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The more time I spend practicing design thinking in the, the more inspired I feel to share the methodology with others and take creative leaps in my own educational experience.

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A day in the life of a pop-up class

(Nir Eyal)

Pop-up: ˈpɑp ˌəp klas| noun: cutting edge, short elective classes and workshops taught at Stanford

The leadership brought forth an experiment last Spring in an effort to meet growing student demand for classes. They offered classes in what they call “pop-up” format. Teaching teams at the were encouraged to choose parts of their curricula to prototype and test in the form of a shorter, focused version of class modules. The classes must be taught by more than one instructor, each from a different discipline or perspective. The class format makes for an intense learning experience -- an all-out, fast and furious sprint for both teachers and students.

I was thrilled to try it. So, in May, my co-teacher, Nir Eyal, and I took sections of our full-term course, “The Consumer Mind and Behavior Design”, and developed our first pop-up, which was to take place over two weeks. Class met three times for four hours. There were 35 people involved: 29 students, 2 teachers, and 4 project partners.

The class came and went. It now serves as a huge lesson for me and Nir in what works and what doesn’t when it comes to short-format teaching. First thing first: we were overambitious. Nir and I crammed too much information into too short of a time frame. We also approached class with the belief that it mattered if students had some knowledge and/or experience with d.thinking (design thinking). Since a chunk of in-class time focused on the science (human factors/psychology) of the discipline, we wouldn't have much time for design basics. So, we assigned pre-course work, calling on each attendee to watch and complete the online crash course video,. But only 60 percent of the students completed it.


Students received a homework assignment at the end of the first class session. They had to interview three users in three days as part of their empathy work. In the end, students told us they wanted to learn more about how to specifically organize and conduct user research. They wanted to know specifically how to identify which people to speak with, what sort of questions they should ask and how to know if they had talked for too long.


We presented four different design challenges during the class. One student design team was assigned to each challenge, and each challenge was brought to the class by a project partner. The project partners for the class were Whole Foods Market, Expedia, Faurecia, and Bump Technologies. Our project partners came into the classroom to serve as subject matter experts (SMEs) in real time. It was wonderful to have each partner on board, but it turns out four partners was way too much. The logistics and the balancing of students’ needs were far more complicated with four teams than if we were designing with one or none.

Thanks to qualitative and quantitative feedback, we cultivated insights and set out to iterate the class plan. Revisions for version 2 of the class included that we:

  • Require that students complete at least one course or prove they possess previous professional design experience
  • Provide detailed information around specific target user behavior/psychology so that the data they sourced to develop a POV would already be in the classroom
  • Choose one design challenge for the entire class to workshop

Here’s the most important modification: we decided to teach a one-day version of the class that would go from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The class would have no more than 20 students and zero project partners. So, on Oct. 11, version 2 of “The Consumer Mind and Behavior Design” pop-up took place.

Roughly a week before the class I realized I needed to narrow our learning objectives even more. I stared at our class plan thinking it was still too much material. But I was at a loss for how to make it even narrower. Were we crazy? Did we really choose to condense teachings from what was a 10-week course into one day?

Waves of stress shot up my back and landed in my shoulder blades and neck. My throat tightened. Ideas kept bottlenecking in my brain. The deadline-driven pressure forced me to sit down and re-sketch the class plan. I placed a yoga mat near my work station to remember to stretch it out, and I rubbed peppermint oil on my neck, shoulders and throat (creative blocks live in my throat).

Peppermint oil + yoga mat = some stress relief. (Stephanie Habif)

I realized I was approaching the challenge all wrong. A pop-up is not about condensing, it's about prototyping small, specific parts. Finally, I had a plan. The new and improved plan had six core components:

  • I crafted a new, much narrower design challenge so that we all worked on the same challenge together during class. I vetted the design challenge with Nir and two industry subject-matter experts.
  • I reviewed workshop activity details to clarify which part of the methodology we were working on during specific parts of the class. Rather than try to teach empathy, define, and ideate, I realized I really wanted to enable students to transition from define to ideate. But we could not completely neglect empathy. Enter the third component:
  • I developed rapid interview-and-observe activities for students to practice empathy in class. BAM!
  • I participated in a pop-up called “Design Thinking Basic Training” so I could experience what it was like to take a pop-up and observe my colleagues in action.
  • I attended a teaching-team meeting to soak up the wisdom of my colleagues and learn about their pop-up insights.
  • I continued to tweak the class plan. Then, on the Wednesday night before class, I sent an e-mail to students giving them the chance to check-in to the class early. I also sent a 3-minute inspirational video on the to drum up excitement.

Because pop-up applications are rolling this year, we had the opportunity to review applications the week before class. We sent out acceptance and rejection messages, and asked students to respond to their acceptance e-mail with a "committed to class" reply message. Fifty percent of our accepted students did that; 20 percent replied unable to take the class; and 30 percent never responded.

So, I sent out preliminary course e-mails to a select group of interested students. That hooked a few to come forward with some sort of reply. Then I ordered a catered lunch for class based on how many people I gambled would show up. I also received e-mails from a few students days before class asking for pre-class reading assignments. I struggled with whether or not to send out pre-requisite work. We did last time, and only 60 percent of students completed it. So, this time I didn’t.

You’re probably wondering how it went. In short, class was a blast! We had 18 enthusiastic students who worked in teams of 3-or-4 (there were 5 teams total) here at the We taught with a variety of media (e-mails, videos, slides), and we facilitated workshop activities during each module. Students presented their conceptual prototypes from their whiteboard workspaces at the end of the day.

Before students left, I facilitated a quick “I Like/I Wish/How Might We” conversation, and here’s some of what we heard:

I Like

Short lectures, then the chance to work on what we just learned Doing what you taught us Having a specific problem to work on Psychology studies as evidence of why Energy of instructors Fast empathy activities One-day intensive format

I Wish

Class was on Saturday More time for prototyping More feedback from instructors through the process; a chance to go deeper Harsher feedback More real world examples of companies doing and not doing this successfully More examples of company case studies

How Might We

Work on existing businesses

And then that was it. I think we were all exhausted at the end of the day!

Nir and I are reviewing the evaluation feedback we received both from students in class and via the evaluation forms. We submitted a proposal to teach the third version of “The Consumer Mind and Behavior Design” in Winter 2014, and we’re thrilled to have an opportunity to iterate once more.