Design through Coursera – Week 1

[Originally published on the Australian Government Public Sector Innovation Network under a Creative Commons 3.0 BY AU licence]

Recently some of us at Centre for Excellence in Public Sector Design (as well as others across the public service plus many more around the world) signed up to do ‘Design: Creation of Artifacts in Society’ through Courseraa massive open online course. The eight week course is taught by Professor Karl T. Ulrich from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and the week beginning 22 October 2012 was the first week of the course. I plan to share my experiences of doing the course over the eight weeks through the blog [1. This post should not be taken as an official endorsement or otherwise of Coursera or the course.]

Being the first week, the course started out with a basic introduction of what is meant by design – about conceiving and giving form to artifacts that solve problems, with artifacts being objects that were made by humans (and where objects can include intangible things such as software or services or business models). The Professor outlined how design focuses on trying to address the gap between user experience and a better state.

Professor Ulrich described the basics of the design process, starting with sensing a gap, defining the problem, exploring alternatives, selecting a plan, and then proceeding – though the steps of defining, exploring and selecting may be gone through a number of times.

In another of the lessons, Professor Ulrich explained that an important component of the exploring phase is the use of divergent thinking and considering the different ways the problem might be addressed, uncovering lots of possible solutions and discarding those that will not work. In contrast, an important part of the selecting phase is the use of convergent thinking and narrowing down the possible options to a few great alternatives.

Another key concept covered was the process of iteration where the exploration of alternatives may help you define the problem more clearly and investigating different plans can help inform possible solutions and the problem definition.

The video lessons were followed by a series of course activities which you had to submit online. These activities included doing some sketching and preparing an initial prototype around a problem/gap that we personally experience and that we might be able to develop a solution for during the eight week course.

I found it a good introduction to some of basic design concepts and techniques and a really interesting process, particularly as participants help mark the work of other students (which helped teach me that everyone I evaluated is much better at sketching than me!)

The other interesting aspect for me (wearing my public sector innovation hat) is to consider a massive open online course as a disruptive innovation – the idea that thousands of people around the world are simultaneously learning from a highly regarded Professor about a subject for free. How might such an innovation be applied in the public sector in areas other than in a tertiary education setting?

For any others in the public sector undertaking the course, what did you think of the first week of the course?