The “human” in human centered design

Being a relatively new transplant to Portland, Oregon, I was excited to check out Design Week PDX. I thumbed through the catalog, and I was surprised to find that, besides the Design Workshop hosted by both Breaker and the Construct Foundation, there wasn’t much design thinking happening at all. What an opportunity! I had to jump into the mix and offer something.

Even though I didn’t make the cut-off for the printed program, the online offer was enough to gather interest. The session filled up (plus a waiting list) in just 48 hours. Now, I just had to find a space to host it in.

One e-mail to the organizers of Design Week PDX got me an amazing, free space. The Loft is a brand new addition to the funky warehouse type spaces Portland has to offer and it didn’t disappoint. It’s designed with all of the flare and mid century style that Portland has come to represent. Think retro living room loft mixed with farm-to-table flare and a drum set to boot.

I met with The Loft’s owner to preview the space just days before the event, and it was at this point that I learned the space didn’t have a projector, a screen or even blinds to accommodate something I could bring in. A workshop without technology? Wow! What a constraint.

We do fundamentally believe that constraint = creativity. So, I took this as a challenge to design a 3-hour design thinking workshop in analog. Completely.

I stopped at the dollar store on my way home and purchased five large, black foam core boards and a few pads of sticky notes. These would be the only resources I would use to design my workshop.

I started with the agenda. Instead of the detailed and often scripted agendas I usually create in neatly boxed Excel spreadsheets, I used only the materials I had in hand.

I reduced the information about each section of the design thinking process (for which I usually do a short teaching segment loaded with visuals and videos) down to a few sticky notes written in large letters that could be read easily from anywhere in the room.

While I was a bit nervous that the participants would find my low resolution materials hokey and not credible, I did believe that the message behind this decision would be worth the risk (more on that later).

The design challenge began with gusto. Participants worked in teams to Redesign the “Getting Ready for Sleep Experience” for a group of self identified “users.”

Interviews quickly ensued followed by empathy maps, wild ideas and tangible prototypes that could be experienced, not just described.

The experience felt very much like an introductory workshop one would get at Stanford, which are taught in fancy studios with movie screens and projectors, surround sound stereo systems, rolling white boards and red couches on wheels.

But it didn’t just the same, it the same.

So often, people come to the d.school and they look around at the beautiful spaces with the glass garage doors, the funky furniture, the incredible technology, the gadgets and prototyping carts and they think they these things in order to “do design thinking.”

But what they often fail to realize is that design thinking is not really about these things. Instead, it’s about the interaction between people, working together, gaining empathy and thinking critically about sticky problems.

It’s. About. The. People.

And I was reminded of this with my five black foam core boards and handful of sticky notes brought to life by an incredible group of talented people from all walks of life.

Will I go back to using my provocative videos and images and slide decks to help others immerse themselves in the world of design thinking? Yes.

But the reminder is noted: Human centered design is about the humans. It can be done anywhere, with anything, with anyone.

Stanford d.school

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Melissa Pelochino

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Stanford d.school

Learning shared by the Stanford d.school community