Category: Understand

“It was extremely rewarding to hear their insightful, unique takes on their journeys through Duke”

By: Anwuli Onkojo

Unexpectedly, the understanding phase of the design thinking process is my favourite. We began by putting together our stakeholders map.  By the time we were done it seemed like it would be impossible to connect with all the different actors, which left me feeling a bit overwhelmed, but still optimistic. I liked that. As a team we set manageable goals for ourselves; we agreed to try to interview at least two people from each stakeholder category.  

Interviewing people was by far the most fulfilling and enriching experience I’ve had in this program and, possibly this year. When I decided to apply to and attend Duke, it was based on an idea of what Duke was or would be that I had pieced together from websites, admissions officers, YouTube videos and any other source I could get my hands on. Once I arrived, the flurry of activities, the incessant waves of schoolwork, my introverted nature and the general vastness of the Duke population and campus made it difficult to get a true sense of what Duke was and who its people were beyond my very limited bubble. 

The interviewing process was unique because as I spoke to fellow students, faculty and staff, at times I saw myself in their stories and experiences. I found myself reflecting internally alongside my interviewees, while actively practicing de-centering myself so that their narratives would remain the priority. It was challenging but I dealt with it by giving myself time after particularly in-depth interviews to sit and think about my own responses. I especially enjoyed speaking to fellow rising seniors and recent graduates . It was extremely rewarding to hear their insightful, unique takes on their journeys through Duke. I enjoyed the thoughtful silences where participants would really think about the question, and the feedback they would give afterwards about how our interviews gave them the much needed space to think about the people they had become through their experiences. 

Hearing from faculty was like opening a window to a side of Duke that had always been shrouded in mystery. I was positively surprised by the candour and vulnerability of the professors that I spoke to. And was struck by the disconnect that faculty often have from students, despite our importance in each other’s lives. I also enjoyed hearing from staff, people who are essential to Duke, yet we very rarely hear from. Their perspectives offered something very valuable, but completely different from faculty and students. By the end of the understand phase, I felt I had a much better understanding of what Duke is, who its people are and what they want or need from their community. 

Overall, I learned that this kind of qualitative research- interviewing- is definitely something I want to do a lot more of in the future. Even if I am not speaking to people I have a direct relationship or shared experience with, the acts of crafting thoughtful questions, listening carefully, recognising the flow of the conversation, reassuring participants when they need it and finding the core insights from the conversation, is extremely fulfilling. I learned that I am good at asking critical and thoughtful questions, and working with participants to draw out  those key insights. The understand phase was a great way to apply many of the things I’d learned as an ICS student, in classes on ethnography and research seminars. As I prepare to conduct interviews for my thesis research, I now feel a lot more confident in my abilities.



The students share their perceptions and experiences of getting close to stakeholders, creating empathy, and defining their problem scope. They are ready to ideate after several interviews and identifying different insights.

“Sorting makes things easier, but the issues that we are tackling aren’t easy”

By: Jonathan Browning

Listening is harder than hearing. But harder still is understanding. Listening can be passive – I may listen to what someone has to say and then file it away, making adjustments and reconciling it to fit the parameters of my own experience. Understanding forces me to live outside of my own experience and immerse myself in someone else’s. It’s been difficult for me to stop framing the experiences of others using my personal lens. 

Often, I still want to tie the words of our user to my own experience, in a bid to sort it away. Sorting makes things easier, but the issues that we are tackling aren’t easy. Each interview takes us closer to defining our problem-space, but I don’t think there is really ever a point when the problem-space could be considered complete. However, I don’t think completion needs to be the goal. Even without a perfectly defined problem space, the aha moments still come. Together, those aha moments are what propel us forward. And it seems many of my aha moments have involved connections – whether it be connections between different students or between students and faculty or really anyone. Perhaps feeling purposeful is hard when you don’t feel connected.

Change doesn’t happen overnight and it need not happen all at once. I’m no genie – I can’t snap my fingers and grant a wish, as much as I wish I could. If I could, it would be a lot easier to measure my impact. As it is, I struggle with defining my impact. But, even without knowing my exact impact, I can be empathetic and truly work to understand. And hopefully, through a consistent effort to be better, I can have an impact on people and leave things a little (or a lot) better than I found them.


¨This process involves not only asking questions and recording answers but also engaging with the stakeholder¨

By: Sanya Uppal

The Understand phase made me realize the importance of listening and then reflecting. I realized this process involves not only asking questions and recording answers but also engaging with the stakeholder and thinking critically of the different backgrounds and perspectives that they bring to the table. It is definitely the hardest phase, particularly as it extends beyond this week as well. As we work with our stakeholders and users, through feedback and iteration, we continue to understand their needs and refine our assumptions and observations.

I found that gaining empathy for the user meant understanding their hopes and desires without jumping to solutions. To me, this included listening without judgement – taking in all unique perspectives as important without being influenced by a solution-oriented mindset that tries to frame insights into the outcome I desire.

This week, we interviewed over 15 individuals: students, faculty, and student support staff. It resulted in a dynamic process as our initial assumptions informed our later questions and focus. It was difficult not to make this focus too narrow in our later interviews as we came to define a problem space, but I think we worked well to reframe our questions in context while remaining open to broader insights. I think this was my area of greatest impact, trying to remind myself and my team to process and observe insights from our users and stakeholders effectively before rushing into characterizing our problem space and engineering a solution. 


¨Listening without judgement has been a rather freeing experience¨

By: Drew Flanagan

I have really enjoyed the Understand phase of open design but have also found it a lot more challenging than I originally thought. One misconception I had about the Understand phase was that it would be rather passive: we would ask questions, receive answers, and continue on to the next interview. However, it is a more active process. Understanding is a highly iterative, collaborative, and thought-provoking process.

Our interviews have been more of a dialogue rather than one-way conversations. Our interview questions continue to evolve as we listen and learn. Additionally, our interviews push our participants to think more critically of their experiences. It has been really difficult for me to resist the urge to design; however, this has been key to gaining empathy for our users and staying present. Gaining empathy has been critical because it really allows me to design with a relevant purpose in mind. It eliminates some of my own personal bias in the design process and allows me to focus on what’s central to our goal: the user experience.

Listening without judgement has been a rather freeing experience and contributed to me having more of a growth mindset. I feel like I learn a lot more when I no longer have the pressure to pass a judgement, whether it be positive or negative, consciously or subconsciously. I feel like I made the most impact in my interviews with professors. While I can relate closely to the student experience, I am a student myself, the faculty experience is one I have little to no perspective on. It has been rewarding to talk with professors that I have been taught by before. While our past conversations have focused on course content or my own personal interests, it was interesting to have a conversation from their perspective.


¨When I first heard of the empathize stage of the design process, I was immediately intrigued but also extremely skeptical¨

By: Florence Wang

Image that I created for our team that encapsulates our experience during the “empathize” stage of the design process.

Overall, this phase of the design process has been so rewarding. When I first heard of the empathize stage of the design process, I was immediately intrigued but also extremely skeptical. As someone who has always had a very “go getter” attitude and who likes to solve problems and jump to solutions, I don’t think I quite understood why we had to spend so long making these observations and empathizing with our stakeholders: why couldn’t we just jump to solving the problem already? However, only after talking with so many stakeholders did I realize, I hadn’t even really understood what this “problem” is to begin solving it.

Everyone professor, student, and administrator has gone through different experiences and has different opinions. This project isn’t as simple as just “rethinking online learning,” it’s about listening to everyone’s thoughts impartially and wholly to get to the root of the problem in order to design something that will actually be helpful–that will actually have an impact, no matter how big or small. 

After listening to all of the problems and successes that my stakeholders had with online learning, I felt myself becoming more invested in the project and with the concerns of each of the stakeholders. It was enlightening to simply listen to each individual and gain a deeper insight of the problem space. Although our team is still unsure as to which direction we will specifically be going in, I think that we each understand the thoughts of our stakeholders more–whether its technological concerns, teacher-student relationship concerns, motivational concerns from the student’s end, etc.–that can help us re-imagine a new way of learning.

During my interviews, I actually felt the genuine interest that some of my stakeholders had in contributing to our project and their excitement in having someone listen to their thoughts–I felt like I was making an actual impact. Although it’s definitely been challenging handling the ambiguity of the project and not knowing what our next direction is, at the same time, there’s also something really compelling about not knowing our exact solution. As a team, we have all been forced to slow down and truly examine all perspectives.


¨I think that my greatest impact is my “why not” attitude¨

By: Justin Koga

I think that our “understanding” phase was the hardest part of our project, and I’m still not quite sure that we’ve left this phase. The design thinking process is lengthy. Sometimes as a team, we’d come to solutions before gaining a 360 degree view of our stakeholders. What we collectively learned was that while the design thinking process takes time and loads of effort, it will help us to fully synthesize a problem and come up with solutions that can be iterated over time. By interviewing stakeholders and committing to in-depth research, we ultimately position ourselves for a more robust “solution”. 

We interviewed ~10 professors in 2 days. This was tough! But what this gave us was a perspective that we hadn’t really experienced before. Professors are going through the same amount (if not more) uncertainty than students are experiencing. In this case, empathizing with the professor experience, which is a large portion of our online learning stakeholder portfolio, is necessary in order to develop a comprehensive project. 

I think that my greatest impact is my “why not” attitude. If something isn’t working out, there’s always a different approach to achieving a similar goal.


¨Working on a project where the team demographic is a part of one of our larger stakeholder groups, has been an obstacle¨

By; Kaelyn Griffiths

I have developed such a love/hate relationship with the phase of understanding through this process. I think there is something so beautifully uncomfortable about waiting to design a solution until we can design WITH the stakeholders. My main grievance with this phase is the sense of urgency without direction; as we’re gaining all this information and figuring out how to analyze it, it’s hard not to try to jump to solutions or take one experience as a general experience. From talking to a few of our participants, it has been especially difficult to balance a comfortable, personable space for them, while also not asking questions that are too sensitive or questions that would reveal any bias I may have. With this, it has allowed me to listen a lot more closely to their experiences and truly empathize with students across all extremes. This honestly felt a little upsetting because there were just so many students who haven’t felt as supported as they should in pursuing their passions at Duke, and although I had some similarities with these students, it was disheartening to hear multiple other students have these experiences. 

Working on a project where the team demographic is a part of one of our larger stakeholder groups has been an obstacle. During this phase, we have really worked on holding each other accountable for decentering our own perspective and assumptions from how we frame our interview questions to ensure that our participants never feel judged or projected on. Through this, we were able to find a few “pain points” as we called them, or problem spaces, when we converged some of our key findings. Talking about these problem spaces was quite rewarding because throughout this entire phase, that was one of the first times I felt like this process was making sense and soon we’d be able to converge our other key findings and start designing solutions. 

I think some of the most memorable parts have been the points where we were given feedback and made quick efforts to change what was necessary so we could move forward. When making our stakeholder map, we were quite extensive, and the amount of people we wanted to talk to was an ambitious number. After receiving feedback, we started to discuss our most important stakeholders and personally, it gave me more focus and direction with what the project still needed and what our next steps were as a team. It has been a pleasure working with a team that is always ready and willing to adapt and it has made me much more open minded and flexible.


¨A designer must work with the user, not for them¨

By: Marcus Ortiz

Perspectives are fascinating. No matter how definite something may seem, there is always a different angle to see it from (Except Star Wars, it is an unambiguous masterpiece). Over the past week we have asked more questions to interviewees than I can count, but every response has been unique – coming with its own concerns, hopes, and ambitions. Maybe this is what makes human-centered design so difficult but yet incredibly impactful: humans are inherently different. This insight has taught me the importance of the understanding phase in design – I can not decide what is best for others.

Just as Freire claimed the liberator must work with the oppressed, a designer must work with the user, not for them. If the designer does not take their time to work alongside the user, they are assuming their experiences outweigh the people’s they are attempting to help. The problem you are solving is likely not your own, and even if it is, you are likely not the only one impacted by it. If a designer does not take the time to learn and understand the problems of others, he may make matters worse by dehumanizing the user.

Because of perspective, the significance of team communication was definitely highlighted for me. It is so vital for the team to have proper discussions on what they took from interviews rather than just taking notes. These discussions bring out different ideas and perspectives that allow our team to consider different mindsets!

The most difficult part of the past week has easily been narrowing the problem space. With so many perspectives coming at us faster than my internet connection, it seemed that there was no “right” path to choose. Without focusing on solutions, it can seem nearly impossible to trim down the problem space. However, with the help of the team leaders, our team has been able to steer towards a specific topic that we are very excited to work on for the coming weeks!


¨The themes we found are real problems, ones I believe are solvable¨

By: Zsofia Walter

The understand process pushed me to accept being in a limbo state. Typically I have an urge to find direction, but with the Understand phase I had to learn to remain in exploration. Ensuring that I was delving deeply into the problem space and appreciating each perspective I encountered, while resisting the urge to impose my own viewpoint or focus on one direction. My team was incredibly helpful in this aspect, we would discuss and remind one another to step back when we felt we were narrowing our scope.

Once we had conducted in-depth interviews and discussions with students and faculty, we were able to begin the process of narrowing our scope, identifying specific areas to focus on. This process was incredibly gratifying as we were able to download our insights and then collectively analyze the data. I truly feel as though we got a complete understanding of the stakeholders in the online learning space. The themes we found are real problems, ones I believe are solvable, and I’m looking forward to tackling them.

I am incredibly proud of my team in balancing thinking about the next step, but not rushing to it. Everyone has really focused on understanding our stakeholders, and yet I feel we have all tentatively began reflecting upon insights, and considering next steps. I am also incredibly grateful that other teams have prioritized Open Sourcing, reminding us that we all benefit from sharing information and sources. Collaborating has led me to contemplate other angles than I might have.


¨The open design research process has reiterated to me the value of listening before acting¨

By: Caroline Surret

To ask someone if they’ve found their purpose is a loaded question, but one that has led me into some of the most beautiful conversations I’ve had in a long time. There is something deeply moving about hearing someone tell the story of how they found what it is that they’re meant to do in this world. Sharing in the joy of someone finding and pursuing their passion has been an unexpected benefit of the Understand phase of the open design process. 

By its nature, the open design research process is deeply human, and in a time when face-to-face connection is limited, I welcome this form of empathetic connection with open arms. I catch myself inserting my own experiences into the research and am being active in trying to separate my experience from those represented in interviews with other students. I think that this will likely become easier as my interviews are shifting towards conversations with faculty and student support systems. Likely this shift in interviewees will aid in another challenge that my team is facing–deciding who our “persona” is. It will be necessary to make a decision about who we’re working to help sooner rather than later, and with so many perspectives shared in the Understand phase, I imagine that this will be a difficult decision.

Nonetheless, I am hopeful that we will design an impactful solution and I have faith that my team will make an informed decision about our “persona” in the coming days. Ultimately, the open design research process has reiterated to me the value of listening before acting, and I am eager to keep listening as we complete the Understand phase of this process. 


¨We were sometimes disappointed by a lack of optimism for the future of online learning¨

By: Arya Patel

The understanding phase of the Open Design project has been very interesting because it allowed me to shift from a “that will be too hard to solve” thought process to a “this is an important issue” focus. While keeping this constantly in mind was difficult, it has been a really meaningful and productive experience. 

Another aspect of this week that has stood out to me is how considering multiple stakeholders can really transform and deepen the problem space we are working in. When interviewing professors, my team and I were really able to get a more nuanced point of view on the challenges and dilemmas they face. While we were previously stuck in a student mindset, now we are able to humanize professors beyond an extension of the administration and deliverers of curriculum to real people who are also trying to adjust to online learning challenges. We gained a sort of user-empathy that will definitely positively impact our creation design process. 

One challenge we faced was hearing pessimism in our users about online learning. Coming from a place of excitement, innovation and readiness for change. However, as we talked through this as a team we realized we should take this pessimism as an opportunity to ask “why?”  to get to deeper roots of concerns. This helped us pivot interviews into more productive and engaging conversations that could truly help us define a specific but important problem and give us key insights. 


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