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Design Thinking Attributes and Collaboration

The Hasso Plattner Institute for Design (n.d.) at Stanford University, commonly known as the, has identified the following key attributes of design thinking to be applied in the problem-solving process:

  • Focus on human values: Empathy for the people you are designing for and feedback from these users is fundamental to good design.
  • Show, not tell: Communicate your vision in an impact-full and meaningful way by creating experiences, using illustrative visuals, and telling good stories.
  • Embrace experimentation: Prototyping is not simply a way to validate your idea, it is an integral part of your innovation process, we built to think and learn.
  • Be mindful of process: Know where you are in the design process, what methods to use in that stage, and what your goals are.
  • Bias toward action: Design thinking is a misnomer, it is more about doing than thinking. Bias toward doing and making over thinking and meeting.
  • Craft clarity: Produce a coherent vision out of messy problems. Frame it in a way to inspire others and to fuel ideation.
  • Radical collaboration: Bring together innovators with varied background and viewpoints. Enable breakthrough insights and solutions to emerge from the diversity.

Stemmed from the phases of design thinking (empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test), these attributes can be used as guiding principles for collaboration in technical communication. These attributes promote human-centeredness and action-based problem solving; they inspire team members to experiment with ideas and cultivate creative solutions through unconventional processes. The radical collaboration attribute overturns traditional hierarchical structures in teams by fostering an equal sense of project ownership. This mindset defies typical top- down communication and workflow, and serves to empower marginalized voices in a team. Ideally, all team members should share similar decision-making power and stakes in the outcomes of the collaboration.

Indeed, the attributes of design thinking may boost the team collaboration experience. But since technical communication is (always) already a collaborative practice, how can design thinking enhance the collaborative process in technical communication contexts? Based on a collective investigation, Duin, Moses, McGrath, Tham, and Ernst (2017) have characterized the following tenets for radical collaboration: exposure, collaboration, invitation, suspension, sharing, and radical imagination. In essence, radical collaboration supports these tenets by:

  • Exposure: Exposing participants to the complexities of problems regardless of experience.
  • Collaboration: Resisting hierarchical structures; inviting and welcoming perspectives across disciplinary and institutional boundaries.
  • Invitation: Inviting and welcoming perspectives that span theoretical, personal, and professional boundaries.
  • Suspension: Suspending beliefs about knowledge boundaries; suspending judgment of people and ideas; suspending closure.
  • Sharing: Exploring empathy together as a collaborative learning tool; sharing leadership, research, and teaching roles.
  • Radical imagination: Inviting and activating radical change to what_
  • (subject matter) can mean and be.

At its core, radical collaboration seeks to flatten power structures with the goal to harness collective creativity in addition to individual expertise. The outcomes of this design thinking-powered collaboration model include a diverse team with members who are comfortable offering differing perspectives and ideas, and an atmosphere that is conducive for imaginative solutions.

A Case of Radical Collaboration

!'ola bene: The following case study was performed in collaboration with my colleagues at University of Minnesota, and I especially want to acknowledge the intellectual contributions from the following scholars: Ann Hill Duin, Joseph Moses, Jeremy Rosselot-Merritt, Nathan Bolig, and Saveena (Chakrika) Veeramoothoo. The findings from this case study and the subsequent discussion were informed by the collective input by these scholars.

To examine the practical implications of radical collaboration, I showcase here a study of technical communication research collaboration where radical collaboration was employed. As I detail later in the methodology section, this study relied on an ethnographic method that leverages the nature of radical collaboration to perform critical self-evaluations. The collaborative team under study was the aforementioned research group that I was a part of at the University of Minnesota—the (then) Wearables Research Collaborator)'.

Officially launched in the Fall of 2015, the Wearables Research Collaboratory (WRC) was first piloted as a special interest research group by two professors and two graduate students—I was one of them—in the Department of Writing Studies in 2014. The group started out with a focused study of the wearable computer Google Glass XE edition, then quickly evolved into an open collaboration unit where anyone from across the department and university could join to participate in research. The exigence came from our learning of the growing interests in wearable technology across many disciplines, and the guiding principles of design thinking, which we were just beginning to grasp, that encourage multidisciplinary perspectives to inquiry.

On the 2015 website (Figure 5.1), the WRC declared that it

is an open collaboration and research space for wearables-related initiatives, projects, and ideas stemming from the burgeoning interest in wearables and their impact on users and their work. As a collaboratory, we represent an incubator for bold ideas, an environment where participants explore emerging wearables and share empirical direction for investigating the challenges and opportunities these technologies represent.

A screenshot of the WRC website in 2015

FIGURE 5.1 A screenshot of the WRC website in 2015

Source: Archived by author

Projects led by graduate students and faculty alike addressed:

  • • Perspective shifting and user experience
  • • New audience and digital rhetoric theory
  • • Cultural perceptions of wearable technologies
  • • The rhetorical situation through virtual and augmented realities

The notion of a “collaboratory” alludes to the combination of collaboration and laboratory, a space for experimentation and learning. Through collaborative problem-scoping, idea generation, and solution finding and innovation, WRC members focused on understanding the value of wearable and emerging technologies, and sharing empirical direction for investigating the challenges and opportunities these technologies present. Methods for engagement included sharing an open meeting agenda where all members could add or edit agenda items; inviting speakers and hosting virtual meetings with subject experts outside the collaborator)'; giving presentations at departmental, university, as well as national and international conferences; hosting “pop-up” events across the university; touring research centers; mentoring undergraduate researchers; and curating teaching resources and tutorials online.

Radical collaboration was enacted through the shared leadership in team organizing (e.g., meetings, decision making). Regular meetings were chaired by ditferent members of the collaboratory each week, with ad-hoc groups, formed out of shared interests, that held self-organized meetups. When workshopping ideas, members abided by the radical collaboration tenets and suspended judgement and closure; this led to a more genuine sharing of ideas with minimal fear of premature critique. When sharing research results and publication opportunities, the collaboratory members upheld an always-already collaborative belief so authorship was negotiated based on commitment rather than power relations.

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