Design Thinking 101 improving castro with the mayor's office of civic innovation


The following page describes how we applied design thinking to decrease the amount of cigarette butts in the Castro. Over the course of five weeks we worked with the city government's initiative, Fix It Labs, to learn skills about prototyping and went into the field to apply what we’ve learned.

This document gives you

  • A definition of the different stages as outlined by the Institute of Design at Stanford (empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test)
  • A reminder-toolbox-video with the most important skills
  • Our experiences with those tools in practice
  • A reflection video with secret tips about their application



The empathize mode is the foundation of a human-centered design process. It includes observing the behavior of the user, engaging with the user, and immersing in their environment.

Observations and Empathy Map

Our first set of observations was about the amount of and type of litter. One of us looked on the ground and counted the litter while the other looked around to watch the environment, buildings, and people. For our second set of observations we interviewed people on the streets. The target groups were litterers (throwing trash on the ground) and non-litterers (using the trashcan). To distinguish the two, we stood close to a trashcan, observed the pedestrians, and interviewed them accordingly. To indirectly learn about the user's behaviors, we asked whether they would recommend the neighborhood to people moving to San Francisco, rather than directly asking about their behavior with litter. We used an empathy map to take notes, and distinguished between the objective and interpretive observations.

Because we struggled to find litterers and non-litterers, we also asked bystanders for their observations. Through that we found out that littering next to the 7Eleven store and at night were strong concerns. However, it is really important to take these observations very critically, since many residents have misconceptions about where trash comes from. Instead of defeating a stereotype with observations, it could be reinforced through biased interviews.


This stage is about thinking through what the observations mean and finding a more targeted area to focus on. This is accomplished through a synthesis process of sharing learnings, finding themes, forming insights, creating "how might we?" questions, and brainstorming ideas.

Personas and How Might We

This stage is a five step synthesis process: sharing learnings, finding themes, forming insights, creating how might we questions and brainstorming ideas.

To synthesize our findings, we brainstormed what we have observed most in the field and each wrote on a post it note. We brainstormed individually about our observations before sharing and grouping them together. Three themes emerged: time of day that litter was observed, various type of trash and location of trash. Based on the people we interacted with, we created different personas that represented patterns we found (e.g. construction worker, parent, …)

Later in the week we met up and brainstormed “insights” from these themes. We then developed "how might we?" (HMW) questions that aim to solve the problem and spark ideas for solutions. Check out the table for what we came up with! We decided to focus on decreasing cigarette butt litter, since it was the most interesting and feasible problem to solve.


The ideation part is about coming up with creative solutions and concepts that can solve the problems that you have outlined. Let your creativity flourish - any idea is a good idea no matter how extreme.

Brainstorming and Storyboarding

We decided to pick the HMW question “How might we prevent cigarette butt litter?”, since it was the most interesting and feasible problem. We wrote it on a large sheet of paper and taped it to the wall. We then spent five minutes individually brainstorming solutions, wrote them on post-its and stuck them to the wall underneath the question. Our ideas ranged from ad campaigns to flying robots that shame litterers. Rather than criticizing, we added to ideas by using “yes, and…” statements (or post-its).

We grouped the ideas into clusters of similar ideas such as ashtray design, raising awareness, and legal rules. After a brief discussion, we voted on the ideas that we believed were the best with regards to innovation and impact. The winners were a cigarette disposal container that lid up at night and a voting box.

The storyboards explained why and how the interaction between user and product happens. Our storyboard featured a woman who smokes and does not have anywhere to throw her cigarette butt. Our solution was an ashtray where you can vote with your cigarette butt on questions that engage the user, such as “Are you trying to quit smoking?” We decided on this idea because it was the most feasible, engaging, and practical.

At this stage, a second ‘inner’ design process can be identified - a user centered design (UCD) process of designing the ashtray. The ashtray is the solution to the problem of the bigger design process: how to decrease the amount of cigarette butts.


This mode is all about making physical forms of the ideas from the ideation mode. This is an iterative part in which we validate ideas, but also learn more about the user and refine solutions. The more interactive the prototypes are, the better. As through observing people’s experience we the prototype, you can gain more empathy with them, and make the product even better.


Throughout our human centered design process, we created several prototypes. The first ones were the storyboards we created for our personas. Through those imaginary scenarios, we were able to get a sense of the interaction between the personas and our proposed solution.

The second prototype was a document testing different messages for the ashtray box. We narrowed down our six initial ideas to four images that we presented to the participants (see below). We first showed them a storyboard to establish the context, and then asked them to rate the four images for effectiveness.

The third prototype was the design for the ashtray itself. For our implementation, we took into consideration the location, time, and design of the trashcan. Unfortunately, the prototype was not approved for testing in the field due to legal restrictions. Thus, we only tested the different messages the ashtray should have.


This stage is about testing the solutions on a larger scale - this requires further refining the most successful solutions and continuing to learn about users. This step is important as it allows you to test the chosen solution before investing more time, money, and effort.

In our case, it is hard to distinguish between the prototyping and testing mode. We could not test the “outer” process of our intervention, the cigarette trashcan, due to legal reasons, but decided to test one aspect of the “inner” design process, the design of the ashtray itself. The design aspect we decided to test was the message on the trashcan.

Our initial plan was to build a prototype that is a box-shaped receptacle, specifically intended to dispose cigarette butt litter, with a message (image and text) printed on its outside, to bring attention to its function and purpose. We intended to attach it to a lamppost poles around waist height. The prototype’s purpose was to explore whether additional “trash cans” specific to tobacco can help alleviate and decrease the quantity of cigarette butts thrown onto the streets.

We faced a lot of constraints. For the intervention itself we needed to be physically present and supervise it, it had to be temporary, and we had to get an approval from the mayor’s office before implementation. For the design of the product, we were restricted in our choice by the San Francisco Health Code that does not allow smoking within 15 feet of an entrance or an open window and the California Labor Code that does not allow ashtrays in those locations. Those constraints created many interesting challenges for us as a team and as designers. We wanted to assess the effectiveness of the intervention without being able to conduct the intervention itself. Thus, we chose to test the effectiveness of our different message designs instead, since this was the most important aspect for us given our constraints.

We presented smokers with a storyboard to establish the context of the intervention, and then asked them to rank our four best designs of the trashcan. The messages were a fish with cigarette butts appealing to shock, a message recalling percentages of tobacco waste appealing to facts, a Castro flag appealing to pride and a voting question that focused on engagement.

Our results from testing the messages with smokers showed that the most effective message was the ‘shocking’ image of a fish with cigarette butts. In terms of emotional persuasion this was not surprising, since the disgust can bring attention. However, it did cause us to question the aesthetics and what is appropriate to incorporate into a mostly residential environment, which could add another layer of constraints.

Overall, we were restricted in testing the actual trashcan prototype in the field, but tested the different messages to learn from our users about future implementations.



The group project was quite a learning process, not only in learning to implement design-thinking, but also in working with the city government and especially working as a team.

We had to learn to address issues, such as being late, constructively by having honest conversations about everyone’s expectations. We had to set goals for the coming week based on an open communication of capacities of time and energy. We were by no means successful every week, but we accepted and addressed tensions and improved our communication over time.

In the beginning, we developed a system of rotating the “leader” of the week as a way to distribute responsibilities for setting meeting times, dividing up tasks, and making sure the work was completed for the following week. Theoretically, this seems like a successful approach to holding each other accountable. Practically, it was difficult to follow through with. We started off strongly, but soon forgot about the original team structure. We could have been much more successful and efficient if we had followed through with the plan.

An obvious, but often overlooked aspect of teamwork is the importance of building relationships with your team members. It makes you understand and appreciate the differences in your team and is the basis for open and honest communication. That can be really difficult in the beginning without structure or knowing each other well. Thus, we highly recommend allowing for non-work related quality time. We had a Master’s student from the Art Institute joining our group, Daniel, and made a conscious effort to get to know him better. We had team dinners and allowed time to talk about personal aspects of our lives.


Anna, Daniel, Yasmin, Sherington, and Hana



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Created with images by ctvgs - "garbage can bench door"

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