Design thinking: being wrong, to get it right.

BLOG: Defining and re-framing the problem through Design Thinking.

Ellis Jones  •  Thursday January 14, 2016
Research  •  Social Impact

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” – Abraham Maslow

When was the last time you used a product or service that you’re convinced could only have been designed in a vacuum – away from any contact with actual humans – because it’s THAT damn hard to use?

Phone keys that are too small for any adult finger, government services that require a task force of highly intelligent people to decipher, a recent experience of mine where I couldn’t apply for a particular course until I’d applied for a scholarship, and couldn’t apply for a scholarship until I’d applied for the course.

Unfortunately, it happens all the time.

Arguably it’s at its worst when the inefficiency affects vulnerable community members, and even more so when the product or service was supposedly designed to help or empower them.

A classic example of this is the old ‘send T-shirts to Africa’ development solution. This (well-meaning) act of charity assumes that the key problem in African countries is rampant T-shirt-less-ness, not poverty, corruption and disease. Donating T-shirts is a perfect example of the donator giving what they want to give, not what the receiver needs, and certainly not using resources in an efficient way to solve a complex problem. For a hilariously ironic example of this dynamic, check out this spoof video of a group of Africans coming together to send radiators to poor, cold Norway.

Placing humans at the centre

Design Thinking is a human-centered method for tackling complex problems; it focuses on the needs of the people who would be using the solution, not on those of the designer.

Simple, but somewhat revolutionary.

The process of design thinking can be split into five steps:

  1. Empathise: observe, engage, understand explicit and implicit user needs
  2. Define: draw on insights, refine and reframe the problem
  3. Ideate: widely explore possible solutions and ideas
  4. Prototype: transform ideas into physical form, experience, interact, learn
  5. Test: try out product or service, observe, gain feedback, refine and reframe the problem

Design thinking is optimistic by nature – always assuming that there’s a better product or service solution than what is already available. It’s collaborative – bringing people with different capabilities to the table. It’s experimental and action-oriented – trying out new solutions and doing and testing it rather than over-thinking it. And it’s playful – allowing people to play out scenarios to understand how they might evolve in the future.

IBM are big believers in the power of design thinking, with their Design Studios popping up around the world, as are the governments of Denmark,  Australia and the UK.

Being wrong, to get it right

In 2007, three Stanford University students were building low cost neonatal incubators for a class project. They were set on solving the problem they’d been presented with: low-birth-weight babies dying from hypothermia in developing countries. The students went to Nepal to complete some fieldwork, and had the chance to speak to families about their knowledge and experience with small babies in their community. What they found out was that the problem was not as they’d originally thought; the real problem was that low-birth-weight babies often develop fatal hypothermia in remote village homes that lack electricity, not in hospitals where incubators could be powered.

Their original problem was wrong, so naturally the solution was wrong also.

Using the principles of Design Thinking, the students re-framed the problem and set down the path of finding an appropriate solution. Their solution was the Embrace Baby Warmer; an affordable, portable sleeping bag for newborns made from a phase-change material that maintains its temperature for six hours after heating. By 2013, this innovation had helped 22,000 low-birth-weight babies around the world stay warm, and alive.

The most important thing these students did was be prepared to re-frame the problem, once they’d found out they were wrong.

This is the first lesson to be gained from Design Thinking: the best solutions are developed when the right problem is defined, and this can only happen in an environment where failing  is accepted and viewed as a positive and important part of learning and refining.

So the question is: are you using your resources to understand and solve the real problems for your target audiences? Or are you sending T-shirts to Africa; making assumptions and just implementing the solution that you want to?

Talk to us if you want to find out what your customers actually need.

Image credit: SAIH