Imagine life without a wheel.
Our ease of living in a world resplendent with multiple-wheel drives, would wheel into a miserable existence in the absence of the much taken-for-granted geometric shape that commands a 360 degree impact on our daily lives. All thanks go to the Design Thinking genius who came up with this concept at the dawn of civilization and made life so much easier for us!
Although the term ‘Design Thinking’ was not coined back then, the concept was surely at work. Hypothetically, the guy (or gal) realized the need of his fellow cavemen to transport a game bison quickly to the cave before say the superior hunters (other cave community or any large four-legged carnivore) attacked. Their (hypothetical again) drag-cart was not dragging fast enough. ‘What if we attach four circular feet to it instead?’ he thought and et voila! The drag-cart suddenly converted to a brilliant contraption offering pure driving pleasure! And the cavemen community was quick to adopt the concept as well.
Design Thinking Today
Fast forward to today! Good news is, not only does the concept have a name (Design Thinking) now, but is officially being employed across various industries.
The core idea of being empathetic, i.e. keeping the users’ need in mind, forms the very basis of Design Thinking. So for instance if you are wondering why your conditioner bottle is upside down, this is probably because some packaging engineer gained insights into the struggles of a girl for extracting the last remaining drops out of the nozzle of a right-side-up bottle! Flipping the container solves the problem. The person resorted to Design Thinking DNA knowingly or unknowingly.
Design Thinking did not get entrapped within hair conscious urbanites only. Its core concept has been successfully applied in the field of health care as well. Take for example the group of university students in the US who undertook a project to save infant lives in rural villages of Asia. Employing underutilized resources they devised an incubator that is also an excellent example of frugal innovation. Using rejected car parts such as sealed-beam headlights for heating, a dashboard fan for convective heat circulation, motorcycle battery and car cigarette lighter as backup power1 during power outage, this incubator provides an affordable solution for the bottom of the pyramid populace.
Design Thinking has also been gallantly ushered in to the services industry. Customer Journey Mapping is a concept thoroughly explored over the years by German enterprise software company, SAP. For a business to business company, Design Thinking can be explored innovatively and collaboratively with clients to extract insights from end customers. After all, adding value to customers’ customer is what differentiates a high-growth and high-profit company from the average one.
Design Thinking at Work
“Design Thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success”2, says Tim Brown, President and CEO of IDEO, an award winning design firm founded in Palo Alto, California.
Yet another way of thinking about the overlapping spaces of innovation is in terms of boundaries or constraints, a critically important ingredient for Design Thinking. These constraints are visualized as three overlapping criteria for successful ideas – Feasibility, what is functionally possible within the foreseeable future; Viability, what is likely to become part of a sustainable business model and Desirability, what makes sense to people3. The philosophy of Design Thinking is to infuse an empathetic and creative approach to solve a problem and shift over-reliance away from rational and analytical thinking. Design Thinking process loops around what Tim Brown calls ‘the three spaces of innovation’ – Inspiration, the problem or opportunity that motivates the search for solutions; Ideation, the process of generating, developing, and testing ideas; and Implementation, the path that leads from the project room to the market3.
The Design Thinking exercises, adopted around the world by number-driven companies, are a far cry from their typical conference room meetings. While formats used might vary amongst organizations, the basics are simple. Don something comfortable along with your thinking caps, forget about hierarchy (as difficult as it might be), huddle with unknown people if need be and let your creative juices flow. Plenty of markers, colorful sticky notes, visual props, crazy ideas and prototypes later, the Design Thinking team is likely to gain some insights and ideas which might as well prove to be invaluable.
Take for instance Zyliss, the Swiss kitchen utensil manufacturer, who conducted an experimental observation amongst what they called extreme users of kitchen stuff – seven year olds (yes, really seven year olds) and professional chefs. Tim Brown says that observing a seven-year old struggle with a can opener would highlight the problems of the opener which grown-ups would tend to camouflage.
Possibilities in Bangladesh
Spurts of Design Thinking outcomes are visible in and around Dhaka, although they are not quite branded to be off shoots of this highly publicized topic. Starting from apps to search for blood donors undertaken by a bunch of university students, to replacing staircases with escalators in foot over-bridges, undertaken by the City Corporation – Design Thinking practices are evident in Dhaka, despite not being branded as such!
However, there’s still a long way to go.
Consider the private healthcare sector and people’s willingness to spend extra in return of receiving quality service. Imagine the range of empathetic gestures that can be offered in terms of say shorter wait time or hassle free appointment booking, if resources were devoted to organize problem identification sessions using Design Thinking techniques.
The same applies to the banking sector. A simple Design Thinking exercise involving members from across departments and customers can help identify flaws in the system that leads to customers’ venting frustration all over social media pages.
While certain processes are standardized across industries around the world, and direct implementation based on best practices can help companies reap benefits, it’s worth noting that customers and their needs across national boundaries are unique. The key is to glean insights from consumers who may or may not be aware of their need, and device a solution that serves their purpose.
And in the true spirit of Design Thinking, we have to keep innovating, to add value to the life of say someone in search of an interior decorator, or looking for a better utensil to de-shell shrimps with or a more fitting vehicle to maneuver the jams of Dhaka City.
Who knows, we might end up inventing the next generation of wheels!
1 NeoNurture: Infant Incubator. www.behance.net. 22 March 2014. http://www.behance.net/gallery/NeoNurture-Infant-Incubator/5055011.
2 IDEO’s approach to Design Thinking. http://www.ideo.com. 22 March 2014. http://www.ideo.com/about/
3Brown, T. (2009). Change by Design. Harper Collins Publishers
(This piece originally appeared in the Star Magazine of The Daily Star on 11 April 2014)
Narmin Tartila is a Lecturer at the North South University. She is also the CMO and Co-founder of Fashion2go, an online startup. Before returning to Bangladesh, she served as a Pre-search & Planning Consultant at SAP Asia Pacific Japan, in Singapore. She also worked as a Brand Manager in Reckitt Benckiser Bangladesh Ltd.