Demystifying Design Thinking: Interview with Tamara Christensen

There’s a lot of talk these days about design thinking and how it can be used as a tool for innovation. I hear some people dismiss design thinking as a passing fad and other people praising design thinking as a process that can result in innovations that solve real problems people have in various domains of life.  As an explorer of what fosters relevant creativity and innovation I wanted to get a bit more clarity on design thinking and so I was stoked to have found Tamara Christensen who has been practicing and facilitating it for over 10 years through the work she does with Idea Farm and Strategic Play.

Ben Weinlick: Can you tell us a bit about your background? How did you go from Italian teacher and industrial designer to design thinking facilitator and innovation consultant?

Tamara Christensen: That’s quite a journey! I actually started studying Italian in university and then discovered industrial design when I was about to graduate. The Italian department asked me to teach so I began learning design around the time that I began learning how to teach translation. For me translation has always been a strong element of the creative process (translating ideas into action, translating data into insights, translating one point of view into a shared point of view, etc.). I also discovered my love for teaching while I was falling in love with creativity.

italian design objectsWhile studying design I became enamoured with Italian design and its emphasis on conceptual exploration. Through my travels to Italy to study and teach I started to embrace cultural anthropology and ethnographic approaches to research as fuel for the design process.  In graduate school I learned more about design research and conducted studies on how to use research and insights to fuel creativity of designers. This experiential way of learning also had a big impact on how I work.

I also stumbled upon the annual Creative Problem Solving Institute (CPSI) annual conference and started learning more about how to facilitate creativity. This will be my 9th year attending CPSI where I am co-leading a Design Thinking immersion session.

“For me, translation has always been a strong element of the creative process (translating ideas into action, translating data into insights, translating one point of view into a shared point of view.”

BW: Design Thinking has become somewhat of a buzzword and I’ve found people often dismiss it as a passing fad without really understanding what it is.  Can you shed some light on what design thinking really is and who might benefit from it? 

design thinking classTC: This is a great question! Buzzwords can be dangerous if they don’t promote sustainable changes in thinking and doing, and shared understanding. They can be easily dismissed. Ironically, I find that most designers have trouble clarifying exactly how they think and making their own process explicit for others. The most simple definition of design that I use is by Herbert Simon, from Sciences of the Artificial (MIT Press, 1969) where he describes design as “transformation of existing conditions into preferred ones”. Design thinking, therefore, is basically about the kind of mental activity that facilitates this transformation. Fortunately IDEO and the at Stanford (among others) have done a great job of promoting the process and providing a wealth of information about how it’s done and why it’s valuable.

“Design Thinking is first and foremost about people and keeping them at the center of the process.”

I think the biggest obstacle to understanding Design Thinking is to treat it as a rigid process, a series of steps that must be followed in a particular sequence. I have seen this happen time and again when a team tries to apply Design Thinking with questionable success and then decides “Design Thinking doesn’t work.” In reality, what doesn’t work is treating Design Thinking like a recipe that must be adhered to. It is more like a mindset, multiple modes of thinking and doing that are iteratively utilized as the project requires. Design Thinking is first and foremost about people and keeping them at the center of the process.

design thinking explanationThe most common modes are Empathize (with humans), Frame (an opportunity from the perspective of a human), Ideate (about how to address the opportunity), Prototype (possible solutions) and Test (your ideas with people using the prototypes).

A number of years ago an article came out that proclaimed “Design Thinking is a Failed Experiment.” While some think Nussbaum was arguing for the demise of Design Thinking, I believe what he really talks about in the article is how the adoption of Design Thinking as a protocol actually stifled creativity, the very behavior it naturally emerged from and promotes.

In my experience the most fundamental things to understand about Design Thinking (as a process AND a mindset) are:

  1. It is human-centered and people-powered, keep stakeholders engaged as much as possible.
  2. Empathy is an essential and transformational experience for fuelling creativity.
  3. Prototyping is about building to think and test ideas. The faster we fail, the better.

If anyone is curious or wants to explore more, this Ted Talk by Doug Dietz of GE Healthcare paints a vivid picture of how important people and empathy are in design. I also just came across this article and video by Google X labs where they praise the power of prototyping and failure. Rich DeVaul, head of Google X’s Rapid Evaluation team says “If we can get to a no quickly on an idea, that’s almost as good as getting to a yes.” I think this is the kind of shift in mindset that is most challenging for those seeking to adopt Design Thinking.

BW: I’ve been wondering lately about a trend I see with content on creativity and innovation and I want to get your take on it. When I see articles, books and videos on enhancing creativity, I see mainly tips on how to enhance divergent thinking.  Allowing ourselves to let loose and be divergent is of course an important phase of a well rounded creative process, however if we are not clear on what we are trying to be creative around then wild divergent ideas may not help us come to relevant solutions.  What are your suggestions around developing and defining good problems?  How can we better ensure the problem we are trying be creative around is accurate and not an assumption? 

TC: I agree with you about the trend of focusing on divergent thinking tools and tips for generating ideas. I think this happens because it is one of the more challenging aspects of creativity and Design Thinking for many people. While there are plenty of methods for improving ideation, the problem I often see is that teams generate great solutions for the wrong problem and then find themselves frustrated. We often dedicate a lot of time at the outset of a project helping our clients frame (and reframe) the question they really want to answer. The shortest answer I can offer is this: Keep people and their problems in view when you find, frame and solve problems.

“I think the biggest obstacle to understanding Design Thinking is to treat it as a rigid process, a series of steps that must be followed in a particular sequence.”

For the longer answer I will refer back to Design Thinking to answer this because the process (and mindset!) aim at addressing this very issue. Recall that Design Thinking starts with Empathy; observing, engaging and having conversations with people that are impacted by the experience. This includes external folks (i.e. customers, users, citizens, retailers, etc.) and internal folks (i.e. project managers, marketers, designers, manufacturers, service providers, etc.). When we consider all of the people within a system, we are more likely to stay on the right track. Also recall that the Empathize mode is often followed by the Frame mode, where insights are translated into well-framed problems that keep people at the center. When we use insights from key stakeholders to frame a problem to solve, we are more likely to be identifying the right target.

Let me provide a concrete example from a recent project to illustrate. We were approached by a state Department of Fish & Wildlife because they were looking for an innovative way to engage their constituents around the issue of an impending price hike for permits and licenses. The state government had already approved the price increase and they wanted to find a way to garner support from citizens who may be upset by the higher cost. They came to us with a problem statement that went something like this: How might we justify a price increase for hunting and fishing permits and licenses?

human centred design explanationIn this case, the problem statement wasn’t about people it was about justification. Had we used this statement for the innovation workshop we did with people from around the state, we likely would have generated ideas about how to convince people not to be upset or complain too much. With a little digging, we discovered that while the price increase was set, there was also still potential for improving the permit and license offerings. In fact, many people had lots of ideas about how to do just that. We also conducted some exploration groups around the state before our workshop (Empathizing with stakeholders) so we could find out what was important or troubling for them.

We reframed the problem statement to be: How might we improve the experience and value of licenses and permits for various constituents?

With this reframed question, we were able to solicit loads of ideas (over 400 in a single day) about how to make the process and permits better and, consequently, merit the increase in price. This type of question focused on the needs of the “consumers” so it was easy and fun to ideate about opportunities for dedicated anglers, visitors from out-of-state, families and so on. It also enabled lots of other ideas to come forward that may have otherwise been left unsaid or sitting in the bottom of a suggestion box somewhere.

When it comes to generating a valuable problem statement for generating ideas, I’d offer the following criteria:

  1. Keep it specific, yet open-ended. Make room for lots of ideas about a key topic or area.
  2. Frame problems positively. Avoid using negative language or concentrating on what you don’t want.
  3. Be aspirational. Avoid using too many criteria that stifle divergent thinking, focus on the ideal human experience.
  4. Focus on people. Business and organizational objectives are important, but problems should focus on a personal point-of-view.

design thinking prototypingI’d also reiterate the importance of prototyping. It is easy to quickly see if the problem was framed poorly when we prototype some ideas (i.e. hypotheses we have about good solutions) and check back in with the users or other key stakeholders. One of the benefits of a Design Thinking mindset is that a poorly framed problem doesn’t halt a project or signal failure, it just means that we have to jump back into a different mode (i.e. Frame mode and figure out how to better frame the problem or Empathize mode to get a better understanding of what the problem is). This also relieves the pressure of having to “get it right the first time” with problem framing. We always build in time on projects to test our assumptions, solicit feedback for ideas and reframe as necessary. It sounds like it takes more time, but in the end it actually saves time by improving decision making and increasing confidence with final outcomes.

BW: This is awesome, thanks for your time and your insights.  

If you are intrigued by Design Thinking and want to learn more, come and experience it with Tamara and the Strategic Play team in Western Canada in late May 2014. Think Jar Collective and Skills Society are hosting the Innovation Academy which is a 4 day immersion into concepts and practice that support disciplined innovation in organizations.  This will be a rare and hands on opportunity to learn how to facilitate design thinking and innovation. Course details are in this link.

poster for innovation academy in Edmonton

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