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 d.school 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 d.school – 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!

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