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Design thinking and innovation

“ Just as you cannot imagine buying a car without design, we have entered an age in which you cannot buy tech without design. “ - John Maeda

It was the summer of 2015, my husband and I had packed our suitcases and laptops to spend a month working and living in the city of Barcelona.

Barcelona is considered one of the great cities of design – which is clearly visible in it’s architecture.

But today design is everywhere…on the beach smartphone in hand I was able to conduct work and play simultaneously through my iphone. We have all see the smartphone bring design’s value to the foreground.

The smartphone revolution brought design’s  value into the foreground. We want to do in  our palm, while walking, what we used to do  on a big screen while sitting down at a desk.  The interaction design challenges presented  by that shift are huge.

This symbiosis between design and tech was a key theme at Barcelona Design Week which I attended during our stay.

The festival was host to several events including tech guru and MIT Alumni, John Maeda’s opening lecture.

His sold out talk was based on his inaugural ‘Design in Tech’ report. Drawing on extensive research and his own conversations with hundreds of designers, Maeda examines the intersection of design, business, and technology.

During his talk Maeda highlighted the rising importance of design in the entrepreneurial ecosystem and describes the kind of design that increasingly matters today is one whereby technology is feasible, the business is viable and human needs are met.

So how do we determine what makes technology feasible? Or a business viable? Or a human need met?

Image showing ven diagram of Business viability, Technological feasibility and Human factors.

In this diagram by IDEO (of which I will talk about more later) the first circle has to do with technical factors and whether the technology is feasible.

The second factor has to do with economic viability or what we call business factors. So not only does the technology have to work but it has to be produced and distributed in an economically viable way.

The third has to do with people and is sometimes referred to as human factors and understanding human needs. It is this being human centred which may deliver the best opportunities for innovation and the ability to deliver experiences and value for users.

The sweet spot occurs when each of these has been considered and well executed. This is the foundation of design that is making an impact in business today. (Ref - "Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential within Us All" by David Kelley and Tom Kelley)

As Maeda states:

Quote by John Maeda , "Just as you cannot imagine buying a  car without design, we have entered  an age in which you cannot buy tech without design."

During our month in Barcelona we had decided to stay in an Airbnb flat a block away from La Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s masterpiece of organic, expressionist design that is in my opinion ingenious in it’s use of light and form.

I was already familiar with the services of Airbnb as I had stayed in previous rentals before and had always had a good, closer to the “real deal” experience of 'living like a local'. Even for a little while and probably a lot more care free.

It was this vision to 'live like a local' that Airbnb's innovative business model is based on.

Airbnb disrupted the travel industry by focussing their innovation on a market opportunity at the lower end of the holiday/short stay rental market. Generating meaningful results through matching people’s needs. In this case accommodation and budgets.

They have changed the playing field for the tourism industry in the way that we as consumers and hosts experience holiday lets.

The creation of these new experiences are an outcome of design thinking and Airbnb have design in their core. As Brian Chesky co-founder mentions in his interview featured in dezeen:

Quote by Brian Chesky at Airbnb - "We're very much a design-driven company.  Everything we do is design driven, not just  the products we make or how we design  them. Every decision, from the board  meetings we run, through how we hire  people, to our office design."

This design is intentional and concerned with outcomes and how we as users, clients or other stakeholders experience a product or service is fundamental to the value associated with that product or service etc.

Through design thinking, innovative companies like Airbnb are able to use a human centred approach to unlock opportunities to create innovative solutions.

This is done through a process that involves a holistic, iterative approach or what the Design Council like to refer to as the Double Diamond approach.

Double diamond image.

Via a series of steps your team discover and define what it is you are actually trying to solve and then through this process develop and deliver value led solutions.

Value can be a blend of many things and is usually measured by:
• what your user gains from using your product or service,
• what your design achieved and
• how and why was this important to your user/stakeholder?

IDEO a global design firm who developed the mouse for Steve Job’s Lisa Apple computer and steered the design for the first notebook style computer are one of the pioneers of this process.

They have a tool set and process that you can use to focus on any complex challenge or problem. It follows a similar process to the Double Diamond approach but highlights areas for the flow of convergent (analytical etc.) thinking and divergent (free-form etc.) thinking.

The emphasis of the course is very much based on discovering opportunities for innovation through creative problem solving.

This is done through establishing empathy towards your target audience, your customer etc.

In IDEO's experience approaching challenges from a human perspective can yield some of the greatest opportunities for change.

The notion of empathy and human centric design is still alien to many but for IDEO it is simply the ability to see an experience through your customers' eyes and recognise why they do what they do.

Some of the ways you can gain empathy through your user’s experience are:

• observations, shadowing
• user testing
• interviews – taking more of an ethnographic approach.

These can yield great results and insights and support secondary research too. In fact IDEO have found that figuring out what other people actually need is what leads to the most significant innovations. This type of research in the field can be used to gather inspiration at the beginning of a project to validate concepts and prototypes generated throughout the design process, and can even change your understanding of who the end user is.

Another way to gain empathy with your user is to storyboard their journey or create user journeys maps. These look beyond the narrow definition of your offering and consider the user’s total experience.

Touchpoint sequence.

Mapping existing touchpoint sequences in the current user journey may help to define challenges, barriers, pain points and even oppoortunities. User scenarios incorporating your user journey can also help you to consider the emotional aspect of a service and desired user outcome.

Airbnb call their inhouse methodology for doing this ‘Snow White’ named after the Disney film because it was the first time that Disney had created storyboards. They storyboard the whole end-to-end service design system, to design every part of the trip. By using this method:

Quote by Brian Chesky at Airbnb - "We (Airbnb) make decisions based on people."

To help inform your storyboards you can create persona profiles based on representing a particular user group to help to define the needs, wants and motivations of real people and user groups.

Airbnb have used this and other collaborative approaches that involve parts of their community for example when they rebranded.

Collaboration helps achieve holistic and sustainable solutions. It is important to include the main stakeholders, user groups and co-create within interdisciplinary teams to solve complex problems.

Collaboration helps achieve holistic and sustainable solutions.   Co-create within interdisciplinary teams to solve complex problems.

Phil Gilbert who is head of design at IBM realises the power of this collaborative thinking, bringing together a multidisciplinary team from diverse parts of the organization but working with a design mindset to generate great outcomes.

In IBM’s Design Thinking Field Guide they name it “Radical Collaboration” which “means that all key stakeholders are part of co-creating great user experiences from the beginning.” In order “ to take full advantage of (IBM) Design Thinking, you need to commit to a cross-discipline way of working throughout the entirety of a release.”

Diversity here goes beyond cultural, gender or ethnic differences and does also relate to a skillset makeup i.e. having 99 techs and 1 designer in the room just won’t work as the ratios aren’t there and frankly it looks more like you’re paying lip service to design.

To put their money where their mouth is In three years, (from 2013 – 2016) "IBM has also more than tripled its design staff, with 1,300 formally trained designers working in 31 studios from Boston to Böblingen, Germany. It acquired four digital and branding agencies, and built the largest studio network in the world. IBM is quickly assembling a kind of Noah’s Ark of designers working on product, graphics, interface, branding, and even an in-house typographer".

Phil Gilbert of IBM quote - "Radical collaboration means that all key stakeholders are part of co-creating great user expereinces from  the beginning.  For your team to take full advantage of IBM Design Thinking, you need to commit to a  cross-discipline way of working throughout the  entirety of a release."

And now I want to end with curiosity, curiosity according to Phil Gilbert in his brilliant episode of "high resolution" is at the heart of design and innovation. “Curiosity is actually humility with ambition it’s about accepting the fact that you don’t know everything. Curiosity is the opposite of hubris and arrogance and not caring about some of the capabilities we’re unleashing.”

As an industry we have to be curious but we also have to be caring about the end results and about some of the implications of our work. Yes some of these are hard to predict and might only occur after a critical mass has been reached and the cracks begin to appear…

During my time in Barcelona anti tourist protest signs were not an uncommon site and unwittingly I may have been part of the problem. Banners read “No Tourist Flats” in the Barceloneta neighbourhood and demonstrated the local community backlash against the upsurge in tourist apartments in Barcelona. There has also been growing evidence that this is driving rent up and residents out so the city is beginning a crackdown on illegal, unlicensed apartments.

As a result Airbnb have been penalised by Barcelona authorities and the problems don’t look like they’re going to go away anytime soon as more cities ring fence their local rent economies.

So as designers and innovators it’s imperative that we think about the societal impacts, the collective effects of our innovation and the ethics and responsibilities that go along with this. This may involve dialogue and open ways of working with other agencies, statutory bodies at a national or international level even. But one things for sure the inability to predict cannot be a reason for passivity.

The last words I leave to Valerie Casey, named Guru of the year by Fortune Magazine and Tech Titan by the Irish Times.

Quote by Valerie Casey - "What is Design? It’s about business.  It’s about people. It’s about technology...Because it involves so many people today, design responsibly."