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May 09, 2019
Design thinking in real life
By: Sundy Grubel

In my role as a designer at Fjord, I am often asked what design thinking is, and how it plays out in real life.

Let’s start with the easy part, the definition: Design thinking is all about applying a set of design principles to solve a broader set of innovation challenges. Design thinking draws upon logic, imagination, creativity, intuition and reasoning to explore the possibilities of what we could create to enable the desired outcomes for our end users.

Now, that sounds pretty easy and obvious but applying it to day-to-day work is a completely different ball game.

One of the things we like to say at Fjord is that instead of creating the minimum viable product, we aim to design the minimum ‘lovable’ product because we want to create something that people love and ultimately enjoy using. I think we can all agree that the tensions that exist between desirability, feasibility and viability are what make a sustainable business solution. You have to constantly balance the desirable and the aspirational requirements with what’s practical or feasible.

A fancy race car might tick all the boxes on the desirability quotient but may not be the best option if you are looking to negotiate rush hour city traffic on your way to work every morning (and are on a budget!). But balancing out the tension between desirability, feasibility and viability is easier said than done. In this post, I will share three key design thinking principles that help design a sustainable business solution: human-centered design, learning through making, and asking the right questions.

Human-centered design

Its self-explanatory, really. Instead of starting with technology, we start with the human need. We use empathy to understand the different users, the various scenarios and places the solution will be used in. This even means getting out into the world and talking to people and understanding what challenges they are having with a particular experience and how we can address those challenges. Human-centered design is uniquely situated to arrive at solutions that are feasible, desirable and viable. Empathizing with the people that we're designing for is the best route to truly grasp the context and the complexities of the situation that they're in, and to uncover what the most desirable outcome is.

A perfect example of human-centered design is Starbucks who sought to create the ideal coffee shop. They interviewed hundreds of coffee drinkers and asked them, what is it that they wanted from a coffee shop? The overwhelming consensus had nothing to do with coffee at all! Consumers were seeking a place to belong to, an atmosphere. And so the design of the Starbucks coffee shop is centered around creating this warm, homey atmosphere—from the materials they use (wood, stone, hardly any metal or plastic) to the table settings with small, round tables for the solo coffee drinkers. By putting the end users in the center of their design, Starbucks created more than just a coffee shop…they created an experience.

Learning through making / rapid prototyping

The second key principle is learning through making. I was once on a project where we created an entire retail store for a telecommunications storefront out of cardboard. It was great fun and by doing this, we quickly understood if we were creating an impactful experience for the customers and made necessary adjustments on the fly. The faster we can iterate on our design ideas, figure out what will work and what won’t, and fix any shortcomings, the faster we can move toward actual execution. And that's a really important component to design thinking. I like to say we build to learn not learn to build.

Nike is a good example of learning through making and iterating their product designs. Prototyping has always played a huge role at Nike. The Nike Flyknit Racer shoe went through 195 iterations before they released it in the market. Ditto for the Nike Fuelband before customers could get their hands on it.

Asking the right questions

The last one is asking the right questions. Design thinking always starts from a place of not knowing the answer. It's not asking, "Well, how are we going to increase revenue?" It's asking, "What do our customers want to buy from us and how do they want to transact?" And that forces us to think creatively.

Uber transformed the transportation market by targeting the characteristics that taxi companies had always ignored, and they did this by asking the right questions and identifying opportunities to provide a differentiated experience. If you take a moment and you think about your last transportation experience, were you in a car? Were you in a train? Were you in a plane? How many people did you come in contact with? How was your experience? How were your surroundings? How did you pay? How much did it cost? What were the obstacles you faced? Uber used design thinking and set out to define this human need. Nobody ever felt that it was a huge problem to pay for the taxi once you got out, but now they've created this whole new behavior that suggests pulling out your wallet to pay for a ride seems antiquated. It saves people time and money, offers a sense of calm and, ultimately, invokes a form of pleasure.

Overall, design thinking helps us create real impact for organizations, clients, and users. It’s a mindset and approach to problems that can be applied to anything, and focuses on people’s experience, leading to greater added value for everyone involved.

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