This week I co-facilitated a design interactive session at SXSWedu in Austin.
I spoke at SXSW. Pinch me!
South-by-Southwest (SXSW) is a huge gathering of the coolest of the cool. It started as a music and film festival, and later branched out to become *the* place to launch new interactive technologies. Twitter was launched at SXSW in 2007. Four years ago, they started “SXSWedu” to highlight the latest in educational technology. I’ve always wanted to attend, but never had a legit reason to be there.
But last November, my former Carnegie colleague Cathy Casserly asked if I could accompany her and help pull together a “design charrette” for the Aspen Institute’s Task Force on Learning and the Internet. Cathy currently serves as an Aspen Fellow, and she knew I was starting my new consulting practice. We’ve worked really well together in the past – crunching out grant proposals, organizing convenings, and troubleshooting all of the miscellaneous growing pains of a start-up project. I jumped at the chance to work with her again.
And because I’m just starting out in this line of business, Cathy also managed to get me a coach! We worked with Maureen Carroll, who teaches classes at the Stanford d.School. Cathy and I met with Maureen several times over the past two months. She helped us shape the workshop and gave us her insider tips. It was my first “real” contact with the d.school since I became enchanted by the design thinking process in 2009. All this time I’ve just been following along on their facebook feed and blogs. We held our meetings on campus at the d.school itself, so I could drink it all in. I felt like I was drinking from a firehose!
Together we designed a session that focused on the question:
How might we create a trusted environment that will protect children’s safety and privacy online while optimizing their ability to learn?
I had quite a lot of anxiety as we prepared for this workshop. For one, I knew nothing about the content. My only exposure to kids and the internet was Instagramming with my nephew and my friends’ adolescent kids. Luckily, Aspen was hosting a series of panel discussions on the day before our session. That would serve as my crash course on the issues.
I was also anxious because I knew none of the people. All of my design thinking workshops until now have been held for co-workers, friends, or friends-of-friends… or held in Hawaii – where I’m always bound to know someone in the room. This was my first time doing it for complete strangers. Really smart strangers from across the country, no less.
During our prep sessions, I think Maureen could sense my anxiety. She told me that I just had to relax and trust the process. Luckily, I was so busy leading up to the workshop that I didn’t have time to dwell on my nervousness. In addition to preparing the user profiles and the powerpoint, I needed to go shopping, pack up all my supplies, and haul them to Austin. So I focused on that instead.
The day before our session, I sat in on the panel discussions that examined different aspects of the issue. It was filled with great insights and information, but — as one woman on my table put it — by the end of the day we were “all paneled out.” Our design session the next day was meant as a follow-up to all the information-sharing. It was a way for the stakeholders to take their deep knowledge from the field and collaborate quickly on new ideas.
The next day, our session was a huge success. It couldn’t have gone smoother. We had seven groups, and each produced 3 or 4 prototypes of products or services to address the challenge. We even had a handful of high school students who participated as co-designers and testers. I spoke with several participants afterwards (at the bar) and found out that there were indeed some true nuggets and out-of-the-box solutions that emerged from this exercise. We documented it all on video, and there’s a convening in June that may build on this process.
The best part of running this workshop was watching everyone unwind and have fun. Play-dough and pipe cleaners will loosen even the stuffiest suits. The only complaint was that there was no food in the room. (This never happens in Hawaii!) I’ll remember to insist on snacks at future workshops. It’s as important as the music we play to set the mood – all part of the ambiance that feeds the creative process.
I left Austin with a renewed faith in design thinking. Thank you Cathy and Aspen for giving me this tremendous opportunity, and thank you, Maureen for helping me trust the process!