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How one school is saving the world with design thinking

Sleeping Manatees developed an app so kids with arthritis can easily track pain and sleep quality.

If you were asked to solve any problem in the world, how would you approach it?

In the University of Washington Human Centered Design and Engineering (HCDE) department, students are tasked with exactly this. By applying design thinking principles like user research, ideation, and rapid prototyping, the program arms them with the problem-solving skills to address practically any issue, from the seemingly-trivial to some of the world’s greatest challenges. Regardless of initial unfamiliarity, by the end students are subject matter experts with real-world solutions.

The UW’s multidisciplinary HCDE department is a mash-up between computer science, human-computer interaction, user experience, and material design. They describe themselves as “advancing the research and design of technologies by using innovative techniques to study human activity and develop meaningful information and sociotechnical systems.”

It can be difficult to parse what this means, but in March 2017 I observed the department in action at the Master’s Capstone presentations. In a warm and bustling room, diverse student teams proudly gathered to present 10 weeks’ work of incredibly challenging projects. Their presentations revealed that tech isn’t just esoteric coding problems, and design isn’t always “blue sky” idealism. Combine empathy with real world problems and you can tangibly tackle some very compelling issues.

Re-envisioning reality

Traditional wand-style VR controllers aren’t like hands. But… do more hand-like controllers improve VR immersion? Team Grasping in Virtual Reality tested this.

Virtual and augmented reality experiences were key cornerstones. Teams covered everything from mental health to video games and space exploration.

Meditation is a common stress and anxiety treatment, but what happens if you combine this with VR? Team CalmCats envisioned an immersive anxiety solution. User testing led them to a VR meditation treatment with a responsive, biofeedback-based virtual world. Users can even gently move controllers like the HTC Wands if they’re feeling especially anxious.

Serenity tackled PTSD by partnering with the National Center for Telehealth Technology (T2). Armed with the knowledge that over 8% of combat veterans don’t receive adequate PTSD treatment, they applied user research and iterative testing to make “Virtual Hope Box” (VHD), T2’s award-winning PTSD-treatment software, more user-friendly. Then they added new features like Apple Watch biofeedback, which alerts users about imminent anxiety attacks, and fully-immersive VR meditation. User-testing reveals that VR-based PTSD and anxiety treatments aren’t simply feasible — they actually work.

Another project addressed making virtual reality feel, well, real. Grasping in Virtual Reality collaborated with Valve Studios on the new Knuckles controllers. One challenge with today’s VR controllers is their difference from human hands. The “Knuckles” controllers address this by mimicking hands with a grippable, fist-like surface. In theory, this increases VR immersion. The team wanted to test their hypothesis.

Source: Knuckles HCDE Capstone Project

They pitted the Knuckles against the HTC Vive Wands by developing a VR environment where players could grip, swing, and throw anything from swords to magic fireballs. The Knuckles controllers won out against traditional wand controllers, but they weren’t perfect. If an object’s size implied significant weight, the Knuckles couldn’t provide sufficient weight feedback , which negatively impacted immersion.

Many projects were collaborations between NASA, Hololens, and the HCDE department. Red Rover uses AR to improve Mars research techniques.

There were even more VR and AR projects, including several in collaboration with NASA and Microsoft Hololens. Most impressively, none of the teams were initially subject matter experts. Only by applying design thinking and HCDE principles did groups progress from asking questions to functional prototypes.

Seeking safety

Whether dealing with disasters or personal wellness, there are many ways software-hardware hybrids can improve safety. Many established tech companies balk from personal safety projects due to liability fears, but grad student projects don’t have such limitations.

Team Scout provided personal safety drones dispatched through a subscription service + phone app.

Scout explored drone personal safety. Their system grants subscribers access to a mobile app service. With a button tap, a drone is dispatched from a central location. In unsafe situations, this personal protection drone can capture video, play loud sounds, provide illumination, call police, or be an escort. The idea tested especially well with women and people of color. In user research, these groups regularly reported situations where they felt unsafe or threatened and a personal safety drone could help. In the future, the Scout team envisions adding facial recognition for even more functionality.

Left: The Dropgrid iPhone prototype; Right: 3D-printed model of what a “drop” could look like.

Meanwhile, Dropgrid explored disaster preparedness and safety through a mesh network of “Drops” — teardrop-shaped devices which connect to each other instead of Wi-Fi or cell phone towers. Because these devices communicate independently, they’re especially useful in emergencies when other communication methods overload or fail. Users could connect to their Drop with Bluetooth, telling friends and family they’re safe during natural disasters. They could send an emergency request to rescue teams, police, and firefighters. In the wake of recent natural disasters where traditional response systems overload, it becomes especially clear why this technology is so compelling.

Source: Dropgrid HCDE Capstone Project

Solving problems big and small

Some problems may seem minor and personal, even if the underlying problems and systems are complex: calling a taxi, home food delivery, or booking flights. But some issues impact millions worldwide. These issues may seem impossible to solve, particularly for a small student group with few resources. But by asking the right questions and applying empathy, it’s possible to begin tackling even the most difficult challenges.

The Pump It Up team explains their project.

Pump It Up found themselves in this exact situation when one of their team members pitched an idea. Setumadhava Kathawate explained that millions of Indian households are negatively impacted by “sump” tanks. These water systems require pumping from an underground water supply to a rooftop tank. Today, Indian homeowners must flip a water pump switch any time they plan to use water, even if it’s just taking a shower. It’s a complete guessing game: there’s no way of knowing how much water is in the tank, often causing over- or under-filling. If guests are visiting for a wedding, they also don’t know how much water has been used.

While Kathawate was initially the only one with problem space context, his team quickly learned more in video interviews and chat sessions with Indian families. After their research, they settled upon a solution combining a water sensor and Android phone app. Their proposal lets sump tank owners automatically control tanks from their phones, including shutting off the water when the tank is full — no more overfilling. Homeowners can even see the water level, eliminating the guessing game. The team used design thinking to tackle a huge problem which can improve life for millions.

Design thinking is the future

A common thread uniting these teams is how few had prior context. They combined creative and technical skills to solve some extremely complex problems, from anxiety and PTSD treatments, to personal safety and disaster preparedness, to water supply issues.

These groups also revealed how diverse teams and life experiences yield diverse solutions. The all-woman Scout team had group members from many different backgrounds, and user testing revealed their project was incredibly compelling to women and people of color. On Pump It Up, Kathawate’s life experiences introduced the sump tank problem space.

Throughout the process, teams were also constantly learning and iterating until they had a user research-validated prototype. For this reason, design thinking is as much design as it is scientific method.

Tech often gets a bad rap for being too low-level; tech companies for under-delivering on grandiose, world-changing promises; and design for being too unrealistic. But these projects perfectly mixed optimism and practicality, providing hope that the right application of tech, design, and empathy can someday save the world — one project, app, and startup at a time.

See all the UW HCDE 2017 Master of Science Capstone Projects here.

Kimberly is a writer, photographer, and former technologist who regularly uses design thinking. These days, you’ll often find her traveling or eating.

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