Think with your hands

A beginners guide to design frameworks

We run design sprints with all of the companies we work with, including the Wealthsimple team

I always found it boring to sit at a desk in school all day, or learn by textbooks. As you can guess, I’m not the type of person to ever go back to school, but if I had to go back, I would choose the (if they would have me!).

See, I’ve always been interested in learning by doing. It’s all about building, sprinting and prototyping.This type of thinking has been called design thinking recently, but it’s actually been around for centuries. Design thinking is not simply a framework or checklist, but a way to instill a different way of working.

Consider the Wright Brothers, who built prototypes for years before finally figuring out how to fly. Similarly, think about IDEO making the Apple mouse. And Apple creating multiple versions of the iPhone 7.

It’s no coincidence that many great inventions came about from prototyping. These are more recent examples, but architects have drafted blueprints and built models for centuries. This type of low fidelity prototyping was out of necessity — imagine how expensive and wasteful building something would be without prototyping.

These high fixed costs, and the high risk that comes with it, force people working with hardware to prototype. Technically, software doesn’t come with the fixed hard costs. Nonetheless, prototyping is equally as important. There’s no standardized way to build a digital product. But if there was, empathizing, learning, and prototyping would be at the core of it.

Prototyping can sound confusing, especially with all the design jargon and frameworks floating around these days. That’s why I wanted to write this post — to make it really obvious how people should prototype and which frameworks to use, and when. I’m going to dive into Google’s design sprints, lean UX, and design thinking:

1. Design thinking (IDEO and d. school)

What is Design Thinking? IDEO’s gone through years of explaining it, and summarizes it well: “Design thinking is a formal method for practical, creative resolution of problems and creation of solutions, with the intent of an improved future result.” It’s also “a human-centered, prototype-driven process for innovation that can be applied to product, service, and business design.”

Here’s the part I really appreciated about it: “It’s based upon the fundamental belief that an unexecuted idea, one that is never realized, is a worthless proposition and that doing is equally as valuable as thinking.”

It’s different from the others in a few ways:

  • Values cross discipline: “Design thinking makes the customer the main focal point of design for any solution. Plus, it consistently applies the values embraced by this approach, such as empathy, diversity, and ambiguity, as well as recognizing the importance of multidisciplinary teams.”
  • Prioritized speed: “Promoting the philosophy of “fail early and often” is the key to harnessing the power of rapid prototypes and delivering proof of concepts that resonate and encourage feedback from actual users and customers.”
  • Group execution: “By bringing multidisciplinary teams together at the table, we leverage the power of collective expertise.”

Design thinking becomes particularly useful when focused on what Horst Rittel calls wicked problems. Wicked problems which are ill-defined or tricky (not like, “evil,” wicked). Neither the problem and solution are clear at the beginning of the exercise.

5 Whys, mind maps, and empathy interviews are tools for design thinking exercises.

2. Lean UX (i.e., Lean startup)

In the words of Nick Kellingley at the Interaction Design Foundation: “Lean UX is focused on the experience under design and is less focused on deliverables than traditional UX. It requires a greater level of collaboration with the entire team. The core objective is to focus on obtaining feedback as early as possible so that it can be used to make quick decisions. The nature of Agile development is to work in rapid, iterative cycles and Lean UX mimics these cycles to ensure that data generated can be used in each iteration.”

As Smashing Magazine highlights, Lean UX is different from the other frameworks in three ways:

  • Focused information: “Traditional documents are discarded or, at the very least, stripped down to their bare components, providing the minimum amount of information necessary to get started on implementation.”
  • Execution-based: “Long detailed design cycles are eschewed in favor of very short, iterative, low-fidelity cycles, with feedback coming from all members of the implementation team early and often.” (Sound familiar?)
  • Prioritized feedback: “Collaboration with the entire team becomes critical to the success of the product. The frequent collection of team-wide feedback actually minimizes the time spent heading down the wrong path. The designer continues to drive the design, but the guardrails (i.e. constraints) become more visible with each iteration and review.”

For internal software or design groups, the transition to Lean UX can be straightforward. It’s not a tough sell internally: You will ask for more collaboration, more conversation, and an earlier delivery to stakeholders or customers.

3. Google design sprints

The sprint gives teams a shortcut to learning without building and launching

As they write on their site: “The sprint is a five-day process developed at Google Ventures for answering critical business questions through design, prototyping, and testing ideas with customers.”

Through the sprint, Google Ventures compresses months worth of debate and discussion into a single week. They work with companies to create a prototype to validate ideas and assumptions, rather than wait to launch a minimal product. Since 2010, Google Ventures design partner Jake Knapp used sprints to help the teams behind Chrome, Google Search and Google X, as well as their portfolio companies like Slack.

Design sprints are noteworthy for three key concepts:

  • Story-centered design: “An unconventional approach that focuses on the customer journey instead of individual features or technologies.”
  • Accelerated customer research: “Figured out a way to get crystal clear results in just one day.”
  • Results-oriented: “Start at the end, and focus on measuring results with the key metrics from each business.”

The design sprints method uses exercises like How Might We notes, storyboarding, and the 5 act interview to test and validate ideas. Here’s how that looks.

Thinking further about design…

In many ways, design thinking is the catch-all umbrella for, “Thinking with your hands.” It’s applicable across all industries. In contrast, Lean UX takes those concepts and applies it to software design mixed in with Lean Startup methodology. Design sprints, like design thinking can be applied to any industry or problem, but is more useful for specific problems.

An organization can have design thinking as it’s macro philosophy for value creation, use lean methodology to execute operationally and get products out the gate, and design sprints for specific challenges and problems as they arise.

In actuality, these frameworks don’t have to be used separately — an organization could eat, breath, and live design at all levels. With that said, they can also be considered for separate, specific, types of exercises.

As an entrepreneur, I would use design thinking to discover where the biggest opportunity lies, lean processes once I’ve got a team and need processes in place, and design sprints whenever a curve ball or a challenge comes up.

At Tiny Hearts, our toolkit involves all three of these processes. They enable us to build the right product, and to build the product right. We tailor our sets of exercises for different companies, based on how well-defined their problems are (or aren’t). When we work with companies on their products, design sprints enable us to go beyond simply validating an MVP. On top of that, we can also evaluate desirability and feasibility — to find the design innovation sweet spot.

The future belongs to the few of us still willing to get their hands dirty.

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Robleh Jama is the founder of Tiny Hearts, an award-winning product studio. They make their own products like Next Keyboard, Wake Alarm and Quick Fit — as well as products for clients like Plantronics and Philips.

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