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Ramen Straws

Akshay Kothari didn’t think of himself as a designer until he spent some time understanding how people live their lives, reports Nicole Perlroth in The New York Times (12/30/13). In the past, "he spent most of his time in front of a computer, brainstorming ideas for websites and mobile apps that never materialized. Design was an afterthought." "If you needed to crunch some numbers, I was your guy," he says. Then, as an engineering graduate student at Stanford, he took a course at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (aka the D.school) that required him "to rethink how people eat ramen noodles."

This meant spending "hours at local ramen shops watching and talking to patrons as they inevitably spilled broth and noodles." With his fellow students, "he built a prototype for a fat straw that would let patrons have their ramen and drink it, too." The experience led to him to ask people in coffee shops what "they might need. One common frustration people had was the constant fire hose of news they were getting from a wide variety of sources." So, he and a partner designed Pulse, an app that lets users customize their news feeds. Last April, LinkedIn bought Pulse for $90 million.

Akshay credits D.school: "I had to use a side of my brain I had never leveraged," he says. D.school founder David Kelley says the idea is to build "creative confidence" by building one’s "empathy muscle." The goal "is to give students … the tools to change lives … to create, tinker, and relentlessly test possible solutions on their users … until they come up with solutions that people will actually use." The key is to start small, and "move toward bigger, seemingly intractable problems." David says the process is not unlike learning to play the piano.