Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Design thinking for the masses

Recently I've spent a good amount of time talking about design and design thinking to some people who don't practice the craft of design. It's been an interesting experience, starting first with debunking misconceptions about what design as a craft or practice really is. What's the difference between interaction design, visual design, industrial design, user experience design, product design, etc.? You can ask 10 people and get 10 different answers. Trying to explain makes me feel like I'm splitting hairs.

Then there's the hairier challenge of explaining what design thinking is.

I remember preparing to graduate from the Product Design program at Stanford (which Facebook insists is "Industrial Design," no matter how many times I try to change it) and talking to my advisor at the time about how to "sell" what we've learned in the industry. "You've been trained in design thinking," I remember him saying -- paraphrasing, of course, as that was many years ago -- "Think of it as a methodology to approach and solve problems." (Well that's a helpful way to frame it, but it's still hard to sell someone on being able to think in a particular way.)

Maybe because it has always felt natural to me that I still find it difficult to quantify what exactly design thinking means.

I can wax eloquent about how design thinking is a means to achieving delight, of solving the real problems in order to ultimately make the world a better designed place. I can speak to the need for deep customer empathy, for really understanding what mental models someone holds, for discovering things about someone that they perhaps haven't even admitted to themselves. I can shed light on how to get beyond our own egos and business methodologies to branch out into new, creative pastures, and how to test those ideas to see if they can hold water. I could keep going on about all the multifaceted aspects of design thinking, but it is ultimately not a well-crafted elevator pitch.

(Wikipedia, by the way, has a similarly long-winded definition of design thinking, here.)

But while design as a craft is the realm of a few, I believe that design thinking is something that we all can do.

We can make smarter decisions and make this world a better place. As Nobel Prize-winning economist Herbert Simon once said, "Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones."

Why not? It's just a way of thinking. But it's always difficult to change habits for yourself, never mind others. So bringing along others toward the gospel of design thinking then ends up being a journey in creating experiences to allow people to come to their own conclusions about design thinking.

Thankfully, I'm not alone in this belief. We're all just trying to go about it in different ways -- making tools to suit different people's learning styles. Two quick examples off the top of my head:

  • ZURB's manifesto, especially the "Everyone Can Do This" page, is completely in line with this...although they don't make much of a distinction between design craft and design thinking. (Maybe it's just semantics.)
  • I found my entire sense of being resonating with a strong "YES!" while reading Tim Brown's book, Change by Design, earlier this year. (It's a quick read, focused more on the stories to show how effective design thinking is and providing a business case for it.)

What other ways can we bring design thinking to the masses?

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