Earlier this year, dSpace – the unique design learning experience led by Ben Bakelaar of Human Experience Systems – completed its first six month course. Part bootcamp and part “design studio”, Bakelaar led a team of students through the research, definition, and prototyping of a digital product through a combination of regular face-to-face meetings, online interaction, and self-study. Following the design thinking methodology pioneered by IDEO and the Stanford d.School, the team completed a full design cycle, first selecting a project, then conducting research and producing potential solutions, and finally generating digital prototypes and gathering feedback.

In February, the class began the bootcamp by brainstorming concepts and selecting the first dSpace project – VoteLight. Created by Jeff Pierce, it serves as a platform to improve democracy enabling bidirectional communication between politicians and their constituents. Now that a project was chosen, participants were able to continue through the design thinking stages. Starting off with “Empathize”, they became familiar with the contextual factors of the project. The main goal behind VoteLight is to increase efficiency and transparency while maximizing voter influence and allowing their voices to be heard, so the first research that was conducted on voter behavior focused on two main themes: how people gather information and how they express their opinions. Research concluded that, when related to politics, those interviewed were more comfortable using technology to gather information than to express their opinions.

These initial face-to-face interviews, conducted throughout the beginning of March, then led to the creation of an additional questionnaire to better understand the dimensions of political engagement. Team members compiled and coded the research responses, and conducted limited statistical analysis, and began the “Define” phase. Taking all of the research into account, the team came to a unified perspective (that citizens need a better way to participate in the political process because they aren’t satisfied with the current means or outcomes). This creation of a point of view motivated brainstorming to find solutions and establish the “Ideate” phase.

Taking cues from Draw Toast, an exercise from Ted Wujec’s 2013 TED Talk, the team collaboratively created a model of the conceived experience and functionality. This idea focuses on drawing each step of a process. Wujec’s understanding is that, while making toast is not a complicated task, when you ask an individual or a group to draw out the process, it showcases the truth about how to solve difficult, work-related problems. In the dSpace group, each member sketched out their ideation, often as short comics with characters (citizens) demonstrating their concerns and how they would like them to be addressed. Being able to visualize the process allowed for those involved to pay more attention to each specific piece of the issue. Then, once all data and artifacts from the project could be reviewed, the “Define” and “Ideate” phases were finalized and the “Prototype” phase began.

In this phase, paper sketches and digital wireframes were completed for two different versions of the VoteLight experience. The team worked through various screens of the VoteLight website, which led to an interactive prototype for user testing that would focus on the ability to 1) create an issue, 2) vote on an issue, 3) read or learn more about an issue, and 4) find more information about a user’s local representatives. Digital prototyping then continued, and a plan was created to begin the “Test” phase of design thinking.

During this fifth and final phase, audio recordings and observer notes were used to document the user feedback that was uncovered. This feedback proved crucial to improving the user experience and working to meet the goals set out in the earlier phases of the process. Running the research in the early stages of the process allowed for more of an understanding of what an average user would be looking for. Design thinking has grown from something that started with a focus more on products to an effort to solve intangible, real-world issues. This greater focus on communities, other points of view, engagement, and the society allows for more good to be done than ever before. The dSpace team, through 11 sessions over the course of six months, demonstrated the effectiveness of design thinking while mixing together design, technology, democracy. Following through each step of the process, they successfully created a prototype and gained information integral to the continued development of VoteLight and future projects of that caliber.