As Herbert Simon said, “To design is to devise courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.” What implicates that we intentionally change something for the better. We perform to make an impact. To understand what someone else needs to undergo a positive effect, one needs to have empathy. Having empathy requires a culture of openness. Therefor design is about Empathy, Performance, Impact, and Culture.
To be able to design, you need to have an outside-in view of your company, your offering, and your aspirations. More often than not, and that is obvious, we look at the world through our own eyes. We approach things with our mental model and based on our own experiences.
When you want to design to solve a problem or fill a need that is not your own, it can be challenging to understand the context, the problem, and the mental model of the people for who you design.
Start with empathy
Walk in the shoes of your target group to start. Interview your audience and investigate their behaviour. Look at comparable problems, and how they solve these in other industries. These all are actions you need to take to understand the people for who you work. But empathy is only a start, it helps you to understand the challenge you are looking at, and the context of those for whom the issue is a need or problem. Much more than being empathic, you need to involve your audience in the process. Trying to understand the context of one else is intentional, it does not guarantee any result. When you want to make sure that you fix the problem the way it will work for whom you have meant it, you need to learn from their expertise. It is only the blind who know what it is not to see anything; it is only the deaf who understand what it is not to hear anything. You can try to imagine, but it will never work for the full because you don’t. Trying to act like you are blind is not the same as being blind when you could see all there is up till two seconds ago. When you design something for the better, you are the expert in the process. Your audience is an expert on the problem you want to solve. You shouldn’t ignore the experts.
Perform on your insights
When you want to create solutions, you start to perform from the first minute. It will not be perfect, but every second spent to solve the problem will bring you a bit closer by the moment of enlightenment for your audience. Piece by piece, minute by minute. That is the character of iterating and agile. Better done than perfect. You need to make some advancement based on the insights you have, test what you have done, recapture your learnings, and move on to the next step.
The learning is in the doing. The waterfall model takes its insights and expertise as a given we do not discuss. User-centred or human-centred design methods do not consider this as the preferred approach. First of all, because the waterfall model does not urge us to learn along the way, the waterfall model is not iterative, there is no evaluation during the process. When you get things wrong, the waterfall model will only let you discover this at the end of the process, when you launch your service or product. Second, because it neglects massive amounts of expertise and insights you get from customers or prospective customers. They are the experts of their needs, problems, habits, context, and mental models.
The moment you articulate the willingness to change things for the better, you need to start to perform towards that goal. Moving the needle bit by bit will make you get results much faster than developing big plans to roll out at once. When you challenge ideas with your customers from the beginning of your design process and you start prototyping to evaluate what works and what does not, you will make mistakes early on in the process, when correcting them do not cost amounts of money and time.
The impact you have in mind
You should try to improve by 10X if you want to change an existing situation into a preferred one and make an impact on people’s life. The start-up community uses this rule to evaluate if an idea is valuable to invest time and money. It is a good rule in general when you want to create a difference. That is for two reasons. First of all, you have the ambition; you want to spend your time on meaningful things. So, you do not allow yourself to waste time on creating something that isn’t making any difference. You have a purpose in life. Second, people need to notice the difference you make. They do not see small differences. Some will, of course. But if you want to convince many people, your work should make the lives of people more comfortable, better, or simpler. You need to create value, beyond doubt. We all are attached to habits, and so are your customers. They will not change their habits for a product or service that is only slightly better than what they are used too. We only tend to change our behaviour when there is an evident profit to do so.
It all starts with the culture
When you want to be able to learn from the expertise of your audience. When you want to understand their mental model and the context in which they operate. When you want to get results and therefore perform, learn, fail, iterate, and move on. When you want to make an impact. You need to have a culture of openness. Many companies are focused on their internal organization, the KPIs set per department, and internal policies and procedures. For that reason, they lose their connection with the customer. Companies are focused too much on their operations and revenue. They are far not enough focused on the needs of the customer. While helping the customer, of course, is their reason for existence. Indeed, larger organizations with a legacy are vulnerable for this lack of openness and eagerness to learn from their customers and eventually co-create with their customers. They are attached to the idea that they should be the experts and that involving your customers in the development of innovative products or services is a sign of weakness. The opposite is true when you involve your customers in the development of a service or a product, the development becomes a part of the customer experience. Now, look at yourself, aren’t you flattered when your opinion is asked?
Having a design thinking approach to address needs or solve problems requires four conditions:
- Empathy: you need to have the willingness to learn from the mental model, context, and needs of your audience. Preferably you involve them in your design process.
- Performance: act upon your findings, iterate, and have the flexibility of mind to change whatever is needed when you are looking in the wrong direction or walking on the wrong path.
- Impact: your goal is to make an impact. You want to change things for the better, and therefore you have to raise the bar. Creating something good is hard; creating something outstanding is only a little harder. With a little extra effort, you can make a much better solution.
- Culture: a culture of openness, admitting that you do not know, and daring to ask is crucial to do better work. Do not pretend that you are the expert; instead, ask for the expertise of others to make things better.