Human-Centered Design Class Applauds Failure and Creativity

Students in the Human-Centered Design course listen to final project presentations at the Hive. (Stella Li • The Student Life)

Konrad Utterback PO ’19 had just infiltrated a goldfish colony.

“At one point I was the king of the goldfish colony, but then the goldfish unionized,” Utterback said to his classmates in Harvey Mudd College’s Human-Centered Design course.

“I hate when that happens,” course professor Fred Leichter said as students erupted with laughter.

The course, which is taught at the Hive, is nominally an engineering class, but begins with a “deep understanding of people and social contexts” to improve problem-solving, according to the HMC catalog.

With a focus on creative confidence, teamwork, and problem-identifying, the course draws students from all 5Cs and majors, from cognitive science to business. The major principles – empathy, defining, ideating, prototyping, and testing – are manifested in each of the three semester projects.

“Empathy work is to go out and observe, immerse, and interview people about how they feel about a topic,” Leichter said, noting that “creative block” can be sidestepped by employing the principles chronologically to the class projects.

The first course project, which students tackled individually, was related to the grooming process and the idea of the daily routine. Anne Shalamoff SC ’20, who elected to take the course after getting involved at the Hive, recognized the issue of inefficient time through empathy work.

“I started thinking about all of the different places where college students aren’t getting enough time to do what they want to and need to – where are the inefficiencies?" Shalamoff said. She ideated a prototype for an app that helps people get places on time or at the same time as their friends through an interface similar to Apple's Find My Friends feature.

The second project required extensive group work to solve the problem of excess waste on campus.

Leichter said this project forces students to recognize the ambiguity in problem-solving.

“A lot of the training students get, particularly in the sciences and engineering, is around solving problems that have a right answer,” he said. “With math problems, there’s usually a right answer.”

Leichter foresees that problems with a right answer will become automated occupations in the future. The ability to problem-identify and be comfortable with ambiguity is key in the sort of job market students will likely enter, he said.

“There are many more problems in the real world where there is not a right answer, and the answer is super ambiguous,” he said. “How do you get people to not waste as much, for example, there’s not one answer to that. It’s not like 'oh, blue recycling bins in every corner.'”

Unique and ambiguous problem-solving, however, requires Leichtner to employ alternative teaching techniques.

“There’s always a warm-up exercise to get the blood flowing, but also to set the mindset for what we are going to be doing,” Leichter said.

For instance, the “Remember When” exercise Utterback participated in, in which students were instructed to improvise a ridiculous weekend adventure, “was chosen on purpose because we’re about to be talking about narrative,” Leichtner said.  

“Remember When” is far from the most absurd warm-up exercise the class has used. Another activity ended with the class "whirling around with our arms out, pretending to be a ceiling fan, without talking,” Shalamoff said, laughing at the memory.

“It’s really nice to have a class where it doesn’t necessarily feel like a class,” Shalamoff said. “It’s a place to be silly and ask questions and fail often. You always go into it not knowing what that day is going to hold.”

After the warm-up, there’s usually a lecture-style lesson, but students are forbidden from taking electronic notes. Instead, students are given notebooks and encouraged to emphasize visual note-taking.

“We want them to sketch and practice taking notes in a way that they normally have not done,” Leichter said.

Alaina Orr PZ ’18 said her favorite page in her notebook came from the first observational exercise of the course. Students were asked to observe an environment they are familiar with and observe an unfamiliar environment, eventually comparing the depictions of the two. Orr chose to observe Scripps’ Mallott Dining Commons, using colors to pen an image on one side, while noting her interactions and activities in lists.

“I like it because it’s such a rough sketch – this class has taught me to sketch ‘rough and rapid,’ and to focus on the most interesting or salient details,” Orr said.

The emphasis on the interesting, the unique, and the revolutionary aligns with the class objective Leichtner hopes each student embodies.

“The biggest objective of the class is that people embrace this phrase we use here, which is 'fall in love with the problem, not the solution,'” he said. “If you’re in love with the problem, you’re motivated to understand the purpose of the solution, and you can really have an impact on people and the world.”