At the center of every design thinking challenge are empathy and an authentic user. So what happens when you jump right into prototyping to solve a problem? How do you know if you’re solving for the right problem?
At the beginning of the school year, Mount Vernon Presbyterian School did just that – started with a prototype for “Family Style Lunch” and then stood back, gained some empathy, iterated, and plowed ahead.
Trying to Solve a Problem
Lunchtime was really loud, somewhat chaotic, and pretty messy. It certainly was a time to visit with friends but in general, no one really described that 30 minutes in the middle of the day as “enjoyable.” After standing in line at the lunch bar, waiting to be served by someone else with a spatula, students sat wherever they wanted at long, rectangular tables. The adults sat at the teacher tables. Many students either filled their stomachs with white bread sandwiches or crackers or simply didn’t eat. Polite table manners were pretty much non-existent and the clean-up process needed a lot of help.
Our prototype was called “Family Style Lunch.” After a soft launch with the teachers during pre-planning, students were assigned to a table of seven students with 1 adult during one of two lunchtimes. Due to scheduling constraints, third and fourth grade were paired in the first group and then Kindergarten, first and second in the second group. Because there weren’t enough Home Room teachers to go around, other adults from various departments around School were asked to volunteer to be a table host. Styrofoam plates, plastic utensils, and disposable cups were replaced with plastic ones that could be washed and reused. Instead of everyone standing in a long line, waiting to be served, table hosts brought trays of food in bowls with serving spoons to each table. Students were asked to pass plates around and serve themselves. Trying new foods were encouraged. “Please” and “thank you” was expected. Busing stations spread throughout Fellowship Hall organized the clean-up process and allowed the kitchen staff to wash the dishes quickly in time for the next seating.
Iterating and more Prototyping
Iterations came quickly. What should we do with all of the leftover milk and water in the cups because trash bags full of liquid proved problematic? Small-sized dustpans and brooms were ordered because the ones along the wall were too difficult to maneuver with small hands. We also worked with the chef on portion size. We quickly realized that many of these students weren’t used to trying new foods so figuring out how to minimize waste was important. As a school founded on Christian values, we added a moment of prayer before each meal. Now, students are asking to do the blessing using a microphone in front of the entire group!
Recently, a Mount Vernon iDiploma cohort stopped by to observe lunch, gaining empathy and feedback for a design thinking challenge that they are currently working on.
Feedback is a Gift!
So far, feedback has been amazing. Adults are noticing how much quieter lunch is as a whole now that conversations are around a small table of eight rather than along tables of thirty. Students are trying new foods and actually know how to set a place setting with a knife, fork, and spoon. Students are forming new relationships with adults from Philanthropy, Admissions, and the Business Office who otherwise wouldn’t have a lot of time to connect during the school day. Empathy interviews with faculty and staff revealed a new sense of community emerging with adults and students being a part of something together. The real problem was not how to make lunch more pleasant, but rather how might we build a bigger sense of community within the School where all learners have a sense of responsibility and investment in the environment around them?
Design Thinking Loops
Design thinking does not have to be a linear process. It’s messy and full of iteration as designers travel back and forth between the different stages of discover, define, design and deploy to design authentic, user-centered solutions for real-world problems. New problems have emerged after spending time living in this prototype. How might we create a composting system at Mount Vernon so that wasted food has a purpose? How might we encourage all learners to incorporate culture into the food we eat and the dining experience? All learners are now involved in the prototype-feedback loop, constantly iterating. Who knows what “Family-Style Lunch” will look like by the end of the year. Stay tuned for updates on where this design thinking challenge takes us.