Love and Tech: Leading Disruptive Design

Most people would not put the words “IT Department” and “dating” in the same sentence. But it’s the unusual approach of Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (a.k.a. The d.school) that led me and my team to that unlikely combination. Their design process taught us how to go from ambiguity to “aha” moments.

It may sound like a fun learning journey but it didn’t always feel that way.

My first few weeks in d.Leadership, a course at the d.school that teaches students how to coach and drive quality design process in groups, only seemed to confirm my initial suspicion: I sucked at Design Thinking.

My partner Kai Ung and I were assigned to lead a small working group from the IT department of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory to improve their users’ experience of their IT services. To do that, we kicked off with an 8-hour design thinking session with the group. The team conducted numerous interviews with users asking them how they interact with SLAC’s IT services. From those interviews, our team came up with three potential insights to mine for further exploration.

We thought the insights were pretty good. We were wrong.

When my partner and I presented our team’s work back at the d.school to our fellow students and teaching team, our insights were determined to be the worst in the class. As someone used to succeeding, the feedback hit hard. But looking back on the experience, this low point proved to be the most critical moment for me, my partner and our team. It led to our success.

Instead of commiserating, our team decided to cut its losses and double down on the one insight that our instructors found to be just barely acceptable. We reexamined the user interviews, looking for deeper insights than the one we originally had. Through focused attention, we took our original insight that the user wanted personalized attention and asked ourselves: Could we dial up the intensity of what we meant by personalized attention? Could we make it so personalized that it felt like … a date?

Our new insight eventually led us to prototype “IT Dates,” one-on-one, heavily curated, personalized experiences to meet the needs of individual users. Instead of submitting electronic help requests into a faceless database, “IT Dates” allowed users to have a more human experience while getting their technology needs met. Feedback was strong and positive. After our first trial run, users told us the experience “made them feel special.” Others said they couldn’t believe that “IT Dates” was a real service offered by SLAC. Encouraged by the feedback, we focused our next round of testing specifically on providing support for a new IT initiative to help all of SLAC’s 1,500 employees transfer their data to a file hosting service called OneDrive. With no previous interventions by IT, our one week offering of “IT Dates” led to an 80 percent increase in adoption of the service over any of the previous weeks.

Most exciting, the impact went beyond our test week. Word got out. Not only were “IT Dates” effective, they were having a ripple effect as the people who experienced the dates began sharing the knowledge they learned, essentially training dozens of other users without any direct involvement from IT.

The CIO of SLAC was so impressed by the impact our small six-person team made that she plans to add more IT staffers to join the original design team. In addition, the VP of Learning for AVIXA, one of the largest audio visual trade associations, reached out to interview us on our process and share best practices with her 5,400 members from 80 countries. Our instructors were so excited by our results that they nominated us to present at SF Design Week, the largest design festival in the Bay Area.

How did we shift from producing the weakest design work to producing some of the strongest design work of our cohort?

EMBRACE UNCERTAINTY. Ambiguity is just part of this process, particularly when something is unfamiliar to you. As Max De Pree, the author of several books on leadership and business noted, every leader is initially rendered “temporarily incompetent” when she encounters a new situation. That never feels good. But if you embrace it, it will likely be a temporary state as you learn new skills and become increasingly competent. The sooner you accept the reality of temporary incompetence and get comfortable with being uncomfortable, the better the design process will be.

LOW POINTS ARE OPPORTUNITIES. Everyone will experience low points. How you react to them will either help you succeed or make things more challenging. If you see a low point as a death knell, there’s really nowhere you can go from there. But if you understand it to be a learning opportunity, you will be far more likely to experience a turnaround than not. As Stanford business professor and current chairman of JetBlue Joel Peterson says, “you win or you learn.”

BUILD MOMENTUM THROUGH TRANSPARENCY AND HUMILITY. Not every team experienced highs immediately after lows, but all the successful teams in our cohort did. To make the rapid shift from a low to a high, my team had to be completely transparent about why our design work was weak and own it. That took having lots of humility from everyone on the team. Once we shifted to a high, we continued to be transparent about our work, never taking our foot off the gas. It would have been easy to coast on our first successes but the team would never have reached the level success it did by the end had we done so.

POWER OF THE METAPHOR. Don’t underestimate the power of a compelling metaphor. Viewing personalized attention as “dates” completely transformed the way our team worked and opened up deeper veins of creativity. That the metaphor stuck throughout the experience is a testament to its lasting effect in improving the quality of our design work.

Nothing good ever comes easy. The road to quality design work is no different. It may be a bumpy path, but if you lean into the process with humility, transparency and curiosity, your work will be all the richer for it.

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