Human Centered Design Thinking & Community Empowerment

words by Jerónimo van Schendel and Begoña de Abajo photos courtesy of IDEO

When it comes to something as important as children’s education, there’s a tendency for us to take a conservative approach to tackling problems. We seek solutions with routines and actions that feel familiar and comfortable and tend to avoid venturing into the unknown because we believe that sticking to what we know means that we are keeping things under control.

But, what if we put aside our preconceived notions and realized that, when it comes to innovation, we need to learn to take risks into the unknown? In education, could we involve children more in solving problems related to their own learning experiences? Could they become guided protagonists, to find alternatives to situations that directly affect them? With the right environment and guidance, there is no one better than ourselves, including children, to express, respond to, and change what we dislike. The era of the one-size-fits-all is over and what is good for kids should not be standardized. Instead, we should aim to create customized solutions for our communities. By solving problems together, we can also become a closer community.

One of the most useful ways to bring different opinions and experiences together and zero in on the problem that needs to be solved is the Human Centered Design (HCD). This creative approach to problem-solving involves the people who are affected by the problem from the very beginning of the design process until a solution is reached.

The HCD is an integral part of the work done by IDEO, which is a leading international design and consulting firm. The process by which they redesigned the school cafeteria experience in San Francisco demonstrates how the HCD can facilitate innovation in education.

Case Study: Redesign of School Cafeterias in SF, USA

Leading up to 2013, the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) (which is the seventh largest school district in California that serving over 57,000 students from K-12) was struggling with a very low opt-in rate at its school cafeterias. Many students ate off-campus or did not eat at all because the school cafeterias had long lines, students felt rushed to finish eating and because of uncomfortable makeshift lunchrooms. All of these problems drove the Student Nutrition Service into a $2+ million deficit.

In an attempt to increase the number of students eating in the school cafeterias, the SFUSD focused on improving the food quality. SFUSD tried several options, including hiring what they considered to be one of the best food caterers, Revolution Foods. However, improving the quality of the food did not seem to resolve the root cause of the problem.

Turning Point: Creative Problem Solving Approach

In the middle of this struggle, the Sara and Evan Williams Foundation saw that the SFUSD needed a fresh approach to problem-solving and facilitated a collaboration with IDEO. Over the course of five months, IDEO used the HCD process to collaborate with over 1,300 members of the SFUSD community, which included students, parents, union leaders, nutrition staff, board commissioners, principals, teachers and community groups.

During the process IDEO organized several workshops and prototyping sessions to bring everyone together. Images from

Together, they started from scratch, beginning with making sense of the problem, and seeking and revising potential solutions through a cyclical process. A series of workshops helped bring everyone together to explain their respective opinions. Everyone’s opinions were considered equal, regardless of age or field of expertise. After gathering insights, they started a data-driven model to identify where the real problem was. They also organized prototyping sessions to identify what students most cared about.  

The fact that students from elementary to high school were part of the problem-solving process completely changed the focus of the discussions. With this student-centered approach, the adults learned that what mattered most to the students during the short period of lunchtime was spending quality time with friends.

It turned out that the problem of the low school cafeteria opt-in rate was more about the lack of a good experience than the food itself. Hence, the solution to the SFUSD school cafeteria problem would come from allowing students to design a space that facilitated the moments, activities, and the coming together students wanted.  

a prototype of the new cafeteria experience

Perhaps the greatest discovery here was that the answer to the problem was to reinforce and build a sense of community. The act of involving the whole community proved to be an important end on its own. As Matt Haney, one of the commissioners at the San Francisco Board of Education reflected:

“The school food re-design experience felt like a preview of what design thinking can mean for education when done right—not just in terms of outcomes and solutions for schools, but also for new student-centered, inclusive, and empathic processes.”

Creating a Great School Lunch Experience for All Ages

The strategies that were used to create a great school lunch experience varied according to the different age groups. To help the youngest elementary school student to better understand and enjoy the act of eating, IDEO proposed the introduction of activities such as gardening programs or trips to local farms. Spatially, the tables–which are the essential element that physically connect everyone–were switched from rectangular to rounded ones. At each table, a “table captain” was designated to distribute food for everyone in the same table. This fostered students the opportunity to serve each other and converse together. The introduction of the new tables also changed the pace of food serving. Instead of everything at once,  food would be served in stages.

The introduction of new technology and the programming of a new app allowed high-school students to have complete control of their meals, but at the same time, a whole new data could be generated to continue improving the service.

For older students, the long lines and the single meal options were identified as counterproductive, and a grab-n-go system was prototyped. Also, to show students that adults trust their decisions, IDEO suggested that students could be allowed to redesign and rearrange the whole cafeteria space every semester.

IDEO also looked for strategies to give them more ownership over their meals and budget. For that, they introduced an online application, accessible from home or their smartphone, where they could pre-order their meals, for themselves and even family members, for dinner. This not only gave them more choices but also expanded revenue for the SFUSD.

Students’ requests were stored and processed, so they would arrive at school and pick-up smoothly and pay in on-site machines, and finally choose among different areas to eat either more formally or informally with friends. With this technology, food could be pre-ordered, students could send feedback about the food, or even select food to meet their dietary needs.

As can be seen, the participative design process allowed the community to test and produce desirable experiences,  which also helped improve the economic viability of the system. Finally, the moment to work towards feasibility had come.

From HCD Process to a Long-Term Tinkering Process  

A roadmap and three pilot projects were created to transition into a long-term solution. The objective of the pilots was to test whether the assumptions of the model were correct or not and to make adjustments ahead of full implementation. Also, schools within the SFUSD were grouped according to factors like the current food program enrollment rates, the interest of the community in the food program, and the balance between labor and participation so that the proposed solutions could be adapted as needed. A roadmap established three main phases to follow the HCD process. The first was oriented towards building the capacity, the basic infrastructure, and essential elements; the second was to increase the access of students to the new program and the third was to reach big paradigms, such as the rearrangement of the eating spaces. In parallel with these efforts, the SFUSD created a new innovation lab and a program called SFUSD Future Dining. The lab was created for members to test and propose new solutions to problems they would find while implementing. 

Currently, the Future Dining Experience is operating, and initiatives such as the online pre-order, the vending machines (implemented 2014-2015) or the space redesign (2015-2016 first five schools)  are working, and some have even reached the second expansion phase. The community involvement has increased significantly, as well as the channels for communication between the School District and its students and families.

the cafeteria before the design process

the cafeteria after the design process!

As a final reflection, beyond the success of this participative design adventure between IDEO and the SFUSD, we believe that it is important to identify some key principles that can be applied to other education innovation situations beyond this particular problem of food experience.

  1. Fear no mistake. Innovation is a trial, error and persistence process. Failure must be deeply built inside the initiative and the journey, in order to be able to extract the true richness from the process. What seems unproductive in a first attempt, often becomes critical for the success of the second. It is also hugely valuable as a learning process. This constitutes an important reason not to abandon half-way. The school environment, as part of a traditional and constrained institution, is a great breeding ground to break preconceptions and start transforming problems into opportunities. Even if the results are not as successful as expected, bringing the community together through the design thinking process is an important end in itself to bring the community together and to motivate students and teachers.
  2. Communicate and leave the door open to unexpected paths. Communication requires constant effort: it is a fire that must be stoked. In user-centered design, every opinion counts. Your role as a promoter is to listen, empower and drive ideas to outcomes. Furthermore, the root of many problems can be revealed through this process. This case study represents, like no other, how the community can be reinforced by design, but also how the information extracted from an existing community can be used to develop design strategies to improve any shared experience.
  3. Have a well-defined problem and timeframe through which to innovate. Consider that every innovative scenario can only generate impact in a short to medium term if it is very well defined, and it is created within certain realistic, yet optimistic scenario. A good imagery can be found in music: musicians use the five parallel lines of the staff as a guide to explore their creativity in song and rhythm.
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