Is design thinking the key to your next corporate writing gig?

Joe Moses
Joe Moses
Mar 25, 2019 · 7 min read

Jason Tham and Joe Moses

Whether you’re interested in a freelance or a full-time writing position, knowing how design thinking works will make you a more valuable applicant than competitors who only pitch their writing skills or content specialty.

Why? Because hiring managers want problem solvers. We’ve been to countless professional panels at which speakers who say the number-one skill they’re looking for in technical writers and marketing copywriters — after writing ability, of course — is the ability to solve problems. Design thinking, while used commonly in new-product development, is a popular framework for tackling all kinds of complex problems, and writing is definitely one of the most common complex problems organizations have to face.

Writing = Complexity

What’s hidden behind the ordinary assignment of “Write some brochure copy” or “I need a technical description for Z-Widget,” is massive complexity:

  • Devising questions that will net you the answers you need in order to write what you’ve been assigned to write.
  • Accurately interpreting the communication director’s descriptions of audience, purpose, topic, genre, channels, and focus of the material you’re writing.
  • Dealing with the reality that no one ever knows exactly what they want when they assign a writing project. They can’t. Expecting clarity from the person who assigns the project is unrealistic. Only after they see what you’ve written can they recognize that what they thought they wanted isn’t what they want. Plus what you write will inspire new ideas.
  • Translating an engineer’s description of Z-Widget’s many features into advantages and benefits that will appeal to users whom the engineer has never met.
  • Getting all decision-makers on board from the get-go so the draft you’ve put sixteen hours into through four revisions doesn’t wind up on the CEO’s desk for final approval only to have her casually suggest a “minor” change that requires an entirely new direction for a new audience, plus new interviews and new organization.

Design thinking is a design for learning

Sure, solutions to complex writing problems require writing expertise, but even more they require learning expertise, which is what design thinking is all about.

Learning through Empathy

Design thinking prides itself as a human-centered problem-solving framework. For writing, that means not jumping straight into the problem at hand and offering a solution that seems most appropriate. Instead, design thinking asks writers first to consider the needs of those who are impacted by the problem.

Typically, these problems are what design thinkers call “wicked problems,” meaning they do not have any straightforward or single solution, and any implementation of change in response to wicked problems would likely create a ripple effect that impacts many parties or communities. With empathy as a guiding principle of problem solving, writers who adopt design thinking learn from users, consumers, product designers, developers, investors, policymakers, community organizers — any stakeholders who should feel heard and be heard in the change-making process.

For corporate writers, empathy guides audience analysis and understanding of rhetorical situation. Empathy requires direct contact with stakeholders — preferably with both external and internal ones. When direct access to external stakeholders isn’t possible, meeting with customer-facing personnel is the next-best step.

Learning through Definition

Good problem solvers know that in order to create effective solutions they must get to the roots of the issue. Design thinking asks writers to articulate clear, actionable problem statements before diving into what traditional functional groups call the brainstorming process. With wicked problems, writers need to unpack the problem situation before evaluating their solutions too quickly.

In order to come up with clear, actionable problem statements, writers who practice design thinking perform user studies and utilize the qualitative data collected during the empathy stage to generate user stories about audience needs, affect maps about user feelings, points of view about user perspectives, and other analyses. The more human — i.e., emotional, experiential, embodied — the problem statements are, the more helpful they are when used in the latter stages of the design thinking process.

Photo by Beatriz Perez Moya on Unsplash

Corporate writers who use problem definition to more clearly understand readers’ needs focus on the often-neglected affective dimension of professional writing. Design thinking can help writers learn about the human factors in everyday activities, and address these factors in their writing.

Learning through Ideation

Unlike other free-form idea generation methods, design thinking offers a guided structure to ideation, or brainstorming, of solutions. Rooted in human-centered design, design thinking draws from philosophies of accessibility, equity and social justice, user advocacy, and radical collaboration to inform change-making. Using the problem statement devised through the empathy and definition stages, writers can come up with ideas that address specific aspects of the problem without being constrained by conventional politics, ideologies, or oppressive traditions. In fact, the goal is to confront and challenge these traditions. Such moves can be difficult to make in organizations unless you manage expectations by making time for unconstrained brainstorming a norm in your workflow.

Using different modes of idea generation — including adaptation, disruption, experimentation, pattern recognition, radical imagination, just to name a few — design thinkers create multiple versions of ideas for review and discussion. The goal is to generate as many ideas as possible, and make the thoughts and feelings in the ideation process visible. Post-Its, whiteboards, and shared documents are common tools in this process.

Corporate writers can find unexpected sources of content innovation by inviting diverse stakeholders to participate.

Learning by Prototyping and Testing

Among the most important distinctions of design thinking is the materializing of ideas through low-fi or rapid prototyping. The goal of prototyping is to create early, low-stakes, small-scale versions of ideas for testing. This human-centered process benefits designers, users — as many internal and external stakeholders as you can get into the same room — by making thinking visible, so the content benefits from input from diverse perspectives. The prototypes can be used to gauge user experience and generate user feedback before mass production.

Photo by José Alejandro Cuffia on Unsplash

Practitioners typically perform low-fi prototyping like sketches ideas on paper or whiteboards and other quick formats before moving onto higher-fidelity prototyping using software. The prototype should have a look, feel, and means of interaction that meets specific user needs.

Learning from Testing

Similar to the common process of reviewing drafts, testing is less about seeking affirmation for a complete draft of content and more about learning how others interact and respond to small increments of content. That is, testing should be frequent and routine rather than rare and high-stakes. The feedback you receive about headings, titles, phrasing, or outlines helps to gain stakeholder buy-in early and prevent those “minor” changes that come out of nowhere.

An important distinction here in the testing stage is to not tell the users what to do (i.e., how they should interact with the prototype) but instead to let them experience the designed solution for themselves. Corporate writers can borrow this practice from design thinking and apply it to the testing of their content mockup. It can be rewarding to observe how your readers make sense of the increment, the questions that arise, and suggestions they make for improvement.

Learning through Retrospection & Iteration

Upon returning from testing sessions, design thinking practitioners often spend a good deal of time reviewing participant feedback and concerns. As an iterative problem-solving process, design thinking encourages practitioners to go back to their original drawing boards and revisit previously unconsidered problems. This retrospective approach instills in the practitioners a mindset that writing (and problem solving) is an iterative process. Human problems are complex problems, and complex problems aren’t easily solved by a single attempt. This doesn’t mean that practitioners shouldn’t finalize any of their writing ideas. The key here is to recognize the impractical assumption of a singular solution. The sweet spot to aim for is in the overlapping circles of viability (business sense), feasibility (technical capacity), and desirability (human wants).

For corporate writers, this mindset is critical in content creation. The print tradition tends to emphasize longevity of content (e.g., books, brochures) but as we increasingly move into digital presentation, writers must learn to identify evolving human needs and craft timely content that accounts for the complexity in today’s reading and writing experiences.

Design thinking can help writers empathize with stakeholders, define actionable problems, ideate creative solutions, prototype interactions, test content with actual users, and achieve consensus among key stakeholders — all competitive advantages in a fierce market.

Joe Moses

Written by

Joe Moses

Senior Lecturer, Writing Studies, University of Minnesota. Collaborative writer.

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