Design Thinking with Pixel Press

M.M. observes S.J. playtest her Pixel Press Level, and notes feedback.

M.M. observes S.J. playtest her Pixel Press Level and notes feedback.

In our Makerspace Design Class we have been collaborating closely with professional app developers from a St. Louis-based startup, Pixel Press.  Students have been utilizing the design thinking framework to create a game level using the soon-to-be-released Pixel Press app.  The Pixel Press app makes level design seamless.  Students draw a level on graph paper, capture the drawing using an iPad camera, and then use the Pixel Press app to edit, test, and stylize.  It’s extremely cool, and we’re so fortunate that Pixel Press is being developed in St. Louis.

The Pixel Press team has been wonderful, volunteering their time on multiple occasions to visit the Makerspace, participate in interviews by students, give feedback on level designs, and help students through the capture & testing process.

Like all projects in Makerspace Design Class, our Pixel Press Project is rooted in “Design Thinking” a user-centric approach to innovation made popular by IDEO and the Stanford d.SchoolThis 8-minute Nightline feature does a wonderful job summarizing design thinking through the innovation of shopping carts.  This December 2013 New York Times article is also worth a read.

Students document project progress in their class tomes.  For each portion of the project, students glue a “sticker” into their tome and then write the observations, notes, brainstorms, or reflections that are associated with that part.  It’s a project logbook system adapted from the Stanford d.School’s Ramen Project.

The Design Thinking Approach - credit: Stanford d.School

The Design Thinking Approach – credit: Stanford d.School

The steps to our project and how they connect to design thinking are below:

Empathize:  If students are able to put themselves in the shoes of their users (level players) then they will be able to design better game levels.  Students started the Pixel Press project by identifying important people involved video games, writing questions to ask, and then interviewing them.  Video gamers Danielle, Jason, and Tyler visited the Makerspace to be interviewed about their favorite games, challenging levels, and frustrations.  Then students interviewed the Pixel Press team about design techniques, prototyping, and testing. Students also observed and made notes of popular game levels (Mario, Sonic, Flappy Bird) while being played.

Interviewing gaming expert J.F. for the Pixel Press project.

Class interview of Jason – gaming expert

Define:  Students summarized what they learned from the interviews and observations and defined the design challenge.  They used the sentence starter:

“Based on what I’ve learned about the needs of my users, I need to design a level that _____________.”

This sentence becomes the “Mission Statement” of the design process, and is referenced throughout the project.

Ideate:  With a clearly defined challenge, students brainstormed level obstacles.  Josh from Pixel Press whipped up paper similar to the Pixel Press grid, but without the grid lines.  This helped to promote quantity of ideas versus quality, knowing that sometimes it’s the “crazy” ideas that can be nurtured into the best ones.  Whereas on the Pixel Press grid paper it’s important to have straight lines and use symbols that the app will recognize, during our ideation phase students focused on the concepts of obstacles rather than drawing precisely.

This is his favorite place to brainstorm Pixel Press obstacle ideas.

This is his favorite place to brainstorm Pixel Press obstacle ideas.

Embedded in the ideation phase was also a segment of user feedback. After students brainstormed level obstacles, they documented feedback from each other and the Pixel Press team.

“This obstacle would be more fun if. . .”

“This obstacle would be more fun if. . .”

Prototype:  After brainstorming 10-20 level obstacle ideas that align to their defined challenges, students began work on level prototypes.  Using the feedback from the ideation phase, they tweaked obstacle designs and then drew them on the official Pixel Press level design paper.  Since the time it takes to draw a level varies widely among students, this was completed for homework.

One student said, “Usually I don’t like to do homework, but now I can’t wait to do it!”

Test:  With prototypes complete, students captured their levels, made edits, noted feedback from play testers, and iterated the design accordingly.  The next step is to publish levels to the Pixel Press community when it launches with the app in April!

Special thanks to Robin, Josh, Katie, Brad, Daniel, and John from the Pixel Press team for collaborating with our students through this project!  As students have worked on their level designs, it’s been wonderful having app developers in the Makerspace who use a shared vocabulary and can empathize with struggles and joys of the design process.

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2 thoughts on “Design Thinking with Pixel Press

  1. Andrew, this is great! I really like how you are teaching the design process and Pixel Press is an ideal platform for teaching those concepts. Keep up the great work!

  2. Pingback: Partnership with Pixel Press featured on St. Louis Public Radio! | The GCAA Makerspace

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