Make your users your addiction

Kim Jacobson (foreground) and Guido Kovalksys review a strategic visualization created for Kim's project, the iZone. (Photo by Emi Kolawole) How do you apply design thinking? It's a question I am often asked as editor-in-residence at the d.school. Recently, I helped read applications for the Knight News Challenge, which addressed this important question: How can we strengthen the Internet for free expression and innovation? Shortly after, I wrote my take on the applications and design thinking. Here's part of what I had to say:

If I were to offer any advice to those seeking to apply design thinking to their work, it would be this: Don’t wait for your users to come to you; go find them. Make them your addiction and the source of the energy behind your work.

I saw the power of exactly this principle last week in "Stanford 2025," the public presentation of the @Stanford project. The immersive experience was the result of a year-long effort of a multidisciplinary design team of students, faculty and staff. Their challenge was to design potential futures for the undergraduate, on-campus experience. The project was hyper-focused on its users, which allowed the designers to produce an outcome so creative it took me days of reflection to peel back the layers and see just how deep they'd gone.

The final presentation included an interactive journey to the far future -- the year 2100 -- to look back on a potential near future -- the period around 2025 -- to see how Stanford might evolve the undergraduate experience. It was an incredible piece of work that stayed true to the principles inherent in design thinking. Rather than just predicting possible changes, the end result provokes people to design their own futures of higher education.

The "Stanford 2025" presentation is a clear marker that the academic year is coming quickly to a close. Applications for next year's fellows program are due in a little over a week (May 16).  I now have a few projects that are beginning to produce that familiar churn in my stomach, one fueled by nervousness, fear of failure, regret for time spent other than working and an insecurity about what to do next.

This is "the uncomfortable" we so often mention at the d.school, the chaotic emotions that you learn to embrace. It's a time to turn back to your users -- in my case, the fellows -- and dig deep to discover them again and again.