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Six ways to effectively employ Design Thinking

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I’ve been training people in Design Thinking for a few years. When I utter the words, “Design Thinking,” I can place people’s reactions into three categories based upon their eyes:

  • A blank stare, indicating, “What’s that?’
  • The twinkling eye, suggesting, “Yes, that!”
  • Or, eye rolling, which usually means, “Oh brother, not that.”

Addressing the blank stare simply involves providing high-quality education to introduce Design Thinking. And there’s no need to convince those in category two who are already on board with its value. But addressing the eye-roller usually requires earning the right to re-introduce Design Thinking to someone who’s endured anything from sub-optimal guidance to over-zealous promises that “Design Thinking solves all the world’s ills.”

Design Thinking isn’t the answer to every problem, nor should its use be confined to technology user experience. Design Thinking is a tool set for rapidly and collaboratively solving problems based upon improving human experience. Though poorly designed technology fuels some frustrating human experiences, it’s not the source of all of them.

Below are some tips for effectively employing the Design Thinking tool set.

Step 1: Write a human-centered design statement

Teams that effectively apply Design Thinking techniques repeatedly refer to the design statement for focus and clarity. Write it down so everyone looks at the same statement. That’s the easy part of this step.

Writing a human-centered design statement can be tricky. I suggest teams use as a point of departure this design statement template: “How can we improve the human experience of <group of humans> with regards to <scope>?” Define the scope broadly enough to allow for creativity but narrowly enough to get something done.

“How can we improve conferences,” lacks a human-experience focus. “How can we improve every experience of everyone associated with running a conference,” is too broad to be practical, and “How can we improve the experience of presenters receiving their evaluations at technical conferences,” is likely too narrow to justify using Design Thinking. “How can we improve the attendee experience at our technical conferences,” might be a happy medium.

Step 2: Know the tools and when to use them

Design Thinking is a set of tools. Each tool works well in certain situations. Just like pounding a screw with a hammer isn’t the optimal way to tighten it, applying the wrong Design Thinking tool for a situation can yield suboptimal results.

Here’s a summary of Design Thinking tools:

  • Diverge / Converge for rapid, collaborative idea generation
  • Vote with Dots for rapid, collaborative prioritization
  • Empathize for rapid initial understanding of the human experience
  • Scenario map to understand the current-state human experience in certain situations
  • Storyboard for rapidly sketching possible future-state human experiences
  • Playbacks for continuous communication within the team and with sponsor users
  • Hills for defining compact, achievable short-term high-impact projects

Step 3: Choose the right tools

I own many tools, but I don’t use them all for each home-improvement project. Likewise, human experience improvement projects don’t necessarily benefit from using every Design Thinking tool. Keep your end result in mind and choose the tool(s) for each step that will best move your team towards it.

Step 4: Know when to stop

Before beginning, think about what success looks like. That will help define your stopping point and help guide selecting tools. If you just need a prioritized list of ideas, then Diverge / Converge and Voting with Dots might suffice. If you’re trying to map your current state, then you might also benefit from scenario mapping. If you want ideas for the future state, you’ll want to Diverge and Converge for ideas, but you might also want to prioritize those ideas and create storyboards for the desired future state.

Step 5: Don’t forget the “Wow”

Hills define the Who, What and Wow of your compact, short-term, high-impact projects. A well-written “wow” helps secure executive buy-in and funding. Write your “wow” from the beneficiary’s viewpoint to ensure others can grasp how much of a “wow” your “wow” is. For example, saying you want to improve data synthesis so you can do analytics for business users does not have the “wow” factor of saying that you want to improve synthesizing data so that the CFO can audit every expense report automatically. However, those two statements describe the same project. One would wow the CFO, and the other likely wouldn’t.

Step 6: It’s not a “Design Thinking” project

This perhaps should have been listed as step 1, but it’s something to keep in mind at the onset and throughout each phase of your project. Whatever your project is, it’s not a “Design Thinking” project. Design Thinking is the tool set you might be using but it’s not the object of the project. If you’re remodeling your kitchen, it’s a kitchen project not a pipe wrench, level, drill and tape measure project. Similarly, if you are trying to improve the human experience associated with system outages, that’s your project and Design Thinking just provides the tools to get it done.

By keeping these six steps in mind, you might convert the eye-roller by showing how Design Thinking can help organizations achieve effective human experience improvements, and you’ll keep the Design Thinking enthusiast’s enthusiasm.

If you’re not sure how to begin using Design Thinking in your organization, contact IBM Systems Lab Services, or use some of the IBM Enterprise Design Thinking resources.

Plus, you can learn more about Design Thinking and hundreds of other IT topics when you join me at IBM Systems Technical University (TechU) April 29- to May 3 in Atlanta, Georgia.

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