Dr. Ponce with a student at graduation

Design thinking is a mindset, not a toolkit or series of steps…

Arne von Oosterom

The aim of my technical writing courses is to teach this mindset: an empathetic, emotionally intelligent, and collaborative way of seeing the world in which a communication intervention becomes a partnership between designer and user. Within this frame of mind, the needs of the user become paramount, empowering those who have been traditionally marginalized in the professional writing environment. Understanding this mindset is particularly important for non- technical writers who find themselves in the technical writing classroom. The aspiring medical professionals, engineers, and computer scientists I have had the privilege of teaching mistakenly believe that their subject matter expertise equips them with the only knowledge necessary to produce an optimum intervention, whether that be a medical treatment, new structure, or code. My technical and professional writing courses, through the use of design thinking, highlight the mission critical knowledge possessed by the user, something that the subject matter expert lacks but must engage to produce a successful deliverable.

One way I teach this mindset to my many STEMM majors is through the makerspace project in my Introduction to Technical Writing course. To begin the project, I divide my students into groups of three and deliver a week of instruction in vector graphic creation. On the last day of exercises, I inform each group that they have received a request from a fictional home health agency (played by me) to create a logo, one that embodies the brand of the company. Once the logo receives approval from the company, each group must then use the logo to create a branded promotional item (mug, hat, 3D printed object, etc.) that would be enjoyed by their clients. About ten to fifteen minutes into the project, though, my students realize that the only information they are using to inform their logo design is a company name that I said out loud. They know nothing of the corporate culture, location of the company, or its primary patient demographic. The previous week of course instruction in the finer points of vector graphic design was not enough to produce a successful deliverable. In other words, for all their subject matter expertise, they do not have mission critical contextual knowledge, something possessed only by their client. This intellectual roadblock kicks of a series of exchanges between the groups and their clients, further cementing the notion that subject matter experts must partner with users to be successful.

While there is no way I could prepare my students for every situation they may encounter in their career, teaching design thinking allows me to equip them with a mindset necessary to engage with users compassionately and empathetically, collaboratively producing texts and communication experiences that meet needs and produce change.

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