Methods Used: Participant Observations, Heuristic Analysis, Card Sorting, Physical Prototyping, Questionnaires
Tools: Adobe CC, pen and paper sketches, cloth and glue, Keynote
This is a story about designing a new welcome gift for Prime full stack students to replace the difficult to use and impersonal water bottle that came before. Except that it’s not. Not really.
This is really the study of Bode, a full stack student initially enrolled in the Vega cohort. Bode is an incredibly friendly and open guy, and the first student I met on campus. He was warm and genuine, his smile a welcome sight on a day full of nerves. Right away, he told me “don’t get sick” and related the story of how difficult it had been for him when the flu forced him out for two days. He was unable to catch up and fell back to the next cohort - meaning he had to repeat twelve weeks of work. As difficult as this must have been for Bode and his family, he wasn’t complaining or saying “woe is me.” It was impossible not to imagine a bright future for anyone so resilient.
RESEARCH AND OBSERVATION
Bode and I were sitting in that lunch room together talking because I was there to conduct participant observations and observe the full stack students in their environment. He had articulated a central need of his community: to stay healthy so that they could keep up in a demanding program. I started taking notes on the environment with an eye to Bode’s story, noting the shared surfaces that all the students touched. As more students started to rub shoulders while they prepared and ate their lunches, it was obvious the shared space had a lot of potential vectors for communicable disease.
I thought of a trip to Osaka that I’d taken years previously, where I observed Japanese commuters wearing sickness masks and disposable gloves out of consideration for their fellow commuters. I incorporated these ideas into some sketched mock ups.
INITIAL DESIGN AND PROTOTYPING
We were still early in the design process, and multiple designs were being considered through a non hierarchical voting method known as dot voting. The team voted overwhelmingly for the mask and gloves concept and it was time to iterate further.
As I considered the differences in climate and culture between Osaka and Minneapolis, I decided on touch screen capable light insulated gloves to keep students warm during their commute, and a neck warmer/mask. The design incorporated reflective Prime logos with an eye towards visibility. To address the need for preventing disease I chose a removable activated charcoal filter for the mask and silver nano beads (chosen for their antimicrobial qualities) in the fabric of both. It was time to head to a maker space and see what a rough draft of this concept might look like.
“Helping Kids Fail Since 1998” ~ T-shirt logo of Leonardo’s Basement
The maker space Leonardo’s Basement is an astounding resource, a vast space full of everything from soldering irons to sewing machines (think Project Runway on the set of Mythbusters). I headed there to mock up a low fidelity prototype. Then, I prepared a short survey, a simple card sort and a detailed interview questionnaire to gauge its reception among full stack students.
INVESTIGATION AND EVALUATION
I interviewed three students in depth and distributed short questionnaires to six total. A card sort was employed during the interview. What I found was interesting:
The cards each had a potential non academic barrier to completion of studies listed on them. Students were asked to sort them in order of most to least concern. All students interviewed rated illness as a significant concern: two rated it in the middle of the 5 card sort, one rated it as of most concern.
Bode’s story and that of another Vega student who was forced to fall back were mentioned to me as I followed up with students about their reasons for placing the cards as they did. Clearly, the need to stay healthy was on student’s minds.
“It would mark you as an other, someone to be watched out for.”
QUESTIONNAIRE & INTERVIEW
The questionnaire gave us some hard data: two thirds of Prime full stack students were commuting by bus or walking, one third by car. Two thirds wore gloves on their commute, an intriguing match with the number busing or walking. But only one in 6 wore gloves on campus and *none* wore neck wear.
The qualitative data gained in the interviews bore this out: skepticism was expressed about everything from the proposed charcoal filter (“I’m skeptical that would work”) to the social impact of wearing a neck warmer/mask that made you “look like a ninja” (the neck warmer and gloves were both black with a reflective silver Prime logo on them). The core need, however, was still on their minds: “If it would keep me healthy, I’d be all in.”
The gloves were better received: students said things like “I think it’s neat. Great for cycling” and “I love that they have reflective logos” - but none indicated they would consider wearing them on campus and none indicated their primary mode of commuting was cycling.
REEVALUATION & REITERATION
The data showed a clear problem: the proposed design was only partially resonating with students and looked to be facing an uphill battle for at best partial adoption. Feature creep had set in and the design had drifted too far from the initial concept. A return to basics, and the core need of remaining healthy, was needed.
“It bothered me that Prime was such an unforgiving environment”
That brings us to where are today. Prime’s mission is education and a core value is empathy. I have incorporated these into a proposal for a comprehensive approach that includes educational materials and outreach. The physical component is a low cost student customizable sickness mask with fun designs and disposable gloves, made available at key locations. The next step is a comprehensive two week in situ observational study and tracking of adoption and use by full stack students. The study itself will be bookended by surveys of full staff students and Prime faculty and staff. Finally, data will be collated and compiled and recommendations made.
Bode’s story isn’t over yet. But we have a pretty good idea of where it’s leading us: to healthier full stack students and a more successful Prime.