This post is one in a series written by nonprofit leaders who are presenting sessions at the 2014 BoardSource Leadership Forum, which is taking place in Washingtion, DC, on October 9 & 10. We hope you are planning to join us.
Once upon a time, a packaging designer came up with an ingenious, inexpensive, theft-reducing way for industries to package consumer products: Encase them in airtight, watertight, hard plastic shells. Soon, billions of plastic-encased consumer goods flooded retail shelves from coast to coast. Almost immediately, a chorus of profanity rose skyward across the land as people tried in vain to pry their goods loose from their hermetically sealed packaging. Hospital emergency rooms began routinely treating wounds from the knives, screwdrivers, scissors, and saws that maddened consumers used to get at their stuff.
This infamous example illustrates a major impetus behind the drive to incorporate “design thinking” into innovation-obsessed businesses: the need to understand, empathically, the experience of end users. Sealed plastic packaging is cheap and efficient for producers and retailers, but costly in terms of customers’ time, safety, peace of mind, and satisfaction.
It’s easy to think of examples of bad design in your life. In my house, it’s the bucket that catches the ice in my freezer. No matter what I or my family members do, when we try to take out a few ice cubes, several end up on the floor. There’s nothing for it! That’s not user error – that’s a design flaw.
Many design flaws in our lives are trivial — just annoyances, really. But flaws in the design of programs or products meant to address human problems can hurt people. A sad example: In the 1960s and 1970s, many municipalities sought to improve living conditions for impoverished citizens by building modern high-rise apartment complexes to replace sprawling ghettos of misery. Of course, many of these high-rise complexes — like Cabrini-Green, in Chicago, where I lived — simply became vertical ghettos of misery. Most have been torn down now, thankfully, as municipalities attempt more humane solutions to poverty.
Typically, the most basic ingredient missing in bad design — from the faulty ice-cube container and impenetrable packaging to housing projects like Cabrini-Green — is a real understanding of the experience of the end user.
To avoid costly errors, many businesses and, increasingly, nonprofits and NGOs, are embracing “design thinking,” a six-step process of product or program development that is rooted in empathy and characterized by creative collaboration and rapid experimentation and revision.
The six stages of design thinking are Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test, and Revise. In brief, each step is as follows.
Empathize: Understand the people you hope to help and how your decisions will affect them. This means getting out of your office to observe, interview, and interact with your key audience.
Define: Compile all of your observations and carefully conceptualize and articulate a “design challenge” that clarifies the need you’ve discovered in a concise, targeted, and human-centered statement.
Ideate: Use ideation strategies (not just brainstorming) to generate a wide range of possible solutions to the identified challenge.
Prototype: Rapidly create a workable version of the one or two ideas you think are most likely to be effective. Software developers talk about producing a “minimal viable product” — an iteration that is good enough to elicit useful consumer feedback for further targeted revision. That’s your prototype.
Test and Revise: In this stage, test your prototype on prospective end-users. Prototyping, testing, and revising is an iterative process that closely involves the end user, keeping the channels of empathy and understanding open, continuing to revise until the product or program closely meets the needs of the intended recipients.
Like old age, design thinking is not for the faint of heart. Design thinking is a messy process that requires stamina, perseverance, creativity, tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty, and openness to the experience of others. And it’s not always the strategy you need.
But when you’re feeling stuck, when your organization is experiencing malaise or stagnancy, when you need to shake it out and get a fresh perspective — then design thinking can be a valuable new tool for driving your organization to well-informed, empathic, and effective activities.
Theresa Reid has worked in board and staff leadership positions in the nonprofit sector for 30 years, most recently with the School of Art & Design and other colleges at the University of Michigan. The session she is presenting at BLF is titled “Using ‘Design Thinking’ to Enhance Your Organization’s Impact.”