Colin Coltrera '08

Human Centered Design and Engineering Consultant

Human Centered Design and Engineering (HCDE) is an evolving field that focuses on understanding human needs and interests and applying that knowledge to engineer solutions to the world’s problems.

Until recently, the whole concept of human-centered design was anchored in Silicon Valley, driving innovative design of apps and computer programs. Now there is a movement to take the concept “beyond the device” and use it to help companies and industries work more effectively in human-centered ways.

“My work is to coach supervisors and executives in social science skills so they can see the larger picture and tackle problems with larger solutions,” explains Colin Coltrera ’08, who coaches several companies in human-centered design principles. Colin holds a master’s in Learning, Design, and Technology from Stanford University, and until recently, worked as a principal designer at People Rocket, a design management firm in San Francisco.

Teasing Out Stories

Colin guides people in using ethnographic methods to uncover the problems of work within their organizations. Then, he helps them address the problems in sustainable and human-centered ways with an equity lens and a focus on sharing knowledge. For many companies, this is a radically different way to solve problems.

“A common practice is to get a bunch of experts into a room to solve problems from their set of expertise. But sometimes people have needs that cannot be solved from the expert’s eye,” says Colin.

For example, at People Rocket, Colin worked with a large restaurant organization to re-examine their supply chain. The organization had senior directors and VPs who had expertise in supply chain, but no experience as a truck driver or back-of-restaurant employee in charge of tracking supplies.

“The first thing we did was help the senior directors go to all those people on the supply chain and tease out the individual stories of what was happening on the ground. We asked, what’s not working? What are you doing to make it work? What are your pain points?” recounts Colin. “Then we took that data and put it on the wall.”
According to Colin, the senior directors were flummoxed. “They said, ‘What are you talking about, we have systems in place.’ But it turns out those systems were not serving the people on the ground.”

Learning from Others

In Human Centered Design practice, an essential design ability is to learn from other people, and especially from people in other disciplines.

After graduating with his master’s from Stanford, Colin lectured at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design in Stanford’s School of Engineering. His class did not have engineers or designers, but doctors, lawyers, business people, educators, and journalism students. “The objective was to help them see their own areas of expertise from a different angle,” says Colin. “For example: How can a doctor learn from a journalist, and apply how a journalist learns and explores to how she works with her patients?”

From Linguistics to Systems Thinking

At first glance, it doesn’t appear Colin was destined to work in the technology and engineering field. In college at New York University, he studied linguistics, with a focus on semiotics (signs and symbol systems). After graduating with a B.A. in Linguistics, Colin went on get an ESL Teaching Certification from the Teachers College at Columbia University.

While at NYU, Colin did an internship in Japan, teaching kindergarten students English as a second language. When he returned to New York he volunteered at The Door in Soho, teaching in the language program for recent immigrants and teens. He designed a program to integrate the English they were learning with life outside the classroom. “Most were working in the (so-called) ‘informal’ economy,” says Colin. “So we, my co-teacher and I, taught them through entrepreneurial skills.”

Once he obtained his teaching certificate from the Teachers College, Colin co-founded a not-for-profit called Taxi to Tomorrow. It was a program that linked up ESL students at public high schools with university students who were learning second languages. “It positioned the teens as experts—they already spoke their own languages fluently,” points out Colin.
Next, Colin went to India and set up an English language curriculum for Tibetan Buddhist monks. He lived in the monastery for a year and developed a curriculum and set of classes that could accommodate the monk’s unique needs, including the fact that they only had a certain number of hours a day they could study.

Learning About Learning

All of these experiences led Colin to realize that his passionate interest lay not so much in linguistics and teaching ESL but in learning about learning. Thus, his decision to pursue his graduate work at Stanford, a program hosted primarily in the School of Education and centered on how people learn, both individually and in groups.

In 2016, Colin left the Bay Area and moved back to Seattle, though he continued to work remotely with People Rocket until 2019. “I did it for love,” he says, sharing that in August 2019 he married his husband Garrett Dieckmann, a software engineer. Colin is now consulting with other clients in the Bay Area.

Upon reflection, Colin says the seeds of his interest in the science of learning and in systems thinking began at The Northwest School.
“Mark Terry’s Primate Biology class was really powerful for me. It centered us students as people who were not just capable of learning, but also contributing to a body of knowledge,” recalls Colin. “And the Humanities program, the way it connected literature, history, and art, made me understand how these larger systems are all ultimately rooted in individual experience.”

According to Colin, he and his Northwest School classmates came to know themselves as actors in a social and political world.

This profile originally appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of The Northwest School Magazine.