Key Learnings from Cape Town

capetownWe just returned from three days in Cape Town testing prototypes for the Collaboratory with mySociety and the Open Democracy Advice Center (we posted a summary of the experience here).  Below are some of the big learnings we’re taking away as we continue designing the Governance Collaboratory this year:

  • There is a different level of energy and enthusiasm when people are focused on their own problems.  We saw the same thing in Nairobi as teams turned to their own issues during the final day of the workshop.  As much as people enjoy learning design thinking by applying it to interesting problems, they really light up when they fold it into their current approach (even though they are often forced to confront the shortcomings of their existing methods).
  • People working on their own problems bring significant priors into empathy work, which was consistent with that we saw in Nairobi.  This can make them resistant to learning even if they don’t realize it (which they usually don’t).  When experts alone engage in design thinking, it can be challenging to dig deep enough to uncover unexpected insights.
  • When you start with an solution versus a general problem space, a lot of ideas feel more like features vs. radically different solutions.  Even though we backed the team up to to the more general problem of freedom to information in South Africa, many ideas were still very much in the solution space of the platform.  It was hard to get the group to think beyond the idea of a web interface for PAIA requests, though many of the ideas drawn from the empathy work are likely to make the interface far more effective.  We experienced the same thing when we began brainstorming for the Governance Collab, given that we had strong initial ideas about how it might look.
  • Outsiders add an enormous amount of value to a pre-existing team by bringing a fresh perspective and unexpected reference points from other domains.  Outsiders are especially important because they challenge the biases and assumptions of the insider.  This indicates that the optimal design team includes both insiders and outsiders whose strengths balance the other’s weaknesses.
  • Examples and modeling are really important when teaching design thinking.  As we mentioned in our post on our iHub prototype tests, design thinking is tough to translate.  This way of work is foreign, and the vocabulary is new, especially when working outside the United States.  It’s critical as teachers that we not just explain the steps of the design process before the teams do it, but also give clear examples and model the activities.  When I returned and spoke to the Exec Ed team here at the d.school, they said they’ve come to the same conclusion, even when working with design familiar execs from the United States.
  • Our value-add is not just in teaching and coaching design thinking, but also in applying the systems level understanding that comes from our backgrounds in political science and economics.  As powerful as the human centered design process is proving to be in innovation around governance challenges, design is not enough when you’re addressing complex social issues.  Of course we knew this, but now we’re starting to get a clearer sense of how the pieces fit together.  We’ve found it key that we put on our hats as social scientists when framing the design challenge and discuss the overall theory of change, which helps us understand how and where our users fit into the broader system.  Likewise when we turn to ideation, our ability to place the ideas into a broader systems context helps us generate and identify the truly transformational opportunities.

And with that, we headed back to Stanford, exhausted and invigorated.  More than anything we were thrilled to finally roll up our sleeves and apply design thinking to the issues that we’re most passionate about, alongside the local actors who are ultimately going to make change happen.