Post by Chelsea Lei
This past week was the most instructive yet for me when it comes to learning about design thinking. It taught me that prototyping can be an alternative form of empathy work, which can generate surprising new information that very quickly leads one back to the drawing board to rethink the problem.
In the previous week, our team grappled with two sets of issues stemming from two our empathy work with two social services providers in East Palo Alto. One is a musician working with youth and the other is a lawyer running a legal aid agency. We used these two individuals to develop our Points of View, which provided a focus for our need-finding analysis. Our initial focus was on the lawyer’s point of view, which suggested a need for low-income residents who live in rent-controlled apartments on the west side of EPA to have a greater voice in shaping the general plan for the west side.
We recognized that many of these residents are service laborers who help support nearby businesses and institutions. They depend on the low-cost housing available in EPA, a condition that is fairly unique in the area and explains why many of them choose to live there. This insight led to an idea to create a platform through which residents of different backgrounds would interview each other, and record each other’s stories. Those stories would, in turn, be used – via a blog or videos – to raise the profiles of workers who labor in Silicon Valley as support and service personnel. We believed that by telling the stories to each other, some of the cultural differences might be bridged, and that by showing their stories to others in government and business, residents would have a stronger voice as government and business made redevelopment decisions that affected their ability to stay in their low-cost homes.
With the mission of gathering stories, I checked out a video camera from the d.school and hopped on Bus 281 to head toward EPA. Even though it was the fourth time I went to EPA since the project began, I actually walked around on foot for the first time instead riding in a car. Somehow the lack of predefined destination helped me pay closer attention to what people were doing and identify opportunities to talk to them. Just by going up to people who were walking their dogs, I got to chat with them and heard some pretty interesting perspectives (about their perception of the root causes of youth violence in EPA, which could be another blog post in itself!).
Later, I walked past a Woodland Apartment complex and saw a young man standing on his balcony. He seemed friendly enough, so I went up and told him I was working on affordable housing issues in the area and wanted to talk to residents about their experience. He seemed immediately interested when I mentioned “rent-control” and that residents could get free legal advice on housing issues like threats of eviction. His younger brother and one of their neighbors happened to come home then and joined the conversation with great interest as well. They said that their families frequently receive warnings from the apartment management about missing rent payment even though they had always paid their rent on time. They feel they are targeted because they are Mexican immigrants and that the management wants to force them out.
After chatting for a while, the three young men (Rigo, Anival and Christian) kindly agreed to do a sit-down interview and picked the location to be in a park nearby in Menlo Park (which took 20 minutes to walk to). To my surprise, they appeared very natural and articulate when I put a camera in front of them and prompted them to tell me their stories. They told me about how their families moved from Mexico, where they grew up and moved around, and how and why they chose to live in the Woodland apartments on the west side of EPA. It was fascinating to hear that living on the west side was not just about affordability although that’s certainly a big factor. They talked repeatedly about “culture” and “environment,” saying the west side feels much safer and the access to the resources in neighboring cities, including libraries in Palo Alto, Menlo-Atherton High School, parks in Menlo Park, is an important “relief”. Anival, who went to middle school in Cesar Chavez and high school in Menlo-Atherton, said that the ability to see “both sides” meant being able to make better decisions for his life. He is now a student in a community college working toward a four-year college education.
Despite their appreciation for their living location, they talked at length about the problems their families face as tenants of Woodland. Parking seemed to be the problem on top of their mind when they explained what makes living there difficult. The adults in their families all work in minimum-wage jobs (e.g. as security guards) and return home late at night (or early in the morning). Because Woodland restricts parking to one spot per rental unit for one registered vehicle only, they invariably have to look for parking in the street as most families do in the area because they all have multiple cars. Often they have to park several blocks away and walk home in the dark. “It gets tiring and it is scary,” said Christian, recalling a gruesome story of a man walking home being stabbed to death outside his window last year. All three of them agreed that such violence is part of the trade-off that comes from living where they do, under the financial constraints they face. The west side is still dangerous and inconvenient, but they believe it is the best option they can afford. They are working hard to just “hang on in there.”
The new information and insights from this storytelling prototype prompted our team to rethink the problem as they gave us a much deeper understanding about the people for whom we hoped to design. We rewrote our POVs to focus on the residents’ needs and did a second round of how-might-we’s, ideation and prototyping. It was not easy to go back to the drawing board after a lot of initial hard work, but I felt being iterative and adjusting nimbly to new information got us much closer to tangible problems as well as solutions that could make a difference.