Can One Organization Democratize Design Thinking for Everyone?

“From my house to the White House, we’ve used human-centered design and it actually works.”

Tyson Weinert is a lively and ingratiating veteran trainer, who after 18 years of service, separated from the U.S. Coast Guard last year. Since then, he has traveled the country training groups of people from all walks of life to embrace the application and benefits of human-centered design. He had come to D.C. with a simple mission: to induct our group of 18 wannabe designers into the discipline of developing solutions in the service of people.

The workshop participants came from around the world: people from California, Illinois, Michigan, Texas, and Bulgaria joined a robust Washington, D.C. contingent. We represented organizations that included consulting powerhouses like Accenture and Deloitte, national and local government institutions including the Department of Defense, the CIA, the National Institutes of Health, and the D.C. Public Library, in addition to healthcare and early childhood care organizations.

Seemingly diverse, the group discovered common causes and interests within 20 minutes by clustering their Sharpie-illustrated identities on a communal poster. The group of 20 included two yoga instructors, a spinning instructor, a few self-proclaimed Feds, several traveling consultants, and a handful of musicians. Their priorities also converged: to engineer organizational change, to figure out how to achieve scale, to discover a pathway to enduring value, to mitigate organizational risk, and to achieve a strategic view.

Participants create “how might we…” statements. One of the best ones being: How might we make glucose testing as easy as a Keurig cup?

The Pathway to Human-Centered Design Begins with You

LUMA is just one of a number of organizations seeking to evangelize the benefits of human-centered design, and the practice isn’t exactly new. While design thinking has grown in popularity over the past decade, the practice has its roots in the 60s and 70s when participatory action research and participatory design gained popularity. In 1988, Donald Norman published The Design of Everyday Things, seeding the next step in the movement “user-centered design.” Design for Success, published by William Rouse in 1991 introduced a human-centered approach. Since the early 1990s, the terms human-centered and user-centered design have been used almost interchangeably. By 2004, demand for training in design thinking spurred Stanford to open the, one of today’s most widely recognized design thinking institutions.

The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses, which Eric Ries published in 2011, sowed seeds for a sea change in how startups develop in their early stages. Derived directly from the lean production methods of Toyota acclaim, Ries cast a dark shadow over the black-box business strategies of the past, encouraging entrepreneurs to build a minimum viable product (an MVP) as cheaply and simply as possible, in order to get direct customer feedback on the customer hypothesis before making a commitment to scale. Ries’ method—Build-Measure-Learn, intended to help a business quickly reach a decision point to scale, pivot, or fold—was closely linked to the seven stages of design thinking: define, research, ideate, prototype, choose, implement, learn, (repeat).

According to Weinert and his colleagues at LUMA, human-centered design, (HCD for short) has no limits: it has utility “from K to gray,” meaning it’s an appropriate discipline to help people of all ages better understand their problems and identify effective solutions. HCD has many benefits as a solution-discovery practice. Highly participatory and visual, and intentionally non-linear, it flattens hierarchies and accelerates timelines. It can quickly respond to a host of unanswered questions any organization could ask: How might we apply technology in new or different ways? How might we fill a customer’s unmet needs? Engage a new audience segment? Build better leaders? Increase sales? Indeed, “How might we…?” statements are just one anchor tactic LUMA teaches in helping designers better understand exactly what they are trying to do.

The name LUMA is an acronym of the discipline’s foundations: Looking, Understanding, and Making. The Institute has codified 36 different approaches to human-centered design. Over the course of the next two days, our group would explore 14 of the 36 through hands-on practice. Contextual Inquiry—watching an interview with a diabetic describing her experience using a glucose monitor gave way to using tri-colored Post-Its to diagnose where her process was working and where it wasn’t (an Understanding technique called Rose-Bud-Thorn). In groups, we then began to explore Affinity Clustering, finding associations among previously disconnected ideas revealed by our evaluation. Almost by magic, clear themes began to emerge that would help our group determine next steps in seeking to improve the patient’s disease management experience.

More surprisingly, Affinity Clustering revealed the deep diversity of thinking and experience among the workshop participants. My group’s categories were straightforward: Knowledge, Behavior, Blood, Device, Strip, Lancet, Recording. But I was intrigued to see that other groups came up with dramatically different categories: Accessibility, Adherence, Outcome, Psycho-Social Factors, said one. Behavior Choices, Patient Perceptions, Triggers, said another. Next, each team sought to transform the affinity clusters into “How might we…?” Statement Starters, the best one by far: How might we make glucose testing as easy as a Keurig cup?

Over the course of the day, the four teams dove head first into a hands-on exploration of Stakeholder Mapping, Interviewing, Contextual Inquiry, Rose-Bud-Thorn, Affinity Clustering, and Statement Starters. Eight more activities were waiting for us at 9:00 am the next day, many more of them focused on “Making,” in which we would create and present a Concept Poster derived from a Creative Matrix brainstorm session, and develop a Rough-and-Ready Prototype we would subject to Think-Aloud Testing.

Weinert constantly stressed the difference between dialogue and discussion, the first meaning “learning together,” the second, at origin meaning “examination, or investigation,” encouraging participants not to steer away from disagreement in discussion. The work rewards those who are humble, curious, empathetic, iterative, and imaginative, embracing the expansive, “Yes, and…!”

Rather than seeking incremental improvements on past products, innovators today are entertaining the need to throw the baby out with the bathwater in order to effectively reinvent how people bathe. Design thinking helps designers (anyone involved in the design process) embrace an expansive divergent mindset in ideation, followed by the application of explicitness and structure to help teams quickly converge on a shared vision. Pairing divergent and convergent thinking helps people develop and discern an idea’s viability more quickly. This environment rewards individuals and organizations able to develop, hone, and deploy new ideas the most quickly, forcing more people to be more innovative more often. Herb Simon, the grandfather of artificial intelligence, perhaps said it best: “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.”

“Get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” Weinert reminded our group as we undertook our first design challenge. And these days, discomfort is the name of the game. Research demonstrates that design-centric organizations out-perform the S&P 500. The Design Management Institute (DMI) tracked the value of 15 publicly held companies that met specific design management criteria, and monitored the impact of their investments in design on stock value over a ten-year period, relative to the overall S&P Index. The Design Value Index, which completed its 10-year cycle in 2013, shows that “over the last 10 years design-led companies have maintained significant stock market advantage, outperforming the S&P by an extraordinary 219 percent.” If an institution can get it right, the payoff on design thinking is enormous: reducing risk, taming complexity, promoting collaboration, arriving at the right solution, faster, and making something repeatable, all in a day’s work.

How Might We Empower Everyone to Design the Future?

Weinert chose LUMA because he believed in the proliferation of the practice, and believed LUMA had the most teachable system.

At first glance, the LUMA workshop price tag might seem prohibitive, but it’s affordable compared to some other options. Most importantly, the workshop gives participants the chance to immediately engage with HCD design methods. In a very short period of time, our group of 18 went from a vague awareness of design thinking to a substantive grasp of how to use a majority of the techniques in the LUMA toolbox.

And that’s the tricky truth about HCD: like a foreign language or computer code, it’s awfully hard to learn by talking about it. The most effective way to learn is through practice. Weinert believes that organizations that invest in training and practicing design thinking empower their employees to define problems and work through solutions that are more viable and longer-lasting. “I value consultancies,” said Weinert. “But when organizations equip their existing talent with these skills… that will lead to many positive externalities.”

Weinert believes deeply in the potential for HCD to positively disrupt how organizations and individuals operate. “There are no boundaries to human-centered design,” he reminded me. “We accelerate innovation because we accelerate decisions around innovation.”

“The CDC is using it right now to address the Zika virus,” Weinert explained, “and they used it last December to design their Christmas party.” By effectively using HCD approaches, teams and organizations can achieve clarity of purpose on two planes: clearly visualizing the desired state and operationally understanding the pathway to that outcome, whether it’s addressing a life-threatening epidemic, or a seasonal social affair. “Reducing the pain points, reducing conflicts, and increasing the transparency of progress,” Weinert insists, “will accelerate innovation.” He pointed to the way that the U.S. Department of Agriculture partnered with The Lab at OPM to improve the national school lunch program. Most times, Weinert said, “changes to a program [like that] don’t yield measurable outcomes until year five or six.” The recommendations, rolled out in 2015 to 100,000 schools nationwide, are expected to save the U.S. government $600 million within the first five years. Weinert quipped, “How might Uncle Sam do something more with that?

Interested in reading more about design thinking and human centered design? Read these:

Harvard Business Review (2012): “The Secret Phrase Top Innovators Use”

New York Times: IBM’s Design-Centered Strategy to Set Free the Squares

HBR: A Taxonomy of Innovation

Alicia Bonner Ness

Alicia Bonner Ness (@AliciaBNess) is the editor of the The New Global Citizen, where she seeks to showcase the impact of beneficiaries and implementers alike, empowering all those engaged in furthering social good to learn from one another. She is also the Communications Manager at PYXERA Global.

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