Category Archives: design thinking

Workshop: Design Thinking techniques for effective participation in the design process

I’ll be running this workshop on 14th March 2017 at 12.30, Oculus Building OC1.01, University of Warwick.

The University is a design rich environment: we design all kinds of aspects of the educational process, courses, tools, technologies, spaces, organisations, publications. Across all of these fields there is a desire to do designing more collaboratively. Effective participation by staff and students should ensure outcomes that fit more neatly with needs and capabilities, stick in use for longer, spread more widely and grow our capabilities for further development.

Professional designers have developed a broad repertoire of techniques for ensuring effective participation. In this workshop, we will learn about and try out techniques that focus upon the language and dialog used by design collaborations throughout the lifecycle of a design (right through to supporting its use once implemented).

Design Language

Designs are typically described and recognised using a remarkably limited and un-examined vocabulary. Expanding and critically assessing a richer shared vocabulary is essential for successful designing. This may counter unhelpful assumptions and cognitive biases, and is especially important when aiming for inclusive and universally accessible designs. Finding just the right words to describe an actual or possible aspect of a design may also unlock new possibilities or new pathways for investigation. Working with language in this way, bringing together all of the perspectives involved in the design process (including users), helps to ensure a higher level of engagement and a sense of ownership.

How do you and your collaborators describe your designs? How might that language be refined and enriched?

Design Patterns

A design pattern is a statement of a problem plus a pattern of actions and interactions that addresses a problem with links to related patterns. It is elaborated with information on its originating context and the concerns, values and problems out of which it arose and advice on implementation and customisation. The pattern is usually headed with a catchy and meaningful title. In some disciplines the inclusion of diagrams and images is considered essential. In education, this might be best achieved with a storyboard or even a video. All of these elements are intended to act as a guide to design activity and a prompt for thinking and prototyping.

Could you benefit from stating your design patterns more explicitly? Could that enable more objective and precise collaborative designing?

Calm designs for rich co-presence in crowded learning spaces: countering the fragmentation of the learning community

Here’s the overview for a paper (or possibly a chapter) that I am working on.

Acceleration and the centrifuge

2015 marked the 50th birthday of the University of Warwick. It has been, in that time, one of the world’s fastest growing institutions – in terms of size, capability, reputation and global reach. In the last ten years of especially intensive change we have seen the campus transformed from parkland with buildings to a fully urban space. A crowded space. Student numbers have increased, pushed by government policy and pulled by economic and social demands. Everywhere is busy. Everyone is overloaded. And at the same time the ubiquitous computing revolution has amplified this complexity and intensity many times over. A student is no longer ever truly alone. Few in the present generation will know what it is to be on an empty top floor of the Library with only books – paper books – for company. Or in a lecture where the lecturer commands attention easily by virtue of being the only voice present. No, today we are, it seems, inescapably hyper connected, 24/7, 365 days a year, and in every kind of space and social situation.

University of Warwick Library, 1965.

University of Warwick Library, 1965.

This is not exactly what Yeats meant when he wrote of the end of western civilization:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

But there are doomsayers in the University who might recast these apocalyptic words as foretelling the present day post-modern condition facing every lecturer – or falconer.

Warwick University Library 2016

University of Warwick Library, 2016.

In this first section I draw upon accounts of the student experience from across the 50 years of the University to illustrate the effects of over-crowding and acceleration. Fundamental changes have occurred in the being and becoming of students. I address the question: if this goes any further, will we still find space for learning together? As our mental and physical matter becomes ever more accelerated, are we inevitably thrown away from each other, with stronger and deeper bonds broken by the centrifugal forces of a crowded network, what will survive? And more worryingly, what unconscious cognitive biases are brought into play? Does acceleration and the centrifuge, for example, increase the likelihood of political violence on campus?

My answer is: yes, it is real, and it is having a damaging impact. But also: no, we are not yet doomed – we can design platforms and practices that help us to thrive in and on the chaos.

In the second part of the paper, I look for inspiration in two places:

1. How some people cope brilliantly but many others do not
The sociologist Margaret Archer has undertaken of studies investigating how students cope with these changes, how they are developing new ways of being and becoming, mediated through novel forms of “reflexivity” and “internal conversation”. Some people do this in a way that fits easily with the world today. Others use different methods with unhappy results. I have extended Archer’s work with insights from cognitive science showing how people use spaces and technologies to extend their reflexive strategies. We can look to these cases for inspiration as to the design of learning spaces and technologies that help people to cope with and benefit from the crowded conditions of today’s university.

2. Calm designs enable rich co-presence within the crowd
It is not too outrageous a claim to say that John Seely Brown, Mark Weisser and their colleagues at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC) invented the modern world. The world of ubiquitous computing was their vision. They prototyped the classroom of 2015 back in the 80s. But more importantly, they studied and theorized the impacts of such technologies on people – socially and cognitively – working alongside anthropologists including Lucy Suchman. Seely Brown and Weisser described a set of design principles that would much later inform Apple’s mobile devices, including the Apple Watch. They aimed not simply to give maximum connectivity, but to find ways in which people, technology and the network would co-adapt so as to enrich our capabilities and lives, rather than overwhelm them. They invented the terms “ubiquitous computing” and “ubiquitous learning” but accompanied these powerful ideas with “calm technologies” – based upon design techniques that aim to maintain the optimal state for human attention, concentration and distraction, putting technology into the periphery of attention, but maintaining channels through which we can swiftly shift our focus without disruption.

Designing for calmness and rich co-presence in Higher Education

Finally, in the third part of the paper I return to the crowded University environment, and the over-crowded student experience, of today. I illustrate ways in which some designers, often people who do not even consider themselves to be designer, are creating physical, digital and blended platforms that implement calm design principles. Not only does the modern world demand better designing, but its platforms are intentionally more designable. Thinking back to Archer’s work, it seems that some people are rising to the challenge, exploiting the “magic of the platform” (as one of my colleagues calls it), so as to help themselves and others to succeed under these accelerated and hyper connected conditions. The paper ends with some simple recommendations for every student and every teacher – easy ways in which we can all start to apply calm design principles.

Facilitating and accelerating transformative design journeys in complex organisations, a design thinking based approach

What might an organisation as complex, diverse and decentred as a university do to facilitate and accelerate the process through which its members develop/find, learn about, consider, adopt and adapt design innovations? That’s a question I have been addressing at Warwick – an especially complex environment, in which there are agencies like mine (Academic Technology) who are responsible for improving practice, but at the same time we have very limited powers to direct behaviour. Design agency is highly devolved. Design capabilities are week and disorganised. We are only now beginning to exploit the power of platforms, collaboration and co-production. Staff-student partnerships are especially important in ensuring that new practice fits (with everyone’s needs, interests, styles and capabilities), sticks, spreads and grows.

I am currently helping to set up a large scale initiative aiming to establish staff-student design innovation projects, using participatory design thinking approaches (this is part of the Warwick International Higher Education Academy). The approach is based upon this simplified model – transformative design journeys. We are starting from a point at which many people are habitually carrying through practices (like the conventional lecture) upon which they have not creatively-critically reflected. They are often aware of innovations, and might even be positive towards them, without being able to articulate the details of the innovation or its value. On the one hand we want to help people to go beyond their basic awareness and broadly positive attitude to specific innovations. We want to help them to build “sufficient understanding”, understanding the four key design dimensions (fit, stick, spread and grow) in their own terms, so that they can make informed decisions. But we also need to prompt and facilitate more/better creative-critical reflection on existing practices – while making connections to ensure that the openness to new ideas that follows may lead into the learning process that leads through building sufficient understanding to adoption/adaptation.

And most importantly, we don’t want people to be going through these difficult design-innovation processes alone. We want the loop to become self-sustaining and we want it to revolve around and feed the development of a set of well integrated platforms (digital and physical). Ultimately we want this to help us to achieve our vision of the university as an enabling shared platform, with strong and overlapping communities of practice with shared purpose.

Each transformative design journey may be plotted on this flow chart, with people joining at multiple locations. I use this diagram to help people to reflect upon their own design-innovation activity and to plan their engagements more effectively. As design innovations embed, and individuals are drawn by experience to aspects of the platform, we hope that they will play key roles in the community that supports and develops it. The box on the right represents this platform/community dimension, and the key roles that people can play.

Also notice that four key roles are deployed across the flow. These are the four essential roles for facilitating people through the process: informed advocate (someone who can help you really understand the nature and value of a design innovation), technical facilitator (who can help you experience the innovation, adopt and adapt), creative-critical friend (helps you to reflect), design participant (helps us to design practices and the platform).

In the context of our staff-student partnership work, I have seen how students can play all of these roles to great effect. And furthermore, I have followed graduates as they take their experiences in the four roles and build successful post-university careers.

Here is the flow chart, followed by four definitions and descriptions of the key roles (I used these in design thinking workshops).


informed advocatetechnology facilitator

creative critical friend

design participant