3 Lessons I learned from my UBC Business Design Course

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I became familiar with the world of design after attending a three day workshop at my university called the UBC Design challenge. During this workshop, I witnessed first hand, what an exciting and deeply human process design thinking is. After that experience, I desired to learn more, so I read Tim Brown’s Change by Design, Tom Kelly’s Creative Confidence and Don Norman’s Design of Everyday Things. Each of these books provided valuable insight into the world of design and it’s potential to inspire innovation and create meaningful change. After that, I wanted to learn how to put that knowledge into practice. That is why I decided to enroll in this course, so that I could gain more practical knowledge and learn by doing. In this reflection, I shall write about 3 lessons I learned from this course and their applicability to business (and life).

Embracing constraints

“Here is one of the few effective keys to the Design problem: the ability of the Designer to recognize as many of the constraints as possible; his willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints.”
- Charles Eames
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The first lesson I learned was to work with constraints. I had read that constraints are the foundation of design thinking, but I never understood what that really meant. This lesson was taught to me in our first day of class when we were told to develop a business idea and present it to the whole class in less than 45 minutes. In this case, our main constraint was time. This experience was incredibly challenging for me (and my “perfectionist” mindset), but it actually turned out to be great learning experience. It taught me that the only way to know if an idea works is through a series of experimentation.

“The faster we make our ideas tangible, the sooner we will be able to evaluate them, refine them, and zero in on the best solution.”
- Tim Brown, Change by Design

In business lingo, this concept is referred to as a prototype. Given our time constraints, we were able to make the right tradeoffs and come up with our first prototype. It wasn’t perfect, but it was still something to work with. Our time constraints forced us to think outside the box to inspire creativity. After that experience, I learned that working with given constraints allows us to arrive at new and better solutions.

Embracing ambiguity

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“We may not know what that answer is, but we know that we have to give ourselves permission to explore.”
- Patrice Martin, Creative Director at IDEO

When we were first assigned our design brief, we had no idea where to start. The topic was so broad that we could go in any direction we wished. The only thing clear to us was that we had to integrate storytelling in our final solution. At first, not having a clear idea of where to start was a bit frustrating — we kept jumping from one idea to another without reaching any particular solution. But this was completely natural. Now, I realize that there was no need to be frustrated as we were engaged in divergent thinking. This form of thinking allowed us to generate many ideas and test them against one another. By having more ideas, we increased the likelihood that the outcome will be bolder and more compelling. Once we had enough ideas, we moved to the convergent phase where we eliminated ideas and made decisions.

Source: UXThink.com

Although this form of thinking wasn’t particularly comfortable, it allowed us to open up creatively, to pursue lots of different ideas, and to arrive at unexpected solutions. We came up with all types of crazy ideas and built on the ideas of one another. By embracing that ambiguity, while staying on topic, we gave ourselves permission to be creative. It’s difficult not knowing the answer, and even less so not even knowing the right questions to ask. But if we knew the answer, when we started, what could we have possibly learned? How could we have come up with creative solutions? By becoming comfortable with the unknown, we were able to avoid leaping into conclusions and be free to pursue a solution that we couldn’t initially imagine. The most important takeaway from this exercise is that ambiguity is the route, not the obstacle, to innovation.

Be Empathetic

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Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place. 
- Daniel Pink

My final and perhaps most important takeaway was the importance of empathy in the design process. The short descriptive video we watched in class on Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind clearly explained why empathy is one of the key ingredients of human-centred design. In the world of design, being empathetic is more than just listening to what the other person is saying — it is to go beyond the individual and identify the latent needs that the other person may not be able to articulate.

In practice, this lesson became clear to me when I noticed how much I was learning about Creative BC (the organization we were designing for) through my conversations with the staff. Rather than just going through their website, I realized that engaging in conversations with them was a much more effective way to learn about the organization and the people we were designing for. Once I understood this, I began to listen more intently to what they were saying. As a group, we asked them questions like:

  • What is your story?
  • What is one thing you love about Creative BC?
  • Why do you do what you do?

These questions gave us valuable insight into our own design challenge. By simply listening to what they were saying, we were able to move from empathy to drawing conclusions from those conversations. This experience allowed us learn more about the people we were designing for, which in turn helped us to come up with a solution that best fit their needs.

Design Your Life

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The reason why I love design thinking is because the principles are also applied to life. Just like a design problem, life is also full of constraints: time, money, age, location, etc. We are also faced with many uncertainties in life, which means that we must learn to deal with ambiguities if we wish to eliminate stress and live life to the fullest. Lastly, we must develop empathy for one another if we wish to connect and understand each other at a fundamental human level. To develop empathy, we must truly listen to one another and set aside our own viewpoint in order to see things from each other’s perspectives. This one skill will not only lead to greater success professionally, it will also lead to more happiness in our personal lives.