Design thinking is a mindset that can help any professional engage in creative problem-solving. It’s also known as human-centered design because it focuses on building empathy with people and designing a product or service that solves a problem they have. People in creative fields such as art and architecture often engage in design thinking in their everyday course of business. But it’s a technique that can be beneficial to people in any line of work, from banking to teaching, because in one way or another nearly every profession is centered on solving human problems.
At the Arts and Business Alliance of Eugene’s most recent Creative Academy presentation, board member and fashion designer Mitra Chester was joined by Shawn Winkler-Rios of Soloprenur for a workshop called “A Crash Course in Design Thinking for Businesses.” Over 30 participants had a chance to put the process (which was developed by the Stanford Design School) into action during a whirlwind morning.
How Design Thinking Works: A Case Study
To give everyone an overview of design thinking before they jumped in and began applying the concepts themselves, Chester went through the steps she takes to design clothing and accessories for ENVIA Fashion, St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County’s upcycled fashion line.
“When you’re talking about designing a product, a service, or even dealing with business problems, there’s an end user in mind,” she said. “I start out by empathizing with my end user. I walk in their shoes, shadow them and ask a lot of questions. I listen for emotions, motives for why they use and buy my products, and experiential adjectives – their emotions about the ways they use things. I listen for their disappointments and problems. I’m open to hearing everything. I’m not judging.
“From your empathy experience, you want to define the problem,” she continued. “You want to focus on the experiential adjectives from the first steps, as well as the person’s motivations, problems and disappointments.” At this stage, Chester isn’t even thinking about what products she might introduce to her line. She’s simply trying to understand the needs and desires of her customers.
From that, she drafts a problem statement. The holiday season was right around the corner when the workshop took place, so this is the problem statement she was working with at the time: “EVNIA customers need an affordable gift that is personal and expresses thoughtfulness.”
“We’re talking about emotions,” Chester emphasized. “The other considerations I could have used are the fit, the price, the style, comfort, personal element, quality, brand fit, presentation, visibility, gender and usefulness.” Some of those factors will come into play later, when she begins designing. However, in the beginning, she’s only focused on understanding what emotional problem she needs to solve.
From there, Chester’s next step is to ideate. “I sketch the solution to the problem into being. I sketch out as many ideas as I can think of because at this stage, you want to just brainstorm and get it all of there.”
She runs her ideas past her daughter and her friends (all of whom are in her target market), her co-workers, social media followers, and everyone else she can think of. Gathering honest feedback is very important because it’s the only way to truly understand if your idea will solve the end user’s problem. “You’re not getting attached to any of these ideas,” Chester said. “What you’re really looking for is their thoughts on it and their feeling about it.”
Once she has that feedback, Chester begins making prototypes of her potential products. As she’s doing that, she’s also determining how expensive the product is to produce, the quality, whether it’s comfortable and attractive, and what flaws need fixing.
Chester shared an example of that last point. For this year’s line she wanted to make personalized chokers, but each one she made broke. “I had a specific kind of ring that was connecting the clasp, and I needed to switch that ring out,” she said. “That’s something I would not have known unless I prototyped it and tried it out.”
Once she has a prototype of each product, Chester again goes to her end user for feedback so she can make more adjustments to her products. After that, she can decide which items she actually wants to put into production.
“I will clarify that you might end up going through these last two steps many times,” she said. “It’s a cycle you want to habituate into the way you approach problems in general – that you’re going to try something, collect data, test it out, and make changes over and over again, until you move closer and closer to the solution to your problem.”
If this seems like a lot of work, know that there can be a good reward at the end: since your product or service was developed with good data and factual information from your end user, you can move forward feeling reasonably certain it will succeed in the marketplace.
Putting Design Thinking Into Action
Now the workshop participants got to try their hand at problem-solving with design thinking. For their first exercise, Winkler-Rios and Chester had each person draw a picture of what they considered to be the ideal wallet. Heads down, markers in hand, everyone began sketching a design that appealed to them.
Once that was done, Winker-Rios told them to set those designs aside. “What we’re doing today has nothing to do with what you just went through,” he said. “The reason the Stanford Design School wants you to do this is that this is what we typically do. Doesn’t this look familiar in your workplace? Someone give you an assignment and says, ‘Oh by the way, I need this by Thursday,’ and all of a sudden you’re in problem-solving mode and you’re trying to figure out what you’re going to do. This is not design thinking, and that’s not what we’re going to do today.”
Instead, participants were put into teams of two. “Your job today is to design something useful and meaningful for your partner,” said Winker-Rios. “The most important part of designing for someone is to gain empathy for that person.
Each person was given a few minutes to ask their partner what they wanted in a wallet. “Your job is to get an initial understanding of the user’s problem by empathy or observation,” Winkler-Rios said. “That means you have to immerse yourself in your partner’s story.” The interviewer took notes not about their partner’s story, but about the emotions expressed through body language and other cues.
Next, Winkler-Rios asked everyone to dig deeper into their partner’s mind. “Now that you’ve talked to your partner, you want to pick some of those emotional moments and ask why. Why did you feel that way? Why did it go that way? Pay attention to what they say, and try to think about the thought process and what were they feeling. Then you want to test those assumptions and say, ‘I think I know what you’re feeling, is that right?’ So you’re looking for what’s behind the story.”
With that done, Winkler-Rios asked everyone to write up their interview findings and create a human-centered problem statement. In design thinking-speak this is known as “taking a stand.” The problem statement contains a meaningful challenge a person is going to take action on.
It was only after this step that participants began drawing ideas for their partner’s new wallet. In fact, they were challenged to come up with at least five possible designs in about five minutes. Volume stimulates creative thinking, Chester explained, which is an important part of design thinking. “We’re going to use pictures because pictures are powerful,” she said. “Powerful for our thinking process, and powerful for communicating what we’re thinking.”
Each person presented their sketches to their partner for feedback. Before they did this, Winkler-Rios warned, “Do not over-explain or sell. Again, you’re not invested in this. This is for feedback. Don’t defend it. Put it out there and listen and learn. That’s what this is really about.”
“To the other person: be honest about your thoughts,” Chester said. “We’re trying to reduce risk, so you really want to be honest.”
Once participants had finished that step, Chester pulled out bins with craft materials and instructed everyone to make a prototype of their wallet. “The difference with a physical product is you can get more engagement out of it,” Winkler-Rios said. “You can learn more. That’s what your prototype is for.” When they were finished, each person presented their prototype to their partner for additional feedback.
In real life, design thinkers would have two possible roads to travel after this step. They might go into production or begin offering a new service to their customers. Alternatively, they might take what they’d learned in an earlier step and go through the process again. Either is an acceptable and exciting outcome, Winkler-Rios assured, because both paths will eventually lead to an outcome where a human need is truly and overwhelmingly met.