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1. Sep 2021

Victor Hargrave

Software Engineer

Introduction

Design Thinking is a term which is heard more and more in IT, design, and innovation circles. The popularity of design thinking has been growing, because of its strong focus on creating a service or product, with the human being in the center. In other words, design thinking is an innovation process for a company to come up with a product or service in a short amount of time, and then verify that it could work, before any large investment is made. As a preparation for my bachelor thesis, I had the opportunity to write a paper on the success factors of design thinking. It is my pleasure to share the insights with you.

If you didn’t already know it, design thinking usually consists of five different phases – Empathizing, Defining, Ideating, Prototyping, and Testing. In short, these phases are about trying to understand a user as well as possible, generating LOTS of ideas to help solve a problem they have, creating a prototype product or service to solve their problem, and then testing the idea with the prototype to verify that it wasn’t total garbage. Here at Edorex we’re no strangers to these phases – sales hook coming up – because we offer a compact version of design thinking in the form of a design sprint. If you want to find out more, check out the Denkbar in Bern, and if you want to learn more about design thinking in general, then check out Tim Brown’s book “Change by Design”.

Because Design Thinking can be so complex, there’s a lot that participants in the process can do for it to go either excellently, or terribly. I interviewed four experts who work in the space to gain insights on their tips and tricks of innovating successfully. These tips and tricks can also be known as success factors. There were a lot of factors that were mentioned in the interviews, and for this blog I’m going to cover the top seven. If you want to check out my whole paper, then you can download it here. Let’s dive right in…

Language

Yes, language is a big deal. And it’s often forgotten. Why else do you think they couldn’t finish the tower of Babel? 😉 Language is critical because participants in the design thinking process are often generating innovative ideas and then must communicate their ideas with the group. The issue is that if they’re not able to communicate their thoughts fluently, not only is the idea incorrectly conveyed, but it’s also unfairly judged. Research done by the Tübingen University found that the larger the difference in team members’ ability to communicate in the team language, the more their linguistically competent peers incorrectly attributed low task competence to their less linguistically proficient peers. If you can’t communicate your thoughts, people view you as less smart. So, success factor number one is, “Thou shalt ensure each member of the design team speaks the same language proficiently”.

Sprachbarriere

Movement and Ambience

Design thinking is a very creative process, and the environment where people think, has a large impact on a team’s ingenuity. This appears to also be verified by trials conducted at Stanford University, where they found that the pure act of walking substantially enhanced trial participants’ creativity. In addition, they found that getting outdoors significantly increases creativity. A design team should therefore take care before adding too many chairs to their design space. Ideally, they will stand and move around while working through the creative process. With this, we arrive at success factor number two: “Thou shalt ideate in motion, and in a high energy level setting.”

Assumptions and Personas

One of the challenges in the beginning of the design process, is attempting to understand your user as well as possible. When interviewing these users to understand their problem, a mistake which is often made, is the interviewer has only prepared a few open questions, and the interviewer must be very skilled to ask the right follow up questions. As a helpful trick, every expert who I interviewed, prepares assumptions as a foundation to base their interview questions off. Here is an example of how an assumption would be used when interviewing potential users for a new online vegetable shop. One assumption the team could prepare might be “People dislike buying online because they cannot smell the vegetables”. To verify this, they would ask the users an open question such as: “When you’re picking a cucumber, how do you decide which one to choose?” If none of the users mentions smelling as a part of their vegetable picking process, the team can reasonably conclude that smelling the vegetables is not as important as they thought it was. This brings us to success factor number three: “Thou shalt prepare assumptions before interviewing your user”.

Preparation

Power structures (male vs. female, tall vs. tiny, race, etc.) within a group is a delicate topic. When someone is picked to moderate the design thinking process, they are also elected as a type of leader. To remain the leader in a group, ethnographic studies conducted by Bernard Chapais suggest that you must either be the strongest or most competent. In an interview conducted with one expert, she remarked that it can be demanding to facilitate male team members, because they sometimes believed their own understanding of design thinking to be higher than it really was. When dealing with these types of situations, it is especially helpful for moderators to be well prepared. To handle these situations, the moderator needs to be well versed in the Design Thinking methods to demonstrate their competence clearly. Here comes success factor number four: “Thou shalt prepare thyself well, before moderating a design workshop”.

Managing Managers

Part of the spirit of Design Thinking is that all participants are on eye level with one another. All hierarchies are eliminated, and everyone who participates is on equal terms with the other participants. Finally, verdicts on ideas should not be made based on a personal level. Based on the interviews, though, there are still many examples where a manager’s presence in the Design Thinking team hinders innovation efforts. “It happens again and again. You notice it when you’re talking with members of the team, and they’re very open when talking privately to you, but the moment the manager enters you notice they no longer voice their ideas. In Design Thinking, you really want to have a space, where ideas are not criticized, but instead built upon. Having someone come in and destroy that entire dynamic is a big problem.

Managing Managers

An experienced design team will take specific measures to ensure that the presence of management during the design phases does not inhibit the creative voice of the individual members of the team. There are many different approaches, such as silent brainstorming, splitting senior individuals and other employees into different groups, or even giving everyone the same color pen to write down their ideas. We are ready for success factor number five: “Thou shalt manage managers, so that the creativity of the team is not inhibited”.

Do One Thing Right

When working throughout the different phases of Design Thinking, it is not unusual for the team to identify multiple target personas and a variety of possible solutions to their problems. It is, therefore, easy for the team to lose track of their primary goal. Since getting the product right is more important than producing as many products as possible, a design team needs to be wary of trying to solve too much when creating solutions. Here, one of the experts suggested it could be helpful for the team to look at the problem statement and vision once again for their process as a type of North Star. This success factor is clear: “Thou shalt focus on getting one thing right”.

Getting Good Feedback

This is easier said than done. A lot of factors play into a tester’s feedback, such as personality and even culture. Often the testers do not want to say unkind things about a prototype, and it takes a skilled team to glean that constructive feedback, nonetheless. Some experts stated that it is important for the team members leading the testing to be aware of this positivity bias. Instead, they must remain vigilant and if they do not hear any constructive or even negative feedback, nudge the testers to describe what actual features can be ameliorated upon. To quote one of the experts: “if you only hear good things, you haven’t interviewed very well.” And with this, comes the seventh and last success factor I’ll be covering in this blog: “Thou shalt elicit the truth from those who test.”

Conclusion

There were many more success factors which were mentioned during the expert interviews. If you want to read them all, they’re available to the public here. If you have a business idea which you also want to validate using the design thinking process, then absolutely shoot us an email at denkbar-bern@edorex.ch. We’d be happy to help!

A huge shout-out goes to Dr. Emanuele Laurenzi, who was my supervisor for the paper, and is an expert on design thinking in his own right. The paper was written for the module ToBIT for the study program BSc BIT of the FHNW.

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