Five Ways Design Thinking Can Benefit Your Organization

I’ve learned a lot about Design Thinking (also known as Human Centered Design) as it applies to innovation within companies. As the name implies, Design Thinking comes from the design world, and is a way of creative problem-solving. It starts with a deep empathy for the user, uses open-ended brainstorming, and goes through rapid prototypes to come up with better and better final solutions (read a brief synopsis from Fast Company or go more in depth on Tim Brown’s blog). But I also think that if you can’t get the company using it regularly on a large scale (or even if you can), bringing Design Thinking exercises at any scale into the workplace is good for employees. And that is good for business. Here are five reasons why.

  1. Co-workers get to know and trust each other better by going through the process.
    These are some of the prototypes we made.

    Participants & their prototypes.

    Recently, I offered an Intro to Design Thinking workshop for anyone at tpt, based using the Stanford d.School’s materials. I wanted to introduce Designthinking to as many people as possible, and the best way to learn about it is to actually do it. In short, they interviewed each other and created custom product prototypes out of elementary school art supplies. I paired people randomly; most had rarely if ever worked together. For the sake of the exercise, they asked each other deeper personal questions than they would feel comfortable asking during normal office situations. There needs to be some trust between the two people to get it to work, but they took turns sharing so that happened quickly. In the end, everyone had a product custom-designed for them. “Consumers” felt validated because someone was listening, and “producers” felt a sense of accomplishment when their customers liked their products. Months later, I still see crude construction-paper-and-pipe-cleaner creations around the building, a testament to effect that the prototype objects had on their customers.

  2. You have to talk to real people. Whenever I do a Design Thinking project, I dread intercept interviews (I’m a classic Introvert). But when I’m done, I’m always glad that I did them. Stopping someone on the street is pretty awkward, and a lot of them think you’re trying to sell them something. Yes, some will tell you that they don’t have time, but usually people are flattered that you want to hear their opinions. And sometimes the guy who says he only has two minutes will talk your ear off for twenty! People love talking about themselves, and you never know the fascinating stories you’ll hear. Plus, even if everyone refuses to talk, you’ve put yourself out there and are now that much better at handling rejection.
  3. Inspiration. It’s easy to lose sight of the reasons why we are doing something when we just sit in front of our computer screens all day long. It might feel like what we do doesn’t matter in the big picture. But when real people tell me about the difference tpt makes in their lives, I feel re-invigorated to work harder because I remember why I’m doing it. Even—or especially—the story of a real person who’s had a problem with our organization or product can be the catalyst for creating something that makes his or her life better.

    Word Girl and Friends: Meeting hard core fans reminds us why we’re here.

  4. You learn to control your filter. Since we first learned to talk, we’ve been told–implicitly and explicitly–to filter what we say. We don’t want to offend people so we don’t tell them how ugly we think their sweater is. And we don’t want to look foolish in front of others, so we clam up during post-lecture question time. We’ve also become good at filtering what we hear–if it’s not on the test, I’m not going to memorize it. Our filters can be useful tools, but they can also be roadblocks to innovation, because we may quickly dismiss the seed of a successful idea because it sounds implausible at first blush. Design Thinking lets us practice turning off our filters: first when we listen for others’ points of view, and later when we generate ideas. The filter gets turned back on later.
  5. It’s like playing. Have you ever watched tiger cubs or puppies or other baby animals playing? (If not, I suggest you immediately start going through episodes of Nature or the MN Zoo’s Tiger Cub Cam until you are about to die of cuteness overload) I’m pretty sure it’s as fun for them as it looks to us. But play is an important part of learning: their ‘games’ are experiments in how to act when they are grown up, done in a low-stakes way. Design Thinking is a way for grown-ups to play: to learn important lessons while doing something fun. Couldn’t we all use a little bit of that?