Day 5 – We chose our design challenge!

Date: Halloween 2013!
Duration: 2 hours
Materials: post-it notes, colorful markers, sharpies, poster boards, our brains

After 8 hours of hard work, here it is:

How can we find ways for families in food deserts to gain access to healthy food?

This design challenge will guide and anchor the rest of the design process. Here’s how we came to the decision to choose this design challenge.

Our goal

Choose a single human-centered design challenge for us to tackle through the design process (same as our last session).

What we did

Last session, we put every design challenge we thought of on sticky notes, and categorized them to help narrow down the challenge we wanted to tackle (check out our summary of Day 4 to see where we left off).

We decided to concentrate our entire meeting on finally choosing a single design challenge.

Focusing on the job, not the solution

One thing that helped us hone in on a design challenge this meeting, was avoiding solutionism by focusing on the problem at hand.

Before the meeting, I read an article about the essentials of successful ideation sessions. It helped me grasp the danger of approaching a problem with a possible solution already in mind, in terms of coming up with the best solution possible. Here is an excerpt:

We are all familiar with the quote from Professor Ted Levitt of Harvard Business School, ‘People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.’ The job customers are trying to get done is to make quarter-inch holes in order to install a shelf for their family. The current solution they are hiring is a quarter-inch drill. Focusing on the job helps companies look beyond the current solution.

In other words, if the goal is to come up with the best possible solution for a particular problem, it makes sense to focus on the problem itself. That way, we can avoid the danger of being stuck in the current paradigm, which may or may not include the best possible solution.

Solutionism is a huge danger for our human-centered design project. If used correctly, human-centered design can help us understand a problem from the perspective of the people being most affected by it. By tackling a problem with a solution already in mind, we’re nullifying the entire point of doing design in the first place. Without deep understanding the problem, we may not come up with the most effective or appropriate solution.

We needed a human-centered design challenge that would let us focus on the job instead of the solution.

Looking at our design challenges, we saw that there were assumptions about possible solutions embedded in many of them. For example, the challenge

“How can we convey the Urban Agriculture Incentives Act and its benefits to vacant lot owners in food deserts?”

makes several assumptions about solutions that would provide families access to healthy food.

The first, is that the Urban Agriculture Incentives Act is the best solution to encourage landowners to create community gardens. Second, is that community gardens are the best solution to provide access to healthy food in the first place.

To avoid solutionism, we approached our design challenges from the vantage point of the next major phase in our design process – qualitative research. We asked ourselves, “how can we maximize how much we learn during qualitative research, and minimize the assumptions we make about the problem?”

We wanted a design challenge that would allow us to approach the problem with an unassuming mindset, but also help anchor the research at the same time.

Continuing with our previous example, the “job” that the Urban Agriculture Incentive Act is trying to accomplish is giving families access to healthy food. So we framed a design challenge that would focus on that job instead:

“How can we find ways for families living in food deserts to gain access to healthy food?”

Going through a similar thought process, we came up with a design challenge for creative education that focused on the job:

“How can we realize the full learning potential of youth?”

Choosing our design challenge!

In the end, choosing our design challenge came down to figuring out which problem we wanted to tackle. Over the course of the past few weeks, we became passionate about both topics, so this was really hard!

We decided to use the good ol’ pros/cons list to help us decide (blue=pros, orange=cons):

In the end, we decided to tackle the problem of lack of access to healthy food.

Using the human-centered design process on this problem, we can get more intimately involved in the specific context of our local community in the Bay Area – an important constraint we set for ourselves in previous sessions.

We also didn’t know how long-term our project would be, because we’re all volunteering our time to this project on top of other obligations (like full-time jobs). Creative education excited us deeply, but we felt that our potential for impact was greater for access to healthy food, with our constraints in mind.

Summary & Reflection

The main lesson we learned from this session was the importance of framing design challenges that would allow us to explore and understand the problem first, before coming up with solutions. This seems doubly important for human-centered design, because empathetic understanding of people that we’re designing for is a key part of the process.

With this in mind, what is the best approach for coming up with design challenges?

For this project, we started by deeply exploring the nature of the problems we were interested in, including inspirational stories about solutions to the problem. This helped us generate our design challenges. We then stepped back and consolidated and broadened the scope of the challenges to take out the embedded assumptions.

Would the process have been more effective to just start broad? To frame design challenges from the beginning, without additional exploration? This would minimize the chances of assumptions being embedded in the design challenges. At the same time, is it possible to come up with effective design challenges without making some assumptions first?

In terms of framing design challenges, is it better to start broad, and then go deep, or vice versa?

Now that we finally honed in on our design challenge, we can concentrate our efforts on finding out who we need to talk to, and gain empathy for, to truly understand the problem.


Doing Design – Approaching the Design Process

A few weeks ago, a design practitioner told me that the best way to understand design was to do design.

I’ve been facilitating our design project for a few weeks now, and I’ve learned a few lessons along the way.

Here’s the first one:

How to approach the design process

Initial understanding – a step-by-step guide

The design process is a pretty complex method of problem solving. The process has been organized and categorized in many ways by many people in an attempt to turn it into a methodology that can be easily utilized in diverse contexts.

After reading through the Human Centered Design toolkit and the Collective Action Toolkit, I conceptualized the process for myself in a following way:

This was my entry point for making sense of the design process. I understood it as a series of individual modules, each containing a specific aspect of design. All modules went back and forth to both inform and solve the central design challenge. Only the outputs of each module interacted with other modules, not the process of the module itself.

For example, the “Research” phase was a self-contained module of the design process that could help us gain a empathetic understanding of the problem. During this step, we would interview people to gain deep insight into their needs and aspirations, and also experience the social dynamic of the problem through contextual research. The information gained from the observations can be used to see if the design challenge is still framed in the right way. The same information can also be turned into insights in the “Synthesis” phase, and then the insights can be used to find opportunities for new solutions in the “Ideate” phase, and so on.

Lessons from doing design

As our team finished framing the design challenge that we wanted to tackle, I started to realize that this way of thinking was limited. While going through the first “module”, we mixed in elements from multiple modules to help reach our goal.

For example, during both our second and third session, we tapped into the design principles behind the “Ideate” phase to make sure that we were going for quantity over quality. We used the “7 Brainstorming Rules” from a stage in the HCD Toolkit that was way ahead of where we were “supposed” to be on. These design concepts helped us deeply explore each problem topic that we were considering, and gain tons of insights before narrowing down our interest areas. Different design tools and principles from different stages of the process were blending together in a organic way.

Instead of going through the different stages of the design process sequentially, we were mixing elements from a bunch of different areas of the design process to meet our goals in the best way possible.

New understanding – system of overlapping spaces

Here is a excerpt from the “About” page from IDEO that I wish I read right at the beginning as I researched the design thinking process:

The design thinking process is best thought of as a system of overlapping spaces rather than a sequence of orderly steps.

This is a messier approach to the process, but it feels more natural and organic when actually going through it with a team. Here’s how I like to think of the design thinking process now, to make sure that I’m approaching it in a appropriate way:

Design thinking is a methodology. It incorporates the tools and mindsets of designers into a process that can be used in diverse situations that previously wasn’t in the domain of design. For example, we’re able to use the principles of human-centered design to tackle a social problem in our local area.

The essence of design is embedded into the process itself. Organizations like IDEO did an awesome job of creating a design thinking process that anyone – even people without design backgrounds – can use to solve problems.

But I still consider it to be my responsibility to deeply explore the design process, to try to truly understand the design principles that guide each component of the process. I need to tease out and understand the essence of design that is embedded into each overlapping space. Or else the entire process becomes misused and meaningless.


The best approach to using the design thinking process is to understand the essence of design behind each step, so that I can freely tap into different spaces in a fluid, overlapping way.

Lesson learned: don’t treat the design process like a step-by-step guide.

Day 4 – Categorizing & Narrowing Design Challenges

Written by: Jeff Nagata, Sydney Mayes, Erica Kotta

Date: October 20, 2013
Duration: 2 hours
Materials: post-it notes, colorful markers, sharpies, poster boards

Last meeting, we naturally gravitated toward two topics: access to healthy food, and creative education. We decided to hone in and concentrate on coming up with human-centered design challenges for those two problems.

This meeting, we moved on from deeply exploring each problem topic through deep discussions, toward consolidating and eliminating our human-centered design challenges. Eliminating the design challenges proved to be somewhat difficult, but we came up with a good strategy to finally narrow down to a single design challenge.

Reflecting on Day 3

We quickly went over the pros/cons from the last meeting. We talked about being less critical of our own ideas to make sure we’re being as generative as possible. “Don’t worry about sounding stupid” was the lesson learned.

We reviewed our rules, posted in our design meeting room to make sure we maximize our brainstorming potential:

Reviewing the human-centered design challenge

One of the cons from the last session was that we had trouble framing design challenges out of our conversation topics.

For a overview of the definition of design challenges that we came up with, look at the Day 3 summary.

Last week, we realized how hard it was to naturally come up with human-centered design challenges on the spot. It wasn’t as intuitive as I thought it would be, because phrasing proper design challenges required us to think in a different way.

First, a proper design challenge has to fit into a broader context. This means we have to extract a bigger picture out of our conversation topics that will allow us to explore multiple facets of the problem, and leave room for a big range of potential solutions.

For example, we were discussing a specific story of a teacher in Mexico that used alternative forms of creative education to fully tap into the learning potential of his students. To frame a design challenge out of that, we had to take a step back from the specific story, and come up with a challenge that broadened the scope. After a while, we came up with:

“How can we help teachers create change within the current education system?”


“How can we support teachers who are implementing alternative programs in the education system?”

These design challenges took us from a specific teacher, to all teachers in the education system. We looked at the success of one teacher, and wondered how it can be spread to create societal impact.

Second, a proper design challenge for our project has to be human-centered. This challenges us to really empathize with the people who we’re designing solutions for, and look at the problem from their point of view, not ours.

A design challenge needs both of these attributes simultaneously for it to be good for our project, which is what made it so difficult to generate them.

Our goal

Choose a single human-centered design challenge for us to tackle through the design process.

What we did

We started by framing more conversation topics into human-centered design challenges. We had trouble phrasing them during the last meeting, but after going over it and getting more practice, framing the design challenges started feeling more and more natural!

Generating more design challenges

We continued our discussion for the creative education topic, since we were cut off short during the last session. Some discussion points:

  • Two frames we can focus on – implementing possible changes in the current education system, or creating/supporting extracurricular programs outside of school.
  • After-school programs or day-care centers – potentially a good place to implement supplemental creative confidence programs.
  • Importance of curriculum that excite kids – kids will be wary of any extra activities because they’re already tired from school. The curriculum must be truly engaging for the kids.

Here are all the design challenges we came up with up to this point, for both problem topics:

At this point, our conversations started to lose steam. We felt that we sufficiently explored both of our problem topics. It was a good time for us to move on, from deep exploration of problem topics to culling design challenges!

Adding more constraints

During our first session (“defining our constraints”), we created a set of constraints to help make our design project and activities manageable.

Before eliminating design challenges, we revisited our constraints. The goal was to create a set of criteria, a list of attributes that we want our chosen design challenge to have, to guide us as we eliminate our design challenges.

Here are the constraints we came up with (new ones in green):

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Day 3 – First dive into framing design challenges

Written by: Sydney Mayes, Erica Kotta, Jeff Nagata

Date: 10/18/13
Duration: 2 hours
Materials: poster board, sharpie, “inspirations” we shared with each other on Facebook group

Our third meeting was at Erica’s place again. Our loose discussions from the last session sparked even more articles and discussions based on those articles on our Facebook wall. We decided to continue this meeting based on the same discussion-based structure as last time.

To make sure we continued to move forward, we also decided to start framing human-centered design challenges along the way.

Pondering about design:

Setting the stage

Reflecting on Day 2

We started off by reflecting on the last session. Overall, we were very happy with the direction we took! We agreed that it was a great idea to deeply explore each topic before narrowing down. Plus, we were very receptive of each other’s viewpoints and built on ideas, following the 7 brainstorming rules from IDEO.

Most of the cons were about the details. It was hard to keep track of all the information while also taking part in loose conversations. We decided that we should all write down everything we could remember right after the session, and then compile it into one note. Draft is a great tool for this.

After the second meeting, we continued to post Facebook “inspirations” for each topic and continued to have great discussions online. We agreed that we still had a lot to explore, so we continued with the same discussion-based structure for this session.

Defining the human-centered design challenge

To make sure we were moving forward, we started generating some design challenges out of our conversations.

What is a human-centered design challenge?

A design challenge is a problem or a goal that is re-framed in a way that will allow us to integrate it into the design process. The purpose of the design challenge is to maximize the benefits and effectiveness of design-thinking.

A human-centered design challenge is a problem that people are facing that is framed and conceptualized in a certain way. It changes the way we look at a problem. The most important part of the human-centered design challenge is the human-centered part. That means the challenge has to be framed from the point of view of the people that we are designing for.

For example, in the Step 1 of the Hear section of the HCD Toolkit, instead of asking something like:

“How can we get people in villages to adopt savings accounts?”

IDEO advises to re-frame it into:

“How can we create a financial safety net for people in villages?”

The first one is centered around the organization bringing the solutions, while the second one is centered around the villagers who the solutions are for.

Choosing a proper design challenge is crucial to the design process because it shapes all the other steps after it. It will determine what questions we will ask during research, what opportunities we will discover, and what solutions we will come up with. A good human-centered design challenge opens up possibilities for new solutions, but at the same time, is specific enough to be actionable.

Our Goal

  • Continue exploring each problem topic through open-ended discussions
  • Generate human-centered design challenges

What we did

As we discussed more deeply about our problem topics, we extracted design challenges on a poster board.

To make sure we were being as generative as possible, we reminded ourselves of some brainstorming rules: defer judgment, and go for quantity!

For key insights from our last discussion of the problem topics, see the summary.

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Day 2 – Deep Dive Into Problem Topics


Duration: 2 hours
Materials: “inspirations” that we shared with each other on our Facebook group

We met 2 days after our first session, on 10/13/13 at 5pm, at Erica’s place.

A new member joined us for our second session. Airi works for a Geographic Information System (GIS) company, and was interested in exploring the Bay Area. Welcome to the team, Airi!

I feel that design benefits so much from multiple viewpoints and a genuinely interdisciplinary team. So it’s awesome that we’ll have even more perspectives to draw from as we move forward.

Setting the stage

Reflecting on Day 1

We started the meeting by reflecting on the pros and cons from the last meeting. We all loved the energetic atmosphere during the last meeting! We could tell that we were all genuinely excited to explore the design process, and see what comes out of it.

At the same time, we were also worried that we may have rushed our meeting. As the facilitator for our last session, I felt the pressure to keep our group moving forward, and may have moved too fast through the process. Sydney brought up a great point that quantity is very important during brainstorming. From other design projects I’ve seen, it seems that design-thinking is often a messy, uncomfortable process. Maybe I need to stop being afraid of the mess and ambiguity.

We agreed that we should step back, slow down, and deeply explore each of the topics that we came up with before narrowing down any further. We wanted to make sure that we weren’t missing hidden opportunities.

Agreeing on brainstorming rules

To help guide our loose brainstorming discussion, we agreed on the following rules, taken from IDEO and the Human-Centered Design toolkit:

  1. Defer judgment – there’s no such thing as a bad idea at this stage in the design process
  2. Encourage wild ideas – let’s start crazy and bring it down to Earth later
  3. Build on the ideas of others – think in terms of ‘and’ instead of ‘but’
  4. Stay focused on topic – we need achieve a balance between loose conversations and staying focused on the topics at hand
  5. Be visual – engage in the logical and creative sides of the brain
  6. One conversation at a time – allow ideas to be heard and built upon
  7. Go for quantity – ideas should flow quickly.

We wrote these rules on a poster board, and put it up on the wall so we can all see.

Our goal

Deeply explore each of problem topics that we’re interested in through brainstorming.

What we did

Discussing problem topics

We decided that this entire meeting should be devoted to a deep conversation surrounding each of the sub-topics we came up with during the last session.

From day 1:

The “inspirations” that we posted on Facebook really helped drive the conversation for each topic. Every inspiration sparked new conversation topics and surfaced aspects of the problem that we haven’t thought of before.

Here are some insights that we extracted during our conversation, for each topic:

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Day 1 – Summary


Duration: 2 hours
Materials: Poster boards, sharpies, post-its, idea journals, and a excited team of designers.

Our design team – Erica, Sydney and I – met to kick start our design project on 10/11/13 at 5pm. Our first design session was at Erica’s new place in Berkeley (thanks, Erica)!

Look at us smiling:

Our goals

  • Get to know each other
  • Go over the design project and the design process
  • Define the problem we want to tackle

Setting the stage


Before we started our design project, we explored our shared assumptions and values to understand where we’re all coming from as we get together to collaborate. These were the questions we asked:

  1. What does the word “design” mean to you?
  2. What do you think “good design” is?
  3. What do you personally hope to get out of doing the design project?
  4. What would you define as “success” for the design project?
  5. What would you define as “failure” for the design project?

We all had varying definitions of what design is. Design can be a verb – a specific form of problem solving. Design can be a noun – an artifact created with explicit intention of how it will be used and how it will affect the people using it.

There was just as much variation in what makes design good. One answer was that good design should be appropriate to the specific context of the problem that it is tackling. This led to a discussion about the importance of truly understanding the perspective and needs of the people that we are designing for, to make sure our solutions are human centered.

We also discussed the importance of having good foresight, which means planning out logistical details is also a important part of creating good design solutions.

Compared to the wild variety of thoughts we had on design itself, we were pretty unified when it came to what we wanted out of our project, and what our definitions of success and failure were. We all got together because of our common curiosity about the design process and the potential to make positive social change. We agreed that we’ve succeeded if we put in the time and effort, and honestly engaged with the design process to tackle a social problem.

The only way we can fail is by giving up.

Discussing the Toolkits

We briefly talked about the two toolkits we will be using as resources for our design project:

Human Centered Design toolkit (HCD) – is a free toolkit developed by IDEO to guide NGOs and social enterprises through the design-thinking process in a international setting.

Collective Action Toolkit (CAT) – another free toolkit developed by frog to empower groups to create solutions to a problem they are facing through design-thinking.

Each toolkit defines similar design-thinking processes in different ways. Here is the way I define the process (which is just one way out of many):

To make sure that we’re aligned with our definition of success, we agreed that we should use these two toolkits as a loose framework and a set of tools instead of a rigid mindset. We wanted to make sure that we were forming our own opinions about design and approaching the design process with a fresh perspective.

We will read appropriate sections of each toolkit before we begin each session, so we have a common foundation to draw from.

What we did

Sharing our skills

Resources used: “Skillshare” (Build Activity 1) from CAT

To get everyone used to interacting with each other, we decided to share our unique set of skills. We took 5 minutes to come up with a list of skills, and shared them via post-it notes:

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