Design Thinking is the craziest trust fall I’ve ever done

It’s not a huge stretch of the imagination to say that Design Thinking is like a trust fall. You don’t know that someone is going to catch you. You can’t panic half way through and bail, because no one behind you will know how to catch you if you freak out. You just have to remain calm, push off, and let it happen.

It’s crazy, and it’s terrifying.

I mean, of course it is. No one wants to be Gretchen Weiners.

No one wants to fall flat in front of everyone. And that’s what we’re facing in z Systems. Our products are very public facing, and if we mess up, it’ll be a big deal. It will be embarrassing and painful.

That’s why Design Thinking makes my team nervous. They’re technical guys. They like making things. They like solutions. They’ve been taught that if you plug numbers into a formula you’ll get an answer — the answer. The problem is that Design Thinking isn’t going to spit out an answer at the end. Sure, you can think of each user interview as another number to plug into a formula, but in the end, all Design Thinking will do is put you in a position to make the best decision for your users. But there are no absolutes. You don’t know what the solution will be. You don’t know that there will be people to catch you at the end of your fall, you just have to trust that you’ll land safely.

The uncertainty stresses my team out to no end. It’s great when we’re in the moment. We talk to users, we feel like we’re accomplishing something, we generate some really great insights that will be useful… at some point. But when are we going to use this information? I don’t know, April maybe? What do these insights mean for us down the road? No idea, we’ll find out.

When I talk about Design Thinking, I feel like I sound so wishy washy. “We’ll find out.” I say it all the time. It should be the slogan of Design Thinking. We’ll find out.

But it’s true. I could speculate into the implications of some of our findings, but I won’t know for sure until the end. Just as you won’t know that people are going to catch you until they’ve already got you in their arms. You won’t know that you’re going to be safe until you’ve been caught.

I’m not one to willingly relinquish control, but Design Thinking forces me to hand over the steering wheel to the process itself. I’d much rather have a nice document of information handed to me so that I could decide what the answer is in fifteen minutes. But I can’t do that, because I know that I’m not in that stage of the Design Thinking journey. I’m still in the information gathering stage. If I try to jump the gun and solutionize too soon, my product isn’t going to be useful for anyone.

You really just have to trust the process.

Design Thinking forces you to step out of your comfort zone — stop freaking out about the future, and work in the moment! When you think about it, it’s actually pretty peaceful. You just have to go where the process takes you. If you get user feedback that is contrary to everything you’ve been working on, that’s Design Thinking taking you in a new direction and making you pivot. As long as you don’t fight what you’re learning, you’re going to end up with a solution that is best suited for your users. Just let it happen naturally, and you’ll end up with something you might have never expected.

I have to remind myself of this every day. I’m one to plan and solutionize. I’m the one that leads a group project. I’m the one that drives the car on road trips. But I have to let go if I want to be a successful designer and IBMer. It’s really important for me to remember that in the end, the users are what matters. In the end, I’m going to come out with a solution that will benefit those users. In the end, I’ll land safely.


Tyler is a Software Design Lead at IBM based in Poughkeepsie, NY. The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

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