Category Archives: Prototype / Test

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.


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.

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.

DP1 Epilogue

Post by Aaswath Raman, Kara Downey, Manal Dia, and Ryan Harper

The Idea

Our project aimed to increase landowner empowerment in Sierra Leone through a program called Company Liaison Officers Serving & Empowering Rural Sierra-Leoneans (CLOSERS).   Here’s a summary of our POV, CLOSERS proposal, and process summary.

 The Prototypes

The various steps of CLOSERS were built on a number of assumptions.  The following summarizes the three most important assumptions, as well as the prototypes we propose to test them.

Assumption to Test


A. Will a liaison be selected and accepted by the community without interference from the PC?

Announce position, see if anyone is interested. Are they qualified? Does the PC interfere with the process or accept the community’s decision?

B. Will a volunteer company liaison officer actually perform the expected duties of the position as envisioned? Will they be accountable to the community?

Low-resolution prototype

Create realistic scenario and assign individuals to act as respondents

Ask Liaison to follow protocol in recording information

Fill out a Complaint Form

High-resolution prototype

Independently observe an incident & compare liaisons work with current records

Monitor performance over extended-time period to assess accountability

C. Will transmission elicit a meaningful result?

Is a more professional, documented & organized transmittal more likely to produce a timely, follow-up meeting with the company?

Low-Resolution Prototype

Test template or letter with proxy for company (Corporate Freetown lawyer)

High-Resolution Prototype

Fillable complaint form vs. current hand-written letter: which leads to a meeting with site manager?

Post DP1 Reflections

As we reflect back on DP1, we feel fortunate for how much we’ve learned over the last several weeks, but we’ve also found that some parts of the design process were more useful, generative and productive than others.  For example, both the needfinding and unpacking were instrumental, not only to bring the entire team up to speed around the SL empathy work, but also to develop insights about what our users wanted. The brainstorming, mind mapping, and process charting were also very useful frameworks to organize those insights, especially given the complexity of the landscape and the difficulty of the problem we were attempting to address. However, we continued to grapple with the big gap between identifying needs and being able to design for those needs–a gap made inevitable by the nature of the problem and the constraints on our design project.  The assumptions we had to test were as much about whether other factors in the system would allow a program like CLOSERS to exist as they were about whether landowners would use such a program.

We’re deeply indebted to our partner Simeon Koroma for his generous input and passionate engagement throughout the process.  Structuring the projects as design challenges that might be used by Simeon and Timap added an entire dimension of richness, integrity, and passion to our design work.

We leave this first design exercise with some hope and a few big questions.  We’re all sold on the idea that no one has great ex-ante solutions for fixing complicated development problems–if they did, the record of international aid would look very, very different than it does.  As designers, we have seen how moving the subject to the center of the intervention might empower the subject; we have also seen how designing with and not merely for a community makes the design work feel more honest and just.  We resonate with the design thinking methodology absolutely in concept; we still, however, have some questions as to its applicability in real contexts where implementation, scalability, and sustainability are key.

Our most pressing questions revolve around the utility of design thinking writ large in governance reform, as development has to do with how you would reshape relationships between donors and recipients.  Rapid iteration and focusing on problems and users rather than on pre-conceived solutions are very logical approaches.  However, how would an NGO or a development program actually market this to donors?  Donors are themselves accountable for their money, and it’s hard to see how they would choose among multiple groups submitting bids to design around a particular problem, but with no promises of what the solution would be.  Additionally, one of the virtues of the design approach is that it can uncover new needs which might supersede the ones initially being investigated–but how can one square this kind of flexibility with the need for financial accountability?

Does design thinking only make sense with a venture capital sort of finance model where failure is frequent and considered a normal part of the game?  Traditional funding paradigms of organizations that have to justify their spending decisions to taxpayers or to charitable givers might not mesh well with the high probability of failure and the idea that you should get it wrong a lot before you get it right. In an era of budget cuts and austerity in many donor countries, the problem becomes even more pronounced.  Individual billionaires with private foundations could be first-movers in endorsing this sort of approach, but what about agencies that are accountable to taxpayers or donor governments?  While it’s not impossible to sort these issues out, the broader space of how governance and development efforts get funded must be addressed before design thinking can help “reboot government” in a meaningful way.