The Power of Design Challenge Questions: 3 Tips for setting your innovation intention

In our latest series of blog posts exploring the journey of our prototype on aging in place, we dove into what exactly prototyping is and shared where we are now. Behind the current Aging in Place prototype has been a long journey that includes many different iterations, lessons, people, and questions. So, let’s take a step back and rewind to where it all began… the creation of NS GovLab & its two initial design challenge questions.

What is a Design Challenge Question?

Back in 2017, Jocelyn and Aubrie were tasked with creating NS GovLab — what would it look like, what would they focus on and what sorts of tools would they offer? Looking back, they had to walk through the prototyping process we have already shared to create NS GovLab itself. One of the first steps they took was deciding the areas the Lab would focus on and setting the design challenge questions.

Design challenge questions are used in the social innovation space to frame an issue. They spark curiosity about things to explore. A design challenge question must be broad enough to inspire many unexpected and expected ideas.

3 Tips for Setting a Design Challenge Question

To set design questions, there are many different things you can do. A lot of the steps involve a combination of the key points we described about prototyping.

Here are some of the things Jocelyn and Aubrie did to create the initial design challenge questions for the Lab; in particular, why the focus on aging-in-place:

  1. Research & Local Scan — What’s already happening? What’s important in public policy right now? Where is there a lot of energy for change?

For the last few years, there has been a lot of focus and energy around the idea of aging-in-place. SHIFT: Nova Scotia’s Action Plan for an Aging Population had just been released when the Lab started. Shift had identified aging-in-place as a priority because of the strong support for this in the public consultations that were conducted. While forming the Lab, Jocelyn and Aubrie also talked to people around the province and heard loud and clear that being able to age at home and stay connected to the community was a priority for many people and their loved ones. Jocelyn and Aubrie also took some time to look at the data to begin to understand the scope of the issue.

A snapshot from NS GovLab’s SourceBook shows some of the statistics found

Do your research — look at statistics and talk to people! It is valuable in sensing where your intentions can align with what is already happening, what people want and need, and where the most impact can be made.

2. Initial system map — Who is affected by the issues? What sectors and stakeholders are involved? How are they impacted?

Jocelyn & Aubrie had many different conversations with people about aging in place. They held events with multiple stakeholders to try to engage with as many perspectives as possible. Aging in place impacts many different sectors — private, non-profit, public, and therefore involves collaboration and connection among many folks across a large system. It also impacts many different communities, in unique and intersectional ways.

Identifying and engaging with the people, organizations and policies is one part of system-mapping. Once you have the people, you can map the connections — how are the people, policies and organizations connected? You can also map the barriers and enablers.

Systems maps can take on many different forms. One of the maps that can be used is a bullseye map like the one below. Having a picture of the system and systems was critical for Jocelyn and Aubrie in being able to understand if innovating in an area should be a priority.

An example of a bull’s eye map from the NS GovLab’s Sourcebook that maps the people, connections and barriers and enablers for younger seniors living independently

Remember to revisit your system map — it’s not a one and done sort of thing! As you move through your process, you will unearth more layers and complexities that you can add to your map.

3. Sense-making and pulling it all together without getting stuck — What’s important? Where are things connected? Push past any desire to have ALL the information!

After spending time gathering information and system mapping, Jocelyn & Aubrie turned to sense-making. Sense-making can take many different forms. The first step involves sharing your observations with the other folks you are working with. What sorts of things did you see? What did people say? The next is to cluster themes. What sort of things came up frequently? What does the group think you should explore more? From this you can identify insights. What challenges are underpinning each theme?

Using all of the data and perspectives they had gathered, Jocelyn & Aubrie walked through these steps to settle on the topic areas — aging in place and social connectedness. From their insights identified on these two areas, they then created the two design challenge questions for NS GovLab.

One Question Leads to Another… & Another…. & Another…

Looking back, one of the learnings Jocelyn shared is that it is interesting to see how those initial questions can set the direction of years of work (hey it’s 2021 and this topic is still relevant to the work of the Lab!). Yet, at the same time, it is important to not get caught up and frozen in the idea of chasing a “perfect” design question. One of the principles of the Lab sums this sentiment up best, “start somewhere, go everywhere”.

And it’s a good thing Jocelyn & Aubrie started somewhere! Over the years in the Lab, the cohorts have explored both design questions. They sparked many different “how might be questions” for people working in the Lab. The Route of Aging team from Cohort’s 1 asked, “how might we evaluate if and how to enable people to remain in their homes as they age”. A dive into this “How Might We” will be the next stop on the story of how we got to the Aging in Place Portal 2.0.

What is your experience with crafting design challenge questions? Drop us a note below and share your tips and tricks for other readers on how to hit that sweet spot!

A social innovation lab focused on population aging in Nova Scotia, Canada. @NSGovLab