Learning a design mindset

James Kelway
Jun 14, 2018 · 6 min read

The fallacy of planning in a software reality

Designers are a rare breed. We think in non-linear ways. We do not plan as much as get started with something. We create and change as we go. This is actually completely different to a plan and execute strategy.

Planning up front is meaningless when the variables of a successful solution change as you get started. Fixed specifications only serve a historical perspective as time will change the delivery.

Imagine a software product that has been specified to launch in 2020. The plan took a year to put in place and in that time the market changed. The project gets shelved or worse, you have begun a 2 year project with 40 people working on something that will never be thought of as valuable. Motivation and knowledge leaves the building, and the company.

Design thinking is a default in the user centred design process

Design thinking naturally occurs in the process of making something — a notion that many misunderstand. If you are white-boarding blue-sky thoughts without the methods of creation then you are wasting time (and money).

To put a product out there and test as soon as possible with something tangible is the goal. Be it preto or prototype, it needs to be getting as close to real people in the real world as soon as possible. Deal in tangible concepts and do not research for too long before you get started. Though you cannot predict the future you can see what works very quickly by getting it out there.

Better still, allow people to use and critique and take the learnings on board and iterate immediately. Being truly agile is a mindset not a process. Speed to action, and research in action is the only way to remain competitive. Regardless of when it occurs, you need to be bold in the decisions that you take. Mistakes will happen but have the grace to realise it’s ok and part of the process.

Google Sprints — the design panacea

Innovation happens whilst we design in our process. It certainly doesn’t occur without the constant iteration we see in the standard process of design. It needs to be initiated without expectations other than results from experimentation. Decisions then need to be taken on the basis of the hypothesis being right or wrong.

This ambiguous but binary way to make design decisions is crucial. And that the data we take to inform our decision making should be as holistic in its source as possible. Data can be an enormous rouse — too much noise and not enough signal. Only experienced practitioners can detect the signal and allow us to act upon it.

Google Ventures’ Sprint book packages the process in a way that feels accessible to all but this is a falsehood — only time, experience and talent gives rise to truly great work.

Innovation garages will fail many times before the fruits of labour are seen. The big question is do companies have the resources and patience to see this through? In my experience they certainly do not, only ‘pivoting’ to cover up these very public failures.

Learning by doing

When you consider how we need to innovate for new products or services that people are genuinely benefitting from, then the necessity to learn as individuals inside organisations (and the organisation itself to realise this) must be made a priority. For all the talk about digital transformation we need to move the conversation on to the mindsets of the people we employ.

We know that many do not exhibit a growth mindset. However to succeed we cannot stop learning and in this we also have the problem of further education that stops at a masters or MBA level.

We cannot stop learning and getting better. Continuous improvement is a prerequisite for survival and ensures we do not get complacent and too comfortable. We need to be aware that nobody has all the information (and hence all the answers). We need open minds to try new methods and to make the best we can with the limited resources we will always have.

Companies need to get smart and focus on the minds they employ

HR needs to have a new name in this regard — talent (and retention of that talent) is crucial as it’s KPI measure of effectiveness. HR has the responsibility to ensure the brain of an organization gets smarter — not just the practicalities of salary talks, contracts and vacation.

Many say it comes down to culture but when you decompile this word in a modern business setting then it has many layers. People’s biases and general impressions from the behaviours of their colleagues cements a culture that can be either progressive, stagnant or toxic.

Consider this in your work place;

Learning — how do you measure the combined skills of your workforce. Do you benchmark over time on an individual competence level?

Funding — do you decentralise expenditures for innovation funding and is it based on accumulated customer value?

Commercial drivers — what drives your business and are you supporting the customer throughout the organisation in terms of service delivery and customer promise? Do sales ever harm the overall efforts of the business to deliver quality?

Company image and mission — is your company brand telling truths your customers (and employees) identify with? Are you relevant and engaging? People need purpose when they work and to believe in the people who they work for.

These factors impact upon the capability of a company to deliver quality and value to the end customer, the employees and eventually shareholders.

Getting ready for the unknown

The ability of learning through doing (action) is a good indicator of how a company can be agile in response to the effects of market forces and maximize opportunities as they arise. By taking real interest in those we employ (and seeing potential being realized at an individual level) only then will our organisations be ready for uncertainty and the opportunities that will inevitably appear.

However, this takes time and a business must employ external expertise to enable their teams to reach the desired quality in the deadline driven reality that they face. You cannot teach design without the student doing it themselves, and by doing it they will need to accept less than perfect results in order to get better. Building design capabilities is a long game, and the patience of organisations (and their shareholders) seldom lasts the distance that a team needs to succeed to produce truly great products.

Use experts to reach maturity

An external company specialising in product and service design is the necessary catalyst to move organisations to another level quickly. But only if they produce (and not teach) their way to it’s next product or service.

Having external expertise building a high quality product will be enough for any company to learn from and in how to organise to bring this level of quality to the company’s design operations.

But to throw a group of people with enthusiasm and interesting CVs together in a warehouse and expect magic to happen is naive. Hire a great product team and let them do their thing. Learn from the results and gradually infuse the organisation with their expertise over time.

It will protect your workforce from unrealistic expectations and ensure they improve in a controlled professional environment. Incubate and nurture the less experienced alongside those who have done this for decades and the results will be a sustainable and competent design team, who can make a company achieve growth and create real customer value.

Thanks to Tarik Arnautovic, Jenny Lindh and Morten Ols for illustrating this post.


James Kelway

Written by

CPO and co-founder at Grant Compass. Making change through experience design for the benefit of foundations and grant seekers. Thoughts http://www.userpathways


We exist to solve problems that positively impact people’s everyday lives — and ultimately our clients’ businesses.

More From Medium

More on Digital Product from HelloGreatWorks

More on Design Thinking from HelloGreatWorks

More on Design Thinking from HelloGreatWorks

Let’s design with friction (and human-centered).

More from James Kelway

More from James Kelway

Why we need design systems


Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade