July 14, 2016

Prototyping at civilla

I came to civilla not knowing all that much about the organization, besides hearing whispers from friends/classmates who have been there and shared back that there is magic in Detroit and that time at civilla can be life-course-altering. NBD.

On my first day, I arrived slightly late and blurry eyed after a very delayed 3am flight. I met the team briefly and sat down with Lena, civilla’s design director and my main point of contact thus far, to get a lay of the land.

From the ideas we discussed, we decided that I would tackle creating a civilla "takeaway" during my 3-week residency. The takeaway was to fill a gap in civilla's storytelling toolbox.

As a center for social innovation work, civilla is trying to change how change work happens. They’re doing this through projects that are dominos for powerful change. How they share back what they’ve learned through these projects is not through powerpoint slides, but big immersive physical exhibits that bring to life the insights they’ve learned from users. It is storytelling at its best. Civilla’s big audacious hairy goal (BAHG) is to positively affect one BILLION people in 10 years. And after you’ve gone through a “tour” of the projects, you leave with a strong impression that that might actually be possible.

The gap lies in the fact that civilla does not have any artifact to send folks home with, to help them share civilla with others. Mike, Adam, and Lena all said that they wanted civilla to earn a spot as a topic of conversation at the dinner table, and for the takeaway to be a tool that helps people bridge their experience with civilla to a deeper conversation about how change work happens.

So, I had to go from not really knowing all that much about civilla, to creating a way to take home a little bit of the civilla magic. Challenge on!

Because it’s me, I started by creating a plan. I drew out a calendar of when I thought I needed to do things by in order to meet the deliverables. I figured I would do interviews to gather data, synthesize it, map it out, ideate, then sketch, do a rough draft, get feedback, and then create a second/final version. It was, I thought, a thorough and solid plan.

Then, I learned my first civilla lesson. Bias towards action. Build to think!

At the end of my second day, Adam, one of the co-founders, challenged me to do the fastest, lightest, easiest version of whatever I was thinking by the next day. He was pulling on a thread of the prototyping workshop that he had taught the evening before, which I was fortunate enough to jump in and be a part of.

The four main takeaways from the workshop were:

1) Ask yourself, “What’s the fastest, lightest, cheapest way to start?"

2) Return to your user.

3) Test assumptions early on. The cost to pivot increases with time.

4) Iterate, iterate, iterate. Don’t try to get it all right in one go. Learn from each round of feedback and bake those learnings into the next iteration.

Civilla practices what they teach, relentlessly so. And they take time every single day to pause and reflect on whether they could be practicing it better. This was one of the things I admired most about the team.

And that’s what they were asking of me. So I pushed aside my perfectionist tendencies and tried on this new behavior of thinking by doing. I still did the interviews, synthesis, mapping, and ideation, but in two days instead of four.

I came in Monday morning with ideas percolating in my head and very rough sketches scribbled in my notebook. Then, I just started making, with the marinated interview insights guiding me.

By the end of the day, I had 3 1/2 prototypes to show Lena, Mike and Adam. Through putting in practice those four principles of prototyping, I ended up with two takeaways that were made stronger for the number of iterations they went through (glimpses of them here and here). It’s work that I would be proud to put my name on (civilla’s rule #5)!

From this process, I learned that I need to balance my rhythm between thinking and acting. Because my natural tendency and strength is in thinking, I need to strengthen my acting muscles. The prototyping process is a great practice for exercising that muscle.

The “act to think” and prototyping spirit lives strong at civilla -- from their space, to their work process and project. When I look back, my whole Ei year has been a series of prototypes as I try to figure out how to bridge design with my roots in social justice. This was only one of the many lessons I gained during my short time at civilla, those will be for another story. Til then, keep prototyping!

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