Design thinking 101

How do you design for the future? A product might be lauded by TechRadar as best-in-class today and completely off the radar tomorrow.

Fickle consumers have ample competition to choose from, and a seemingly insignificant design aberration is enough excuse to be dropped like a hot potato (or the British pound in 2018). The trick is to keep innovating, to be both relevant and somehow still ahead of the curve. Predictive analytics aside, it is imperative for businesses and brands to embrace cultural and problem solving frameworks to evolve with market demands.

A quiet voice pipes up: what about design thinking, or for those whose eyes roll at the use of “design thinking”, human centred design (HCD). A maligned buzzword at times, the most vocal proponents of HCD are David Kelley and Tim Brown of IDEO, who argue that an organisation that can deploy design thinking can rapidly generate products & services addressing the root of human problems. 

Empathy and rapid prototyping are key. Observe and interrogate user needs before you start working on a solution. Prototype to prove concepts, and iterate these with the users until there is a usable, useful, scalable solution. Then repeat ad infinitum. Agile methodology and Human-centred design borrow liberally from each other, because of their combined interest in working iteratively with end users to generate a solution; a solution is ultimately more cost-effective as a result of re-framing problem statements. 

This low-cost incubator is an example of re-framing the problem. Instead of trying to cut manufacturing costs to produce a standard incubator, the designers came up with what is effectively a sleeping bag for babies. While an incubator costs circa US $20,000, this warming bag costs $25 and is a portable solution. With design thinking, needs are uncovered that even customers or consumers don’t realise they have.

Design thinking also democratises innovation and product development, says Jackie Del Castillo - a senior programme manager at Nesta’s Health Lab who earned her HCD stripes at Stanford’s and Mayo Clinic Centre of Innovation developing complex, scalable solutions. Its methods encourage ideation in a variety of playful, fun situations which put one in a different headspace; but Jackie also warns that workshop leads need to make sure the output is tangible and followed through into a prototype or proof of concept to be tested. The real challenge here is organisational and cultural change, Jackie adds - willingness to try and fail, fast and hard, supported by leadership that adapts beyond a command-and-control style to start.

I’ll let you decide for yourself whether design-led innovation is worth the fuss, but will leave you with some collateral to read and listen to, as well as some resources to try out some design thinking methods – the latter is really the only way to find out.

Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation Tim Brown



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