Design Thinking in a Nutshell

A few years ago you’d hear “move fast and break things” up and down the halls of tech startups and the big companies trying to emulate them. I watched product folks, designers and engineers move fast. I watched them break things. A lot of times, they broke team morale along the way. Sometimes they lost the trust of their audience.

Trust is fragile, people.

Protect it.

Yes, our jobs are fun, we get to solve big problems. It’s exciting. Don’t let that excitement get the best of you. Slow down. If you only read two more lines of this article read these:

Don’t start initiatives by pitching solutions. Pitch problems to solve.

Do your homework.

Do it with others. Don’t formally present “shower ideas” developed alone.

Alone with my thoughts, that’s when genius strikes! Too bad you can’t build it alone..

Design Thinking is a framework that helps teams do 3 things:

1 Place researched human stories, big and small, at the center of strategy.

2 Align on identifying the real problem to solve before coming up with solutions.

3 Then, work iteratively toward designing the most powerful solutions.

Building trust with your peers and customers is a vague task so it helps to have these 3 “rails” to keep you on track practicing solid Design Thinking. Each of these rails has essential components, which I’ll boil down in this article as well as adjacent articles.

Step one: looking at stories big and small.

To truly understand hard data, we need to authentically understand the human stories behind the numbers. It can be hard to see there is a missing story. Similar to the physical phenomena that happens when we look at an object and our brain fills in the space around it, we fill in the blanks around numbers without even acknowledging the blanks exist. We project our personal perspective, sometimes turning correlation into causation:

Data Signal: Parents of toddlers are buying pool noodles like crazy!

Fill in the blank: Toddlers love to swim! Let’s create a line of kid swimwear! Wow, we’re so in touch.[Pats self on back]

Qualitative research (observing real people) shows us: New parents put pool noodles under bedsheets to keep toddlers from rolling out of bed. It’s a hack for parents who don’t want to splurge on a crib.

In the “move fast and break things” playbook you rush to launch and iterate after the fact. You can run out and launch that line of baby swim trunks (adorbs!) and improve upon them after they’re on the market, but you’re just improving the solution to the less meaningful problem. When we rush to develop solutions based on a faulty premise, iteration only.. erm, polishes the turd.

When we skip or rush the discovery research phase we also miss out on the moment where we develop a common story rooted in simple human terms that cross-functional teams can speak confidently about.

Think about how much jargon you come across at work. Designers speak their own language. Engineers speak their own language. Sales, Legal, Product.. everyone has their own wheelhouse and accompanying language. When we come together speaking different languages you’ll see a lot of confident head nodding. No one wants to show their hand and scream: speak human please!!

Yea, I get it. (No, I don’t.)

The great thing about qualitative research is that it’s about people and we all speak “people”.

Getting authentic human stories at the center of your strategic narrative creates a touchstone for alignment, which is the first step in working together to identify the right problem to solve.

The first steps made are the most important ones, so start with strong Discovery Research.

Use signals from data to frame a qualitative study.

Read about framing user research with data here.

NEXT: Define a “people- centered” challenge.

DISCOVERY STEP 2: Enhance quantitative data by observing people in a strong qualitative study.

The depth of your challenge will determine the depth of your Discovery research.

  • DEEP DIVE: observe people in a specific context in order to develop a deeper shared understanding of their experience and identify opportunities to make your product and its messaging stronger. This is not an area to rush or skimp. This is where you pull out the big ux guns: ethnographic research. Just a fancy way of saying: observe people on their own turf, spend a lot of time there and get their stories. Not getting what you need from a standard interview? You may need to develop “show not tell” exercises. More on this later.
  • MEDIUM DEPTH, i.e. understand motivation and intent. You’ve already done the deep dive research and built some features or messaging that sticks. Perhaps you need to prioritize your feature roadmap and you still need to understand: what motivates people in this space when it comes to this bit here? What detracts them? Where do they lean in or get hung up? You need to speak with them in a live conversation — maybe more than one over a period of time (aka diary study). Remote video interviews are great because you get face to face time and can speak with a handful of people from all over the country — or globe — in a day.
  • QUICK & DIRTY: guerrilla research. You and your team know your space really well. You have some light questions to clear up some confusion. Guerrilla research can be as easy as going down to the mall, park or busy intersection and getting quick snapshots of people’s experiences to add to your picture of what’s going on in a space. Some people get excited by the idea of doing guerrilla research and feel like it’s all you need. It’s not that they’re lazy, it’s just that they’re in a reactive mode rather than a proactive one. Reacting to tight deadlines, an engineering pipeline that needs to be constantly filled, etc. But being reactive is no substitute for being proactive. When it comes to research & design remember: garbage in, garbage out. So, can guerrilla research replace deeper research? Nope. It’s just a supplement.

All of the above is “Generative” research that informs ideation.

A great researcher will make this look easy peasy. It’s just talking to people, right? Don’t be fooled. People research is a craft that requires skill to extract actionable insights that are not biased by the study.

For newbies starting out in generative research, you can read some tips here:

The struggle: generative vs evaluative research.

Naturally, most people want to skip the generative step and go straight to evaluating ideas.

Let’s just put it out into the world and we’ll optimize from there!

Fair enough, and in some circumstances that’s fine. But if you chose the wrong problem to solve — as with the pool parent example above — optimizing will only help you solve the wrong problem better.

Also known as “polishing a turd”

Er, more polite way to say it:

You’ll reach a local maximum, probably not a global one.

If you skip Generative research and choose the wrong hill, Evaluative testing will only help you climb to the top of that smaller hill. You’ll never know that bigger hill existed! Even if you sense it’s there and shy away from it, you won’t know the bigger hill deeply enough to REALLY KNOW if it was actually conquerable.

Let’s assume you’ve done your research. You had some great learning moments. You’re wheels are turning. How do you get everyone’s wheels’ turning?

First: observations →insights

An insight is just an observation hammered into a more powerful statement.

Start by determining top observations from your generative study.

Cognitive bias is real so make sure you have a note taking framework to ensure you’re being evenhanded about what happened in user interviews across the board. The 4th image here shows a notes matrix I often create to help keep a bird’s eye view on things.

When everyone who joined the research has had a chance to contribute notes to the matrix, you’ll be ready to host a workshop where you can reflect on the top observations and — as a group — transform them into insights.

Silent voting is a popular way to narrow in on your top observations. If you’re going the post-it and sharpie route give people stickers or marker and ask them to quietly vote on the 3 observations they find most interesting / sticky / or important. If your team uses Slack, you can also post your top observations there and ask people to upvote the top 3.

Agree on the top 1–3 observations gained.. next “uplevel” those observations into insights.

Here’s IDEO’s definition of a great insight that I sometimes use in design thinking workshops:

From there, simply reframe your insights into opportunities.

Translating insights into an actionable set of design hypotheses and a product testing plan can be an incredibly fun and energizing process with your team. More on this coming soon!

Independent UX Consultant :

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store