Design is a pursuit that requires you to be very methodical, logical and smart. You must be able to spot patterns that are not obvious, see things from many different perspectives and bring together seemingly disparate ideas. There is a need for great attention to detail as well as having the ability to abstract something down to its raw components, and being able to sense how it fits into a wider ecosystem.
That beautiful object, interface, gadget, or tool is highly practical as well. You enjoy touching it, you enjoy using it, you enjoy looking at it and having it in your life. It enhances your day, and makes you react emotionally. You love it. It solves a problem, and delights you at the same time. In fact, thinking about it now, it just seems like an obvious solution and you really can't imagine life without it. Someone however did have to sweat the details and work on many many prototypes before you even knew it existed. Why didn't you think of it?
This is where "Design Thinking" fits in. It is a method that allows you to deconstruct a problem, view it from all possible angles, and then craft a solution for it. It is a highly potent recipe for innovation, bringing together people from varied areas of expertise an intellectual and cultural persuasions, to solve a wicked hard problem together. Design Thinking can be applied to any sort of problem from running a hospital to evolving a product and anything beyond and in between. It applies the way that designers think about problems to just about anything.
Design is not a beauty parlour. It is not where you go to pretty things up. It's where you go when you have problems to solve.
Design Thinking is a user-centered process for innovation based essentially around observation, collaboration between individuals from different disciplines and user group, rapid learning, focus on visualising ideas through prototypes, business analysis and strategy. When I mention "innovation" I don't mean having a lot of ideas, I mean actually making good ideas a reality. Innovation requires action or else they're just ideas. Design Thinking in my mind should be applied to all software development pursuits and can easily integrated with Agile and Lean methodologies. To some extent there's quite a bit of overlap. Using Design Thinking in your software teams will help you get the results you're looking for from a product perspective.
User-centered design is not design by committee
You must develop a deep understanding of your user-base. You must develop empathy for your users, and determine what the best way is to gain insights into unarticulated needs. You need to gain the experience, knowledge and ability to frame the real problem.
Many people mention Henry Ford who reportedly said that "If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses". There's no evidence that he actually said that, but it is clear that he believed it. Ford made the T-model in black only, and dominated the market for nearly 20 years. Ford's mistake was to stop innovating, and to refuse to understand what the market wanted. Harley Earl was GM motors head of Colour and Trim from 1927 to 1959. He not only introduced the idea of the clay prototype (still used to this day), but carried out user centered design by understanding what Americans wanted from their cars. This led to the strategy "A car for every purse and purpose". GM made 5 distinct brands from the Chevy to the Cadillac, and dominated the market. Ford was forced to shut down and re-tool his factories. (You can read more about Henry Ford and the "faster horse" thing on HBR)
This story is sadly still repeated in many industries and companies today, from Kodak to sony and beyond. If you fail to balance your portfolio, failure is a high likelihood.
Companies like Patagonia for example, have continuously innovated and listened to their customers to ensure they were responding to their needs and growing in the right direction as a company. Listening to users does not mean that you should act on every demand, but rather that you get good at sorting the wheat from the chaff, and making well balanced design, business and technical decisions. This is not easy to do, and there are a lot of great tools and techniques to help you get it right. This is the discipline of user-centered design, and it sits at the heart of Design Thinking. It overlaps a great deal with sociology and anthropology. We use ethnographic methods where we seek to understand people by observing, listening, discussing and through open-minded collaboration. If you think you already know what your end-user wants...you're starting to sound a lot like Henry Ford.
Take the time to do it properly and you will be leagues ahead of where you hoped you;d be. Do it wrong and it will cost you dearly as Target found out. They asked consumers in a survey whether they would prefer the aisles to be less cluttered. That was a 1.85 billion dollar mistake. Surveys have their place and this was not one of them. Asking leading questions will also never get you good results. User-centered design is a science, and if you want to do this yourself, then you need to learn how it's done. Learn from the mistakes of others first. Here's a quick overview on surveying to get you started.
The Method in a nutshell: Think - Make - Check
This very same cycle is being seen all over the "Lean" software methodology at the moment. It has been around for at least 50 years, and is finally being popularised and applied to all sorts of different industries by companies like IDEO, who drive large scale innovation in almost every industry that touches our lives.
During the "Think" stage you should be ideating, encouraging a lot of blue sky thinking, introducing yourself to the box so that you can think outside of it, and imagining all of the possibilities. It is a time to think big and broad. Invite specialists from different areas of expertise and give them a voice. Invite end-users to your workshops and brainstorms. Get all of the ideas on the table and then converge towards a few key directions that work from a business, design, and technical perspective for you and your market.
Tip: Include users by interviewing them, observing them using your current product or a competitor's product, visiting them in their environment.
It's time to think with your hands. Make some rapid prototypes of the directions that have emerged from your "Think" phase and try them on for size. A prototype can be anything from a role-play (like the Google checkout one for example), to sketches, 3D models made out of cardboard and tape or a user journey draw on post-it notes. Made sure that you only do enough to learn what you ned to. Once you have learned that, it's time to move along and throw this prototype away. You'll be iterating on it many times before you get to your end product. When I say this I don't mean that it is going to take a long time, I mean that in a week or even a day you can make many iterations on a single prototype. Don't get attached to anything, stay open-minded.
Tip: Include users by getting them to participate in collaborative design sessions. Invite them to show you what they are thinking by drawing, role-playing, acting out and modelling.
Check that your ideas so far are actually in line with what end-users need and want from your product. You can test with humans (anyone who is human) to test if basic interactions and flows are going to work. You should test with end-users and gradually more and more specific user groups, the more you have evolved your prototype. This is a time for stopping a direction dad in its tracks, adapting it to be something else more useful, or giving it the OK. Remember that you may still decide to not go ahead in future, so keep it as rough as you need,and don't waste time on cosmetics and documentation. The documentation is the learning. It is the prototype.
Tip: Include users by getting them to evaluate your prototype, but also by inviting them to tell you what they would change if they were in your shoes, and why.
Rinse and repeat:
You will go back through Think-Make-Check many more times, however many times you need to be comfortable with the result. The early Think-Make-Check cycles are gross and the later ones subtle. The key here is learn quickly whether an idea has legs and what is needed to make it a reality if it does. Learn by making it. Don't waste your time on long meetings where you endlessly discuss the same small details or where groups disagree and theorise over things. Put every to the test. Get people making rather than talking. Call out facts and assumptions. Check the assumptions. Make informed decisions.
A few tips to put it in place:
You don't need a lot of time or effort up-front to get Design Thinking working for you. You just need to do it.
- Start by getting the people you need together, being mindful to include people who view things from different perspectives
- Timeboxing all of your workshops together and keeping the focus and momentum rolling will help you greatly
- Make sure everyone is heard by using different facilitation techniques
- Don't shut down ideas, build on them. Encourage groups to say "Yes, and..." rather than "No, but..."
- Don't allow any "Devils advocates" to exist in your groups, encourage people to speak for themselves. As Tom Kelley says "Devil's advocates can go to hell". It's too easy to shut ideas down and hide behind the devil.
- Having direct responsibility for your thoughts and ideas in a safe environment where failure is ok, will speed things up
- Prototype all the time. Every time we fail, we learn something important. When we make a paper prototype that fails, we didn't put a lot of time and money into making it, so we are less attached to it. If you have ever spent months working on something and polishing it only to find it isn't what users want anyway...you will know how painful and costly a lesson that is. You can learn those things in a matter of days at little cost. Focus on learning quickly through rapid prototyping
- Don't try to avoid the mess, the failure and the chaos that can sometimes ensue - keep moving towards a solution do not lose momentum. Those spaces of high emotion are where creativity lives.
Some useful resources:
"Change by Design" - Tim Brown (book)
"Design Thinking" - Thomas Lockwood (book)
"The art of Innovation" - Tom Peters (book)
"The 10 faces of innovation" - Tom Kelley (book)
D-School Standford - Stanford school of design (website / course)
Tim Brown on Design Thinking - HBR (pdf)
Design Thinking - The movie