Category Archives: Ideation

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.

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.

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 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.

Ideating for Landowner Needs

Post by Chi Hung Chong, Michael Lindenberger, Guy Mordecai, Ramya Parthasarathy


We presented five Point of View statements to the class, and found that both our peers and the teaching team responded to the same central insights: Landowners’ unique position in the communities make them ideal targets for intervention. We believed this because they possess latent power that can be leveraged against the companies seeking to sign concession agreements, and because we believe there is strong, if imperfect, alignment between their interests and those of the community as a whole.

We filtered our POVs and focused on landowners. The fact that they had leverage, albeit minimal, compared to the other community members hinted at the possible impact of the solution.

Next, we developed a series of ‘How might we’ statements, looking at ways to tap into this power from different angles. We brainstormed as a group, plodding through several issues and unearthing key insights that might help in this process.

Once we had selected the statements, we tried out different brainstorming approaches for the ideation of solutions. We started with brainstorming together as a group and throwing out ideas on the spot before transitioning to a different approach – an initial quiet period of five minutes for team members to write down their individual ideas and coming together later as a group for review and discussion. The motivation was simple – while trying out the first approach, we realized that we constantly had interesting ideas that were not related to the current discussed idea, but had to put them off in fear of digressing. It felt like the holding back was limiting our creativity.

For the selection of the different solutions, we practiced a democratic approach. Before delving more into about that, we would like to emphasize on how helpful it was to put up our ideas/ thoughts/ solutions on post-its on the board. It lent immediate clarity to our problem at hand, and made it easy for references by other team members. We did just that for our selection of solutions. We put everything on the board – colourful post-its populating the short boards, and had two rounds of voting. For each of the round, we had three votes to give across the panoply of solutions. During this voting period, it was crucial that our action would not influence the team members (we learned that in the later period). One of the best ways is to number the solutions, and have the members write down their picks on secret small pieces of papers. Think of this as a ballot – it is fun!

Once these two rounds were completed, we each selected a particular solution and became its spokesperson – to pitch it to our in-country partner, lawyer Simeon Koroma of Timap for Justice, as if this was the final solution. We then discussed each solution extensively, focusing on its pros, cons and possible impact. It was easy at this point to veer off and think of a one-size-fits-all solution, but it was helpful that we constantly reminded ourselves of the Sierra Leonean landscape – anecdotes and stories are always important grounding points. The 2 solutions that stood out to us were solutions from 2 different spaces – technical vs human platform for facilitation of information sharing to later increase the bargaining power of the stakeholders.

The technical platform came with its own sets of pros – robust, sustainable, allows opportunities for other NGOs to piggyback off database, but seemed hard to pull through technically considering Sierra Leone’s current landscape. The other human platform was on the other end of the spectrum. We then voted!

The human platform was ultimately the winner. While the final decision was not unanimous, we came to appreciate the final solution as we had taken the time to go in-depth to talk about the solution. It was important for us to agree in advance that whatever solution won out in the voting would have the full buy-in from all members of the team — something that we achieved. We also built in ideas and testing methods that would address some of the assumptions and shortcomings of the human platforms. The most basic assumptions were: would landowners actually want to share information, and are their interests aligned with those of community members.

In terms of process, this process went much faster and smoother – perhaps we have gotten more familiar with the topic/ process? However, the painful awareness of the limited time constraints constantly sprung at us, and it was hard to rush through the process considering how much discussion was needed at every stage to unearth the stories and infer the emotions behind.

Another limitation was that we had many questions that we were not able to validate by conducting further empathy work with users on the ground. One of the key questions was – why aren’t they already doing the solution we proposed? It was definitely helpful during this period to take this into account, take a step back, lay out the assumptions that we were making and think of ways on how to test out these assumptions. Not being able to carry out prototyping allowed us to not be overly attached to our ideas, and to think of ways to successfully test the underlying hypotheses.

We probably all agree that five weeks was too short a time to fully evaluate the alternatives we had, but we believe as an experiment in using human-centered design the experience has been helpful, even with the time constraints. We also feel pretty good about the solution we came up with.

Speaking of that, we are currently working to finalize our presentation slidedeck, and will share more in the next post!