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Design for America: Tackling the Unknown

Design for America is a national network of university students learning the human centered design process by tackling pressing, social, local issues.

When you start a class project, the end goal is usually defined. You are told what your code should do, you know what kind of article you’re writing or you have an idea of what an ideal report will accomplish. There is an understanding of what steps will be taken to reach your final goal.

However, not all projects are so straightforward.  In Design for America (DFA), teams start with a problem they want to solve, like hospital-acquired infections or the elderly falling at night, but often have no idea what their solution will end up looking like.

Facing many potential directions without a professor to direct you can be overwhelming. However, project navigation can become manageable, even comfortable, with a few simple best practices.

First off, break your project up into manageable chunks, or “sprints”.  This will allow you to focus your efforts and accomplish tasks in a timely manner. An ideal sprint time is usually 1 or 2 weeks, depending on the project and how much time your team has.  The goal for each sprint is to make tangible progress.

The first step in starting any sprint is goal setting. Every week, we ask our DFA teams, “What do you hope to learn this week and how to you plan to accomplish that?”  Each team figures out the single most important thing they need to do and sets out to do just that. 

Make sure your goal is large enough that accomplishing it will propel you forward, but also ensure your goal accomplishes the task in the easiest way possible. In addition, set measurable goals for accountability. For example, when a team wants to learn about what features might be most effective for an application, they should not code five full apps, but instead take twenty minutes to make five paper prototypes.

It is also important that your team is always on the same page. Routinely ask everyone,  “What’s the overarching goal we’re trying to accomplish?” Keep that statement in mind. This ensures that every step relates to your main aim and keeps your team moving in the same direction.

After accomplishing each sprint, take the time to reflect on your work. We ask our teams what they learned each week and the biggest challenges they faced. These conversations allow you to prepare for failures and fix issues with your team and project early on.

Another tip to embracing the unknown is growing comfortable with failure. There is a common saying in design to “fail early, and fail often.” The first idea you have probably won’t be perfect. Don’t get attached to your ideas; instead, test them as quickly as you can. Find out how they fail.

Lastly, and possibly most importantly, a confident mindset is crucial. You will feel stuck at times. There will be moments of frustration or confusion throughout your process. But stay calm and trust yourself. Keep finding new things your team can learn and you will make progress. Do not lose momentum and accept failure – it is part of the process. Your perseverance is what will help you overcome feeling stuck.

Projects with unknown results can drive you crazy. They can keep you up all night doubting yourself.  But a confident mindset and a few simple questions can make them all manageable.

(Design for America Northwestern)

(Design for America Northwestern)

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