In late 2018 I was invited to hold a User Centered Design course (UCD) at the University of Trento. A few premises: 1. I never studied UCD; 2. UCD is a huge field that includes many approaches, often in contrast with each other; 3. According to the curriculum, UCD was part of a single learning module, together with Participatory Design.
The latter came first: it was intended to teach the students methodologies to investigate and collect information about specific target audience. The goal of the UCD course was instead to develop products or services based on the research conducted in the other course.
It is also worth to mention that it was my first teaching experience. To be precise, I already had some experiences in leading workshops and short courses, but this was the first time I had a class for a whole semester and the responsibility of getting the students through the exams.
Personally, the most useful lessons I learned during my personal path came from a practical approach, rather than a theoretical one. Not having clear and linear instructions forces you to actively think and make your way to find your own solution. You can’t just apply the same method: sometimes you have to follow your instinct, in other cases you can take advantage of your expertise from other fields.
Structure of the course
As I already mentioned, the course came after Participatory Design, so the students were assigned to their groups and had already conducted the interviews.
Four months are not that much, but it’s a good amount of time to give a taste of the challenges, what to avoid and what is useful to keep in mind. I wanted to propose a full round of design iteration, starting from a concept and ending with a tested prototype.
To summarize the structure of the course, we could call it a “Stretched Design Sprint”. The method was freely inspired by the Google Design Sprint, as it unfolds into five main phases:
- Understanding the problem;
- Mapping and identifying solutions;
- Narrowing down and storyboarding;
- Building a prototype;
- Testing and evaluating results.
I defined it stretched because the time frame was longer and more fragmented than a normal sprint: we met once a week, and I had to coordinate the work of five different groups at once.
It is important to highlight the involvement of the user at the beginning and at the end. It’s a cycle: identify and analyze the issues first, test and evaluate the solutions at last. When we talk about solutions, it should be clear that we will never get a final and universal solution: it will always be the starting point of a new design iteration. Another advantage of this approach is that involved users can benefit as well: being involved gradually helps to understand and develop a more aware perspective.
A final note on the medium: UCD and Design Sprint are commonly related to the digital field. During the first lessons, some groups of students manifested their skepticism on technology as the solution to all problems. Therefore, they asked if they were allowed to develop a concept that involved partly (or didn’t involve at all) the use of technological tools. I was happy to satisfy their requests: in the end what really matters are not the tools or methods conceived by somebody else, but learning an attitude to question, observe, think and take action.