New thoughts on design thinking

design thinkingIn the early 80’s, I read an article calling for a cognitive engineering: designing systems that matched how our brains work. I was designing educational computer games at the time, and was struggling to find good guidance to choose between interface (and learning) alternatives. I realized that this was a field that really meshed with my passions for learning design, and I applied to study there. To make a long story short, I got in.

The lab I joined was pursuing what became known as User Centered System Design. We were
eagerly following the outputs from Xerox PARC and my professor informed the work at Apple
that became the Macintosh. This included evaluating interface alternatives in terms of how their
features mapped to the goals of the user, and also design processes that increased the likelihood
of finding a good solution.

While my passion was for systems that matched how we learned, there was significant overlap, and I eagerly followed the work that was happening. As it happens, I subsequently ended up teaching interface design for a number of years, and so followed the field as it grew. In fact, some of my academic contributions were interpreting what was happening on the Human Computer Interaction side and translating the implications for learning technology.

Some of the buzzwords at the time were iterative and formative as well as situated and participatory. There was a strong push at the time for really understanding the users’ goals and needs, including site visits and including users on the design team. Similarly, the notion was to prototype as quickly as possible, trial, and refine. There was as strong interaction between theoretical principles guiding design and practical exploration of alternatives.

The field, and my own curiosity, led to explorations of a wide variety of fields. Design approaches surveyed included architecture, product design, software design, graphic design, even game design. And the mechanisms experimented with were similarly eclectic, looking at low-cost representations to capture interim ideas. Mantras like ‘prototype early and often’ were frequent.

The point of this recitation is to note that there’s been a resurgence of interest in this area, under the rubric of design thinking. And it’s important to understand why it’s getting such strong press (you know a subject has reached critical mass when there starts being a backlash :)), and what the implications are for designing learning, and creating learning about design.

Design is important. It’s about creating solutions to problems. As such, being good at design would seem to be a requirement for a successful organization. And, as things move faster, it becomes increasingly important. (As an aside, given that you don’t know the answer when you start, it’s also learning, but informal, not formal.)

To be clear, design goes beyond just creating something. Any design can be different. What’s needed is a solution that’s better. That’s the criteria for an innovation, by the way, a new design that is put into practice and is superior. And this improvement can be on a number of dimensions: it can be cheaper, it can have more functionality, or it can have a more pleasing aesthetic. Or it can be fundamentally revolutionary, creating or eliminating a need. Did we know we needed music with us wherever we go? A good design achieves an outcome where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Similarly, a bad design leaves some irritation, even unconscious, that transcends.

In her book, Kathy Sierra takes it further: the goal of design is not to make the user like the product. A truly good design makes the user better at doing the things they want to accomplish. It’s this focus on meeting the user’s needs, even unknown ones, that marks a remarkable design.

There are various models of design. One such views design as a search through a space of solutions. Another has design being the combining of two different components to create a new idea. Regardless, there are aspects of our architecture that lead us to common mistakes. Similarly, there are things that are known to lead to better outcomes. We want to use those ways to avoid our limitations in ways that optimize the outcomes of our work.

Our gaps include things with labels like ‘set effects’, ‘functional fixedness’, premature evaluation, and more. What this means in practice is that it’s easy for us to be limited in our thinking. We need principled ways to explore alternatives; ‘systematic creativity’ is not an oxymoron! We need to make sure we explore the problem thoroughly, and then we need to similarly explore possible solutions. Design processes should help us do this. In short, we want to design design!

To be clear, there are serious reasons to be interested. Data suggests that design-led firms are more successful. Organizations that do focus on design outperform the S&P by over 200%! So, there is a potential tangible benefit.

Design Thinking
So, what is design thinking? It’s a series of processes that are designed to not just look at the described need, but to truly understand the problem before trialing solutions. Based upon the work of the well-known design firm, Ideo, the work has been formalized in collaboration with Stanford University. There are a number of interpretations, but some universals stand out that are worth exploring.

The basic structure, as defined by Ideo, has four phases:
1. Gather Inspiration
2. Generate Ideas
3. Make Ideas Tangible
4. Share Your Story

Others have represented this model as a ‘double diamond’ with two cycles of diverge/converge, or a seven-step spiral. What matters is that there are requirements that facilitate optimizing the outcome. First, you get divergent in exploring the problem, and then converge on the need. Second, you diverge around possible solutions, and the converge on one. Processes help keep the appropriate focus in each stage. So, for instance, diverging needs to be exploratory, while convergence can be evaluative.

As identified above, the mechanisms are deliberately inclusive, iterative, and diverse. The makeup of the team should include people who are demonstrably creative, but also folks who represent technical expertise, business smarts, and more. The full suite of skills should be represented, as should a wide range of other characteristics. Diversity has been demonstrated to produce the best results.

Similarly, it has to be ‘safe’ to share. If folks aren’t free to contribute ideas, some ideas may be missed. Other elements of a learning culture, such as reflection and openness to new ideas also play a part. The atmosphere in which the efforts are conducted contributes as much as specific approaches. Emotion is an important component of the solution as well as the process. A positive attitude facilitates good outcomes.

There are side benefits in terms of individual value, company culture, and more from adopting such an approach. The elements that lead to success – collaboration, autonomy and purpose – closely align with what’s been documented to lead to more effective workplaces.

And, whether it’s old wine in new bottles or not, having systematized a useful process that embodies best practices is good. Thus, the value of ‘design thinking’ to the organization is clear. What now needs to be explored is the role of L&D in design thinking.

Design Thinking & L&D
Design is a critical role for L&D. Design of learning experiences, design of support materials, design of ongoing development processes. However, one of the barriers has been doing so in a bit of a vacuum, avoiding breaking down the business siloes. One of the primary lessons from design thinking is the need to be more broadly inclusive in the exploration of potential solutions. Bringing in representatives from the affected groups, and actual observation are recommended, and while it potentially incurs greater overhead, the benefits of more appropriate and comprehensive solutions is a long-term solution.

The obvious primary role for L&D in design thinking is being the repository of knowledge about how design thinking is done, determining the organization-wide practices, developing them, and facilitating them. Of course, L&D must practice what they preach!

This assumes design thinking is a valuable component in an organization, but that case can be made. For one, if you’re designing products or services for others, design thinking is arguably the best approach likely to generate the necessary details. In addition, as an approach to addressing internal problems, it is a generic design process most likely to achieve the desired outcome.

Thus, there’s a strong case for L&D to undertake some form of design thinking training and support. That doesn’t necessarily mean purchasing some off-the- shelf-solution, but at least investigating the structure and then elaborating existing approaches to incorporate the missing elements.

A step on this path, and a valuable process in itself, is for L&D to start using design thinking approaches internally. Mastery comes with use, and as part of establishing an innovative L&D culture, such an approach would put some walk in the talk.

Ultimately, design thinking is the distillation of a wide variety of practices leading to good problem-solving practices. Such a distillation is as valuable as other such distillations in areas such as leadership and is a part of innovation. Thus, this is a valuable area for L&D to not only contribute, but practice. The future of the organization continues to evolve, and this is one of the paths forward. It’s time to take the initial steps.