Design in Action Part 1

My name is Michelle Garraway, I am a Policy Advisor with the Region of Durham Social Services Department’s Innovation & Research Unit. I’m part of an awesome team that supports staff with Innovation & Research, and am a Thought Leader for MiC on Human Centered Design. As public sector innovators, we are striving to work out loud so that we can share, learn, and grow as a community. In this first of a series of blogs, I’ll share the first half of our current lab process.

Our first introduction to labs was from Harvard in 2014. Since then we’ve incorporated lessons from IDEO,Google, the San Francisco Human Services Agency, and The Grove, among many many others including the large social innovation lab network in Canada. The core approach to our work is Human Centered Design(HCD). From a theoretical basis, our work is grounded in social work, servant leadership, education, and systems thinking, particularly the ecological approach.

Our process is fluid, iterative, and goes where it needs to. This means that not every lab looks the same, but they all follow the same general process. In addition to the methods and theories mentioned above, there are a few other key ingredients needed to make the labs work:

  • Skilled facilitation
  • A set of working assumptions
  • Embracing ambiguity
  • Working visually
  • Being adaptive
  • Take a learners mindset
  • Empathy
  • Empowerment
  • Confidentiality

Generally speaking, there are about 10 steps in our lab process. Each lab session takes place in a half day meeting, which means if the process sticks to the steps we should have a tested prototype in a total of 5 working days. Since staff participate in labs in addition to their regular jobs, it takes longer than a week to get through them. Here are the first 4 steps, we’ll cover the rest in the second part of this post.

1) Open sharing of problem areas
Known as the inspiration phase in the IDEO model, we start by bringing together staff to explore problems. It might seem like there’s a very negative focus in the beginning, but that’s only because we need to really understand what’s not working so that we can make it better. Once we get to solutioning, the focus becomes positive and we start to dream big and think of possibility.

There’s some divergence and convergence, as we start with individual brainstorming and then work to identify patterns and themes to find shared pain points. There are of course stickies and black markers being used throughout the process (I’ll write another post about the other tools and tech that we use in the future). We sit in circle in order to remove physical barriers and have everyone’s voice be heard. Once themes are identified and named the group votes on the area they would like to take a deeper dive in to.

2) Choosing a perspective
Ideally, if the group is able, we would next do field research with users. At this stage of development in our labs we have been using empathy mapping. We create a proto-persona and take the position of that person in understanding their experience in relation to the pain point identified in step 1. If you work in social services you’ve probably seen Brene Brown’s On Empathyvideo a thousand times. That’s ok, watch it again, it’s a good one. We like to show the video to ground everyone in the same mindset and ensure we all have the same understanding of what standing in empathy means to us. We’ve been using a simple 4 quadrant (redundant?) map to explore what the person is saying, thinking, feeling, and doing.

An empathy map from one of our labs, after the ideas have been grouped into themes.

3) Finding insights
It’s again time to find themes. Similar stickies are moved together and given a name. Once the themes are established we move in to a deep dive. For this step we’ve found it works best when the group returns to circle and talks it out. We’ve been using 2 guiding questions:

1 – Why are we seeing these patterns?
2 – Why are they important?

The facilitator sits and listens, asks questions to seek clarification, and prompts the participants to dig deeper. The facilitator is looking for patterns and insights in the conversation, and at the same time she writes an insight statement, checking with the group that the statement is an accurate summary of what they were expressing. One insight statement is written for each theme from the empathy map.

4) How Might We
It’s almost time for solutions. To set the stage for ideation (brainstorming), we create how might we (HMW) questions based on the insights. In my opinion this is often the trickiest part of the process. HMWs are so important because they frame the problem and set the stage for solutions. I like these 2 videos because they explain the concept and provide a great example of how to properly scope the HMWs. Usually we need to re-work the original HMW questions so that they relate to the insight and don’t have the solution already in the (e.g. HMW create a physical space for innovation labs?)

At this point participants usually feel energized and excited for what’s ahead. A lot of time is spent in the “negative” and seeking understanding, so it’s uplifting to start to think about possibilities and making positive change. In the next blog post we’ll talk about solutions, storyboarding, prototyping, and testing.

And now the disclaimer
If you’ve made it through the article up until now, thanks for sticking with me. And here is the (maybe) disappointing news. Although I’ve laid out some steps that may seem pretty straight forward, labs are certainly NOT paint by numbers. We introduced labs after our Department had already been on a decade long journey of building leadership and workplace community. We have a champion, our Commissioner Dr. Hugh Drouin, who had a vision for our Unit. We were given the time and permission to grow ourselves as leaders and innovators, and started from a foundation of working within the organization and having relationships with the people we are supporting.  Anyone can follow the steps, but the “special sauce” comes from practice. Every lab is different, every team is different, and every single time we run a lab we learn something new.

As we continue to share our experiences as MiC thought leaders we’ll be opening up about the challenges, failures, highs, and lows of running labs and human centered design. I’d love to hear about your experiences with human centred design and innovation at work. Does it look like our labs? Is it something totally different? I’m always happy to talk with other innovators from anywhere around the world, so reach out if you’re interested,

*Links to third party sites are not intended as endorsements for any product or service

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