If you cringed when you read the title, then this article is for you. I was in your shoes when I did my first design thinking workshop, skeptical. Eight years later I can say that the design thinking process and the skills you develop by using the process have been invaluable at work and my personal life.
Here are my top three reasons why you might want to take another look at design thinking and incorporate it into everything you do.
Theoretical testing: Asses form and function
If you understand the function a product, a talk, a technology should have, you are in a better position to asses if the form will fulfill that function.
Think of a wrist watch. It can be used to tell time. A Casio watch fulfills this function. A watch can be a fashion accessory, that is what Swatch should us. A watch can be a status symbol, that is what Rolex wants us to believe.
When you think of the world “design” we often associate it with the aesthetic component of a design that makes us say something is beautiful. Aesthetic can sometimes be an important aspect of design, but it is not the only aspect and it is not always the most important aspect.
When designing a heart valve, the most important aspect of the design is that it meets its function, repeatedly, for as long a time as possible; to help guide blood flow in the right direction when a heart beats. The aesthetics of the valve are secondary to the function the valve needs to perform. Take a look at these heart valve designs.
Critically assessing the fit between form and function is perhaps my favorite aspect about design thinking. In your daily work, consider the fit between the form you give your tasks or your deliverable and the function it has to meet. If you learn to do this well, it will be easier to prioritize.
However, we are biased. Critically assessing your own designs is hard. Theory and process can get you pretty far, but at the end you need to let others test your design.
Practical testing: get out of the building
Test early, test often. It’s like insurance against waisting your time.
You might have worked for weeks or months on your special project and have been postponing showing it to someone because it is “not ready”. This is a mistake. There might be a few cases where postponing feedback might be the right course of action. In most cases, testing an idea can be done after a few hours or days of work.
Show your work, ask for impressions, and let your guard down. Show your work to credible people that have a stake in your work. If you are writing a technical specification, show it to the developers; they are going to have to implement it. If you are working on a presentation, test it with a member of your audience; they are going to listen or suffer through it. If you build a prototype, ask your target user to try to use it for the task it is intended for; they are the ones that will hopefully want to buy it.
Ask for impressions. Make it clear they are judging your work, not you. If you feel that they are being nice and are trying to avoid hurting your feelings, point out the flaws in the design that bother you. Make fun of your product and get them to make fun of it too.
When collecting feedback, don’t just focus on the negatives. Products are not perfect and you do not need to make your products perfect. Point out the things you love about your work and get others’ opinion about those aspects as well. Ask what they love about your product. People buy a product because it does something well despite its flaws. Pizza is delicious, but sometimes it burns my palate, a Ferrari is fast but is a bad choice for crossing a shallow river, paper is a wonderful writing material but breaks easily when wet.
Let your guard down and listen. Be thankful for feedback. The person reviewing your work is taking time away from their precious life to help you. The goal is to see your work through someone else’s eyes. If you get defensive, you are failing to empathize. If you get defensive, your reviewer will not tell you what they really think. If you start fighting back your reviewer will think twice about helping you in the future. Take notes, ask why as many times as you need to get to a root cause about why something works or does not.
If you can test ideas after a few hours or days of work, it is less risky to try ideas. And it is more likely that you will be able to try more ideas and eventually find the right idea. With a good testing mindset and skills, you can cut long discussions short about which idea might be the right one, and instead, like a scientist, put the ideas to the test.
Give and take feedback
If you can assess the fit between form and function you are able to theoretically test other’s ideas. And when you critique the ideas of others, it is not you trying to praise or kill an idea, but a real (or close to real) situation that puts the idea to the test. This is a great way to give constructive feedback.
One of my favorite classes in collage was Photography. I love the creation process and spent hours capturing images on film and developing them in the dark room. All tests for the class were practical, you had to deliver work; photos. Your work was critiqued by your classmates. Your grade did not depend on how much others liked or disliked your work.
We had the chance to learn from each other and collectively get better.
The process we went through in a critique was first to get other’s reaction. After everyone had shared their opinion about your work, you could share your original intention; the feelings and ideas you wanted to convey. The gap between your intention and the reaction of your classmates was the potential for improvement of your work, not you.
When you are working by yourself, you can use form and function iteratively to hone the form to the function you are aiming for. To practically check whether the form, your work, actually does fulfill its function well, you have to ask other humans, ideally those that will be the consumers of your work. But to get feedback from other humans well, you need soft skills, you need to become a journalist, an interviewer, and be brave enough to want to get to the bottom of the story.
You need to be more in love with the truth than with your work. If you are obsessed with getting as close as possible to what is true, you will seek out feedback from credible people and will be better able to share your honest feedback as well.