Creativity in Crisis
Siebel Center for Design Director Rachel Switzky talks to Professor William King about why design thinking is essential when the world turns upside down.
My “oh, sh*t” moment came on Friday, March 6, 2020.
I was on a flight that afternoon to Austin Texas, looking forward to joining members of the Siebel Center for Design team at the SXSW EDU conference to give a presentation about the human-centered university we’re helping to create at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I was also excited to reconnect with people in my network I hadn’t seen for awhile, and I was definitely planning to eat some tacos.
It was not to be. Upon landing, the phones of every passenger lit up with the news: All events related to SXSW were cancelled by the City of Austin due to the spread of COVID-19 just getting underway in the US. I stayed for a day to visit family, and then made my way back home to Urbana-Champaign, filled with apprehension. I had a feeling that my small bottle of hand sanitizer was not going to be enough.
SXSW felt like the first major event domino to fall—the following week, one by one, festivals and sporting events considered to be part of the fabric of springtime in the United States were abruptly, unthinkably canceled. Continued bad news about the spread of the Coronavirus filled my timelines. I sent the SCD team to work from home around noon on Wednesday, March 11.
The following few days were overwhelming, especially the uncertainty around what was happening with my extended family, friends, and crew at SCD. Members of our team were struggling to process the same uncertainty, but also feeling this intense need to do something, to have purpose in some specific way that also held to our mission: To practice, model, and teach design thinking, using human-centered design to re-imagine our campus, community, and collective world.
That was when I received an email from Bill King, a Mechanical Science & Engineering professor. He asked me and the team at SCD to join an initiative, multidisciplinary in nature, to design an inexpensive, high-functioning, and easily-produced non-electric ventilator solution to address the increasingly urgent need for ventilators in communities around the United States and the world. What might have been absurd to consider two weeks before—work with people you’ve never met, under extreme stress and in an almost exclusively virtual environment, to design something that any of us might end up needing ourselves—was now an imperative. This is an emergency.
We immediately jumped in, grateful for the opportunity to put our collective energy toward the huge, important effort that would eventually become known as the Illinois RapidVent project.
Bill and I recently reflected on the first week of the project and the role human-centered design and design thinking can—and must—play in collaboration in research and development in higher education.
RACHEL - Well, that project was intense. Are you still in shock? Are you exhausted? Because I know I am. What are your first reflections about the project, now that we’re all coming up for air?
BILL - We started the project at 8 AM on Monday, March 16. Within the first 160 hours of the project—less than 7 days—we had a working prototype. The prototype works great —it inflates an artificial lung with the pressures and breathing rates required. We logged well over 100,000 breathing cycles on that first device. If you’d given us three months to do the project, I would have said it’d be very challenging to get a high-functioning prototype on the first try. If you’d given us a week, I would have said it’d be nearly impossible. Yet here we are. There’s still a lot to process.
We also made the designs and knowledge that we created available for free on the RapidVent website. As of today (mid-April), we’ve had more than 60 organizations from fifteen countries access the technology. A number of them have made working prototypes of their own, and are considering how to scale up. We started the project with the idea of creating something that could help our own community, and it may turn out that we’ve also done something to help global health.
RACHEL - Why did you approach Siebel Center for Design to join this project?
BILL - I wanted us to design something that people would use. We could have made the best functioning ventilator in history, but if human-centered design principles weren’t included somehow, then no one would ever use it—or possibly even be able to use it. It’s the actual translation of the RapidVent once it’s in the hands of the users that matters.
More to the point: The experience that people will have interacting with the RapidVent includes more than just the oxygen moving through the device; it must be easy to understand and use. Physicians and other health care workers need to be trained on its operation, so the device should communicate its function through its appearance and its user interface. SCD’s expertise helped us to do all of those things successfully. I’m very happy we had your expertise on the project and the good work that came out of it.
On Sunday afternoon—March 15—I invited you and some of your team members to attend the 8 AM meeting the following day. You didn’t have a lot of information going in. What was it like coming into the meeting like that and what was your experience like in those first few days?
RACHEL - After our first day on the project—where we presented the intubation process to help everyone on the team understand how the ventilator would be working in the context of the experience—I was very worried that SCD had overstepped some boundaries. I expected you to chastise me and tell my team that we needed to back off, and I was shocked that your views were actually quite the opposite—you asked me to embed my team further into the sub-groups, to ensure that the users’ perspectives were going to be considered throughout the process.
BILL - That was during our first one-on-one conversation—I remember that. We were running a product design and development project at light speed. You were the most knowledgeable person on the team about product design, and I was afraid that our team would do something wrong—or that I could personally make a mistake that would derail the project—and with your knowledge and experience, if anyone was going to be able to spot a mistake, you were the person with the most knowledge and expertise to point that out. Going into that meeting, I was hoping that you would be supportive and helpful, and I was delighted that you were so friendly and easy to work with.
The super-accelerated nature of our project required that we work in multidisciplinary teams. This created some inefficiency, in that the teams had overlapping responsibilities and functions. If we had six months to run the project, maybe we would have configured the project differently. But in order to move quickly, we had to pay attention to system-level issues and cross-functional issues even when we were still figuring out the components and subsystems. By embedding SCD’s expertise on every team, we were better able to move quickly and get to a successful conclusion.
On our project team, we had some incredibly talented engineers, scientists, and physicians. What was it like getting thrown in with such an interdisciplinary group of uber-experts?
RACHEL - We hadn’t worked with many—any?—people on the project team, so I wasn’t sure of their experience with human-centered design. My big fear was having our work be dismissed. These concerns fell away almost immediately, because we realized the collective team depended on the insights from our daily user research sprints to support the confident and decisive direction that was necessary each day. And given the extreme collaboration of this project, we took inspiration from the project team’s progress and feedback—it really informed our own iteration on user research questions to better tackle concerns and issues needing to be addressed on a daily basis. Working in lockstep with each of the subgroups on the team, plus your fantastic project management, allowed everyone to really work at their best.
The mutual respect and setting aside of ego on this project were key factors to its success—there wasn’t time to dismiss anyone’s work. We needed each others’ passion and expertise in order to build upon and move forward at the pace necessary for this project to succeed. So. After going through this project, what’s your view about design thinking in an emergency?
BILL - I try to approach every problem I work on with design thinking. In any project, my mindset is that in the future, I’m going to be smarter than I am now—I don’t want to make choices now that unnecessarily constrain a smarter version of me in the future! Of course, the same goes for working with a team—the future team is smarter than today’s team, so how can we enable and not constrain the future team? In other words, I use a design process that preserves ambiguity until choices are required. In an emergency, though, we have different constraints. We need to get to an acceptable solution as quickly as possible. We don’t have the luxury of reflecting to get smarter along the way. The biggest challenge, for me, was to manage myself and others to make the right design choices at the right time, especially when it was obvious that just a bit more time would allow us to get smarter. We didn’t have that time. Fortunately, we did have a team of talented people who were committed to making the project successful.
As for me?
I agree with Bill. The underlying context for the entire project was aggressively in front of us, in the media, in our community, around the world. Any one of us was—and is!—susceptible to the virus. Any one of us could be in need of a ventilator—and we all knew they were in short supply. We were designing a ventilator for each other, for our families and friends, and for our communities, and we needed to ensure not only its availability, but its simplicity and ease of use. With this as the background context, along with the abbreviated timeframe in which we had to finish our design, we needed to rely on each other’s expertise and intuition, and drive—quickly—towards excellence.
Finally, trusting our judgment as we needed to process and make quick decisions meant that we also needed to trust our project members’ contributions and considerations as well. Not that you don’t do that in a non-emergency project, of course, but in an emergency—and we’re still in one—there’s a criticality in supporting each other in the moment…because every moment counts.