Ine Vassøy: Design Thinking in Organizations

Ine is a Service Designer from Oslo designing for services, products, strategies, and innovations. She’s been working for leading service design agencies like Designit, Fjord, Spotless and now works for Cisco, but her first job was… a prison guard. In our talk, we’ve discussed the role of design thinking in organizations.

Ine Vassøy is a service designer from Oslo

Ine, tell me about your experience of working as a prison guard.

I studied product design for my bachelor in Norway. My university had a partnership with a prison in Oslo. One of our projects was to design a product that the prisoners could develop in their workshops. The prison is self-sustainable as they produce (almost) everything they need in their workshops using metal, wood, textile etc. For this project, I designed a laundry bag which the prison commission chose to put into production in one of their workshops. I was invited to follow up the production during the summer holidays. By the end of the summer, they asked me if I want to continue to work part-time as a prison guard. It was a perfect part-time job beside my studies, as a prison has flexible working hours and doesn’t close at nights nor for holidays :-)

It sounds like a tough job, but it is actually a caring profession. In my view, a prison is not meant to be punishment but rather a place for rehabilitation. The role of a prison guard is to help people succeed in their rehabilitation and to make it easier for them to get back into the society. It’s all about talking to people, understanding them and providing support. I met many interesting people there, people that I usually wouldn’t meet in my daily life. I learned that life is very complicated. As empathy is key in design, I believe my unconventional working experience enabled me to see people with a new perspective.

The experience as a prison guard made me question criminal justice itself. People who are on the “wrong side of the law” actually build a network of fellow criminals in prison, making rehabilitation and a new life increasingly harder to achieve. If you’ve been in prison once, you are more likely to get back to prison again. It would be great to facilitate a service design project re-thinking the rehabilitation of convicts at one point in my career.

How did you make a switch from industrial to service design?

During my product design studies, I was more intrigued by the people surrounding the products, rather than the products itself. My university college was famous for having great design workshops where students could create prototypes so perfect that they looked like they came straight from the factory. My prototypes were always the exception… I just didn’t have an I eye for a details, nor the patience to polish prototypes. I was more interested in the purpose of the products rather than its appearance. I started to study people and the surroundings of the products, looking for patterns and insights in the research.

I got introduced to service design through my master’s degree and it was love at first sight. Livework Oslo was partnering with our university and facilitated workshops and real projects with real clients. Thus we got the best training one could get. This inspired me to keep exploring service design. I’m still exploring, it’s a field of work that is in constant development.

Service design is often compared to design thinking. What is design thinking for you?

For me, design thinking is a mindset and approach to problem-solving in a creative and empathetic way. Service design has a similar approach, but I like to believe that when you design for services you use more time to understand the holistic picture and how things connect.

Do you think that design thinking is only applicable to organizations that provide services to humans?

I think design thinking can be applied in many types of contexts. Designers can work with all kinds of challenges. So if there is an organization that doesn’t provide services to humans, we’ll find interesting challenges to explore internally, for example how to improve the employee experience.

Do you think that design thinking is for designers only? Is it possible for an individual within the organization to apply design thinking at his current position?

I ran a number of service design workshops at General Assembly in London. General Assembly is a community providing education for people interested in design, marketing, and technology. Several leaders and managers, without a design background, have attended the service design courses. They want to learn how design can help their organizations. Companies that deliver services and products should embrace design thinking and make it a part of the company culture.

Creating a service blueprint during one of the workshops

Having support from the leadership is crucial in order to get design thinking embedded at the heart of your organization. But it doesn’t have to start with the leadership. Employees can apply tools from design thinking to solve problems together with colleagues. Design thinking is a mindset for everyone.

Design thinking is often opposed to systems thinking. What’s the difference?

Systems thinking is a holistic and analytical approach that looks for patterns and connections. Systems thinking helps to understand ecosystems, organizations, services, and industries.

Design thinking is about empathy, identifying problems and creating sustainable and creative solutions to solve those problems.

Service design is somewhere in between. It’s understanding and empathizing with people and also understanding the holistic picture of how things connect.

Designers are problem solvers trying to make the world a better place, but we have different approaches to solving those problems. We can all learn from each other and should embrace the different perspectives. Being challenged by a different perspective will lead to a better solution in the end.

How to show the value of design thinking to organizations?

It’s tricky to measure the immediate impact of implementing design thinking in organizations because the change normally happens slowly and is rarely an overnight success. The change of shifting from a traditional organization to a design-led one requires more than adjusting the processes and ways of working, it’s changing the culture of the company. It’s cultivating a culture where people dare to explore and take creative risks. That culture might lead to an overnight success. Building a practice where design thinking is a part of the DNA of the organization will take time, therefore it is challenging to show the value of design thinking immediately.

But, there are ways to indicate the value of design thinking rapidly. For the last few years, I’ve been collaborating with business designers and strategists to create better metrics on how to measure the impact of our design solutions in organizations immediately. Building design hypothesis and testing concepts early on can give you some indication of how this will be received in real life and how it might impact the industry and your organization. The key is to define how you will measure the impact of your design solutions, so you actually get some numbers out that you can link to the organizations KPI’s.

How do you measure current performance of the company and determine the objectives for the project?

Usually, clients have data that we can use. Sometimes this data is available to us before the project starts, but this is very unlikely. Most of the times we kickstart a project with lots of stakeholder engagement, trying to define the objectives and success criteria. Also, by talking to employees from the customer support team we often get a hold of which customer are struggling with what, and how big of an issue this is for them. This customer data makes problems more tangible, but we also need to supplement with qualitative data that we get from talking with the customers and digging into the why’s.

Setting the goals of the project before you start is crucial, otherwise, we as designers would just stumble around in the dark.

With service design projects, you don’t know what the outcome might be, but at least you have a goal to aim for.

Is it possible for design thinking competence to be outsourced from outside the organization? Or should it be a mindset evolving inside the company?

Design thinking needs to be at the heart of the organization. Coming from the consultancy world, I have observed the positive impact on an organization when outsourcing design thinking initiatives. In the transformational period, using a consultancy to support the process of becoming a design-led organization is very effective. As consultants, we can help to accelerate the progress, but there must be a strong leadership driving the cultural change inside the organization.

What are the main obstacles to implementing design thinking in organizations?

People. People are scared of change. Change is uncertainty. Implementing design thinking is a big change to everyone at all levels in the organization which that is why every employee needs to be engaged in this process. People need to understand the value of changing the organization and how it will impact them in their job. They need to feel ownership to the change and to design thinking.

Images courtesy of Ine Marie Vassøy