Category Archives: Empathy

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.


Building a community in East Palo Alto

By Mohamed Yassine


I have been living in Palo Alto for eight months since I arrived from Lebanon, and during that time I have travelled to Texas, Washington D.C., and even as far as Sierra Leone. But I have never been to Palo Alto’s closest neighboring city. East Palo Alto was never on any of my friends’ recommendations for places to visit in the US. This past weekend, however, EPA was my destination of choice.

My classmates and I would spend a significant amount of time learning about the city and its community. In collaboration with the City Manager, our challenge was to design a way to build a shared sense of community identity and responsibility. We started off our journey in the development project harboring Mi Pueblo, the sole grocery store in the whole city. At first, finding people who were willing to engage in a conversation was a bit hard. We approached two women at a local café: one of them admitted that she was not from the city and that she was teaching English to the second woman; the latter preferred not to be interviewed as she struggled to express herself in English. We spent the rest of our time in the development project checking out the different shops, but much of the clientele seemed to be white, affluent, and from elsewhere. One couple coming from Mountain View stated that they shop periodically at Mi Pueblo since “it has cheap but good food”.

We decided to visit Jack Farrell Park with the hope to engage actual residents of the city. The park had a baseball field and a playground with many children playing and riding their bikes. We approached an African-American family who referred to us a young 14-year-old boy named Marques. He shook our hand with determination, demonstrating a strong and assertive personality. He told us that, next year, he will be going to high-school in Atherton and that he was feeling very confident about it. He related to us how the vice-principal at his current school was helping him academically through tutoring.  When we asked him about his hometown, Marques insisted that East Palo Alto was a good place because he cherishes his many childhood memories here, but he said that it “has too many murders”. He explained to us that sometimes, “people kill others by accident” and that “they are just mad at the world.” Marques recounted the story of his friend, who takes his anger on other people because he has a family that sometimes “gets out of hand.” Marques tried to help his friend by referring him to the anger management sessions organized by the library. We asked the young boy where he would see himself in 10 years. He said he sees himself either as a lawyer or a sports manager but he would like to live in Los Angeles since he doesn’t “want to get caught up” in East Palo Alto’s violence. Marques’ mother was involved in helping the community by assisting the baseball team. She operates a snack shop in the park where the revenues go to the city.

While interviewing Marques’ mother, another woman named Scarlett came to us to share her involvement in helping the city. Scarlett, a 33-year-old Hispanic woman, had created a program in the community to prepare children for preschool.  A single mother of a 3-year-old boy, she had moved from San Francisco, where she grew up, to settle in the west side of East Palo Alto. Scarlett confessed to us that she moved because of the growing gentrification of San Francisco’s Mission district.  She said she preferred to live in East Palo Alto, the only city, according to her, that has rent control. She said that while growing up, her family had to move constantly and that she did not want the same experience for her son. She wanted him to “have a home.” She attended many council meetings seeking to secure “the pools, the doors, and the locks” of her residential complex. “I had to find a spot that is safe for my son,” she said. Scarlett expressed appreciation for the community in EPA, for the library, and the few community centers that provided her legal and financial assistance. She tried to work in Palo Alto and Los Altos, but she did not feel comfortable, and ended up seeking employment in East Palo Alto: “Here, I am more accepted the way I am,” she said. Scarlett is a performance artist who is struggling to “find a spot” for herself. Luckily, she has recently joined a group of four women who are planning to pursue a Master’s degree at San Jose State University in performance arts in order to “reestablish their roots and their culture.” By the end of the interview, we noticed that Scarlett’s little boy had been missing for a short while. Scarlett immediately started looking for him, while crying and yelling his name. We frantically engaged in the search as we held ourselves responsible for the situation. The park was suddenly mobilized and people were ready to look for the little boy. Fortunately, the episode was brief and Ty, Scarlett’s son, was found. The event demonstrated a strong sense of solidarity among the residents in the park and underscored Scarlett’s concern for her son’s safety.

As we move forward with the empathy process, some of the insights that will guide our future interviews are Marques’ attachment to the memories he has from the city, Scarlett’s conviction that East Palo Alto would provide stability for her child, and the residents’ feeling of alienation from neighboring cities.

Round 2: Designing on the West Side of EPA

Post by Ryan Harper


After finishing our last design challenge focused on a land far, far away, it was refreshing to be assigned to work on a domestic governance issue, particularly with East Palo Alto, or EPA for short. EPA is one of the first things I learned about upon arriving at Stanford. It’s the place that people talk about when they went to do “good” over the weekend, and also the place that people raise their eyebrows at a little if you talk about going there for longer than an afternoon, even if they had never actually spent much time there. We were all eager to get beyond the stereotypes and work with a dynamic partner: the city manager of East Palo Alto. In addition, in contrast to the Sierra Leone challenge, the prospect of being able to fully prototype and test various design ideas in EPA was exciting. It is not only located close to our campus, allowing quick trips over to speak with residents, but it was also, at first glance, seemingly more familiar to all of us.

The flipside of this challenge was that we were asked to utilize a more holistic design process. Rather than focusing on a linear, step-by-step assignment moving from empathy work to ideation to prototyping, we needed to pick from a variety of tools to get to the end goal, without an obvious plan to follow.

Our toolkit also expanded within each step. For example, we had to set up our own interviews for our empathy work and were expected to use a variety of devices to learn about the community and understand the people we are hoping to help. Professor Weinstein urged us to get creative with how we might connect with the community and understand the experiences of the residents there so we design according to their needs.

We set off to EPA on a sunny Saturday with high hopes for engaging with the community, only to be confronted with a few initial challenges. First, we learned that it’s good to give stores a heads up before showing up at their door to talk to customers. The store manager at Mi Pueblo was kind enough to discuss his customer base, helping us understand how much the store is used by the residents of the west side of East Palo Alto, but also asked us not to trouble his customers. Undeterred, we continued on to the lone restaurant on the west side, Tres Hermanos. There, we attempted to speak to a number of people, and while we had some quality conversations with the manager and a few people waiting for their food, we also encountered a lot of challenges. These included language barriers, noticeable uneasiness with sharing information with strangers, and lack of time as customers went about their day.

We did learn some valuable insights, namely that there is a real sense of community in East Palo Alto, but that the community breaks down across various lines. Most typically, this included immediate family and shared culture, rather than specific geographic breakdowns. There was also a real sense of separation between East Palo Alto and Palo Alto, but not between EPA and other communities that shared more common culture, such as parts of Menlo Park or Redwood City.

Going forward, we know we need to get more creative in our approach to be able to dig deeper into people’s experiences, but are increasingly excited about the prospect of learning more about EPA and applying design thinking to the many challenges the community faces.

Empathy at the Laundromat

Post by Aaswath Raman


We’ve recently embarked on our second design project, which has both striking differences (geography, proximity) and similarities (inequality, the effects of history) to our previous project situated in Sierra Leone. Our prompt this time is around the challenge of community-building and organizing in East Palo Alto (EPA), a historically poor, minority-majority city that is literally across the creek from one of the wealthiest cities in America, Palo Alto. This proximity to such wealth makes many of EPA’s challenges around education, crime, infrastructure and community development rather poignant. Our partner is the new city manager of EPA, and the broader context of our work is framed by the beginning of a new planning process that local city government is embarking upon.

A key difference this time around is that we’ve been given a great deal of latitude in defining the scope of our focus, the users we want to engage and in how we structure our empathy work. Our team was asked to geographically focus on the westside of EPA, which is separated from the rest of EPA by the 101 freeway, and from Palo Alto by a small creek. It is surprisingly geographically isolated and lacks most of the amenities one would expect for a neighborhood of some 8-10k residents. Moreover almost all the properties in the area (primarily multi-family homes and apartments, but also some homes) are owned by one company (1800 units in total).

We began our empathy work by spending an afternoon walking around the neighborhood. We began first at the only restaurant in the area and then split in teams of two. Our team spent an hour or so standing outside the nearby 7/11 looking to speak with customers as they entered and left. One strategy that worked well was to ask if an entering customer would like to speak with us after they’d finished their shopping. Numerous insights came from these conversations, including the presence of a nascent community of recovering veterans in pre-fab homes in the area, and an overwhelming concern about safety and police responsiveness.

The westside’s near-complete lack of public spaces proved a challenge in interviewing ordinary residents without a prior introduction. The one place that has proven very fruitful is a large laundromat in the area. The nature of doing laundry (long waiting time) made this an easy venue to approach individuals and families to conduct detailed empathy interviews. Over the course of two weekends we conducted four substantive interviews across a range of demographic strata (ethnic, marital status) in the laundromat, with one positive lead for a home visit we aim to pursue in the coming week.

Beyond residents, we’ve also engaged in extended conversations with the founders and employees of NGOs operating in the area. Here too we have begun to identify preliminary insights related to the operation of these NGOs and the demographic transition that has occurred in EPA over the last decade (from having a majority African-American to a majority Latino population). Have NGOs geared to the previous majority community been able to transition to the new realities of EPA’s population? Should they? As we contemplate the broader system, and the physical and social assets available to the city and its residents, such questions will prove essential to tackle. Our visits with NGOs and other community figures is also providing us with more leads to visiting residents in their homes.

The project’s timing fortuitously overlapped with Cinco de Mayo, allowing many of our team members to drop by a large festival taking place at a school in the city. This venue proved useful to do both fly-on-the-wall observations and to engage with attendees. It turned out that many of the attendees were from neighboring cities, indicating the potential draw EPA could have to non-residents in some circumstances (a surprise). We also noticed that many family and friend groups attended the event together, but primarily interacted with each other and not significantly with members of other family/friend groups. This seemed to tie in with we’ve heard and read about EPA’s challenges in building community with a new immigrant population that is transient and not strongly tied to the city. These observations, along with all the interviews we’ve conducted so far, indicate both the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead as we begin to synthesize our findings into actionable points-of-view.

Empathy and Radical Solutions

Post by Aparna SurendraImage

As we cycle through the design process with a fresh challenge, I’ve continued to reflect on DP1. Most significantly, I’ve been thinking through ways to move from exciting insights to innovative solutions. A friend taking her first design class said it best: “The process is exciting, but my solutions feel… obvious. Helpful, but obvious.”

The has some wonderful examples of truly innovative projects, with Embrace being the most popular (as an aside, I think every student who spends time at the thinks, “If I have to hear about Embrace again, I swear I’ll…”). In any case, moving from insight to innovation can be a struggle.

In analysing why, my first response is — we’re too wedded to our initial ideation scribbles. This makes our solutions logical but, ultimately, incremental. The one class that pushed me to a more radical solution set used an interesting pedagogical strategy — I made a 2-minute video of my solution, screened it in class, collected feedback on the most compelling narrative threads, and then deleted the video (ouch!) to return to ideation. It was work-intensive, but forced me into a much more uncomfortable and generative space.

The second response, which ties well to our empathy work in EPA, is– an intuitive ability to crawl the systems space. In other words, understood how your user operates within a system and why. Understand how other agents operate in the system and why. For example, one insight arising from our work in EPA: The user doesn’t trust the cops Why? They didn’t thoroughly investigate X or Y incident Why?  Because the cops know that many EPA residents are undocumented, and stricter protocols would bring in ICE. As you move to a systems analysis and colour in different users and their motivations, you can re-configure yourself to intuitively (not conceptually) understand the way the system works. At this point, you can go on the journey with your user— you no longer have to ask ‘Why don’t you trust the cops?’, you ‘get’ it. In a sense, this is empathy in its purest form.

With Sierra Leone, I struggled to colour in the whole systems map, and move from a conceptual to an intuitive understanding of the problem space. I had huge holes when it came to understanding NGOs and government motivation, and this (somewhat unconsciously) limited my ability to ideate creatively around the problem. If you don’t know the rules, how can you break them? If you don’t understand the connections within the system, how do you intentionally strengthen, exploit, or by-pass them?

In EPA, I’ve already started developing a strong (intuitive) understanding of the systems map. Since our initial Saturday interviews, we’ve spiraled out to colour in a larger number of actors and motivations. In many ways, I think EPA’s small physical space has facilitated this. In Sierra Leone, rural villages were extremely insulated from one another (a function of physical distance compounded by poor infrastructure).  EPA, however, spans 2.6 square miles. While the experiences of EPA residents vary by demographic and other factors, they interact within the same space – the same restaurants, laundromats, middle schools and – in some cases — landlords. The most tangible consequence of this is the co-existence – however fraught—is a shared community fabric, and community ‘touchstone’ experiences.

Every user lives with the same physical backdrop and, for me, this provides a more tangible connection than national affinity or similar story of exploitation (Sierra Leone).  With each EPA interview, my team makes more connections within and between issues spaces.  I feel extremely excited about this project – I hope that our extensive empathy work can push us into a more radical solution space!

The Challenges of Secondhand Empathy

Post by Michael Lindenberg and Guy Mordecai

blog2Part One by Michael Lindenberg

It turned out that going to Africa for nine days is only the start of developing the insights we feel we need to move forward in designing something helpful for Simeon.  Another problem confronted us on our return: How could Ramya and Michael share what they learned and felt and saw with Guy and Chi, who spent the week assessing analogous situations — from home.

It’s been a challenge, despite some very good conditions: Michael and Ramya, like the rest of the Sierra Leone team, had spent every night unpacking interviews, key moments and impressions to make them more easily relayed to the folks back home. Raw notes were kept and shared, and key insights were organized into documents that could also be shared.

And on their side, Guy and Chi came at it with fresh eyes and commitment to understand.

Two weeks in, and we’re all roughly on the same page. But trying to relay the experiences overseas in a way that both inspired and informed the other half of the team wasn’t as easy as it had seemed it would be. That’s an area we could use some advice and practice on in the future, and which other teams could profit from considering as they begin their design journeys.

Another related challenge — at least in Michael’s view  — has been the overwhelming amount of information the team brought back, and the limited amount of time to consider each piece. That kind of winnowing is always necessary, of course, but it might be that we’ve short-circuited some of our better potential users out of the plain fact that we had to make quick decisions and move on.

Going forward that will be something we’ll keep in mind as we develop our prototypes and get feedback. If we get stuck, we may want to go back and consider other potential users and make use of additional insights.

Part Two by Guy Mordecai

Just a day before our first session I watched “Blood Diamond” all over again. About 7 years ago I saw it for the first time and became inspired to visit Africa. I imagine how hard it must be to land in Sierra Leone and jump right into the hustle and bustle of Africa, and start figuring out who’s against who.

Doing the analogous work during the Spring Break certainly helped Chi Hung and I to understand the complexity and breadth of the challenge, and the multiple interests involved. The unpacking process wasn’t easy.  Ramya and Michael did an amazing job in Sierra Leone, and provided us with great documentation and thorough descriptions of the interviewees and interview settings and context.  However, I found it challenging to place ourselves in the village, trying to picture the Paramount Chief sitting in front of me, surrounded by a group of young, passionate Sierra Leoneans who are so excited to share their problems with us.  Each nuance matters, the intonation, body language, voice, behavior and content obviously. Empathy is created between people, in direct interactions.  It was easy to see the importance of being present in the field during our full-day workshop on 4/14.

Ramya and Michael identified the difficulty it posed Chi Hung and me, and were really patient in trying to be descriptive and willing to recover more details to help present a full picture.

Need Finding in Bo

Posted by Lindsay Gorman and Mohammed Yassine


The driver’s side front wheel of a large overturned truck blocking the rugged dirt road spun swiftly as the rearview mirror of our diesel SUV narrowly side-swiped it.  We’d been driving for 2 hours and had covered less than 30 miles on unpredictable terrain roads en route to a small country town of Sierra Leone’s Bo district. Located near one of the country’s largest mining corporations, the town is something of a settlement community for displaced land-owners throughout the chiefdom and faces increasing defamation of its once rich farmland.

We arrived in the early afternoon to an eager group of upwards of 40 local leaders, miners, and land-owning families who had been awaiting our arrival in the sweltering sun since 8 o’clock that morning.  Our goal?  To understand these people’s attitudes towards the nearby mining company and the concessions agreements nominally permitting the industrial activity.

The group of land-owning family heads we interviewed hailed from 13 different towns within the surrounding chiefdom. Over the course of the last 40 years, they had slowly left their homes, one family at a time, and migrated here as company caterpillars laid waste to their land, polluted their streams to an undrinkable level, and destroyed the trees many villagers use to construct their homes.  The incensed frustration we’d observed in other communities and the youth was replaced here by a powerless resignation as these elderly men passionately and eloquently conveyed their stories.  One man, educated in a training college in agricultural innovation, had walked for 2 hours the previous day to visit the land his ancestors had cultivated for him and his children: “Yesterday I watched the bulldozers destroy my land.  I felt horrible and I was thinking about the future.  I realized that when these companies leave, this land will never again be arable.  My father planted these crops for me.  Our children will not have any vegetation there to farm.”

Education is also very important in the other villages we visited. One 44-year old local land-owner, Kekora Amsila, had sent his three daughters and his son to complete secondary education in the city. For his daughters, staying in the village would have meant a brutal initiation into the Bondo secret society and preparation for marriage. Instead, Kekora wanted education for them; he was proud that they might support both the family and the community through their education: they would be able to hold senior-level employment and to communicate the community’s needs to authorities and international counterparts. He cited Christiana Thorpe, chair of the national electoral commission as his inspiration for how education can empower women to help their country.

We made our way one of the country’s poorest villages next to a large UK-based agricultural company. We received a warm welcome from the children running around the village. They were calling us by our names, guiding us through the village, and acquainting us with their houses and families. A six-year-old boy was holding a live yellow bird next to his chest and caressing it. He had caught it himself by constructing a tool made out of a wooden stick and a string – a genuine engineering feat! The children invited us to a game of soccer and offered us some cassava, a local delicacy which we had the pleasure of sharing with them. One teenager expressed his desire of studying arts once he completes secondary school to become a singer. He sang to us in a jovial atmosphere of singing and laughing. Another teen, Peter, also has dreams for the future: He wants to be a medical doctor. He is 19 years old but still has 6 years to complete secondary school. When we met him, he had been out of school for 2 weeks since his parents were not able to settle his school fees.

In our meeting with the town chief, we saw the agreement with the agricultural company allowing it access to the people’s best farmland.  The chief and his people were very upset with this agreement and felt it was a very bad deal with grossly inadequate compensation, but were powerless to renegotiate it.  Simeon Koroma – activist lawyer, founder of Timap for Justice, and our guide – immediately noticed discrepancies between the agreement and the national law which might render the contract invalid. Simeon stood up and offered, “I’m a lawyer and can help.”  As he explained his ideas, the chief responded: “I feel like I have tears in my eyes.  We’ve been looking for someone to help us for so long.”

We are looking forward to working with Simeon to empower local communities and improve their access to justice.