5 Experiments with ‘One for Them, and One for Us’

My biggest takeaway from graduate school

Some of the ‘One for Us’ projects that I have been part of
In this part 02 post, I showcase how I have put the idea of ‘One for Them, and One for Us’ to the test throughout my time in graduate school. In part 01, I frame why this idea is my biggest takeaway from these 2 years.

I have averaged at about 50-hour work weeks in grad school (I’m slow…ish, maybe?). This was because once every few weeks, my mind would be filled with poorly-framed, unanswered questions to the brim. At those points, I’d have a need to work on/collaborate on a ‘One for Us’ experiment. Thinking back, I consider myself extremely lucky to have worked alongside bright minds on these experiments.

In the following list, I create an account for some of our experiments along with highlighting hits and misses along the way:

What is the impact of n iterations on a project?

Left: Our first concept in the 3-week project. Right: We won the People’s Choice Award for the project at the 2015 Fall Projects & Research Symposium.

In Fall 2015, while working on a 3-week design project for the Bloomington Fire Department, we learned that firefighters prefer to work by intuition and experience rather than to rely on technology. Our team designed a board game as a training tool to help firefighters build intuition by having open conversations about extreme firefighting situations that cannot be simulated. Based on playtesting with and feedback from the fire department, we worked on an iteration by making improvements in the game mechanic and by adding more details to the extreme situations generator.

A rapid prototype to build a game mechanic

With this nagging want to do more iterations and to build a product for the local fire department, our team continued to commit 3 hours every week for the next 6 months on this project. Under the guidance and mentorship of 2 PhD students who are expert board gamers, our agenda was to experiment with rapid prototyping game mechanics and then playtest those mechanics with the fire department to learn more and iterate more.

Over time, I was struggling to wrap my head around the lack of linearity in our process. It was then that I warmed up to the idea of the necessary back-n-forth in design. For the many reasons why we could not continue working on this project, this design was living proof that not all UX efforts lead to screen-based interfaces.

Do remote meetings work for ideating on concepts?

For the CHI 2016 Student Design Challenge, I was part of a very enthusiastic team that was working with and designing for single mothers and their extended support groups in the local community. The energy in the team was such that in spite of each of us traveling over winter break 2015, we wanted to continue working remotely and deliver a final design in January 2016. What’s amazing is that our remote meetings were from Atlanta, Bloomington, Dubai, and Beijing!

With my novice skills at that time, I was unable to propose good concepts and/or improve upon existing concepts without a whiteboard or without an in-person team. In retrospect, I now realize that the concepts could have just been the kind of story that we wanted to communicate through our design. In addition, sketches and prototypes could have be uploaded to an online prototyping tool for collaboration and feedback.

What is a design team of one?

“Couldn’t you have picked a simpler Master’s program?!” said the wife when I was struggling to the point of breaking down at the end of my 1st year in the program. And she was right in a way! I had this belief that I’ll get out of the program only as much as I put into it.

At that time, I was yet to work on a design project by myself. Intuit sent out a challenge for designing an app or website for time management and I found my calling.

Content-first whiteboard sketching

In the 4 weeks that I spent on this project, I learned the following about my shifting mindset in design:

  • Problem framing could be tuned to the kind of user that was available at that time
  • I found actionable value from literature review in design
  • I thrived on learning from multiple paths taken rather than just focusing on building a final design
  • My whiteboard sketches were inside out. I was filling in content first to communicate the story and only then adding other UI that could support the story.
By having a content-first perspective into design, I learned about a fresh method for creating the desired user experience.
The written word has enough power to be that missing team member in a design team of one.

How can a team design for 24 hours straight?

Now this has never been a question that I’ve asked of myself! I was introduced to the idea of a 24-hour design challenge, and sure enough, a team assembled pretty quickly. The challenge, which was about designing for the currently aging population, was to begin at 10am Australian time and ended at 10am on the next day. For us in the United States, that meant designing from 8pm onwards until 8pm the next day. We set an agenda for every 4 hours of the project and even wrote about our progress at the end of every 4 hours.

With the time zone difference, we were conducting interviews as late as 11pm that first night. If that wasn’t enough, we completed a 6-page research paper and storyboarded and recorded a video as our final submission for this project. After undergoing such an exercise for 24 hours straight, it felt very special to be recognized as one of the runners-up for the challenge. Without a team of special energy and capabilities, any of this would have been impossible.

How can we create a better and more empathetic conversation about homelessness in our city?

This passion project was spread over the course of about 5 months. I was invited to be part of a team that wanted to explore user-centeredness in human-robot interaction. We worked with the local community shelter and understood how special this shelter is for all the help that it provides to any homeless individual in the city.

We designed and built Raven, an interactive robotic object that addresses the needs of the homeless by creating engagement between them and the settled population in the city. The mailbox is designed to rotate its head sideways and also ‘wave’ with the red flag to attract the attention of people walking down the street. When people walk up close, a pamphlet is printed from the mailbox, which highlights:

  • A reality about homeless individuals — They haven’t always been homeless
  • A certain need at the community shelter, and
  • Actionable ways in which people can contribute resources, time, and effort at the shelter.
Left: The mailbox in action. Middle: A sample of the pamphlet we designed. Right: We presented and won at the Human Robot Interaction 2017 conference.
With such a design, I now realize how the ‘One for Us’ questions have evolved over time. Instead of asking questions about design as an artifact, there has been a shift in mindset. A mindset simply about how we can think designerly and build for a need out there.

In part 01 of this post, I frame why ‘One for Them, and One for Us’ is my biggest takeaway from my 2 years in graduate school.

Shameless Plug — I’ve recently graduated from the Master’s program in HCI Design at IU Bloomington. I am venturing into UX design after over 5 years of professional experience in Technical Writing. I bring a content-first view into design and development based on both user and business needs. I have showcased some of my work at chetanbhatia.com.