It was the craziest idea we had ever come up with, and we absolutely loved it. We would form a team of Stanford students, drive cross-country over the summer in an RV adventure, and use design to empower young women along the way. We had a lot of questions. The most pressing were: how would we do it and where would we begin?
Our minds swam in a sea of logistical inquiries, ranging from fundraising, to connecting with communities across the nation with whom we could work, to acquiring, operating, and living in an RV motorhome for the first time.
What made our idea feel so crazy, however, weren’t these specific questions of feasibility – it was the general ambiguity. What did “empowerment” mean or look like? Focusing on “young women” struck us as a good start, but how could we dig deeper and truly understand what challenges they faced?
The key to what became Girls Driving for a Difference was starting with empathy, one of the core tenets of the design thinking education we receive at Stanford as product design engineering majors. We're always called on to step into the shoes of others and immersing ourselves in their experiences, so that we can discover their needs on both an explicit and implicit level and then design solutions for them.
From our team’s work in the Stanford d.school, we had picked up on two key assumptions behind this approach:
- The more specifically we define the group of people for whom we are designing, the more deeply we can understand their unique point of view or “frame.”
- The more closely we can hone in on and share their perspective, the greater potential we have to create positive impact on their lives and experiences.
Our design research inspired us to narrow our focus to middle school-aged girls, and then, in the months leading up to our journey, we prototyped and tested our curriculum with those girls throughout the Bay Area.
Over the 14 weeks we spent on the road, we continued to adapt our curriculum based on feedback we received. Sometimes we did this by refining the language we used as mentors during various parts of the workshop. Other times we adjusted by adding completely new activities and exercises. The more states we crossed, the more connected our workshop became with the experience of middle school girls. In fact, we realized we were creating even more impact in their lives than we had initially expected.
We were also surprised to find, however, that there was a caveat. In the beginning of the summer, we had designed a curriculum that could have been just as easily delivered to high school or elementary school girls, and we often found success bringing boys into the mix. Then things started to shift, and 53 workshops and over 1,200 participants later, we could see that variations in the ages and genders of our workshop participants had started to compromise the quality of our workshop experience. Our curriculum worked extremely well for middle school girls, but middle school girls only.
Let’s skip ahead to my first quarter back on campus -- fall 2015. I'm collaborating with the Stanford d.school media team on designing and developing storytelling materials. Ironically, we’ve been prototyping exercises that pursue a wide range of user groups, from industry professionals and d.school teaching teams to Stanford students.
On one hand, it’s exciting to construct teaching materials with what feels like a more open mind and know that our work has the potential to benefit a user group as inclusive as “anyone who is interested in telling the story of his or her design process.” On the other hand, being plunged into the ambiguity of our project sometimes leads me to take a step back and ask, “What are we really trying to accomplish here? What is the ‘why’ behind it all?"
Towards the middle of the quarter, I chatted with designers in the d.school's K-12 Lab to see if we might zoom in our project on a more specific user group. At the same time, our Girls Driving for a Difference team seems to be doing the opposite: zooming back out, so that we can adapt and scale our curriculum designs to meet more universal student needs.
I believe that we, as designers of educational curricula and beyond, have both the privilege and responsibility to decide where to land our project on the spectrum of user-group specificity. However we decide, we must understand, question, and challenge how that decision determines the type and strength of impact we can create in the lives of others. Furthermore, if we seek to eventually broaden the horizons of our impact to a more diverse group of people, we must remember to first personalize our designs to the challenges faced by one group at the extreme.
Through working back-to-back with first a narrow user group and now a much broader one, I’ve come away with a newfound appreciation for ambiguity in the design process. For many of us, it can be so tempting, especially when embarking on new projects, to stamp out ambiguity immediately in the hopes of a more efficient empathy experience. But moving forward, I hope to perceive ambiguity as a unique opportunity to really pause, question the impact that our project might have in the future, and then navigate through it with even more courage and drive than before.