of this concept involved an explainer video, website, and interactive map that allows users to understand more about our playground’s design. This process consumed a majority of our time and involved a lot of thoughtful iterations.

We wanted the video to act as an entry point into our large scale concept. This would communicate our why, what and how in just under 90 seconds. After a few days of crafting the website and video, we spent the remainder of the time testing and iterating the primary content. The testing showed us that content was king and that there were better ways to word text. We needed users to understand more in shorter amounts of time.

While this was a concept, our hope was that someday this idea could be realistically implemented. To help supplement that thought, we developed a business plan to explain how we would launch our idea. Defined our funding model by explaining how we would foster partnerships with companies, NGO’s, and organizations to eventually implement our playground into low income school systems. We also timelined our main goals throughout 5 year increments. The first step involved elements of prototyping. We would do this by building “pop-up playgrounds” to gather proper data on safety regulations, equipment modifications and effective play based lesson plans.


  • Design Studio
  • Card Sorting
  • Lo-fi Mockups
  • Video Animation Editing
  • User Testing
  • Hi-fi Prototyping
  • Business Plan Development

Key Takeaways

  • Users have to understand what’s going on within the first seconds of landing on the page
  • Making a map when you’re not an architect is very difficult
  • Too much content ends up being unnoticed
  • Find a middle ground between what you have to say and what they want to hear

Next Steps

From the beginning, our group has always contemplated the possibilities. With so many interesting directions, staying focused could end up being a full-time job. We have narrowed our goals down to simply amplifying each child’s interactions with the playground. This could include higher levels of gamification, district-wide competitions to see which schools can harness the most energy, and creative ways to communicate the amount of energy each student is producing during playtime. We were tasked with solving the problems around renewable energy, in the end we strongly believe education is a most effective solution in combating our current energy crisis.

Our future will be defined by the next generation of leaders.