Design through Coursera – Week 3

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

This post is the third in a series about the Coursera course ‘Design: Creation of Artifacts in Society’. You can read about Week 1 and Week 2 on the blog.

So far the course has covered the basics of design and an overview of the design process (Week 1) and  understanding and defining the problem as part of the design process (Week 2). Week 3 covered exploring design concepts and alternative options. Concepts are visual explorations of possible solutions and help generate alternative explorations of what the solution might look like or involve.

Professor Ulrich noted the concept generation/exploration phase is really hard (which was reassuring as I had quite a bit of difficulty doing some of the homework for this week!). But the generation of concepts is also really important as it helps address user needs, it helps you be responsive to costs, it can help provide the ‘wow’ factor for your artifact, and it helps to ensure that the aesthetics and elegance of the end result are not forgotten. The Professor also reinforced that this process is very iterative – that it involves continual refinement and revision.

Part of the generation of alternatives can be done through brainstorming. Here the Professor emphasised that group brainstorming should only be done after each of the individual participants has had time to work alone. Professor Ulrich quoted a study that showed that 4 people working alone for ten minutes, followed by 20 minutes brainstorming as a group, come up with 2.5 times as many ideas and better quality ideas than a group of 4 people who simply brainstorm together for 30 minutes. It is also apparently helpful to set a numerical target for the number of ideas for the individual phase of the brainstorming.

One of the main processes you can use to generate lots of alternatives is ‘decomposition’. This is where you break down the problem into discrete elements. This can be done by looking at the needs of users, by breaking down the sequence of user actions, or by the various functions of what needs to be done/achieved. By generating solutions for each of the sub-stages, sub-problems or sub-functions you can come up with a lot of ideas that you can then recombine and develop as concepts for the whole problem. The Professor noted that decomposing by sequence of user actions is particularly useful for service design.

This isn’t the easiest stage to explain in brief, but it certainly helped me in generating a range of different concepts for my homework problem. By thinking about the various actions that a user might go through it helped spark ideas that could be drawn together for an overall approach to the problem.

The other part of this week’s course was further visual expression training – this week it covered drawing in two point perspective (and reaffirming yet again, that drawing is not my strong point! See inserted image.).

I got a lot out of this week’s material, and thought the homework was tricky, found it very useful for developing my thinking around my chosen problem area (a work-related problem area). How about for other public servants doing the course? What did you find most useful?