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Ideating Together

One of the key differences the design challenge assignment sequence offers technical communication pedagogy is the emphasis on collaboration. As students worked as a team to complete not one but all of the required assignments in the design challenge, they learned to communicate personal needs or concerns, resolve conflicts, and share tasks. Students practiced prioritizing goals and distributing workload. Design thinking favors a collaborative approach to problem solving as it promotes greater creativity and equity in designed solutions.

The ideation phase began when teams exercised their imagination to create multiple solutions to address the problem specified in their analytical report. This was a phase in which students both enjoyed and loathed during the design challenge due to the ambiguous nature of the ideation process. Many initial ideas were sketched and then scratched. Most teams produced documentation of their idea generation in their proposal assignment as a way of “showing the work,” although it was not a required component. The collaborative nature of this process led to cross-disciplinary considerations in the ideated solutions. Students brought their developing disciplinary knowledge to the design table and used it to inform the selection of their chosen design direction.

This process adds value to technical communication pedagogy, especially for courses without a specific collaborative design component, as it creates the opportunity for students to assume authority in the creation of practical yet creative solutions to problems they deem important to address. At the same time, it challenges them to observe and consider the different expertise and traditions brought upon by the various disciplinary backgrounds of the team members. Design thinking provides a viable framework to facilitate this process by encouraging “radical” interactions within cross-functional teams.

Prototyping Testable Solutions

For students, perhaps the most exciting part of the design challenge was the prototyping phase. Again, the requirement of the design challenge project included the building of a tangible mockup (whether a 3D object or a wireframe interface) of the solution proposed by each student team. Throughout the course, students were introduced to various rapid-prototyping tools that were made available via the different units of our university. The advanced imaging lab offered 360° still and video recording technologies that students may use to create immersive simulations. The medical devices center and library makerspaces had 3D modeling applications and 3D printers that allowed students to fabricate plastic prototypes of their design. The emerging technologies lab collected several virtual reality and augmented reality headsets that students could use to test out their immersive simulations or create room-scale 3D paintings using applications like Google Tilt Brush.

Students were reminded not to let the technolog)' drive their design directions. Rather, they should use these tools to materialize their ideas, and only if the outcome would match the intended design. It was also crucial to caution students to avoid spending excessive time figuring how to operate a tool. The goal of the design challenge project was to expose students to making/building/prototyping as a productive exercise in the design process, not to focus on learning a tool, per se. Ultimately, the purpose of prototyping was bringing to life the designed solutions so teams might use the prototypes in user testing sessions.

As part of this process, students created technical instructions for users to test the prototypes. Additionally, the instruction set was tested for clarity and accuracy during the user testing sessions. By the end of this phase, teams were given the opportunity to revise their prototype and instructions before organizing an oral presentation of their final solutions to a live audience.

90 Pedagogical Strategies for Social Advocacy

Advocating for Change

Although the design challenge prompt did not necessarily steer students into a social justice direction, the resulting projects demonstrated awareness toward social responsiveness. Students designed and delivered solutions that put user equity at the core. Their overall approach to the specific problem at hand showed an increased motivation to advocate for user needs and combat unjust systems through radical designs.

As the design challenge project approached its due date, students planned a presentation of their solutions by providing a narrative of their problem selection, user analysis, design, testing, and iteration methodologies. At this point, students had learned to situate their proposed solutions in the social contexts of the problem areas they were addressing through the design challenge. From the literature that complemented the course, students recognized the need to not only critique social problems, but participate in the process of advocating for change. The design challenge project gave them a low-stakes platform for such practice. Teams articulated their ambition to affect social change through their innovation in the oral presentations.

From the focus group interviews, as I detail later, I learned that some teams had gone to present their proposed solutions to administrators who were in a greater position to potentially implement these solutions. This was not a requirement in the design challenge project. The fact that students felt compelled to extend their ideas to the authorities showed both a high level of ownership by these students towards their projects and the impact that design thinking has as a problem-based learning approach to technical communication.

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