Taking your Blue Jeans and Black Turtleneck Online
A case study on how Design Thinking fairs when none can leave their home
“Generation Juice” is how millennials were dubbed in 2016 (FONA International, 2016) . FONA, one of the world’s largest flavour creating companies, reported in its 2016 Trend Insight Report that millennials crave for organic, GMO-free juices. The timing could not be better. The Juicero Press, a high-end “smart” fruit and vegetable juicer, was launching the same year. The hype was enormous. Silicon Valley’s biggest names like Google and Kleiner Perkins poured $120 million into the disruptive machine. One would think nothing could go wrong.
Unfortunately for Juicero, everything collapsed in just two years. The Juicero press had many fundamental problems that led to its downfall. It launched with a price of $699, far outside the budget of many of its target audience (Cakebread, 2017). Moreover, you had to buy packs of pre-cut fruits and vegetables from Juicero priced between the $5 and $8 dollars. You could not use fresh fruit or vegetables, you could only use those packs. Do you not have internet connection or your phone at hand? Too bad, since the Juicero Press can only be operated through its mobile app.
All these issues came to light the moment that the Juicero Press launched. How could a $120 million backed start-up fail to notice any of these obvious design flaws during the development process? The answer is simple: the Juicero team never took the customer perspective in mind. Sure, they correctly identified their customer’s needs, but they never took into consideration how those needs were to be realised. The deathblow for Juicero came in the form of a video from Bloomberg (2017) that showed it was possible to simply squeeze the pre-cut fruit packs with your bare hands. This yielded roughly the same amount of juice, yet was a 30 seconds faster process. In this respect, even your own hands were a better juicer.
The failure of Juicero showed the world how important it is to include your target audience in the design process. One of the most popular methodologies to do so is design thinking. Design thinking incorporates consumer experience in various design stages (Brown, 2008). It can be applied to almost any problem and encourages creative and practical problem solving, not only in a business but also in an education environment (Koh et al., 2015) Even non-design students benefit from a design thinking approach (Mosely et al., 2018).
Recently, I got the chance to utilize design thinking as part of a project for a university course. Because of COVID-19, higher education is now mostly conducted online through Zoom or other video conferencing platforms (Research And Markets, 2020). I found this to be the ideal chance to examine whether an online learning environment has a substantial influence on the benefits of design thinking seen in a traditional classroom setting. Consequently, in this article I evaluate the design thinking approach from a distance learning perspective during the coronavirus crisis based on my own experience.
The course project started with my tutor randomly assigning people to teams. My team was supposed to come up with a technology-based solution to reduce energy consumption in the municipality of Maastricht. An inherent problem in the course’s design became immediately apparent. One of the core characteristics of design thinking is transdisciplinary collaboration, but my team consisted solely of undergraduates in social sciences (Waloszek, 2012). Luckily, a member of my team and I had to some extent experience in UI/UX design software. However, both of us were unfamiliar with design theory. All things considered, I have to conclude our team composition did not satisfy the requirements for proper design thinking.
Nonetheless, we mustered our team spirit and begun attempting the design thinking approach, starting with the empathy stage. The empathy stage is fundamental to ensure user-centric design as here the designers take the perspective of potential users within the context of the design challenge (Waloszek, 2012). Traditional methods for empathy establishment, such as site visits, user observation and interviews, were impossible due to most of us residing in different locations. It was inevitable that we had to come up with distance learning compliant methods.
While trying to come up with new methods, it became clear that distance learning sprouted some issues for collaboration. Due to the COVID-19 travel restrictions, we had a team member that had never been to the Netherlands before. Subsequently, she took an immediate back role in the early collaborative processes. Contrarily, I remarked that my team subconsciously designated me as the group leader since I was the only Dutchmen from the team. This experience corresponds with the findings of Mosely et al. (2018) that non-design students in higher education have a hard time getting a balanced contribution from all team members. Regarding our project, I suppose the main reason stemmed from team members prematurely assuming each other’s knowledge on the subject matter. Perhaps this aspect further increased the normally already present imbalance based on individuals’ character.
Eventually, we decided to use publicly available data to identify which key problems in Maastricht lead to energy waste and which people are affected by these problems. We found that 10% of the inhabitants of Maastricht are students and nearly half of them are international (Maastricht University, n.d.). Based on these figures, this let us to conclude that a lot of young people that are renting rooms in Maastricht. Most rooms here are rented “all-inclusive”, which basically means that there will not be any additional fees for gas, water, service and most notably: electricity. These fees are already included in the rent price as the landlord will determine the expected sum of those fees from all tenants and divides them evenly. Here we find a possible reason for energy waste. Since the energy consumption of individual tenants is not measured, some less environmental-conscious tenants may thus not care about wasting energy since the cost of their additional energy consumption will be divided between all tenants.
The tutor instructed us to include personas. Personas act as fictional characters that represent a group of people that may be affected by the problem. Including personas in design thinking has been seen to boost user-centric design and empathy creation (Miaskiewicz & Kozar, 2011). I considered the personas to have a positive effect especially on empathy creation. In a sense, it forced us to personify the numbers of our data. We had a hard time having empathy for landlords, as students and landlords are essentially natural enemies here in Maastricht, but the landlord persona helped us to incorporate a landlord’s perspective into the design process.
The next two stages were introduced to us in the form of a short design sprint. This sprint was conducted through step-by-step guided activities that enabled us to tackle the next two stages. First up was the define stage, in which we define our “point-of-view”, a problem statement synthesised based on the information we have gathered considering the user within the context of the problem (Waloszek, 2012). Even though we did not come from a design background, we did not experience significant problems here, which is in sharp contrast with the findings of Mosely, et al. (2018). I suppose this could be contributed to the major imbalance in our team since my points were met with almost instant agreement. Either way, I would consider this not as beneficial.
The design sprint continued into the ideate stage. During the ideate stage, possible solutions to the problem defined in the POV-stage are to be formulised. Properly conducting this stage was considered to be a challenge by our team. Ideation grows from creativity and imagination, which we felt we certainly did not lack. However, we found online platforms for popular ideation techniques such as mind mapping and sketching restricting us. In my opinion, these traditional techniques did not translate very well into an online environment. In our team, instead of writing our ideas down by using an online whiteboard, continuous discussions were preferred which resulted in our productivity deteriorating. Perhaps this can be explained by the choice of digital whiteboard software. The effectiveness of online whiteboards on collaboration is related to its user interface (Krieger & Wang, 2008; Cho & Cho, 2014). Since none of us were familiar with the program, we faced an entirely unfamiliar user interface, which may have resulted in a less comfortable, and consequently less productive experience.
The idea stage ended with us only having two solutions of which one got scrapped almost immediately for “not being feasible”, even before prototyping. It may be possible that this resulted from issues we had with online ideating as our team was making pre-mature judgements, rejecting a lot of potential good solutions even before writing them down, resulting in our ideas becoming not as wide as we would have hoped. Nevertheless, it became apparent we deviated from a design thinking back into a traditional design approach.
The solution we settled on took form in a device that would monitor electricity use of a single electricity group. We found out that in most modern student housing solutions, each tenant would be on a different group. Developing a monitoring device that could easily be attached to a single electricity group would thus result in being able to monitor each tenant’s electricity use. Along with the device, an app would be available that would display the device’s readings on the user’s smartphone. Tenants could thus monitor their own electricity use in real time. We deduced that through monitoring, a form of accountability is introduced, which subsequently would result in more conscious energy usage.
This solution was to be further developed after class, where our design sprint continued. To perform a successful design sprint, all team members have to be present. Over the course of three days, not a single time where all of us present. This may be explained by the online nature of the sprint. Barbour and Reeves (2008) found a significant decline in online participation rate compared to a traditional classroom environment. Another reason could be linked to the prototype stage. Here, we developed our possible solution into an artifact. Although our team consisted of five people, this felt more like a two-man job. My fellow team member with some UI software knowledge and I created wireframe mock-ups for the mobile app, while the others mostly watched and provided little attempt to make any contribution. This coincides with experiences from Mosely, et al. (2018), who noticed some students abstaining from the prototype stage, stating they “didn’t know what to do so just watched” (p. 184). I would not be surprised if this were the reason for the reduction in attendance during the sprint since it was mostly these students that were absent.
It is to be noted that, contrary to the ideate stage, we were now using software at least some of us were familiar with in the hope of preventing the issues that arose from the previous stage. We mostly used Adobe XD for developing prototypes of the app, which does not encourage synchronous collaboration like online whiteboarding software. Although much of the design thinking process was performed through a synchronous collaboration platform like Zoom, Adobe XD is not a program that has its roots in cloud computing like google docs, which does facilitate synchronous creation and editing. There has yet to be research conducted whether synchronous collaborative software for design, such as Figma, is advantageous over asynchronous collaborative software, but Alsubaie and Ashuraidah (2017) do point out that this is the case for collaborative writing. My team strongly preferred a double synchronous approach, through Zoom and Google Docs, over a combination of a synchronous and asynchronous approach, through Zoom and Adobe XD respectively. I implore academics to further pursue this subject.
With our prototypes reaching a presentable stage, it was now time to test them among users. A typical design sprint should have five users booked for a day of testing (Wong, 2016). We only had two, but both of them were fellow students and would only meet us online. Setting-up tests in an online environment proved to be difficult. Normally, a five-act interview, in which the user is asked open questions while testing the prototype, can also be performed through platforms like zoom, provided the prototype can be delivered to the user (Wong, 2016). We however noticed that low level prototypes like app mock-ups require a careful and distinct setup in order to give the user the idea of an interactive prototype. Currently, there are no online platforms that support such a setup. Instead, one has to translate one’s prototype into a higher-level prototype. In our case, this would be a functional app, which requires substantially more time to develop than a mock-up. So, in the end, we had to choose between receiving only feedback from the team or spend an immense amount of extra time on a single prototype that may not even prove to be a proper solution. We chose the first option.
Considering the limited time we had to develop our solution, I could definitely say that I like what we came up with. Paradoxically, that is also the main issue here, as only I can conclude this. I cannot speak for our potential users. I cannot tell you how users will interact with it, or even more disturbing, whether they even like it. If I would launch this solution in its current state, it would have a good chance to end up with the same fate as the Juicero Press. Design thinking is an amazing methodology to help the new generations design with human-centeredness in mind. However, the current pandemic has forced much of the academic world to stop over to distance learning methods. Here, design thinking suffers from an online environment, specifically from the restrictiveness of online collaboration platforms and the limited opportunities of user testing. Synchronous collaborative software may facilitate collaboration that is perhaps closest to traditional, offline workflows, but currently the options for such programs are limited and are often not “industry standard” which may necessitate complete course redesigns. Although the world will eventually be freed from COVID-19, remote collaboration is here to stay. I thus hope both remote students and workers will soon receive the tools they deserve to comfortably collaborate online, otherwise I suspect that we will see a lot more whacky smart juicers in the future.
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