Learning Design, For Real This Time
This project was part of a 10-week Design Thinking Studio class at UW’s Global Innovation Exchange (GIX). We were grouped into teams of 3 and given the task of identifying a target problem in the broader space of single-use-plastics and, through research, generating requirements, prototyping, and user testing, arriving at a proposed solution. My team consisted of me (coming from a computer science undergrad and self-taught in UX), a person with CS and business experience, and a person with manufacturing experience.
The three of us met up to discuss what aspect of the SUP problem we wanted to address. We all did some research on our own before coming in, and our starting assumptions were already clearly influenced by our different backgrounds (statistics and numbers, logistic concerns, and field observation). From the start, we struggled with jumping the gun. We’d end up in discussions about the viability of different decisions we’d make 6 weeks down the line instead of exploring the problem space and adjusting course as we learned more. We coalesced around a single statistic: only around 8% of single use plastics were recycled (in the US, in 2018). The rest of our secondary research was aiming to put that number into context. Were there particularly difficult to recycle plastics that could be swapped out? Was there a lack of awareness, infrastructure, business incentive? We found a particular bottleneck in SUPs submitted to recycling facilities by well-intentioned people that were unable to be recycled because they were contaminated with food waste or were left in plastic bags (which can jam sorting machines). These plastics usually get thrown out, unknown to the person who put them in the recycling bin. It was hard to get statistics on how large of an issue this was, and even where it was an issue (some facilities cut open bags and wash dirty plastics).
We were running on a tight schedule and needed observational data (field notes and a survey). Tracking down a contact with local recycling plants was just not going to fit in with our schedules. Because we could infer, via King County’s guidelines, that our local facilities could not process contaminated or bagged plastics, we decided to conduct field observations where we lived and gauge resident adherence to these preparatory steps. We all found similar issues: people throwing trash into recycling bins, unwashed and food-contaminated plastics, and bagged plastics.
We weren’t sure whether residents were just unaware of local guidelines, were unable to meet them, or if there was some hidden variable at play. Most of our survey was about awareness of what can and can’t be recycled and personal investment, but the questions that proved most useful were regarding washing and bagging habits. We saw that portions of our survey respondents didn’t wash their plastics consistently (or, some, at all). Though most washed, this smaller portion risked spoiling the batch, counteracting the washing of the others. In retrospect, we should have more fully committed to this specified problem space and asked more questions to understand why they don’t usually wash their recycling.
We each wrote our own scenarios, which were essentially fictional situations where our target problem is visible. We had a little bit of confusion around what to include in our scenarios. If we had more time and were trying to find data for a real product, it would have been really useful to use this step to conduct more field research following specific individuals in our target user base and asking them about their choices afterwards. We still weren’t solid on why people weren’t washing plastics, but we didn’t have the time or resources to go beyond assumptions. We used this exercise to think through the user’s journey and, like a puzzle piece, try to create a list of requirements that matched up with the problem space.
As it was with scenarios, we had difficulties finding time to meet in person during the sketching phase of our project. We each sketched out a proposed solution and compared. Two of our solutions were basically iterations on the dishwasher but simplified and adapted to easily clean plastic bottles and containers. The third was more mechanical and integrated an automated sorting system. For the sake of time, we combined the three into a tweaked bin/washer device. It seemed impossible to get all three of us together at once to go over our ideas, so there were misunderstandings and disagreements at this stage. We weren’t all on the same page and our combined solution didn’t have a unified vision behind it. Given more time, it would have been helpful to all meet together and discuss our ideas, exploring any new ideas that arose and clarifying core features we needed to include.
When it came time to prototype our bin, things got tricky. Because our previous step was hindered by opposing schedules, I was left in the middle of disparate one-on-one hallway conversations with limited time to crank out something tangible. I was able to allocate a few elements to my teammates, but most of the assembly and measurements were on me. Our struggle to coordinate in previous steps shot us in the foot here. Once again, getting everyone together and on the same page would have made things go much more smoothly.
On user evaluation day, I was still the one who had been in the middle of making our prototype. I, having become the moderator of the group between busy schedules, had the best grasp on what our prototype was and how to guide users through it. On the day of testing, we had a team member running late and another who had missed the discussions about testing. We were not as organized as I’d want to be, but we got some consistent feedback. Understanding the cleaning nozzle was hit-or-miss and our users often thought the filter was disposable. In a future iteration, we would add a guiding illustration to explain the nozzle and print the filter on the 3D printer (and rename it). In future testing, we’d need to sit down and more thoroughly script our tasks, printing the tasks for the tester to read out.
Overall, I felt like I gained a more holistic understanding of design thinking. I came in being almost completely self-taught when it came to design, focusing most of my personal concept UI work on what I thought would be more useful. I had limited feedback from family and friends, but nothing structured or research based. I can only see my design work becoming stronger going forward, more rooted in demonstrable claims and data. My biggest takeaway from the class was this: decenter yourself from your design process. Good design is not about the designer; it’s about the target problem in its messy, multidisciplinary truth.