Some years ago, on a business trip, I checked into a hotel that had just implemented a new computer system. I asked the desk clerk how he liked it. He responded very positively: “It’s great. It’s so much better than the previous system.” He smiled broadly and spoke enthusiastically. I assumed that he was telling the truth.
I also noticed some telling details. He had to bend far forward to reach the keyboard. Then he had to tilt his head back to see the screen. It looked awkward to say the least. He couldn’t make eye contact with me and use the system at the same time.
More problematically, the system was rigid and field-oriented. The screen contained many fields, not all of which were necessary for each client. But you couldn’t skip a field. To get from Field A to Field Z, you had to navigate sequentially through Field B, then Field C, and so on. The poor guy must have hit the Return key a dozen times while checking me in. He couldn’t check me in and have a friendly conversation at the same time.
I noted two things about the situation. First, the man seemed genuinely pleased with the new system. He recommended it without reservation. (No pun intended). Second, the system really wasn’t very good. The man didn’t realize what he might have had.
I also thought about how I might act if I were an executive at the hotel company. If I listened to what the desk clerk said, I would congratulate the IT department, maybe give out a bonus or two, and move on to the next problem.
But if I looked instead of listening, I might have had a very different reaction. The system was awkward, physically uncomfortable, and not conducive to good customer communication. I might not have torn the system out, but I certainly would have requested an upgrade.
This is a pretty good illustration of the difference between seeing with your mind and seeing with your eyes. The desk clerk was seeing with his mind. He had a mental image of the old system (“clunky, user hostile”) and of the new system (“much improved”). He didn’t see what he was actually doing. He didn’t perceive any shortcomings because he was comparing it, not to an ideal system, but to an old system.
A good observer, on the other hand, would not compare the system to preconceived notions. A good observer would have no preconceived notions. She would merely observe and identify problems and opportunities.
My experience reminds me of the women who designed the Volvo concept car some years ago. If I were designing a car, I would assume that it “should” have a hood (bonnet) that opens. After all, all cars have hoods that open. There must be a reason. That’s a notion that I see in my mind’s eye, not in my physical eye.
The Volvo designers, on the other hand, simply observed how people used their cars. They noted that drivers rarely open the hoods. Indeed, they do so only to add windshield washer fluid. The designers asked a simple question: Why bother? They put a fluid filler opening on the outside of the car and simplified the entire front end of the car by eliminating the openable hood.
The designers created a car that is simpler, cleaner, lighter, and stronger. That’s good design. It comes from seeing the world as it is, not as it’s assumed to be.
When we think of design, we often think of things. We can design a phone, a car, a coffee maker, or a house. We can make them simple or complex or modern or traditional but, ultimately, it’s a thing, a physical object.
Many business and organizational leaders are now arguing that we’re thinking too narrowly when we define design as for-things-only. Roger Martin, the former Dean of the Rotman School of Management, sums it up nicely, “…everything that surrounds us is subject to innovation – not just physical objects, but political systems, economic policy, the ways in which medical research is conducted, and complete user experiences.”
Two things, in particular, attract me to design thinking:
It starts with a solution – in design thinking, we first imagine what could be. Then we work backwards. What might a solution look like? What would it need to include? Who would need to be involved? Many business leaders start with the problem and focus on what went wrong. Design thinkers focus on the solution and what could go right. It’s a refreshing change.
It includes both the rational and irrational – I studied a lot of economics and I was always a bit uncomfortable with the starting assumption: we’re dealing with economically rational individuals. But are we really economically rational? The whole school of behavioral economics (which evolved after I graduated) says no. As Paola Antonelli points out, design thinking involves “the complete human condition, with all of its rational and irrational aspects….”
In past articles (here, here, and here), I’ve followed Paul Nutt’s lead and written about decision-making that leads to debacles. I’ve recently re-analyzed Nutt’s case studies of several dozen debacles and – as far as I can tell – none of them used design thinking. The debacles resulted from classic decision-making processes driven by successful business executives. Would those executives have done better with design thinking? It’s hard to say but they could hardly have done worse.
Is design thinking superior to classic business decision-making? The absence of design-driven debacles in Nutt’s sample is suggestive but not definitive. Are there positive examples of design-driven business success? Well, yes. In fact, close readers of this website may remember Roger Martin’s name. He was the “principal external strategy advisor” to A.G. Lafley, the highly lauded CEO of Procter & Gamble. According to a report from A.T. Kearney, “During Lafley’s tenure, sales doubled, profits quadrupled, and the company’s market value increased by more than $100 billion”.
Does one success – and the absence of debacles – prove that design thinking is superior to classic business thinking? No … but it sure is intriguing. So, I’m trying to unlearn years of system thinking and teach myself the basics of design thinking. As I do, I’ll write about design thinking frequently. I hope you’ll join me.
(By the way, the quotes from Roger Martin and Paola Antonelli are drawn from Rotman on Design: The Best Design Thinking From Rotman Magazine, which I highly recommend).