Telling The Story: The Final Ingredient

Post by Michael Lindenberger


Thirty-four years ago Joan Didion opened a famous essay about life in a California she no longer recognized, or even fully trusted, by writing, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” I am finishing up my first year as a resident here in California and it’s important to note that much has changed here since the 1979 publication of The White Album, but the importance of storytelling hasn’t.

We can debate whether storytelling is necessary, as Didion wrote, to our lives, but it certainly is one powerful tool for making sense of the lives we do lead, and for communicating that sense to others.

What flushed these thoughts on a sunny Tuesday morning was reflections on the five weeks my team – Chelsea, Tate and Ryan — and I have just spent working in East Palo Alto. We were on task for the city manager and her executive team to design a way to boost the sense of community among residents of the west side of East Palo Alto.

We began our task, as is recorded earlier on the blog, by a different kind of storytelling: We asked residents there to tell us their stories, and we listened. If we have been successful, and we all four feel good about our project, that was the moment our success began: When we asked about the stories of the residents there, and listened to their answers.

I won’t recount the whole process of nearly five weeks here, since much of it has been detailed on the blog by teammates, but I will that we went down several paths that we later abandoned before deciding on our final design.

We thought perhaps what was needed was a way for young people to better understand older residents, many of whom came to EPA when it was a very different place, or for black residents to understand Latino residents and for Pacific Islanders to tell their stories. We devised a way that young people would, instead of telling their own stories through writing and artistic programs designed to teach them self-expression, interview each other and end up telling the stories of their parents, or their friends and of people they don’t know and normally wouldn’t talk to.

We thought that by doing that we might put a face on the East Palo Alto residents, so many of whom we heard anecdotally work in service positions in companies that have made Silicon Valley famous. Indeed, we thought even that we could use those stories to help brand the EPA as a backbone of Silicon Valley and approach companies with an appeal to get more directly involved in housing and other touch-and-go issues that make for many in EPA their hold on their lives so tenuous.

But as we kept asking questions, we lost faith in the ability of those stories to apply real leverage against companies, who we feared would not be persuaded that a healthy EPA was a business necessity for them, not when this particular job market is so tilted in their favor.

So the glory of the design thinking process was just this: We easily abandoned storytelling as central part of our solution, and turned instead to other levers. We ended up proposing the Park Knights of the Westside, as a solution to a very pressing and immediate need for safer and simpler parking choices for residents of the Woodland Park Apartments.

In short, the solution is to recruit a host of volunteers who would be willing to be on call once a month or so to respond to texted requests for parking escorts for residents who arrive home late at night and sometimes must park a mile away or more.

But we weren’t done with storytelling. Even after developing the solution, and testing it through prototypes and improving it right up until the last minute, we had to present the idea to city manager Magda Gonzolez and her executive team. We would be one of four teams presenting and the task was simple, but not easy: Communicate to her team our idea in a way that would both arouse their curiosity and satisfy their experience-born skepticism powerfully enough that they would take the idea and put it in play.

That’s no small task, given the wealth of ideas and paucity of resources available to people in their position.

In our run-through on Tuesday, two days before the presentations, we demonstrated just how much work we had to do. One problem, the opening was too long and failed to adequately set the stage for what we were about to present. Our solution, taken from a member of the teaching team, was to use a piece of visualization that had ended the talk previously as part of the ramp.

I simply asked the managers to close their eyes and imaging coming home late at night in a dark and distant parking space and then walking 20 minutes back home. With eyes closed, it was easy to see how vulnerable that daily routine would make anyone feel.

That was but one example of how each of the three of us who were presenting focused our remarks first on the storytelling, and second on the importance of the ideas and methods we were discussing. And I think it is one reason why, when we ended, Magda responded so enthusiastically to our proposal.

A few simple rules we followed:

  • Whenever possible we substituted natural language for d.School jargon. This was harder than it seems since so much of the process is defined by its own terms, from empathy work to ideation to prototyping … we tried to get rid of them all, or if we kept them to explain the words in context.
  • We included signposts – little verbal clues as to where we were in the story, such as (now that we’ve told you who we met, we’ll talk about what we learned from them), and finally:
  • We weren’t afraid of repetition. Relying on the old preacher’s formula, we told them what we were going to say, said it, then told them what we had just told them.

I will just close by saying that seeing the reaction on the faces of the city manager and her team made this class project seem very worthwhile. We don’t know whether they will encourage the formation of the Park Knights or not, but I am certain that elements of our proposal will live on in the policy discussions among her team and the city council.

That’s five weeks well spent, and a story we can all be proud to tell.

The final stretch: iteration, solution, reflection

Post by Ramya Parthasarathy

After our first round of prototyping, our team discovered that many services were already in place to aid students in their transition from middle school to high school.  CollegeTrack, the YMCA, and many of the Sequoia Union high schools acknowledge the challenges of going from 8th to 9th grade and offer services to aid students from East Palo Alto.  That we discovered this quite early gave us an opportunity to revisit our initial point of view and focus on a new user group.

We realized that the key insight we had uncovered—namely, that the transition from middle school to high school to high school is particularly challenging for EPA residents—applied to parents as much as children.  EPA parents clearly had strong parental communities when their children were young.  These communities were built around their children’s schools and sports leagues; but just as the move to ninth grade fragmented students social groups, so too did it break apart parental networks.  Many parents we spoke to confessed that they did not know the parents of their children’s high school friends. Others lamented the loss of their old parent associations, or grew frustrated at the difficulty of commuting to and from such distant schools.

Adopting the asset orientation of the design project, we tried to view this period of transition as an opportunity rather than a stumbling block—an opportunity to build new networks and norms for parents.  Once we had defined a point of view statement for parents, we asked ourselves the following question: “How might we generate lasting connections among parents of the same high school cohort?”  This question motivated a productive brainstorming session, in which we tried to identify a set of shared interests or activities that might bring parents together.

The session generated a number of potential solutions, but in order to hone in on the most viable and impactful ones, we tried to reframe the question as follows: “Why aren’t parents organizing themselves right now?”  This led us to identify three potential constraints that, if true, would need to be addressed by our solution concept:

  1. Information constraints: Parents don’t know the other parents whose children attend the same high school
  2. Resource constraints: Parents don’t have the resources (materials, time, etc.) to make such a parental association effective.
  3. Motivational constraints: Parents don’t see value in a network of other parents, or parents don’t see themselves as able to lead or organize such efforts.

Given our conversation with parents in EPA, we were relatively confident that parents had an interest in getting to know one another.  We did still have a number of questions about what parents already knew about their peers, what resources they would need, and who would be willing to lead such associations.

These questions led us down two paths: (1) prototypes in the field, and (2) “expert” interviews with parent education liaisons at local high schools.   In speaking with school officials at both Menlo-Atherton and Carlmont High Schools, we learned that parental involvement among EPAers is certainly a challenge for administrators, and one that has the potential to improve student outcomes around attendance and extracurricular success.  We also learned that parents face certain barriers to becoming involved: distance to the schools, the need for translation services, or financial resources (dues for parent-teacher associations, e.g.).    These conversations gave us increasing confidence that the creation of a parental association for EPA parents would benefit parents and students alike.

We then embarked on two prototyping missions:  The first was a flyer campaign in which we sought to gauge parental interest in high school parents associations, and the second involved in-depth interviews with parents about their interest in one of four possible parent association groups.  From these interviews, we came away with two key insights: (1) parents are motivated to work with others if there is a concrete benefit or resource (after school space, transportation, etc.) for their children, and (2) it takes a special type to lead/organize such associations.

Though these interviews and prototypes could only give us a baseline level of confidence, they did provide the groundwork for our final proposal: the Shared Collectives Campaign—a service that brings parents together to collectively manage a resource.  Such a program would not only give parents and students access to much needed goods, but the collective ownership would generate trust and community among parents.

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This seed idea formed the core of last week’s presentation to City Manager Magda Gonzalez and her executive team.  After hearing about the design process and the proposed solution, our partners seemed enthusiastic about the proposal—not just about the pressing need in this area, but also regarding the feasibility of such a program.  Concerns were of course raised about the costs of such a program, how best to partner with the school district, and the identification of key community leaders.  But all seemed on board with the notion that parental associations of this sort could not only benefit students and parents, but could serve as a new way for the city to interface with its residents.

As we reflect back on the design process, we are incredibly thankful for the opportunity to get to know our neighboring city, and to hopefully contribute to its betterment.  Through our empathy work and prototyping, we tried to push beyond our preconceptions and to understand the residents of the city, to uncover their needs, their desires, and their aspirations.  By incorporating their feedback and suggestions into the final solution proposal, we hope that we have uncovered something of genuine use to the city.

A first Ideate-Prototype-Test run

Post by Manal Dia

As we moved from formulating POVs to testing MVPs, our last week was busy building prototypes and gathering user reactions and insights. We began by revising our POVs based on feedback from our project partner, the teaching staff, and fellow classmates. The POV we converged on as a team focused on transitioning from middle school to high school–a common thread across our need-finding work. 

A, an eighth grade honor roll student of Tongan descent, needs to navigate the transition to high school because (a) the culture class in non-EPA high schools often excludes EPA’ers, and (b) her overprotective parents have left her ill-equipped to be independent when she leaves EPA for high school.

Next, we formulated multiple HMW statements to give structure to our ideation.  Our first HMW focused on making A’s transition more gradual (“HMW generate connections between A and her future classmates before she goes to high school”).  To better organize our brainstorming around this first HMW, we mapped out the various stakeholders in the system (teachers, parents, various school staff members, services providers including transportation) and built a list of EPA 8th graders’ interests and challenges with respect to transitioning to high school.  These various “maps” helped us think of unexplored spaces and opportunities.

We emerged from this process with two ideas: 1) an open gym for 8th graders that takes place at their future high school, and 2) a back-to-school group shopping trip for 8th graders and their parents.  For one of our prototypes, we composed a simple flier inviting 8th graders and their parents to an open gym event at MA high school.  Our goal was to instigate conversations not only to gather important missing information, but also to test some pressing assumptions, such as interest in open gyms away from EPA or curiosity about checking out high school spaces prior to going.

Our testing took us to the YMCA, where we ran our open gym prototype by J., a first year college student who had gone to Menlo Park Atherton High School, as well as M., a junior at San Jose High School.  Both J. and M. seemed excited about the idea, and confirmed an interest in open gym events, especially if free transportation was provided.  We noted, however, that both J. and M. resonated more with the sports activity opportunity than the high school setting.  We were also taken on a tour of the YMCA facilities, and had a chance to observe how the YMCA members (most of whom EPA residents) interacted with the space.  Examples of some of the things we learned, that will form a basis for our next iteration are:

  • The YMCA provides onsite child watch services for parents who are working out, in two separate rooms (one for children 8 weeks to 5 years old and another one for children 6 to 12 years old)

  • The YMCA zumba class was overflowing with energy, music, and members.  BUT it was all women.

  • M. expressed interest in having the open gym be at multiple high schools *before* 8th graders have to provide their high school choices. He reported he felt in the dark as he and his parents were filling out where he would go to high school next.

  • The YMCA already runs summer programs for kids, including a high school transition program that is small but popular, called YMCA summer institute, and a summer camp program that is however considered expensive by the community.

  • There is a basketball open gym at CCA every sunday evening that is quite popular.

  • Both M and J appeared to own the space at YMCA.

As we integrated newly acquired information, we realized that there are more opportunities for youth to form cohorts than for their parents.  This inspired us to pursue a different angle, represented by our second HMW (“HMW turn a first meeting of parents into sustained relationships.”).  Ideation clusters for this HMW statement emerged around parents’ shared interests (e.g., carpools), repeated meetings, intra-city competitions/rewards (e.g., treasure hunt), building trust, physical space, and collective contribution (fundraising).  In one prototype, we devised a storyboard to bring parents and 8th graders together around a shared activity during the summer prior to high school.

We’ve enjoyed the increase of focus that this last week has brought us, but have struggled with finding users with experience relevant to our more focused POV.  We’re looking forward to building on these insights for a next iteration.

Designing Without Training Wheels

Post by Chi Hung Chong

One of the most interesting sessions of the class throughout the quarter occurred last Tuesday. Each group wrote their POVs on their board before a 15-minute ‘feedback’ session. During this session, we walked around the room, inspecting POVs of other teams, and posting comments on colorful post-its. The solitary and fluid nature of it was inspiring – we were given the time to stand in front of each board, take in the silence to gather our thoughts and mull over the masterpiece in front of us, write down our own individual notes on colorful post-its and tacking them on (akin to art-gazing at a art museum).

 We then went back to our own boards, read through the notes by the other class members and came together as a group to talk about the issues. It was interesting when many similar points were brought forth – for e.g. one of our users was a VA who formed the fringe community in a predominantly Latino community. We inferred his need through our conversations for his need for purpose and meaning. The same comments echoed throughout – the phrase was too vague and did not contain much meaning in and of itself. When we later presented our POVs to the teaching team and a different group, we were able to unearth richer insights through the stories we shared, and buffed up these insights and needs. It is always easy to get caught up in the world of vagueness and abstraction, and finding a concrete need that paints an immediate picture to anyone reading the POV was crucial.

Another important but easily overlooked aspect was the importance of good descriptive words of the user. When you do not have pictures, being able to eloquently capture the ‘soul’ of the user through descriptive words was important. For example, one of the composite set of users were users disgruntled about the insecurity in EPA. When we started describing them in further detail through the descriptive adjectives, we realized that they were all busy parents, and had this natural family-instinct (or as Jenny says best, Momma-bear gut feel) to protect their family when push comes to shove. Being able to capture the ‘busy-ness’ of this set of users added an important element when we later proceeded to the How Might We (HMW) statement phase, but more importantly, allowed us to understand better the rich dynamics within the user group.

Nadine came in a couple of days later. Explaining to someone so deeply involved in the EPA issues that we had only been working on for the past few weeks was intimidating, but it was helpful that she was able to lend her experience to deepen our insights. She redirected our attention to certain POVs (vs the rest) which seem to be prevalent issues to her during her time at EPA. While these ‘more prevalent’ POVs might or might not offer the most interesting solution space, to vet these POVs through Nadine offered us a sense of priority on which area to start first.

We later brainstormed on the HMW statements for the 2 main POVs that contained these insights – disgruntled users who were willing to act but whose responses have been previously ignored, and the commonality of projecting a positive image that cuts through a wide strata of society.

For the 1st brainstorming, we took on an approach that was very similar to what we had previously done for the DP#1 project. We set a time limit, individually came up with ideas on post-its before coming together at the end of it all to cluster the ideas and build on the ideas. One of the interesting ideas that came up was a smartphone app that would allow users to report crime happening around them. We were cognizant that the main goal of the project was to build a sense of community amongst, but were equally aware that the main complaint that kept coming forth was the lack of police presence and security. 


The app was interesting as allowing users to report crime issues seem to hit at the security layer, but there was this inherent unspoken need of being able to monitor the crimes going on and have been reported to by your neighbors. There were definitely many key assumptions surrounding this idea, the most basic premise of which is – would people actually use it? Jenny was awesome in this regard – she helped us to develop a full storyboard for the different users.

Key questions that came up during this phase – think of the flow of the story, what happens at each point in time (what type of app interface should the user expect to see). Drawing it up on the board ala style definitely crystallized our thinking, and we were able to fill in the gaps with some hypotheses which would be later tested.


We were also enthralled by the possibilities that this app unfolds – could this be a seed upon which dissemination of information (community events to increase sense of pride etc) could be done, could the ease of dissemination of information incentivize Equity Residential (the property landowner) to participate? Could the app be crowdsourced or developed by EPA residents, akin to the Palo Alto Online article detailing how a group of EPA girls came up with a graffiti monitoring app that hit at a pressing community issue despite all the odds. But it was important to test just the first part – the part that deals with security.

For the 2nd brainstorming session, we decided to jazz it up by putting in place 2 extremely diametrically opposed scenarios. For Julian, the HMW statement was to increase the pride in the community. We set 2 different constraints for the solutions, one chunk has to be free (or incur a very small amount of financial investment), and the other chunk involved unlimited resources at your disposal. The solutions for both were wide-ranged, and potentially gave us interesting ideas to talk about and build off on.


As for today’s class (21st May), we took a step back and did some group reflection. Almost halfway through the project, team alignment is important. We wrote about the aspects that we liked (‘I like ..’) and minor changes that could have been done (‘I wish …’) for each person. Personally, considering that my group has been great, it was a challenge to try to think of places that each person could improve on. As always, I realized that I had much to learn and improve myself. 


Stay tuned to our next post on prototyping in EPA!


Prototyping and Iterative Design Thinking

Post by Chelsea Lei


ImageThis 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 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.

We Asked for Bread and Got a Truckload of Cake

Post by Federica Carugati


Three weeks ago, I believed that the nebulous contours of DP2 fit well with the desire, expressed by many of my classmates, to break out of the stylized (step-by-step, non-iterative) design process followed in the course of DP1. Today, exactly a week before our final presentation, it has become clear to me that freedom comes with responsibilities. The main challenge, as I see it, concerns empathy. A wise man recently told me that the key to good empathy is time – time that builds relations that build trust. But, what if time is one of the few things the cannot provide?

In the face of a task as broad and complex as, “Address a way to build community identity and responsibility in EPA”—that is, in a community that is not your own and that you (may) know incredibly little about—doing good empathy work is a challenge in and of itself. The complexity of the task and the little time at our disposal thus compounded each other. In order to tackle this problem (and in order to overcome itchy idiosyncrasies developed in the course of too much time spent at the – mostly having to do with white boards divided into quadrants) we found ourselves drawn to ‘themes’ rather than ‘users.’ In other words, we unpacked our interviews with an eye to the similarities, rather than the differences that characterized our potential users.

We then selected what can be termed a ‘proxy user’ for our main insight – talent doesn’t cycle back to EPA: if youth NGOs like Live in Peace or MAP are successful, talented kids will leave the community; if NGOs are not successful, a kid’s potential is more likely to go to waste; either way, the process does not reinforce the community in the long run. I term our selected user a ‘proxy user’ to distinguish the source of the insight from the source of the need – a distinction that is critical to the design process and to which I will come back in a moment.

Based on this insight, we came up with a set of potential solutions and went back to EPA for more empathy work. I should note that our precise task was to prototype and test an ‘out of the box’ solution and a ‘less out of the box’ solution. At the end of an afternoon in EPA testing the ‘out of the box’ solution, I discovered that a) the kids I talked to had a much greater sense of community than I have ever had; b) I was shamed into thinking of going back to Italy and give back to MY community and c) it became clear that our ‘real user’—that is, the source of the need—is a pretty specific set of people. But does such a user exist in EPA?

And here is where methodological issues concerning the design process – issues that I struggled hard to shelve for a while – slapped me in the face again. If we solve the ‘patchy empathy’ problem with the ‘proxy user’ solution, then we might run the risk of arbitrarily designing for a need nobody really has. And this is slightly disturbing. In the absence of a user, are we brazenly betraying the heart and soul of the design process – the human-centered element?

Perhaps not: the fact that we did, in the end, find a user is less a result of sheer luck and more a product of the fact that every step of our work is based on a close reading of the transcripts from our interviews – or at least we like to believe as much.

As this experience draws to a close, the freedom of experimenting with the process turned out to be a real ‘cake’ and allowed to test the design process—its advantages and hazards—further. But now it’s time for me to call my user and with a bit of luck set up an interview… keep your fingers crossed!

Re-designing our Ideation Process and Removing Roadblocks

Post by Guy Mordecai

Last Wednesday we got lost in the ideation process. Just the day before we received a lot of feedback on our raw point of views. Perhaps I should say – “too much feedback”. The quantity, variety and depth of comments we received indicated we have a lot of work ahead of us.

I felt like we’re banging our heads against the’s whiteboards. As frustration started bubbling up, I resorted to my set of “reverse engineering” solutions, and tried to “hack” the design process. At first I suggested we’ll leave our POV for a moment, think of a big, crazy idea, and then trace our way back to a matching POV that would help us make sense, and then restart the process with a fresh POV. Luckily, this little trick did not work. We also tried to think of “How Might We’s” based on the same reverse logic, but when the basics are unclear – every possible direction we tried appeared to increase our frustration. Then we decided to RESTART the process, in the very beginning. We shifted to an insightful philosophical discussion around social justice and market dynamics. Although I was educated with solid social values, I decided to play devil’s advocate for a while. Armed with the Business School hat, I started arguing that with all the sympathy to EPA people, the process of gentrification and eventually gradual disappearing of this community is inevitable as the market dynamics are stronger. Aparna and Federica clearly did not agree with me, let alone I did not agree with myself, but we have come to an interesting understanding that if this community wants to be saved it must, first and foremost, be self-sustaining, self-sufficient and generate local “assets” or “talents” to face the economic tides of the Silicon Valley. We also realized that the great majority of the community actually does not have a choice. Unlike some fortunate members who own an asset they bought cheaply 20 years ago, and can now choose to cash-out and rebuild their lives elsewhere, most residents do not have any intellectual or physical property that would allow them the choice of any sort of social mobilization, other than a very sloppy downward slope. This insight led us to argue that this lack of choice on one hand, and the brutal market dynamics on the other hand, would require the community to be responsible for its fate.

Armed and pumped with energies after this discussion, we went back to our interview with Heather, a director at AbleWorks and a member of EPA for the last 25 years. Repeating the highlights of this empathy work and unpacking again specific parts of the interview led us to understand the central problem of the NGO community and EPA in general – they are all in a lose-lose situation. Success is being measured (and perceived) by managing to leave the community, and almost any other case is considered as a failure. In this climate, the city cannot actually develop its local assets to allow growth of financial and social capital for the benefit of the entire EPA community.

Protective Parents vs. Youth In Transition

Post by Kevin Ho



After spending several days in East Palo Alto engaging with a diverse set of citizens, our team found ourselves with an abundance of images, recordings, and notes to use in order to develop a Point of View. Since we did our need finding in pairs, we began by debriefing as a group on our experiences in the field. In order to focus on the most salient points from our field work, we debriefed using a ‘Top 5’ exercise where each of us took a few moments to look through our own notes in order to pick 5 key moments or insights. We found that doing this activity first was a great way to start a discussion over key stories uncovered in our need finding, without going through all of the content generated from our field work.

Through this exercise, we already began to find common patterns tying together what we each individually thought was compelling about our own experiences in East Palo Alto. The themes that were common to many of our interviews were: sheltering of youth due to security concerns, generational and ethnic tensions, and ownership of space in East Palo Alto. Our team was drawn to the insights around sheltering of youth, as many of our interviewees, from a young Tongan teenager currently preparing for high school to an adult community leader in the arts community, mentioned the impact of sheltering on them. We found a particularly strong tension between the parents’ needs to protect their children and the ability for youth in East Palo Alto to develop an identity within their communities. By protecting their children, parents hinder the ability for their children to have a group to identify within the East Palo Alto community; this is especially concerning especially for youth going into high schools outside of East Palo Alto, as many are particularly affected by negative stereotypes of East Palo Alto as they lack any other identity to hold on to.

Given this tension within East Palo Alto, we created two points of view to guide the ideation process:

  1. S, a single mother of hispanic origin who recently moved to East Palo Alto, needs to trust that there is a place somewhere in East Palo Alto where her young 2 year old son can be protected because even though safety is a shared concern, she feels that she needs to provide it to her son on her own by isolating and monitoring him.
  2. A, an 8th grade honor roll student, needs to embrace a positive identity as an East Palo Alto resident because: 1) the culture clash in non-East Palo Alto high schools often excludes EPAers, driving them to find community in gangs, and 2) her overprotective parents have left her ill equipped to be independent when she leaves East Palo Alto for high school.

While there still remain several assumptions that are unchecked, we chose these two points of view as both focus in on a very particular user while having the potential to affect change elsewhere within the communities of East Palo Alto. We look forward to digging deeper into these two groups in East Palo Alto by prototyping and returning to the field.

Gentrification looms over EPA

Post by Tate Rider


This week we focused on identifying a user and point of view (POV) for our design challenge. While we have done a number of interviews with EPA residents–ranging from taco shop managers to non-profit leaders to Stanford students—nailing down a specific user was actually more difficult than we had anticipated.

First, given that we are one of the two groups focused on the sliver of land on the westside of EPA, our way of thinking about EPA is a bit different. The westside is small and densely packed. There are few services for locals — as far as we could tell, there is a taco shop, a 7-11, and a couple of laundromats. And towering over the area is a (literally) gleaming glass Four Seasons hotel, which generates a significant amount of tax revenue for the city but also is an ever-present reminder of the gap in wealth between EPA and the rest of Silicon Valley. Furthermore, the vast majority of the people who live on the westside are renters, which creates a different dynamic: the transient nature of EPA is exacerbated and there is great uncertainty over the future since redevelopment of the area seems to be the 800 pound gorilla in the room.

Second, on the redevelopment front, we heard a wide range of views. I spoke with several Stanford students who currently live on the westside of EPA and a frequent refrain was, “Yeah, it’s only a matter of time before things get better around here.” Or, “I’m really surprised it still is as affordable as it is, but eventually the housing craziness of the Bay Area will reach here.” On the other hand, we heard concern over the uncertainty from current residents (“white people” are moving in and pushing out current residents) and from non-profit leaders. There is reason to believe that the Stanford students might be right about that inevitable gentrification and that the current residents may have real reasons to be concerned about what will happen next. A huge real estate investor recently purchased nearly all of the rental units on the westside; and even though there is a temporary agreement that the developer will maintain the property for working-class renters, there are a swirl of rumors about the longer-term plans for developing more luxurious accommodations for Silicon Valley workers seeking the next neighborhood.

With this as our context, we have been narrowing down our user and POV. A couple of ideas we find most interesting is to focus on disempowered tenants to make sure those tenants (many of whom are poor and don’t speak English well) have a voice during discussions about the future of the area. Separately, we are looking how we might be able to leverage the efforts of current non-profits in the area and help build capacity within them, especially around succession planning. These are two very different ideas, but we feel comfortable that they both would address the needs of the community on the westside of EPA. By the end of this week we should have our user and POV nailed down, and then the next part of our design journey will begin!

Developing POVs for a Nearby Community

Post by Kara Downey


Though our empathy work is far from finished, we are already unpacking our notes and trying to identify specific users and infer latent needs to address.  One benefit of designing for a nearby community is that we need not follow the design process in a linear fashion.  Instead, we can regularly return  to the west side of EPA and conduct additional needfinding to see if our ideas make sense, and how community members respond to them.  Being able to make multiple trips to EPA is also useful because it allows us to develop deeper relationships with some of our potential users.  Developing strong enough relationships to have meaningful conversation can be challenging in part because of EPA’s relationship with Palo Alto and with Stanford.  On the one hand, former and current students who live and work in East Palo Alto have served as valuable resources in their own right, as well as linking us up with broader networks of long-term residents.

On the other hand, the closeness of Stanford and EPA raise the stakes for the project.  Though some of the aforementioned Stanford students have made long-term commitments to EPA (and some there for the short term have had lasting impacts), far more cycle through the area in conjunction with a class or a short-term volunteer project, which leads to an understandable “intervention fatigue” and a hesitance to engage with outsiders.  Sustainability is one of the key principles guiding our thinking, whatever we produce for Magda will be better than nothing, but it’s hard not to worry that we’re feeding into that cycle.  One of the most uncomfortable things about this class is the fact that while we’re working to the best of our abilities, many of us are beginners, and the realities of the quarter system mean that we have to rush the process along.  This has been discussed in other blog posts, but at the end of the day the class is designed for us, the students, to learn about the design process, not to maximize the chance that we will produce something useful.  This tension is inherent with any class that uses real-world problems–and hence real people–as part of a learning process, but it feels especially strong in the context of EPA’s history of being an object lesson for privileged Stanford students.  This doesn’t mean that the class is somehow normatively bad, but it does mean that the intellectual leap involved in inferring people’s latent needs is harder when we’re concerned about designing with rather than for the community. It also means that we feel (useful) pressure to ensure that the time people spent talking to us doesn’t go to waste.

Speaking of those who’ve talked to us, we’ve developed POVs around several categories of users.  Our first user type is embodied by a young mother who is interested in being involved in community politics, but who feels uncomfortable in public spaces due to a lack of police presence.  It is not clear what she specifically is afraid of, but other residents of our section of EPA have voiced concerns about loiterers, and about slow police response time.  We’re still working to hone her specific need, but a desire to feel more secure in their neighborhood is something we’ve heard from numerous people.  Our second user type is a young, educated leader of an active NGO with strong ties to the African-American community.  This user needs to adapt his organization to the changing demographics in EPA.  Our insight is that this user seems to see serving the African-American and Latino communities as mutually exclusive goals: one can either “refocus” to the Latino community and abandon the organization’s roots, or justify continued attention to African-Americans on the grounds that they are increasingly a minority in EPA, but potentially lose relevance in the broader community.  Our hope is to develop adaptations that don’t force this sort of a choice.  Our third user is a high-school aged participant in an after-school arts and technology program at one of these NGOs.  This is another user for whom we’re having trouble articulating a specific need, but the insight is that he sometimes feels judged for being from EPA and wants to prove negative stereotypes about the area wrong.  This is a problem that transcends ethnic identity, but that is closely tied being a member of the EPA community writ large.  We hope that developing this POV will help us hone in on issues that would resonate with all of EPA.  Finally, we’ve identified a community of veterans as an untapped source of enthusiasm and volunteer labor for community projects.  Hopefully some of these POVs will prove useful for ideating–and if not, EPA is but a short car ride away.