A Design Thinking Orientation

Students building prototypes for their solutions.

This semester, my students are engaged with a design challenge project where teams will identify wicked problems related by students at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus, and devise and prototype human-centered solutions for campus users.

To help orient students to the design thinking process, I led a 50-minute activity today using resources provided by the Stanford d.school. Students were asked to bring scrap items and craft tools to class while I provided some random materials such as crayons, boxes, strings, tapes, stickers, and glow sticks.

The goal of the activity was to introduce students to the ways they could observe and identify wicked problems. The “mission” of the activity was for students to redesign the campus experience for a partner I had assigned to them.

To start, students were asked to sit with their partner. Then, they began by reflecting on their own campus experince (1 terrific experience, 1 terrible experience). After that, students were asked to interview their partner. They took turns doing so. Following the interviews, students wrote a user-story statement (“X needs Y so that/because Z”).

Next, students were asked to observe their classroom setting (and beyond, thinking about the campus in general), and to pay attention to ways we interact with objects and spaces.

Using the user-story statement and observation of classroom spaces, students were asked to generate at least 5 radical solutions to meet their partner’s needs. They then shared these ideas with their partner, and spent a few more minutes selecting one “big idea” to refine and prototype.

Students then spent the next 8-10 minutes building a model for their “big idea.”

Students building prototypes for their solutions.

A student building prototypes for their solutions.

A student building prototypes for their solutions.

Students building prototypes for their solutions.

When the time was up, students paused their prototyping, and began sharing their prototyped solutions to their partner. They were asked to focus on what worked, what needed to be improved, and to take questions from their partner.

This was also when our class time was up.

So, I collected the prototypes from students and asked them to reflect on this activity by responding to the following questions:

  • How is design thinking similar or different from “traditional” research process?
  • How did you approach your partner’s problem(s)?
  • How did you come up with your “radical” solutions?
  • What does your partner think about your solutions?

In the next class session, I will return the prototypes to students and ask them to share their insights from this orientation. My goal is to have students reflect intentionally on the affordances and limitations of design thinking, and how this process might be used in their design challenge project this semester.

What I have learned from leading this activity (and participating as well because a student’s partner was absent today) is that design thinking is more than just “thinking.” It is very action-driven, human-centered, and project-focused. When applied to a technical communication course, design thinking could be a useful framework to help students make their ideas/solutions tangible.

I look forward to seeing what students make of the design thinking framework and the projects they choose to engage with this semester. I will share them in a timely manner.

What do you think? Share your thoughts here!

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