Turning philosophy into practice.

“We spend a lot of time designing the bridge, but not enough time thinking about the people who are crossing it.”
– Dr. Prabhjot Singh, Director of Systems Design at the Earth Institute

Over the last ten years, the search term ‘design thinking’ has increased on Google by a huge 2,567%.

Design thinking is a useful and creative way of conceptualising challenges and how to solve them. Using interactive methods, it puts customers at the heart of products, services and innovation.

Design thinking is valuable to the success of any initiative as it creates and demands an understanding of people: their experiences, behaviours, perceptions and needs. Not only is this good business practice, by ensuring products and services satisfy genuine community needs, it also drives sustainable customer-centric growth based on a real world understanding.

What does it look like in practice?

Shrouded in design lingo, it can sometimes be difficult to understand what design thinking actually looks like on the ground. The philosophy is simple, but translating it to practice is harder.

Most methods in design thinking are adapted from human and social research techniques. This means that the best design thinking tricks are simply about learning, looking, asking and testing in ways that really get you into the head of whoever you’re designing for.

Below are some of our favourite methods to gain customer insights using design thinking.

1. Character profiles.

The first step in the co-design process is to learn and empathise with real people. These could be customers, potential customers, staff, advisors to customers – whoever uses or is affected by the use of your service or product.

Character profiles are a useful method to bring this person to life. Based on observations of real people, this involves identifying patterns and insights to help you develop character profiles that represent ‘archetypes’ of different customers. The profiles can include details about the person, their life goals and motivations, their lifestyle, their habits, their preferences, even their style choices.

These profiles bring customer archetypes to life, making it easier to view the world from their position and helping you evaluate what the barriers and opportunities are for them to engage with your product or service.

2. Personal inventory.

What people say and what people do can often be vastly different. That’s because behaviour is largely an unconscious act: imagine if you had to think closely about every action you take to get ready in the morning. It would be exhausting.

Observation methods can help uncover what people do, rather than what they say they do. An interesting way of doing this is to document the things that people identify as important to them. This is a way of cataloguing ‘evidence’ of their lives, revealing the activities they enjoy and the perceptions they have, pointing towards patterns in what they value. The insights gleaned from this evidence can guide innovations and improvements that align with the values of the end user, intimately reflecting what’s most important to them.

As an evocative example, look to Patrick Pound‘s preoccupation with the ordering of objects in his artwork, and how meaning can be gleaned from the arrangement of objects:

“To collect is to gather your thoughts through things.”
– Patrick Pound

3. Narration.

Observation methods can also involve observations from the person themselves. When asked to pay closer attention to their actions, people can often identify issues or discrepancies as they go, raising questions about what influences their behaviour. Narration is a useful tool for this.

Narration involves asking people to describe aloud what they are thinking as they perform a process or execute a specific task. The layer of narration highlights perceptions and tensions that arise during this process or task, uncovering behavioural motivations that may be abstract or difficult to pin down. This task can sometimes even highlight the absurdity of what people think while performing basic tasks, exposing unique ways that products or services can enhance or disable unconscious behaviour.

As an example, think of stream of consciousness literary techniques used by Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, where meaning is found in the flow of interior monologues.

4. Five Whys.

Enlisting participation from people to elicit information is a well-worn technique. But methods of interviewing often fail to get to the heart of peoples’ deeply-held beliefs and attitudes, thereby failing to expose the information most relevant to the interviewer.

The five whys approach is a well-worn method for enlisting greater reflection and participation from people. Developed in the 1930’s by Sakichi Toyoda (of the car ilk), the method aims to unearth the underlying causes for beliefs or behaviours, by using the same question to dig deeper and deeper, five times over.

This exercise may seem cumbersome, but we’ve often been surprised by the level of introspection that emerges as people reexamine and reconsider their beliefs and attitudes. This is particularly useful in communications strategy, enabling organisations to speak simply and powerfully to the most relevant drivers of peoples’ behaviour and attitudes.

As an example, think of the incessant questioning of curious children, always trying to get to the root cause of things we take for granted.

5. Try it yourself.

We’ve all heard of the value of walking in someone else’s shoes. Despite the potential for spreading tinea, this is an effective exercise for building empathy with people. Putting yourself in the position of others, through simulations or real life situations, allows you to see the world from their perspective.

Why not try it out yourself? Try to book an appointment with your own organisation, try to purchase different items that you offer, try to use your own product – perhaps with barriers such as a small budget or thick gloves or a blindfold, depending on what’s most relevant. For instance, Coles runs a shopping challenge for support teams and graduate employees in their stores to buy a week’s worth of groceries for $150 – the average family supermarket spend. To replicate the shopping experience of time-poor parents, they also impose a time limit of 45-minutes.

Methods designed to elicit empathy help you to experience what your products and services are doing well, and where they could be doing better, uncovering unmet needs as well as points of frustration. Appreciating the user experience can empower teams to improve and innovate in ways that add greater value to any product or service.

Understand your customers and unlock opportunity. Talk to us.

Image: Taken by Elise Harper at the Patrick Pound exhibition in NGV’s Festival of Photography.