The Role of Design Thinking and Physical Prototyping in Social Software Engineering

Author(s): Peter Newman, Maria Angela Ferrario, Well Simm, Stephen Forshaw, Adrian Friday, Jon Whittle
Venue: International Conference on Software Engineering
Date: 2015

Type of Experiement: Case Study
Sample Size: 16
Class/Experience Level: Highschool Student, Undergraduate Student, Graduate Student, Professional, Other
Participant Selection: Community members of Tiree
Data Collection Method: Project Artifact(s)


Social Software Engineering is an emerging area of software engineering that encourages the treatment of software products as tools for social change rather than mere “solutions” to problems. The authors of this paper proposed and studied a new method of integrating the design-thinking model with a software engineering framework called Speedplay. The initial goal of combining the two technologies was to help participants explore the problem space and creatively generate product requirements.

A nine month sustainability project called OnSupply was used as a case study to observe their proposed methodology. The project’s goal was to explore the possibility of providing a sustainable energy source for the community of Tiree, a remote Scottish island frequently plagued by power cuts and outages due to extreme weather patterns. The authors created and applied the DivingBoard approach during the initial design process, which encouraged exploring the problem space with a group of non-expert end users, in this the members of the Tiree community. This approach allowed them to understand the community and the way it experienced energy supply, which facilitated ideas for suitable technologies.

Through a series of ideation and refinement workshops, over 60 individual design artifacts were generated by the participants. The authors were able to extract 16 high-level requirements and several physical abstractions from the artifacts. After developing and iterating on a few prototypes, the Tiree Energy Pulse (TEP) web application was created. TEP is an energy forecasting web application that uses local weather data to estimate the energy produced by the community’s wind turbine for the next five days. The application also reflected the community’s dependence on weather and energy by overlaying a weather forecast with the energy forecast.

Applying design-thinking through DivingBoard resulted in a unique relationship between the community and the resulting technology. Community members were personally invested in the prototypes themselves, which helped to sustain interest in the project after it was completed. The authors showed that user participation and creativity-driven workshops are effective tools for the generation of requirements and solutions for complex social problems.