Think back to when you were ten. Did you know what you wanted to be when you grew up? At that age, I don’t remember giving a future career or role much thought. However, I now know my childhood experiences influenced what I do for paid work; the unconscious biases that shape career choice start very early indeed, much earlier than ten.

It’s not just about you

Career choice has enormous implications not just for individuals, but for our entire country’s future well being and prosperity. Our future workforce is a major driver for an innovative and successful Australia. As a result, there’s a lot of focus on how to guide our young people into the future world of work fully equipped with the right resources.

Unpacking the complexity around how people gain skills and choose jobs is filled with nuances around equality and diversity. And when we look at how we are doing, turns out our education system is already struggling to adapt and deliver the high quality education needed to build, shape and sustain a future workforce that is likely to experience five career changes and 17 jobs throughout a working life. We do know that more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) skills are needed to drive innovation forward to make Australia’s future brighter. And we also know that we can’t just make it all about our education system, this is a challenge that affects all of us.

Creating future problem solvers

So when we were approached to put on a design thinking hack day at the DiUS Sydney office for a group of Year 5 and Year 6 students from St Finbar’s Catholic Primary School and Hampden Park Public School, we jumped at the chance.


Image: The future design thinkers at the DiUS Sydney office

Firstly, we believe, that more STEM skills is not a complete solution, and rather than focusing on careers, our new world order is going to need multi-disciplinary teams of problem-solvers. We know design thinking helps to develop creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and communication; important skills in how to break a problem down into its component pieces to help solve it. It also develops empathy, crucial for developing solutions that actually meet users needs and more holistically, is important for the types of complex challenges that young Australians will need to solve.

Secondly, putting on the hack day embodies some of the values we champion at DiUS: spread change, always be growing and to move humanity forward.

And thirdly, we were just so excited that a group of primary kids were being taught design thinking. How awesome is that?

Redesigning the playground experience for primary school

The kids had already learnt some design thinking and problem solving principles at school so the request from Zeina Chalich, the Leader of Learning and Innovation at St Finbar’s, was to bring it all together by applying design thinking to a real-world problem.

The Hack Day would walk the group of 16 students and five teachers through the DiUS’ design thinking process and apply it to the challenge ‘How might we redesign the playground experience for primary school?’ to create learnings for students and teachers to take back to school with them.

Leading the charge was our Principal UX Consultant, Sol Pandiella-Mcleod, supported by three DiUS facilitators (including me). We only had from 9.30am to 4.00pm to get through a very packed agenda and I have to admit we were a little nervous about whether or not the kids would enjoy the hack day. Would they think it was boring? Were we trying to do too much?


Image: DiUS, like many other technology companies, uses design thinking as a human-centered, collaborative approach to develop the most valuable solutions for our clients and their users. This is the design thinking process we use.

After an icebreaker exercise involving M&M’s (always a winner) a quick introduction and an overview of the DiUS design thinking process, we dived right into some brainstorming warm-up exercises: think of as many uses for a paper clip as you can in one minute, then for a lego brick in one minute and then for a 10c coin in one minute; then we tried to draw as many pictures as we could on a sheet of A5 paper covered in empty circles.

Learn: investigating everything you can about the problem you need to solve; the environment, the business, the competitors and most importantly the users.

All warmed up, we spent about 30 minutes discussing how the playground is used at their schools: who used it and how did they use it, when did they use it? This provided the group with a shared understanding to help come up with some great ideas to address the challenge.

Empathise: getting to really know your users by finding out what matters to them and what frustrates them.

As a group, the kids worked together to identify all the different personas that used the playground. We named them and put them up on the wall.


Image: Identifying all the users of the school playground

Then the kids got into pairs to complete out a persona template, filling out information that would allow them to really get to know their users by putting themselves in their shoes: describing a scenario, detailing important information about their needs and wants, frustrations and pain points. Each pair selected a different persona and we ended up with a whole wall filled with all the different users.


Image: Working together

Explore: coming up with as many ideas as possible.

We took a quick break for lunch at Circular Quay and then moved on to some divergent thinking, brainstorming ideas for improving the playground experience. We got the kids to do this individually, writing each idea on a post-it and then stand up, share their ideas with everyone and put their post-its on the wall, grouped into:

  • Now: ideas that could easily be implemented right now
  • How: ideas that would take a bit of time, money or resources
  • Wow: out there ideas that would need a lot of planning.

I was amazed at just how many ideas they came up with. Look at that wall!


Image: Ideas, ideas, ideas

Focus: honing in on the ideas that you think will work best.

The kids got into groups of four and looked at the ideas on the wall to pick the one they wanted to work on. The aim was to focus on the ideas/idea that best suited the user they wanted to target and design for, convergent thinking.

Design: start building the solution.

Next, each group brought their idea to life through creating a prototype so they could envisage how the idea would look and work, and to give them something to test with users. The group was given a whole bunch of materials and had the choice of doing a drawing, a story map or diorama to present to everyone at the end of the hack day.

My group chose creating a makerspace as an extension to the playground for the whole school to use. They created a model and figured out how it would be used by each age group in the school, and potentially for after school and community activities. While they were making the prototype, they also planned out what they were going to say at the showcase. The other groups focused on similarly ambitious big ideas: an aquarium, a sports field/aquarium, and a movable bench maze.


Image: Prototyping the aquarium.

Validate: test your ideas on the users that you’re targeting

It’s important to get real life feedback from the users, the people that will actually be using the solution that’s been ideated. So, the teams were going to take their prototypes back to school, and interview the target users to find out what they thought: what did they like, not like, what could be improved. Then they were going to take this learning back to the classroom and iterate on the designs using this ‘real’ user feedback.

So, did they enjoy the day?

They did! They learnt a lot. But I think we got as much out of it as they did. It was such an inspiring experience for me and the other DiUS facilitators. The group of kids was so smart, engaged and collaborative. They didn’t struggle at all with any aspect of the day. All the groups gave a great showcase presentation and fielded questions from the audience with aplomb. We’re so pleased that the teachers are planning to take the problem-solving approach back to the school and use it in the future.


Image: Showcasing the solutions, the teams with their facilitators.

And what does ping pong in the workplace have to do with anything?

Throughout the day I was struck at how fascinated the kids were with our workplace and what we actually do. We’re not a start-up, so we don’t have ‘all the things’; but we do have a ping pong table (that gets a very heavy workout), a library, a lot of games and tech gadgets and a fridge full of snacks and drinks. We heard lots of comments throughout the day, including ‘What kind of workplace has a ping pong table?’. We did explain that this was de rigueur for a technology company these days but they seemed to think that this was the coolest place to work ever.

They were also amazed to see people coding in real life. Coding was something they’d explored and thought was fun but seeing someone actually doing it all day, and being allowed to listen to music via headphones at the same time, provided a little glimpse into what it actually looks like to work at a software development company.

For me, this underscored how important real-world experiences can be to help broaden the idea of what work is actually like. It’s important for our industry to lend some support through workplace experiences to help shape and influence more of our young people to gain those much needed STEM skills. It also helped to inform how DiUS might support the growth of our future Australians — watch this space.