My dad, a hard-core operations veteran of the electronics manufacturing industry, once taught me his golden rule of business: your clients’ problems are your problems. We must listen to our clients and, in effect, become the interpreter of their needs. Throughout my engineering education and a cocktail of other professional experiences, there were times when the clients — may this be my boss or stakeholder — show up to influence our decisions but I didn’t know quite how to adopt this thinking into my day-to-day work.
Now, a ‘sophomore’ of the Design Impact program, it’s pretty clear to me that the idea my dad was talking about forms the core of we would call design thinking. In an information interview with an executive, I was asked a particularly pointed question:
“What feels most natural to you in your role right now, like breathing?”
to which I responded: getting to know our users.
School is the best clean slate and I am treating this graduate program as such: a sharp right turn from engineering to design, down a long and windy road to explore how design thinking plays with other disciplines. Specifically, my background in energy has conditioned me to think of solutions that fits neatly into buckets — namely, at the intersection of the technology, finance, and policy. As much for the energy industry as for other business settings, I wonder: where does user-centered design fit in?
Discovering Elements of Design
In pursuit of that question, and with relentless support of mentors and friends, I was able to carve out a learning experience through a project with Steelcase in Grand Rapids, Michigan this summer. There was a lot of firsts for me; first time working for a global corporation, first immersion in the office furniture industry, first time living in the Midwest in US of A, first consulting-esque project, first time wearing a corporate strategy hat. Practising a beginner’s mindset? Check.
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous — five weeks is a short time to get adjusted to all the firsts of any role and to be tasked with making a strategy recommendation is a rather tall order. Furthermore, my work will speak for my abilities as much as for the design community and future Loftees (students and graduates of the Design Impact program) who want to work at Steelcase.
Our corporate strategy works closely with the executive team to craft a vision for growth for the next several years. I was given a comfortably ambiguous responsibility to define the opportunity area for how Steelcase might support our clients’ company culture. I had expected — but certainly underestimated — the ambiguity of the project because we work with strategic recommendations as our currency. Indeed, it was easy to get lost amongst the industry insights and stakeholder interviews and lose track of who our users are.
This is where I think design thinking comes in handy: the methodology gives structure to how I could approach an ambiguous problem where the user group and their needs are unclear. At the end of the project, my boss’ feedback suggested as much: that he had hoped to learn from this project how design can be used to solidify an unclear problem statement and give it a point of view.
Know Your Users Vs. Choosers
As a newcomer to the industry, I came in thinking that I first need to understand the people who interact with the office spaces we designed — the “butts-in-seats”, if you will. So, unprompted, I went around interviewing fellow interns to understand the future workforce. About three weeks into the project, I had the chance to visit Merchandise Mart in Chicago — a mall of showrooms and venue for furniture industry conference Neocon — and speak to the sales team who interacts closely with real estate and design firms who buys our furniture. That’s when I realized then that our ‘users’ are no longer just the butts — they are also the people who choose which seats will get under those butts.
What do our enterprise clients with whom we have a working relationship come to us for? Why would workplace consultants who help clients design their office spaces choose to buy from us? What story do our products tell about our clients’ spaces, if anything? Forming hypotheses around these questions helped me better understand the ecosystem and help unlock potential recommendations by identifying what unmet needs to explore and potentially powerful relationships.
Lean on Experience for Feedback
Prior to starting the project, I proposed a research schedule with specific tasks (think: Gantt chart) and on the first day we agreed on a deliverable and scope for the project. Not surprisingly, as the research and conversations proceeds, the questions changed and I was more often than not struggling to land on a clear direction.
Source: Daniel Newman’s ReVision Lab
While this ambiguity is expected in the research process, I actively sought out feedback to help me to understand how my role fits with team’s work. How does the team think? How does the team communicate? I was proactive about asking the analysts and interns on the team for feedback on everything from the scope of the project in relation to our other works, to how to format slides in the style of the team for maximum effect.
Everyone was curious about my project and I got to learn about theirs (it certainly helped that we all sat facing each other on one giant desk!). At the end of the day, feedback is a time to learn more about how we do things as much as what we do — and this comes from the people who’s been there longer than I have.
Design thinking ultimately falls back on the idea that our clients know best whether a solution addresses their need or not. Corporate strategy, naturally, has more than one ‘client’ that we listen to: the executive team, external partners, and to our end-users (the butts-in-seats, in this case). Given more time, I would’ve gotten more feedback from other teams and stakeholders because being visionary without address the users needs is not an option.
Designing in Isolation (It Doesn’t Exist)
Beyond the scope of my project, I also got to learn about the company’s design philosophy. I spoke to over 30 people about their work and these conversations revealed that design doesn’t happen in just one place or through a particular method. One team started with a technology review and mechanical prototype, others start by reaching out to clients for insights. This would be obvious to experienced designers — but for me the question becomes: how do you align all these creative efforts?
Design work requires a leap of faith — from the designer who must face uncertainties in discovery and from the boss who must invest resources to support your journey. Luckily, I was given room and faith to operate freely. In other departments, however, this is not always the case.
I have no doubt that Steelcase is an expert at human factors and can make a comfortable chair in the world, but would they be able to make one at a reasonable price? If a competitor launches a wildly successful product — having incurred the cost of innovation and proving desirability — then wouldn’t it be logical to design a product that satisfies the same need?
All this is to say that great design can happen in isolation when identifying opportunity areas and promising ideas, but great products must consider the various constraints unique to each industry, company, and workforce talent. At its best, design is a compass and users our true north — getting to our destination efficiently and delightfully (and ideally before our competitors) still needs designers to work within the boundaries of a business.