When I was just starting out as an industrial designer, I can remember rolling my eyes when I heard some prominent designer or design agency talking about how designers were going to save the world. I thought they were a bit full of themselves (and I still do), but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t some value in what they were saying.
They didn’t have a name for it at the time, but what they were talking about is what we now refer to as design thinking. Design thinking is broad and vaguely defined, and if you ask ten designers what it is you’re likely to get 12 different opinions; but if you examine those various opinions you’ll start to see some themes repeated, reflecting many of the tools that designers use in their process including user-empathy, prototyping as exploration, abductive reasoning, re-framing, and the list goes on. As a starting point, we have identified five tools of design thinking that can be applied in a research context.
- Think systemically. Rather than focus on the immediate problem, look for the larger context. You might come to understand the problem better, and you might see solutions that you wouldn’t have otherwise. Famed engineeer Paul MacCready said, “The problem is that we don’t understand the problem.”
- Be empathetic. It is vitally important to understand the subject from the user’s point of view. While you benefit from seeing the larger context, you don’t want to fall into the trap of seeing the issues through your lens and not the user’s. If you do, you could end up solving the wrong problem. The most useful piece of software in the world provides no value if the user can’t navigate it.
- Linger in ambiguity. Don’t jump to an interpretation or a solution too soon. Allow the question to be ill-defined; allow for multiple possible answers; don’t assume anything. As soon as you think you know the answer, you stop processing new information. Delay that decision point until you have all the data available, and you will make a better decision.
- Maintain a result-oriented focus. Instead of focusing on a solution, focus on the end result you are trying to achieve. Blockbuster focused on improving the video rental experience and did quite well, until Netflix focused on video viewing and eclipsed Blockbuster overnight.
- Reflect and invite feedback. Examine and re-examine your assumptions, your insights, and your solutions. Seek input from a variety of people, knowledge bases, expertise; imagine your solution in a different scenario, with a different user. Re-test not only to verify your answers, but to identify the next questions.
Design is a subtle, intuitive, and non-linear process. It cannot simply be mapped and codified into a repeatable, cookie-cutter method, but the principles underlying it can be emulated and applied to other problems including research design. If we can remember these principles when we are planning, conducting, or analyzing research, we will open up new opportunities, generate more meaningful insights, and create richer feedback.
Perhaps the most important element of design thinking is that—contrary to what those design luminaries would have you believe—it is not restricted to an elite group of people. As Nobel Prize laureate Herbert Simon said, “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones” (Sciences of the Artificial, 3rd ed., 1996). So, while you may not have the training to design the next ground-breaking smartphone or web search algorithm, you can apply the mindset of design thinking to your area of expertise and go a step further, or maybe even leap beyond.
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