Problem Solving for Designers with Mobius

This Fall I’m again teaching Problem Solving for Designers in VCU’s School of the Arts. This year’s class is for graphic design majors who are primarily in their senior year with plans to graduate in the Spring.

Just like last Fall, I’m using Mobius as the framework for teaching the students how to solve complex problems. We are about a 1/3rd of the way through the semester and with the bike race in town all next week and school out, I thought this was a good time to share what the students are doing and what we are learning.


Focus Areas this Year

This year’s class is in many ways similar to last years, but the students are about 2 years older on average so further along in their major. Based on a few adjustments I made over the summer (below), by class 4 we used voting dots to narrow down to 3 problems for the semester. With 9 students, this means 3 teams of 3 each, which works well.

Like last year, each team has a blog to post their progress, so bookmark these and follow along at home:

Silent Majority – Focused on improving mental health awareness on VCU campus

RVA Biking – Focused on improving biking safety in RVA

For the Love of Print – Focused on improving printing options for VCU design students

Each blog contains the results of our class exercises and their homework, which is updated weekly. In particular check out some of their empathy maps and target outcomes, which I particularly like.

2015_ChoosingProblem 2015_PotentialProblems 2015_MentalHealth


Refining Mobius in Practice

A big part of the reason I took this teaching opportunity was to work out how to teach the concepts behind Mobius in practice. Working with art students forces me to get out of the business world for a few hours each week and teach these ideas in a clear and simple manner. No industry jargon. No corporate politics.

A good example came from the class where I introduced Design Constraints. Mobius has four basic types of constraints:

  1. Budget – The limit of the money an organization plans to invest to solve the problem
  2. Event – Time related to when a solution must be found and delivered. Often a date or event
  3. Governance – Regulatory oversight, whether a law or an internal policy or standard
  4. Capabilities – Skills and experience of the people, processes and technologies delivering the solution

As I was covering these in class, I could tell the terminology (budget, event, etc.) wasn’t resonating. I found myself repeating this phrase, “just think about event as time and budget as money” when one of the students said, “We’re art students, keep it simple for us”.

In that moment I realized that terms like budget and event that are more common in the business world aren’t the clearest convenience of the core ideas. So perhaps in Mobius we consider renaming our constraints to :

  1. Money
  2. Time
  3. Regulatory
  4. Skills

I don’t know, what do you think?


Inspect and Adapt

Over the summer I made a few tweaks to the class plan, most based on feedback from last year’s class but also a few based on changes to the Mobius Loop. The main ones include:

  • Doing direct observation research earlier (class 2) to learn to identify problems (thanks Hope!)
  • Choosing a problem that impacts the local community directly (new constraint)
  • Giving students more time before choosing the problem for focus (class 4 versus 2 last year)
  • Getting to Options faster; this is what the students love (class 8 versus 10 last year)

Making these adjustments resulted in two additional 1-week delivery cycles (7 instead of 5), giving the students more time for conducting research, running experiments and implementing options.

So far the changes are paying off and the course is running smoother. Here’s what we have covered to date:

  • Class 1 – Introductions
  • Class 2 – Design Thinking
  • Class 3 – Problem Framing
  • Class 4 – Problem Selection (for semester)
  • Class 5 – Stakeholders and Users
  • Class 6 – Outcomes
  • Class 7 – Measurable Outcomes & Design Constraints
  • Class 8 – Research
  • Class 9 – Options

I’m also more relaxed as I’m already familiar with the lecture content and exercises. So I’m spending about an hour to prep for each class, less than a third the time I spent last year when I was writing all the lecture content from scratch.

All in all it has been a very busy Fall but things are going well. Stay tuned for more…