A major component of the Acara Challenge curriculum is the idea of getting the students out in the field to assess the situation FIRST, then develop a solution/plan around that. There are some well understood techniques for that. Acara refers to a couple of ways: Design Thinking and Voice of the Customer (VOC) (or Customer Voice) (especially in tying this into business development) These techniques are somewhat overlapped, but Design Thinking has more on ethnography focus and tends to focus more on the fuzzy front and VOC has more of a Six Sigma analytical focus on the back. VOC is pretty common in business development in big companies like 3M, Hon, GE, etc.

Design thinking has been getting more attention in the past few years. Tim Brown of IDEO has been a visible proponent, as evidenced by this Harvard Business Review article , this lecture and his blog.  These provide some good background on what design thinking is, what it means, etc.

The main objective for the filed research in Acara is to really understand the problems that people have . To do that, you need to spend time in the community, observing people and businesses in their everyday life. It’s important to have a plan and structure during field research.   Direct observation is an effective way to learn about the people, activities, environments, messages, objects, systems and interactions germane to a particular project. Conducting observations within the context of use is an effective way to learn about unarticulated needs and behaviours associated with a particular product or service, that would not otherwise be revealed.

THere are a couple of useful frameworks to help with observation. One is POEMS, from the Institute of Design :

  1. P – People
  2. O – Objects
  3. E – Environments
  4. M – Messages
  5. S – Services

and another is AEIOU from the The Doblin Group :

  1. A – Activities are goal directed sets of actions-things which people want to accomplish
  2. E – Environments include the entire arena where activities take place
  3. I – Interactions are between a person and someone or something else, and are the building blocks of activities
  4. O – Objects are building blocks of the environment, key elements sometimes put to complex or unintended uses, changing their function, meaning and context
  5. U – Users are the consumers, the people providing the behaviors, preferences and needs

You can observe more than people’s activities and actions. Observing the kinds of things around the home, where they are, how many, etc. is also useful. Interviewing people in context (how are you using this, why, how much does it cost, where do you get it). Sometimes interactive techniques (having the person draw a map) helps visualize or explain how things work.

This is just scratching the surface. The collaboration site for Acara has more detailed protocols for participants.  This material comes from some writing of Linda Pulik, one of the Acara instructors, now at University of Illinois-Chicago. We will be posting some lectures on design thinking on our website within the week.