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A Rationale for Making and Design Thinking

Design thinking and making, both seemingly non-academic ideas and practices, are yet excellent processes to apply in technical communication courses to (re) invigorate the learning experience in these courses. They promise to motivate students to empathize with users, create and test radical ideas, and leverage collective knowledge to address complex social problems. I have located the value of these processes by observing amateur makers build things in makerspaces and speaking to them about their perception of such approaches to learning. As described in Chapter 2, I conducted site observations at three leading academic makerspaces prior to designing and deploying a design thinking-powered technical communication course as part of this study. From these makerspace observations, I learned that students found design thinking and making a natural way to apply their content knowledge to solve the problems at hand. In fact, design thinking had manifested as a habit of mind for these students. Design thinking terminologies were ingrained in these students’ vocabularies; they shared in the interviews with me how they “designed prototypes,” “practiced iterative cycles to invention,” and “devised human-centered solutions.”

Another key motivation for integrating design thinking with technical communication pedagogy was its tendency for meaningful collaboration, as in peer-to-peer learning. All of the students I interviewed during my makerspace observations referenced the positive social experiences in their respective makerspaces and how much they learned from other makers in the space. Similarly, most of them talked about helping others in the makerspace as well. This realization is ideal for promoting situated learning in an informal setting; it can also be an important stepping stone for acquiring technical communication skills, since the content and technologies are always evolving. Students may learn specific methods and problem-solving strategies by observing others’ approaches, as well as through their sharing of expertise. Thus, when creating my design thinking technical communication course, I incorporated team activities to actualize such potential of collaborative learning.

Designing Design Thinking in Technical Communication Pedagogy

Central to the technical and professional writing course that I chose to redesign was the well-established assignment sequence it offered to introduce students to the popular genres of technical communication. They included, in the following order:

  • • Memos
  • • Technical definition & description
  • • Instructions set (including technical graphics)
  • • Mini usability test & report
  • • Technical proposal (including budget & timeline)
  • • Technical or feasibility report
  • • Presentation

The goal of this course was to let students practice writing in mainly non-academic contexts, focusing on highly technical topics (e.g., “Evaluating a neighborhood’s readiness for hydroponics gardening” and “Determining the feasibility of hybrid buses at a small liberal arts college”). Between 2014 and 2019, more than 20 sections of this course (with 24 students in each section) were offered every spring and fall semester. Due to its “service” nature, these course sections were made up of technical communication majors as well as students from business majors, architecture, agricultural science, nursing, and dentistry, among others. Also, because this course had a special writing-intensive designation (“Definition of a writing intensive course,” 2010) by the university’s writing board, instructors were asked to follow the pre-approved assignment sequence as closely as possible.

At first glance, restructuring the original assignment sequence was deemed a daunting task. Having taught this sequence twice—once onsite (face-to-face; synchronous) and once online (asynchronous)—I have experienced the intensity of this course and the amount of work students produce through the predetermined assignments. When approaching the redesign effort, I consulted with the director of undergraduate studies as well as the department chair; both happened to be members of my dissertation committee. After a few rounds of discussion, my committee members and I saw a possible revamp of the original course structure without having to remove any of the key assignments from the course. Since technical communication and design thinking are essentially problem-solving activities, I was able to frame the redesign effort around the notion of finding, making, and presenting solutions to complex issues. I used the language of design thinking and offered a “design challenge” approach to this technical communication course.

By mapping the assignment sequence onto the design thinking process (see Figure 4.1, expanded from the Stanford basic model, with an additional “implement” phase), I presented the key assignments in this course as primary elements of the problem-solving process. Students were assigned into teams they kept throughout the semester. Progressing through the iterative design process, students completed the major assignments in a new sequence and were still able to experience the original intentions of the course.

The assignment sequence in WRIT 3562W mapped onto the design thinking process

FIGURE 4.1 The assignment sequence in WRIT 3562W mapped onto the design thinking process

The “design challenge” pulled together the new assignment sequence under a common theme. To introduce students to the uses and purposes of each technical genre in the assignments, a design challenge was integrated to provide contexts for practice. A signature activity in design thinking bootcamps, a design challenge typically revolves around “wicked problems” (those lacking well-defined single solutions) and requires the challengers to work in cross-functional teams and exercise the design thinking process:

  • 1. Empathize with users & stakeholders
  • 2. Define scope of project
  • 3. Ideate radical solutions
  • 4. Create prototypes
  • 5. Test prototypes
  • 6. Iterate design
  • 7. Present or implement solution

In my redesigned technical and professional writing course, students were challenged to enhance campus experience by addressing a specific wicked problem pertaining to student life on campus. The prompt for the design challenge read:

Your team will learn about the experience of students in the UMN campus community and identify a potential problem they face in a specific domain of the campus experience. You will define this potential problem and ideate a viable solution to address the problem. You will create a prototype for your proposed solution, which you will use to test with actual users. Finally, you will present your idea with details on the costs and benefits for implementing your proposed solution in context.

In accordance with the design thinking process, students were tasked to work with a team to:

  • 1. Identify a campus experience problem.
  • 2. Define the potential problem.
  • 3. Propose a viable solution to address the defined problem.
  • 4. Ideate and create a prototype of the proposed solution.
  • 5. Test the prototype with actual users.
  • 6. Present a plan for implementation with costs and benefits of the proposed solution.

Ideas presented to students as potential domains for investigation included student housing and meal plans, transportation, campus safety, and learning resources. Students were also invited to consider other ongoing issues around campus climate, extracurricular activities, and health services.

As shown in Figure 4.1, the major assignments corresponded with the design thinking process so students could complete their design challenge as in Table 4.1.

Unlike the previous assignment sequence in WRIT 3562W, where the analytical report was assigned as the final research project, I modified it so that it came as the first major assignment and students could begin locating the potential problem areas and specific issues faced by the campus community. Students began by brainstorming ideas in their assigned teams during the first week. I also conducted a design thinking orientation to introduce students to the design thinking process, ways to think radically about problems, and potential approaches to addressing them. Table 4.2 shows the complete description and weight for each assignment.

To encourage students to look beyond the administrative or logistical aspects of the problems they have identified, I emphasized the importance of focusing on

TABLE 4.1 The design thinking process and correlating assignments and goals in each phase

Design thinking phase




Analytical report

Learn about people and the context of their problem


Technical definition and description

Synthesize learning from stakeholders/users

Ideate & prototype

Proposal of solution and prototyping

Iterative ideation and materialize designed solution


Instruction set

Test ideas and prototypes with actual users

I mplement/present

Oral presentation

Pitch chosen/refmed solution to stakeholders

TABLE 4.2 Major assignment descriptions and weight in percentage




Analytical report (3 weeks)

Students will identify a problem on campus that could be addressed with existing/emerging technologies or technology-enhanced processes. Through observation, analysis, and data collection (such as qualitative interview, survey, and content analysis), students work in teams of three to identify a wicked problem within the campus community, determine researchable questions, and ideate ways to address their research questions. The goal of this 1000-word report is not to solve the problem, per se, but to initiate a plan for a semester-long multimodal project.


Technical definition and description (2 weeks)

In a 500-word memo, each student team selects a technical term pertaining to their design project and provides a concise definition of the specialized term. The definition should be accompanied by a detailed explanation of objects, places, or processes as the description of the technical term.


Proposal of solution and prototyping (6 weeks)

Each student team proposes a solution to the problem and/ or research question they have identified in the analytical report. This 1000-word proposal of solution should be written with a specific audience in mind. The proposed solution must be prototyped either in a digital or physical form. The prototype must be turned in to the instructor and will be presented to the class at the end of semester.


Instruction set (4 weeks)

Each student team will organize and write an instructional procedure to enable a specific audience for the proposed solution of the identified problem. The instructions set must have at least 20 steps, include at least 5 visuals/ illustrations, list the materials required, and include a warning/caution step. This set of instructions will be tested on by at least two users. The final instructions set should reflect revision based on the results of usability tests.


Presentation (2 weeks)

Each student team will organize and deliver a 15-minute professional presentation about their identified problems, design/prototyping processes, proposed solutions, and final prototype.


Reflections (1 week)

Each student produces a 500-word reflection narrative about their learning experience with the assignment sequence and the semester overall.


the experience of other students within the problem, such as the experience of dining on campus or using the shuttle systems, rather than on the personnel, such as the university administration or a professor. The specific problem should also deal with technological issues; that is, it needed to be a problem that could be addressed with changes (or addition) to its existing technological design. Together, these emphases prompted students to consider the social dimension of their wicked problems, and to pay attention to issues of equity, accessibility, and technological literacy gaps, among others.

Students were also made aware of the requirement to devise and create a tangible prototype for their proposed solutions, and, thus, they must consider the available resources for prototyping. Fortunately, I was able to secure programmatic support from the IT department of my college unit, where a digital fabrication specialist, a graduate student assistant from the archeology department, was available during the semester to provide technical support to my students. Students were given quick demos and tutorials on tools like 3D design and printing, 360° imaging and video recording, and soundscape design and mapping, as well as emerging technologies such as virtual and augmented reality headsets (HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, Google Daydream) and wearable gadgets (Pebble, Apple Watch, Google Glass).

I recognize and acknowledge the privilege of access to these tools and technologies at a large research institution. Many instructors with whom I have shared this pedagogical direction have voiced concerns about technological and technical support from their own institutions, and I have shared that these are not the primary focus of a design thinking centered technical communication pedagogy. While the tools provided students with better affordances in invention and delivery, they were, nonetheless, just tools. As I report later, most students from my course chose to use lower fidelity technologies to address their problems and create prototypes, i.e., wooden sticks, craft papers, and other up-cycled objects, as well as screenshots, digital wireframes, and dummy interfaces. The sophisticated technologies that were presented to students required more investment in terms of time (for learning the tool) and commitment to incorporating it in their final product. Instead, many students concentrated on their conceptual design and delivered lo-fi prototypes that captured their ideas, minus the flashiness. In retrospect, this was a more desirable outcome from a pedagogical viewpoint since the point of the design challenge was to inspire creative-critical problem solving, not building technology skills, per se.

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