Category Archives: Define

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.

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.

Re-visiting our POV: Female Hitchhikers in Sierra Leone

Post by Aparna Surendra


Our team spent most of last week tweaking (and re-tweaking!) our POV. We collected a lot of helpful feedback during the POV share-session, and Simeon’s local knowledge was especially insightful. In one of his comments, Simeon outlined several distinctions between Sierra Leoneon youth– for instance, youth from landowning families occupy a higher social status than do most others. The share-session was also helpful in that we learned of other teams’ approaches– we were particularly struck by the idea of leverage, and identifying potential touch-points for a chosen user to maneuver within the system.

With these ideas in mind, our team re-visited our POVs. We decided to focus on one user, a Sierra Leoneon youth from a land-owning family, and we fleshed out our user descriptions with Mustafa in mind. The Sierra Leoneon team met Mustafa at a community meeting, where he shared his family’s experiences with an exploitative surface-rent agreement. The local chief quickly dismissed Mustafa’s comments, “You are not the head, consult your father. He is the authority.”

As Chelsea, Jonny, Kevin and I thought through Mustafa’s frustrations, we began to explore the relationship between Sierra Leonean youth and their communities. Traditional hierarchy has little place for the youth, but their repression is compounded by an overarching fear of “lawlessness”.  Memories of the civil war are still fresh in many minds, and communities police any outspoken or disruptive behaviour, fearing it will spiral into violence. Much of this anxiety revolves around the youth, who have inherited a reputation of violence from the RUF youth of the 1990s.

As we stewed over this insight, I was reminded of Vanessa Veselka’s recent reflections on female hitchhiking.

“As a fifteen-year-old hitchhiker, my survival depended upon other people’s ability to envision a possible future for me. Without a Melvillean or Kerouacian framework, or at least some kind of narrative to spell out a potential beyond death, none of my resourcefulness or curiosity was recognizable, and therefore I was unrecognizable.”

Veselka’s words resonated with our analysis of Sierra Leoneon youth — as a consequence of the civil war, they are trapped in a narrative where their energy and eagerness to act can only be interpreted as the precursor to violence.

From this discussion emerged a refined POV:

  • Frustrated youth from landowning families
  • Need to take action that will protect their family interests and build community trust
  • Because traditional hierarchy and post-war community narratives (which define youth as violent and non-constructive) only allow these youth a negligible role [in land leasing decisions, in which they have high stakes].

The amount of time and thought invested in our POV manifested in a generative ideation session. We quickly agreed that our primary objective wasn’t to change the youth narrative; rather, we wanted youth actions to indirectly create a more positive narrative. This helped us filter out the solutions that didn’t actively engage the community (for instance, making youth fact-finders for Freetown-based NGOs or the international media).  Our final solution-set involves tying youth inclusion to the terms of community agreements with NGOs and grant-making bodies…more details in the next post!


The define/POV phase was easily the most challenging part of the design process (but perhaps I shouldn’t speak so soon?). As Chelsea wrote in an earlier blog post, the two of us (having not visited Sierra Leone) found Jonny and Kevin’s field notes simultaneously “concrete and abstract”. Despite having read through the debrief notes and poured over the Yoni interviews, I only felt the ‘a-ha’ of a visceral connection when I slid Mustafa’s description over Veselka’s essay. While I’m neither a rural Sierra Leoneon youth nor a 16 year-old hitchhiker, I am an English Literature major who appreciates the value of narratives and their real-world implications. The design process asks that you bring all aspects of yourself — professional, personal, academic — to the table, and break off pieces as is appropriate. (The very existence of a stage called ‘Empathy’ reinforces the importance of these personal connections). At the same time, I’m curious about the limitations of this approach, especially when the user, like Mustafa, is remotely-located. How can we check the validity of assumptions and our visceral connections from afar?