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Pedagogical Exercises

To help those who are interested in implementing a design challenge or similar activities in their technical communication courses, I offer here a set of pedagogical exercises in design thinking that can be modified or scaled to accommodate different class sizes and degree levels.

Contextual Inquiry

An analytic process to understand the behaviors, actions, inner workings, and cultures of users in-situ, contextual inquiry is usually done with methods like interviewing and site observations, technical communication students can benefit from contextual inquiry exercises as part of empathy building and problem definition stages of a design project.

Purpose: To understand how new subscribers navigate your product’s homepage and make content selections.

Prompt: You are one of the user interface designers for Netflix, an online streaming service provider. You would like to know what new subscribers do on the web homepage of Netflix and how they choose their first content to watch.

Practice: Conduct a contextual interview to gather information about the experience, needs, and motivations of various new Netflix users. Listen for users’ desires and actions that may be informed by prior experience, cultural influence, or mental models. Start by creating a set of criteria for selecting your interviewees (e.g., they must be first-time Netflix subscribers), then recruit a handful of participants, and conduct a few 30-minute individual or small group interviews with them. Moderate the conversations to focus on the participants’ emotions, expectations, and contexts of using Netflix.

Point-of-View (POV) Statement

Once students have collected initial user feedback on particular issues, they may generate their POV statement, an exercise that can be done with users or by the design team alone. This exercise aims to articulate specific users based on the initial user feedback. The goal is to translate user experience into user stories.

Purpose: To create a set of user stories and user requirements to guide your design and evaluation of designed solutions.

Prompt: You are an interaction designer for Cactus, a new location- based RSS feed for theatre goers. Using the initial narrative data gathered from contextual inquiry, create two user stories and accompanying user requirements to help determine the design direction for the beta version of Cactus.

Practice: Use the following template to articulate a user story. If conducting this with users, let them fill out the blanks first.

As a_(user role)

I need_(user requirements)

So that I can_(user goal).

Radical Imagination

Ideation is one of the most exciting parts of design. To inspire creative solutions, radical imagination is a process to come up with “out of the box” solutions that can be materialized later in the design process. While radically is subject to situations and context of use, this exercise encourages students to resist traditional constraints and come up with ideas that would shatter conventions and ideologies.

Purpose: To devise unconventional ideas in order to promote more ethical and equitable solutions to problems.

Prompt: You are charged with ideating an improved textbook model for Argo, an open textbook publisher that aims to deliver “free” textbooks to college students. Provide six radical solutions that would re-envision the future of textbook publishing.

Practice: Do not be constrained by financial, technical, technological, or human resources at this time of ideation. Spend as little time as possible to generate any many “wild” ideas. Use sketches, line-drawings, or other quick idea-to-paper methods. Once you have ideated about a dozen creative directions, combine related ideas into more tangible solutions. Present at least six radical ideas by the end of the exercise.

Rapid Prototyping

Design thinking prioritizes material solutions over conceptual/abstract ideas. Rapid prototyping is a way to actualize designed solutions by inviting students to build/make their ideas into tangible forms. Often, students would expect to create high-end or polished outcomes, but the goal of prototyping is to materialize design in usable conditions, which can usually be accomplished through low- fidelity (low-fi) prototyping. This exercise lets students practice creating physical mockups of their designed solutions without worrying about the external quality of their prototype.

Purpose: To materialize design ideas using readily accessible materials and tools so that it can be used for testing or to gather feedback before returning to building and iterating.

Prompt: Create a prototype of your selected design (you may choose from the radical imagination ideas above) using either computer-assisted design software like Adobe InDesign or other freeware online, paper materials, storyboards, or other mockup tools. Your prototype does not need to be complete or even functional.

Practice: Select your idea for prototyping. Choose a prototyping method. Ideally, you should aim to complete your prototype within 2 hours. Do not focus on minute details in your prototype; create an object manifestation of your idea that gives the design idea a look and feel tangible enough to receive meaningful feedback. If your prototype doesn’t come together initially, iterate your design as you build a revised prototype.

Summary and Takeaways

This chapter has detailed the phases student teams underwent to complete the design challenge. In essence, a design challenge is an active learning pedagogical approach that motivates students to work in teams to identify wicked problems, build and show empathy toward users, ideate and prototype radical solutions, and test and implement these solutions with the intention to cultivate positive change. Key observations from this chapter are:

• Collaborative problem-solving increases student engagement and can lead to more productive course learning experience.

  • • technical communication students learn to design user-centered solutions through empathy building and direct interactions with stakeholders.
  • • A design challenge strings together design thinking methodologies and foundational technical communication activities to introduce students to important technical communication genres.
  • • A socially situated design challenge orients students to user advocacy and radical imagination.

Learning Activity: A(nother) Design Challenge

In a team of 3-4 members, consider the following problem statement and devise a strategy for designing a viable solution to address the problem. In your strategy, be sure to specify the users and stakeholders involved in the situation, technical terms that require explanations, design methods, and a plan for implementing change.

Every year, half a milium people are injured or killed in traffic-related deaths due to texting while driving. Although there are laws in place to lower device use while driving, these scare tactics have not been effective in reducing such dangerous habits. Using available materials and tools in your classroom, design a strategic solution to address this wicked problem.

When you have finished sketching your strategy, discuss with your team members the following questions:

  • • What might be the best way to get to know your target users and stakeholders?
  • • What kind of social issues have you considered as part of your ideation process?
  • • What inspires your design solution?
  • • What are the limitations to your design?
  • • How might you communicate your strategy to your target users and stakeholders?


Koupf, D. (2017). Proliferating textual possibilities: Toward pedagogies of critical-creative tinkering. Composition Forum, 35, 1-13.

Definition of a writing intensive course. (2010). Office of Undergraduate Education. University of Minnesota. Retrieved from definition.html

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