Getting to How

Aug 4, 2015 · 8 min read
Photos by Ahsante Bean

IDEO Futures is running a pop-up incubator in partnership with the Harvard Innovation Lab (i-lab); this summer’s pop-up is called Bits + Blocks, and focuses on using blockchain technology and human-centered design to solve problems with an eye on the future.

Some background: blockchains are digital, permanent public ledgers that are changing the way we record and transfer information, including ownership. Vitalik Buterin describes blockchains as “a database we all agree on,” while IDEO Business Designer and Director Matt Weiss writes that blockchain technology “has the potential to disrupt countless industries and create new experiences.” It’s exciting stuff.

These posts document Bits + Blocks as the Lab unfolds.

Ideas can be intoxicating: lofty, limitless, and relatively easy to come by. But turning an idea into an actual experience — or a venture — is more gritty. It involves dropping into ground level details, coming up with hypotheses, designing ways to test them, and making changes. And then doing it again. And again.

Throughout this summer’s Lab, Kristine Ericson, Amber Guo, Jennifer Hurford, and Ariel Walzer have had lots of ideas around solving problems for diverse groups of people: farmers, day laborers, home builders, and even hairstylists.

Before meeting with Diego Rodriguez, a partner at IDEO, and Joe Gerber, Director of IDEO Futures, the team was still in this idea space, working to figure out exactly what their venture was, what problem they wanted to solve, and for whom.

But when they sat down with Diego and Joe, it was time dig into a single idea; to explore the specific tools that can support it, and how the experience unfolds. Instead of what, the question had become how. As in: How does this venture work?

“Have you guys prototyped this so far — or how have you thought about prototyping?” said Diego, after the team described where they were at the moment. Diego was referring to the practice of making a simple mock up or model, often just on paper, which allows a design to be quickly tested, then either discarded or improved.

“We have an initial idea for how a contract is formed,” said Amber Guo. Amber is introspective, and has a steady, quiet confidence in front of groups. The team described challenges faced by various independent workers, and said they wanted to build a venture to help them.

Joe told the group the idea was great — but that they needed to get more specific. It was still an idea; not a prototype. Diego used video game designers to illustrate the necessity of prototypes.

“The ones who are really good, they never do any digital prototyping until they’ve hammered out all the rules and game dynamics, using a paper-based version of the game. Or they act it out. You guys can run a lot of scenarios just doing interviews.”

During Weeks 5 and 6 of Bits + Blocks, I heard variations of this conversation play out all over both the i-lab and the IDEO studio. Everyone who spoke with teams — from IDEO designers to people from member companies participating in the Bits + Blocks Lab — shared a common message:

Test. Prototype. Build a landing page. Test some more. Build more prototypes. More landing pages. Form strong hypotheses. Interrogate them. Get concrete — by getting specific.

In a nutshell, know not just what your idea is, but how your venture works.

Late one night, I crossed paths at IDEO with a team using crowdsourcing for community improvement. The team — Jayne Everson, Ryan Hatch, David Mayo, Stefan Stanojevic, and Nicholas Wood — stayed in the shop till almost 1 a.m. cutting and assembling life-size sculptures to test the next morning in Boston’s Science Plaza.

The sculptures were intended to flag a public need, like a bench or a broken light, then push people to engage and contribute in the digital space. The shapes included a tall, angular human-like form, and my favorite, a spindly, multicolored metal and foam “dandelion” that looked like something sketched by Dr. Seuss.

“I think one of my favorite moments was the plight of the dandelion,” Jayne later wrote. “ A two-foot-tall two-year-old sprinted across the science plaza and plucked the entire dandelion and threw it to the ground.”

The team realized they hadn’t even been designing with kids in mind. And that it was often kids who led adults to interact with their physical surroundings.

They also found it was hard to get anyone to take the next step of engaging online.

“We learned that unless people know what something is and trust it, they won’t interact with it,” wrote Jayne about the prototypes. “We suspected that, and we confirmed. Word of mouth is the most important in all kinds of fundraising. Unless someone tells you to go check it out, you won’t.”

Getting to the how of the venture also requires that the teams define the how of their collaboration, says RJ Korah. His group has been designing to help people support and engage with local businesses.

“We’re becoming more conscious of the different ways each of us reacts,” he said. RJ is kind and unruffled; the sort of person who you’d want around in the middle of a crisis.

“At first, there was this weird tension because we just had really different ways for how we reacted to situations. We were at such different places emotionally.

“For example, I had to face the reality that I might have to change the way I work to be a better teammate, because typically a lot of work I do is individual. But when working with other people, that’s not necessarily best way.”

Here, his teammate Jinglan Wang mentioned a quote she’d pinned on the wall from Shark Tank, to describe the team’s progress.

“‘Protein from a death is never wasted,’” she said. She often goes by Jing, and is focused yet mischievous; someone who speaks up during silences, often saying what others are thinking but may not voice. “It’s a morbid way of saying you can always learn from your mistakes.”

“And now each person has found an attack they can do to push the team forward,” said Jing.

Their work table was covered by drawings, markers, snacks, and a dog-eared copy of Mastering Bitcoin, by Andreas Antonopoulos. It was clear the team had gotten comfortable with their differences. After everyone had lunch together, RJ and Victor Skenderi went to an in-person interview, Win Chesson ducked into the lobby for a phone interview, and Jing stayed behind to build another landing page, crouched inside a sort of three-walled cave she’d built out of foamcore to mimic the atmosphere of a basement. The team was very much separate, yet working toward a common goal: Specificity.

“Specificity is super super hard, and super liberating,” said guide and IDEO business designer Matt Weiss when we talked a few days later. “It’s especially hard when you’re in a space like this [blockchains] where not much has been created yet, and you’re creating something the world has never seen before. It’s like: ‘Ok, that’s cool — but be specific. Tell me about the prices. Tell me exactly where I can get it, and how it’s going to work, and what I’m going to do with it.’”

The day after speaking with Joe and Diego, Amber, Ariel, Jennifer, and Kristine interviewed a woman in her early thirties. She’d recently become a stay-at-home mom, and wore stylish glasses and pinstripes, as if still at an office — and she was really thorough when it came to taking care of her home. This is how she said she’d currently find someone to install shelves:

“Make calls to a few other homeowners, friends, relatives,” she said, ticking off each step on her fingers. Then she’d go to Facebook. Then Angie’s List. Then Craigslist. Then a site called Handyman. She’d put together a master list, then call everyone on it. Then in-person interviews with 3–5 people. Then another set of phone calls to double check whoever she’d finally picked.

Next the group pulled out a bunch of hand-drawn prototypes on pieces of paper. They showed the woman each prototype, took notes on her reactions, and tried to understand each specific detail of the ones she felt would help her be more efficient about getting those shelves installed.

They spent an hour with her — and in the end, those answers were part of why they finally dug in with a slightly different demographic: freelance creatives.

“We decided to go with creative freelancers because they’re more immediately accessible to us,” said Kristine Ericson, the group’s visual designer. “And right now the idea is to get out and test as much as possible.”

A week later, as they were testing prototypes for freelancers, the team hypothesized that only less experienced freelancers would have much use for digital contracts; that not getting paid on time was due partly to a lack of experience — yet user interviews revealed that most established freelancers also had recent experiences with late payments. One career freelancer described getting paid on-time as a “constant struggle.”

“She said it was like dealing with a bad roommate,” said Jennifer Hurford. “Like, ‘Just pay the rent and stop eating my brownies.’ It really turned out to be a problem across the board.”

Now, each team will continue to design the “how” of their venture; for this team, that means building a robust reputation system for freelancers, with smart contracts as a support mechanism. It means getting down to ground level details; seeing and designing all the ways that freelancers and employers will come into contact with the system, and what those interactions will look and feel like.

For all the ventures designed in this Lab, the goal is to use blockchains to build better, more functional tools, while delivering those tools as part of entirely new experiences that will define the future. If a lofty idea is what sparks a new venture, it’s the gritty details — the experiences and mechanics — that make a venture real. Good design is a dialogue between those two spaces.

Annie Murphy is a writer and radio producer.

Originally published at on August 4, 2015.


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