Are Comedians the model for Design Thinking?

Before I dig into this thought, I’d like to explain design thinking, as I understand it, in a super high level way. If you’re already in the “know”, just fast forward to the Comedian section!

So what is Design Thinking?

IDEO and 1000’s of other bloggers/designers have opened our eyes to human centered design and since then, many others have attempted to created similar frameworks. Despite the variety, a lot of these frameworks have one thing in common to begin the design process — start with the customer.

There are 5 super important steps to follow when approaching a problem to solve with design thinking frameworks:

The basic design thinking steps

Empathize

You have a problem to solve right? So, go get dirty and observe the problem. This is something that few people actually do for a lot of reasons (they think they’re above it, they’re are scared to talk to people, etc.) but observation and immersion are critical to understanding your customer and their problem.

You must go and see things for yourself and talk to the impacted party. There is no better way to become a better designer than to talk to the person you’re designing for. Strategyzer.com (might have to sign up — free) has a lot of good ways to ask questions to your subject to trigger valuable feedback and response. You are collecting data without applying your own bias. (Bias can “poison” the data)

Define

Define your customer’s perspective and where there is opportunity. Take all the notes and create a sticky for each note nugget (you should have a lot if you did the empathy step correctly).

Start categorizing these by themes. You’ll begin to see patterns in what different people have said. This begins to refine what the true need is. I like to use Strategyzer’s approach to creating a Customer Profile because it focuses on the customer’s Pains, Gains and Jobs to be Done. I also use Personas, Empathy Maps and Journey Maps. By doing this, you have a great visual of what your problem is and what the true needs are.

Ideate

Ah, the whiteboard…my muse…my beloved. If I could paint all of my walls in whiteboard paint, I would. It’s science, whiteboards make you happier and smarter. Take your customer profile and dive in. Generate as many ideas as you can. Create pain relievers for the customer’s pains. Develop gain creators for the customer’s gain wishes. Redefine the product or service that is needed to deliver the Jobs to be Done. You’ve now created a new value proposition.

Prototype

Build a mockup, draft, drawing, replica — something. You need something that turns the idea into reality. This helps others conceptualize and identify with the idea. It doesn’t have to be a working thing — it has to resemble the vision. I use Sketch, InVision and even PowerPoint to create a fair amount of prototypes and it really helps with socializing and the next step.

Testing

You have an idea, you have a prototype. Now you have to test your assumption. This is critical. You have to be willing to accept you might be wrong and that you’ll live to iterate another day. But the key is try your idea out on customers. Even if its only FIVE people, you’ll get your idea out of your own head and see how it floats in the ocean of the customer (there’s a poor sink or swim reference there).

Why comedians may be the best design thinkers around

So now we know the basics of design thinking. Let’s look at how comics are great models in their approach to making us laugh.

I am a fan of “The King of All Media”, Howard Stern. Yes, his humor is crude and controversial. However, his interviews, no matter your level of maturity or politics, are THE BEST. He’s interviewed a lot of famous celebrities over the years (30+!) and the most fascinating interviews to me, are with comedians.

Stern creates an immediate and deep connection with comedians and like a great interviewer, digs into the meta level of thought and neural architecture. If you have a Sirius subscription, the app has on-demand so you can pull any of his interviews or try YouTube for snippets. Some of the more inspiring interviews have been from Jerry Seinfeld, Whitney Cummings, Martin Short, Jason Bateman, Amy Schumer, Jim Carey, Chris Rock or Louis CK describing their art form.

It really hit home when Jerry Seinfeld described how he evaluates jokes. His obsession over the architecture of a joke and what goes into writing a stand up jokes connected to the process of design for me. Paraphrasing Seinfeld: You make this interesting observation and to see if its really funny — you see how many waves of laughs can you squeeze out of it. — how deep can you take this observation? If you can get a 2nd or 3rd wave out of the observation, thats when you have gold. Similar to designing a product or service — how do you get past the surface level of needs and create something truly special and differentiated.

Let’s breakdown the Comic’s approach:

Empathy: Comedians start with an observation. Whether it is a character in a script or some seemingly innocuous moment on a subway. An observation or immersion into society and the ability to at least mentally track and tally these events makes empathy the first step in delivering an awesome performance. Comics are like sponges, absorbing culture and society. Being able to take a simple insight and create something valuable from it, is very much what human centered design is all about.

Steve Martin noticed that in every bathroom there was a sign reading “All employees must wash hands” (more later on this).

Define: Comedians then begin to define the opportunity by noticing the trend and recording it — mentally or physically. They continually collect more data by talking to people and observing the world around them. Comedians also use trends and insights from other comedians that help them pin point an insight or observation that will work on stage. Essentially, they are taking in data constantly and refining and aligning to a theme or observation.

Ideate: Once a comic understands the relative commonality with themselves and others, they start to ideate — usually very rapidly. A comedian’s wit kicks in to begin spinning a tale or situation to exploit the insight. Seinfeld writes down his ideas over and over again and brainstorms different ways to deliver a joke or stream of thought. Comics are creating an architecture through stressing over phrases, words and syllables. This is very similar to a designer coming up with 100’s of ideas to think through and refine before prototyping.

Comedians also build and share upon ideas. They suggest improvements and refinements or different contexts to approach the idea with. This is not unlike a design team — sharing and using the “YES AND” approach to ideas.

Prototype: Comics spitball ideas, write a 100 different ways to deliver the joke and then eventually build a prototype — a 5 minute set. This prototype set is a culmination of their observations, defined opportunities and ideas around delivery and execution of a good joke. They construct this according to their data and their knowledge of how their audience’s respond. Jokes and sets are also tailored to specific mediums.

Test: Comedians do a lot of 5 minute sets with small crowds or impromptu visits at comedy shops, etc. This test is where they refine their prototypical 5 minutes. They gauge reaction and response. It’s important to understand how they view their tests which is transferrable to products and services. They do not rely on past accomplishments for jokes — there may be 1 or 2 obligatory laughs based on their fame but as the set unfolds, the audience will show their real reaction. As Colin Quinn says, “[stand up] comedy is the closest thing to justice.”

Comics test their product in every way, looking for that right sound from their audience. This is essential to creating a new product or service. Test and look for that feedback from your audience, iterate and go again.

Steve Martin’s joke about hand washing:
“I’ll be honest with you, right off the top, because I’m a little upset with the Beacon Theatre. I was backstage and I used the restroom. And there was a sign that read, ‘Employees Must Wash hands. [Pause] “And I could not find [pause] one employee [pause] to wash my hands”

I hope you enjoyed this article. I’d love to hear your thoughts!