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Dr. Pivotlove - or how I learned to get students to unfreeze their thinking by talking to clients
Updated: 9/8/2021 10:00 AM by Becky Benishek
Description
Summary:  This activity is designed for capstone and other in-depth design classes where students tend to jump in to building projects which don’t create meaningful value for their client.  This activity outlines how to have students develop hypotheses about how their project will create value, then interview users and clients, using the data they collect to test and refine their value propositions.  While this activity works amazingly well to get students to think divergently about projects, and even pivot the direction they are pursuing, doing it well is quite time consuming so it is really only appropriate for long-term projects such as those found in capstone design courses.

Background:  Studies of how most students (who are novice designers) approach design finds they tend to want to jump in to building something, even if what they want to build doesn’t really meet the needs of their client or create lasting value.  This activity is designed to interfere with this “design freezing” mindset and is appropriate for capstone and other longer-term design projects where students want to jump right into building a design project without first understanding how their work will create value for the client.  Rather than a pre-packaged method, complete with exercises to hand out the goal of this card is give you some ideas to address how to to get teams to focus more explicitly on creating value. Please modify or adapt these materials to suit your needs.

Caution: If your course has teams create products to tight specifications dictated by a client, this method may not be suitable.  Rather it is appropriate in the case that a client has blinders on due to the fact that they are deeply embedded in the problem space or looks at a project through the lens of their own experience.  

Duration & Approach:  This long-term (4-8 week) activity is designed to help student design teams explore a project idea from multiple perspectives before investing time, energy, and resources in creating a solution.  To create value in a design project, students should be able to think divergently and thoroughly explore the problem space before they can begin to converge on a design that creates value. The issue that often arises is that students lack the experience to really understand the boundaries of the design space in which they will work.  Since many students have little real-world experience a key aspect of design is to see a project from others’ perspectives. The approach outlined here has student teams identify project stakeholders then go into the community and conduct interviews to explore how the project they will eventually build creates value for various users. This approach is adapted from Steve Blank’s lean startup model.

To understand how their project addresses (or fails to address) stakeholder needs, students first create a handwritten representation of their project called a stakeholder-feature model.  This diagram has a team hypothesize what features will create value and which stakeholders the features will have value for. Using this diagram students use a semi-structured interview protocol to identify and test the (often unstated) hypotheses that are built in to the stakeholder-feature model.  Students pair up to conduct interviews with potential stakeholders, and use the interview data to refine their model and identify how their project does or does not create value for their identified stakeholder.

Benefits & Resources:  The benefit to this approach is that students create hypotheses about how their project creates value and then test these hypotheses by interact directly from users of their design.  The hypotheses are initially derived from the stakeholder-feature diagram but as students conduct interviews new hypotheses should emerge. The evidence they gather has been very effective in getting students to “unfreeze” their design thinking and pivot the direction of their project.  Since this experience is uncommon in undergraduate engineering courses it also helps distinguish graduates. The largest drawback is that each interview is conducted by two students and takes about an hour on average, not including the time needed to find and contact interviewees. Thus there is a significant opportunity cost in terms of time in the course.  While it is not focused on explicitly in this exercise, much of the information students will discover exists independently and could be discovered through reports by market research firms. Other information is in the broader literature and students who have strong research skills may be able to forego some of the interviews. In the author’s experience, however, while time effective library research is not as effective as talking to people.  

Note also that some programs may envision their graduates working in established firms where customer discovery is not as important.  In this case the skills developed in discovering value in order to create it may not be seen as important and this exercise not have a workable cost-benefit ratio in terms of student time commitment.
Learning Objectives
The learning objectives of this exercise are tightly integrated into the overall process of a capstone design course, but may be adapted for shorter projects.  Within this context the learning objectives focus on the divergent phase of the design process, particularly identifying a general methodology for value creation based on client, customer, and user feedback.  Specific learning objectives are listed below and linked to both the KEEN 3C’s as well as ABET outcomes 1-7:

1) Be able to represent a project to illustrated the links between project features and project stakeholders in order to identify ways the project creates value for the given stakeholders.  KEEN 3C’s: create value; ABET: 2. Assessment can be performed by rubric-based evaluation of the stakeholder.

2) Develop working hypotheses about how an engineering project creates value in the context  of specific stakeholders and users. KEEN 3C’s: curiosity; ABET: 6. Assessment is performed by analyzing the interview notes produced by students (see materials below).

3) Communicate with potential clients and users to test hypotheses, collecting and analyzing data about perceived vs. actual needs and value and connecting it to project development.  KEEN 3C’s: connection; ABET: 3,6. The assessment is performed by looking at the data students collect. It may be a good idea to have students write up “pivot statements” that describe how project direction was changed based on interview data.

4) Learn to change the direction of a design project based on data to better align the project to user and client needs.  KEEN 3C’s: create value; ABET: 7. For assessment see the notes above.
Instructor Tips
The material provided is designed for instructors who are looking for ways to have students think more divergently in a design project.  There are several assumptions inherent to running this activity which are outlined below:
  • This a 6-8 week activity which requires a significant out-of-class time investment by students.
  • Classes which cannot afford a significant time investment may need to significantly adapt or modify the materials.
  • One assumption is that an instructor have had sufficient experience teaching capstone or other in-depth design courses that they are able to adapt the materials to fit the format of their own course and know some basic information about design processes and design teaching.
  • This material is designed for a course where divergent thinking and value creation is an important course outcome and the material may not be relevant for all capstone courses, particularly those emphasizing more convergent design processes.  
  • The materials were created for a design course in which every project is different and very little content is taught to enable student teams to focus on the design process in the context of their project.  
  • Given the need to conduct this activity over several weeks and provide feedback to students, it may not be as effective in courses where a larger amount of direct content instruction is needed.
  • The activities require minimum technology, but students should have access to large poster-size paper and colored markers .  Additionally students will need to travel to conduct interviews as well as connect with clients by phone or via Skype or other electronic conference software out of class.
  • Course instructors will have to be comfortable with small-group or class discussions.  
  • The material is not modular nor designed to be covered in lecture-type formats.Student teams will be learning independently, outside of class, and have different results and data so the instructor will need to be able to provide feedback on a variety of data.
  • As designed there is a significant component of reading outside of class.  Instructors might look to tools like Perusall.com to stimulate student reading.   
Implementation
Week 1:  In the author’s capstone design course student teams are first given an assignment of developing a handwritten drawing that connects desired features of their design project to potential stakeholders.  This is described in the attached materials. Creating the stakeholder-feature diagram can be done either in class or independently by a student team. In the materials below are slides that is used to present this diagram to students.  Throughout all the slides shown here the design and development of a desk lamp is used as an example. This can easily be removed or modified as needed.

Week 2:  After the teams present their models in class and discuss them as a group with input by the instructor, they work with the instructor to identify the hypotheses that underlie their models.   The identification of particular stakeholders and features, and matching features to stakeholder needs serves to identify implicit assumptions. The instructor may wish to have some time to review the teams’ stakeholder-feature models before class to identify student assumptions or create questions to ask student teams.

Weeks 3-N:  After listing a set of initial hypotheses the teams next identify specific individuals who they can interview that represent the stakeholder groups in their poster.  After identifying interviewees students pair up to conduct interviews outside of class time. One person of the pair of students conducts the interview while the other serves as a notetaker.  Students should be instructed to keep all contact information as well as followup following interviews to thank participants for their time.

The attached interview template shows how the interview focuses on the hypotheses the students have developed.  Note that given the very broad range of possible projects, features, and stakeholders the format is extremely general.Students summarize interviews through the questions at the end of the interview template.  The goal of interviews is to iteratively test value-related hypotheses for different stakeholder groups.  Teams should create an archive containing the contact information of those interviewed, their interview notes, and the summary of the interviews that is available to the instructor.  This archive enables the instructor to ensure teams are keeping up with interviews over the course of this exercise. The process of testing hypotheses, summarizing interview data, then updating the stakeholder-feature model continues for a period of about two months.  In the author’s class student teams are responsible for 60 interviews which is a significant time investment by students.Implementation

Context:  The course this technique was developed in was an electrical and computer engineering senior capstone design course at a predominantly undergraduate institution.  It has been run in courses of 20-40 students with relatively large teams of six to seven students. For design courses with small teams some modifications will be needed.  The technique should scale to larger class sizes.
Curiosity
  • Explore a contrarian view of accepted solution
Connections
  • Integrate information from many sources to gain insight
Creating Value
  • Identify unexpected opportunities to create extraordinary value
Design
  • Determine Design Requirements
Opportunity
  • Identify Opportunity
  • Investigate Market
Impact
  • Validate Market Interest
  • Aerospace Engineering
  • Agricultural Engineering
  • Architectural Engineering
  • Arts & Sciences
  • Biomedical Engineering
  • Business, Economics, & Law
  • Chemical Engineering
  • Chemistry
  • Civil Engineering
  • Computer Science
  • Electrical & Computer Engineering
  • Engineering Education
  • Engineering Management
  • Engineering Science/Physics
  • Environmental Engineering
  • General Engineering
  • Health Sciences & Medical
  • Industrial & Manufacturing Engineering
  • Mathematics
  • Mechanical Engineering
  • Metallurgical & Materials Engineering
  • Mining Engineering
  • Nuclear Engineering
  • Petroleum Engineering
  • Physics
  • Technical Communications
The author would like to acknowledge the NSF ICorpsL program for some of the ideas that this KEEN card is based on.
Folders
Description
These materials can easily by modified by instructors for their own design courses!
Title Type Ext Date Size
User Interviews.pptx Instructor Notes .pptx 5/21/2019 98.4 KB
User Interview Template.docx Activity / Handout .docx 5/21/2019 13.9 KB
Stakeholder Feature Model.pptx Instructor Notes .pptx 5/21/2019 121.6 KB
https://perusall.com/ Other 5/21/2019 -
https://www.talkingtohumans.com/download.html Book 5/21/2019 -