Discovering Design Opportunities

Using 5 different research tools and 13 different people to crack open more interesting and hidden opportunities for conversation and design.

role: student, researcher, sticky note craftsman, friend

timeline: 5 weeks


How might we begin finding the right problems to solve?


Five new research methods that generated conversations and questions around eating, backpacks, holiday travel, and the future.



Problems are big, so we start small.

My professor, Kate, often used pizza as a representation of an overwhelming problem.  Where do you begin to think about making pizza better? You could dig around in pizza ovens and pizza peels, the world of pizza delivery, or the experience of pizza consumption. In the same way, where do you begin to think about healthcare, education, and inequality?

We weren’t trying to find a solution, but rather, the right problem. Our objective was to go beyond our own understanding and experiences of a given context to make it more actionable for design.

We wanted to learn how to use concrete tools along with skills like curiosity and kindness, to start chipping away at too-big-to-digest concepts, like pizza or education.

the sticky

the sticky

We told rich one sentence stories on neon pink sticky notes.

With every research tool, we wrote a very specific kind of sticky note: unique moments that were revealed because of the exercise. Kate would say that these notes call out when “there’s a there there,” when there is something that needs to be pestered and poked at. These were the most fun, interesting, personal, and powerful little squares on our boards, and we quickly learned there is an art to writing a sentence that makes those who see it (peers, colleagues, teachers) ask questions and continue the conversation. A good sticky literally tells the story of the research.


threshold maps

I explored hunger limits and comfort zones and what changes them with threshold maps.

Art, Morgan, and Vanessa took me through their average day of eating, drinking, and getting the munchies by drawing threshold maps.  Using the map to guide my questions, I got to see the limits and comfort zones they have established for eating. I heard stories of four hour labs without food, all-you-can-eat sushi, and always craving oatmeal for dinner. I was able to hear how class schedules, plans with friends, and food prices changed the way they ate and the way they thought about eating.

Threshold mapping allowed us to see how different circumstances affect different decisions and how we can use those shifters and variables to lead us to design opportunities. Hearing that Morgan overeats at campus dining halls to get value makes me wonder about how the structure of campus dining has contributed to unhealthy habits. It opens an opportunity to see how dining halls can be adjusted to create healthier diets and mindsets among the student body.


touchstone tours

I went on backpack tours to immerse myself in three people's worlds.

Jess, Aaron, and Amanda gave me tours of their backpacks and the wonderful world kept inside them.  Pulled out one by one, I saw journals, travel treasures, stickers, and snacks flood the tables before us, and I got to hear the many stories and feelings associated with each item. My notes included answers to my questions, but also just a lot of what they wanted to tell me about these things they carry, knowingly or not. The quotes I pulled and the stories I heard from these three interviews were some of my very favorites.

Backpacks, bedside tables, kitchens, and homes are like extra limbs we carry, and they overflow with “us-ness.” Touchstone tours allowed me to really engage with Jess, Aaron, and Amanda and have rich conversations about their lives via their bags. From talking to these three, I gained an oddly deep and sentimental relationship with backpacks. These tours were filled with more sappiness than I or the participants expected and they left me wondering what the purpose of a backpack was, or had become. I want to explore the relationship between people and the things they own and continue to see how backpacks can be more than just things that hold other things.

journey maps

extreme journey maps

Extraordinary users showed me different sides to going home for break.

Yiling, Jimmy, and Saliha all had rather unordinary journeys from UT to their homes for the weekends or holidays. I used journey maps as a tool to hear a detailed account of their experiences and hear them think aloud about what feelings and thoughts accompany the actions within their journeys. Yiling told me about crying seeing her dad at the airport in China after 2 years. Jimmy told me about the ways he keeps himself awake while his full car of passengers is asleep. And Saliha told me about the journeys to her journeys.

These journey maps allowed me to see how they think about their own experience, which to them, is not extraordinary. Asking them about the worst and best parts, the worst and best journeys they’ve had, revealed parts of going home that are especially hard on them as individuals, but also that universally suck for everyone. Using journey maps with extreme users showed me how their perspective can inform design for the ‘ordinary’ experience. I saw opportunities to learn more about the emotions associated with planning a trip home, about what makes travel feel effortless, and about how to lessen the decision fatigue for travelers.


image cards

I used photo cards to help people talk about their relationships with UT and the future.

Lauren, Emily, Rachel, and Hena each told me about their experiences at UT through a few hand-picked photos. After laying out a full spread of cards ranging from colorful paint cans to farms to a set of knives, they picked up images that felt representative to them of their current relationship with the school, and told me about their friends, their fears, and their futures. They built metaphors based off of abstract images and used the metaphors to tell their stories.

Image cards made it possible to have some of the richest conversations of my entire semester. As many of the tools do, image cards allow a tangible way into intangible emotions and ideas. A photo of subway tracks helped Hena describe her urgency and fear for the coming summer in New York, while a photo of green pastures led her to describe the calm and peace she hoped to feel in her future and her long-held dreams of living on a ranch. This exercise made me extremely interested in college life and the countless emotions students experience on a daily basis, within a semester, and within 4 years. I hope to continue exploring student and university relationships and uncover design opportunities that can ease fear of the future and maximize the college experience.



Great solutions start with great questions.

After spending weeks and hours diligently learning, practicing, and using these tools, Kate told us none of these tools matter. They are merely ways to build conversations that can lead to limitless opportunities for design. The threshold map that Art drew isn’t valuable, but her explanation of how many cups of tea she drinks a day immediately starts a train of thought in my own head and spurs immediate questions when I retell it to my classmates. Their backpacks, the journey maps, the photos they each picked, cease to matter without the stories they elicited.

Design for things as big as pizza or education begins with stories. These tools are just a way to get those stories told, to get a little bit closer to finding the first problem we want to solve.



This was a turning point for me.

I learned far more in this class than just how to ask people to draw on charts for me. I learned some great icebreakers, how to listen purposefully, how to be empathetic, how to care. I realized how much I want to be a part of a process that listens to people like a friend. I’m a better student, designer, and human because of Kate, my classmates, and the thirteen lovely people who were willing to just talk to me.