How Tech Leaders can Apply Design Thinking

Traditionally, tech leaders focus on some variation of people, processes, and technology when considering how to address a problem. Design Thinking can be another versatile tool in their toolkit and provide different perspectives.
July 28, 2022
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The most interesting and challenging aspect of our jobs as tech leaders is solving complex problems. Sometimes, those problems are purely technical in nature. For example, we might need to share data across 2 disparate systems that are separated by thousands of miles, use different technical architectures, and perhaps are even outside our direct control, as is the case with cloud technologies.

More often, the problems we’re tasked with solving fall outside the purely technical realm. You’ve probably heard the overused admonishment that we need to focus on PPT: people, process, and technology when considering a problem. And while it’s a well-intentioned suggestion, it misses the mark.

The problem with PPT is that it doesn’t suggest a starting point, and as tech leaders running teams of technicians, we often start with the technology, or perhaps the process, and consider the people as an afterthought.

Consider your average software implementation. We’ll usually start with drafting requirements with some end-user input and then embark on a software selection process. That selection focuses on the technical merits of the software, considering items like technical architecture, integration, and platform, with perhaps a generic requirement or two around “usability.”

Once we’ve selected software, we’ll rework the processes that we think are important and then ask users to “test” the system with the unwritten assumption that any human factors problems will be deprioritized or put in the “parking lot” where requirements tend to be forgotten or ignored.

Corporate technology is not the only area where this phenomenon occurs. Consider the products that surround you in your home or office. Perhaps your television has all the latest features and resolutions and superlative technical specifications. Still, no one can navigate its convoluted menu structure or do much beyond turn it on and off. On the other hand, your coffee maker seems like it was designed by a mind reader that knew exactly where you’d want a button and made it so simple that you never cracked the manual to figure out how to use and maintain the unit.

When to approach problems from a design perspective

Design thinking is the broad category of problem-solving approaches that start with the people element of a problem, attempting to understand the people and their motivations first and foremost. With that understanding, the team proposes, tests, refines, and then delivers various solutions to the problem.

It’s an approach that’s relatively intuitive yet challenging to execute well since it focuses on resolving “unknowns” rather than performing tasks. Technology implementations generally focus on the latter, deferring the unknown in favor of completing tasks with known approaches. This works great if you’re integrating a newly acquired company and need to run your well-honed “playbook” but tends to perform poorly if you’re designing a new online shopping experience or employee directory.

When faced with a new problem, ask whether it’s primarily an execution problem or a “solving the unknown” problem. While nearly every issue contains elements of both, generally speaking, if you’re building something where the critical success criteria are whether or not users will adopt it, it’s a design problem. If the key success criteria are completing a known set of steps in a specific period, it’s likely more of an execution problem.

For design problems, it’s imperative to focus your efforts on profoundly understanding the users you’re trying to serve or the problems they need you to solve. This can put technologists in the uncomfortable position of deferring or downplaying sophisticated technical decisions and spending hours considering and testing seemingly simple things like word choices on a marketing website.

For example, we were designing a new service and found that potential customers balked at the service being called a “subscription.” We went back to the drawing board and recast what was the same service as a “membership” and found significant interest merely by changing a word. Upon further research, we discovered that this particular customer segment was suffering from “subscription fatigue” due to the overabundance of subscription products but was interested in the perceived cachet of a membership program.

Anyone can be a designer

Too many technical leaders downplay the power of design thinking, assuming that it’s “fluff” or that they must be able to design products, draw perfect sketches, or have an advanced degree in a field like anthropology or psychology. These are undoubtedly helpful tools for a professional designer, but most human beings have an even more critical skill for successful design thinking: empathy.

Empathy is the simple ability to understand someone else’s feelings and needs. It’s often confused with compassion and sympathy, which require a value judgment.

For example, suppose I need to design a user interface for a new digital coffee maker for offices, yet I don’t drink coffee. I may have little sympathy or compassion for coffee drinkers and focus on what kind of touchscreen would be appropriate or whether the machine needs WiFi or Bluetooth.

Suppose I engage my empathy and imagine myself as a coffee drinker and perhaps observe and speak with coffee drinkers in the office. In that case, I might discover that having a wide variety of coffee options is very important or that getting my coffee quickly is the priority. I might discover the inherent conflict between these two priorities and determine if I can design and execute an experiment that determines whether speed or choice is more important.

Merely by attempting to understand my end user and putting myself in their shoes, I’ve discovered an important set of conflicting needs that I’ll need to resolve to successfully design a coffee maker before I’ve even begun to consider technical nuances.

Therein lies the key to experimenting with and using design thinking techniques. This simple shift in where you start your investigation of a problem can reprioritize the parts of a situation you focus on and dramatically shift your odds of creating a solution to a problem your end users embrace and adopt.

While there are certainly sophisticated techniques and whole fields dedicated to design and design thinking, merely engaging your empathy muscle can go a long way in incorporating design thinking techniques into your problem-solving repertoire to achieve low-cost and impressive results.

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