8 – Socio-cultural perspectives and prototyping

Session 8 was where the rubber hit the road for our refugee access to higher education major project. I am not going to lie, I struggled a little with the inclusion of socio-cultural perspectives in this part of the design process and I felt like fit much more nicely back in the empathise phase of the design process. However with the design journey being iterative I can see how you have to keep coming back to it and I’ll reflect a little more on these elements now. 

Some of the linkages between design and societal values we looked at in this session included, design and:

  • Power, 
  • Appropriation,
  • Activism, 
  • Altruism, and 
  • Sustainability 

There was a quote on one of the slides in this session from Ralph Caplan, who said “Design is not everything, but it somehow get into most everything” 

Depending on where you sit in the theory of evolution you may take some umbrage at this statement. There are those who of course believe in a divine design by the hand of God responsible for the careful creation of all things under and beyond the sun. The was of course famously challenged by Richard Dawkins in his work “The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design” (1986). Religious arguments aside I would posit that in terms of humanmade endeavour design IS everything. From early humans designing their teams to best hunt and gather, to modern corporations launching rockets into space, as well as everything in between, without the ability to imagine and create a better world we humans would not have come very far, and indeed because the natural tendency to shape and design the world around us is such a strong trait in humans, without the ability to do it many would be lost, listless and depressed. So I say again design IS everything.  I’ll go further, Roseman & Gero (1998) said that human exist in a natural and socio-cultural environment which manifest requirements that are met through manipulation of the techno-physical world. They also state that all these worlds influence each other. 

As I said I’ll go further. Yes while, the need for a water supply may necessitate damming a river an obvious addition to the techno-physical, which has a an effect on nature, and will cause socio-cultural changes, such that people will live near this damn to obtain water, it ignores that we humans also manipulate our socio-cultural environment through things like religion, ceremony, spirituality, laws and cultural mores without having to crate any ‘physical artefacts’ while these things are assisted by physical artefacts such as, a church, a statue a court house, or a finishing school they are not essential, but these socio-cultural changes are often the result of very careful and considered design. So once again I say design IS everything. This theory is backed up by Chick & Micklethwaite (2011) when discussing the “design attitude” they say that “an attitude is a collection of values and beliefs that makes an individual act/react in certain ways” I’d ask then, can’t we design and cultivate an attitude ? a Culture ? I believe we can. But I digress and have gotten rather philosophical this afternoon. As I mentioned the bulk of the session and subsequent groupwork was about prototyping and testing.

After moving through the Sandford design school phases of design thinking (keeping in mind that this is an iterative and not linear process) from empathise, to define, and onto ideate it was now time to flesh out two of our big ideas into a prototype. We split our group into two for this and our two big ideas were 1. Integrated paid internships that simultaneously provide employment, education and RPL demonstration opportunities while providing valuable employees for host nation businesses. 2. A global database where students could access all of their qualifications so that documentation required for RPL could be easily accessed when refugees moved to host countries and accessed higher education. Similar to the USI database that the Australian Government is slowly expanding from vocational Education, to tertiary and perhaps onto primary and secondary education as well. (Our group didn’t know this was a thing at the time, and is actually the next consulting project I am working on at time of writing.

I’ll focus on idea 1 here as that is the part of the group I ended up working with for this part of the session. Houde & Hill (1997) define a prototype as “prototype is any representation of a design idea, regardless of medium”

Our prototypes were to answer critical questions about the prototype. For us we wanted to explore the various roles that would be required in our internship service, I mean you’ve got refugee students, businesses and universities for starters and to also explore implementation and integration. What bits and pieces would we need to deliver this complex integrated service. These are two elements that Houde & Hill (1997) suggested these were three such elements that could be tested with a prototype We knew that this would be complex to prototype, more so than say an app, but we were buoyed by Emma’s encouragement to not choose something just because it would be easy to prototype. We also weren’t sure how to prototype a service, and asked Emma who suggested that using role-playing or storyboarding would be a good way to do it! So back to our groups, we scratched our heads, rolled up our sleeves and got to work. 

How would we prototype this? one of the slides for session out had adapted some thoughts from the work “An Introduction to Design Thinking Process Guide Institute of Design at Stanford” (2010) 

“Ideally you bias toward something a user can experience.  Walking someone through a scenario with a storyboard is good, but having them role-play through a physical environment that you have created will likely bring out more emotions and responses from that person.”

Role-playing is an excellent thing to do it allows people to experience things in a low risk way and make suggested improvements that can be made before the stakes get to high. I know this from experience having founded tie InterAct 15 years ago which provided role-playing training for the Australian Federal Police’s International Deployment Group (AFP IDG) as well as UN Police and peacekeeping forces. (UNPOL) However like many things COVID-19 put a stop to this, and indeed roleplaying was not going to be easily achievable via an online class with limited time. Staring down the abyss of silence coming from my group I turned to the form of ‘storyboarding’ I knew best and we came up with a crude and very ugly business process map that allowed us to explore each of the user roles who would be involved in our service, start to consider the components we would need to implement the service (Like some kind of method to match students with employers) as well as how these various roles and components would integrate. We used post it notes to mark our thoughts about what would be needed to support each part of the “story” or “journey” or yes if you went to business school over a decade again when this kind of language wasn’t in vogue “process”. Our first process map was very ‘lo-fi’ and quite ugly but it did help us answer a number of questions and narrow our problem during the ‘testing’ phase, but more on that soon. 

Our ugly first go at prototyping using a storyboard in the form of a BPM

Our first prototype was ugly ( I think we didn’t even have the little icons just the post it notes ) but it was enough for us to starting thinking about how we would bring this service to life, and during the testing phase we were asked a lot of questions, which Schrage (2000) probably would have thought was a good sign for a prototype as they said: “You know  you have a successful  prototype when people who  see it make useful suggestions  about how it can be  improved”

The testing phase itself was not knew to me, and it resonated deeply. One of the main forms in which I had experienced it was in the concept of “wargaming” having had worked for every branch of the Australian Military including the Navy, Army and Airforce as well of many of the civilian groups which support these three I had participated in many a wargaming session. Most people are familiar with “big wargaming” when actual ships, soldiers and aircraft attempt to out maneuver each other in a mock military conflict in order to identify and improve of strengths and weaknesses in their military capability however some may be unfamiliar with what some have coined professional wargaming Curry, J. (2020) essentially it is used (including in the office in the military) to present ideas to a group, where members will identify the weaknesses and you must defend your idea through emphasis of its strengths or adjustments of it weaknesses until the most appropriate and robust idea is formed. The testing phase in session 8 certainly gave us a lot to think about and we went back to the drawing board. 

Know working in an Agile software development environment I am sure I will continue prototyping with our clients and stakeholders before committing to final features because as Schrage said “If you don’t waste simulations and prototypes,  your cost structure will kill you…Ingeniously  ‘wasting’ prototypes is therefore essential to risk  management. Throwing simulations at design  problems becomes vital both to detecting errors  and discovering opportunities.” (2000) software development costs a bomb and throwing out cut code is a lot more expensive than throwing a sketch or process map.