Adopt Design Thinking now, and the six words to help convince you.

Not with Design Thinking again!

Let me be clear, Design Thinking (DT) is not about design nor about thinking and I’m not going to preach about it’s history or methodologies. Design Thinking is about caring about the people who have entrusted us with a problem, our users, and promising that you’ll do something about their current challenges. In this blog I’ll elaborate around six words (and they spell BEEEET) that attempt to explain my understanding of Design Thinking or User-Centered Design (UCD), why these processes are paramount for the success of your your business; and why having everybody in your team — not just designers — adopt a collaborative and user-centric mindset is the only way to stay relevant. With me? Let’s go…

1: Bias

We all have it. We’re all human, have had different life experiences and thus each of us has unique perceptions. In many customer-facing industries — like enterprise software design — the collective job of each developer, manager and designer is to minimize your personal bias and work nonstop to get rid of it. But, since bias is naturally human, how do we keep it under control? In the Design Thinking process, we do it by replacing bias with data and we get there with research.

When I say research, I’m not talking about opinions from stakeholders or subject matter experts, but feedback from the people you are solving for (hint: your users).

Your job as a individual in your team is to enable the discovery, access and communication between your product, sales, marketing and dev teams (start introducing them!) and the users you are solving a problem for. Who are the people who will benefit from the work you’ll all do? Who’s going to buy or use that thing you keep mentioning your presentation decks? Be clear on who that person is, find her and make damn sure to listen to her needs. You’ll quickly realize that your personal truth is not that of your user. Mind blown. Your focus should be understanding users by doing research on their tendencies, preferences, problems and work/life contexts. That’s the first step to getting into Design Thinking and letting your biases dissolve in place of understanding who you are solving for and who your team’s effort, tears and sweat is geared towards.

2: Experience

Don’t get me wrong. Having decades of experience is great when it comes to grasping a complex domain and technical details. Experience is a crucial element to help maintain your relationship with customers — many that have been established for years — and the mutual understanding built up over time. But, experience alone means nothing when it comes to addressing the needs of your user. User needs change constantly and the difference between having a year of experience and a decade plays a minimal role in your ability to address them.

Design Thinking teaches us to level the playing field and accept that an intern’s perspective on solving a user problem has as much weight as that of a subject matter expert, senior manager or executive. It’s hard to accept but it’s true.

Why is that? Because your junior staff is probably closer to your user than you might think, and they also have less biases (bonus points!). Let me give you and example of why knowing less is often better: if you’re a senior manager, you tackle an executive presentation the same way you’ve learned to by your mentors, leads or that same executive you’re presenting to. But, do you naturally consider a different approach based on recent processes, practices or tools that were not in existence when you began working? Not often enough. They say ignorance is bliss, I prefer saying ignorance let’s you consider multiple options before jumping to a conclusion. Having less experience gives you leeway to experiment, test assumptions and explore uncharted waters before committing to something. Design Thinking’s focus on transparency allows everybody in the room (or video conference) to have equal standing and for each perspective to be valued equally. Regardless of the range of time-based experiences across your team, when approaching a new user problem and figuring out how to best address it, you all start at Day 0 together. Experience is important but it’s nothing without the next key word.

3: Expertise

As opposed to experience, expertise is not about time but about what you’re great at and where your passion lies. Your expertise defines the hat you wear and it’s of primordial importance to reaching your team or project goals. Expertise is the thing your team mates rely on you the most, because you are the master on the subject. You can be an expert on visual design, project management, agile development or maybe coffee brewing (I prefer tea though).

The combined expertise across your team gives identity to it and helps ensure you have the necessary skills to solve the problem at hand or find a gap you need to address.

If you have 20 years of experience in your role, you’re surely considered an expert in many topics. Design Thinking takes a look at the experts across your team but focuses on maximizing what every person is best at — supporting somebody’s weakness with another person’s strength — to build a cohesive unit that has all the skills to help a user through a journey. Then as a team, you’re empowered to become experts on your users, putting yourselves in their shoes, removing individual biases, leveraging your collective experience and relying on the experts on the team to provide value to your customers and business.

4: Empathy

Ding ding! Yep, we got here. That buzz word that is probably driving you nuts by now. Empathy has become a buzz word but its the one buzzword that you need to embrace. Empathy is nothing more than accepting you are solving a problem for somebody else, not for you or your stakeholders. It’s about embracing the responsibility to ensure that everybody on your team keeps user needs at the center of every decision or task. What’s the deal with Design Thinking and empathy? Design Thinking includes a set of methods and processes with the sole objective to help us building understanding with our user and with one another as a unified front. The rest of Design Thinking are activities to help you understand your user more each day and establish a plan on how to address their needs and soothe their pain.

But, here’s the catch: either you adopt this team-focused user-centered mindset or your team and your company will perish.

If you don’t believe in the power of a non-biased, expertly experienced collaborating team then you won’t succeed and we should all pack our bags and go home. Delivering technical capabilities through enjoyable experiences is never easy. It requires the full investment from every stakeholder in your team top to bottom. One fully invested person will not make a difference against a dozen unbelievers. Sadly, I’ve seen too many promising projects and high-performing teams burn down because executives were not invested in empowering the team to find the right user needs and solve them quickly. If you care about increasing market share, growing revenue or just keeping your job then you have to be invested in what your user wants or your team’s going down together. It’s that plain and serious, and it’s on you to avoid that peril.

5: Execution

This is about keeping your promise to the user. If you’ve done your job — and bought into a user-centered focus — you’ve already listened to your user, explored solutions and tested ideas.

Now is the time to execute and deliver the solution to them and discover if you listened well. Users will know if you’re trying to trick them, and you will fail. The bad fail. The lose revenue fail. The your job is on the line fail.

This is what Design Thinking brings to the table, a way to minimize being really wrong by failing really fast. Jargon aside, Design Thinking helps you carve the steps needed to a deliver a solution to your user’s problem. After facilitating a common understanding of your user’s world, Design Thinking guides you towards a team-agreed approach to addressing user pain points. Execution phase is where user stories, tasks or jobs give way to experience roadmaps, sprint planning and continuous release practices. Execution is what you do after you’ve done your homework, and it’s where the great skilled work — both from design and development — shines. If your team is invested enough in the earlier principles, the execution of your proposed solution is the easy, and often fun, part. It’s where people can leverage their experience and expertise and build awesomely unbiased things. This brings me to the last word and the importance of working with others. Remember, adopt or die.

6: Trust

noun: confident expectation of something; reliance on the integrity, strength, ability, surety, etc., of a person or thing; confidence. (from Dictionary.com)

All previous principles are meaningless without trust. As team members we all need to forget our roles, titles and years of experience which often lead to friction and failure. The only way to achieve success is to build trust with our users and to blindly trust your team. You need to trust they care about the problem same as you do, trust the collaborative process (Design Thinking cough cough), and trust that as long as you keep your users at the center of your decisions the outcome of your project will be promising, meaningful or at least well informed. Failures will come and go but if you keep at it, and believe in the power of transparency and collaboration, your success will come and it will feel great when it does. Plus, you’ll have people to celebrate with, your team.

One last thing

I wrote the basis of this article at 6am on a Friday morning after my cat woke me up craving attention (classic move). Recent team difficulties prompted me to put this out there while ideas where still fresh in my mind and I thank you for reading them. Remember to adopt a collaborative user-centered mindset or you know… death and all. Send me comments, even if they’re sassy, and check out this quote that explains everything I tried to in less words:

“The main tenet of design thinking is empathy for the people you’re trying to design for. Leadership is exactly the same thing, building empathy for the people that you’re entrusted to help. — David Kelley, Founder of IDEO

Esteban Pérez-Hemminger is a product team Design Lead at IBM Studios in Austin. The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

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