This fall, my Program Development Associate Kaitlin Fisher and I took the opportunity to participate in a class called Human Centered Design. It was run by a non-profit called Acumen and grew out of Stanford University’s IDEO project. I learned about the course through my association with the coworking community I joined a year ago, Impact Hub Seattle.
The Hub is part of a worldwide network of co-working spaces for people creating impact in their local and global communities. It was started in Amsterdam and growing rapidly – there are currently 63 Impact Hub locations open around the world and 20+ in the process of opening. By joining, people like me who work for themselves can meet others, access a listserv full of opportunities, participate in weekly member lunches, and attend panel discussions along with any number of other interesting events. Members choose from a number of membership options, from two days a month to full time, with a couple of options in between. While there are many kinds of co-working spaces (such as WeWork and The Collaborative Space Alliance), the Impact Hub sets itself apart with its focus on community. Besides the coffee, tea, and snacks that come with membership, we get fun professional development invitations such as a recent one to join a design thinking team.
Design thinking is something I have been aware of for some time, along with many people in education, as illustrated in this U.S. map of K12 schools using the concept in their curriculum. It grew out of Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (known as the d.school), where they realized that the principles of design in fields like business and architecture could also be applied to make successful contributions to human-centered problems. Acumen has offered the course free of charge every couple of months since 2013 (sidenote: it’s not too late, the next course begins February 9th). The coursework happens online, and groups must meet in person once a week to work on their design challenges. Although I was familiar with design thinking, I decided to take the course to become more familiar with the process and potentially use it in my work. We ended up with two Hub teams of five people each working over a 2 month period, and at the end we unanimously agreed it was a very worthwhile experience.
Our group consisted of three people working in global education, one in global microfinance, one in organizational consulting, and one in public relations. After doing some ice breakers and self-reflection, naming our group and creating our online presence, we selected one of three design challenges offered. Our group chose to tackle the question “How might we provide healthier food options to people in need?” Each week we completed class readings, watched videos, followed a study guide, and met in person for two hours to move through the three stages of the project: inspiration, ideation, and implementation. We had the opportunity to upload our assignments, see what the other 15,000+ people taking the course all over the globe (including several other groups in Seattle) were doing, join chat rooms, and learn from a variety of methods.
After choosing our challenge, we spent some time researching the issue, interviewing consumers, and immersing ourselves in locations where people might need healthier food options or in organizations working on providing them. Our exploration included food banks, a middle school class working on an urban farm, and a grocery store. Ultimately we were moved by the suggestion that healthy food needs to be more “fun,” so we chose a 14 year old boy as our target audience and resolved to create an app, a game, and a contest for healthy eating that would be enjoyable to his demographic. We took our concept, the “FoodBit,” through the prototyping phase, involving celebrity endorsers in the sports and music world, and then had a great time testing it out on our family members and friends. Of course, when we finished, uploaded our prototype, and viewed others online, we realized there were many flaws in our design and it would require a good deal more work to actually bring to market. Probably not unlike the process for any other invention.
One important outcome of our participation in the course was that we learned how to use the valuable tool of design thinking in our work. Another was our increased awareness of food issues and those working to solve them. We all agreed the best part of the course was getting to know each other and working together. Online classes can be great, but having real people, in real time, counting on us was the single greatest motivating factor. Some groups who took the course clearly devoted more time to it than we did, but given other commitments in our work life, we were proud of what we accomplished, felt we learned a lot and benefitted greatly by working together.
I recommend checking out Acumen — they offer a variety of courses, many of them free — as well as Stanford’s IDEO platform and MakerSpace to get people in any field working together to solve problems that affect all of us. It’s instructive, productive, and fun!