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Solving Problems with Design Thinking

Recently, Janine and I had the privilege of attending a Design Thinking taster facilitated by Better by Design*. 
What resulted was a flurry of scribbles, 90 minutes of fun collaboration and the birth of some pretty cool ideas ...

What is design thinking?

Before we start our adventure it’s important to first clarify the term design thinking. The word thinking is something generally understood. It’s a process we all enter into; our brains are inherently wired to ponder the present, wander retrospectively or imagine the future. It's also associated with intelligence, judgement and consideration. The word design on the other hand is slightly more complex. Almost immediately it conjures up visual associations, linked to the world of graphics, product manufacturing, fashion or interiors. But this isn’t exactly right; it’s actually a process too.

Design-led thinking is a more complex, collaborative and integrated approach to producing the very best products and services with a meaningful point of difference.

Better by Design

It’s when these two processes are combined that we have something much more powerful in play.

Better by Design go on to describe that “Design does not just mean the aesthetic - a finishing touch to make something look better. It's about design-led thinking - a more complex, collaborative and integrated approach to producing the very best products and services with a meaningful point of difference. Design thinking starts with your customer, and using breakthrough tools and methods allows you not only to empathise with them, but anticipate their latent needs.”

So design thinking is about solving problems, through the use of frameworks, to help us ask the right questions, and find out needs over wants.

A misguided myth

There is a stereotype attached to creativity, design and creative thinking. A stereotype that states only a selected few in specific industries can think creatively. This label was reinforced throughout the ages with artists and philosophers and is now reinforced by the way we title our jobs and segment our professions. But I can unequivocally and fundamentally exclaim that this is absolutely not true. We are all creative.

If you look below the surface and push aside the excuses you can see that we’re solving problems all the time. This doesn’t always manifest itself in the physical; just the act of imagining how something can be improved is the rawest example of creative thinking. You only need to cast your mind back to your childhood and remember the crazy things you used to make. Creativity is basic human nature 101 and the melon between our ears is actually very good at it.

So now we have that sorted, let’s get to the session.

Failing can be fun

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Idea's don't have to be pretty, just fast.

Gathering in a local park for a little game of “it’s ok to fail” was a great way to kick the workshop off. Apart from feeling a little publicly self-conscious, the simple exercise of embracing the fail set out to lower our self-imposed fears and framed something that we were going to need to fully embrace for the next part of our exercise - supportive collaboration.

After splitting into pairs and meeting our trainers we embarked on a fast paced exercise that put us under pressure, stretched our minds and got our hands, quite literally, dirty. Using a gift giving theme and a framework* from the Hasso Plattner, Institute of Design at Stanford, we embarked on finding out how the gift giving experience could be improved for ourselves and our partner. Empathy and iteration were reinforced to us with the over-arching insight “it may be obvious what they want, but what really matters is to discover what they need”.

A few things we learned:

  • It’s extremely important to ask the right questions upfront.
  • Feeling empathy for your interviewee will enable you to think differently and remove any bias.
  • Get ideas downs quickly, no matter how silly you think they are.
  • Making quick prototypes is a great way to test ideas and also a truckload of fun.
  • Don’t be afraid to present ideas. Remember vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity, thank you Brené Brown.
  • Environment is an important part of being creative.
  • Talking through ideas and face to face discovery is the best way of understanding what users need vs what they say they want.
  • It’s ok to fail… embrace it and enjoy the experience.

* The particular framework used in this workshop focused participants on five specific stages – Empathise, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test. 

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Rapid prototyping can reveal important learnings quickly.


A little bit of design thinking goes a long way

My job, like many others, is to think creatively all day. To solve complex and simple business problems in a single bound and respond to the ever changing demands of the almighty user.

But like any type of machine, to be extremely effective at what you do you need to keep your tools well-oiled, sharp and cognisant of new ways to get results.

Being open to new ways of thinking is one of the most gratifying experiences one can be gifted so I can emphatically say that our sharpie-induced craft session surpassed all our expectations and fired us up with a new tool for creative idea generation and collaboration.

Let the fun begin!


*Better by Design is a service within New Zealand Trade and Enterprise. Their purpose is to inspire and enable New Zealand businesses to succeed by design.