Raising Places design teams have come a long way in their process to build healthier communities for children and families! They have conducted design research by learning from community members. They’ve synthesized their findings into broader themes that highlight patterns across challenges as well as assets. And after brainstorming with their team members, they have landed on concepts and created visual prototypes. Next, these concepts gain legs by running as pilot projects.

What is a pilot?

A pilot is the first test-drive of an idea -- with real people, in real time, and in a real context. Piloting is the phase where designers actualize and launch an idea off the table and out into the real world, in order to see how it works.

Before piloting, designers take written or sketched ideas and create prototypes, or mock-ups of an element of the idea. They then present these to others for feedback on the idea’s desirability. Prototyping feedback can help designers learn how interested users are in this idea, how closely it aligns to their needs and experiences, and most importantly, why or why not.

“Prototypes are just real enough to get feedback. Pilots try to come as close as possible to the real experience.” – Annemarie Spitz, Design Research Lead, Greater Good Studio

Once a concept has garnered enough initial interest through prototyping, it’s time to pilot. During pilot testing, an idea becomes fully functional, just on a smaller scale than the full vision. By gathering data on the behaviors of users during the pilot, designers learn more about the desirability of a concept as well as its feasibility. How well does this concept work? For it to work better, what needs to change and how? While piloting, the designers may even choose whether or not to tell the users that this is a pilot, depending upon what kind of data they want to gather.

Across Raising Places, the six communities are piloting a total of 60 concepts. One of those concepts is a hunger coalition in North Wilkesboro, NC, which would coordinate efforts on nutrition, health and food access across the town. The small group designing this concept has just begun their hunger coalition pilot by hosting its first meeting on March 28, 2018. It was a well-attended session, with 32 people from local food organizations including a farmer, housing director, senator, churchgoers and members of food service groups. At the coalition meeting, attendees shared personal stories, discussed food insecurity trends and shared their visions for the months and years ahead.

What do designers need in order to pilot concepts?

To launch their pilots, Raising Places design teams first developed pilot plans to identity some key information to get started on bringing their concepts to life. In a pilot plan, designers decide what the pilot is, when and where it is happening, who’s involved (including new partners) and what roles people will play. With the North Wilkesboro food group, a key component of their pilot plan was to develop leadership roles to ensure that the work of the hunger coalition was well-coordinated, efficient and sustainable.

The pilot plan for the North Wilkesboro design team's hunger coalition.

When planning pilots, designers determine which materials will need to be used to approximate the experience of the concept. It’s important to determine access to materials – for example, might design team members have construction materials lying around, can someone donate a meeting space, and how much will printing cost? Each Raising Places design team had access to a piloting budget in order to purchase needed supplies.

And of course, designers need a feedback plan to capture data from their pilot testing. This is where it’s crucial to identify what information is important to observe, track or survey during the pilot. Even further, how will this data be gathered during or after the pilot? Measuring the success of a pilot truly depends upon the concept itself and which indicators show that users have had a positive experience or exhibited the desired behavioral change.

In North Wilkesboro, perhaps the hunger coalition measures how many low-income residents receive direct support from their projects, or how much money families have saved, on average, from having their food costs offset by accessing nutritional food through the coalition’s services. During their piloting period, this group can survey users to learn how to best meet their needs and how to tailor projects to simplify nutritional food access in their town.  

By starting their pilot with a hunger coalition meeting, the North Wilkesboro food group has created a low-risk space to ease into the implementation of projects that require intentionality to improve the health of residents. Designers can learn and adjust concept features, but with lower stakes than a full implementation. Through pilot testing an idea, Raising Places design team members develop a proof of concept for an idea – they show it works! Most importantly, they continue testing how it works and how it can work better to improve their chances of success.