How To Hold A Design Jam In 53 Minutes

Matthew May became a designer in less than an hour. Push your creative limits by holding a design jam of your own.
Strategic Facilitation & Ideation,
July 14, 2011

When the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University, aka the "," announced a few weeks ago that they were holding an experimental crash course in design thinking free of charge for the first 200 people to sign up, I immediately signed up. I'm constantly on the lookout for opportunities to learn, hone my skills, and pick up new creativity coaching ideas.

I was especially curious to see what could be done within a tight timebox. The goal was to apply the entire five phase design thinking process to a stated challenge in under one hour—53 minutes to be exact. The five phases:

  1. Empathize
  2. Define
  3. Ideate
  4. Prototype
  5. Test

We paired up with a partner and were ushered into a large room with "pods" that had workspace for two to three pairs. Each pod had two facilitators, recent graduates of a two-day design thinking bootcamp, who acted as coaches and timekeepers.

The challenge: Redesign the gift-giving experience, based on your partner's experience in giving gifts.

Apparently giving gifts is a universal issue and less than gratifying—even painful—for most people. Personally, I had never thought of giving gifts as a problem, but that was exactly the point. There are so many things in life we take for granted, and it's the unvoiced, unarticulated and thus unmet needs are fertile ground for innovation, and make us slap our foreheads when we see a simple solution someone has commercialized.

Here's how the whole thing went down last Friday afternoon, July 8.

1. Empathize (14 minutes)

We had four minutes each to interview our partner about a recent gift-giving experience, starting with the standard "tell me about your most recent experience in which you gave someone a gift." My partner, a Stanford sophomore, had recently given a young lady friend a handmade gift that had taken a good deal of time and effort to make—a photomap of local romantic places—only to receive a less than enthusiastic response. He said: "I'm never making a girl a gift again."

We then had another three minutes each to conduct a second interview and dig deeper into the pain points. I wanted to know more about why the lackluster response, so I asked a series of progressively deeper "why" questions.

2. Define (6 minutes)

The next step was to frame the problem properly. We had three minutes each to synthesize our findings: What were our partner's real needs? What were they trying to? What insights came from our interviews? What new learnings about our partner's feelings and worldview could be leveraged in a future solution? In the case of my partner, he felt that since he had made the gift, it was meaningful. "Logically, she should appreciate it because I made it." But in my digging, I discovered that the photomap had no pictures of them as a couple, and the scenes had no relation to anywhere they had ever even visited as a couple.

We then had three minutes to arrive at a succinct problem statement that would be actionable and launch us into ideation, using a simple construct of "[USER] needs a way to [USER NEED] because [SURPRISING INSIGHT]. Mine: "A young man wanting his generosity to be appreciated by his girlfriend needs a way to combine romance and gift-making, because he feels handmade gifts hold more meaning." (Yes, it's clunky and inelegant, but it was the best I could come up with in three minutes.)

3. Ideate (18 minutes)

We were given five minutes to generate at least five radical ways to solve the problem. This was solo brainstorming, which is always hard. I came up with six, one of which I thought may have potential. We then had five minutes each to pitch those ideas to our partner and get feedback. Luckily for me, my partner liked the one I thought might be a possible solution. Finally, we had three minutes to build up one idea by creating a rough sketch with some details.

My idea: A mashup of a cozy, romantic coffee and dessert retail shop with a create-your-own kind of place (like Build-A-Bear for kids), complete with computers, scrapbooking materials, and other creative supplies. In other words, I wanted to turn the one-sided gift-giving experience into a shared gift-making experience in a romantic setting. An art space for romance! The take-home gift might be a photo montage, a scrapbook, or a computer photobook. I didn'thave time to figure out much more than that.

4. Prototype (7 minutes)

We were given seven minutes to dig into a tub of office and artsy-craftsy supplies and build something that our partner could interact with in a physical way. I had to decide quickly among what I saw as four options: Sketch a floorplan, build some sort of doll-house in a shoebox, create a advertisement, or cobble up a paper prototype of a website. I chose the latter, because of the interactivity. I grabbed four sheets of different colored paper, quickly sketched what would go on each page, and finished it off with a cover page that would act as my homepage, with navigation. I offered two possible names: "HeartMade" or "Momentos." (No groans please!)

5. Test (8 minutes)

We had four minutes each to "user test" our solution in an effort to get feedback: What they liked, what they didn't, what worked, what didn't, and what if any questions or ideas for improvement they might have. My partner liked the idea in principle, and stated "I think that would have worked!" (Of course, whether the idea had any commercial merit is an entirely different issue.)

Our design process was complete, and we then shared ideas with the other design pairs in the pod. There were some cool concepts, among them a service that scraped social media data from places like Facebook and offered a way to find an appropriate gift for a specific situation and person, given their social profile, and connect to "hot lists" and local or online retailers that might carry those gifts.

Finally, our hosts (after some debrief and wrap-up presentation) congratulated us: "You are now designers!" Can you really become a designer in an hour? Of course not. But you can conduct an enormously beneficial, time-constrained design jam, one that if done regularly is certain to shake loose some radical ideas.

Strategic Facilitation & Ideation,