The Prototyping Phase: Trying to Understand What Success Looks Like

Post by Tate Rider, Manal Dia, Aaswath Raman, and Kara Downey

As we moved into the next phase of ideation and prototyping, we finally got to take all the knowledge accumulated over the last few weeks and move to more practical discussions of what might actually work for our user.

In the ideation phase, our first challenge was to juggle between choosing ideas with the potential for wider applicability, while not moving too quickly to too broad of a systems level solutions. Keeping our user in mind and the specific need/insight we had identified up front were essential for this process. Rather than meeting a need for a faceless villager in Sierra Leone, we had to keep reminding ourselves to focus on a need for our chosen user: an activist landowner ready to fight for change that lacked the tools to receive a meaningful response to complaints. There was a real temptation to come up great sounding ideas, only to realize that it ignored the nuances and insights we had come up with regarding our specific user and need.

We also struggled with what constraints we needed to place on ourselves at this stage. Questions that might be readily answerable in a community we were more familiar with became real stumbling blocks in our ideation phase. Our group struggled with questions like “how much do SMS cost?” to “is the media going to actually report on this?” to “how is the traditional hierarchy likely to react?” We found ourselves regularly going back to our Sierra Leone expert to try to get a better sense of how “realistic” our ideas were.

Finally, we struggled with how “game-changing” of an idea we needed to come up with. The design process at Stanford is famed for creating incredibly innovative solutions, whether it’s portable sleeping bags made from low cost materials that keep infants warm or new designs of refugee camps to improve health and sanitation. Our solutions often felt less revolutionary than those, and we struggled with balancing our desire for innovation and breakthrough ideas with the more practical realities of life on the ground.

Ultimately, the breakthrough on all these challenges came through both using various tools that helped us better map our need (like a mind map) as well as a realization that the design process is not meant to create a perfect model right off the bat. In fact, it’s designed for exactly the opposite. The goal was not innovation (in an of itself) or a 100% success rate for every prototype, but rather engaging in a process that ultimately helps meet a need in the community that will actually be used by the community. To do that, we had to create a lot of prototypes to know if the final prototype would ever actually be used. We were just in the initial phases still.

Whether it’s because of our previous training in more systems level thinking learned from our time in government or development, or just a general fear of failure, many of our default impulses were to think our idea was too simple, or too impossible, or too out of touch. But the beauty of the design process is that it allows those fears to be tossed aside because of the multiple iterations allowed before unveiling a final idea.

It’s exciting to see this process come together, and our group has renewed confident that our ideas will help add to the innovation already underway in Sierra Leone to help give a voice to these communities.

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