Over the past few years there’s been a lot of talk about design thinking. As a designer I’ve found this both inspiring and frustrating. It’s great that everybody is talking about the value of design methods and processes, but the conversation usually falls short. There’s a lot of talk about process but never as much emphasis on the actual “doing” that turns an idea into reality. Design doesn’t stop at thinking, and neither should we.
For the un(der)initiated, “design thinking” is an approach to solving business and social challenges that puts people first. It might be helpful to think of design thinking as anthropology meets the scientific method meets art school. It’s the symbiosis of critical thinking, creative problem solving, and actually making something.
Design thinking isn’t new. The term itself has been around since at least the 60’s, and the application of creative and analytical thought to life’s problems has been around since we lived in caves. So you might be asking yourself, what’s all the fuss about?
Design thinking, as the formalized process it has become, has the very real ability to transform the way companies and organizations solve challenges and add value to their customers, clients and bottom line. By focusing on empathy for your users, prototyping, and iterating solutions, your chances of success increase dramatically. This process and mindset has been essential to the success of monster design companies like IDEO, Frog, and Smart Design all of which have played a major role in evangelizing design thinking. Because of its proven track record, design thinking has begun to branch out into the non-profit world and social sectors.
While we aren’t the perfect case study, we can definitely share some of the lessons and some of the challenges that we’ve had trying to leverage design thinking in a non-profit.
It starts with empathy (not sympathy).
One of the key tenants of design thinking is empathy, a.k.a putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. When #VetsWhoCode started, it did so with a sincere and other-focused point of view. It was started by veterans who had been through the struggle of transitioning out of active service, and they knew there had to be a better way. When Founder and Head Troublemaker, Jerome Hardaway, found coding and realized the very real demand for his skills he immediately saw a way to help his brothers- and sisters-in-arms.
It is important to note that this program is pro-active, not re-active. We don’t wait until Veterans need help and then feel sorry for them. We engage them early and often to ensure that their transition into civilian life is as seamless as possible. Our goal is to fill the void of tech jobs in this country with highly trained and highly motivated individuals that can have an immediate impact wherever they end up.
The key take away from this is that when designing for your end user you need to understand them. You can’t make unvalidated assumptions about their situation and act on sympathy. Go out and get to know them. Understand the challenges that they are facing, their goals, and their desires. From there you can start building a meaningful and fulfilling solution.
Build, test, repeat.
We thrive on action.
We didn’t wait until we had the “perfect” curriculum or the backing of a private venture capitalist or for the moon to be in the right position in the night sky in the southern hemisphere. To quote one of our founders, “we threw the parachute out of the plane, then jumped after it.”
The first class of #VetsWhoCode was small by choice. We focused on developing the curriculum and individualized attention for each of the candidates. The second class, while still small, had an almost 300% increase in the number of applicants. This provided us an opportunity to again learn about and improve our processes while still providing the top-tier training that our candidates signed up for.
The point here is, that while we understand there is always room for improvement, you can only improve through experience. Thinking is good, planning is good, but action is key.
Lean and Mean
Because of the high value placed on skills that #VetsWhoCode teaches, we choose to keep classes small and train only a selective group. This quality over quantity mindset means that we have high demands for those who sign up. They may not be the elite when they sign up, but they damn sure will be when they leave. It takes more time and more thought, but it leads to higher calibre of students and a higher success rate when placing them. (As of writing this article #VetsWhoCode has a 100% placement rate.)
Keeping classes small allows us to focus on the growth of each individual in the group and discover where their passions and motivations lie. This enables us to make adjustments to the curriculum if we need to, as well as to make better decisions about where we can connect our students when they graduate.
We have an almost fully remote team with members all over the country. We use Slack to keep in touch and update each other about our progress and projects. We keep our overhead costs low so that we can invest as much as possible in our students. It can be tempting to grow too fast and become bloated, but like any elite athlete will tell you, you gotta trim the fat and build lean muscle to stay competitive. Focus on the exercises and movements that will enhance your ability to beat the competition, not what will make you look good.
It’s important to be okay with where you’re at. It’s fine to scope out your competition but don’t try to beat them at their own game. Find your own niche and exploit it. Stay small, stay agile, and focus on impact.
Build from the inside
Because of the nature of how we started, our founders had invaluable insights that allowed them to make some key assumptions about their target audience. What started essentially as a prototype with Jerome, was tested with the first class, and then validated with the second class. With the knowledge that we had a working system it was important to have a brand that reflected the values and qualities that #VetsWhoCode stands for.
When developing the brand for #VetsWhoCode we were intentional to take a tone that was authentic and resonated with both Veterans and active service members. We focused on an active and assertive brand presence. One that was confident but not cocky. Assertive, but not overly aggressive (think Rocky, not Rambo). Because we have veterans in leadership positions they were able to serve as a litmus test for the tone of voice and the visual style that we were seeking.
We were able to build our brand from the inside out. We had a strong core and a strong platform from which to build, so it was all about not watering down the message as it went further out. We knew who we were, now it was just about telling everybody else.
With every process, it’s important not to get too married to it. You have to leave room for growth and honesty. If something isn’t working don’t be afraid to admit it, address it, and move forward. Don’t get caught in the trap of doing things just because that’s how they’ve always been done.