Why design thinking is valuable and how we can use it to improve everything from how our institutions work to our relationships with our vacuum cleaners
Over the past few months, one theme that shown up repeatedly in all areas of my life is the importance of good design. In my daily work at a startup, the impact is obvious: if a user doesn’t love the product within the first few minutes (realistically, seconds), he won’t return. We spend as much time on design as technology or scientific research because the latter two are irrelevant if the experience is unpleasant or unintuitive. And that is the basis of design thinking: it is human-centered and forces us to consider the user experience above all else.
I initially set out to learn about design to improve my work but in doing so, I quickly realized that the term embodies much more than I had imagined. While I had always assumed that design applies to art and products, I came to understood that it influences everything from how we interact with each other to what we experience at the doctor’s office to how we interact with our vacuum cleaners.
In fact, design is currently at the center of national conversation; even if the word is not used, it’s implicit. We talk about systemic racism, institutional failures, and problems that baffle us because we can’t remember how they got that way in the first place or how to fix them. These are best approached as design problems- and potentially design solutions. As the Interaction Design Foundation puts it:
Design Thinking is an iterative process in which we seek to understand the user, challenge assumptions, and redefine problems in an attempt to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent with our initial level of understanding…Design Thinking helps us in the process of questioning: questioning the problem, questioning the assumptions, and questioning the implications. Design Thinking is extremely useful in tackling problems that are ill-defined or unknown, by re-framing the problem in human-centric ways.
Design thinking is perfectly suited for modern problems that require equal parts empathy and innovation. That said, this piece is not going to define design thinking further or how to become an expert- that’s more than I’m qualified for. What I do want to share are three questions that anyone can ask in everyday life to re-frame problems through a design lens. They are questions that have helped me see the world around me a bit differently and find opportunities to change things that I didn’t even consider broken initially.
Question 1: How does this design shape human interaction- and can we do better?
Design doesn’t just underlie the products we use, it underlies the way we interact every single day, as individuals or members of society. This hit home for me after reading Priya Parker’s book The Art of Gathering, which challenges readers to re-consider why they gather- whether socially or professionally- and design gatherings more deliberately in line with those reasons. One of the most powerful examples Parker gives is that of the Red Hook Community Justice Center in Brooklyn:
The Red Hook Community Justice Center, located in Brooklyn, New York, set out to reimagine one of the more intimidating gatherings in public life: the court proceeding… Its founders wondered if it was possible to invent a new kind of justice system that would cure the ailments that a crime revealed instead of just locking up criminals…
This new purpose required the design of a new kind of courtroom. A traditional courtroom, built for surfacing the truth adversarially, was constructed to make the judge seem intimidating. It separated the prosecutors from the defense counsel. It featured grim-faced jailers and sympathetic social workers and psychologists. Everyone had their role. Even the décor reinforced the purpose. “Traditional courtrooms often utilize dark woods, conveying a message of gravity, judgment, and power,” Berman said.
The experimental courtroom in Red Hook was created along very different lines. Set up in an abandoned parochial school in the heart of the neighborhood, the court has windows to let the sun in, light-colored wood, and an unusual judge’s bench. “The planners chose to build the bench at eye level so that the judge could have these personal interactions with litigants coming before him, invite them up to the bench, which he loves to do, so that people could see that he is not looking down on them, both literally and figuratively,” Berman said.
At the heart of the Red Hook experiment is a marriage between purpose and design. Once the community realized that the existing structures were designed for punishment, they began to question what a better outcome might be and how a new design could support it. While many of the changes to the courtroom may seem superficial- changing bench heights or wood coloring- the results have been dramatic. So far, Red Hook has seen the recidivism rate of adult defendants decrease by 10 percent and that of juveniles decrease by 20 percent.
The example of Red Hook feels particularly meaningful at the present moment. We are at a great point to use design thinking to examine the way we gather as a society as well as the intimate gatherings in our lives and whether they serve the purposes we want them to.
Question 2: What purpose did this design originally serve- and does it need a modern update?
Many of the designs around us aren’t broken or wrong; they’re just obsolete. Our lives and needs change so fast that it’s impossible for all of the structures around us to keep up. Take our medical system as an example: Everything from the rushed doctor-patient relationship to the quick fixes dispensed in pill bottles harkens back to the original problem the system was made for: to provide acute care. In that context, the design of our medical system was appropriate. Patients would come in with a sudden bacterial infection, get an antibiotic, and leave grateful. In the 21st century, our lifestyles and health issues have changed and gone from acute to chronic and from simple to complex.
If anything, situations like this offer a huge opportunity for design creativity. If we can identify the elements in our original system that served an older purpose- the focus on emergency care and strong antibiotics among them- we can identify exactly what needs to change. For example, there has already been a growth in the health coaching and naturopathic sectors, which offer more personalized, long-term approaches to health.
This question asks us to consider than even the most dysfunctional things in our lives were once perfectly suited to a purpose; knowing that purpose can help us target how it has shifted and how it can be better filled in the present.
Question 3: What emotional response does the design evoke?
One truth about human nature I’ve recognized over the past few months is that emotion always takes precedence over reason.
When I look at the products or experiences I engage with, they almost always have emotional and aesthetic appeal. Regardless of what a scientific study tells me is best for me- and despite having a background in research and data- I’ll probably make my decision based on emotion first.
The primacy of emotion is the foundation of Martin Lindstrom’s fun book Small Data. As a branding expert, Lindstrom plays the unusual role of studying how people engage emotionally with objects around them. While most people are generally unconscious of, or even rationalize, these emotional interactions, they often make the difference between a company having a hit product or failing. One of the best examples is Lindstrom’s analysis of the Roomba, a cleaning robot:
Roomba was inspired by R2D2 in Star wars, but over time designs changed, making Roomba look less like R2D2 and more like an appliance. In the first model, the Roomba made sounds; when it accidentally bumped the wall, by accident it said “uh-oh,” but at some point the noises were cut by some engineer seeking a simpler design or manager seeking lower costs…I asked iRobot’s research and development team to set aside the Roomba’s high-tech functionality and to do whatever they could to bring back the Roomba’s emotionality and humanity…the Roomba may be a wizardly piece of technology, but it was also a toy, a baby, a pet, a conversation piece, a displacement for its owners’ identity and, for some young men, a way to get women into bed.
While Lindstrom’s book is fun to read, it hits on a deeper issue: though our technological and data capabilities are expanding like never before, we are at risk of losing the human touch. It’s hidden in the small data of how we react to things, what they remind us of, what feelings and memories they evoke. Even in the most functional products, such as vacuum cleaners, we seek connection. Design thinking reminds us to shift our focus from functionality to experience as the main measure of success.
I’m new to design thinking myself for the simple reason that design was generally invisible to me before. As Donald Norman writes in The Design of Everyday Things, “Good design is actually a lot harder to notice than poor design, in part because good designs fit our needs so well that the design is invisible, serving us without drawing attention to itself.” And that’s the gift and curse of it- we are unconscious of most of the ways design shapes our behavior, for better or worse. Becoming aware of designs around us allows us the opportunity to reimagine things we previously took for granted and to create a world that not only functions, but that functions and is wonderful for the people living in it.
- Dam, Rikke Friis, and Teo Yu Siang. “What Is Design Thinking and Why Is It So Popular?” The Interaction Design Foundation, www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/what-is-design-thinking-and-why-is-it-so-popular.
- Parker, Priya. The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters. Riverhead Books, 2020.
- Lindstrom, Martin. Small Data: the Tiny Clues That Uncover Huge Trends. Picador Usa, 2017.
- Norman, Don. The Design of Everyday Things. Basic Books, 2013.